by Benjamin Bertram, Project Scholar

In Dawn McAndrews’ My Father’s Dragon, a theatrical adaptation of Ruth Stiles Gannett’s classic that opens the 2017 season at TAM, a boy named Elmer defies his mother when he takes an old, stray alley cat into his home. Elmer is ultimately punished and the cat thrown out of the home, but the ethical gesture opens up a new world of adventure for the boy. Once he allows the cat in, the romance begins: the cat inspires him to take an even bigger chance to rescue an enslaved dragon on Wild Island. By the end of the story most of us will have forgotten about the cat, but this transgressive and compassionate action is at the heart of the entire season at TAM. What is home? Whom do we allow in it? What are our responsibilities in taking care of our private homes? And what about our towns, cities, nations and, most importantly, our planet?

Globe Stage Canopy

Globe Stage Canopy

At Shakespeare’s Globe Theater a small portion of the stage was covered by a canopy that represented the sky, the heavens. Hamlet calls it “this brave overhanging firmament;” Coriolanus calls it the canopy under which he “dwells.” Some plays make us feel like wanderers or adventurers while others make us feel comfortable and at home. In the case of the latter, our identities are affirmed and our values go unquestioned. Monmouth’s beautiful Cumston Hall is inviting and comfortable, and yet its plays will sometimes take us out of our comfort zone, which is a good thing. If, like Elmer’s mother, we just want to keep our house clean and the strangers out, we will forfeit the chance to live like her son, taking risks and learning new tricks.

The actors and the audience this season will also have an experience of the uncanny, or what Freud called the “unheimlich,” the un-homely. The uncanny refers to that which is uncomfortably strange, to the familiar becoming unfamiliar. This season we’ll encounter the uncanny in the form of the supernatural, most obviously the witches and the ghost of Banquo in Macbeth, but also the cat in My Father’s Dragon, which resembles a witch’s “familiar” spirit. The uncanny will also take the form of actors playing multiple roles (“doubling”) in Three Days of Rain and the blurring of fiction and reality when actors can’t separate Ira Aldridge, a black actor, from his role as Othello the Moor.  The most uncanny character of all will not be a ghost or witch; it will be Iago. He is familiar to Othello and yet he shouldn’t be; he is human and yet he seems demonic; he is duplicitous and deceptive, someone who radically destabilizes what others think is familiar, such as their self-knowledge or knowledge of others. Above all, Iago makes any sense of home seem virtually impossible, especially for Othello and Desdemona.

An enchanting, award-winning home is at the center of Richard Greenberg’s Three Days of Rain. Janeaway House was built in 1960 by a brilliant architect, Ned Janeaway, who has just died as the play begins. His son Walker wants the home in Long Island because he currently has no home, and he has been living as a stranger abroad. He wants a “place that belongs to [him]” for the city has made him feel like “nothing.” The feeling of homelessness may never leave Walker, however, as his estrangement from his father—a man he barely knows—leaves him alienated. Nevertheless, as an occupant of the famous home, and as someone dwelling in a city filled with buildings his father designed, his experience of space will tie him intimately to the mental life of his father, even as his father’s sparse words in a diary he has left behind tell Walker little. Yet it also turns out that Ned is a flaneur, a man who likes to wander the streets “without a purpose,” to “linger,” think, and take in the remarkable features of the city. The father and the son, played by the same actor, are more alike than we thought.

Ira Aldridge as Othello, 1833

Ira Aldridge as Othello, 1833

For the flaneur, the entire city becomes a kind of theater. Lolita Chakrabarti’s Red Velvet, however, reminds us that such an experience is a privileged one. Not everyone has a chance to be a flaneur; not everyone is welcome as an actor in the theater; not everyone is allowed to feel comfortable sitting in the audience. Exploring the material ties between the theater and the slave trade, the story of the black Shakespeare actor Ira Aldridge forces us to ask disturbing questions about the history of theater: Who has felt at home in the theater? Have we been like Elmer or his mother? Red Velvet is also a story about dramatic innovation, something even the most open minded of us resists at one point or another. We get comfortable with what we know and turn away from what seems foreign or strange. We are indebted to actors like Aldridge who broke through social barriers and challenged artistic stagnation. In the relatively comfortable world of Greenberg’s Manhattan, a white man with genius experiences no such barriers as he alters the physical landscape of the city. In Red Velvet, however, we see how innovation on the stage has at times been stifled by the comfortable, in this case the English ruling class.

As the lead actor playing Othello, Aldridge replaced one of the most famous actors in British history, Edmund Kean. In Red Velvet, the theater establishment’s unwillingness to accept him as a substitute is especially ironic given that protests against slavery can be heard outside Drury Lane, the famous theater in Convent Garden where Aldridge is performing. The border between reality and fiction is blurred in Red Velvet as Aldridge is accused of manhandling the white actress Ellen Tree (Desdemona). Performances of Shakespeare’s Othello were even more uncanny: such blurring became extremely dangerous for actors—black and white—when white audiences attending the play in the United States got out of control. In one performance a man attacked the actor playing Othello to prevent him from “murdering” Desdemona. In another Iago was shot, perhaps to prevent the murderous process early on. An American audience that is familiar with the OJ Simpson trial’s explosive intersection of race and gender may not feel like it has left home, but once they consider the play’s setting in Venice and Cypress, and the European conflict with the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century, that which seems familiar becomes strange. The most uncanny moment of the play occurs at the end, when Othello imagines that he is killing a Turk but stabs himself:

Set you down this,
And say besides that in Aleppo once,
Where a malignant and a turbanned Turk
Beat a Venetian and traduced the state,
I took by th’ throat the circumcised dog
And smote him—thus!

Never fully at home in Venice—that is, never quite welcome there despite all that he achieved for the city—Othello is duped by the sadistic racist Iago, and winds up seeing himself as the Other he once waged war against.

Judi Dench as Lady Macbeth, 1979

Judi Dench as Lady Macbeth, 1979

In Macbeth, the uncanny takes the form of witches or the supernatural, but they are merely the path toward the disturbance of the home, the ultimate in un-homeliness—the murder of the King.  All of nature, the earth as home, is in disarray when Macbeth becomes not only a regicide, but eventually a tyrant. The management of his kingdom, it turns out, is just as bad as his management of the castle in Inverness where he murdered Duncan. “What, in our house?” Lady Macbeth stammers disingenuously. Macbeth is never at home: he cannot sleep; time itself is out of joint. Known for his “vaulting ambition,” Macbeth’s greater fault is the way he mismanages the home—his castles as well as the land itself, which is said to “bleed.”

I think our country sinks beneath the yoke,
It weeps, it bleeds, and each new day a gash
Is added to her wounds.

As the set of TAM’s production will show, Macbeth moves from one home to another—Inverness to Dunsinane—yet he wears “borrowed robes” and he will never be at home after he murders Duncan, no matter how opulent or comfortable the furnishings become.

Les Femmes Savantes, 1896

Les Femmes Savantes, 1896

Although the behavior of the “learned ladies” may seem strange at first, Moliere’s characters, when compared with the greatness of Othello, Macbeth, Janeaway, and Aldridge (however imperfect they may be) are quite ordinary, especially once their lofty intellectual ambitions are unmasked. In this comedy, we sympathize with a young couple’s striving for normalcy—a happy, comfortable marriage between two people who love each other. Even the henpecked father winds up behaving normally, that is, like a man in charge. This is a world in which the answers are pretty straightforward—the potentially eccentric pursuit of the “life of the mind” is quickly exposed as fraudulent and dismissed in favor of ordinary marriage. All of the disruptions of “home” this season—miscegenation, regicide, a demanding theatrical career, an inheritance, and a son’s disobedience—are ultimately cast aside in Molière’s play as marriage allows for procreation to take place. As Shakespeare’s Benedick says in Much Ado About Nothing, “the world must be peopled.”

What may be most uncanny for the audience this season is our sense of history as we view these plays. People used to think there was something called “modernity” that separated us from the worlds Shakespeare represented. It has become evident now—if it wasn’t already—that there is no political chasm between us and the tyrants of pre or early modern Europe. We like to think of ourselves as making “progress,” with history moving linearly toward a more humane, inclusive, and democratic society —a world apart from the monarchical and racist societies represented by Shakespeare. But 400 years later, a lot of pre or early modern behavior seems strangely familiar. Just because we have modern skyscrapers built by architects like Ned in Three Days of Rain or homes with “miraculous light” that are like “frozen music” doesn’t mean that our political institutions continue to impress us the same way. We want to look back at Aldridge’s struggles in the first half of the 19th century, at Othello’s struggles to belong in Venice, at the cruelty and ruthlessness of 11th century monarchs in Scotland, as no longer familiar. And yet, for all of the changes in the modern age, that is not necessarily the case. Linear progress has always been a myth, but political upheaval has undermined what little sense of safety and security we may have had, what little sense we had of being at home.

 

 

 

 

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