Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Shakespeare's politics in Arin Arbus' King Lear

It's the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare's birth and the 398th anniversary of his death. At least, it's when we celebrate it. Putting foolish questions of authorship aside, William Shakespeare was baptized on April 26, traditionally performed three days after birth. And Elizabethans used the Julian calendar; under the Gregorian one, the anniversary of Shakespeare's birth/death is May 3. Coincidentally, that's Lady Hotspur's birthday too!

Still, I come here to praise Shakespeare, not to bury him. But as much as I love his plays, the problems I have with them are many, deep, and they do keep me up at night. Shakespeare is big on a rural aristocracy, while the urban multitudes disgust him; I’m pretty much the opposite. And we disagree about authority—state, domestic, religious, you name it. Some of his worldviews I can appreciate intellectually, like the redemption of Christ—until he relates it to Jews. He writes strong female roles but often to nasty purposes.

Shakespeare’s social assumptions are deeply embedded in his plays, such that you can’t extricate the pros from the cons. Yet many politically-minded productions try to modernize the plays in just that fashion. Orson Welles famously turned Julius Caesar into an anti-fascist play in 1938, but most directors can't match that audacity and talent. It’s difficult to pull off a political take on Shakespeare that doesn’t violate the play itselfusually the solution is to consciously subvert it. So I appreciate how well Arin Arbus and her company (at Theater for a New Audience) fit an impulse to social engagement into their King Lear.
photo: Carol Rosegg
Arbus and dramaturg Jonathan Kalb don’t shoehorn new material into the already titanic script. Instead, they retain a few beats that usually get cut. The speech that perked my ears was during the tempest of Act 3. Lear (Michael Pennington) is left alone onstage while Kent and the Fool look for shelter. The king, at the brink of madness, says to himself:

Poor naked wretches, whereso'er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta'en
Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp;
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,
And show the heavens more just.

It’s the play’s second mention of a destitute underclass (earlier, Edgar imitates a beggar; he enters in that disguise immediately after this speech), and implies a population of indigents haunting Lear’s kingdom. Pennington’s delivery of “I have ta’en too little care of this!” suggests that Lear momentarily gains a social conscience as part of his harrowing.

The last 3½ lines are hard to parse, but Pennington clarifies them admirably. His Lear aligns himself with the poor naked wretches, and urges other aristos (“pomp”) to join him, so they too may help (“shake the superflux”, or excess riches). He reads “just” to mean “justice”, which implies that charity will shame the heavens into better treatment of the hungry, poor, and homeless.

Pennington and Arbus use the soliloquy’s format, a form of audience address, to put the viewers in the position of Lear’s apostrophized aristos. Houseless heads and unfed sides have increased in New York City, against national trends. It’s a rare Shakespearean production that can remind its audience of that, and a successful one that can do so without imposing a modern interpretation over a play built upon very different social and economic assumptions. But the opportunity is there. By foregrounding it, Arbus, Pennington, and Kalb make Shakespeare matter.
photo: Carol Rosegg
I’ll just mention another beat that counters the feudal rigidity that’s so alien to the modern viewer. Later in act 3, a servant stabs his own lord to prevent the blinding of Gloucester. Most productions frame his motivation as a reaction to horror: fair enough. But in the context of Arbus’ Lear it’s a moment of populist revolution, as a man chooses ethics over fealty. A few moments later at the scene’s end, Kalb and Arbus salvage another beat from the cuts: one of the servant’s fellows resolves to help Gloucester to first aid and a guide:

Second servantLet’s follow the old Earl and get the bedlamTo lead him where he would. His roguish madnessAllows itself to anything. Third servantGo thou. I’ll fetch some flax and whites of eggsTo apply to his bleeding face. Now heaven help him!

This beat, in a rough quarto but not the Folio, is one of the few altruistic actions in a very dark play. By retaining it, Arbus and Kalb illuminate Lear’s nihilism. In these subtle ways, Arbus and her company make Shakespeare matter. The result is a profound piece of social conscience as well as a work of great tragedy.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

The Ides of March

Frances Barber's particularly brutish Caesar
in the Donmar/St. Ann's '13 production
Today’s the Ides of March, famous as the anniversary of Julius Caesar’s assassination in 44 BC. Shakespeare dramatized the event, of course, but it may be the only story in his collection that’s greater than his telling of it. His major contribution is to spread the myth that Caesar’s last words were “Et tu, Brute?”, but he lifted that from Suetonius, who claimed the famous last words were “Kai su, teknon?”, Greek for “You too, child?”

Caesar is Shakespeare’s most powerful character, from a political and social point-of-view. So it’s ironic that, from various standpoints, he’s not one of the writer’s strongest. Instead of the complex yet characterized verse of the other Romans, he speaks in what Shakespeare, through Rosalind, called a “thrasonical brag” (after Thraso, a braggart soldier in a play by Terence).

In fact, Shakespeare seems to play subversively with the ultimate monarch. He’s not the protagonist of the play named for him. And while he’s alive, in the first half of the play, his humanity (and thus his mortality) is underscored:

    He had a fever when he was in Spain,
    And when the fit was on him, I did mark
    How he did shake. 'Tis true, this god did shake:
    His coward lips did from their color fly,
    And that same eye, whose bend doth awe the world,
    Did lose his luster: I did hear him groan:
    Ay, and that tongue of his that bade the Romans
    Mark Him, and write his speeches in their books,
    'Alas,' it cried, 'give me some drink, Titinius',
    As a sick girl. Ye gods, it doth amaze me
    A man of such a feeble temper should
    So get the start of the majestic world
    And bear the palm alone.

That’s Cassius in Act 1, so read it with a touch of skepticism, but at times the anecdote gets borne out. While he’s alive, Caesar’s greatness isn’t inherent, it’s in his wife’s prophetic nightmare and the soothsayer’s warning to “Beware the Ides of March.” His arc towards apotheosis is only activated by the assassination. As Brutus considers the event beforehand, he says:

    Let us be sacrificers but not butchers, Caius
    Let’s carve him as a dish fit for the gods

Then Brutus goes further, staging the assassination as a sacrificial ritual.

                                    Stoop, Romans, stoop,
    And let us bathe our hands in Caesar’s blood
    Up to the elbows, and besmear our swords:
    Then walk we forth, even to the marketplace,
    And, waving our red weapons o’er our heads,
    Let’s all cry, ‘Peace, freedom, and liberty!’

After his death Caesar is more than a man (a little like Obi Wan Kenobi). His spirit haunts the playnot just literally, as a Shakespearean specter appearing to Brutus, but in the verse and behind the events. As Cassius says in his Roman suicide,

    Caesar, thou art revenged
    Even with the sword that killed thee.

And when the army of Brutus is unexpectedly defeated by Octavius,

    Oh Julius Cesar, thou art mighty yet!
    Thy spirit walks abroad, and turns our swords
    In our own proper entrails.

My favorite aspect of Julius Caesar is this tension between the man and the myth. Shakespeare’s approach is pretty Christian (Platonic?), suggesting that Caesar's true soul is only seen once the body is discarded, and he becomes history. In fact, we still live in Julius Caesar’s world: we have a month named for him, after all, and we remember the date in the soothsayer’s warning.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Review: King Lear (Chichester at BAM)

Frank Langella explains to the balcony
how sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to be Lear
(photo: Richard Termine)
A month or two ago, I saw my 150th production of Shakespeare. With so many evenings drawn from the same set of plays, I tend to value the innovative approach and the unique staging over quality executed conventionally. A case in point: BAM’s production of King Lear, acclaimed by most critics, left me cool. The treatment felt old-fashioned—it favored the melodrama and external emotion over complexity, nuance, and an expression of consciousness through language. But the show wasn’t a wash-out: quality executed conventionally. Plus, I saw facets of the play I’d never noticed before.

Mostly, this Lear (from the Chichester Festival Theater) feels familiar, unrisky, a little bit rote. Angus Jackson locates it in a generic medieval England: lots of leather and metal on the costumes, a stage dressed with wooden planks and stone, and set with flaming braziers and a gothic throne. The cast declaims its verse straight to the balcony. In the lead role, Frank Langella plays each scene well—how could he not, with that rich baritone built for the sonorities of Shakepearean verse? But he’s not a coherent psyche, he’s a flipbook of mental states. The show may provide that old Aristotelian “pity and terror”, but it’s apprehended from afar. Lacking psychological depth or a tragic sensibility, covered too deeply by a melodramatic artifice out of the 19C, this Lear seems more like a historical pageant than a drama.

Again, that pageantry is executed quite well. And to me, it also reveals an archetypal layer to Lear, one that prefigures Shakespeare’s tragicomic romances. As Lear damns each of his daughters in turn (with Langella shaking his fist at the rafters), the repetition takes on a ritual meaning. Edmund and Edgar, now flattened into Bad Son and Good Son, revert to their antecedent roles as players in a morality: one tempting his father to evil and the other working to salvage that soul. Note also the strangely stiff formality to that subplot’s act 5 climax, as the trumpets sound thrice to summon Edgar for trial-by-combat.
Lear cracks as the designer drenches his set with real H20
(photo: Richard Termine)

While this Lear shows how the play foreshadows the style of the romances, I doubt that’s its intention. The central image of Jackson’s show is the old standby, Lear howling at the storm. But it’s rare that an evening’s most memorable moment is its centerpiece. Long after I’ve forgotten this particular tempest (except maybe the actual torrent of water onstage), I’ll recall the quiet beat when Edgar describes the chalk cliffs of Dover to his sightless father. Here, as an aid to his imagination he blindfolds himself, in mirror to his father’s bandages, and then recites the speech. The action helps the viewer become a listener, and enlists the mind’s eye to conjure the vision. I’ll remember it as a perfectly staged moment of Shakespeare.


King Lear
Chichester Festival Theater at BAM
director: Angus Jackson

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Happy Twelfth Night!

A Victorian celebration of Twelfth Night drawn by Phiz,
who also illustrated many of Dickens' novels
Tonight's Twelfth Night! Historically speaking, that's the eve of the Feast of the Epiphany, which commemorates the miracle of God incarnate as Man. In Shakespeare's era, Twelfth Night was also called the Feast of Fools, the finale to a celebratory period of social inversion that started either at Halloween or at Christmas. Like most folk rituals, those surrounding Twelfth Night derived from diverse traditions & can be tricky to tease apart.

One particularly fun-sounding custom at the Feast of Fools was the Lord of Misrule. Everyone got a slice of fruitcake, called the "Twelfth Cake", with a bean & a pea cooked inside. Whoever got the bean was crowned lord of the feast; the person who got the pea was his lady. No idea what happened if a man got the pea, but a (literal) drag queen would fit the feast's topsy-turvy style.

What does all this have to do with Shakespeare's play? Not a lot, really. Most likely, the show premiered as part of a celebration of the Epiphany. Some scholars peg the debut production to the Queen's court on January 6, 1601. They note that Shakespeare's company presented a play that day for Elizabeth and her guest, an Italian nobleman named Virgilio Orsino. Some scholars can't resist the coincidence of names with the play's male romantic lead.

But those critics must stretch to find parallels between the plot and the Feast Day. They note a line of Sebastian, which evokes the concept of God-made-flesh:

                                    A spirit I am indeed,
          But am in that dimension grossly clad
          Which from the womb I did participate.

One line doesn't make a theme, and anyhow the miracle in Twelfth Night is one of doubled identity, not of divine incarnation. Critics will also attempt to cast the Lord of Misrule; usually Sir Toby Belch gets this role. He fits the type, but it's a type that Shakespeare used in other contexts as well (think of Falstaff).

Finally, unlike the Twelfth Night the Feast, Twelfth Night the Play never inverts the social order, although it does focus a subplot on social class. Malvolio, the household steward, imagines that he could marry his lady and rise in station. Sir Toby and company exploit this fantasy by gulling himpunishing him for his hopes. The dramaturgy conspires in this, wringing out a bit of pathos for his penitence before banishing him from the play in a sulk. So Twelfth Night never presents a social inversion (unlike, say, Taming, where a servant impersonates his master for a few acts); in fact, it punishes the thought.

That's not a very celebratory note to end this post on. So I'll reprint a 1648 Christmas poem by Robert Herrick, a disciple of Ben Jonson. Twelfe-Night, or a King and Queene is mediocre poetry, but it's about drinking and partying. It's also a good overview of the Feast of Fools tradition half a century after Shakespeare:

          Now, now the mirth comes
          With the cake full of plums,
     Where bean's the king of the sport here;
          Beside we must know,
          The pea also
     Must revel, as queen, in the court here.

          Begin then to choose,
          This night as ye use,
     Who shall for the present delight here,
          Be a king by the lot,
          And who shall not
     Be Twelfth-day queen for the night here.

          Which known, let us make
          Joy-sops with the cake;
     And let not a man then be seen here,
          Who unurged will not drink
          To the base from the brink
     A health to the king and queen here.

          Next crown a bowl full
          With gentle lamb's wool:
     Add sugar, nutmeg, and ginger,
          With store of ale too;
          And thus ye must do
     To make the wassail a swinger.

          Give then to the king
          And queen wassailling:
     And though with ale ye be whet here,
          Yet part from hence
          As free from offense
     As when ye innocent met here.

Happy Twelfth Night, everyone!