Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Shakespeare's Garden: Romance is when everything comes out right at the end, however unlikely


             The interesting thing about "romances" -- the term used to describe the late phase of Shakespeare's dramatic creations -- is how regularly they build around relationships between fathers and daughters.

            "In his later plays Shakespeare keeps returning to the theme of the daughter," Charles Nicholl writes in "The Lodger Shakespeare." "More precisely the daughter lost or banished, then arduously found: a rhythm of breakdown and reconciliation, expressed in the magico-mystical imagery which is the language of the late plays or 'romances.'"
            These plays that don't seem to fit the genre categories of Shakespeare's earlier works -- histories, comedies, tragedies -- involve some of the same themes and structural characteristics of the earlier genres, but add other, sometimes disconcerting touches. Highly unrealistic plot devices. Statues come to life. Gods appear on stage. Lost children are found. Old enemies reconcile.
            The term romance was not used for theater pieces in Shakespeare's own time. It was invented in the latter 19th century by a critic who saw a resemblance between their "tall tale" character and stories told in the late Middle Ages and again in his own times.
            'Realism' is conquered by devices found in fairy tales or wonder tales. Stories are set across long stretches of time and action takes places at distantly removed sites -- grotesque violations of classic literature's insistence on the three unities, time, space, and completed action adduced by Aristotle from the drama invented in his own time.
            Deities may appear on stage -- pagan ones -- as they did in Greek and Latin drama, but certainly did not in the Elizabethan theater Shakespreare broke into. The vogue for spectacle called the theatrical "masque," in which actors and titled aristocrats portrayed figures from mythology, the pantheon of Greek gods or other story forms, and danced or, paced, or simply showed off glamorous costumes in expensive, special-effect settings may also have influenced this genre of Jacobean theater (as English theater during the reign of King James I is called).
            Gods may also serve the goal of seeing that plots move toward required resolutions: the good are recognized, or returned to their rightful place; the evil are defeated, their machinations exposed.
            The final, moral quality that makes for satisfying conclusions from the wide confusions and evil deeds of the tall-tale "romance" plot is reconciliation.
            And here we are back to fathers and daughters.
            In "Cymbeline," one of those late romances performed for the first time by Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Mass. -- where I saw the play last weekend for my first time anywhere -- the essential character is the not the title character, a British king in Roman times, from whom it takes its name, but his daughter, Imogen. She is not witty and complex, like the heroines of the earlier comedies, she's simply a lovable, lively force for good. Bad things happen to her, but -- in conformity with the structure of the romance-genre plots -- in the end everything works out for the best. As director Tina Packer points out (staging this play is also a first for this masterly Shakespeare specialist), everybody loves her. "She stands up to her father, is not deceived by her wicked step-mother... resists the seducer's charms, and does her sex proud!"
            How's that for a moral center?
            An array of other characters serve the good, some with nobility of character, but none is really a "hero." Their human 'character' is not the center of interest. Saving Imogen will do -- and her reconciliation with her bamboozled father is part of a general unveiling of secrets, along with a rediscovery of a pair of long-lost princes, is part of a hilariously dizzying sequence of stage business of the sort in which Packer and Shakespeare & Company are the world class front-runners.
            Audiences, in my opinion, need not bother themselves with the question of what this play is supposedly "about" or what it is "trying to say." Many other plays invite that kind of attention. "Cymbeline" is probably the purest bit of fairy tale in the romance genre. "The Tempest" written a year later or so is far deeper, subtler, and more challenging.
            The simplicity of "Cymbeline's" moral universe is the characteristic that enables Shakespeare & Company to have so much fun with it. The foolish, easily manipulated Cymbeline holds our attention because Jonathan Epstein plays the part, and Epstein could command an audience even if he were asked to sell toothpaste. The self-love of the fantastically, stupidly ill-intended Cloten -- from whose clutches Imogen must evade -- reaches heights that can only be described as Trumpian. (No explicit comparisons are made, but this is my own evil mind at work.)
            The other characters, some solid-good, a few all-bad, with a couple of late-stage conversions affirming the reconciliation and goodness theme can all be played as seriously committed to their own nature role, but also self-parodied in their categorical lack of self-awareness.
            And this is exactly how this production plays. The entire cast embraces the straightforward cast of mind and action required of them by Shakespeare's splendid honey-tongued dialogue, but all these deft players also leap over the top into comic exaggeration, and parody whenever director or actor finds a handy seam in the dramatic or linguistic web to exploit.
            And the show plays fast with speeches, argument, and repartee delivered with flawless audibility. I think that's what local theater reviewers mean by comments such as "intoxicatingly funny... non-stop action" (CurtainUp, an online theater magazine) and "the must-see play of the Berkshire season" (Berkshire Fine Arts, a Berkshire County website).
             We're not meant to confront the complexity of the mortal universe as we are in the tragedies.
            Instead we are assured that even though life appears to be a confused mess, and terrible things do in fact happen in the course of our lives, in the end life is triumphant.  
            Sometimes, maybe, that's what we want to hear.