Music and theater and opera and art and the whole damn thing.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Fourth Wall is a Two-Way Street

Friday night I attended Marlowe's Edward II, which is in previews at the Red Bull Theater Company, a little Off-Broadway outfit that won kudos (and my heart) with their hilarious, delicious, sexy, bloodthirsty run of The Revenger's Tragedy a season or two back. The plays are both Liz-Jac in era and composed in blank verse, but they are very unlike: Revenger's Tragedy is out-and-out fantasy fiction set in an Italian neverland with no motivations but lust and blood-lust ("How many people do we have to murder up here before you groundlings feel something, damn it?"), where Edward II is based, however vaguely, on actual history as found in Holinshed's Chronicles. This was a new invention, history fictionalized and versified for the stage, pretty much invented with this play and Shakespeare's contemporary Henry VI plays (whoever wrote those, and they appear, at least the first one or two, to be collaborations). (There are also Edward III, which I saw recently Off-Off-Broadway, and Edmund Ironsides – also works of c.1590 but of disputed authorship and no very great quality.)

No nation ever had done anything quite like history plays before, and no other nation with a theater scene (Italy, France, Spain, Germany, Russia, China, Japan) produced them for many centuries thereafter – even Shakespeare and Marlowe did not quite dare to hold the reigning dynasty up to the cold limelight of the stage, though Plantagenets were fair game enough. (Henry VIII was not produced until Hal's daughter, Bess, the last Tudor, was safely under a stone in the Abbey.) At Red Bull every word is clear, and every syllable is spoken as though it meant something (though I would cavil that they get the meaning wrong by a few centuries now and then), and this is a great pleasure in the staging of old plays, so I am a fan. But – perhaps because it's early in the run, perhaps because the play has been edited and rearranged to a degree with half the characters omitted and their speeches redistributed like legacies among the remainder, perhaps because it is so very different a piece – I did not totally delight in the zaniness of Edward as I had in that of Tragedy.

Among my objections to the staging (highly inventive on a minimal set) were a few that have occurred to me at other stagings of classical texts (plays and operas) in recent years: pointless updating and pointless porn. A knife is not a sword, and toy pistol is not a sword, and a submachine gun is not a sword, and if the characters keep saying they are going to stab someone or run them through or make them feel the point or edge of their steel, and then they pull out a gun and threaten them or kill them (and Red Bull is very clever in its use of hemapacks at such moments, I must say – there were gasps of horror behind me now and then from some person(s) who had not read a synopsis before buying tickets), it brings about a certain uneasiness, a certain distrust of the actors and the company in the audience that would like to fall under Marlowe's spell. (True, I can count on the fingers of one disfigured hand the number of convincing stage stabbings I've been witness to – but I've never seen a convincing stage shooting.)

My other objection – here and in many an opera and staging – is gratuitous gamy sex. Sure Queen Isabella and Mortimer were lovers – oh Lordy how they could love – but Marlowe makes it quite clear that this passion began slowly and was not consummated until shortly before they joined forces to depose her husband. (The play telescopes the events of twenty years into five acts, and it would be surprising if all the politics did make sense.) When the Queen calls him "gentle" Mortimer and "sweet" Mortimer early in the play (for one thing, in the written text these terms are often addressed to his uncle, a character deleted in this version), it is a casual mode of address in Marlowe's time, kind of like calling someone "dude" today without meaning anything at all about their style of dress – to imply, as this staging does, that she has the hots for Mort from the beginning in spite of every word she actually says (she's in love with her husband for the first three acts), makes a nonsense of the characters. Even more annoying, was having them spouting blank verse while humping all-but-bareass in mid-stage in a scene that is set in a council chamber – it leaves one flabbergasted when other characters (including Isabella's very young son) then enter the chamber without apparently noticing the semi-clothed (and dripping) state of the two persons they meet there. I don't see what this adds. We know they're screwing, we don't have to be shown it. The Archbishop of Canterbury would certainly object to being invited to watch.

I had a similar problem with the current staging of Macbeth at the Metropolitan Opera. We know the Macbeths have a good, strong, sensual marriage – they don't have to sing their every duet while horizontal to demonstrate this. For one thing, it makes vocalizing tough; for another, opera singers are not the people I want to watch doing this (or wouldn't be if I wanted to watch anyone at all – other than maybe myself and one or four other persons – doing this). For another, and a bigger, point: it adds nothing and detracts from the atmosphere. The love duet, like the pas de deux in ballet, is a conventional artistic metaphor for the sex act. We understand when they're talking, or singing, or dancing, that this is a figure-of-performance. To see them actually at it is not art – it's porn.

I realize that pornography is the most significant art form of our time, the only one that means anything to most people (I am not most people, and I don't watch porn – really, it bores me), but to inject porn into every other art form cheapens them, and in destroying the boundary between public discourse and private salaciousness, we rob porn of its joy. If we turn every artistic and dramatic situation that includes a metaphor for lovemaking into actual lovemaking, into porn, is that it will not only rob art of its point, it will rob porn of any point at all. A few years down the road, if we want sexual jollies, we'll put on a DVD of a Vivaldi or Wagner opera or a Shakespearean tragedy and turn off the sound. And then the porn industry will have nothing left to appeal to – the private world will have ceased to exist. If we give names to every nameless thrill, there goes the thrilling part of our world, polluted like every joyous beckoning mystery that used to hedge and inspire our lives.


Francesca said...

Very interesting and well written review, John, and smooth seque into the annoyance and pointlessness of inserting (oops) irrelevant sex scenes into everything.

Though, hmmm, very glad for the Turkish bath scene in the current Cymbeline at the Viv.

Rick said...

Wouldn't it be nice if historical plays could stick more closely to the events that actually happened, so the audience would not depart full of misinformation? Maybe the really outrageous scenes are in there to remind folks that the story is not true.

Francesca said...

oops, segue.