Six Plays, Six Questions in Search of an Answer
What is the point of staging plays that are hundreds of years old? It is a question asked constantly of a classical theatre, one that we staff members ask ourselves frequently, and one that we hear just as often from our audiences.
Our contemporary world boasts countless obstacles to an appreciation of the classics. The pace of modern life has never been more rapid, and technology serves to distance us even further from simpler pleasures. Why curl up with a book, when one can strike up a Kindle (on which all of you are reading this essay)? Why take a trip downtown and gather together in a darkened room—suspending one’s disbelief, along with one’s hard-earned time and money—to watch a group of strangers perform a play, when one can stay at home, download an entire season of your favorite TV show, and binge-watch for hours to your heart’s content? Finally, and perhaps most importantly, in our increasingly diversified media world, we get our Shakespearean diction (and actors) sprinkled in with dragons and zombies, our Wildean aphorisms mixed in with the soap opera of a Victorian English mansion. With apologies to Game of Thrones and Downton Abbey, why bother with Lear on the heath when winter is coming? Why yearn for cucumber sandwiches when we can pine for Cousin Matthew?
In the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s 2015-2016 season, six plays provide six possible answers to these questions. Ironically, these come in the form of six of the largest questions surrounding our contemporary experience.
Salome: Who has the right (and the power) to narrate history? And why is it always a man?
The biblical story of Salome has a famously vexed relationship to the classical canon. Similarly, Oscar Wilde’s “mystery play,” his Salomé of 1891, is one of the most famous “lost” classics. At the time of composition, Wilde seemed to take pains to place the work outside socially permissible categories. Subtitling it a “lunar drama” (the opposite of the “sunny” daytime dramas he exemplified with plays such as The Importance of Being Earnest), Wilde also wrote the play in French, not his native English, as if to associate himself with those decadent deviants across the channel. The play luxuriates in transgressive kink and borderline blasphemous biblical quotation: Salome, Princess of Judaea, is described like the Whore of Babylon, a negation of all that is Christian, Male, “Western.” Her strange sexual attraction to Jokanaan (John the Baptist) manifests in erotic litanies echoing the Old Testament’s Song of Solomon. The play climaxes with the Dance of the Seven Veils, a cryptic stage direction as famous as “Exit, Pursued by a Bear,” and it ends with a literal spurt of blood, decades before Antonin Artaud. Along with other works of the fin-de-siècle avant-garde such as Strindberg’s Miss Julie, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, and Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde (all by male authors), the play is a kind of pagan fertility dance that skirts misogynistic display. Unsurprisingly, the play was banned by the English authorities, who gratefully cited the prohibition on representing biblical characters onstage. It would premiere in Paris in 1896, while Wilde was in prison.
As Gail P. Streete points out in this issue, and as Yaël Farber’s world premiere adaptation at STC makes clear, Wilde’s version of the biblical story (and the ensuing “Salomania” it unleashed, which has reigned ever since) says far more about his and our own preoccupations than it does about any real woman from biblical times. In historical fact, the Dance of the Seven Veils most likely never took place, and Salome was almost certainly not the Princess of Judaea. In fact, she wasn’t even named Salome. The only way of adapting the story in a way that allows a woman’s perspective to be a dominant part of the narrative is to open up a dialogue with competing layers of history, myth, and the realities of political and personal conflict that continue to dominate the Middle East.
The Critic/The Real Inspector Hound: In the age of internet trolls and Facebook updates, what is the value of criticism, and who has the right (and the voice) to criticize?
Whereas Salomé forces artists and audience to navigate competing narratives in a search for an ultimately unknowable truth, two short plays written centuries apart confront an altogether different kind of evidentiary abyss. Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Critic (1779) and Tom Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound (1961) are both prime examples of the “in-the-theatre play.” Both plays, set in actual theatres, confront the vexing question of stories we tell ourselves, namely, their ridiculousness. Not coincidentally, both plays were written by authors who had spent years working in the theatre: Sheridan as the Artistic Director of the Drury Lane (which is where his play is set), and Stoppard as a theatre critic in Bristol, a provincial city with theatres suspiciously like the one he depicts in Real Inspector Hound. (Stoppard’s original title, in a glance at Sheridan, was The Critics.) In both cases, familiarity bred not just hilarity but also a kind of fond contempt. Both plays look backward on recent theatrical trends. The Critic casts its gimlet eye on the bombastic, sub-Shakespearean heroic tragedy of the 18th-century, which looks more like melodrama today. The Real Inspector Hound luxuriates in the mousetrap plots and Clue-like casts of Agatha Christie murder mysteries, which similarly dominated the mid-century repertory.
Though both plays are funny—in fact riotously so—both also display a very modern sense of metafictional unease. As the theatricality of each play escalates, the stage starts to look like a snake shedding its skin, and we suddenly find ourselves not in the realm of character or psychology, but of philosophy: illusion, reality, all of that existential mumbo-jumbo. In-the-theatre situations become evident as the anti-theatre they always were. It’s meaningless, isn’t it, this story we tell ourselves? (And it is always the same story, isn’t it?) But it’s fun to act it out anyway, or rather, to see it acted out. As Robert Brustein—one of the preeminent drama critics still working in America—writes in this issue, theatrical criticism has never been a more endangered species. These two plays provide us with the critics’ dilemma, allowing us to survey multiple centuries of life in the theatre and ponder what it all means.
Kiss Me, Kate: What is this thing called love?
Another backstage drama this season, Kiss Me, Kate (1948) is not the theatre having a conversation with itself, but modern times in spirited debate with old times. Casting Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew as a play-within-the play, this classic musical augments it with a midcentury stage-door world. Instead of merely transplanting Shakespeare’s Petruchio and Kate to another era, Cole Porter and the Spewacks created the divorced former lovers Fred Graham and Lilli Vanessi. Free to sock and sass each other like figures from 1940s screwball comedy, the contrast with the Shakespearean source text could not be clearer.
In fact, Kiss Me, Kate is really two plays in one, a 20th-century “comedy of remarriage” commenting on, enacting, and ultimately reforming a 16th-century tale of violent shrew-taming. It is also one of the signature achievements of Cole Porter, a multitalented composer, lyricist, and bon vivant whose career echoes that of his cross-channel contemporary Noël Coward. As Geoffrey Block’s essay makes clear, Kate is the second of three musicals to be based on Shakespeare’s plays, after The Comedy of Errors (1938) and preceding West Side Story (1957). Unlike those two works, however, Kiss Me, Kate refracts Shakespeare’s original play into two wildly contrasting visions of the world, ultimately mollifying the aspects of Shakespeare’s play that may strike us as antithetical to modern beliefs. Perhaps Porter and the Spewacks were inspired by George Bernard Shaw, who wrote, as far back as 1897, “the last scene is altogether disgusting to the modern sensibility.”
Taming of the Shrew: Is love a thing that can be bought, packaged, and sold?
Contra Shaw (an infamous bard-hater), The Taming of the Shrew has remained provocatively contemporary in its own right. In place of the repertories that have dominated the stage for six months in each of our past three seasons, this upcoming season features two productions inspired by Shrew, placed almost six months apart, that refract this most controversial of Shakespeare’s plays into two wildly different visions. Shakespeare, who sets his play in the mercantile fantasia of Italy, far from the hardscrabble realism of his own (and Christopher Fry’s) Warwickshire, depicts marriage purely as a transaction of property, an entirely separate realm from that of the church. As Gary Taylor—one of our most provocative thinkers on the modern meanings of Shakespeare—writes in this issue, Shakespeare was at least four centuries ahead of his time on the significance of marriage as a civil right:
That is, after all, why gay marriage has been debated in the courts. People can have sex without economic consequences, but legal matrimony affects property rights, inheritance, and tax deductions.
Shakespeare’s later, “high” comedies are devoted almost entirely to the pleasures found in the courtship leading up to marriage. After Shrew, he only rarely attempted comedies in which the marriage happens halfway through the action. The reason perhaps is simple. He had already investigated marriage and all its discontents. His work still has much to teach us about modern marriage, if we’re willing to look it directly in the eye.
Othello: What is race anyway? Is it just a cultural construct, or something more?
Or maybe Shakespeare found marriage more appropriate subject matter for tragedies. Othello, certainly one of Shakespeare’s most troubling portraits of married life, is also a play that has proven a source of endless fascination for depicting (indeed, inventing) many of the mysteries of modern racial and ethnic identity. The role, written for a white actor, has been staged throughout the centuries in endless permutations of color, often reflecting contemporary and un-Shakespearean anxieties about racial identity. The Shakespeare Theatre Company has staged the piece three times previously, each with different racial configurations. In Ron Daniels’s production this spring, Othello will be played by Farran Tahir, an American actor of Pakistani descent. This will be a first for the Shakespeare Theatre Company: a Middle Eastern Othello. After all, the “Moor of Venice” is unambiguously depicted as a former Muslim man, one now converted to a Christian and Western identity. In one of the play’s most mysterious passages, as he nears death, Othello’s memories, repressed for much of the play, come flooding back. He speaks of the “medicinable gum” dropped by the trees of Arabia, and of a violent incident in modern-day Syria, in a location currently wracked by scenes of violence:
[…] in Aleppo once
Where a malignant and a turbaned Turk
Beat a Venetian and traduced the state,
I took by th’throat the circumcised dog
And smote him, thus. (Act 5, Scene 2, lines 353-7)
As Michael Neill notes in this issue, the last time Othello was portrayed as a Middle Eastern man was the 1830s, when Edmund Kean played the role as “a stately Arab of the highest caste.” Today, after two World Wars, the fall of the Ottoman Empire, and the ill-fated Sykes-Picot agreement that created the modern Middle East, what does Othello have to say about this corner of the world?
1984: Do we have a right to privacy in the modern world? How can we distinguish truth in a sphere of political spin?
There is perhaps no 20th-century novel that has found itself yoked to more contemporary political debates than George Orwell’s cryptic allegory, 1984 (1949). As Michael Shelden writes in this issue, the work still resonates in a world in which “Patriot Act” and “NSA surveillance” are malevolent keywords. Perhaps Orwell’s most resonant—and easily misunderstood—theme is that power works not only through brute force but also through the insinuating power of language. In a chilling passage from his famous essay, “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell writes,
In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. […] Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging, and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck, or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements.
In one of history’s resonant ironies, Orwell’s expert mimicry of this political “doublethink” has allowed 1984 to be wrenched loose from its postwar context and appropriated for a range of modern issues, some that might make Orwell cringe. The novel introduced “Big Brother is watching” into the contemporary vocabulary, where it has become the name of a reality show that makes Orwellian paranoia grist for voyeuristic entertainment. We live in a world where millions of people around the world willingly suspend their own privacy in exchange for the ease of consulting maps on their phone or looking at cute photographs of cats. Orwell completed the work as a sick man, recently widowed, in a storm-lashed hut off the coast of Scotland, as far from the reach of the security state as possible. He would die less than a year after the book was published. What would he make of our modern society, where everyday interactions are infinitely more “Orwellian” than his most dystopian nightmare?
As each of the scholars within this guide points out, these six questions, all of which seem so contemporary, are each hundreds if not thousands of years old. As this season shows, perhaps there is no difference between rethinking the canon … and discovering it in the first place.