By Ben Bertram

Perhaps the greatest “roar” of this 2018 Theater at Monmouth season tellingly comes not from one woman, but rather from several working in concert. In act four of Richard III, Queen Margaret, the Duchess of York, and Queen Elizabeth become a formidable chorus as they curse the Duchess’ son, Richard of Gloucester. Margaret, from the house of Lancaster, and Elizabeth, from the House of York, were once bitter enemies; now, together, they lament the death of their sons at the hands of Richard. During the War of the Roses these women had more political power than most women, but even at this point their voices powerfully contribute—albeit in an ineffable or supernatural way—to the defeat of tyranny.  “But at hand, at hand,” Margaret says,

Ensues his piteous and unpitied end.

Earth gapes, hell burns, fiends roar, saints pray,

To have him suddenly conveyed from hence.

Cancel his bond of life, dear God I say,

That I may live and say, ‘The dog is dead.’ (4.4.73-78)

Mike Dolan as Prince, Jake Loewenthal as Richard III, and Joey Dolan as Young York in Richard III.

It is Richmond, the Lancastrian son of Owen Tudor and Katherine of France, who defeats the Yorkist “dog” on the battlefield at Bosworth, but an uncanny “female” power found in curses, laments, and prophecies also plays a role in Richard’s downfall. “Therefore take with thee my most grievous curse,” the Duchess says to her son, “Which in the day of battle tire the more/Than all the complete armour that thou wear’st” (4.4.188-190).

The antithesis of this tragic, male-dominated world of war and death is the life-affirming, magical female community of Matthew Barber’s Enchanted April, a play in which a mysterious acacia tree serves as an emblem of community, love, and joy. “A season had passed, and would pass again,” Lotty says at the end, “And what I see now is that, enchantment aside, what had really been handed down that month was. . . a lesson in gardening.” There is always the potential for magic when women of diverse backgrounds come together to forge communities that change their lives—and the lives of men—for the better. In Richard III, on the other hand, “Grim-visaged War” is a masculine destroyer of ecological balance, while peace is associated with the kind of growth and fecundity found in the more “feminine” world of Enchanted April. Seasonal change is beautiful, if a little bittersweet, in Barber’s play, while in Shakespeare’s history/tragedy, we find Richard, a soldier who prefers the “winter of our discontent”  (civil war) to the “glorious summer” of peace, murdering his own nephews, Queen Elizabeth’s “unblowed [unopen] flowers, new-appearing sweets” (4.4.10).  With his arm shrunken like a “withered shrub” and his torso a “misshaped trunk,” Richard is a figure of ecological disaster, a world in which lessons in gardening have been rejected in favor of lessons in war and Machiavellian cunning.

James Noel Hoban as Malvolio, Bill Van Horn as Sir Toby Belch, Janis Stevens as Maria, and Mark S. Cartier as Sir Andrew Aguecheek in Twelfth Night.

The 2018 season will, I believe, show us that different circumstances require different voices: sometimes a collective roar is most effective; at other times a soft, low voice, even a whisper, might do the trick.  The voices of women are muted by circumstance in Twelfth Night, the other Shakespeare play in the 2018 season. Shipwrecked off the coast of llyria, Viola opts to take on the habit of a man, presenting herself as a kind of “eunuch” to the Duke Orsino. Viola/Cesario’s “small pipe/Is as the maiden’s organ, shrill and sound,” yet it serves her particular ends as a vulnerable, shipwrecked woman disguising herself while in a foreign country. Indeed, in Twelfth Night, women’s real power may come not from acting as “women” per se, but through the very slipperiness of gender identity, which gives them more opportunity than they might have had otherwise. Women may not “roar” in this play the way they do in Richard III, but they protect themselves and actively pursue their own desires and interests sometimes without much caution. Olivia is a prime example of this. She says to Sebastian (whom she mistakes for his twin sister cross-dressed as Cesario), “Would thou’dst be ruled by me!”  She also resists Orsino’s advances, especially notable given his aggressive rhetoric. Moving beyond Petrarchan clichés, he compares himself to Thyamis, who, with “savage jealousy” was willing to kill the woman he loved.

There is no raging tyrant in this comic world, just a Duke pining for a countess named Olivia, who is mourning the deaths of her father and brother. Even in peaceful Ilyria, where Orsino will lie on “sweet beds of flowers” consumed by “love-thoughts,” pain and suffering are quite real. Indeed, the play is a study in various forms of “madness,” some of them frightening, others innocuous. In Richard III people are confined and murdered in the Tower, while in Twelfth Night they are confined in other, less horrible, but still troubling ways. When told that he must “confine” himself within the limits of “order,” Sir Toby Belch replies with a pun:  “I’ll confine myself no finer than I am.”  Such limits are a good thing, and so is the transgression of them, at least in the world of comedy. Yet self-absorption, self-love, and even a boundless appetite for food and drink are also forms of “confinement” in this play, as Orsino, Sir Toby, and Malvolio demonstrate. For Orsino and Toby, desire becomes a prison and Malvolio finds himself in the prison of vanity. Olivia is confined or at least “cloistered” in her home as she mourns.

Shakespeare’s plays expose the “confinement” for women, yet they also show these limits and boundaries being transgressed. Viola may seem like a “eunuch,” but her disguise is an act of will that ultimately serves her needs—for survival as well as love. Twelfth Night resonates with postmodern ideas about gender identity: as in the 21st century, gender appears to be a series of performative acts; it is not fixed by one’s biological sex. Or, to put it differently, we might quote Simone de Beauvoir: “one is not born a woman, one becomes a woman.” There is no doubt that gender identity is fluid in this play—does Olivia love a male or female? Or both at the same time? One is not “confined” to a fixed gender or desire.

Normal rules never apply in Shakespeare’s festive, romantic comedies, as the characters enter a “holiday” world or what critics have called a “green world,” a less restrained social space outside the royal court, a space in which they are able to pursue their desires in less restrained ways, exploring the possibilities of love in a magical environment such as Ilyria in Twelfth Night, the woods in both A Midsummer Night’s Dream and As You Like It.  Such comic tropes are very much a part of Barber’s Enchanted April.

The women in this adaptation of Elizabeth Von Arnim’s novel are on holiday and Italy is their green world. We all dream of that escape to magical surroundings, a new place that will change us forever. Vacations rarely do that, but that is because we, like Malvolio in Twelfth Night, are not truly open to change. Thankfully, the women in this play are. And while we can all relate to their adventure, gender matters. It is a scandal for women to go on holiday without their husbands in 1920s England. At the start of the play, Lotty is gazing out a window at the rain, wondering (as she does daily) what her husband would want for dinner. Then she sees the ad that will change her life: wisteria and sunshine at a small castle on the Mediterranean in Northern Italy. Although the enchantment referenced in the play’s title arrives in sunny April, I would argue that the most magical moment of the play actually arrives much earlier, on a rainy day in February at the “Woman’s Club” in London when Lotty “sees” herself and Rose together at the castle in a “kind of flash.” At the thought of them together on vacation without their husbands, Rose says, “You shouldn’t say things like that.” It is this willingness to cross boundaries that allows for something wonderful to happen, namely the formation of a magical community.

Amber McNew as Lotty and Bibi Mama as Rose in Enchanted April.

Enchanted April is not simply about individual women challenging patriarchy; it is about middle class women challenging oppressive, classist ideologies of domesticity by forming bonds of friendship with women from the upper class. When the wealthy and snooty Mrs. Graves says she will send “references,” Lotty replies that “we needn’t distrust each other. We’re not Americans.” It is this, and a variety of other “un-American” qualities, that makes magic happen: a long vacation (even by European standards) offers opportunities for contemplation and reflection—a focus on the natural world rather than consumption—and the prioritization of community over the individual. Even the seemingly selfish wealthy women bond with their supposed inferiors. Similarly, the husbands of Lotty and Rose are in the process of changing, becoming better at listening to their wives. The husbands are not physically abusive, but their narcissism amounts to a form of emotional abuse. When husbands and wives reconnect in the green world, however, we get the sense that marriages will not be the same–that Lotty and Rose cannot be kept in cages of domesticity. After all, these ideologies damage both men and women, even if men have more power.

Kedren Spencer as Margot Wendice, Jake Loewenthal as Tony Wendice, and Marshall Taylor Thurman as Max Halliday in Dial “M” for Murder.

A very different situation, virtually the opposite, in fact, confronts Margot in Dial “M” For Murder. Contrary to Lotty’s generalization about Americans, here we see the Brits as untrustworthy, hyper-individualistic, and, at least in the case of the male protagonist, pathologically incapable of forming bonds with members of either sex. His wife Margot is similarly isolated, though she does have support from the man with whom she is having an affair. Not only is the justice system biased against her as a result of her extra-marital affair, but she is also rendered passive as a battle of wits among men determines her fate. Nevertheless,  only Margot’s will to survive, and her capable hands, give her a fighting chance at all: she stabs her attacker in the back with a pair of scissors that happen to be in reach at the right moment, and the hit man, employed by her gold-digging husband, falls to the ground.

What motivates Tony to kill his wife? Money seems to be the answer, but there is really more to it. The play is a study in a peculiarly male pathology: the desire to have, as the play puts it, “complete control over the situation.” At the height of his powers, Tony successfully organizes the sequence of events, making the other humans look like stage actors following his script and direction. A similar thrill in stage-managing human beings can be seen in Shakespeare’s Iago, a character in last season’s Othello at TAM. Like Iago, Tony is a master of improvisation. When his initial plot goes awry, he comes up with an alternative within seconds, and nearly pulls it off. In more ways than one, Tony is engaged in a battle to defeat the man who made him a cuckold—the crime writer Max. “In stories things turn out as the author plans them to,” Max points out. “In real life,” he says, “they don’t—always.” The irony is not lost on us: we are experiencing a fiction that seems like a “real life” version of Max’s crime stories. Tony, like Richard III (incidentally played by the same actor), wants to pull off an improbable victory; he wants to win against the odds, and it is hard not to admire his artistry. Richard lives in a providential world in which his demonic behavior will inevitably take him to defeat and hell. In the twentieth century of Dial “M,” virtuous humans have no divine ally, and it is a simple, small mistake that ultimately brings Tony down, just as Max says. If we are not sympathetic to Tony’s plight, we still might be complicit in his artistry, as we are in our admiration for Richard’s plotting. Can they really pull it off? Who among us doesn’t, at least for a moment, feel a frisson, accompanied by the requisite guilt, at the thought that they can and will?

Amber McNew as Jane Bennett and Katie Croyle as Elizabeth Bennett in Pride@Prejudice.

It is no wonder Hitchcock found Knott’s work appealing. Like so many Hitchcock characters, Tony is sinister and ugly on the inside but genial, attractive, and debonair on the outside–a man who would fit comfortably into the clubby, class conscious world of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in which marriage is a “blood sport.” Marrying for money is, of course, also the goal of Mrs. Bennet in Daniel Elihu Kramer’s Pride@Prejudice. But even Mrs. Bennet would not kill for money, right? Well. . . she does encourage her daughter Jane to travel by horse in the rain, hoping she will get sick and require a lengthy rejuvenation at the estate of the wealthy aristocrat Bingley. And indeed, Jane does become ill, which extends her stay, exactly what her mother hoped would happen. This convalescence creates a higher likelihood that the wealthy man will propose to Jane. Thus, Tony in Dial “M” falls into a tradition of desperate Brits who will do virtually anything to maintain—or rise above—their class position. But with Elizabeth’s rejection of Mr. Collins we have an affirmation of romantic love, something we aren’t given in Dial “M.” Nevertheless marriage is, we are told, a “blood sport” for the English in general, not just for male psychopaths like Tony. What we also find in Pride@Prejudice is a woman, namely Elizabeth, who is “resolved to act in that manner which will, in my own opinion, constitute my happiness” (80). This sentiment, like Lotty and Rose’s trip to Italy, defies the social expectations that make it difficult, indeed almost impossible, for most women to have a chance to pursue happiness on their own terms. The play, like the novel, also gives us two contrasting male protagonists—the villainous Wickham who preys upon women, and Darcy, a man who is able to grow and improve because of criticism coming from women–a man who supports his beloved’s family because he is thinking of her needs as well as his own.

This season’s plays include male villains—Richard III, Tony, Lesgate, Wickham—as well as men we simply love to hate—Malvolio, Mallersh, Frederick—but Shakespeare’s Richard III in particular stands out this season for the way it offers us a mirror in which we can see an image of our own failure to prevent dangerous and incompetent men from coming into power. As Stephen Greenblatt points out in his recent book on tyrants in Shakespeare’s plays, Richard’s rise was only possible because there were all kinds of “enablers,” male and female, rich and poor, educated and uneducated. Sadly, the unified roar of women in Richard III only arrives well after Richard has risen to power and destroyed countless lives. It was a collective failure—more on the part of men than women but surely involving both— that allowed a tyrant to come to power. Nevertheless, Richard III provides the most powerful example at TAM this season of women coming together for a common purpose despite their glaring differences.

The challenge to patriarchy, if it is to be truly powerful, requires many voices from many different people. Sometimes a roar is necessary, sometimes a whisper. We could use a lot more collective roaring; nevertheless, it is hardly feasible, or even adequate as a long term political strategy. We need smaller, quieter acts like Lotty’s reaching out to Rose at the Women’s Club, getting her to dream of a better life. Lotty and Rose take a genuine risk when they leave home for Italy without their husbands. And what about us? Are we risk takers? What would be the equivalent act for us?  We, too, are afraid of change and we crave security. We stick with what feels comfortable or “normal,” so while it is easy to think it would have been a no-brainer for women to leave their husbands behind 100 years ago, we are not necessarily inclined to find the equivalent courage to challenge norms in our own time. Taking risks, getting out of our comfort zones, travelling to new places, growing and changing: these are what lead to progress. As Lotty might say, the 2018 season is a “lesson in gardening” in which we must be bold and open to the unexpected, like the Acacia tree that magically grows where a walking stick had been.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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