Sunday, July 8, 2018

Coriolanus by William Shakespeare (Theatricum Botanicum)

By my count, I have seen 27 of Shakespeare’s plays live. That leaves me 11 to go. It will probably be more difficult to see those, as I am getting into the back catalogue. (Also not helpful is that the Utah Shakespeare Festival is doing the Henry VI plays this year and next, and, while my wife will be able to go, it’s not really feasible for the kids and myself to do so - it will probably be a while before they return to them. Possibly decades. Oh well.) Still, I have managed to add a few more obscure ones over the last few years. I also plan to see the plays I have seen again - the kids have only seen some, and will appreciate them differently as they get older as well. Shakespeare has something new to say each time - he never gets old.

Coriolanus is one of those rarely-performed plays. Every year, we check to see what the local colleges and small theaters are doing. But we also keep our eyes on a few others in Southern California. One of those is Theatricum Botanicum. This quirky outdoor theater has a habit of performing lesser-known works, along with their continually-running version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. A few years back, that included All’s Well That Ends Well, and Moliere’s The Imaginary Invalid. When I saw that Theatricum was doing Coriolanus, I knew we had to go see it.

Coriolanus is not a particularly well known play. Many are at least familiar with the name, however, because of Beethoven’s fantastic overture. (See below.) Coriolanus was written right after the great tragedies, and it does suffer a bit in comparison. The characters are less fully realized, the protagonist is unlikeable, and the theme fell a bit flat at the time. It is not Shakespeare’s finest play - but it still has a lot to offer.

First, what is this play about? Like Julius Caesar, the story is drawn from Plutarch’s Lives. As with the other, Coriolanus quotes Plutarch (as translated by Sir Thomas North) nearly verbatim in places - North’s language was plenty poetic. However, unlike Caesar, there was probably no real life Coriolanus, at least as described by Plutarch. By that time, Coriolanus was more of a legend in the vein of, say, Robin Hood. He served Plutarch’s purpose by serving as a counter-example to the Greek Alcibiades.

In the story, Coriolanus (real name: Caius Marcius) is a war hero of Rome back in the early days. Rome was a mere city-state at the time, in perpetual war with its immediate neighbors. The previous monarchy had been recently abolished, and Rome was ruled by the Consuls, joint rulers appointed by the Patrician aristocracy. Marcius wins a famous victory (despite questionable judgment), and is expected to be one of the next Consuls as a result. But he has to win the approval of the commoners - the Plebeians.

Therein lies the problem. Marcius (now dubbed “Coriolanus” - the site of his victory), hates the rabble, and thinks he shouldn’t have to kiss up to them. After all, he deserves what he gets - he has bled for Rome. Things do not go well. Although he gets the vote, his condescension sours many on him, and the newly appointed Tribunes (representatives of the Plebeians) stir up the people against him. A cool-headed Patrician, Menenius, is able to prevent a lynching, but with a promise that Coriolanus will appear in person for a proper trial on the charges of treason (for his threat to strip the Plebeians of their liberty.) Coriolanus is spared the death penalty, but is banished. He sulks off, eventually joining forces with Rome’s biggest rival, and leads an army to sack Rome.

He is persuaded to come to terms of peace by his mother, but is then killed by his rival.

That’s your basic plot. However, as is typical for Shakespeare, the real action is in the psychology.

Coriolanus, like many a tragic “hero,” is undone by his fatal flaw of pride and arrogance. (Hubris, to use the Greek term.) It isn’t difficult to see how Coriolanus became the way he is, though. His mother, Volumnia, is the dominating figure of the play. She has raised Coriolanus to be a war machine, eager for glory in battle, and full of pride. He is, so to speak, the perfect Spartan - which is not a compliment. Early in the play, an exchange involving Coriolanus’ wife Virgilia is telling. Little Marcius Junior has been seen tormenting (and eventually tearing apart with his teeth) butterflies. And Grandma says he is just like his dad. Isn’t that nice?

Because of this upbringing, Coriolanus cannot find empathy in himself. He obsesses over his honor, and his rights, and cannot see other perspectives. This is particularly obvious in his approach to the common people.

At this point, a little background is also helpful. (Special thanks to Isaac Asimov’s delightful book on Shakespeare for the information.)

The Plebeians weren’t just the underclass. At the time of the founding of the Roman republic, they were made up of the peoples that the city-state of Rome had conquered. The “true” Romans were the Patricians, and the others were the Plebeians - the ones who did the dirty work of growing the food, serving as foot soldiers, and other lower-status jobs. The Patricians literally depended on the Plebeians for survival, while resenting them as “inferior” foreigners. The Plebeians weren’t too thrilled about the state of things either. Under the monarchy, they enjoyed some degree of protection. Not so much in the early Republic, when the Patricians reserved for themselves virtually all of the economic and political rights. The Plebeians were expected to render military service without compensation for the damage caused by war or absence to their farms. If they couldn’t pay debts, they ended up as slaves.

This was not, shall we say, sustainable. The Plebeians rose up and demanded representation. Which they got, in the form of the Tribunes. This wasn’t true political equality, but it was a start, and the Roman Republic survived (as have many modern democracies) by granting political rights to a greater proportion of the people.

Coriolanus is not a fan of these reforms, to say the least. He complains (and is overheard) that by granting the Plebeians rights when they demand them, they have made a mistake. Better, in Coriolanus’ view, to have used force and violence to beat them into proper submission.

Shakespeare’s handling of this idea is fascinating. Coriolanus is believed to have been performed, not at the Globe, but at Blackfriars, which was a smaller theater. Crucially, ticket prices were high at Blackfriars, so the audience was exclusively aristocratic - no commoners to contend with. This was also around 1609 or so, when King James I was on the throne. Students of history will recall that James was a big proponent of the Divine Right of Kings.

So, Shakespeare writes a play to be heard by the nobility at a time when monarchical power was on the rise. And he writes...this. Sure, there are some mean jabs at the riff raff. But overall, the theme is a rather pointed jab at aristocratic arrogance and violent suppression of dissent. Shakespeare had some huevos.

In addition to his arrogance, Coriolanus suffers from a lack of self control, and a lack of an inner life of the mind. He reacts rather than think. He cannot control his mouth. He cannot see other perspectives at all. This makes him vulnerable to manipulation by his rival and enemy counterpart, Tullus. He is also manipulated by his mother. And also by the Tribunes, who know just how to push his buttons.

As I noted, this isn’t Shakespeare’s finest tragedy. But it actually has aged pretty well. (In many ways, better than The Merchant of Venice.) In fact, I think it resonates better in our time than in Shakespeare’s. While by his day, England was at least a fledgeling constitutional monarchy, it was far from the democratic nation it would later become. Or even the limited monarchy with significant freedoms it would become 80 years later after the Glorious Revolution. Shakespeare was looking ahead in many ways, as well as backwards to an earlier experiment in democratic government.

There are a few facets here that also seem particularly applicable to today. I think the recognition that the Patrician/Plebeian dispute was in part racially driven is interesting. In our own times, there is a common and egregious error made when speaking of our own political divisions: Trump voters are not the lower income classes. Rather, they are - statistically - above average in income, and, most importantly, overwhelmingly white. They are the Patricians of our nation, used to having  particular status and dominance, which they saw threatened by a black president and erosion of their privilege. And the Trump sorts are similar to Coriolanus, raging that they are not given the respect and status they believe they deserve by right of birth. Trump is no military hero. (He has succeeded at the American version though: he is rich. We worship money rather than glory.) However, like Coriolanus, he scoffs at protesters, and calls for violence to teach them gratitude. Rather than listen to the voices of the true Plebeians, they call to burn the political and social institutions to the ground in revenge. It’s something to think about.

Also thought provoking is a line near the very beginning of the play. The “First Citizen” is leading the rabble in a demand for the Patricians to share their grain hoards with the Plebeians. He seeks confirmation that they are united in their purpose:

You are all resolved rather to die than to famish?

This gets to the heart of it. Death by violence sucks. Death by starvation or privation is, if anything, worse. Particularly if you are watching your children die. Coriolanus fails to understand this. He figures he can just increase brutality until he gets submission. But humans will fight for their lives, and for the lives of their children. And the degree of brutality and hate necessary to keep them down will only increase, eventually to the breaking point. Our own Right Wing would do well to remember this, and seek rather the path of reconciliation.

I do want to mention a few lines. Coriolanus isn’t full of zingers like the best known plays. But it has some good lines. Unsurprisingly, in a tragedy, often the lines that stand out the most are the humorous ones. Unlike Richard II, which has zero comic relief, Coriolanus does have some moments of mirth.

One came fairly early in the play. Coriolanus’ mother and wife are talking about his imminent departure for the war. Mom is ecstatic: he will win more glory! Wife, not so much, as she is worried he might get himself killed. So, she decides not to leave the house until he returns safely. Mom retorts:

You would be another Penelope; yet, they say, all the yarn
She spun in Ulysses’ absence did but fill Ithaca full of moths.

My wife is a knitter (and a really good one.) I did give her a snarky glance at this line, though.

The second great humorous moment is at the opening of Act II, Scene III. The Tribunes have just finished their plot to stir up the crowd against Coriolanus. Three random citizens (Citizens One, Two, and Three) are joking about upcoming speech by Coriolanus as he tries to win their support.

First Citizen
Once, if he do require our voices, we ought not to deny him.

Second Citizen
We may, sir, if we will.

Third Citizen
We have power in ourselves to do it, but it is a
power that we have no power to do; for if he show us
his wounds and tell us his deeds, we are to put our
tongues into those wounds and speak for them; so, if
he tell us his noble deeds, we must also tell him
our noble acceptance of them. Ingratitude is
monstrous, and for the multitude to be ingrateful,
were to make a monster of the multitude: of the
which we being members, should bring ourselves to be
monstrous members.

First Citizen
And to make us no better thought of, a little help
will serve; for once we stood up about the corn, he
himself stuck not to call us the many-headed multitude.

Third Citizen
We have been called so of many; not that our heads
are some brown, some black, some auburn, some bald,
but that our wits are so diversely coloured: and
truly I think if all our wits were to issue out of
one skull, they would fly east, west, north, south,
and their consent of one direct way should be at
once to all the points o' the compass.

Second Citizen
Think you so? Which way do you judge my wit would

Third Citizen
Nay, your wit will not so soon out as another man's
Will; 'tis strongly wedged up in a block-head, but
if it were at liberty, 'twould, sure, southward.

I certainly snorted at this one. But take a second look. Shakespeare’s “fools” are never as foolish as they might seem. These commoners are far more self aware than Coriolanus. They actually speak pretty knowledgeably about the interaction of sentiment and duty, of custom and its breaches. They know that if Coriolanus plays his part: talks of his sacrifices for Rome, shows his scars, and asks nicely for support, they would be breaching etiquette to refuse. They also are keenly aware of his condescending attitude, though, and consider alternatives. Again, unlike Coriolanus, they are also aware of the weakness: they don’t coordinate and act together all that well.

Plus, as is well proven by research, puns are associated with intelligence - and this trio comes up with three good ones. (Or bad ones, take your pick…) Shakespeare, arguably the greatest writer in the English language (or any language perhaps) in history, was a fantastic punner, and given his love for puns, placing them in the mouths of the commoners was a sign of his respect. And that “blockhead” one. Dang, that’s good.

It is worth mentioning a bit about the production. Theatricum is a mostly professional group, with at least half of the actors in any production members of the Actors’ Equity Association. However, their stuff always feels a bit quirky, rather than slick and mainstream. (Particularly intriguing was their version of All’s Well That Ends Well where they cast African Americans as the aristocrats, and whites as the servants. Since the play is about a cross-class romance and “bed-trick,” this made for some uncomfortable and thus perceptive frisson.)

This production was no exception. The theater is outdoors, and makes use of the topography of the canyon. In this case, various members of the large cast ended up on the roofs of the buildings - including the sound booth - and occupied the space all around the audience. It did make one feel in the middle of the battles, and also part of the Plebeian multitude.

As usual, the cast was excellent; professional, emotive, loud enough for the venue, and invested in the characters.

I specifically want to give props to certain characters. David De Santos was outstanding in the title role. His was not a sympathetic character, but he inhabited it in a highly believable way. His was no caricature, but a real - if flawed - human. I loved his rage and pride. I think the term “brutally handsome” applies here as well. 

 David De Santos as Coriolanus
(Publicity photos by Ian Flanders)

Opposite De Santos, as the leader of the rival tribe, was Max Lawrence, a regular at Theatricum, who showed real chemistry with De Santos. The two of them are mortal enemies, frenemies, and worthy foes in the militaristic tradition. It was easy to see both as the sorts that would inspire their troops on the battlefield.

Max Lawrence (center) as Tullus Aufidius

Ellen Geer played Volumnia, Coriolanus’ mother. And she owned the part and the stage whenever she was on it. Between the creepy Oedipal stuff and the malicious edge, she made sure the audience knew she was the fulcrum on which the play turned. 

 Ellen Geer as Volumnia and Michelle Wicklas as Virgilia

The two Tribunes, played by Tim Halligan and Alan Blumenfeld, were also perfectly cast. As petty demagogues, playing at populism while failing to anticipate its risks, they had the proper snide and unctious vibe. I felt like I knew them: you find their sort in every HOA or small town city council. (Blumenfeld was phenomenal last year as Shylock - I could watch him in any part.) 

 Tim Hallihan (left) as Junius Brutus and Alan Blumenfeld (center) as Sicinius Velutus

One final actor deserves special credit. Melora Marshall played the moderate politician Menenius. She has been in every Theatricum production we have seen, playing a rather astonishing variety of parts. In this one, the part has been switched to a female part. However, in past productions, she has played a male part with such veracity that my kids were fooled. In another, she filled in as an understudy, and I couldn’t imagine a better job. Seriously, I would pay to see her in anything. Humorous or serious, small part or large, male or female. She is simply a good actor who can command the stage in any role. 

 Melora Marshall (center) as Menenius

Coriolanus runs the rest of the summer, and I highly recommend seeing it if you get a chance.


For those who care, Shakespeare plays I have seen live at least once:

Still to go:

Henry VI Part 1, Henry VI Part 2, Henry VI Part 3, Henry VIII, King John, Measure for Measure (I’ve at least read this one…), Antony and Cleopatra, Cymbeline, Timon of Athens, Titus Andronicus, and Troilus and Cressida.  


Beethoven for the win. This was actually written for Heinrich Joseph von Collin's version of the story, not Shakespeare's. But few if any care about Collin's version. The harmonic language in Beethoven's version is fascinating - particularly in the middle section, which departs from the root key in a long digression which is only brought back to the center by creative and unexpected paths. Enjoy. 


Also, Cole Porter gives a mention to this play…

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