Pericles, Prince of Tyre: The Greek Connection

Happy May, everybody! Dramaturge and blogslave Keith Hock, back again as promised to satisfy that cliffhanger/teaser from my first blog post in almost the amount of time I said I would take to do it! No, not the cryptic “George Wilkins” aside (hold on just a little longer for that), the other one, right at the end. Yeah, that Greek thing. Despite my rejoinder last time to not place too much weight on the specific locations where the show takes place I believe that there is a lot to unpack in the Hellenistic setting and time period of this play, possibly more than in any of Shakespeare’s other plays (with the exception of the Histories, including Julius Caesar and Anthony & Cleopatra, for obvious reasons).

THIS IS GOING TO BE ONE OF THOSE BLOG POSTS WITH SPOILERS FOR A 400-YEAR-OLD PLAY BY THE MOST FAMOUS WRITER IN HISTORY, SO IF YOU DON’T WANT THE ENDING REVEALED NOW WOULD BE A GOOD TIME TO STOP READING. ALSO I WILL BE REFERRING TO DIANA AND THE ‘GREEK’ GODS IN THE SAME SENTENCE, I KNOW DIANA IS THE ROMAN NAME, I DIDN’T WRITE THIS PLAY, TAKE YOUR PEDANTRY UP WITH SHAKESPEARE

Most of Shakespeare’s plays could happen in a vacuum. As I’m certain I’ve discussed before, the majesty of the Bard lies neither in his plotting, nor his set dressing, but in the language and psychology. Hamlet could happen anywhere that men are depressed and isolated, Lear and the (other) Romances wherever you can find daughters and their aging fathers. Just about every Italian play is set there because the Italians made it to the Renaissance first and wrote all the stories and plays that Shakespeare stole and improved (seriously, the cultural weight, if not the political significance, of the Italian peninsula between the Renaissance and the First World War cannot be overstated). Titus Andronicus is really just a show about family. Macbeth gains something (possibly something vaguely racist and clannish) from its Scottish setting but Kurosawa pretty concretely proved that that story has legs elsewhere with Throne of Blood. So why do I give this show so much more credit for its setting?

 

Toshiro Mifune

Toshiro Mifune as Taketoki Washizu, from Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (1957)

 

If you’ve been a long-time reader of the blog, or you read the title or the introductory paragraph of this post, you may have guessed the answer already. It should come as no surprise that I attach a lot of value to ancient Greek literature, particularly the Tragedies. As one of the cornerstones of Western art and quite possibly THE basis for the tradition of theatre I do not think my passion and respect for them is overblown, though some of my colleagues disagree. I have regular tantrums reasoned and mature discussions at pitch meetings over why I’m not allowed to stage a full mask-and-chorus Oresteia in one of our season slots or do a Seven Against Thebes/Prometheus Bound heraldry-and-pyrotechnics showcase as a fundraiser. My colleagues’ [correct -ed.] insistence on how unstageable, unmarketable, and unapproachable these shows are to a modern audience notwithstanding, their influence on the medium cannot be ignored. Since Shakespeare was probably about as smart as me I bet he thought the same thing. I believe that he took advantage of the Hellenistic setting of Pericles to consciously explore the tropes that typify Greek theatre, as a combination homage and experimental update.

There are two related Ancient Greek tropes that in my opinion really stand out in Pericles. The first is the intercession of the divine, a hallmark of Greek tragedies but few and far between in Shakespeare’s work (to my recollection the only other physical manifestations of gods in his plays are Jupiter in Cymbeline, which is basically a ‘Greatest Hits’ of Shakespeare’s other works, and Hecuba in Macbeth, whose appearance may have been a later addition to the play). Diana’s appearance in the penultimate scene mirrors the tendency of the Greek gods to appear out of nowhere at the end of the tragedies to resolve the plot, a trope so prevalent that it gave us the idiom deus ex machina, the god out of the machine, to describe an extraordinary and unearned conclusion to a story. The god in question would then explain why whatever cruelty they have inflicted on the hero and his family was justified, more or less because they said so and the whims of the gods are irresistible. The action Diana takes at the end of our play, to reunite the long-suffering Pericles with his wife and thereby turn his fortunes from miserable to joyous, does not strike me as very in-character for the notoriously virginal Diana, nor for the petty and vindictive Greek gods as a whole, but I suppose Shakespeare should get at least as much credit as I gave Racine for the need to update for new audience sensibilities. Besides, Pericles ISN’T a tragic hero; he isn’t being punished for his hubris, he is just an adventurer at the mercy of the gods.

Deus Ex

Box art for Eidos’ Deus Ex, (2000) Surely that is what this game was about.

 

Which conveniently segues us into the second trope, part of which I mentioned above; the inexorable will of the divine, and it being indistinguishable from fortune or luck. To the Greeks there was no such thing as random chance; all luck, either good or bad, was interpreted as the will of the gods. And they were completely helpless to the whims of fortune. Once the gods decide something (usually something bad), the decision is made. When Ajax figures out that Athena wants him dead, he kisses his wife goodbye, gives his son Eurysaces his famous shield, which is ALSO named Eurysaces, and trundles himself off to the beach to fall on his sword; his desires mean nothing, even to himself, in the face of Athena’s decree. Pericles seems to buy in completely to this philosophy [though many of the other characters, Marina especially, seem less on board with this fatalism, as we discussed in our dramaturgy rehearsal -KH]. Both Pericles himself and the omniscient narrator (thoroughly We Happy Few-ified for this production) tell us multiple times, in multiple scenes, that Pericles is utterly at the mercy of fortune. He accepts with equimanity both his marooning and the death of all his men by shipwreck and the miraculous recovery of his ancestral armor in the space of a single scene, and he attributes both his wife’s wooing and apparent demise to “the powers above us”, which “We cannot but obey”. It is not that Pericles has no agency; he just accepts that there are some things beyond his control and works to navigate AROUND those increasingly-common reversals of fortune in his life.

This is obviously not the only time that Shakespeare toyed with fate: I could write another entire blog post about the prophecy in Macbeth, and Romeo famously shrieks that he is “Fortune’s fool” after killing Tybalt. But Macbeth spends his entire play trying to game his prophecy, and Romeo is a 19-year-old in love, with more than his share of the accompanying self-involvement, while Pericles knows FOR CERTAIN that the gods are toying with him and is just trying to roll with the punches and see where he lands. By explicitly making Pericles the gods’ plaything Shakespeare had the opportunity to write a character who was made to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, just as Heracles and Oedipus and Odysseus and the other tragic heroes of antiquity would. Except Shakespeare, perhaps tired of killing his darlings, gets to engineer a happy ending.

To some of you this connection may feel like a stretch, to which I say get bent, why don’t you write your own blog if you’re so smart, why? Shakespeare’s plays are riddled with classical allusions and can be sourced to everything between Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Brittaniae, Boccaccio’s Decameron, the Iliad, Plutarch, and (apocryphally) Don Quixote. It seems unlikely, almost impossible, that he WOULDN’T be familiar with the tragedians given the breadth of his knowledge. Indeed, the hubristic downfall of his tragic heroes offers some pretty solid evidence of their influence on him. Besides, Pericles comes near the end of his career, when he was getting experimental with a new style. The similarities are too close, and they add too much to the play, for me to ignore. If you’re still not convinced, come see the show for yourself in a few weeks and try to change my mind! Tickets are available now!

Blog in the Manger: Keep Your Distance

Welcome back, everyone. I hope you all had a lovely thanksgiving. I have some good news and some bad news. The good news is that we’ve got another week of shows, starting tonight at 7:30 (including a talkback with the cast proctored by Yours Truly) and running every night until this Saturday. The bad news is that these performances will be the last of the run, we MUST close on Saturday, December 2nd. And who knows when you’ll have another chance to see a production of a Spanish Golden Age play performed, much less one of such quality by your favorite company? Run, don’t walk, over to our ticket-sales website and pick up your tickets for this weekend! Go ahead, do it now. The rest of the blog will wait.

Done? I’m glad you came back because I didn’t stop by simply to nag you all into coming to see the show. That was part of my reason for writing this, don’t get me wrong. But all stick and no carrot is no way to motivate someone, as I have repeatedly informed my superiors. Mostly they just laugh and bang the Writing Stick harder on my cage, so I doubt they’re likely to change anytime soon. But I am happy to include bribery in my coercion, so I wanted to give you some chewy dramaturgical explanations to consider while you watch or reflect on the show. Specifically, I wanted to look at the way that both allusion and geography are used to separate the action on stage from the audience, to simplify the audience’s suspension of disbelief by creating distance between their world and the world of the play. Confused? Good! Let’s see if I can clarify.

If you’ve already seen the show you might have noticed that Teodoro …certain characters just absolutely will not shut the hell up about the legends of Icarus and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Phaeton. Nor are these the only mythological references in the piece. Tristan outrageously claims to be a greater warrior than Hector. Diana’s very name is a classical allusion, to the notoriously prickly and virginal goddess of the hunt. These allusions serve the same multiple purposes that classical allusions always serve. First, they prove to the audience how literate both the character and the author are, that they can intelligently make such a reference. As Benji Djain pointed out to us in his talkback, De Vega would want to show off to the audience how much he knew about Greek mythology, and his audience in turn would be flattered and proud that they, too, caught the inside joke. Second, they use a common reference point to illustrate or elaborate on a concept. Allusions can be used as shorthand for a more involved explanation, provided your audience makes the connection; for example, referring to yourself as Atlas when you feel like everyone is unfairly relying on you.

Darmok

Or by showing you this. From Star Trek: The Next Generation, season 5 episode 2, “Darmok”, 1991. L-R: Sir Patrick Stewart as Captain Picard, Paul Winfield as Captain Dathon.

And finally, classical allusions simultaneously elevate and distance the situation that they are applied to, places it on an even footing with the myth. It isn’t Teodoro’s fault, or Diana’s, or even just bad luck that caused this trouble, it was the will of the gods. Zeus himself struck down Phaeton when he rode the carriage of the sun too high. By drawing these overblown comparisons the characters, and by extension de Vega, are identifying themselves with these legends and myths. It makes the situation seem all the more impressive and important to be placed on the same footing as these stories, but it also justifies why something so outlandish is happening. This story exists in the same world as these myths and legends, the allusion says, not the normal world where you walk down the street to buy eggs and bread and nothing out of the ordinary ever happens.

Mulberry Street

And it isn’t merely by these flowery metaphors that this play seeks to disassociate itself from the ordinary. Something that we very consistently found ourselves forgetting, and then reminding ourselves of, during the rehearsal process is where, exactly, it was set. “It’s a Spanish play”, we said to ourselves, “it must be set in Spain!” Forgetting, as we did so, that only one-third of Shakespeare’s plays (mostly the bad ones) are set in merry old England. Another third of Shakespeare’s plays are set in strange one-off settings like Denmark, Bohemia, Athens, or some fanciful island or enchanted forest.  And the final third take place in Italy [I know this mostly because Isaac Asimov, in his infinite strangeness, took a break from his busy biochemistry professor/science fiction author career to organize his Guide to Shakespeare under these geographical distinctions instead of similarities in plot or type -KH]. Dog in the Manger is set in Italy, as well. This might seem confusing to us because we’re stupid, but de Vega didn’t choose an Italian setting for no reason. Italy isn’t THAT far away from Spain, but it’s not exactly close either. His audience would be familiar with the concept of Italy, but many would not be familiar with the country or culture. Presumably they would therefore be more inclined to believe some outlandish things about it, like maybe that some Countess would fall in love beneath her station and set in motion a complicated love triangle as the one they’ve just observed. After all, isn’t Italy where all of those touring theatre companies came from? And isn’t it where those plays were set, too? They must have gotten their stories from somewhere, right? It’s easier to believe that something unusual would happen in some other foreign place, than that it would happen on the street you walk down every day to go to work. By distancing, de Vega is giving the audience more opportunity to suspend their disbelief: this isn’t a Spanish story, it could never happen in Spain! But Italy, crazy things happen there all the time. Who knows what they do over there.

DiM Screaming

From We Happy Few’s 2017 production of The Dog in the Manger. Foreground; Raven Bonniwell as Diana. Background L-R: Charlie Retzlaff as Fabio, Deborah Crabbe as Dorotea, Tori Boutin as Anarda. Photo by Mark Williams Hoeschler.

Even within the play itself, we see distancing being utilized, almost to the point of exoticism. There is a reason that Tristan’s outrageous lie about Teodoro’s origin centers the story in Greece (and then, when he slips up again, even further afield in Armenia). Greece would be a place that an audience would have heard of, but know comparatively little about. And the things they would have heard of would be even stranger than they would have heard about Italy. They have their own crazy non-Catholic Christian church over there, for one thing. Duke Ludovico has a line about what a strange musical language Greek is, a line that really pushes the line between creating distance and being openly racist. They also eat all that exotic food that Tristan so enjoys, not normal Spanish food. And, lest we forget, it’s also where all those wacky stories I talked about before came from. Crazy shit [pardon my French -KH] like that happens all the time over in Greece, just look at all those legends. Just like the Italian setting excuses some plot shenanigans for the Spanish audience, the merchant’s faux-Greek-ness explains the preposterousness of his story. It becomes another unlikely miraculous coincidence from Greece, the land of unlikely miraculous coincidences. Ludovico is willing to seize on any pretext to regain his son, so he is prepared to ignore some inconsistencies as long as he can justify them to himself. His doing so gives the audience permission to overlook any flaws or errors that they might have noticed in the story, in order to suspend their own disbelief and allow the story to wash over them.

And there you have it! I hope my pedantic overanalysis helps you let go of your own overanalytical tendencies and just let the story happen. If you want to see this distancing I’ve just discussed played out on stage, or give yourself some context for what you just read, we’re still running until the end of the week! Tickets are available HERE. I hope to see you there!