Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 4, No. 705. Tuesday, 2 November 1993.
From: James Schaefer <
Date: Tuesday, 02 Nov 1993 10:36:24 -0500 (EST)
Subject: 4.0675 "Versions" of *Coriolanus*
Comment: Re: SHK 4.0675 "Versions" of *Coriolanus*
The discussion headed "'Versions' of *Coriolanus*" seemed to have been
wandering aimlessly until 29 October when Cary Mazer and Bill Godshalk
snapped it into focus on the key issues of interpretation and
political stances. Since then, sides have been taken and gauntlets
have been thrown around as if ready answers and defensible positions
were clearly available to all right-thinking people.
I believe there are more right questions about these matters than
there are right answers, and I'd like to see more thoughtful
discussion of them. And so putting my money where my mouth is, I'll
wade out into the cold water here ...
Politics & aesthetics first, deliberately because it is so difficult.
We all know that the argument is at least as ancient as Plato's
insistence that the Republic would ban the poets unless they sang the
praises of the state, to which Aristotle responded with an analytical
defense of the power of purgative passion. My first, humanist,
reaction is to decry the entire idea of reducing art to politics:
socially, I'm off the scale to the Left, but am utterly uninterested
in the old Marxist or any of the new -ist or -ism analyses of
There's the rub. I have to acknowledge that relationships between
humans _are_ in some sense political, and so are depictions of them in
art. In his lengthy analysis of the Aristotle's *Poetics*, Gerald
Else credits Aristotle with literally discovering the drama in his
(Aristotle's) observation that poets (especially Homer and Sophocles)
increasing used a dialogic structure -- a "dia logos" (even if that
isn't a derivation blessed by James A.H. Murray): two souls meeting
and clashing because of inherent differences. These poets found such
differences in the world and incorporated them into the very structure
of a work of literature, thereby creating something new and newly,
more truly, imitative -- and essentially "political."
Is creating such a work a political act? In a 1956 essay
("Bedfellows") on newspaper coverage of the Eisenhower/Stevenson
presidential race, E. B. White wrote:
"I have yet to see a piece of writing, political or non-political,
that doesn't have a slant. All writing slants the way a writer leans,
and no man is born perpendicular, although many men are born upright."
I must agree with this: In some sense, all art and all artists are
political, and -- at least in White's opinion -- this need be no bar
to civil discourse.
That takes care of the imitation and the imitators. What about we
lesser mortals, we interpreters? (We readers, actors, directors,
scenic designers, professors?) Do we read and perform politically?
Inevitably, and certainly, and often unconsciously. Mazer suggests
that performances are "versions." I agree, BUT...
And here's the other, very important, _but_: to state that art is
political does not relieve us of the responsibility for making
judgments about the art object "itself" (in the New Critical sense) or
about our own use of it (in performance or otherwise). This seems to
be the key issue in regard to the performances of Shakespeare during
and after the Nazi occupation. I vaguely recall that this issue is
discussed in regard to performances of the Greeks in a book entitled,
"Dionysus in Paris," but I would offer a historical example from my
own experience that relies on a play set in the same period.
(I ask you indulgence for the length of my discussion -- and to anyone
who is not interested: Thank you for following me this far, and feel
free to bail out now.)
Some years ago (you'll know when in a moment), I played the character
Clive in a production of Van Druten's 1951 play, *I Am A Camera*.
(For those who may not know, he drew the material from Christopher
Isherwood's *Berlin Stories*; the play later became the basis for the
musical, *Cabaret*.) Clive is a rich, ignorant (expletive deleted)
American who has no idea what is going on in Berlin around him and
couldn't care less. His character is succinctly revealed when he
describes how he had just encountered a Nazi demonstration and asks,
"Say, who are these Nazis, anyway? ... Are the Nazis the same as the
Jews?" In describing the demonstration, he says, "...we ran into a
bit of shooting.... Seemed just like Chicago."
When I delivered this throw-away line on opening night, I (and the
director and the rest of the cast) were stunned to find that it
brought down the house. Why?
This production was staged in the fall of 1968, about 100 miles from
Grant Park in Chicago. The mere suggestion of a Chicago riot was a
politically powerful metaphor for that particular audience, in that
place and at that time. The line got the same audience reaction every
night of the run. As an actor, I loved it. But years later, while
investigating the effect of context on performances, I realized this
reaction was _absolutely antithetical_ to the meaning of the play.
It would seem reasonable to assume that Van Druten had intended to
imply that Clive equated the violence of the Nazi demonstrators with
the violence of Chicago's criminal gangs of the 20's and 30's. A real
Clive of the 30's could not have known of the Final Solution that the
Third Reich would soon attempt. But drama is not history, and
historical drama plays tricks with time. In the post-Holocaust
context of the play's first performances in 1951, Clive's off-handed
comparison of the Nazi's with the largely internal violence of
Chicago's gangland wars could have been another device of the author's
to show Clive's political and moral blindness (or at least naivete)
and self-centeredness -- and by extension, the way in which these same
qualities applied to American society before the war.
The 1968 audience, composed largely of undergraduate college students,
knew about both the Nazis' attempts to exterminate the Jews and the
Chicago gangland violence of 20's and 30's (albeit by means of the
gratuitously violent television series, *The Untouchables*). They
thus had the knowledge base Van Druten had assumed in his audience.
Yet what was foremost in their minds when the ideas of "violence" and
"Chicago" were mixed was the violence -- later officially termed a
police riot -- so recently directed against their fellow students
outside the Democratic National Convention. For them, Van Druten's
simile seemed to be newly true but still accurate: the Chicago police
were like the Nazis, Mayor Richard Daley was like Hitler, and the
violence used against the student demonstrators was akin to the Third
Reich's efforts to exterminate the Jews.
But such an interpretation reverses an irreversible equation. The
simile is not "Chicago is like Berlin," but rather, "Berlin is like
Chicago," and in any case, the demonstrators in Berlin were the Nazis
themselves, not their victims. I believe that in 1951, Clive would
have been understood to have belittled the threat of the Nazis and
thereby discredited himself with the audience. By contrast, the
audience's understanding of Clive in the fall of 1968 inflated the
evil of the Chicago police, significant though it was, and made him a
sympathetic character in so far as the audience agreed with, rather
than rejected, his comparison. The result was a spontaneous,
simultaneous recognition by all present at the performance of a new
meaning that was not intended by the author, and that ripped the
delicate fabric of relationships he had constructed.
We retained the line in subsequent performances, and got the same
response each time. But by staying true to the author's text, we
imposed a meaning from our performance context that was at odds with
the play's internal context, for in every other respect, Clive's
interactions with the other characters in the play show him to deserve
nothing but our disgust.
Again, forgive my going on at such length, but I see these as central
issues to the inevitable questions that arise in interpreting ANY
text: the road is slippery, but the playwright IS leading us
somewhere, and it behooves us to try to make the playwright's trip our
End of essay.