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:


neufer said...
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Hunferth said...

It is inconceivable that anyone, after listening to the 10-minute segment of the BBC production of Coriolanus that you provide, would think that someone uneducated could write such politically and classically robust material. And not only uneducated in a school sense but uneducated in a noble sense. The author of this play, at least, was present at many a high-level government pow-wow. The material oozes personal involvement beyond the mere study of history or the mere eavesdropping in taverns--a favorite avenue of genius for Statfordians.

Mark said...

To be fair, pinkie, some of the material about the original, historical Coriolanus was in Plutarch and other sources.

But, that said, point taken that it is at the very least curious that the author of these plays sets 36 out of 37 of his (canonical) plays inside a royal or aristocratic court. Even, in As You Like It, when the courtiers go into exile or, in The Tempest, when they're on a deserted island... they STILL carry on about their lives as if Castiglione's Courtier were the rulebook of their lives. And that one play set outside of the court? Merry Wives of Windsor... set in an inn in the *town* of Windsor?

Yeah... that's going to have to be the subject of another post. Because it when he was 19, Edward de Vere took refuge from the court to hole himself up in an inn in the town of Windsor to recover from an illness.

Nice coincidence there.