Following the current fashion for changing the gender of characters in plays, in this production both Dr Faustus and Mephistophiles are portrayed by women. I did not feel the play gained from this – but nor did it lose, except inevitably a little in the scene with Helen of Troy. However, in a candle-lit theatre the fact that several characters wore dark-coloured robes meant that visibility at times was poor from seats not close to the stage. There was a lot of shrieking and screaming – to the detriment of Marlowe’s poetry, while failing to enhance the drama. More generally, this production lacked lustre, with rather underwhelming terror in the last speech. I have certainly seen better productions.
The Calvin & Rose G Hoffman Prize
are now invited for the thirtieth Calvin & Rose G Hoffman Prize
to be awarded in December 2019.
closing date for entries to be received is 1st September 2019.
I clearly remember the sense of resignation when approaching my first read of a Marlowe script. It was a college class assignment of some sort. Wandering through the library stacks seeking a text with readable footnotes, I finally settled on a small single volume of Tamburlaine the Great, part One and cracked it open.
’Resignation’ because after tasting a few Shakespeare plays as an actor and Dramatic Lit major, and scanning a few other Elizabethan playwrights, I knew with all the certainty of a cantankerous young graduate student, that Tamburlaine wouldn’t begin to measure up.
And the first scene didn’t do much to dissuade my prejudice. I labored mightily trying to keep track of the Persians, all the while trying to get a handle on the expansive and flowery language. For someone like myself who came from a heavily ‘realistic’ theatre background, it was all just words. Words, words, words … and more words.
Of course, I wasn’t actually speaking the words that day, or mouthing them. I was ‘reading’ them: silently accumulating and filing them away while waiting for the meaning to form a discernible structure in my young mind.
Not much changed at the start of scene two until, that is, the rhythm of the meter of Tamburlaine’s lines started to pound like a drum. Almost martial, it suggested a quick march tempo. And with that, almost at once, the clarity of the images materialized.
TAMBURLAINE Disdains Zenocrate to live with me? Or you, my lords, to be my followers? Think you I weigh this treasure more than you? Not all the gold in India’s wealthy arms Shall buy the meanest soldier in my train. Zenocrate, lovelier than the love of Jove, Brighter than is the silver Rhodope, Fairer than whitest snow on Scythian hills, Thy person is more worth to Tamburlaine Than the possession of the Persian crown, Which gracious stars have promised at my birth. A hundred tartars shall attend on thee, Mounted on steeds swifter than Pegasus, Thy garments shall be made of Median silk, Encased with precious jewels of mine own, More rich and valorous than Zenocrate’s; With milk-white harts upon an ivory sled Thou shalt be drawn amidst the frozen pools And scale the icy mountains’ lofty tops, Which with thy beauty will be soon resolved; My marital prizes, with five hundred men, Won on the fifty-headed Volga’s waves, Shall all we offer to Zenocrate, And then my self to fair Zenocrate.
The lines roar. The poetry soars. It’s stirring. It’s beautiful. In it I could feel all the youthful energy and hubris of the poet. It’s as if it burst from his very soul. And it got to me, zoink! Like an arrow through the heart. ’This is even better than Shakespeare,’ I thought. ‘Wow. Give me more.’
MENAPHON Your majesty shall shortly have your wish, And ride in triumph through Persepolis.
TAMBURLAINE ‘And ride in triumph through Persepolis’? Is it not brave to be a king, Techelles? Usumcasane and Theridamas, Is it not passing brave to be a king, And ride in triumph through Persepolis’?
TAMBURLAINE Nature, that framed us of the four elements Warring within our breasts for regiment, Doth teach us all to have aspiring minds: Our souls, whose faculties can comprehend The wondrous architecture of the world And measure every wand’ring planet’s course, Still climbing after knowledge infinite And always moving as the restless spheres, Wills us to wear ourselves and never rest Until we reach that ripest fruit of all, That perfect bliss and sole felicity, The sweet fruition of an earthly crown.
The pounding iambs suggest a tempo that’s fast, almost furious. And when given this speed, the poetry spreads its wings and reveals the beauty inherent in its design and writing. It spews, irresistible, like manna from a great spiritual/sacred fountain.
The meter and the speed of delivery also create another feeling. And that is elation and pleasure at the realization of our shared mastery over the language and the fun inherent in that mastery. We are no longer slaves to the language, but rather masters of it.
Marlowe’s mighty line just tumbles out, accumulating power, building momentum and laying waste to any impulse toward ‘realistic’ speech.
Imagine attending one of those early performances of Tamburlaine and hearing that new language of the theatre for the first time: words and images, like fireworks, spraying the stage, falling relentlessly on your senses. It must have been thrilling. It must have been electric.
Now, unfortunately, I have to ask you to imagine the opposite: dull realistic/conversational readings of iambic pentameter, dripping like sludge oil from one painful moment to the next from the mouths of hesitant, feeble voiced actors.
Such is the production of Macbeth currently running at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. Paul Ready, who offers Macbeth as a sniveling coward, even goes so far as to change the meter by adding syllables!
MACBETH And, … and, … and all our yesterdays have lighted fools The way to … to, to … dusty death.
What?! Really?! A stuttering Scotsman?
Aside from the pathetic attempt at conversational relevance, there are many other reasons why this production struck me as dreadful: bad acting all around (are these folks really professionals?); lighting by carried candle; Weird Sisters who are not weird, not ominous, and not to be believed; moronic direction which has Lady Macbeth (the show’s only salvation) delivering most of her lines upstage; a tongue-tied Macduff who can’t fight; and, last but not least, in the climactic fight-to-the-death scene, both Macbeth and Macduff sitting down for a time on little benches whilst they sort things out!
Lay on? I don’t think so. Enough. Enough.
I was at a loss for words. Then, and now. Even more so after I saw that the reviews for the production were generally favorable. What??? Maybe that’s the style the English have now adopted, was all I could conclude. “Mumbling, Bumbling Shakespeare, or, How to Look Like an Idiot While Performing the Classics.” More’s the pity, say I. I’m going back to New York.
Contrast that, if you will, with the electrifying production of “Hamilton” at the Victoria Palace Theatre.
“Hamilton” is written in, and spoken as, ‘rap’. Rap, that peculiar American method of expression that originated and evolved from party DJ’s speaking over their turntable music. The first raps were fairly simple shouts and phrases, but always couched in the crude vernacular of the street. A mode of expression that incorporates the dark, the painful and the dangerous side of ghetto life, rap is literally musical speech. It relies heavily on meter and rhyme. In fact, one could say that rap is an expression of oppression in music, meter and rhyme.
Now, I’m not a fan of rap. I don’t listen to it. I couldn’t begin to tell you of its luminaries or famous works. But what I can tell you is that the ‘rapping’ in Hamilton creates that exact same feeling of joy and wonderment at the language that Marlowe’s mighty line did all those years ago.
It’s fast. It’s non stop. It’s musical. It’s imagistic. The crescendos seem without end. The rap tumbles and rolls and thunders and cracks like lightning. The energy lights up every corner of the theatre. Hamilton is full of mighty lines. It’s built on mighty lines. It’s nothing but mighty lines. Hamilton is the Mighty Line Incarnate.
Granted, Hamilton’s lines are not Marlowe’s mighty iambic lines. No. These rap lines shift and halt and stutter and slither through an ever-changing range of meters. They morph into and out of song, They canter. They gallop. They sing. Now this, now that: whatever serves the purpose of the moment.
But the meter is relentless and the music soaring. And the effect is the same as Marlowe’s: it’s pure joy. Joy from the rhythms, joy from the rhymes, and joy from the mastery over the language. It excites. It uplifts. It fills the theatre with richness and excitement.
The rap of “Hamilton” is as close to Marlowe’s mighty line as you’re likely to hear these days.