On Watching Zeffirelli’s “The Taming of the Shrew” for the First Time in Many Years

I have a dim memory of the first time I saw Franco Zeffirelli’s The Taming of the Shrew.  It was on television.  I’m sure I was watching with my parents, and the image of Elizabeth Taylor falling in the muddy stream and being left behind by her laughing husband is pretty much all that has stuck with me for forty years or so.

Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet I saw in High School and many times since.  I’ve always thought it a wonderful interpretation of Shakespeare’s play with a great deal to recommend it.  On returning to Zeffirelli’s The Taming of the Shrew, however, I found little to recommend.  Yes, Zeffirelli has assembled lush and beautiful costumes and sets of great detail. But those sets have too much of a smell of polystyrene, the beautiful Italian light of Romeo and Juliet is missing, and the pacing despite large cuts and rewritings of Shakespeare’s text, is, frankly, plodding.  Elizabeth Taylor discharges her roll as Katherina professionally, but Richard Burton as Petruchio and the rest of the cast have been set free, or directed, to chew the (polystyrene) scenery with gay abandon.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, The Taming of the Shrew is a difficult play for a contemporary audience.  When the fundamental theme of the play, the breaking of a strong woman through starvation and sleep deprivation, is combined with the swinger misogyny of the mid-Sixties, the result is unbearable.  Petruchio’s country house here is a grubby man-cave, complete with lecherous douche bro retainers. “And Philip’s dagger was not fully sheathed”, a line not in Shakespeare’s text, is inserted apparently for the sole purpose of making an open codpiece joke, a bit of wit Petruchio and his buds think wonderful.  And then they start the torture of Katherina.

I’m not sure that Zeffirelli had any awareness of the misogyny of The Taming of the Shrew.  But there is one very odd detail which suggests he, or a set dresser, did look more carefully.

As Lucentio (Michael York) arrives in the streets of Padua, he passes two criminals enduring public punishment, one in a suspended cage, the other below in stocks.  Large signs are lettered with their crimes: “Drunkard” for the caged man; “Wife Stealer” for the man in stocks. Shrew 1

I’m not sure that “wife stealing,” phrased that way, has ever been a recognized offense in Padua. Almost immediately, Lucentio falls in love-at-first-sight with Bianca (Natasha Pyne), then he witnesses his new love chased through Padua by a gang of young men who eventually corner her and force her veil from her face.  As Zeffirelli portrays it, this is, if you’ll pardon the image, a thinly-veiled gang rape, a gang rape which seems to greatly amuse everyone, including the victim.

Later in the film as the drunken Petruchio hauls away his forced bride Katherina, Bianca’s sister, they pass the same two unfortunate prisoners, signs again prominently displayed. “Drunkard” and “Wife Stealer”.
shrew 2

What to make of this subversive bit of set-dressing associated with two rape scenes?  In no way does it ameliorate the symbolic gang rape of Bianca or the misogynistic celebration of Katherina’s forced marriage and later joy that she has been broken under torture.  The cage is where the drunkard Petruchio belongs, and his wife stealing logically deserves the stocks.  But he is presented by Shakespeare and Zeffirelli, and played by Burton, as the hero, not only for his drunken wife-stealing, but more so for his triumphant success in inflicting the Stockholm Syndrome on Katherina.

I don’t know the intention behind the small gesture of putting those prisoners into the two scenes.  But I certainly don’t feel any better about The Taming of the Shrew, either Shakespeare’s or Zeffirelli’s, because of them.

As I did when considering The Freewill Players’ The Taming of the Shrew,  I again am considering whether it is possible to stage The Taming of the Shrew without a profuse apology for its pervasive misogyny.  In my wondering I have come up with a curious thought:  what would be the effect of a modern dress production of The Taming of the Shrew, but in the modern dress of Kandahar or the Swat Valley of Pakistan.  What would happen if The Taming of the Shrew were staged completely faithfully to the script but with burkhas or niqabs instead of Elizabethan dresses? Zeffirelli’s Bianca enters veiled, and, Petruchio, after all, has more of the Taliban or Boko Haram about him than he does of Sir Walter Raleigh dropping his cloak in the puddle for Queen Elizabeth to tread upon.  Such a staging would remain faithful to the text, but no contemporary Western audience would be able to ignore the misogyny.   Would some say “you’re insulting Islam” or “you’re taking Shakespeare out of context”? Possibly. But the text is unchanged – is Shakespeare insulting Islam?  And modern dress is routine in Shakespeare production today. Why is it any more “out of context” to set The Taming of the Shrew in the Swat Valley than it was for Ralph Fiennes to set his Coriolanus in the former Yugoslav republics?

Doubtless such a production would offend all over the place.  But somehow I think it would be worthwhile for the shaking up it would bring.

In the end, such a production would demand an answer to the question “Can you defend this play?”

Advertisements

Brief Thoughts on the Current Alberta Election Campaign from an Old Progressive Voter to the Progressive Voters of Alberta

The riding in which I have lived since the mid-eighties, Edmonton Strathcona, has not elected a Progressive Conservative Member of the Legislative Assembly since 1982. We’ve never elected a Wildrose MLA or (since 1982) an MLA to the Right of the Alberta Liberal Party.

What’s with the rest of you?

A Meditation on Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia”, and a slight review of Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre’s production of same

No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead.”
— T. S. Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Artist”

Tom Stoppard is a demanding dramatist.  He does not stoop to explain references in detail. He assumes that some in his audience will be left out — never more explicitly perhaps than in The Invention of Love in which a character tells the audience “if you can’t read Latin go home, you’ve missed it!”  In Rock ‘n’ Roll he expects the audience to remember Syd Barrett and know about The Plastic People of the Universe.  And, in Arcadia, Stoppard puts before us Byron and hangers-on of the Romantics, English landscape architecture, iterated algorithms and fractals, a joke dependent on an understanding of both Old and New Testament, and, yes, a bit of Latin.  Many will be left behind as are left behind by the references in Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech. Yet we all enjoy Romeo and Juliet.

The slight review of the Citadel Theatre’s production of Arcadia

. . . literature, ever since Theocritus, has been sophisticating nature  . . .
— Agnes Latham, introduction to the Arden Shakespeare (second series) edition of As You Like It, p. xliv.

Finally on Easter Sunday I had the opportunity to see Arcadia in a matinee performance of the appropriately pretty production directed by Tom Wood at Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre.  I’ve been waiting to see Arcadia since first reading a review of the play in, of all places, the July 1997 issue of Scientific American.  To be honest, I feel Stoppard’s tight script and careful stage directions leave little extra for the director to do, and, not meaning to sound like Septimus talking to Chater, Wood does a good job of it.  One particular touch I noticed was in the first scene of Act II, when non-verbal Gus (Luc Tellier) sits up straight and perks up his ears when Bernard (Jamie Williams) mentions Gus’ namesake predecessor, Augustus Coverly (also played by Tellier). This touching and meaningful tiny moment is not hinted at in Stoppard’s stage directions, and the gesture adds subtly but greatly to the cross-century connection.

The set is exquisite, the costumes beautiful (both by Leslie Frankish), the sound (Owen Hutchinson) and lighting design (Kevin Humphrey) are perfect.  Performances were spot on, with special mention going to Julia Guy’s totally charming and intimidatingly intelligent Thomasina Coverly, Kevin Klassen’s lovably foppish Ezra Chater, Claire Armstrong’s crustily vulnerable Hannah Jarvis, and Jamie Williams’ smarmily narcissistic Bernard Nightingale.

My criticisms of what went on on stage are so small as to barely need mention: Plautus the tortoise is a model rather than a live tortoise; Aaron Hursh gives a little too much shrillness to Septimus Hodge’s laughs in Act I; and the wig Luc Tellier wears as Augustus Coverly makes that character a little too distinguishable from Gus Coverly, the other character Tellier plays.  Stoppard is explicit that the two should be easily confusable.

But, picking nits.

Arcadia is a long and challenging play.  It became clear part way through the second act that many in the audience had lost track and were exhausted. At the end of each of the last few scenes, a good portion of the audience began to applaud, in mistaken relief that the play had ended, uncomprehended.  I see this incomprehension not as a criticism of the play, the direction, or the performances.  Arcadia demands much of the cast and much of the audience.  It is impressive that the cast rose to those demands, and not surprising — although sad — that some audience members weren’t up to it.  Arcadia is a play to be savoured.  Careful engagement richly repays the challenge.

Arcadia plays at Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre, on the Shocter Stage, until April 12, 2015.

Please check out Jenna Marynowski’s review of Arcadia at After the House Lights.

A Meditation on Arcadia

Life is a quest for a quarry we will never capture.  We reach for perfection in art and always fall short.  We investigate the universe ever more deeply through science and mathematics and every answer brings a thousand new questions.  We strive for Arcadia but find ourselves fumbling in a gazebo in an English formal garden.

On stage throughout Arcadia there is a tortoise, perhaps a very long lived tortoise, like the Galapagos tortoise named Harriet who was reputedly collected by Darwin in 1835 and died in 2006.  In the 19th century scenes in Arcadia the tortoise is named “Plautus” for the early Roman comic dramatist.  The Roman dramatist was a source of plots for young Shakespeare and I have no doubt Stoppard has chosen the name carefully, at the least as a reminder of Plautus’ Miles Gloriosus (The Braggart Soldier).  The action of Plautus’ play, like that of Arcadia, is triggered by a servant’s accidental witnessing of a carnal embrace.  Plautus’ Soldier, Pyrgopolynices, fumbles through life with the mistaken impression that he is in control when he is, in fact, slave to his own failings and the wiles of his own slaves.  Some of Stoppards characters, Chater particularly, have much of Plautus’ soldier in them. But the most important and interesting characters in Arcadia are very much aware of what ultimately controls things — the entropy which winds down every life. Et in Arcadia, ego.

In Classical Comedy, we laugh a lot and there is a generally happy ending.  Plautus’ plays are exceptionally light fare.  Arcadia, on the other hand, for all its glittering wit and English country sunshine, for all its joy of discovery running through, is a fundamentally tragic vision.  Stoppard shows us that not only do we each have a fatally tragic flaw, but that the flaw is the tragic flaw of the universe.  No matter our joys, our discoveries, our duels or our carnal embraces, we are all doomed with the universe itself to

. . . wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless . . .

as the second law of thermodynamics grinds its irresistible way to that far future when Darkness is the Universe.

In Stoppard’s play, Hannah recites the above lines of Lord Byron, using poetry as evidence that even before our thermodynamic doom was understood mathematically, it was possible to glimpse the cold, dark truth.  This dark truth hangs over all the characters in Arcadia.

But we are not alone, either in space or time.  Septimus says of the endless succession of human generations:

We shed as we pick up, like travellers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind.  The procession is very long and life is very short.  We die on the march.  But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it.

I can’t help but hear an echo of T. S. Eliot here:

He must be aware that the mind of Europe—the mind of his own country—a mind which he learns in time to be much more important than his own private mind—is a mind which changes, and that this change is a development which abandons nothing en route, which does not superannuate either Shakespeare, or Homer, or the rock drawing of the Magdalenian draughtsmen.

Indeed, I find much in Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent” which illuminates Arcadia.  Consider:

Tradition is a matter of much wider significance. It cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour. It involves, in the first place, the historical sense, which we may call nearly indispensable to anyone who would continue to be a poet beyond his twenty-fifth year; and the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order. This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional.

Arcadia is fundamentally about creativity in the face of the Second Law.  it is about life as a local reversal of entropy and what a marvellous gift that reversal is.  Arcadia is about the quest to find out, to learn. Hannah says:

Comparing what we’re looking for is missing the point.  It’s wanting to know that makes us matter.  Otherwise we’re going out the way we came in.

Yes, Death is there, but, before all else, Even in Arcadia is Life.

Some, having little understanding of the Second Law, have tried to argue that Darwinian Evolution, for example, contravenes that law by increasing order when order must decrease.  But, of course, there is nothing in the Second Law which makes impossible localized, temporary increases accompanied by a greater decrease elsewhere or elsewhen.  Each pleasantly arranged dessert, each beautiful poem, every evening at the theatre, is made possible by the distant future cinder we now call The Sun.  These local eddies of increased order are what Stoppard offers us — not as consolation — as purpose and meaning.  “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow the universe will sink into a lightless heat-death.”

Eliot again:

….he is not likely to know what is to be done unless he lives in what is not merely the present, but the present moment of the past, unless he is conscious, not of what is dead, but of what is already living.

Near the end of the play Gus, the non-verbal youth picks up what has been shed, as he had earlier picked up a trans-temporal apple for Hannah (a reference, I think, to Theocritus’ third Idyll). Gus gives Hannah the unexpected clue she needs to clinch her argument about the identity of the Hermit.  In that moment, Gus and Plautus the tortoise are linked through time.  The silent watchers hold the answer, but there is a melancholy.

Septimus and Thomasina dance. Gus silently invites Hannah to dance.

Hannah says,

“Oh, dear, I don’t really . . .”

But, really, she does.

As the couples orbit each other into the night at the end of the play, we and they know that the journey and our companions, including those who have preceded us, and what we make of them, are all we truly have.

Arcadia by Tom Stoppard is published by Faber & Faber.

On a lighter note

From page 38 of my 1993 copy of Arcadia:

Et in Arcadia Typo

Et in Arcadia, Typo.