“A local habitation and a name.
Such tricks hath strong imagination […]”
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 5.1.18-19
As so often happens, Shakespeare got there centuries early, before the critics. Theseus, speaking to Hippolyta about “the poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,” sums up the two essential ingredients separating the work of art from the fantasies of lovers and madmen. Instead of abstract nothings, the greatest playwrights—even those as interested in the aesthetics of ambiguity as Samuel Beckett or Harold Pinter—imbue their works with an indelible sense of time and place.
As the essays within this Guide show, the specifics of time and place are inextricable from each of the works of our 2017–2018 Season. In the case of Shakespeare, including Twelfth Night and Hamlet, a deep understanding of Elizabethan intrigue has long been the key to decoding the plays’ surprising resonance in our own time. Often assumed to be elliptical and cryptic, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Harold Pinter’s early one-acts The Lover and The Collection are deeply conditioned by their time and place. Lerner and Loewe’s Camelot is a musical that speaks to us as much about the early 1960s as it does about King Arthur. And Heather Raffo’s Noura, STC’s entry in the upcoming Women’s Voices Theatre Festival, is a work that is deeply engaged with questions of time and place, looking at the themes raised in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House but also at contemporary social issues of Middle Eastern and American life. Classics, after all, are nothing without a local habitation and a name.
The Pinter Plays: A Slight Ache
Written as one-hour teleplays in the early 1960s, just before The Homecoming would become an unexpected smash on Broadway, The Collection and The Lover show Harold Pinter operating at the height of his early virtuosity. They are the first of his plays to shift the scene from his working-class roots in South London to the cosmopolitan confines of London’s West End (The Collection) and suburban Windsor (The Lover). Perhaps as a result, Pinter depicts his male and female characters role-playing as lower-class whores and “slum boys” in both plays. Whereas The Collection works endless intricacies around its four characters, at times resembling a quadratic equation with multiple variables, The Lover cuts the cast size in half and somehow squares the sense of erotic ambiguity. Often paired together as a double bill, both works engage with Pinter’s lifelong interest: the unknowability of each other’s and our own desires. As _____ writes, “the inability to differentiate between present and past, fiction and reality weaves a web of mystery and intrigue.”
Twelfth Night: Melancholy Epiphanies
Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is so named because it was written for the English holiday of the same name, the 12th Night after Christmas, also known as the Feast of the Epiphany. In Elizabethan London, 12th Night was a time of topsy-turvy revelry, characterized by costumes and carousing—all of which, of course, Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night exemplifies. The play, written for a knowing courtly audience, is filled with nods to the upside-down spirit of the holiday, from a Lord of Misrule like Sir Toby Belch presiding over the cakes and ale, to a mock knight in Sir Andrew Aguecheek, a mock gentleman in Malvolio and the wisest of Shakespeare’s fools in Feste the Clown. But the play also honors the other side of 12th Night: like Janus, the Roman god of the threshold, the play gazes out at an old year gone and the new year to come, at past regrets and new loves, at the “whirligig of time” of Feste’s songs. Jean E. Howard, writing in this issue, expands on the play’s subtle and persistent undercurrent of melancholy. Noting the play’s uniqueness in Shakespeare’s canon, Howard writes, “It resembles the romances he wrote at the end of his career more than the more joyful, character-driven comedies of that career’s first decade.” And indeed, like a romance, the play turns on a final, seemingly magical epiphany: the discovery of a single being, divided into two bodies, enfolding all within the play in a bond of love. Not bad for a holiday entertainment.
Hamlet’s Elective Affinities
We often forget that Shakespeare began writing his great tragedies and Roman plays—Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth—after the passage of a 1598 bill outlawing the depiction of figures from English history. In other words, Shakespeare’s history plays, which had first driven and then been the carriage-horse of his immense popularity, were now illegal. Shakespeare, however, a master of equivocation, had become a political thinker like none other, and his tragedies show his Machiavellian imagination at its ripest, in ever subtler and more sophisticated forms. As David Bevington masterfully illustrates in this issue, on the page Hamlet is often taken to be a play about the moody Prince’s inaction, but in the theatre it often becomes a suspenseful and terrifying political drama, one in which Claudius’s expert manipulation of the levers of elective monarchy and oppressive untruths doom the healthy and brilliant young prince into a fateful race against the clock. “Hamlet has his hands full,” Bevington writes, “in dealing with such oppressive tyrannical power that is so able to conceal itself under the guise of concern for the public good.” Expanding on parallels to Hamlet’s situation in 16th-century politics, Bevington unpacks Shakespeare’s political genius, his ability to eerily anticipate and illustrate the dangers of our own system of government.
Noura: Contemporary and Cross-Cultural Doll-Houses
For the Women’s Voices Theatre Festival in early 2018, we will present Heather Raffo’s Noura, a new play about a woman who left Iraq years ago for America, but still holds onto her traditions from the old world and an unease over assimilation. What makes the play a remarkable experiment, as Maya E. Roth notes, is its status as a response to Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. Raffo “upends and modernizes” Ibsen’s landmark modern drama, Roth writes, recontextualizing it within the progressive Middle East and modern feminism. Like Ibsen’s play, the action unfolds over the course of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day; and like Ibsen’s Nora, Raffo’s Noura (Arabic for “Hope”) harbors a secret that will out—with explosive results for her marriage. In perhaps her most radical updating of Ibsen, Raffo draws our attention to contemporary paradoxes of identity: the competition between familial and marital loyalties, the pressures of immigration and assimilation in a globalized age, and the splintering notions of feminism among generations of women. Responding to one of the architects of modern drama, Raffo does more than merely adapt or translate Ibsen. Instead, she uses the stage as a tribunal to ask the difficult questions about our own time and place—like Ibsen in her fearlessness, but crafting a new play that is utterly her own.
Waiting for Godot: A Skull in Connemarra
There is perhaps no work of drama—and perhaps no playwright—who so defies categorization as Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. The play’s opening stage direction seems to place us in a symbolic theatrical nowhere-world: “A country road. A tree. Evening.” And yet, as Feargal Whelan writes in this issue, in preparation for Irish theatre company Druid’s visiting production, Ireland is stamped in both large writ and small scale all over the play and the Beckett corpus. Whelan ingeniously unpacks Pozzo and Gogo’s “Hiberno-English” slang and Lucky’s seemingly incoherent reference to “the skull, the skull in Connemara,” arguing convincingly for the lifelong influence exerted by Beckett’s Irish homeland. Perhaps more intriguingly, as Whelan notes, the play’s coded reference to Western Ireland may help to explain why this seemingly placeless play has so frequently been transplanted to desolate, pointedly political landscapes—Palestine, South Africa, post-Katrina New Orleans. Among the many mysteries of Beckett’s masterpiece are the universes and tragedies it seems to evoke despite (or perhaps because of) its apparent placelessness.
Camelot: The Once and Future King?
Few musicals are more synonymous with American myth than Lerner and Loewe’s Camelot. The 1960 musical from the team behind My Fair Lady was one of John F. Kennedy’s favorite cast albums, and Jacqueline Onassis Kennedy immortalized the “Camelot era” in the wake of his death by mentioning the album to a Time magazine reporter. However, as Patricia Clare Ingham writes, the myth of King Arthur has existed for over 800 years, reflecting the concerns and preoccupations of later eras with each new retelling, from William Caxton’s 15th-century compendium of Arthuriana, to Mark Twain’s Gilded Age allegory, to Monty Python’s counterculture-era spoof. “What are we to make of Arthur’s persistent appeal?” Ingham asks, before noting the eternal allure of the underlying story as an allegory of enlightened governance, offering audiences a vision of a utopian bygone age, tragically (and necessarily) in the past. As Ingham notes, “Arthur’s story persists because this combination resonates with the long arc of human history.” A fine story, in other words, for any time or place, but especially for our own.