June 9, 2019
Day #15: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”
I am anxious today. Or, rather, more anxious than usual. And it’s because we are reading MERCHANT this afternoon. Which I don’t find to be a pleasant experience. I have analyzed the play so I can say that it’s well built. And the choices Elise has made in the text are seamless. So it’s not about whether technically the reading will go well. She and I have heard the translation in a public reading before. It’s the reaction to the play that I am anxious about.
The term “problem” play turned up in the 19th century. That was a century in which the study of history as a subject to be taught was evolving. It’s also the century of Darwin. Which led, among other things, to a rash of categorizing everything. So it’s my theory that in the spirit of describing things, there were three plays of Shakespeare’s that just didn’t fit the “comedy” mold that they were put in in the First Folio in 1623.
People seem to think that genres are pure. Especially when it comes to the tragedies, I often have audience members express confusion about the humor in those plays. I don’t know where we get this notion but that may be where the problem began. (In ROMEO AND JULIET, we kept the musicians scene that happens right after Juliet’s fake death. It is often cut, because no one understands its function. Its function is to keep alive the idea that, aside from the accidental death of Tybalt, the play still could end differently. Julie isn’t dead, and we heard Friar Laurence say that he’s going to send word to Romeo in Mantua to come get Juliet.)
The term first got applied to Shakespeare’s plays that we think we written between the late 16th and the early 17th centuries: ALL’S WELL, MEASURE, and TROILUS. Subsequently, critics have added to that list: WINTER’S, TIMON, and MERCHANT.
A “problem” play is centered around subjects that are highly contentious. The characters “take opposing views on these topics and the audience is, effectively, encouraged to make up its own mind. However, as well as being used to describe a social or moral problem that is discussed within a work of drama, the term ‘problem play’ can be used to describe a play that shifts, often uncomfortably, between the tragic and the comic – in the end, landing on neither one side nor the other…. In other words, it is a problem, simply because it cannot be neatly squeezed into one genre.” [I’m lifting all this from a blog titled “What’s It All About, Shakespeare?”]
There are many things that I am interested in learning about Shakespeare through the translations as well as through presenting them to an audience. One of the main things I am interested in is carrying forward the immediate experience between actors and audiences that I think occurred 400 years ago. He was a popular playwright, after all, and I have worked long enough at a popular Shakespeare festival to know that interest in Shakespeare’s play is on the decline. Even at OSF.
There is no way to go in the wayback machine with Mr. Sherman and Peabody (although they did do an episode about authorship, which is hilarious) to know exactly how these plays were received. That society is not ours. The theatergoing audience was much more homogenous. And life was pretty frickin’ rough. If the plague didn’t get you, then a fight in the backroom of a tavern might. (I’m referring to the reputed cause of death of Christopher Marlowe.) Or you would die in childbirth.
So we don’t know how MERCHANT might have been received, but my hunch is that the cruel treatment of Shylock didn’t raise much of an eyebrow. Not that many English people would have ever encountered a real, living Jewish person during their lifetime. So who knows what they really made of all that. Especially as Shakespeare makes the character sympathetic. (Perhaps plays are a good way to remind us to be empathetic. It doesn’t seem that it is a natural response for human beings. In other words, we have to be taught to be kind.)
In a good play, everybody’s right. But I wonder what happens in a play (and, by extension, in life) when everybody’s wrong, which is what this play always feels like to me. Time and time and time again, people miss the opportunity to rise above their own perspective. The mob mentality in that trial scene is too much for me. Is anyone going to be a grownup and stop the madness?
Of course I think plays are metaphors, not actual Masterpiece Theater events recreating realistic situations. But we have a lens of realism in the theater, that also began in the 19th century. We can’t help but apply that when we see plays. It’s our training.
We also can’t not remember the horrors of the Holocaust, which systematically focused on a few groups of people, mostly those of Jewish descent. So in a play that has Jewish characters in it, it is impossible to not bring in that lens. Just as it is impossible for me not to bring in my second-generation feminist lens when I see SHREW.
So in order to put on some armor before this afternoon’s reading, I drop into MUCH ADO, hoping to catch a little bit of Dogberry action. But the scene that I watch is the one in which Claudio and Don Pedro are told that Hero has died as a result of their accusations about her honor.
Hm. Not exactly a funny moment in a play that is labeled a comedy. It may just be that every play by Shakespeare is ultimately a problem play, in the sense that they contain elements of comedy, tragedy, history, and more. (Polonius was in on categorization before Darwin!)
The scene is beautifully structured, in a cinematic way, in which is takes Claudio and Don Pedro beat by beat through the discovery of their actions, and the consequences of them. Not just the death of Hero, which they hear about from her father and uncle, who challenge them to a duel, which is ridiculous. Besides we know the truth: Hero hasn’t died. But Claudio and Don Pedro don’t know that. And they have to play the moment as true. Shakespeare delivers that information through the bodies of these two older men, one of whom was in on the ruse with Don Pedro not that long ago to fool Benedick into believing that Beatrice loves him. So there is a change in previous social relations established.
They get out of that challenge from the two older men to turn around and be confronted by Benedick, who they are happy to see, for he will entertain them with his good humor and jokes. But Benedick has other sport in mind, which is to challenge Claudio to a duel because he has slandered Hero, which has resulted in her dying of shame. Another change in the social status.
We in the audience know this isn’t true, but, again, those two characters don’t. And in the course of some 50 lines, all this new information is delivered to them. And as he is leaving them, Benedick tosses off the information that Don Pedro’s brother, Don John, has left the scene. And that’s the piece of information that makes Don Pedro begin to suspect something is amiss. It is masterfully crafted, and is as taut and action-packed as any drama.
Plays are built on this kind of change. And Shakespeare is a master at this. So I tell the cast how the plays work by contrast. And change. That how the characters enter a scene is not how they will exit it. Shakespeare uses everything to make this change obvious: poetry to prose, day to night, comedy to tragedy, etc. This is how these plays work on us subconsciously.
Hold onto the beginnings of plays, as they will give us a clue as to what will be worked out during the play. The end should be different than the beginning. And different doesn’t necessarily mean opposite, as I have described above. It means different in quality. In MERCHANT, the first line is “I know now why I am so sad.” And I’ve been in several rehearsal processes of this play and we spend a lot of time trying to psychoanalyze why Antonio says this line. And I heard the connection before for the first time this afternoon: Bassanio is coming today to tell him who it is he loves. And this is what makes Antonio said. It’s textual. Make of that however much you want. And productions are widely varied on how they portray this relationship between Antonio and Bassanio. But it was clear to me this afternoon.
And what shape will that relationship be in by the end of the play. Shakespeare always bookends. Antonio is the Merchant in the title of this play. Shakespeare won’t stay within the lines, but he will bookend. Which isn’t the same as wrapping things up neatly. While he doesn’t get the guy at the end (that’s because he had the guy at the beginning) Antonio doesn’t lose his life nor does he lose his fortune. And I was suddenly despondent that all this was for naught. That a family was ruined because of the careless actions of those who are part of the dominant culture of this world.
Elise’s translation is sublime. We talked a bit in the rehearsal about the danger of beautiful things. How we as a culture privilege beauty and the language in this play soars. It’s such a well-built play. And that’s the danger of it. And so Shakespeare adds the ugly contrast: the word “Jew” is hurled 29 times. I felt each one of them more than any swear word. Swear words have no literal meaning, they are just meant to get an emotional response. Shakespeare uses the word “Jew” as a swear word, but it has an added literal meaning to it, because it is a noun and refers to a person. I am not Jewish, but hearing that word in the context of this play is a body blow to me. What is our disconnect that we are offended more by swear words than we are by insults hurled at people?
Don’t tell me that words can’t hurt me. I believe that saying is told to us as children as a way to build armor. Because it’s not true. I know that we are also taught that actions speak louder than words. But words are a kind of action. They issue commands, they ask us to behave and respond in a certain way. Yes, we tend to privilege the actions of someone over their words, for often we are disconnected between what we say and what we do. But don’t ever dismiss the words. They are more telling than you think.
The reading is superb. Everyone in the cast is on point. And we get back to Belmont and the play ends as a romantic comedy. Now I have a problem because I can’t make the adjustment. And I feel guilty for laughing. I believe that’s the point of this juxtaposition. But do I believe that it would have been that complicated 400 years ago?
In the talkback, Elise talked about how “astoundingly powerful, emotional, and contemporary this play is. And how true it feels to life. You can’t wrap your arms around it,” she said. “And it portrays a dark and difficult world.” Her other big discovery was how Shakespeare sacrificed everything to the rhythm of iambic pentameter, which creates a steady propulsive flow that characters have to go with, or they will be run over. That is a formal choice on Shakespeare’s part to illustrate how easy it is to fall into a group collective.
We re-produce plays as a way to gauge where we are as a society. Are we still those people? Have we progressed in our social relations with each other? People are even more tribal today, I think. And so maybe this is a play for our times.
But not for me. I don’t ever want to see or hear this play again in my lifetime. Plays from the classical canon come and go, and there are periods when Shakespeare’s plays weren’t performed. There is a 150 year stretch in which AS YOU LIKE IT seemed not to be produced. So maybe we need to retire a few of these for awhile. And I would put MERCHANT in that column.
I understand why some people think it’s important to show the ugly side of human nature. But who is the audience for this story that shows the consequences for a lack of compassion and kindness for others? I find the critique in this play to be about Christians and how far from Christian behavior they behave. Maybe it’s because the world that is presented in this play is changing to a mercantile one and in that dog-eat-dog world of capitalism, we will eventually turn on one other. In some ways, this may be the precursor to those social dramas at the turn of the 20th century which make the case for environment causing behavior. In that self-fulfilling kind of way: especially for those of us who are not a member of the dominant culture, we eventually become the thing we are told we are.
Hearing the play again makes me think about what kind of public experience do I like or want from the plays that I choose to see? What do I think plays are for? And how do I think they should achieve that? These are the questions that I will always wrestle with. And there is no greater challenge to my comfort zone than this play.
Tomorrow: How will they balance the comedy with the drama in MUCH ADO?