Published in the Fall of 2013 as the introductory essay to a series of scholarly essays on the plays in the STC season. -DL
Which version of ourselves do we present to the outside world? How do we act when no one’s looking? And what is the difference between the two? Those questions burn through each of the six plays in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s 2013-14 season. In all of these plays, dukes and servants, fathers and sons, lords and ladies confront the disparity between their public and private self images.
Although we often think of ourselves as having a “person,” a psychological self who acts consistently from one situation to the next, a closer examination of the term shows how mercurial our identities can be. In his seminal study, The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life, sociologist Erving Goffman notes that the Latin persona specifically denoted “a mask, a character in a drama.” Hence the term dramatis personae. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Peter Quince, assigning roles, says that the actor comes to “present the person of Moonshine” (Act 3, scene 1). To Shakespeare, a person was something that was represented, a figure on the stage that offered no clues as to what lay underneath.
Shakespeare uses this early concept of “person” in a similar sense in Measure for Measure. The Duke, who has left his post in Vienna, wishes to observe his subjects incognito. Seeking spiritual guidance (as well as a disguise), he turns to the church. “I prithee,” he asks Friar Thomas, “Supply me with the habit, and instruct me / How I may formally in person bear / Like a true friar” (Act 1, scene 3). The Duke appears to be putting on the outer garb of spirituality in order to transform, or at least hide, his inner nature. In perhaps no other play does Shakespeare ask us to scrutinize the distinction between the outer and inner man more than in Measure for Measure. To set right the law in his absence, the Duke has appointed Angelo, whom he describes as “a man of stricture and abstinence.” As it turns out, Angelo’s strict outer appearance hides a rapacious inner lust. When he encounters Isabella (another character wearing a religious persona: a nun’s habit), Angelo propositions her, using his public power to service his private needs. Nearly every character in the play displays a similar disconnect between their outer appearance and their inner desires. It is as if Shakespeare is saying that we need the outer mask of the social persona to provide “stricture and abstinence” to our animalistic natures. The only character who does not hide behind some kind of mask, whose inner soul matches his outer clothes, is the libertine braggart Lucio. Tellingly, he is the one who receives the worst punishment at the end of the play.
In Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, there is a similar disconnect between the roles played by characters in different aspects of their lives. Algernon Moncrieff’s term for this phenomenon is “Bunburying,” the act of pretending to be someone else. As he says to his counterpart and best friend, Jack Worthing, who is known as “Ernest” in London but by his own name at his country home:
“You have invented a very useful younger brother called Ernest, in order that you may be able to come up to town as often as you like. I have invented an invaluable permanent invalid called Bunbury, in order that I may be able to go down into the country whenever I choose.”
To Algernon, the importance of Bunburying, or doubling selves, is more than just a means of taking convenient vacations. It is a way of life, an essential aspect of constructing one’s own social identity. One gets the sense that Algie has improvised his ingenious mask-wearing from a lifetime of study, especially of his imperious aunt, Lady Bracknell. The inimitable Bracknell, one of the greatest of all dramatic creations, has almost no character at all, no inner life whatsoever. A creature of pure society, she is all persona. To Lady Bracknell, nothing is left up to chance, not even one’s parentage (“To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune, to lose both looks like carelessness”) or falling in love (“An engagement should come on a young girl as a surprise […] It is hardly a matter that she could be allowed to arrange for herself”). In Lady Bracknell’s world, everyone is a Bunbury, or an Ernest. We are nothing more than our social facades. We just don’t know it yet.
If Measure for Measure casts doubt on the connection between the public and the private man, and The Importance of Being Earnest delights in the protean nature of our social selves, the second, fourth and fifth in our season broaden their view to take in more of the complexities of the human experience. Private and public stories are intertwined in these plays, all three of which offer a stunning variety of characters and situations within each play. Stephen Sondheim once called A Funny Thing Happened on the way to the Forum “a senior thesis on two thousand years of comedy.” Adapted by Sondheim, with Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart from the plays of Plautus, the musical combines the best of Broadway inventiveness with the timeless themes of the ancient Roman comedy. The story it tells is as old as comedy itself: of one generation replacing another, and in so doing exposing its hypocrisies and pomposities publicly. The conflict is also class-based. The clever-slave Pseudolus is asked to help his master, the young lover Hero, defeat the antagonistic representatives of the older generation, including a bawd, Hero’s selfish parents, and a braggart soldier. With the public vanquishing of the older generation’s social order comes the necessary exposure and resolution of more private and elemental conflicts: son defeats father, and slave wins his freedom from his master.
A father-son conflict drives Henry IV, parts 1 and 2 as well, but Shakespeare yokes his simple story of a disapproving father and an adolescent son to the majestic themes and dramatic stories found in English historical chronicles. Like the ancient Greek and Roman writers, Shakespeare understood that the personal was inherently political, that the private inner lives of his characters directly informed the public spectacle of seeing them onstage as mighty kings and warriors. The resulting plays are considered the greatest history plays ever written. Their genre is unlike anything else found in drama. Shakespeare seems to stage the entirety of life itself, from the lowliest drunkard in a South London tavern to the highest rooms of state in Westminster. Equally remarkable is Shakespeare’s methodical development of Prince Hal, the central character of the two plays, from a playful, unprincipled and idle youth into the patriotic, valiant and calculating ruler Henry V. By representing Hal’s maturation – an experience familiar in novels but rare in drama – Shakespeare allows us to witness firsthand the triumphs and pains that come with great responsibility. Hal makes the necessary transformation into the public man, at the cost of his private self.
The two plays appear similar in at first glance, but upon deeper examination they draw opposing conclusions about the nature of public power and the importance of private commons within a political state. In part 1, Hal spends the majority of his time in the world of private revelry represented by his friend, the charismatic and debauched knight Sir John Falstaff, and by the landscape of taverns in the South London neighborhood of Eastcheap. Hal’s misadventures with Falstaff are mirrored by the plot of a civil rebellion led by Harry “Hotspur,” with whom Hal is often – and unflatteringly – compared by his father, the pragmatic, troubled King Henry IV. The play turns on two set-pieces, both of them pitched “battles”: the robbery of pilgrims by Falstaff and Hal at Gad’s Hill, and the crushing of the rebel forces by Hal and King Henry at the Battle of Shrewsbury, in which Falstaff plays a similarly ignominious role. In Henry IV, part 2, on the other hand, Hal and Falstaff are kept apart for most of the action, and the play ends with Hal’s stunning rejection of the older man, surrogate father figure and most intimate of friends. As Stephen Greenblatt observes elsewhere in this collection, part 1 “offered a tantalizing illusion that the common had distinct realms, each with its own system of values, its soaring visions of plenitude and its bad dreams. […] All of the ideal visions and dreams of part 1 are betrayed in part 2.”
There is a paradox and a provocation in the title of Noël Coward’s Private Lives, the sixth and final play of our 2013-14 season. Coward seems to be implying, like Wilde, that there is no such thing as a private self, only the public persona, which is acted out, like a character on a stage, in every social encounter. Coward wrote the play, his most successful comedy, in 1930 as a starring vehicle for himself and Gertrude Lawrence, his longtime stage partner. When audiences were seeing the play for the first time they were coming to see Coward and Lawrence as much as Elyot and Amanda, the characters they were playing. Similarly, Coward was offering audiences a public glimpse of the “private lives” of him and Lawrence. But none of this metatheatrical intrigue explains the play’s overwhelming popularity and longevity. It is Coward’s most frequently revived play, and productions without him and Lawrence now far outnumber those that did. The play’s conceit turns on the coincidence of a divorced couple – Elyot and Amanda – running into each other in a hotel room in France, both on vacation with their new spouses. At the time, the play’s frankness about divorce and willingness to suggest open romantic arrangements (much like Coward’s other play, Design for Living) made it a succès de scandale. Now, the play looks like Coward’s endlessly wise study of the ways in which our inner selves and our true loves never change, and Coward’s deft handling of four actors in increasingly hilarious set-pieces anticipates later micro-farces by playwrights such as Harold Pinter and Edward Albee.
Each of the characters in the plays this season arrive at ultimately differing conclusions about their own true natures, but the theatre offers a means of dissolving those contradictions, of making the private public. We are invited, as audience members, to take the measure of private grief and pleasure, and, in so doing, to make them ours.
Everything that we have ever loved about going to the theatre, on some level, has to do with this encounter with the private lives of characters, the way in which the inner essence of these human beings are slowly, but surely, made a part of the consciousness of the world.
After all, writing is a way of making private stories public ones, and theatre is the most public kind of writing that there is. Theatre artists often stage the parts of our existence that are not normally part of the public discourse, those urges that are very real and in some ways more urgent to us than the rest of our lives. Someone’s first glimpse of their own sexuality, a slave’s first day of freedom, a son accepting the death of his father and the burdens of his own responsibility, a man recognizing, in his best friend, a long-lost brother, or an old love walking back into our lives. Whatever it may be, these private moments made public are the real fabric of life, and they are the business and the obligation of great art.