Sunday, September 28, 2008

Why Coriolanus matters

Let's say, for argument's sake, that there's an American presidential candidate who appears to hold his country's electorate in such contempt that no stunt or lowly trick is beneath him or his advisors. Every new week only seems to bring new ways for him to display his unrivaled cynicism and to further debase the political process.

Well, in that case, do I have a play for you.

It's Shakespeare's Coriolanus, and it's not particularly well known or widely staged. That's unfortunate.

Here's an excerpt from a BBC production:

The snippet above comes from Act 3, Scene 1, in which the title character, a celebrated Roman war hero, scuttles a plan by the Roman Senate to provide some relief-- in the form of food handouts to a starving populace -- in a time of financial crisis. (Hmm.... no parallels here. Move on. Nothing to see.) Coriolanus calls the Roman populace "common fools" and "the mutable, rank-scented many." His derision for the public at large is matched by a vainglory and narcissism that can be almost uncomfortable to watch:

CORIOLANUS For the mutable, rank-scented many, let them
Regard me as I do not flatter, and
Therein behold themselves: I say again,
In soothing them, we nourish 'gainst our senate...
As for my country I have shed my blood,
Not fearing outward force, so shall my lungs
Coin words till their decay against those measles,
Which we disdain should tatter us

It is, in fact, Coriolanus's Machiavellian disdain for his countrymen that makes the play so difficult to stage as it's typically presented: A tragedy. A tragedy requires that we somehow sympathize with the hero whose rise and later fall is the lifeblood of the play.

But Coriolanus is such a contemptible figure, and not nearly as fascinatingly contemptible as Richard III, that productions of this "tragedy" often fall flat.

The key to the play, though, is found in a quip by George Bernard Shaw. Coriolanus, Shaw said, "is the greatest of Shakespeare's comedies."

The weapons of satire, not tragedy, belong in the director's arsenal. Coriolanus himself gets only one soliloquy in the whole play, and a none too revealing one at that: The text reveals that we are not meant to care about the title character or his plight. He's a foil, not some misunderstood tragic figure.

The insightful critic Oscar J. Campbell, dissenting from standard views of this "tragedy," writes in his 1943 book Shakespeare's Satire that "Coriolanus exhibits over and over again his one ruling passion--the choler which Renaissance philosophers regarded as the inevitable result of wounded pride."

The Bard, Campbell elsewhere writes, "fills the tragedy so full of the spirit of derision that the play can be understood only if it be recognized as perhaps the most successful of Shakespeare's satiric plays."

I would only add, from a biographical p.o.v., that the Elizbethan historical inspiration for Coriolanus only underscores Shaw's and Campbell's biography-agnostic readings of the play. A haughty general called the Earl of Essex -- tremendously popular with the Elizabethan public -- was in the author's crosshairs. Edward de Vere hated Essex. Coriolanus is Essex's comeuppance.

But, in 2008, highlighting the Elizabethan parallels wouldn't be nearly as fun or fascinating as it would be to bring out the modern-day parallels, and let the audience judge for themselves.

My director's kit for an ideal modern-day production of Coriolanus, then, would be this: Campbell's book... and a chronicle of John McCain's greatest hits from the 2008 presidential campaign.

As one of the play's nameless lords observes of Coriolanus's downfall, "His own impatience takes... a great part of blame. Let's make the best of it."

UPDATED to clarify that I'm not advocating some sort of matrix of one-to-one parallels between Coriolanus and present-day events. There's a difference between a nod to topical interpretations and an airhorn that blasts it to anyone within earshot. Maybe a DVD of Robert Altman's dark satire M*A*S*H would be part of my ideal director's kit, too...

UPDATED AGAIN: If McCain-as-Coriolanus is the feature attraction, here's the sideshow:

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

If music be the food of love, press "on"

Readers in the New York city area may want to tune their teevees and TiVos to Channel 13 (WNET) on Thursday night at 8 for a great little documentary on the acclaimed Hudson Valley Shakespeare production of Twelfth Night blogged about below.

As the show's director and one of its cast members told the SBAN blog, Edward de Vere's life story played no small role in inspiring the present production of Shakespeare's Illyrian comedy. Channel 13's cameras were on the scene recording the making-of this Twelfth Night -- a behind the scenes documentary that the New York Daily News said is "a lot of fun."

Here's a video clip.

Then, from 9 to 11, WNET airs the truly inspired production itself. While the director's proselytizing about de Vere (and "Shakespeare" By Another Name) didn't quite make the final cut in the "making-of" doc, the proof is ultimately in the show itself. The evening I was fortunate enough to be in the audience, last month, the end-result was as clear as could be: This director and these actors, quite simply, nailed it. I've not seen a funnier, more musical, more lyrical, more vivacious Twelfth Night.

Thankfully, the show, at least briefly, lives on.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

The big debate and why it matters

The debate over Edward de Vere's contribution to (or authorship of) the Shake-speare canon has been smoldering for generations, since a British schoolmaster with a funny name first suggested de Vere might indeed be da Bard. And the fallback position one often hears is "Really, though, why does any of this matter?"

The following comment from a recent BBC article on the authorship controversy aptly summarizes the point:

What does is matter who wrote the books? They are great reads regardless of the class or caste of the author. It's a silly argument and we should just appreciate the work.

There are, of course, many earnest attempts to straightforwardly answer this objection that are already online. I won't add to that volume here.

Instead, I recently put the "What does it matter" question to two members of a New York Times and Wall Street Journal-acclaimed production of Twelfth Night, staged by the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival in Garrison, N.Y.

The play's director, John Christian Plummer, had come across a copy of "Shakespeare" By Another Name two weeks into rehearsals. He says, from this first-hand experience, that knowing the historical context of de Vere's life and times helps both Shakespeare directors and actors tremendously.

The actor here, Eleanor Handley (pictured above, left), also drew from de Vere's life (and particularly that of de Vere's sister Mary) in her brilliant portrayal of Twelfth Night's trickster Maria.

In fact, the New York PBS affiliate WNET chronicled the rehearsals and behind-the-scenes perspectives on the Hudson Valley Shakespeare's production of Twelfth Night and will be airing a documentary about it on September 18 -- followed by an airing of this truly inspired adaptation of the Bard's Illyrian comedy.