My intro essay for the 14-15 scholar guide at STC. A thankless task, yoking together a disparate and eclectic body of plays into a single narrative. -DL
“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”
We recognize the sentiment as Shakespearean– it is uttered by one of his great thinkers, the melancholy Jaques, and it is one of the Bard’s richest and most resonant leitmotifs. The sign of the Globe playhouse, where many of Shakespeare’s plays were first performed, and which Jaques’ speech may well have inaugurated in 1599, bore an emblem of Hercules holding the globe itself aloft. On it was inscribed a Latin motto, Totus mundus agit histrionen: “All the world plays the actor.”
The idea, however, is an ancient one, found in both classical and medieval writing. The Stoics called it Theatrum mundi –the world as a “wide and universal theatre,” to paraphrase Shakespeare’s Duke Senior. When St. Augustine divided the history of the world into seven ages, he was following Pythagoras, Aristotle and Hippocrates in conceiving of our existence dramaturgically, like separate acts in an epic play. In medieval England, trade guilds performed the so-called mystery plays every year, presenting the cosmic history of the world, from Creation to Judgment Day, on their rolling pageant wagons. A few decades after Shakespeare, this idea arguably reached its peak in Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s Great Theatre of the World. In Calderón’s masterful auto sacramental, God is the ultimate playwright, director and spectator, sitting on his golden globe in heaven and observing the tragicomic and transitory scene of life, with its human actors playing out their momentary worldly roles. In the late 19th and early 20th century, this idea returned with a vengeance, as expressionistic experiments by August Strindberg (A Dream Play) and Luigi Pirandello’s mind-bending metatheater (Six Characters in Search of An Author) tapped into a centuries-long tradition, pointing the way forward for playful postmodernists such as Man of La Mancha’s Dale Wasserman and the National Theatre of Scotland’s resident bard, David Greig.
The Shakespeare Theatre Company’s 2014-15 season, as always, finds unity in these tensions and oppositions. STC has brought together a customarily eclectic range of plays from the global canon of classical drama, all of which can be said to inspect the relationship between life and art, between the mundi of our daily lives, and the theatrum of our theatrical existences, those dreams and visions which reside only in our imagination.
Scholars believe that As You Like It was one of the first plays performed at the Globe, following quickly on the heels of Henry V, and one can imagine it as Shakespeare’s design for a new theatrical world. Along with Much Ado About Nothing and Twelfth Night, As You Like It is one of Shakespeare’s so-called “high comedies,” and in it we see Shakespeare leaving behind the comfortable confines of the chronicle history play for a more open, imaginative and richly symbolic dramaturgy. The play begins with the tragic spectacle of exile, with Rosalind and Orlando both suffering the same fate that had befallen Duke Senior, forced to flee to the Forest of Arden. Its second act (containing Jaques’ famous speech on the seven ages of man) contains seven scenes, ranging in tone from tragedy to comedy, and in subject matter across all of God’s creation. It ends with a banquet and a death that carry both Old and New Testament resonances. In the third and central act, the tone lightens, as if magically, into comedy, with Shakespeare progressively leaving behind the political plot of banishment and return (a subject to which he would almost obsessively return in each of his plays) and drawing us inexorably deeper into the intoxicating world of the forest. One of the play’s riddles is the games it plays with the performance of gender. Rosalind must woo Orlando by dressing up as a boy in order to pretend to be herself, and one of her triumphs is the manner in which she effeminizes Orlando, allowing him to display his true masculine nature by turning from the violent spectacle of wrestling matches to the sensitive art of wooing. Gender is an actable choice, Shakespeare seems to be saying; after all, “all the men and women are merely players.” As always in Shakespeare, the dramaturgy forks in equivocal directions, carefully lacing moments of magic with the bitter nut of reality. As David Schalkwyk notes in his essay, this play ends with the spectacle of Hymen, god of marriage, descending to oversee four marriages, the most of any Shakespeare play – and yet the words of the solitary, aggressively single Jaques are left ringing in our ears. If Rosalind succeeds in transforming the direst of realities into a theatrical utopia, Jaques seeks out worldly oblivion in the form of an abandoned cave, intent on living a life of the mind.
If As You Like It is one of Shakespeare’s richest meditations on the enigma of romantic identity, The Tempest is Shakespeare’s valedictory masterpiece on the subject of art itself. Often regarded as Shakespeare’s farewell to the stage, it is his play most consumed with the very nature of illusion and reality. Unusually for Shakespeare, the play observes the classical unities of time and place, and even more unusually, it calls attention to itself as it does so. Throughout the play, Prospero the magician asks his fairy helper Ariel to check the time, and it is clear that the three hours’ traffic of the play corresponds exactly to that experienced by the audience. Shakespeare also confines the action to an “enchanted isle” in which multiple worlds are the stage – contemporary accounts of Bermuda, the classical myth of Ovid and Virgil, and Christian journeys through the Underworld, Purgatory and Paradise. The God in this syncretic landscape is Prospero, the banished Duke of Milan, who seems to wield omnipotent power over the human actors of the play, moving them like chess pieces through one tribulation after another. In Prospero’s powers, Shakespeare shows us all of the facets of his own art with thrilling (and frightening) efficiency: a sea-storm to equal Lear’s on the heath; a terrifying banquet overseen by harpies; a beatific masque rivaling the best of Ben Jonson. But the most magical moment in the play, as Paul A. Kottman points out, comes at the end, when Prospero abjures his “rough magic” and bids farewell to the Globe. It is as if Shakespeare has reached the end of art and concluded, along with Prospero, that the best special effect will always remain offstage, forever imagined in the life to come.
Casting our gaze to another country, two French classics – one thought lost forever, another that has scarcely left stages in four hundred years – cast their gaze to the theatre of identity. Both plays courted controversy in their own day with their politically toxic, hysterical blending of art and life. One of the authors successfully defended himself from charges of controversy, whereas the other has remained a historical footnote until the present day.
Let’s begin with Tartuffe. Molière’s eternally controversial comedy on the subject of religious hypocrisy arrives at surprisingly Shakespearean conclusions on the function and value of art. Molière’s 1669 preface to the play, defending the play after three drafts and two failed premieres, sounded a note of caution not to confuse art for life. “Theatre is the school of man,” writes Molière, and “comedy corrects men’s vices by exposing them to ridicule.” All of Molière’s stage, in other words, is a world, but it is one that serves a special, corrective function, reflecting back critically onto our own. Perhaps the richest and most puzzling part of Molière’s masterwork is the puzzlingly intimate relationship between the titular hypocrite Tartuffe and his well-to-do patron Orgon (a role originated by Molière himself, in another moment of life reflecting art). In this season guide James Magruder terms it a “perplexing bromance,” which it certainly is, but like the other plays in this season, it is also a union of seemingly irreconcilable opposites, the one character attracted to the spiritual illusion of piety in the other, the other attracted to the worldly illusions of money, sex and power in his counterpart. In between these two extremes – of the worldly man with his head in the clouds and the master actor with his carnal desires – Molière preaches the hard-won sanity of moderation.
Alexis Piron’s The Metromaniacs, written nearly 70 years after Tartuffe, is a social satire of an entirely different kind, written for a greatly changed world. The beautiful rationality and order of the society of the “Sun King” Louis XIV, his advisor Cardinal Richelieu and their Académie Française had been replaced by signs of an empire adrift, with its head in the clouds. Louis XV, whom historian Jerome Blum once termed “a perpetual adolescent called to do a man’s job,” had displaced his beloved father, and Racine had been replaced in the academy by Voltaire, a brilliant satirist and essayist who had miscast himself as a master playwright. Instead of the previous century’s mordant fear of religious dissension and the coming century’s wave of social unrest, the French leisure class in the 1730s suffered from what some poets termed “metromania,” focusing on decadent problems such as who was reading whose poetry in literary broadsheets, the popular entertainments of the day. This was a decadent world in which life was increasingly devoted to aesthetic pursuits, and in which art itself seemed increasingly insubstantial.
Into this scene enter Alexis Piron, previously a writer of epigrams and obscene verse who broke into Parisian literary life through the populist backdoor of fairground farce. Taking a real-life episode in which Voltaire had pledged his love to an anonymous female poet, Piron builds a neoclassical comedy in ingenious rhymed couplets. As DF Connon writes, Piron’s play is not about Voltaire at all – it is both a tribute to and an indictment of a culture in which all of its characters wish to live inside an artwork, to be creatures of pure poetry. Indeed, Piron’s play looks forward to Laclos’ Les Liaisons Dangereuses in its delirious mash-up of epistolary plots, and Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac in its play with poetic pseudonyms, though it lacks the acrid burnt flavor of the former and the romantic melodrama of the latter. Its euphoric tone is all its own. In David Ives’ equally brilliant new verse translation, the play faintly hums and throbs with Piron’s love of the Protean possibilities of the theatre, perhaps nowhere more so than in a central scene where an uncle and nephew, bickering over a family inheritance, play themselves in a play about an uncle and nephew bickering over a family inheritance. Unfortunately for history, Piron made a powerful enemy in Voltaire, whose tendencies he gently lampoons in the play (like Voltaire, one character tortures his dinner guests by reading them his pretentious verse). Voltaire ensured that Piron never made it into the Académie Française, and the writer’s gravestone contained an epigram lamenting his fate. Now, thanks to David Ives, this long-forgotten play now has a second lease on life.
Miguel de Cervantes wrote Don Quixote at roughly the same moment as Shakespeare wrote The Tempest. Like Alexis Piron, he wrote for an empire at the beginning of the end of its Golden Age, on the verge of eclipse. According to Edward Friedman, Don Quixote is a novel that daringly translates the dialectical process of the theatrum mundi into a new medium. Its narrative shuttling constantly between idealism and reality, Don Quixote “eschews idealism for realism by exposing the chivalric idea as a construction.” Friedman continues:
the style and scope of Cervantes’s work do not conform fully to the standards of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European realism. Cervantes blends realism with heavy doses of literary self-referentiality, a consciousness of the construction of the art object that has been labeled metafiction, or fiction about fiction.
Like other epic experimental novels (of which it is the first and greatest example), Don Quixote has consistently resisted adaptation for theatre and film. (It is no coincidence that Orson Welles, that Promethean tilter at windmills and hunter of white whales, assayed attempts at both Don Quixote and Melville’s Moby Dick.) The brilliance of Dale Wasserman’s Man of La Mancha – the reason why it is perhaps the only successful adaptation of Cervantes’s labyrinthine epic – lies in its Tempest-like emphasis upon the theatre. Instead of dramatizing either Cervantes’s wildly peripatetic life or the complete list of episodes from his great book, Wasserman and his co-authors retain the unities of time and place, giving us a play that happens in one room and takes the characters as much time to live it as it does the audience to experience it. Upon this bare stage, Wasserman & co. layer the worlds of Cervantes and his greatest literary creation with startling efficiency. Both exist simultaneously. Neither has supremacy. Like Don Quixote, Man of La Mancha is ultimately a tribute to the power of the theatrical imagination, to our ability to believe in the unseen while we see clearly what is in front of us. Or, put in 1960s parlance, “to dream the impossible dream.” As Friedman writes, “literature, or artistic self-creation, is always part of Cervantes’ narrative scheme, and it is always assimilated into the depiction of life. A strategic point of the integration is that it is anything but seamless.” Dale Wasserman would agree heartily.
And finally, one of the most exciting international partnerships between theatre institutions continues with one of the most exciting Shakespeare-related plays to be written in the past decade. David Greig’s Dunsinane is an inspired idea, one that feels at once overdue and inevitable: an answer play to Shakespeare’s “Scottish play” by an actual Scottish playwright. Clare Wallace situates Greig’s play within a contemporary tradition of playwrights – often from historically oppressed or under-represented communities – writing intertextual “response” plays to the classics. In so doing, Dunsinane proudly joins an esteemed contemporary repertory. Wallace lists Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (1966), Edward Bond’s Lear (1971) and Paula Vogel’s Desdemona: A Play About a Handkerchief (1979), and one could add Amy Freed’s Restoration Comedy (2005), Biyi Bandele’s Oroonoko (2008) and Sarah Ruhl’s Passion Play (2010). In Greig’s work, more of a dramatic sequel than an adaptation of Macbeth, the national and political biases of Shakespeare’s original work become starkly apparent. All the world may be a stage, Greig’s play implicitly states, but what about the worlds that have been colonized? Rescripting Scottish identity, reimagining Shakespeare’s characters and reinvestigating English adventurism abroad, Greig’s play elicits surprising parallels, both dramatic and historical. The play, like Macbeth, is haunted, but unlike Shakespeare, Greig is haunted by history, by the languages that have been forgotten and the mistakes that regional hegemons make when exporting war to a foreign country. In a startling work of imagination, Greig makes Shakespeare’s characters appear both ancient and entirely new, suggesting the forgotten world of the druids and the contemporary landscapes of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Like his fellow dramatists throughout history – Shakespeare, Molière, Piron, Ives, Cervantes and Wasserman, to name those featured this season at the Shakespeare Theatre Company – Greig offers us a chance to come to a deeper understanding of our own world as well as the unlimited power of our own imaginations. All of the plays on offer this season can be said to illustrate the fascinating and endlessly suggestive metaphor of the theatrum mundi – of the world as a wide and universal stage: a young woman who with the power of her mind transforms an entire society; a magician who breaks his staff in order to return to himself; a citizen who learns the true value of spirituality; a poet who learns the limits of art; a prisoner who dreams beyond all hope of reason; a country waking from a nightmare to the demons of reality.
As Shakespeare once wrote, words that are now emblazoned proudly on the lobby of our own Lansburgh Theatre – all the world is a stage.