FOUR PLAYS this week, three by Shakespeare, and last night we saw the first of them, and I hope it's uphill from here. The play was Cymbeline, a late, difficult play, rarely produced — though, as it happens, we saw another production of it less than a year ago.
Ah, Cymbeline. As I wrote last November,
…O ye Muses, what a magnificent play!Susannah Carson suggests reasons Cymbeline is so rarely produced:
Devices familiar from many other plays in the Canon — sleeping potions thought fatal, long-lost brothers, a disobedient daughter waking to love, the aging benevolent tyrant, woman disguised as boy, rustic horseplay, among others — are reworked here to what seems to me a completely new and finally completely total resolution. There seems no doubt Shakespeare wrote this, the characters and the lines are unmistakable; but the result doesn't feel like a Shakespeare play, its feet in the 16th century. This is modern, new, Baroque. … a sort of Pirandellian Modernism was going on three centuries avant la lettre.
Over the years, various terms have been used to take into account those of Shakespeare’s plays – Cymbeline, Measure for Measure, Troilus and Cressida, and sometimes The Merchant of Venice – that defy traditional classification. They are called “romances,” “dark comedies,” and, following F. S. Boas’s 1896 Shakespeare and His Predecessors, “problem plays.” Boas originally used the term to mean that these plays deal with moral problems, but the term also conveniently takes into account the fact that they are problematic to interpret and problematic to stage. Is the hero serious about killing the heroine? If so, then how can the heroine really forgive him at the end? Are we meant to laugh or cry?I know comparisons are odorous, but find it impossible to respond to Bill Rauch's direction of Cymbeline this year, here in Ashland, without contrasting it to Bart DeLorenzo's take on it last year at A Noise Within, in Pasadena. DeLorenzo might have read Carson, or she have seen his production: the play was presented simply, matter-of-factly, following thee script, Shakespeare's text spoken — well, without winks or nudges — by players effectively yet moderately made up and costumed.
Lingering behind such questions is the implication that the plays are no more than generic gallimaufries, that Shakespeare was simply overworked or bored, and that we must find it in us to forgive him since even the greatest of geniuses should be allowed to take a play off once in a while. There seem to be two ways of answering these intimations of mediocrity.
The first is to recognize that human psychology is complex, and that the course of human life is a mixture of good fortune and bad. Life, according to this reading, is a problem play. As a result, the interpretations of this first category delight in moral ambiguities, emphasize textual difficulties, and leave plots teasingly unresolved – all in the name of realism. The best of these readings illuminate the subtleties of the texts; the worst result in absurdist productions, agenda-based criticism, and textual deconstruction.
This first take on the problem plays is currently in fashion, and it has been in fashion for so long that it is easy to forget that there is another way of doing things – a way, moreoever, that seems to have been closer to Shakespeare’s way of doing things. This second take involves going back to a time before realism became the norm: before T.V. and film in the twentieth century, before the long, descriptive novels of the nineteenth and eighteenth centuries. When Shakespeare wrote Cymbeline, the theatrical experience had very little to do with flat description and presentation: It actively involved the audience in the imagination of another world. This communal conjuring has very little to do with realism; indeed, too much realism can impede the imagination.
Rauch's actors, on the other hand, mug and mouth, overstate and interpret their lines, often encumbered by grotesque makeup and exaggerated costume. Rather than simply enact the play, he continually comments on it, mixing and confusing comic and dramatic styles to underscore Shakespeare's own ambiguities and complexities.
I'm sure this is well-intentioned, an attempt to engage audiences unfamiliar with the play, unsure about approaching any theater other than realistic narrative, musical comedy, or slapstick. But the audience has enough to do presented simply with Shakespeare; having to deal with the director's comments and readings and concepts into the bargain makes too many demands, and the result is hectoring, distracting, confusing — an often tedious mess, I'm afraid, finally relying on production values rather than the script for any audience favor.
THIS AFTERNOON things picked up with a cluttered but workable production of an easier play, The Taming of the Shrew. The action was set in a vaguely 1970s Jersey Boardwalk of a Padua, and featured a live onstage three-man rockabilly ensemble.
This is okay with me. After all, The Taming of the Shrew, unlike Cymbeline, owes a lot to commedia dell'arte. American television entertainment, from Jackie Gleason to South Park, is our equivalent to commedia dell'arte: if Bianca turns into a ditzy Barbie, and Petruchio has Elvis yearnings, and all this is fairly consistent throughout the show, well, why not, nothing damaged.
(You could write an interesting disquisition on the difference between Shakespeare plays acknowledging commedia dellarte, and those innocent of its influence. You'd probably wind up tracing the boundary between the "Romances" or Problem Plays and the Comedies. But I'm not getting started on anything that serious; not here.)
These days, of course, even The Taming of the Shrew presents a problem, and it was brought up at the after-the-performance conversation with one of the actors. "There's something troubling, for our time," a questioner noted, "about the treatment of women in the play." Well, of course, that's in large measure what the plays about.
We were told there are even theater companies who refuse to perform the play on this account — as if there's some reason "troubling" matters should be avoided; or as if in our time the exploitation and marginalization of women has been stopped, when women make half men's wages even in the enlightened First World, or are prevented from full participation in most of the Muslim world, or are raped by a quarter of the men in the Asian world.
I've seen perfectly persuasive and perfectly entertaining productions of this play have given us likable and credible Kates and Petruchios while yet confronting these issues. I'm not sure this production was among them. But it was a more successful attempt than Cymbeline had been, andwent a long way to setting things in balance. We'll see how A MidsummerNight's Dream goes, tomorrow.
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