Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Preview: Titus Andronicus

I'm going to see a puppet adaptation of Titus Andronicus this evening. The company, Puppet Shakespeare, has shorn Shakespeare's gory drama to 90 minutes, and I'm v. curious to see what the puppeteers make of it. Titus is so focused on the physical body; it's the play that opens with a human sacrifice, stages a rape and several losses of limbs (and a tongue), and climaxes, infamously, with cannibalism. Part of the play's theatrical strength is its assault on the human corpus, even when the stage violence is stylized. I wonder if subbing the actor's body for an animated object would eliminate something essential to the play's success. (update: Puppet Shak plays Titus for laughs.)

And it's hard to stage well anyway. Titus is often cited as among Shakespeare's worst plays, and not just for its offenses against taste (hope you like puns about hands!). Its form is strange and misshapen, even considering the playwright's ad hoc approach to structure. The first act is one 500-line coil of murder and intrigue that includes a coronation, that execution/sacrifice, and the title character killing his own son. The characters seem drawn in deliberately broad strokes, with no internality. That's partly due to the verse, which is expository even when it's high rhetoric—and there's a lot of rhetoric.

The only contemporary illustration of Shakespeare's play
is this drawing of Titus Andronicus' ungainly opening scene
Early audiences loved Titus, but the critics and scholars have always hated it ("a heap of rubbish" – Ravenscroft, 1678). The smartest attitude in this camp belongs to John Dover Wilson, who figured it's only lasted because Shakespeare's name is attached. But then Wilson argued that Shak revised a draft by a hack named Peele, and that he was parodying the excesses of his artistic inferiors. It's an iffy argument meant to keep his idol on the pedestal.

Personally, I'm more compelled by Jonathan Bate's position (in the Arden series) that Shakespeare aimed to write an inventive drama that pushed the envelope of Elizabethan theater. I agree that Titus is almost experimental, given the confines of that era's dramaturgy. And it's got an artistic unity, albeit one of excess. But I don't think the experiment results in a successful script, at least not as we define it in the Anglo-American tradition.

However, it does prefigure King Lear, in the same way that Richard 3 prefigures Macbeth. Patterns of plot and character arc match fairly well. More interestingly, both plays find tragedy in horror, in the recoil at a spectacle of gibbering madness, both internal to the psyche and in the externals of human behavior. Experiencing Titus and Lear, I get the sensation of a playwright of straining at and sometimes exceeding the limits of his stage. In both cases, the resulting play is monstrous on nearly every level, and in Lear, the monster comes to life.