The Taming of the Shrew, William Shakespeare
I used to think I hated The Taming of the Shrew. My negative first impression of the play, conceived in high school English class, hardened into fierce dislike while acting in it at a shall-remain-nameless summer Shakespeare Festival. There, I came to associate The Taming of the Shrew with everything that can be bad about the Bard: chiefly, actors nudging, winking and mugging in a ‘ye-olde-Shakespearean-style’. The specific ideas and events of the play, whether because of their historical remoteness or downright unacceptability to a contemporary audience, get glossed over by spirit of generalized a The kind of production where differences between the Elizabethean world of the play’s creation and that of contemporary audiences get brushed under a rug of generalized high spirits, demonstrating an inordinate trust in the universality of the classics. The question of how to unlock these plays from their historical context… (Shakespeare gives us some clues?) and characters wend their way through rote speeches that have long since lost any of their spontaneous humor or immediacy of thought. So, I approached the play with a good deal of trepidation when Charlie asked me to consider it for production.
I could easily call to mind the familiar stock characters (feisty wench, swaggering brute, sweet young lovers, doddering pantaloon and beleaguered patriarch). I braced myself for the age-old battle of the sexes that could have been called a draw long ago. Imagine my surprise when I discovered instead a play of dazzling invention and dizzying complication, overstuffed with unpredictable characters and plot as if its young playwright were trying out every tool in a newly acquired kit. Combining a traditional English genre of wife-taming folk tales with the more fashionable intricacies of newly translated Italian comedies, Shakespeare deftly strings together a twisting, turning storyline with characters that reinvent themselves at the drop of a hat. Even more intriguingly, he establishes the seemingly impossible conversion of the wild Katherina into a domesticated Kate as part of a theatrical performance for an unsuspecting and potentially unresponsive audience—the drunken tinker, Christopher Sly. It’s a play about playing, in which the play within the play completes a nonsensical practical joke.
As I so often find with Shakespeare’s works, what I assume I know about a play is but a molehill compared to the mountain of new information just waiting to reveal itself to me. And The Taming of the Shrew seems to take particular delight in confounding any attempts to ever fully know it. Shakespeare dares us to think we really know who’s who and what’s what in the make-believe world of Padua. The series of disguises, deceptions and mistaken identities all serve to underscore the power of performance and the degree to which role playing factors so heavily in social behavior. We are all starring actors in our own lives and supporting characters, if not bit players, in the lives of others. We’re always in the process of auditioning friends and potential loved ones, looking to expand or diminish the cast that surrounds us. One person’s shrew is another’s partner in crime.
Kate, Petruchio and the rest are players, fictions brought to life by Shakespeare’s language and our imaginations. Their reality is as much an illusion as Christopher Sly’s lordliness. It is perhaps a cautionary tale: advising us against aligning ourselves too firmly with either side. I’d advise against taking any sides in The Taming of the Shrew; you might just find the joke’s on you.
The Crucible, Aurthur Miller
At age 14, Arthur Miller bought a load of lumber using money he had earned delivering bread and built a back porch onto his family home. It was his first experience with “the fevers of construction,” and it stimulated a life-long passion for carpentry that enabled the playwright to construct things that he and his family needed. A back porch. A dining room table. A writing desk. After that experience, he wrote in his autobiography Timebends, “the idea of creating a new shadow on the earth has never lost its fascination.”
In a ten-by-twelve-foot freestanding studio that he erected outside his country home, Miller wrote a play that would cast one of the largest and most haunting shadows of his career: The Crucible. Combining a deeply personalized exploration of the individual’s role in society with painstaking historical research, Miller fashioned that rarest of entities: a historical play that speaks fervently to a contemporary audience. The Crucible avoids the pit falls of history lesson or rudimentary civics allegory. It engages us in a vibrantly ageless debate, manifested by characters who must internalize their society’s values and try to reconcile them with their own private needs.
Though he established himself in the middle of the 20th century as America’s next great dramatist, later years proved somewhat diminishing to Miller’s reputation in his own country. His detractors called him a stodgy realist, lumping his plays with other mid-century American domestic dramas that are at best appreciated for their purposeful, if old-fashioned, sentimentality. In a sense, these critics were likening Miller’s plays to his handmade furniture, focusing on their sturdy structure and high-minded functionality. Miller, it would seem, identifies the source of society’s problem and claims to have the tools at his disposal to construct the solution.
But to work on an Arthur Miller play is to come to know the artist as well as the craftsman. “Miller the Realist” gives way to “Miller the Poet,” a man of the theater who recognizes the stage as a place of abstraction and wonder. His plays enlist the singular power of that most miraculous of tools, the human imagination, to give physical form and expression to the deepest questions of human psychology. Nowhere is that imagination more visible than in the Salem of Miller’s creation—an assemblage of private lives, public record, and period details—where witches are crafted out of fear and people are taught to doubt what they know and question what they perceive to be real.
It is important to remember that Miller’s Salem exists neither in the 1692 of its setting nor in the 1950s America of its creation. It exists here and now in the hearts and minds of the actors and the audience; it was conceived by a man profoundly engaged in the fundamental questions of what it means to be an individual in a social group. Where does one’s ultimate responsibility lay: with the self ? The family? A country? What happens when we confront the essential differences between us, when we discover that my reality is not yours? How can we live a moral life when we cannot even agree on the parameters of the Real? These are ideas that precede and surpass tools of construction. These are ideas that don’t go out of style. They still have the power to shock us with their relevance. They are foundational and sturdy, casting a shadow on the earth that is undiminished after more than half a century.
Love’s Labor’s Lost, William Shakespeare
Assumed to be an early work, the play disappeared from production for more than two hundred years after Shakespeare’s time and has only found its real footing on the stage within the last century. Early critics found little to appreciate in it; Hazlitt went so far as to advocate its removal from the canon. Yet from its first production in the twentieth century, modern audiences have relished its “great feast of language,” its sharply drawn characters, and its refreshingly simple plot.
Compared to the often elaborately compelling stories of Shakespeare’s other plays, the tale told in Love’s Labor’s Lost has a decidedly convenient, if not downright coincidental, feel to it. Oaths are sworn; complications arise; the plot turns on characters’ seemingly arbitrary entrances and exits. And through it all they talk. And talk and talk: in prose, in verse, in rhyme, in Latin, in nonsense syllables and snatches of old songs. The flood of language seems likely to drown speaker and audience alike. Yet Navarre’s King Ferdinand, his lords and subjects, and their guests from France frolic happily in the streams of words and their ever-shifting meanings. Indeed, at times the characters seem punch-drunk on the stuff; the very act of speaking threatens to trump what is being said. Perhaps Shakespeare wasn’t all that interested in resolving the burning questions of love in Navarre. (Ultimately, what is love but the slipperiest word of all?) Instead, Love’s Labor’s Lost, in all its verbal extravagance, considers how we experience the world and how we see ourselves in it. As John Berger wrote, “Seeing comes before words. It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world.” We see the world, and then we use language to communicate our experience, making sense (or not) of that world to ourselves and each other.
The abundant humanity of Love’s Labor’s Lost stems from our sensing what lies at the root of all the talk. We recognize that it is through language, with all its convolutions, that we connect to each other individually and as a society. Speech allows us to reach out from deep within ourselves and express our feelings, our aspirations, our dreams, our fears. At the start of the play, the king and his men set out on a quest of admirable, if fanatical, integrity: to know that which is yet unknown about the world. Their mission, diverted at once by the appearance of the princess and her retinue, sends them out of a rarified world of intellectual absolutes into a poetic realm of impulsive inspiration where hard-to-articulate thoughts and feelings reign supreme.
Caught up as it is in frivolous play, verbal high jinks, and overblown passion, Love’s Labor’s Lost leads its characters and audience into the very dark center of life’s great mysteries. Shakespeare gives us no simple answers but urges us to find comfort, if not meaning, in our connections to people and in the simple, tangible realities around us. If we gain nothing else from this nearly ‘lost’ comedy, we learn how to celebrate all that is marvelous in the unknown—and, indeed, the unknowable.