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Thursday, May 10, 2007

This is not a review of Cheek by Jowl's Cymbeline at the Brooklyn Academy of Music

Ok, so there's this ancient British king, see, and he's got a young daughter who loves this guy, but the king totally disapproves, so he banishes the guy, who goes to Italy (which is really ancient Rome) where he makes a bet with some Italian dude (who is actually some Roman dude) that his girlfriend back home is the most beautiful and least seducible girl in the world, and the Italian dude is all, "I could do her -- I'm Italian" and the guy is like "No you couldn't -- she's British" and then the Italian dude actually goes to England, if you can believe this, and totally comes close to bringing home the ancient british bacon, but the girl doesn't go for him, so he CHEATS by sneaking into her room hidden in a chest, then when she's sleeping he looks at the tapestries she's got hanging on the walls and steals a bracelet from her and finds a weird and private birthmark she's got, then gets back in the chest, is taken out of the room, back to Italy/Rome, where he announces that he's won the bet, even though he has done no such thing. He's a bit of a prick. Meanwhile, back in England, the King's wife, also known as the original chick's stepmother, is helping her clod of a son seduce her own stepdaughter, which where I come from is not cool, but it doesn't really matter since the clod of a son is even worse of a seducer than the Italian guy and has no shot at our lady, whose servant has been given a potion by the Queen who tells him it's delicious medicine, even though she thinks it's poison meant to kill her son's rival, or maybe even the girl, but the poison is actually just a sleeping potion that the doctor who gives the Queen her medicine-mixing lessons has subbed in for actual poison, because he doesn't trust the motives of the Queen, and I guess he wants to see who she wants to poison based on who randomly falls asleep in the middle of dinner, since he could have just given her, um, mead and prevented a whole lot of head-ache for everyone.

Then, in Acts 3 through 5, some other stuff happens.

What the hell? How is this even a play? And better yet, why do we still perform it? If this was by Fletcher or Shirley, we'd laugh at it. And I guess there were a bunch of people in the audience when I saw Cheek by Jowl's production of Cymbeline who were laughing at it, no matter how wrinkled Imogen's brow was as she delivered her lines. It's hard not to laugh at Roman Italians sneaking out of chests to peek down sleeping princess's nighties, and it's hard not to laugh when a plot makes serious use of a sleeping potion that no one knows is a sleeping potion. The company wisely played these ridiculous moments for laughs, though I'm not sure there's any other option if you want to perform Stuart tragicomedy these days. I'd love there to be some way to tell an audience for Cymbeline beforehand that what they're about to see was not really written as predominantly comic, that it was in fact more meant to be a mixture of astonishing and creepy and awe-inspiring and fear-inducing, and that even though Cloten is kind of a clown, his decapitation isn't amusing in any way. Cheek by Jowl treated us to a half-awake Imogen humping -- yes, humping, there's really no other word for it -- the headless corpse she wakes up next to in Wales. What occureth in Milford Haven, abideth in Milford Haven, as we all know, but still. I'm not sure the Folio's stage directions call for quite as much moaning as this production featured. (Imogen stirreth as from sleep, with slowness, and, as in sleep, humpeth the body. She moaneth thrice.) Perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised, then, that when it came time for the avalanche of costume-shedding and son-finding and girlfriend-dressed-as-boy-slapping that composes the end of the play, the audience laughed once more. A lot. And not with relief or pleasure, really. This was the "Oh, come on" laughter that you might find yourself laughing as space aliens arrive to whisk away a zombie wolf in a movie starring Dakota Fanning (The Girl Who Cried 'Zombie Wolf!' at Aliens, coming soon to theaters everywhere).

Here's the strange part. My reaction to the revelations in the final scene? Revelations, mind you, that I completely knew were coming? I literally, and for the first time when it comes to this play, cried. Not, like, cried cried. Jeez, man. Just sort of teared up. Now, admittedly, I cried at the end of Spy Kids, too. It doesn't take all that much to get the waterworks going over here. I cried three times writing this very sentence. But seriously: I found even this fairly overbearing version of Cymbeline to be... evocative.
The end of Cymbeline is completely ludicrous. No arguments there. But ludicrousness cannot completely hide the serious labor of that final scene. So much weaving being done. So much trouble unraveling itself. Is it believable? Not a chance. But is it beautiful? And even admirable?

Tragicomedy's not dead. You just have to spend years of your life reading 17th century drama to feel the beat of its impossible heart.

  • At 5/11/2007 10:18:00 AM, Blogger Greenwit wrote…

    an after-thought -- writing even this mock summary made me realize how difficult it is to do justice to the holtzknechtian summary. so another round of impressed thank yous to Wat for his work.


  • At 5/11/2007 11:30:00 AM, Blogger moria wrote…

    Coming out of the lurker closet to say "Hey! What gives! I love Cymbeline!"

    I love its generic perversity. Which is why I was, a handful of shining moments notwithstanding, deeply disappointed by the CbJ production. But so it goes.

    Love the blog.


  • At 5/11/2007 12:10:00 PM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    Wow, you may be the first person to cry at the end of Cymbeline since Simon Forman. Come to think of it, your description is not that far off from Forman's:

    Remember also the story of Cymbeline, King of England in Lucius’ time. How Lucius came from Octavius Caesar for tribute, and, being denied, after sent Lucius with a great army of soldiers; who landed at Milford Haven, and after were vanquished by Cymbeline, and Lucius taken prisoner, and all by means of three outlaws; of the which two of them were the sons of Cymbeline, taken from him when they were but two years old by an old man whom Cymbeline banished, and he kept them as his own sons twenty years with him in a cave. And how one of them slew Cloten, that was the queen’s son, going to Milford Haven to seek the love of Innogen the King’s daughter. And how the Italian that came from her love conveyed himself into a chest, and said it was a chest of plate sent from her love and others to be presented to the King. And in the deepest of the night, she being asleep, he opened the chest and came forth of it. And viewed her in her bed and the marks of her body and took away her bracelet, and after accused her of adultery to her love, etc. And in the end how he came with the Romans into England and was taken prisoner, and after revealed to Innogen, who had turned herself into man’s apparel and fled to meet her love at Milford Haven, and chanced to fall on the cave in the woods where her two brothers were; and how by eating a sleeping dram they thought she had been dead, and laid her in the woods and the body of Cloten by her, in her love’s apparel that he left behind him, and how she was found by Lucius, etc.

    Forman seems similarly to have felt that "in Acts 3 through 5, some other stuff happens."


  • At 5/11/2007 12:10:00 PM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    Neophyte: welcome, and thanks for delurking!


  • At 5/11/2007 12:29:00 PM, Blogger Greenwit wrote…

    N: I like it, too! didn't mean to come across as not. it's just hard to compress it into sequential prose narrative without losing what makes it good. I suppose I like it for the ways in which it makes that compression nearly impossible, or for the things that make the performance of the thing itself potentially... perverse. Good word for it, actually.


  • At 5/11/2007 02:30:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…

    Truewit, (you old softy!): Have you had similar experiences with the other late plays? I know that reading their improbabilities, I don't feel quite the same tug at the heartstrings as I do when seeing them in performance. When I saw the Winter's Tale in Ashland last summer, for instance, I had to make a real effort to keep it together! I don't feel the same disconnect with the tragedies, though: reading the end of Lear and seeing the end of Lear get to me on some deep level (though a performance can, again, push me into shedding a tear or 10--maybe there's something about the communal experience of performance?)


  • At 5/11/2007 04:09:00 PM, Blogger Inkhorn wrote…

    This post makes me feel weird. Normally I find myself defending "romance" (widely construed) and romance wonder against people who think it's ridiculous, embarrassing, laughable, or ironic. Even people who work on it betray that sense sometimes! But, on the other hand -- are you completely sure that this play is exclusively "meant to be a mixture of astonishing and creepy and awe-inspiring and fear-inducing"? I mean, Shakespeare seems to me to be very aware of the possibility that people will find this material ridiculous: think of the title of The Winter's Tale, or the possibility that the resolution of that play will be "hooted at / Like an old tale" (5.3.116-17) or that it "is so like an old tale that the verity of it is in strong suspicion" (5.1.28-29). Clearly that's a different play than Cymbeline, but if we at all take seriously the idea of Shakespearean romance (or tragicomedy, if you prefer) -- and I do -- then I think the question of laughter can't be completely ruled out of court. Whatever other feelings the plays are supposed to evoke, there's always that possibility of laughter, and I think that possibility and the awareness of it is precisely how they achieve part of their pathos, which is always rescued in the face of the absurd.


  • At 5/11/2007 04:27:00 PM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    The epilogue to Two Noble Kinsmen supports Inkhorn's point, I think. There the Epilogue is anxious about how the play will be received:

    ... ... No man smile?
    Then it goes hard, I see. He that has
    Loved a young handsome wench, then show his face --
    'Tis strange if none be here -- and, if he will,
    Against his conscience let him hiss, and kill
    Our market ....
    Have at the worst can come then!


  • At 5/11/2007 04:40:00 PM, Blogger Greenwit wrote…

    I totally agree with you, Inkhorn -- that perhaps too quickly rattled-off "mixture of" clause does have the words 'comic' and 'clown' nearby. But I'm not sure that the seriousness of the late plays is "rescued in the face of the absurd." Rather, the face of the absurd is probably part of the seriousness, if that makes any sense. We're heading down a twisty trail here, but if we see the point of these plays as partially determined by their insistence on drama's (or Art's) capability to inspire wonder at a remove from the facts of the artistic object itself (that is, admiration and wonder might not necessarily be your response to the the play itself, but your response to the fact that you responded to it), then that sense of wondrousness is in some sense set apart from laughter, or fear, or an immediate response to the absurd. I might be splitting hairs here, but things like WT's insistence on its own status as "Tale" and CYM's avalanche of verse forms and genre twists (not to mention everyone's favorite lesson about Gillyflower breeding) make absurdity a category within a broader set of possibilities, all of which fall under the heading of wondrous, or producing of wonder.

    For me, that is.


  • At 5/11/2007 04:45:00 PM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    It's usually around this time, I think, that someone quotes All's Well: "The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together ..."


  • At 5/11/2007 06:06:00 PM, Blogger Inkhorn wrote…

    T: I agree: in fact I think that's roughly what I was trying to say: "rescued in the face of the absurd" might not have been a good turn of phrase, but the point I wanted to make was that we can't get away from derision or laughter as a possible response, because it's in fact part of the experience of the pathos of these plays. But I also wonder whether your experience of being emotionally affected by the play while other people in the audience were laughing isn't also part of the way this works: that is, that there's a division, in the audience, and that some people's response to the play is in some sense heightened by the awareness that there are other people who are (in their view) failing to respond properly, or failing to invest emotionally. You get the pathos by pledging yourself to the thing that could seem to be ridiculous, but this is also a division among different people, different actual responses going on in the audience.


  • At 5/12/2007 06:56:00 AM, Blogger Crispinella wrote…

    There’s a nice C17th description of the kind of divided audience reaction that Inkhorn’s talking about in relation to another ‘late’ play:

    Two Gentlemen went to see Pericles acted, and one of them was moved with the calamities of that Prince that he wept, whereat the other laughed extreamely. Not long after the same couple went to see the Major of Qinborough, when he who jeered the other at Pericles now wept himselfe, to whom the other laughing, sayd, what the Divell should there bee in this merry play to make a man weep. O, replied the other, who can hold from weeping to see a Magistrate so abused?
    The Jest will take those who have seene these two plaies.

    (It’s from a Caroline jest-book, The Booke of Bulls (London, 1636), f9r-v.)

    I’ve seen Cymbeline twice. One was a cue-script production in which the final scene became (even more) farcical (I can cope with double-takes, but triple- and quadruple-takes just leave the actors looking like goldfish), and the other was a production featuring only six actors in identical costumes. It was really effective in some ways (in the doubling of Posthumous and Cloten, and of Iachimo and Bellarius, for example), but the final scene had an awful lot of disappearing behind pillars and abrupt changes of accent…


  • At 5/29/2007 09:41:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…

    I saw this prodcution last Saturday in London; I'd never seen Cymbeline before.

    It struck me th the whole thing might well have been composed backwards - 'what do I need to do to set up this intricate finale?'. A great playwright, great not least in structuring complex plots, showing off at the peak of his powers, characters and situations but puppets.

    It's nevertheless affecting, even if the four acts that precede it have more coincidences and reversals than Waverly, and if the potentially rich material of the lost brothers ends up as nothing but more fodder for reconciliation. Which I think says a lot about our susceptibility to a well-crafted narrative.

    About this production in particular - it's common practice now to look for non-obvious ways of playing every part and even every line, which I think misguided, unless you believe that a succession of brilliancies adds up to a coherent reinterpretation. This is why the Imogen was so oddly-played here. But what annoyed me the most was the verse-speaking, which they made exciting by sticking an audible caesura in every line, except those where they stuck extra. full-stops. in. for emphasis! Grating.


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