The Killing of Sister George, Frank Marcus
In a 1971 essay for The London Magazine entitled, “The Comedy is Finished,” Frank Marcus wrote:
A work of art, especially a piece of theatre, is not immutable. It is ephemeral, and it is affected by the passage of time. What is tragedy to one generation can be farce to the next…In the case of plays, this means in practice periodic revivals. Most plays are shown, forgotten, and discarded…and the plays chosen for revival may sometimes seem arbitrary. I believe, however, that the one quality which makes revival possible—although by no means inevitable—is not ingenuity, literary distinction, or high-mindedness, but passion. Alternatively, if it is peculiarly characteristic of its time, it may, after a considerable lapse, be revived as a period piece. In the latter category, comedy has a great advantage over tragedy.
Six years earlier, Marcus had written one of the West End’s best-reviewed, most commercially successful, and most talked-about plays of 1965. The Killing of Sister George ran for 18 months at the Duke of York’s Theatre, winning the Evening Standard’s Best Play Award (in a tie with John Osborne’s A Patriot for Me). It also catapulted Marcus, for a brief time, into the ranks of contemporary Britain’s hottest playwrights, alongside Osborne, Edward Bond, Harold Pinter, and Joe Orton. After years of toiling as an actor, scenic artist, writer, and director in the club theatre scene of 1950’s London, Marcus had achieved a level of success of which most playwrights can only dream; not surprisingly, it made him dream of more. Interviewing himself for The Transatlantic Review in 1966, he asked, “What of the future? What are your plans and ambitions?” He then candidly replied: “To carry on. And to go further; much, much further.”
Success can be fleeting, however, and survival has everything to do with adaptation. Though at one time, in the 1960s, he had four plays running in mainstream theaters, Frank Marcus’s dreams of the future were not to be fulfilled. By 1968, as Mrs. Mouse, Are You Within?, his third production after Sister George, failed to find an audience, Marcus was well on his way to forging a new identity as primary theatre critic for The Sunday Telegraph. His experience as a playwright and a true man of the theatre served him well. His reviews throughout the late 60’s and 70’s reveal a profound knowledge of dramatic literature, particularly of European plays, and a craftsman’s sense of what makes a production strong or weak. Writing about the work of others seems to have suited him well; he showed no sign of sour grapes, hidden agendas, or axes to grind.
It seems oddly prescient that in his most celebrated work, Marcus the playwright would focus his attention on the struggles of a successful artist, a well-known radio actress, who suffers a change of fortune and must confront the possibility of reinvention. The inspiration for The Killing of Sister George can be traced to two real-life events: In 1963, Ellis Powell, a fifty-six-year-old character actress, who for fifteen years had voiced the title role in the hugely popular BBC radio soap opera Mrs. Dale’s Diary, was summarily fired, amid allegations of a drinking problem and indications that executives wanted to give the program a facelift. The show had recently been retitled The Dales, and the next day audiences heard a new, younger voice for the central character. Ellis Powell, with whom Frank Marcus had lived as a lodger for some time during the 1950’s, died a few months later and has largely been forgotten.
The second inspiration took place several years earlier, but caused an even bigger public stir. Another BBC serial drama, The Archers—“an everyday story of country folk”—enjoyed enormous popularity throughout the 1950‘s. (It continues today and has become the world’s longest-running radio program.) Facing competition from a growing interest in television, writers for The Archers employed increasingly melodramatic storylines and far-fetched cliffhangers to keep their listeners hooked. With the launch of ITV, the UK’s first commercial television station, looming, BBC executives hit upon the idea of killing off a beloved character, Grace Archer. On Thursday evening, the 22nd of September, 1955, stunned listeners sat powerless at their radios, hearing Grace rush into the flames engulfing Brookfield Stables in a futile attempt to rescue her horse, Midnight. Newspapers around the world reported on the episode, and BBC’s Broadcasting House was overwhelmed with telegrams of sympathy and floral tributes.
In his author’s note for the original Broadway production of The Killing of Sister George, Marcus felt compelled to explain to his American audience the overwhelming extent to which these radio dramas captivated the British population. He ended his note with the satirical barb:
”Applehurst”, in The Killing of Sister George, is a radio serial like “The Dales” and “The Archers.” Those of us who are truly alive can laugh at it.
Marcus insisted that his play wasn’t about what he called “the problem of Lesbianism”, saying that he just wanted his heroine to lead a socially precarious life. He did admit, though, to being subversive in a moral sense and felt that part of a playwright’s objective should be to shake people up a bit, “making them feel unsure and question their accepted conformist tenets.” Like many other artists and style-makers capitalizing on the free-spiritedness of London in the early 60’s, Marcus couldn’t have denied that the shock value of the play’s homosexual atmosphere, while covert enough to evade the Lord Chamberlain’s censure, contributed as much as its satirical comedy to the play’s notoriety and commercial success.
More importantly, for a particular audience, Frank Marcus’s The Killing of Sister George represented a watershed moment, as Rebecca Manning, of the newly-established lesbian magazine, Arena 3, wrote in her 1965 review:
It is hardly conceivable that even five years ago a play could appear in a West End theatre in which the central characters were homosexual…The seedy, over-crowded flat…provided precisely the right claustrophobic background for a relationship that has to be under-cover, and though it can hardly be said that the language was outspoken or the gestures more than very restrained, from the moment the curtain rose there was no doubt about the lesbian milieu into which the audience was being pitchforked. And they accepted it. As one woman remarked to me in the interval: “I think it’s remarkable that one can feel so sympathetic towards these characters. After all, it’s a very unpleasant subject, isn’t it?”
Until the early 60s, lesbianism remained largely ignored by society at-large and the majority of lesbians juggled double-lives. Added to the pressures of maintaining separate public and private identities was the necessity of fitting into the homosexual world, which had evolved its own strict codes. For lesbians there were only two categories available—butch or femme. And, if a woman wanted to be welcomed into the club, she had to make up her mind: Would she be ‘Martha’ or ‘Arthur’?
In Sister George, Frank Marcus hit upon an apt metaphor with which to explore the precarious boundaries between representation and reality in many aspects of human life. “All my plays are about illusion and reality: about the impossibility of living either with or without illusions,” he said. “In the sense in which I write my plays, comedy is the very last alternative to despair.” As they struggle for some degree of control in their uncontrollable world, June, Alice, Mercy and Xenia reveal that aspect of our humanity that can be the hardest for us to accept: how funny, sad, and even perverse we seem, attempting to convince the world of who we think we ought to be.
The Mousetrap, Agatha Christie
Agatha Christie’s short murder mystery, “Three Blind Mice,” begins:
It was very cold. The sky was dark and heavy with unshed snow. A figure in a dark overcoat, with muffler pulled up round its face, and hat pulled down over its eyes, came along Culver Street and went up the steps of number 74. Hearing the shrilling bell in the basement below, Mrs. Casey, her hands busy in the sink, said bitterly, “Drat that bell. Never any peace, there isn’t.” Wheezing a little, she toiled up the basements stairs and opened the door. The figure standing silhouetted against the lowering sky outside asked in a whisper, “Mrs. Lyon?” “Second floor,” said Mrs. Casey. “You can go on up. Does she expect you?” The figure slowly shook its head. “Oh, well, go on up and knock.” She watched as the figure went up the shabbily carpeted stairs. Afterward she said it “gave her a funny feeling.” But actually all she thought was that they must have a pretty bad cold only to be able to whisper like that—and no wonder with the weather what it was. When the figure got round the bend of the staircase it began to whistle softly. The tune was “Three Blind Mice.”
Christie based her story on a radio play she had produced for the occasion of Queen Mary’s 80th birthday in 1947. A few years later, she adapted the two versions of “Three Blind Mice” into a stage play called, The Mousetrap. Still playing in London, sixty years after it first opened in 1952, it is the longest running theatrical production in the history of the modern world. The identity of the killer in Christie’s play is a closely guarded secret and, famously, audiences for The Mousetrap must take a pledge not to reveal whodunit.
All I previously knew of Christie’s play before beginning my work was its astonishing performance history and the legendary contract of secrecy forged between its performers and audience. As far as I was concerned, The Mousetrap epitomized theater for theater’s sake. It existed in an essentially timeless world where rooms have three walls (the classic “box set”) and murder is a nasty business that happens in the dark. I didn’t know the radio play took its inspiration from the 1945 headline-grabbing case of Dennis O’Neill, a young boy who died from mistreatment and neglect while in the foster care of a Shropshire farm couple. The brutal details of the abuse behind Dennis’s death, recounted in court by his surviving sibling, led to an extensive inquiry into the welfare of children in public care at the time and entirely changed my perspective on The Mousetrap.
I could no longer view the play as a theatrical shell game constructed for the sole purpose of maintaining a well-kept secret. With a real name and a real life story haunting the dramatic world created by Dame Agatha, my focus returned to that which is most compelling in working on plays: what people want and what they do to get it. I found myself more curious about and invested in the quirks and enigmatic lives of the people in the play: a group of lonely strangers, picking up the pieces of lives that had been disrupted, if not destroyed by war. Each of them now forced to start anew by living in a guesthouse.
I thought about the number of guesthouses, similar to Christie’s Monkswell Manor, opening up for business across the country and uncovered newsreel footage of cooking classes designed to help inexperienced proprietors, like Mollie and Giles Ralston, feed their boardinghouse guests. I became fascinated by life in England immediately following the Second World War: the cruel and unusually cold winters, the housing and fuel shortages, the economic despair and psychological unease brought about by the end of an empire. I discovered the case of John Reginald Christie (no relation), a famed serial killer who lived at 10 Rillington Place and whose trial gripped public attention throughout the first year of The Mousetrap’s run, before his execution at Pentonville Prison in 1953. (Coincidentally, Richard Attenborough, who starred as Sgt. Trotter for the first two-and-a-half years of The Mousetrap, played John Reginald Christie in a 1971 film called, 10 Rillington Place.) I stumbled upon the world of “Brit Noir”—a genre of crime fiction and films that flourished after WW2, feeding on and fueling the anxieties of a population living in closer proximity than ever before.
What is it that excites us so about stories of murder and revenge? Why do we seek out that “funny feeling” felt by Mrs. Casey as she watched the stranger ascend her boardinghouse stairs? In the sixty-plus years since Agatha Christie first told the tale of “Three Blind Mice”, audiences’ hunger for such material seems only to have grown more voracious and more sophisticated. Is it our ever-increasing proximity to other people in a world that seems to shrink through over-population and mass communication that heightens our curiosity, and perhaps our understanding, of “the evil that men do?” As time has passed and our exposure to these stories intensified, has our empathy shifted ever so slightly from victim to murderer? The steadfastness of the millions of audience members who have maintained The Mousetrap’s secret notwithstanding, do we grow less curious about who commits a crime as we grow more titillated by why?
At Home at the Zoo, Edward Albee
Edward Albee wrote The Zoo Story in 1958 on the eve of his 30th birthday sitting at a rickety kitchen table, using a typewriter he “borrowed” from the Western Union offices where he worked as a messenger. After years of trying his hand at poetry and fiction, a stab at play writing was a kind of birthday present to himself. The one-act play that had poured out of him was greeted with enthusiasm by some friends, but met an all-too-predictable cold shoulder from New York theater producers. Fortunately, the play found its way into the hands of a German actor who translated it and spearheaded a world-premier production in Berlin in 1959. Sharing a bill with Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, Die Zoo-Geschichte stunned its European audiences and Edward Albee, an outsider from the start, became a force (some would say THE force) for American theater to reckon with.
Forty-five years later, perhaps at the kitchen table of his painting and sculpture filled loft in Tribeca, Edward Albee wrote Home Life, another one-act play, to be paired with The Zoo Story for an evening of theater originally entitled Peter and Jerry. Commissioned by Hartford Stage Company, Home Life gave Albee the chance, after many years and many plays, to shed more light on (and raise more questions about) Peter, the book-reading Everyman whose encounter with Jerry in Central Park helped kick-start off-Broadway theater in the early 1960s. The resulting two-act play At Home at the Zoo bookends a singular career and showcases Albee’s trademark combination of wit, sensitivity and cruelty.
Wielding language like a surgeon’s scalpel, Edward Albee lays bare the bones and viscera of the human animal. He has said that his goal is not to frighten his audience, but to “terrify them.” Fittingly, Albee distills his theater down to its most essential elements: the actor, the word and the idea. Communication is a dangerously powerful, at times life-threatening, act. Over time, Albee’s writing has become perhaps less aggressive, but it is no less insistent in its challenge to audiences: “Participate in your own life—fully…You’re alive only once, as far as we know, and what could be worse than getting to the end of your life and realizing you hadn’t lived it?”
This Wonderful Life, Steve Murray
“Memory is never a precise duplicate of the original… it is a continuing act of creation.”
–Rosalind Cartwright, The Twenty-Four Hour Mind
Have you ever seen Frank Capra’s film It’s A Wonderful Life? (Believe it or not, there are people who haven’t.) How well do you remember it? Are your memories tied to a specific place or time of viewing? Do they hinge on the story or on aspects of the filmmaking–the cast, say, or that business with Zuzu’s petals? If you haven’t seen the movie, what do you know of it, and how does that information create an idea in your mind? Perhaps it evokes an opinion so certain and powerful that it almost makes you feel like you have seen Capra’s 1946 holiday classic. But remember, you haven’t.
How do we remember what we remember and, more importantly, why? The science of remembering, which traces its study at least as far back as the fifth century B.C. when the Greek poet Simonides’ invented a technique known as the “art of memory,” continues to compel scientists, psychologists, and artists to this day. In The Book of Memory, Mary Carruthers writes, “Ancient and medieval people reserved their awe for memory. Their greatest geniuses they describe as people of superior memories.” Forever confronted by the mysteries of the mind and the tricks it can play, we’ve invented ever-more capable tools to bolster unreliable memory and keep it from failing us. And as we depend more and more on these external devices, our relationship to the act and art of remembering inevitably changes.
Then there are actors, who must possess superbly elastic memories in order to practice their craft on even the most rudimentary level. With every role, an actor memorizes a text, as well as a series of physical actions. Committing both to memory typically requires weeks of intense effort, along with mind- and body-numbing repetition. And that’s when the really hard part begins, for then the actor must, in essence, forget it all—every word and gesture that he or she has worked so arduously to “lock in”—so that night after night, in our presence, it can be remembered afresh. It is in this re-remembering that actors engage our hearts and minds. Our presence fundamentally changes what the actor knows and remembers, just as the actor’s ritual recreation of their experience compels our participation. In this collective re-imagining of a story (familiar or not), new memories are made. And something we thought of as fixed and separate from ourselves becomes, indelibly, a part of us.
Welcome to Bedford Falls. It’s just like you remembered. Isn’t it?
Lovers, Brian Friel
Brian Friel, one of the world’s most celebrated living dramatists, is famously cagey about the meaning of his plays and even more famously critical in his assessment of their merits. When asked in a 1970 interview which play had given him the most satisfaction, he replied, “I couldn’t answer that. All I can say is that I think the first part of ‘Lovers’ is probably something I remember with a certain affection.” Considering the source, this is high praise indeed.
In addition to the playwright’s personal endorsement, Lovers earned three Tony nominations (Best Play, Best Actor and Best Featured Actress) when it premiered at the Vivian Beaumont Theater in 1968. Yet since that first production, the two plays that make up this beguiling early work have rarely been paired together again on a New York stage.
In 1964, after spending six months observing Tyrone Guthrie at his recently opened theatre in Minneapolis, Friel—who was then known primarily as a writer of short stories—returned to Ireland with a rekindled sense of energy for playwriting. His next endeavor for the theater, Philadelphia, Here I Come, demonstrated his commitment to experimentation, with a central character split into two separate selves: Public Gar and Private Gar. It proved to be a career-making success. Using two parts to embody the mysteries, complexities, and contradictions contained in a unified whole, Friel, in effect, unveiled what would become a lifelong artistic obsession for him: the capacity of theater to articulate “the burden of the incommunicable.”
A few years later, Friel explored the effect of theatrical dichotomy further by creating a single play,Lovers, out of two separate halves: “Winners” and “Losers.” In this country, especially, the two pieces have too easily been separated over time, often performed as solo one-acts or in combination with short plays by other authors. (True to its title, “Winners” takes the prize for most frequently performed of the two.) Yet the real power, and the fully Frielian sense of “life’s rich, indivisible complexity,” comes from experiencing the plays together as they were originally conceived. Only by considering how these two plays oppose and reflect each other, how intertwined they may be despite their differences, can we appreciate the scope of Friel’s compassionate vision. Only then can we fully grapple with the ways he subverts our innately human desire to find answers where only questions persist.
Much is revealed in these two plays, but so much more remains unsaid about the lives of Catholics in Northern Ireland in the mid-1960s. Though written and first performed during the relatively calm years (1966-1968) before The Troubles erupted with the Derry Uprising in October 1968, Loversnevertheless offers glimpses of the particular sadness and frustration that plagued Catholic society in Northern Ireland, after a decades-long struggle to gain civil rights and economic equality under the Protestant-controlled government. To be Catholic in the North was to live on the fringes of society, enduring institutionalized discrimination. As a child, Friel recalls: there were certain areas one didn’t go into. I remember bringing shoes to the shoemaker’s shop at the end of the street. This was a terrifying experience, because if the Protestant boys caught you in this kind of no-man’s-land, they’d kill you. I have vivid memories when I was twelve or so of standing at my own front door and hoping the coast would be clear so I could dive over to the shop; and then, when I’d left the shoes in, waiting to see was the coast clear again. If you were caught you were finished. It was absolutely terrifying. That sort of thing leaves scars for the rest of one’s life.
Growing up within this ‘Us’ versus ‘Them’ framework (“Losers” versus “Winners”) made Friel particularly receptive to nuances of social alienation. In his plays, we experience this in the form of dialogue that is seldom an equal give and take. Moments of conversational equilibrium are rare and delicately negotiated; more frequently, conversation is heavily one-sided—an exchange of monologues indicating a subtle struggle for power. Looking over his oeuvre, Friel acknowledges a pattern: there are very often two characters: one who is a very extrovert, quick-talking, glib character and another who’s a kind of morose and taciturn and … less immodest, let’s say. And in some way I think perhaps those reflect some aspect of myself and perhaps some aspect of a member of the minority living in the North.
At the same time, Friel recognizes that instability of surroundings can lead to a certain flexibility and receptivity of character, affecting how one imagines oneself fitting into the world. “A continual openness to new possibilities of accommodation is crucial,” he observes.
In Lovers, by employing a wide array of narrative devices, and an approach that is at once thoughtful and playful, Friel asks us to notice how we participate in the storytelling of our own lives. His beguiling use of language tricks us into accepting initial impressions and then leaves us to contend with feelings of loss and confusion when our preconceptions go unconfirmed. With a unique sensitivity and clarity, he exposes a major paradox of human relationships—the necessity of developing our innermost self through our interactions with others. As an audience, we experience Lovers the way that Friel’s characters do. We participate in their attempts to navigate the world, struggling to maintain a sense of self as we decode the mass of signals—some pertinent, many irrelevant—that make up our gloriously inexact attempts at communication.
Friel recognizes we go to the theater to have our sense of reality challenged, if not changed. “We don’t go to art for meaning,” he observes. “We go to it for perceptions of new adjustments and new arrangements.” From his personal exploration of how form impacts narrative, to his depiction of characters who self-dramatize as a means of coping, Friel takes on life’s struggles and mysteries without reserve. He fully embraces the destabilizing nature of theater, offering moments of joyful humor in the midst of tragedy and moments of excruciating pain amid flat-out farce. We are all actors in a Brian Friel play. The essential passivity of his characters only underscores that fact; to understand their stories, we must piece them together ourselves and thereby take some responsibility for their legacy.
Friel himself remains, characteristically, noncommittal. As his play, The Loves of Cass McGuire, was beginning rehearsals for Broadway in 1966, he gave an interview to the Belfast Telegraph. Reluctant to either express optimism for the new play or assign much significance to the success of Philadelphia, Here I Come, he turned his attention to his next project, which would become Lovers. “I am trying to work on an idyllic love story,” he said. “But I may have thought about it too long. It hasn’t got a title yet. I don’t know if it will ever come to anything.”
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.