The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 16.0963 Monday, 23 May 2005
Date: Saturday, 21 May 2005 08:17:14 -0400
Subject: Marlowe and Mahomet
All this fuss about the cloacized Koran, reminds me of the most
thrilling moment I've seen in the theater: Tamburlaine's onstage
burning of the Koran while daring Mahomet to strike him dead for the
offense. It was brilliantly presented by Peter Hall at the National
Theatre in 1976. No one who witnessed the scene is ever likely to
forget it: its very staging seemed like a colossal act of defiance.
Tamburlaine, fists clenched, arms extended on either side, stood
fiercely in his chariot, humanly drawn by enslaved Islamic Kings, as the
sacred volume was hurled into a fiery pit beneath the stage. "Strike me
down, Mahomet!" An electric silence ensued. Seconds clicked by like
tingling minutes. Mahomet strucketh not, being long since dead.
When I went to see the RSC's production of Tamburlaine in 1992, I
wondered if that scene would appear. Actually, I didn't wonder:
political correctness and the Rushdie fatwa had intervened, and theater
people are no braver than other people. The scene was not played: not
because of its theatrical deficiencies--it's superbly theatrical--but
because of the timidity of the "artists" at the helm.
Of course Marlowe had his timidities as well: it was the Koran and not
the Bible that Tamburlaine burned. But we all know Marlowe, and we know
that the Koran was merely his surrogate for the Bible, or for any other
volume that mortals are foolish enough to sacralize. It's interesting
that 400 years after Marlowe's death, similar timidities still obtain.
Interesting, too, that the RSC hadn't the courage to present a scene
that Peter Hall had staged so powerfully a mere 16 years before.
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