Friday, 17 May 2013

Week Three, Part One – Coriolanus from the Shakespeare Theatre Company

Coriolanus, by William Shakespeare at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall

Allan Bloom and Harry Jaffa, disciples of the political philosopher Leo Strauss, once wrote a book called Shakespeare’s Politics. I haven’t read it yet, though it is on my summer reading list, but I would guess that they covered Coriolanus quite thoroughly. It is one of Shakespeare’s most political plays, and seems to point to a number of themes covered by Straussians elsewhere. This is not about one, albeit complex, individual scheming his way to power, like Macbeth or Richard III, but about a collision between two political worlds: democracy and aristocracy. Democracy has triumphed in the modern West, so we are inclined to take its superiority for granted. And that would certainly be one way to interpret Coriolanus. The first thing said by one of my companions was that Coriolanus is a story about the tragic inflexibility of a great, aristocratic man. His undoing is that he is so noble that he can’t bring himself to flatter, or even show basic politeness, to those of lower status. He regards the people as a mob. Which is certainly true as far is it goes. Coriolanus values his honour over his life and has nothing but contempt for the poor who only seem to want cheap food. And we could say that it is easy for an aristocrat to scorn those who think first of their bellies, but not so easy for those who live daily with poverty.
But in turning away from the aristocratic arrogance that is exemplified by Coriolanus, does democracy also turn its back on the possibility of nobility? Shouldn’t there really be more to life than the search better material conditions? The democrats might argue that, yes, the search for life’s higher meaning can take place once our basic material wants are satisfied, and that such meaning should not belong to the rich alone. This is the drift of liberal thought since the enlightenment. But that is not quite the way Shakespeare portrays it. The common people in Coriolanus don’t really deserve respect: they are a fickle and easily led rabble. They are manipulated by the two democratic tribunes into attacking Coriolanus and banishing him from Rome. And when Rome is then under attack, they blame the hapless tribunes for leading them astray. These tribunes are classic demagogues, out to further their own careers by rousing the people against the rich. Shakespeare, like the anonymous ‘Old Oligarch’ of ancient Athens, seems to think that ‘the highest scrupulousness in the pursuit of excellence is to be found in the ranks of the better class, while within the ranks of the people will be found the greatest amount of ignorance, disorderliness, rascality - poverty acting as a stronger incentive to base conduct, not to speak of lack of education and ignorance, traceable to the lack of means which afflicts the average of mankind.’ Of course, Shakespeare was living and writing in a monarchy, so he was not going to get into trouble for criticising rule by aristocratic or democratic regimes. To that extent, the play authenticated the political system of his day. But it would be interesting to know how the audience responded to his portrayals? The theatre of his time was wonderfully mixed, from the highest to the lowest. Did they identify themselves or their contemporaries in Coriolanus, or did the setting of events in antiquity make the issues less significant to all except the most thoughtful?
It is interesting that the Old Oligarch blames much of the poor’s rascality on their lack of education (which itself results from their poverty). Even this forthright oligarch seems to be saying that democracy might therefore work well if everybody could be educated. Modern technology and material wealth has now led to just that situation, which might be said to have negated the Old Oligarch’s criticisms of the poor, though this is dubious, but the real modern relevance of the play is the two tribunes. These men are clearly better educated than the rabble they lead, but they seemed to have turned against their own class to further their ambitions. They also have no respect or gratitude for the soldiers, like Coriolanus, who protect them. In other words, they are modern left-wing intellectuals who, in the words of Kipling, ‘make mock of uniforms that guard you while you sleep’. And what universal education has mostly done in that respect is send lots more people to university – creating a bigger, shallower intelligentsia. As an aside, for anybody who does feel any sort of gratitude to the soldiers who risk and sometimes lose their lives to defend civilisation, America is a refreshing change to Europe. It must still have its share of one-eyed ‘pacifists’ as well, and on the other side the incessant ‘USA! USA! USA!’ of any sporting event can be trying, but there is a genuinely affectionate, unselfconscious, simple patriotism here which warms the heart.
Coriolanus, like a couple of Shakespeare’s other tragedies, is based on one of Plutarch’s Lives. These were short and very engaging biographies of famous Greek and Roman figures written by the Greek Plutarch during the Roman Empire. Unlike the modern Penguin editions, which tend to group the biographies together by subject (a book of Spartan biographies, a book of Roman biographies and so on), Plutarch originally organised his biographies into pairs, each one containing a Greek and Roman whose lives had something in common (for example the successful military leaders Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great). One of my companions at the play, who happens to be a Plutarch expert, told me the surprising news that Plutarch paired Coriolanus with Alcibiades. This has some superficial logic, because both enjoyed early success but then joined with the enemies of their homelands in war against their own people. But besides that the two were very different characters. Coriolanus can’t succeed as a politician because he is too rigid, too principled to make the necessary compromises.  His attack with the Volscians on Rome is motivated by the assault on his honour committed by the tribune-inspired masses. Eventually bowing to the pleading of his mother to spare Rome, he takes his army away to face death at Volscian hands. Alcibiades was a cad all along. A complex, attractive, charismatic cad, but by all accounts somebody with no real moral fibre. He encouraged Athens’ into wars for his own personal gain, and then when ordered to return to Athens to stand trial for impiety, he went over to Athens’ great enemy, Sparta. Then he helped the Spartans to wreck Athens’ Sicilian Expedition, which had been his idea in the first place. Eventually the Spartans grew tired of him (possibly because he slept with the wife of one of their kings) and he returned to the Athenians, who welcomed him back until at a later date he was banished again for leaving the charge of the Athenian fleet in the hands of his incompetent lieutenant (who then lost the fleet). Alcibiades was an aristocrat like Coriolanus, but like the tribunes he was an able manipulator of the mob to further his own ends. I really must revisit Plutarch to read his reasons for this pairing. But back to the play…
This production is sublime – better in all ways than the 2011 film version starring Ralph Fiennes. The costumes were interesting; using modern costumes can sometimes backfire, especially if done to stress some overstretched point of relevance to the present day, but in this case they worked to support rather than subvert the central themes of the play. Some of the women in Plutarch seem especially alien to modern audiences. Like the women portrayed in Plutarch’s accounts of Sparta, Coriolanus’ mother Volumnia was bloodthirsty and seemingly uncaring about whether her son lived or died, so long as he did it with honour and maintained the standing of the family name. She was played with the perfect amount of stridency and aristocratic hauteur by Diane D’Aquila. Again, this is another side of the aristocratic ethos which we have lost (probably for the better) in our more democratic age. Another interesting innovation was the drumming - along with the excellent stage, it helped to create the evolving atmosphere that heightened the significance of the dialogue and action, especially during the fight scenes. Stage battles, where a handful of men are used to represent entire armies, are often flat and amateurish. Perhaps they appear more insipid because our imaginations are dulled by the ultra-realism of film violence. But the drumming here amplified the life and power of the violence to add a real air of menace, fear and desperation. Patrick Page, as Coriolanus, was much more realistic and appropriate to the story than Fiennes’s psychotic film portrayal. He really succeeded as the hardened aristocrat. One of my companions picked up on the aspect of playfulness in having an arch pretender (an actor), pretending to be someone whose greatest fault is that they can’t pretend. Page really carried this aspect off and his mannerisms at the point where his character was pretending to attempt to pretend was his most human scene of the play. Shakespeare loved this sort of contradiction, as with the comedy situations of men playing women pretending to be men, and the actor did it excellently here with some bitter frivolity of tone and action suitable to tragedy.
Finally, I said when talking about Wallenstein last week that I found the American accents jarring. That was not the case with Coriolanus – if anything, perhaps Americans make better, more believable Romans than English actors do (Rome certainly never seems very far away in a city as stuffed with neo-classical architecture as Washington DC). The problem, I think, with Wallenstein, was that the translation was very modern, creating a constant jarring between the content of what was said and the way it was said. The accents fitted the translation but the translation did not fit the play.

1 comment:

  1. Interstingly, Plutarch seems to have more sympathy with Alcibiades than Coriolanus. This is understandable from the perspective of charm (see Plato's portrayal of Alcibiades in the Symposium), but Plutarch bases his judgement on morality:

    'That so long as they remained and held command in their respective countries they eminently sustained, and when they were driven into exile yet more eminently damaged, the fortunes of those countries, is common to both. All the sober citizens felt disgust at the petulance, the low flattery, and base seductions which Alcibiades, in his public life, allowed himself to employ with the view of winning the people's favour; and the ungraciousness, pride, and oligarchical haughtiness which Marcius [a.k.a. Coriolanus], on the other hand, displayed in his, were the abhorrence of the Roman populace. Neither of these courses can be called commendable; but a man who ingratiates himself by indulgence and flattery is hardly so censurable as one who, to avoid the appearance of flattering, insults. To seek power by servility to the people is a disgrace, but to maintain it by terror, violence, and oppression is not a disgrace only, but an injustice.'