Getting Shrew'd

The last thing we saw at the Shakespeare Theater was a production of Hamlet, in modernized form. Characters used cell phones. The prince did not, alas, deliver his soliloquies into one. If you are going to mess these things up, you might as well go overboard.

Yesterday we went there for a matinee of The Taming of the Shrew, which Rita will be describing for the Washington Ear at some point and will need to preview a second time. Once was enough for me. It's a clever staging -- the afternoon was enjoyable enough at that level -- but if the play itself is in any way preferable to a sitcom, I fail to detect why that might be.

To be fair about it, I'll have a look at Northrop Frye and Marjorie Garber at some point soon, to see if what went on that I missed. But for now, the most striking thing about the performance was the reminder that the Shakespeare Theater folks seem to feel obliged to make certain things palatable when, for contemporaray sensibilities, they really aren't.

The performance ends with a gesture suggesting that the long speech by which Katherine reveals that she has been "tamed" by Petruchio is actually a trick that the couple have cooked up in order to win big bucks in a wager. There is no way to square this with the rest of the play, which shows Petruchio starving Kate, depriving her of sleep, and so forth. Closing things with a suggestion that 'twas all in good fun -- well, that's just a cop out.

If there is some way to construe Katherine's monologue as ironic, I'd like to know about it:

Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,
Thy head, thy sovereign; one that cares for thee,
And for thy maintenance commits his body
To painful labour both by sea and land,
To watch the night in storms, the day in cold,
Whilst thou liest warm at home, secure and safe;
And craves no other tribute at thy hands
But love, fair looks and true obedience;
Too little payment for so great a debt.
Such duty as the subject owes the prince
Even such a woman oweth to her husband;
And when she is froward, peevish, sullen, sour,
And not obedient to his honest will,
What is she but a foul contending rebel
And graceless traitor to her loving lord?
I am ashamed that women are so simple
To offer war where they should kneel for peace;
Or seek for rule, supremacy and sway,
When they are bound to serve, love and obey....

Rita turned to me afterwards and said, "Well you can just forget about that." So much for my plans to include it in a card for our anniversary.

The same general problem bothered me about the production of Titus Andronicus, another play considered, like Taming, to be among Shakespeare's earlier efforts. The director decided to treat it, not as a revenge play, but as a critique of the cycle of violence. The ending was framed so that the slaughter of the Moor's child was a horrific act.

In a piece that ran a few months ago, I quoted an English professor who spoke of Titus as a morally ambiguous character. But as with the ending of Shrew, this seems like wishful thinking. I suggested in a column that, in its orginal context, the world of Titus is probably about as morally complex as that of professional wrestling:

The audience that greeted the play with such enthusiasm would have had little trouble knowing who to cheer. Titus is a simple man. He makes some bad choices, but he is brave and a man of honor. And the people who hurt him are, after all, rather sinister foreigners - one an arriviste woman, the other an atheistic black man who delights in his own villainy.

Nor does it follow that Aaron's expression of love for his infant son would have necessarily made him a sympathetic character. On the contrary, it could well have made the destruction of the baby called for at the end of the play that much more pleasurable to imagine. Since the villainous Moor both fathered the child and tried to protect him, the boy's death would, in effect, be a final reckoning with evil.

But evidently you cannot stage plays that way at a major theater in the nation's capitol. The possibility that Shakespeare was not a man of our day violates our sense of what it means to speak of him as universal. Instead, an effort must be made to take the edge off of things by sophisticating the objectionable.

October 15, 2007 9:26 AM | | Comments (6)

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I've always had that reaction to Shrew: it's a textbook portrayal of psychological abuse (very similar to some modern interrogation techniques for "breaking" subjects) which no longer belongs in the "comedy" category. I'd love to see a version (in the sense that it should be done; I don't know that I myself would enjoy it) which really took the abusive aspect of the play seriously.

You're right, that would be a good way to handle the play. I've just read something by the director of this version, who insists that in her staging Kate and Petruchio are really in love. Some how I never picked up on that overtone, perhaps on the grounds that it is too absurd. It would only work in a Stockholm Syndrome way, which is not what this reading involves.

On the walk home, Rita and I discussed whether there was any possible way to make this something other than a profoundly misogynistic play. Your inspired suggestion did not come to mind. The only other possibility seems very 21st century indeed: make the marriages same-sex. (I'm not at all sure such a version would be any good, but it would at least be different.)

It helped that I last saw Shrew not long after a vicious episode of Babylon 5 which featured an intensive and abusive interrogation/forced confession session; it was just obvious, and very shocking.

The same-sex option would still be troubling, I think; a reverse-sex option might actually be funny, at least in comparison.

It seems to me that you could stage Shrew in a Southern Baptist leaning town with Kate as the rebellious preacher's kid. In the end, she accepts the way of the flock and lives by the doctrine of a wife's subservience to her husband. At least you can stay somewhat true to the "comedic" aspect by repackaging the production as satire.

Some years ago, an English director named Michael Bogdanov did a staging of Shrew that took the psychological warfare aspect of the play quite seriously. Petruchio broke Kate to the point where she gave that awful speech as almost a robot. The wedding guests were appalled and slunk away, and at the end, Petruchio was faced with the knowledge that he'd destroyed his wife. Not much of a comedy, maybe; but completely true to the text. Another way to do it might be to use the Christopher Sly induction, have the same actor play Petruchio, and at the end reveal that it was all a male fantasy dream while Chris's wife (played by the actress who played Kate) drags him home by the ear.

As probably the only person among the posters here who has actually seen some 10 or 11 stage roductions of "Shrew" -- in my years as a theater critic, it IS one of the more popular of Shakespeare's "Golden Dozen" of plays that theaters keep reviving -- I can state with some authority that a) the Southern Baptist version and the Wild West version and the Victorian version and the early Purtain vs. Roundhead version and the 'la dolce vita'/Italy in the early '60s version -- all of these have to face the uncomfortable final scene and make it work on the play's and characters' terms, regardless of whatever decorations the director has festooned on everyone, and b) the scene (and the play in general) CAN work on somewhat more palatable, contemporary-feminist terms.

I have seen it -- once, maybe twice-- which means it isn't easy.

It's not true that every Shakespeare drama is universal or can be made accessible, even understandable to modern audiences (or audiences in other cultures, for that matter). Nor should they be forced to. What is considered acceptable, after all, can be a matter of period aesthetics, for instance, and not 'politics' at all. We moderns won't sit through a five-hour play, for the mostt part, so "Lear" and "Hamlet" are rarely presented uncut, Yet this editing is commonly accepted without murmur. As Scott indicates, "Titus" is pretty damned hard to accept on almost any terms except as an early effort at splatter-punk (although stage directors, again, try to make it 'work'). John Gross wrote an entire book, "Shylock," on why "The Merchance of Venice" may have been permanently 'tainted' by the Nazis, so that Shylock's character is either portrayed as, really, a decent even tragic guy who suffered prejudice, which is why he's this way (or at least he's a usurer no worse than the gilded Venetian society around him). This means we're trying to water down what the play actually "says" because the only credible alternative would be to play him "straight," just as Shakespeare wrote him, red beard, hooked nose and all. And risk insulting the theater copany's Jewish board members, if not the public at large.

The two instances in which I saw the ending of "Shrew" succeed more or less on palatable terms that did not do serious damage to the play were these: the famous Michael Bogdanov staging by the Royal Shakespeare Company with Jonthan Pryce as Petruchio in the early '80s at Stratford. This was the first 'la dolce vita' staging and the production was notorious for swinging conceits like having Petruchio drive onstage on a Vespa. But it was not just all gimmicks. Bodganov had thought through the play in very class-conscious, gender-conscious terms. Kate's father was little more than a monster-padrone, for example, perfectly willing to sell off his daugher to the highest bidder-suitor (which is actually in the text itself, but emphasizing that point not as a bit of comedy or ordinary period detail that we have to accept to get on with the play is akin to underlining the anti-Semitism of Shylocks' Venice in general -- it's not often done for fear of alienating audiences or boring them with too much Marxism(). At any rate, with the sexism and class antagonisms of Fellini Italy all apparent -- but everyone enjoying the ribald fun with Pryce more the witty-sardonic suitor than the grinning wife-abuser who's often portrayed --, we come to the final scene. And Pryce's Petruchio is clearly embarrassed by what kate is doing. That is, he HAS fallen in love with, he has, more or less, browbeaten her into this speech of subsmissiveness and maybe just for her dowry, to boot. But he's finally appalled by what she makes apparent. So much so, that when she slips her hand under his foot, he yanks his foot away and pulls away from her entirely. If I recall correctly, the final words about 'Kiss me kate," are barely spoken, a kind of heartbreaking request for forgiveness.

For all of its audience-pleasing bits, the interpretation was pretty courageous ending that way because, frankly, it is not a happy-wedding-comedy ending, and leaves audiences with a kind of 'huh?' or "aww, why spoil the fun?" response. So whether one thinks this intepretation 'works' depends on how willing one is to accept more ambigious, open-ended or even troubled finishes. But it certainly played to contemporary reservations about "Shrew."

The second version that I saw was a straight, marvelously clean, period-Elizabethan staging done by a touring company of the Young Vic in the mid-'70s. They were very faithful to the text, even including the Christopher Sly play-within-a-play framing device at the beginning that's normally dropped because Shakespeare, or someone, forgot about it and didn't conclude it, so it seems an unnecessary contrivance that hinders the opening of the story proper.

The interpretation of Kate and petruchio was one that I've heard any number of stage directors tell me is what they REALLY MEANT to happen onstage (like Scott's "they're in love' from the current director) but I've rarely seen it actually happen. And that is, Kate's 'shrewish' character is not her real character at all. Given her father's awful household, where Kate's lying, manipulative, money-grubbing sister Bianca is considered the good daughter, the apple of her father's eye, and where Kate's only end in life is to get married to whomever her father chooses, Kate has responded in the only way an intelligent, forceful woman of her time and place could -- by fighting back, making everyone else miserable. But Kate has become stuck in this role, internalizing it so much that it has become as much a trap as anything her patriarchal society has forced on her.

So when Petruchio first sees her, he recognizes not just that she's beautiful and feisty and the smartest, wittiest woman in the play -- his match. He realizes that her 'shrew' responses are not really her at all. He's met her father, he knows the situation with Bianca, he understands what's going on (and the actress playing Kate made it plain she wasn't just angry, she was miserable, nearly worn out). The actors managed to convey a lot of this with their initial looks, their initial playful 'meeting angry' banter become almost a bit of fresh discovery for the two of them, a case of 'seeing past' their immediate situation.

What followed was done with a minimum of physical violence and a lot of expressions of doubt or tenderness on Petruchio's part. He's occasionally aware that, this or that tme, he may have gone too far. He is teaching her, for instance, that money doesn't matter to him, in effect her dowry isn't what matters to him (the tearing up of her fashions, for instance). Their harmony is what matters, and by the time of the "I say it is the moon" scene, Kate joins with him in the joke. Recall that he's quick to defend her, and in the final scene, he's clearly proud of her, not just in a swaggering, 'see, I've won the bet" manner but in a 'see, she truly is the finest woman here.'

I know it may be hard to believe that the "lord and master' speech could be done in a way that doesn't get hisses from female audience members, but I saw it. It was an act of love, with adoring looks on both parts, and yes, that doesn't countermand or justify all that Kate says -- we accept a lot of things from Shakespeare as dated beliefs (ghosts and kings and functioning Italian government, for instance) -- but it makes the moment far less a raw, embarrassing triumphant demonstration of spousal abuse.

It's Scott's contention, I believe, that the whole play amounts to such a period piece, such a demonstration, and modern theater companies decline to play it as such because, as with Venetian and, arguably, Shakespearean anti-Semitism, it doesn't go over well. And they should just brave it out -- THIS is Shakespeare, as much as all the beauties we might admire, he was fallible man and a man of his time. All of which I agree with completely.

But for a theater company, it's not just that such a treatment might offend. It entails treating plays entirely as "historical artifacts," which often kills any public, dramatic interest. And theaters are in the business of playing before aueiences. We would be coming to see, literally, a museum piece, a demonstration of an era's outmoded thinking, and that doesn't draw crowds much. Companies stage 'authentic' versions of Shakespeare's History plays, for instance, and they frequently bomb because of all that complicated dynastic stuff and because the plays themselves often don't work as anything but a kind of pageant-with-battle-scenes, a pageant that Shakespeare's audiences loved because it was a historical-political education for them, and often a rousingly patriotic one in the bargain. This "museum piece" approach can also be seen with the entire new Old Globe recreation in London -- seeing a play there is going to see a Shakespeare play as Ye Olde Tourist Theme Ride (to complete the authenticity, audience members should not have bathed and several should come down violently with dysentery). But those productions must succeed (when they do succeed) as compelling, live stage productions and not as educational class demos.

So I understand the need for any theater company to make a particular Shakespeare drama or even individual scenes "play" for a modern audience, and I recognize that a number of his plays simply may not work any longer for us (beyond the traditional 'problem' plays with their thematic or narrative troubles). But to me, it's often precisely the sign of a great director or a great cast when the text's historicism is respected and preserved, while the juices of the poetry and the human interactions are conveyed thrillingly -- meaning, mostly, without too much crowbarring or shoehorning

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This page contains a single entry by Quick Study published on October 15, 2007 9:26 AM.

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