At the start of my writing career, first in theatre, then in screenwriting, I learnt by trial and error, from actors, directors and audiences, to be mindful of structure; to underpin plot developments in character; to maintain and time suspense; to plan for and spring surprises; to be, in short, a careful architect. The lessons became habits and, in time, second nature.
THE TEMPEST is thought by many scholars to be Shakespeare’s last play, at least as sole author. When, seven years after his death, two of his friends and fellow company members arranged for a complete edition of his dramatic works to be published, it was given pride of place in the First Folio. It received special attention from the printers. Ever since, it has been beloved, a store of memorable lines – ‘The past is prologue’, ‘O brave new world’, ‘We are such stuff as dreams are made on’ – embedded in our collective memories. As I went about conveying its blend of fantasy and tenderness, dread and foolery, raw ambition and other worldly detachment, I trod gingerly through the story; all I could think of was, stay faithful. Structure, architecture, never entered my mind.
Then came the first reading, actors’ questions, a second reading, revisions, and eventually a sumptuously mounted production at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, where the play worked its familiar charms. But something else happened. Clarified, the text shone a bright light on the play’s darker shadows – the serpentine ingenuity of Antonio’s seduction of Sebastian, brother of the King of Naples, to commit regicide, the plot only foiled at the last minute by quick thinking on the part of Ariel. The all-too-human pools of bitterness and cruelty in Prospero, loving father, sly promoter of his daughter’s marriage to a suitable member of a rival dynasty, but also tormentor of his servants, pushing both the guilty and the innocent survivors of his storm alike to the point of madness.
As I listened, not just to the lines, but to the comments and questions that followed in their wake, the old habits returned. I found myself wishing I could sit the author down and ask him ‘What were you thinking here? Or here? Were you so filled with ideas and images that you rushed to get it all down and in the hands of the actors and, in rushing, you cut corners?
Impertinent questions. But they kept coming. They nagged at me.
Here’s one: the play begins as a revenge drama. As it unfolds, two separate murder plots are hatched, one of them against the hero, Prospero, himself. But Prospero has such god-like and unchallengeable powers that nothing and no one can resist him. So where is the suspense?
And then there’s the villain, Prospero’s brother, Antonio, the main target of Prospero’s revenge. Like Claudius in HAMLET, he usurped his brother’s power. Then he launched him out to sea in a leaky vessel to almost certain death. You’d expect Antonio to be clearly identified when he first enters. But no. When the castaways from the storm that begins the action show up, and talk about their predicament, Antonio is among them, of course. For the audience, though, he is just one of several voluble courtiers, unidentified until so far into the scene that his name, when it comes, barely registers.
One more: Prospero uses his magical powers to bring a young prince, Ferdinand, son of his mortal enemy, together with his beloved daughter, Miranda. That done, these same powers are suddenly turned on Ferdinand to reduce him to a menial servant. We know, because Prospero tells us, that this humiliating spell is just a ‘test’. But Ferdinand and Miranda are left in the dark, their hopes frustrated. Then the lovers disappear from the story. When they return, late in the play, we discover that in the interim, the cruel spell has been lifted, Ferdinand is now betrothed to Miranda, and Prospero is stage managing an elaborate spectacle to celebrate the event. Did the author think to give us the moment, so important for each of them, when Prospero’s true
intentions are revealed, the torment explained, the emotions of the young lovers to this news allowed to play out?
In the end, though, the answer is always the same. Shakespeare stays one step ahead, inventing, adapting, the expert conjurer distracting us with a new twist, a single word turning a conventional moment into a heart-stopping emotional insight, charming his way out of a tight spot with a smile and a smooth tap dance, staging a magic show while the clock ticks down to the fatal instant when enemies will strike – the whole edifice a hall of mirrors, images, echoes echoing other echoes, shifting perspectives until, dazed and helpless, there’s nothing left for the audience to do but applaud.
And the structure? The architecture? Sometimes the lesson to be learnt is not to think about it too much, just sit back and enjoy the show.
April 27th. 2020