Sunday, January 13, 2008

Musings on Marlowe, Part II

Audiences in Washington, D.C. had a rare opportunity this fall to assess the playability of Marlowe's scripts. To inaugurate the new Harmon Arts Center, The Shakespeare Theatre Company played Edward II and Tamburlaine in repertory. Queer Theory has been largely responsible for the several revivals of Edward II since the early nineties. The story--about a weak English monarch who neglects his kingdom for his male lover--obviously lends itself to contemporary debates over sexual identity. No mystery there. E2 also happens to be a pretty good play: the last complete script Marlowe produced, it suggests he was beginning to learn something about dramaturgy. For good reason, Brecht chose that one script out of Marlowe's oeuvre to rework.

Tamburlaine, however, is an entirely different matter. Wildly popular at the time of its premiere, the titular role gave the bombastic Edward Alleyn a chance to showcase his histrionic style of acting. So big a hit was the play that Marlowe went on to write Part II, supposedly at the behest of audiences. After that brief flash of popularity, the play moldered, unknown and neglected until after WWII. By 1595, whatever had initially appealed to audiences no longer spoke to them or, for that matter, to anyone subsequently. Tamburlaine became the plaything of bibliophiles, critics, or the casually curious, but it was no longer welcome in the theatre.

That began to change in the twentieth century when the Yale Drama Club Association staged the play in 1919, more as a historical curiosity than anything else. Since WWII, revivals have had more to do with directorial desire than literary merit. Directors with an agenda (and who does not these days?) rub their hands gleefully over the script, hoping either to revive the Shakespeare/Marlowe debate, resuscitate Marlowe's reputation, or prove his neglected theatrical genius. Michael Kahn, the artistic director of The Shakespeare Theatre Company, called Tamburlaine a "great classic" in his notes to the company, observing the play "could be a lot of things. . . . a tribute to empire and colonialism, or a criticism of empire and colonialism." It is both "a critique, and yet also a celebration, of individualism and drive, with both its good points and dangers." Kahn's notes, much like Park Honan's claims for Marlowe's "artistry," try to make a virtue out of deficiency, elevating poor plotting to the level of thematic ambiguity. I don't need to invoke William Empson or even Derrida to point out the difference between an aesthetic density that allows for multiple readings and narrative holes so large you could drive a rig through them.

Undoubtedly, Tamburlaine, with its myriad Central Asian locales, and story of a despot who conquers, enslaves, and kills untold people, speaks to our current interest in colonialism, just as Edward II lends itself to Queer Theory. In that sense, both plays are "timely." Does timeliness make for good theatre, though? Is "relevance" enough?

Several students last semester wrote reviews of this production of Tamburlaine; not one was laudatory. They reported disgruntled conversations and people fleeing during intermission. Three students admitted they too would have left had not the review required them to stay. All of them liked how Kahn and the production team underscored the exoticism of the play, and for the first hour, the swirl of gorgeous costumes, innovative staging, and original music (vaguely Asian and electronic, with intermittent drumming) held their attention. They appreciated, as did I, Kahn's mastery in cutting and merging Parts I and II, and providing at least one creative solution to the rapid succession of unrelated scenes. It's almost impossible to follow Tamburlaine's progress through Central Asia, Egypt, and Africa, so disjointed is the plotting. Thus the projection of place names on an electronic screen above the proscenium helped immensely to locate the action. At least, one could sit back and say, "Ah, now he's slaughtering the inhabitants of Alexandria, not Carthage!"

Timeliness will only get you so far if the plot--even with electronic assistance--and language are unplayable. Even having read the play, my students complained bitterly about their inability to detect the spine of the story. The plot essentially boils down to this: conquer; meet future wife; conquer; conquer; conquer; marry wife; huge elapse of time (between Parts I and II), in which three sons are produced; wife sickens and dies (now we're really pissed!); conquer; conquer; conquer; conquer; kill one son for his lack of manliness; conquer; conquer; and die, instructing remaining sons in final moments to carry on legacy of conquest. Gee, we haven't learned a thing! Scenes of abject humiliation (e.g. bridling human conquests as if they were horses) provide some leavening to this tasteless mass.

The company of actors did their best with this mishmash, trying hard to compensate for the lack of narrative tension with energy and physicality. Avery Brooks played Tamburlaine as a street thug, mugging, laughing maniacally, and leaping all over the stage. I wasn't surprised that he busted three ribs well into the run, given that Kahn had him doing everything short of swinging from the rafters. The jittery, hyperkinetic blocking was augmented by the constant swirl of movement onstage, with carts and beds rolling on and off, objects rising from traps, and bright swatches of material unfurling. Whether consciously or unconsciously, director and actors reacted to the lack of story, the paltry motivation, and the thinness of character. I think the logic was that if you run around enough, the stage picture will compensate for the thin narrative, a ploy that film, an essentially visual medium, can pull off. It doesn't work in straight theatre.

Most of the reviews and blogs I looked at didn't like the play, but they proceeded to trash the production, not Marlowe's writing. I'm not sure the actors could have done much more. Avery Brooks came under fire for not finding his character, but Marlowe doesn't give him a break. Speech after speech reads as a perverse resume, with Tamburlaine announcing his latest "accomplishments" as he subjugates one realm after another. He taunts his conquests, fawns over his wife (another conquest), and belittles his one unmanly son before running him through. Never does he express regret or doubt. In other words, this is a character focused exclusively on exterior events, which is great if you're writing a Restoration fop, but not so good in a tragic hero. In part, this might explain Brooks's decision to play Tamburlaine as a comic character since the script (with the exception of one speech) doesn't give him occasion for introspection, motivation, or growth. What else could the poor guy do with the role?

That Marlowe didn't care much for actors or theatre is most evident in his dialogue. He was a freelancer, not a member of an acting company, and the difference shows. The language is relentless, a torrent of noun- and adjective-heavy lines that trip the tongue and strain the diaphragm. I saw the production a good six weeks into the run, which meant the actors had worked with the language for at least three months, giving them sufficient time to build up breath control. Even so, they wheezed and gasped their way through speeches, slogging through endless clauses with nary a caesura in sight. Additionally, Marlowe never learned what all good dramatists know: you have to give actors something to do onstage. Overwritten language reduces actors to talking heads, whereas artful porousness gives actors the opportunity to use their voices and bodies--in effect, to act.

Marlowe, though, was all about Marlowe, which is why he was a superb poet but an incompetent dramatist and spy. Accomplished dramatists yield up their narrative voice, just as spies forego a stable, uniform self. Marlowe couldn't let go of either one, and his solipsism cost him theatrical and mortal longevity.

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