Foul or Fair

Royal Shakespeare Company
June 27, 2011, 7:15pm

“Macbeth. Macbeth. Macbeth.”

Imagine that you’re a soldier in the sixteenth century. You’re at the edges of a battlefield, caked in the blood of your enemies. You make your way through a abandoned, desecrated church: the stained glass windows are smashed to bits, the statues are reduced to rubble, and the faces of the murals are fall scratched out. This is what the Protestants think of iconography. Above you, you see the bodies of three dead children, hanging from meat hooks. Their foreheads are marked with ashen crosses. You wonder, who killed these little angels? Who put them here?

And then they open their eyes and speak your name.

“Macbeth. Macbeth. Macbeth.”

So opens Michael Boyd’s RSC production of Macbeth. Read on, if you dare. But beware: as Doctor River Song says, “Spoilers!”

I tell this tale vilely. I should first tell you how a wounded man stands alone on the thrust stage of the newly refurbished Royal Shakespeare Theatre, and a priest calls out to him from among the audience: “Doubtful it stood. Doubtful it stood.”. The messenger takes up the words and begins the Soldier’s speech to King Duncan, who appears out of the mists. The soldier, we soon learn, is Malcolm, the King’s son. The priest is Ross.

Boyd sets his production against the historical backdrop of iconoclasm, the 16th century Protest purge of Catholic and Anglican religious imagery: statues, murals, stained glass windows, and representation of God, Christ, or saints. The imagery seems clear: faces, false and true; the sacred torn down; the ghosts and ruins of the past. And even if one might miss the historical nuances here, the program includes several short articles to bring every spectator up to speed. The production itself employs standard Renaissance costuming: leather cloaks, riding boots, rapiers. We find ourselves more in Shakespeare’s England than in the Scotland of yore.

At first glance, this play is standard fare: Macbeth (Jonathan Slinger) is ambitious, rash, and potent; Lady Macbeth (Aislin McGuckin) is strong-willed, seductive, and finally self-destructive; their performances are top-notch RSC fare, as with the rest of the cast. But the witches! Here the magic begins. Macbeth’s first encounter with the three weird children is short: no “toil and trouble,” no talk of familiars or magic, only ominous prophecies and the eerie laughter of children in the dark. Thus far, any type of witch might do: wise, undead children are a particularly frightening branch of the supernatural, but other dire figures might suffice. The Porter, too, seems standard fare: dressed in red, bearing fireworks, and merging with the minor character Seyton (pronounced Satan), this man is more Devil than Porter. A not uncommon choice. Macbeth kills Duncan, Macbeth becomes King (ordained with water and crowned by Ross), Macbeth orders Banquo’s murder. All is well.

Then. Seyton is the third murderer. He stands back as the others kill Banquo. When the two murderers leave, Seyton gestures and Banquo rises, leaving with him. At the banquet, Macbeth imagines that Banquo’s corpse kills him, slitting his throat. I fear of actual harm from Macduff, Macbeth meets with the weird children again. Hecate and the spells are gone: the children merely step onstage holding dolls, which they use to deliver their prophecies. Macbeth is emboldened and the children leave. Again, quite eerie, but these choices are in line with many productions.

Then. Macduff’s house. Lady Macduff argues with Ross about her husband’s departure. Her children enter. They are the weird children, quite alive, and carrying the dolls of the previous scene. Ross leaves, the murderers enter, killing all. Ross returns as witness (remember). Then Seyton arrives and Lady Macduff and her children arise, following him. When Malcolm besieges Macbeth’s castle, the dead are there, wielding swords and carrying branches, Ross among them. When Macduff fights Macbeth, the dead are there, haunting his steps. Macduff’s daughter steps between them during the fight: Macbeth sees her and starts; Macduff kills him, and then sees the ghost of his wife. Malcolm enters and Macduff proclaims him king. Malcolm is silent. Then Ross speaks from the balcony as he did at the play’s opening, prompting the new king’s words. Malcolm speaks, overwhelmed by his new duties, but standing firm. The dead pass on. Seyton opens a door, and Macbeth rises, stepping into darkness.

I’m not entirely sure how to read this production, this twist of the witches into the weird children. At the play’s end I believed that Ross is a priest of the old order, of the defaced saints and demolished altars. Somehow, he speaks for the dead, putting word in Malcolm’s mouth, and the lets the dead speak for themselves. The weird children are not evil: they are the innocent seeking vengeance, the dead reaching out to create kings and destroy them. It is an uplifting vision: the hope that if someone will speak for the dead (priests, playwrights, even playgoers) then the voices of the dead will effect political change. Macbeth’s “tale told by an idiot” is just that: the voice of a madman divorced from his humanity, the sound a tyrant makes when he falls. The children prophesy a different kind of life. In a world of political unrest, of internet protests and grassroots revolutions, the voices of the dead can have great power, and might bring great hope.

But who hanged the children in the first place? King Duncan’s men? If so, Macbeth avenges them, and they only turn on him once he chooses to murder Banquo. Characters in the play declare that Duncan was a good thing (historically unlikely, but Shakespeare seems to alter that). Why does Cawdor rebel before the start of the play, Cawdor who knows how to die honourably? Are rebels false men, or are they equivocators who know how to harness language to fight power and tyranny?

I don’t know that the play (or the production) offers any final answers. But Boyd’s directorial vision, alongside Slinger’s fully flourished performance of Macbeth (empty and soulless at the top of the world, a man reduced to the thirst for mastery), these things have reopened Macbeth for me, a play that I thought I had mastered: who speaks for the dead?


Much Ado About London

Here are some quick reviews of the shows I managed to see this weekend in London. This is all composed and posted via ipad, so expect some bloopers. I’ll polish things up later.


Much Ado About Nothing
Wyndham’s Theatre
David Tennant (Benedick), Catherine Tate (Beatrice), Josie Rourke (Director)
June 24, 2011, 7:30pm

Madcap! Some highlights: the play is set in what appears to be a Latin American colonial setting (imagine British soldiers at a 1980s Caribbean spa); Benedick first enters driving a golf cart stacked high with suitcases, sombreros, and British flags; Beatrice smokes, drinks, and passes out jaded commentary, the picture of a modern, emancipated woman (Donna much?); Imogen is no longer silent and has taken over many of Antonio’s lines (who is missing from the play); the revels involve drag, including a Princess Leia and Tennant as Miss Piggy; the “window trick” is staged as a quick screw-against-the-wall during a strobe-lit bachelorette party; and Hero’s mock funeral is cunningly reinterpreted (below).

Let me start with the obvious: this is a fantastic show largely because of Doctor Who. The chemistry between Tennant and Tate doesn’t need any time to build throughout the play: they carry it onstage with them. It is a product of their time together on Doctor Who, an interesting bit to add to the blend of a performance. Much of the Donna/Doctor relationship maps easily onto Beatrice/Benedick: the constant criticism of each other, the off-line verbal explanations (Tennant transforms every “why” into a wry question and Tate’s trademark laugh is here in abundance) and the sheer joy they each seem to experience from the exchange. In a way, Much Ado lets Doctor Who fans see Donna and the Doctor finally get together.

A brief amendment: Tate’s Beatrice is Donna in many ways, from her laugh to her attitude to her cocky grin. Tennant’s Benedick is not the Doctor, however: while the chemistry from the TV show blends well with the performance, Tennant is able to successfully leave behind the madcap antics of the Doctor (unlike, say, in his performance of Hamlet). Granted, Tennant knows his audience, and his audience knows him. Tennant lets Benedick’s prose breathe, feeling free to transform statements into questions, add expressive exclamations (most frequently “hmm” and “hah”), and taking his time with the humor. Both he and Tate know where every laugh in the show is, and their comic timing is quite flawless. When an audience is so primed to laugh, however, some things can go amiss. During Benedick’s 2.3 monologue (“this can be no trick…”), for instance, the audience broke out into hysterics early on. Tennant us off: his face and posture remained in character, while his hands silently signaled “wait for it!” The laughter died down, the monologue built to its climax, and the final, matter-of-fact “The world must be peopled” brought down the house.

Similarly, a bit of unexpected laughter occurred in 4.1 during Benedick and Beatrice’s exchange after Claudio shames Hero. After declaring his love for her, Benedick exclaims, “Bid me do anything for you!” Donna breaks down in laughter: Benedick is clearly bad at this sort of hyperbolic wooing. She sits. She waits. She thinks. After a long pause (a good 10-15 seconds of silence) she looks up and says, “Kill Claudio.” The audience laughs. And no wonder: to this point in the play, everything that Tennant and Tate have said has been hilarious. They’ve played to that laughter throughout, egging it on. Here, however, they play the moment straight, not even waiting for the laughter to die down. By the time Beatrice is wishing that she could “eat” Claudio’s “heart in the marketplace,” the audience is silent: not a titter. So, while Tennant and Tate are quite capable of amping up the laughter, even in a metatheatrical way, they only ever do so in the service of the play. Shakespeare would approve.

I mentioned above that Hero’s mock funeral is reinterpreted. Throughout the play, Claudio is a brash soldier, quick to love, quick to fight. He enters the wedding of 4.1 prepared to slander Hero, his jaw set, his impatience and anger clear. To my mind, this staging exacerbates the “problem” of Claudio: how can an audience accept that Hero forgives him in the final scene? Is he redeemable? This Claudio could easily be written off as a misogynist, a reading that pushes against the comic reconciliation. But the director had a trick up her sleeve. The characters assemble onstage for Hero’s funeral beneath a hauntingly harsh sculpture of the Holy Mother suspended from the ceiling. Claudio stands before a microphone. He mumbles his elegy into the mic in that tentative, exhausted voice of the grieved. Then the mourners exit. Claudio returns with a stereo and a bottle of whiskey. He presses play, and a hard rock rendition of the funeral song blares from the stage. Claudio quickly gets wasted, throwing back the whiskey like it’s sweet tea, and eventually pulls his pistol, setting it against his temple. An apparition of Hero appears to him, and he blacks out. Don Pedro appears to sober up Claudio for his wedding.

Drastic? Certainly? Outside Shakespeare’s text? Perhaps. I think that Much Ado demands a repentant Claudio: by pushing Claudio so far toward callous violence, Rourke needed to do something drastic to recenter the character, something to show Claudio’s rage as self-destructive: attempted suicide goes a long way toward building audience sympathy.

Much Ado About Nothing
Globe Theatre
June 25, 2011, 2:00pm.

I should preface this micro-review by saying that I overslept before the show, discovered that the London Underground was closed near my hostel, and decided to walk rather than take a bus or cab. An hour and a half late, I arrived at the Globe and had perhaps the worst spot in the Pit: extreme stage left, my view blocked by one of the two large pillars. Thus, I was a poor spectator for this performance. I would also recommend that, if you ever plan on seeing two productions of the same play in two days, see the “better” show first. The Globe’s production was a fine performance, but their Beatrice and Benedick simply could not compete with the chemistry of Tennant and Tate, largely because they lacked the extra-textual force of the Doctor/Donna relationship.

That said: the Globe’s production was, as usual for the Globe, historically conservative, including Elizabethan costuming, a subdued set design (some silk flowers, orange tree branches, and a few shallow pools of water onstage), and archetypal character work (Don Pedro is the authoritative Duke, Hero is the obedient daughter, Don John is the Machiavellian mastermind, etc.). The hallmark of this show, as is often true of Globe performances, is the audience interaction. Monologues and soliloquies were frequently directed to the audience: Beatrice singled out individuals to be the objects of her jokes or celebrations, hugging one young girl when she “overheard” Benedick’s love for her; during Benedick’s “I much wonder how one man” speech, one woman in the audience began laughing uncontrollably. Benedick played off of that laughter, waiting to continue the speech and encouraging the audience to share in her laughter. Even Dogberry got in on the metatheatrical fun, calling the entire audience the “men of the night’s watch” and selecting his watchmen from among the audience (preset actors).

For me, however, the performance fell flat insofar as it resembled Tennant and Tate’s production. A few key moments seemed modeled on the Wyndham production. While it’s difficult to say which theatre used them first, for the purposes of this blogtastic review I’m giving Tennant and Tate the benefit of the doubt: their show opened first, was more heavily advertised, and charged higher ticket prices; more importantly, these moments work better in their show). For example: when Tennant first overhears Don Pedro, Leonato, and Claudio, he’s drinking a bloody mary from a long, curled straw. The Globe’s benedict also carries a fruity beverage with a straw (despite the anachronicity of plastic straws). When Don Pedro ask’s Tate’s Beatrice if she will marry him, Tate laughs uncontrollably, a “horsey” laugh that Tate used for Donna in Doctor Who. The Globe’s Beatrice reacts with the same laugh.

Such cross-pollination is to be expected. But during the same run?

All’s Well That End’s Well
Globe Theatre
June 26, 2011, 1:00pm

The tough part about All’s Well (the problem of the problem play, as it were) is Bertram. To be polite, he’s not a very nice young man. What does Helena see in him? The rest of the play is straight-forward: Helena is a strikingly modern woman who uses all her resources to make her way in the world; Countess Rossillion is a loving and authoritarian woman, perhaps what Lady Macbeth might have become (if not for all that murder and guilt nonsense); Paroles, Lefew, and Lavatch are all stock comic characters (the Braggart, the Doddering Old courtier, and the Fool); and the King is the King. But Bertram is the hinge upon which this world turns (or the seam at which it unravels): male youth. There’s a lot of pressure upon Bertram to be the honourable son of an honourable father. As he understands it, honour means warfare, the path of Mars, not Venus. As Bertram, Sam Crane does a great job of internalizing that pressure, quite literally quaking (in fear? anger? anxiety?) when the King insists that he marry Helena. During Bertram and Helena’s goodbye kiss, Bertram is likewise split between desires: the kiss is more than perfunctory, and he stares after Helena long after she has left the stage.

Left to its own devices, the main plot still risks faltering on the rocks of historical misunderstanding (what’s it like to come of age in the Renaissance?). Enter Paroles. I felt sorry for James Garnon’s character, perhaps because of his “expressive eyes” (as the woman to my left commented). While he is a hilarious figure of fun, he is also earnest: Paroles doesn’t wish to harm anyone (even Helena), merely to make his say in the world. To him, Bertram’s choice to run away to war is a necessary sacrifice. Honour doesn’t come from marriage, and society demands honour.

Fortunately, Paroles and Bertram turn out to be mistaken. Less fortunately, the King remains in error, offering Diana her choice of husband at the play’s end. The system of honour that the King maintains is deeply flawed, forcing men such as Bertram to. Make impossible decisions. Today, honour is a defunct concept. The Globe Theatre, with its insistence on historical preservation, does an admirable job of recovering that system of honour.

Of all the Bertram’s I have seen, I hated this one the least.

(Characters, not actors, of course.)

Doctor Faustus
The Globe Theatre
June 26, 2011, 6:30 pm

Christopher Marlowe might have become the greatest writer of blank verse, greater than Shakespeare, if he hadn’t gotten himself stabbed in head in a bar fight. Or for being a spy. Or both? As it is, Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus has some exquisite lines, and the vision of damnation is harrowing. The character development….not so much. The “A text” of Doctor Faustus was printed a few years after Marlowe’s death. The “B Text,” which the Globe used, was printed a good two decades after Marlowe’s bartime demise, and while the verse passages are largely the same, the comic verse scenes are expanded beyond belief (and perhaps, beyond relief). To perform the B Text, a theatre needs an engaging Faustus and Mephistopheles, but it also needs spectacle, spectacle, spectacle.

Paul Hilton makes a superb Faustus, amping up the depraved delights of Faustus and his final horror of damnation (the counterpoint to his earlier, gleeful “Hell’s a fable!”). I was delightfully surprised to find that Arthur Davill (Rory from Doctor Who) is playing Mephistopheles: not exactly my idea of a devilish man, but he carries it off well. Davill presents a Mephistopheles who is all Machiavellian surface to Faustus: even when he admits that “This is hell, nor am I out of it,” he does so not as an admission of pain or weakness but as a sadistic gesture, grasping Faustus’ hand and sharing the torments of hell through some sort of revere empathy. When Faustus turns his back, however, Davill’s Mephistopheles really shines (or glowers): the raw desire Mephistopheles feels for Faustus’ soul is palpable, and I couldn’t help but root for this villain a bit.

As for spectacle: Faustus’ good and bad angels are a bit disappointing. I’ve seen much better halloween costumes of angels, and the stylized katana fights between good and evil are a bit too anime-inspired for the Globe. However, the pageant of the seven deadly sins is exemplary: the sins rise up out of trap doors in the stage, acrobats alternately sinister and laughable; Greed perched upon a pillar and rolled across the stage; Gluttony stumbled across the stage in an enormous fat suit, spilling and dribbling food on the audience; Wrath took on the bodies of four demons, each wielding two rapiers like some Renaissance Kali; Lechery inspired an orgiastic frenzy in the other devils that filled the thrust stage. Needless to say, the Sins emphasized the Groundling experience at the Globe: Wrath is a bit more sinister when one has to nearly duck beneath his rapiers.

A notable addition of the B Text: I’m used to Faustus’ final soliloquy in the A Text (printed in the Norton Anthology of British Lit). There, Faustus struggles to repent while continuing to cling to his magic, futilely conjuring the elements to protect him from the Devil. In the Globe production, Mehistopheles interrupts Faustus’ soliloquy to gloat: Faustus’ damnation is Mephistopheles’ victory. The devils emerge from a yawning, smoke filled portal, tiny puppets of tormented souls in their hands (half comic, half disturbing), trailed by a leather-decked, whip-wielding Beelzebub. The devils carry out Faustus lifting him high in their hands, and Mephistopheles beams with pleasure. The stage is empty, save an old Satan, who wears the stained armor of a good angel. Throughout the play he has leaned upon other devils, barely standing. Now he stands alone. Devils approach him, carrying a pair of massive white wings, which they unfold and hold up to his back. Satan earns the wings that Faustus aspired to.


And then, in Globe Theatre style, the play ends in a dance filled with the puppets of the damned, megaphones projecting howls and chants, and a dueling lyres between Faustus and Mephistopheles. The Globe knows how to put the “spectacle” in spectacular.

New London Theatre
June 25, 2011, 7:30pm

A ecocritical, animal-centric tale of the first World War that follows the life of a horse and weighs the suffering of man and beast, English, French, and German equally. When I read the plot synopsis I laughed a bit, astounded at the amount of overbearing political correctness such a plot must contain. Surely one can’t represent suffering across nationalist and speciesist divides without overburdening the play. And with puppets!!!

I couldn’t have been more mistaken. Warhorse is the single most moving piece of theatre I’ve seen all year, both emotionally and intellectually thrilling.

The stylistic master note here is, of course, the puppetry. The two main horse protagonists in the piece, Joey and Topthorn, are each operated by three puppeteers. Although I feel that operate is the wrong term: played would be more accurate. One puppeteer for the front legs (heart), one for the back (hind), and one for the head (…head). The puppeteers are quite visible throughout the show, wearing simply period dress (1910s) that matches the color of their horse. In an early scene, Joey grows from a foal to an adult stallion: the foal is about as tall as the teenage boy Albert that cares for him, and all the puppeteers are visible beside the wood frame of the horse; when the stallion gallops onstage, the heart and hind puppeteers easily fit inside this warhorse whose shoulder stands as tall as any actor in the cast. Albert mounts Joey, and the subsequent victory lap around the stage (which on occasion revolves mid-stride) is sublime: a majestic animal made flesh out of wood, wire, and human creativity. When Joey neighs, his voice is not some synthetic recording: it is the combined voices of his three puppeteers. Just thinking of it gives me chills.

I heard one spectator complain after the show that the puppeteers were a distraction: that was not my experience. True, I occasionally mistook the “head” for an actor holding the halter of a horse, but at was generally only in moments when the horses were idle or the action onstage was chaotic with lots of human actors running about. When the horses were the center of attention, the puppeteers became a piece of the animal, the ghost in the machine, as it were. When a horse dies onstage, its puppeteers slowly stand and back away, the soul of the animal leaving the body.

Warhorse’s puppetry creates the terrifying as well as the sublime. The play stages several cavalry charges with Joey, Topthorn, and a few more static horses (with puppet riders). These charges embody so much of war: the majesty many wish to see in it; the dehumanization of war (while the horses feel fully embodied, the people-puppets seem less than human, intentionally so); and war’s ultimate futility. And while such a failed cavalry charge (against machine guns and trench warfare) is the climax of the first act, for me the climax of terror involves a tank. This puppet is merely the exposed skeleton of a tank frame that pivots on a central platform to imitate the shifting angles of the tank as it traverses the terrain of the battlefield. There are no visible guns. The tank is operated (the right word) by a half dozen or so puppeteers dressed in an anonymous black. They have become part of the machine. This is war. No guts or glory, only cogs.

Fortunately, this play is also about a boy’s love for his horse, and a horse’s love for his boy, and it opposes the terrors of war with the victories of spirit: human and animal.

Summer Bloggin’

Tuscaloosa is an hot, empty place in the summer: few undergraduates, no escape from the heat, and (after the Rude Mechanicals’ show in early June) no theatre on the University of Alabama’s campus.  And that means nothing to post on this lonely blog: no casting calls, no staged readings, no ShakesFilms.

So, as a summer vacation from our regularly scheduled blogging, I’m going to post a few of my side projects here: mostly things that inform the aesthetic of Improbable Fictions.  Below this post you can already find the voice of the Ghost preserved from our staged reading of Hamlet in April, as well as a review essay on Theater of War, a Sophoclean staged reading series founded by Brian Doerries.

In the next few weeks I’ll be travelling to England for an academic conference…which means I’m going to England to see a lot of theatre.  I’ll be posting micro-reviews here, including my (fanatic) thoughts about David Tennant’s Much Ado About Nothing, Patrick Stewart’s Merchant of Venice, and Warhorse.

Stay tuned by subscribing to IF or checking out the fan page on Facebook (here).

Hearing the Human: Empathic Listening and Theater of War’s Ajax

In a recent American Repertory Theater article, Brian Doerries makes a bold claim about Theater of War, a staged reading series of Sophocles’ Ajax and Philoctetes funded in part by the Department of Defense.  Doerries writes, “People who live lives of mythological proportions, who confront the darkest aspects of our humanity and face life and death stakes on a daily basis, have no trouble relating to ancient myths.”[1]  Theater of War, created in 2008 by Doerries, is a production of Outside the Wire, LLC, a social impact company co-founded by Doerries and Phyllis Kaufman that uses theatrical readings as a platform for open discussions about pressing social issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder, the reintegration of soldiers into the civilian population, and the high rate of suicide in America’s military today.  Theater of War, in particular, stages readings that focus on soldiers scarred by war—both physically and psychologically—and encourages discussion about how other soldiers and civilians can respond to such war wounds.

One might think that Greek drama, as archaic and stylized as it may seem, would be a poor catalyst for a discussion about modern problems, yet Theater of War operates on the premise that American soldiers can easily understand these ancient Greek plays.  Following Dr. Jonathan Shay’s Achilles in Vietnam,[2] Doerries argues that “ancient Greek drama appears to have become an elaborate ritual aimed at helping warriors prepare for battle and return to civilian life, during a century that saw eighty years of war.”[3]  Accordingly, Theater of War pairs its staged readings with open discussions of the plays: actors and panelists, soldiers and civilians are encouraged to share their own reactions to Sophocles’ work.  Thus, Theater of War offers a contemporary ritual, linking communal art to personal experience in “meta-theatrical extensions of the performances.”[4]

If these staged readings may act as a test of Doerries’ claim, the success of Theater of War lies in the reiteration of the ritual: Theater of War’s March 26, 2011 reading of Ajax at Emory University is the 149th such performance before a military or mixed audience of soldiers and civilians, reaching a total of over 25,000 individuals.  At this performance, the reading itself lasted a mere hour.  The discussion afterward stretched longer, as audience members shared their reactions to the play and their own experiences with war.  Theater of War works, but why?  Doerries claims that the production’s effectiveness comes from the power of myth and the transhistorical touch of war: those who live mythic lives, like American soldiers, can understand mythic rituals.  Thus, Sophocles’ works are unlocked by lives spent in the face of death and violence.  Doerries writes, “It’s as if these rarely produced plays were written in a code that we civilians could not understand and that military audiences had to explain to us.”[5]  Doerries suggests that the key to Sophocles is the right audience: yet Doerries’ words (though they make for excellent publicity) only serve to mystify the theatrical process.  Theater of War does not connect with spectators merely because it reenacts ancient rituals suited to military audiences: Theater of War also goes to great lengths to stage these readings of Ajax and Philoctetes in a way that encourages and reinforces the empathy of spectators.  Soldiers (and civilians) have “no trouble relating” to the sad songs of Greek drama because Theater of War does not produce these plays: it stages them in the theater of the mind.

“Ajax.  Ajax.  My name is a sad song.”

Sophocles’ Ajax tells the story of its eponymous hero’s madness and suicide.  During the ninth year of the Trojan War, the nigh invincible Achilles falls to a lucky shot from Paris’s bow: Ajax, the “shield” of the Greek forces and their strongest remaining warrior, expects the honor of receiving Achilles’ armor.  Odysseus outwits Ajax, however, winning over the Greek generals through rhetoric and deceit, claiming the armor as his own.  Shamed by this betrayal, Ajax stalks out into the night, planning to assassinate the generals and Odysseus.  Yet Athena, Greek goddess of military cunning, thwarts Ajax’s vengeance by driving him mad, sending him into the fields to slaughter cattle instead of men.  Sophocles’ play begins as Ajax recovers his wits and learns of his botched treachery.  The play depicts Ajax’s shame and subsequent suicide, as well as the reactions of his family and fellow soldiers.

A full production of Ajax faces the difficulties of most Greek drama: it suffers from archaisms of form and content that may trouble contemporary audiences.  The communal voice of the Greek chorus, for instance, has no real parallel in modern drama, and the hand of the gods in human affairs (deus ex machina) jars with a psychological understanding of human behavior.  Rather than confront these difficulties, Doerries wisely omits them in his translation and adaptation of Sophocles’ text.  He reduces the Chorus to a character rather than a commentator on the action, cutting the choral songs characteristic of Greek drama.  He also reduces Athena’s presence by framing Ajax’s madness as the result of post-traumatic stress disorder rather than the result of Athena’s divine will.  Doerries reinforces this framing by utilizing military language in his translation, including more contemporary phrases such as: “affirmative,” “death parade,” “death march,” “report to me immediately,” “shell-shocked,” and “thousand-yard stare.”  Thus, even on a textual level Doerries adapts Sophocles’ text to a modern audience.

Though Doerries is the Artistic Director of Theater of War as a whole, his contribution to the March 26th staged reading of Ajax rested mostly in his adaptation of the text and his facilitation of the post-reading discussion.  John Ammerman, Artistic Director of Theater Emory, directed Emory University’s Theater of War performance.  Following Doerries’ terse translation, Ammerman presented an Ajax that was less a performance in its own right than an embedded portion of the night’s discussion.  The event was held in Emory’s Cannon Chapel, which had the feel of a community center rather than a theater or a church: there was no stage or pulpit, merely a long fold-out table with microphones for the cast and a dozen rows of chairs for the audience.  The program described the staged reading as a “presentation of scenes from Ajax,” thus highlighting the necessary work that Theater of War did to frame those scenes.  Ammerman drew attention to this framing: while it is common practice in staged readings for an actor to read stage directions aloud, Ammerman’s cast also announced scene changes, provided background information on the action, and informed the audience about any character doubling within a certain scene.  For example, the stage reading opened not with Athena’s lines but with a dramatic summary of the Trojan War and of Ajax’s disgrace, information readily available to an ancient Greek audience but left unmentioned by Sophocles until halfway through the play. This introduction was more storytelling than staging, the necessary narrative context for a diverse audience that ranged from Emory students to military veterans: no knowledge of Greek myth or theater convention was required.  There was no transition between this summary and the play itself.  The Chorus (Blake Covington) announced “Scene One,” and Ajax began: Ammerman himself read Odysseus (described in the program as “the director of Greek intelligence”) opposite Lisa Paulsen as Athena.  When the reading moved to Scene Two, an actor announced that Lisa Paulsen would now read for Tecmessa, the wife of Ajax: Paulsen transitioned flawlessly from the deific commander to the grief-stricken wife.  The reading pushed forward, enabled rather than hindered by the explicit framing of the text.

This framing also pushed Ajax in new directions.  The cast was seated (from stage right to stage left): Ammerman (Odysseus); Bruce Evers (Ajax/Agamemnon); Tim McDonough (Teucer); Lisa Paulsen (Athena/Tecmessa); and Blake Covington (Chorus).  Odysseus and the Chorus spoke from the fringes, outsiders and onlookers to the main action.  Interestingly, Ajax was not seated center: Teucer, silent until the later half of scene four, took that position.  Thus, Ajax and his wife were separated by a physical barrier of silence.  Though the Chorus looked over to the other characters, watching their words, the other characters rarely shared glances.  Ajax and Tecmessa always looked to their scripts: only words could hope to join them, a hope killed by Ajax’s death at the end of scene 3.  When Evers spoke again as Agamemnon in scene 5, it seemed as if Ajax’s voice and body had been usurped by his enemy Agamemnon.  While Paulsen distinguished her two characters (largely through Tecmessa’s grief), Evers’s roles shared a haughtiness of speech.  Thus, the quite explicit doubling of the staged reading (unmasked by costuming or even a change of space) questioned how different these two soldiers really were.

By the reading’s end, speech also became doubled between Sophocles’ text and the explicit framing.  Teucer gave the last line of the play, which was followed by announcements of the end of the scene and of the play.  The text reads:

                                    Teucer (McDonough): That’s all I have to say.

                                    Covington: End of Scene 5

                                    Evers: End of Ajax.[6]

On one level, Teucer announced the end of his funeral speech for Ajax while Covington and Evers announced the end of various degrees of framing (scene and play, respectively).  On another level, all through actors have announced ends of a sort: McDonough, the end of speech; Covington, the end of action; Evers, the end of a story and of a life.  These stage directions served not merely as necessary information for the audience but also as meta-theatrical lines within the reading itself.  Theater of War did not merely represent Sophocles’ text: the production supplemented Ajax with storytelling frames that both commented on the action and communicated it to a contemporary audience.

“Twice the pain is twice the sorrow.”

In scene 2 of Ajax, Tecmessa warns the Chorus that their own suffering will increase when Ajax comes to his senses: “In his madness he took pleasure in the evil that possessed him, all the while afflicting those of us nearby.  But now that the fever has broken, all of his pleasure has turned to pain, and we are still afflicted, just as before.”  While Ajax is mad, Tecmessa and the Chorus only experience their own grief at his fate: Ajax himself is oblivious.  When Ajax learns of his mad slaughter of cattle, he will experience that grief himself and then Tecmessa and the Chorus will, through empathy, feel his grief in addition to their own: “twice the sorrow.”  During the discussion portion of the Theater of War performance, Doerries skillfully turned this passage into a question for the audience: what does this line mean?

The responses from the audience were various, but to my mind they all circled back to empathy.  In Upheavals of Thought, Martha Nussbaum defines empathy as “an imaginative reconstruction of the experience of the sufferer.”[7]  Empathy allows us to recognize people as people, showing “a basic human respect.  The evil of utter dehumanization seems worse” (334).  Theater of War encourages such empathy, presenting Ajax’s suffering as the plight of the soldier in any time period.  In part, this empathy requires stripping away historical difference: Theater of War does not consider the circumstances (or validity) of either the Trojan War that Ajax experiences or the various wars of 5th century B.C.E. Athens (the Persian and Peloponnesian Wars).  Theater of War’s goal is to reveal the soldier as fundamentally human.  Ammerman’s production, for example, highlighted the human suffering in Ajax by emphasizing the non-linguistic lines of the text: sighs, groans, and screams.  Most notably, there was no announced shift from scene 3 (Ajax’s suicide) to scene 4 (Tecmessa’s discovery of his body).  Evers ended Ajax’s last line with a rasping growl, pantomiming the sword impaling his heart, as if the air was escaping from his punctured lung: “The rest I shall say to those who listen in the world below.”  Paulsen then began scene 4 before scene 3 had ended, delivering Tecmessa’s “[inhuman cry].”  Death translated instantly into grief, and the audience could connect to the story on a purely emotional level: the sound of the human voice in pain.

Nussbaum notes, however, that empathy is not merely a matter of seeing oneself in the shoes of another: “Empathy is like the mental preparation of a skilled (Method) actor: it involves a participatory enactment of the situation of the sufferer, but is always combined with the awareness that one is not oneself the sufferer.”[8]  Empathy can bridge gaps of misunderstanding: between ancient Greeks and moderns; between soldiers and civilians.  Yet merely imagining oneself in the place of another without remaining aware of their otherness is a dangerous egocentrism.  There is a subtle but important difference between empathizing with Ajax and imaginatively becoming Ajax.  Doerries post-performance discussion was one of the most effective uses of open-ended Socratic method that I’ve ever seen in a community setting: a moving experience, and a testimony to the value of teachers in our society.  Yet by de-historicizing Sophocles’ text, Theater of War risks merely offering our society a mirror of itself.

Here lies the danger of Doerries’ claim that “people who live lives of mythological proportions…have no trouble relating to ancient myths.”  Certainly, drama builds off of our own emotional experiences, and only a soldier has experienced the carnage that haunts Ajax’s mind, the sad song that makes his name.  Patrick Colm Hogan describes this collection of emotional experience, drawing on the writings of Abhinavagupta, a tenth century Sanskrit philosopher.  Hogan writes, “All our experiences leave traces in our memory.  These traces bear with them the emotions we felt at the time.  The mind accumulates these traces and they contextualize each new experience.  We respond to the present in terms of the collective effect of the traces left in our memories by the past.”[9]  To some extent this emotional experience grants the military community a privileged position from which to respond to Sophocles’ Ajax.  The role of drama, however, is to create aesthetic experiences that can approximate personal ones: as a civilian, I will probably never experience the horrors of war firsthand; yet through art, through productions like Theater of War, I can see an image of that horror and I can begin to empathize with the plight of a soldier.  The staged reading format is an efficient device for promoting such empathy, particularly as Ammerman directs it, for all the archaisms and aesthetics props that might hinder my empathy are stripped away, leaving only the human voice and raw emotion.

The great virtue of Theater of War is that it succeeds at promoting empathy by pairing staged readings with open discussions of individual spectators’ reactions.  The danger of Theater of War is that spectators may believe that they can empathize with Ajax purely out of the power of myth and personal experience; thus, they may not recognize the power that theater has to enable such moments of empathy.  As Nussbaum argues, one must be aware of differences; like an actor, an empathic spectator must both put on the role of Ajax and remain themselves.  As Theater of War expands its focus from wholly military audiences to mixed audiences of soldiers and civilians, the program may do well to balance the need for identification with ancient Greek soldiers and the fact of historical and cultural difference.  Doerries closed the performance at Emory by saying: “You’re not alone in this room.  You’re not alone in this country.  You’re not alone across time.”  An important sentiment, to be sure, but one that should be balanced by Sophocles’ own text (in Doerries’ translation: “It is true, but still hard to understand” (Tecmessa, Ajax Scene 2).

For more information about Theater of War or Outside the Wire, LLC, see:



[1] Brian Doerries, “Theater of War,” The Guide, American Repertory Theater (Spring 2011)  16-7.  <>

[2] Jonathan Shay, Achilles in Vietnam (New York: Scribner, 1994).

[3] Doerries 16.

[4] 17.

[5] 16.

[6] Brian Doerries, trans.  Ajax.  Sophocles.

[7] Martha C. Nussbaum, Upheavals of Thoughts: The Intelligence of Emotions (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001) 327.

[8] 327.

[9] Patrick Colm Hogan, Cognitive Science, Literature, and the Arts: A Guide for Humanists (New York: Routledge, 2003) 156.

Mark Me

Staging Hamlet for Improbable Fictions posed a problem: how do you depict the ghost of Hamlet’s father?  Special effects often fall flat at this moment: various combinations of white sheets, eerie green lights, and zombie makeup.  And certainly, the special effects budget of an IF production totals about $0.00.  I trust our audiences to have a lot of imagination: our actors carry their scripts around onstage, after all, and it’s improbable (if not impossible) for an audience member to forget that theatricality unless they let themselves become invested in the show.  Even so, King Hamlet’s ghost needs to be a bit terrifying, and while I could have asked our Ghost (Steve Burch) to simply step onstage and “play dead,” letting the audience imagine the rest, terror needs to be more visceral.  The supernatural demands to walk the stage.

With that in mind, I set out to hack the opening act of Hamlet to bits.  Marcellus and Bernardo disappear from the text.  Instead, the play opens with the meeting of Hamlet (David Bolus) and Horatio (Amber Gibson).  Hamlet soon asks Horatio for a speech:  “We’ll have a speech straight: come, give us a taste of your quality; come, a passionate speech” (a line taken from Hamlet’s later dialogue to the First Player).  Hamlet leads Horatio over to a tape recorder; Horatio tentatively begins the “To be or not to be” soliloquy from the 1st Quarto of Hamlet (known as the “bad quarto”).   When Horatio’s memory falters, Hamlet picks up the train of thought as a dialogue:

HAMLET records the speech on a tape-recorder.
To be, or not to be--
Aye, there's the point.
To Die, to sleep...
Is that all?
Aye, all.
No, to sleep, to dream--
Aye, mary, there it goes,
For in that dream of death, when we awake,
And borne before an everlasting Judge,
From whence no passenger ever retur'nd,
The undiscovered country, at whose sight
The happy smile, and the accursed damn'd.
But for this, the joyful hope of this,
Whol'd bear the scorns and flattery of the world,
Scorned by the right rich, the rich cursed of the poor?
The widow being oppressed, the orphan wrong'd,
The taste of hunger, or a tyrant's reign,
And thousand more calamities besides,
To grunt and sweat under this weary life,
When that he may his full Quietus make,
With a bare bodkin--
Who would this endure,
But for a hope of something after death?
Which puzzles the brain, and doth confound the sense,
Which makes us rather bear those evils we have,
Than fly to others that we know not of.
Aye, that. O, this conscience makes cowards of us all.

Hamlet stops the recording, and Claudius strides onstage with his opening monologue.

In a later scene, Hamlet decides to listen to the recording.  However, the supernatural decides to step in.  The audio track below is what Hamlet hears from the tape recorder (sound design courtesy of the fantastic Jerrell Bowden).  During the performance, Hamlet cradled the tape recorder and carried it into the center aisle of Farrah Hall 214: the Ghost’s voice quite literally walked amidst the audience.

(click to listen >>>>)  (<<<< click to listen)


Since we didn’t get Hamlet’s responses on tape, I’ve included a portion of the script below.  You’ll probably want to open the audio file in a new tab.

Enter HAMLET. Hamlet listens to tape-recorder.
To be, or not to be--
Aye, there's the point.
To Die, to sleep...
Is that all?
Aye, all.
No, to sleep, to dream--
Aye, mary, there it goes,
For in that dream of death...
Mark me.
I will.
My hour is almost come,
When I to sulphurous and tormenting flames
Must render up myself.
Alas, poor ghost!
Pity me not, but lend thy serious hearing
To what I shall unfold.
Speak; I am bound to hear.
So art thou to revenge, when thou shalt hear.
I am thy father's spirit. List, list, list!
If thou didst ever thy dear father love--
O God!
Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.
Murder most foul, as in the best it is;
But this most foul, strange and unnatural.
Haste me to know't, that I, with wings as swift
As meditation or the thoughts of love,
May sweep to my revenge.
'Tis given out that, sleeping in my orchard,
A serpent stung me; so the whole ear of Denmark
Is by a forged process of my death
Rankly abused: but know, thou noble youth,
The serpent that did sting thy father's life
Now wears his crown.
O my prophetic soul!
My uncle!
Ay, that incestuous, that adulterate beast,
With witchcraft of his wit, with traitorous gifts,--
O wicked wit and gifts, that have the power
So to seduce!--won to his shameful lust
The will of my most seeming-virtuous queen:
Brief let me be. Sleeping within my orchard,
Upon my secure hour thy uncle stole,
With juice of cursed hebenon in a vial,
And in the porches of my ears did pour
The leperous distilment.
Thus was I, sleeping, by a brother's hand
Of life, of crown, of queen, at once dispatch'd,
No reckoning made, but sent to my account
With all my imperfections on my head:
O, horrible! O, horrible! most horrible!
Let not the royal bed of Denmark be
A couch for luxury and damned incest.
But, howsoever thou pursuest this act,
Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive
Against thy mother aught: leave her to heaven
And to those thorns that in her bosom lodge,
To prick and sting her. Fare thee well at once!
Adieu, adieu! Hamlet, remember me.