Saturday, December 31, 2005

Comedy of Errors - Host's Opening Salvo


Why would anyone try to take The Comedy of Errors seriously? The unstated attitude toward comedy is that it is not serious. Tragedy is serious. TV Guide will designate anything "comedy" if it has a laugh track (though newspapers will throw the term "tragedy" at anything, however trivial, that involves a mother's tears). Ah, but comedy is about human beings, usually in social situations. Take a bunch of them, wind them up, and let them run into each other. Note their flaws, follies, misapprehensions, vices, and especially their self-delusions. See how they are not in control of love, of parenting, of business, of language, how they cannot keep their promises or even mean what they say. Tragedy, on the other hand, is about ideals, "the pure laws of the universe," Sophocles would say. Mankind still falls short, caught up in inevitable helplessness. Tragedy is impressive. But comedy is about humans, that is, about us, and we can't really let anyone catch us taking ourselves seriously, or they might laugh at us.

"Proceed, Solinus, to procure my fall,
And by the doom of death end woes and all" (I.1.1-2).

Egeon's opening lines, dark images of laws, enmity, rancor, and solemn synods, and thus matter to be taken seriously, this opening scene in which Duke Solinus of Ephesus condemns Egeon of Syracuse to death, though he gives him a day to raise ransom in a land of strangers. Admittedly we don't see Egeon again until the end of the day, and my marginal note asks, when Luciana charges her sister to complain to the Duke, "remember him?". And when a merchant notes the Duke is on his way with a Syracusan who is to be publicly beheaded, my margin has "oh, yeah, the beheading." And when Egeon emerges with "I see my son Antipholus and Dromio," another "remember him?", so I'm not pretending the play is really about death-and-resurrection or somesuch though it does start with high seriousness.

The Comedy of Errors is not the only Shakespeare play to begin with such gravity or draconian law. Hermia is condemned to die, or get herself to a life of virginity in a nunnery, at the beginning of A Midsummer Night's Dream because the law of Athens makes it a capital offense to disobey one's father, and Duke Theseus cannot waive the law (except, of course, if the lovers tell him a good story about fairies and love potions). Antonio will be executed if caught on the shores of Illyria at the beginning of Twelfth Night. Both Love's Labor's Lost and Olivia in Twelfth Night start with vows of unnatural (that is, for fecund youth) chastity, a form of social "death" methinks. Memento mori. This grave grounding even of the most frivolous of plays reminds the audience that human behavior is serious, that outside the doors of the theater there is life and death and disappointment, and what happens in the play is not merely an escape.

So, have I ignored the comedy/farce? Dromio is sent to the Centaur with gold and returns to command Antipholus to dinner and is beaten; Antipholus is called to dinner, and Dromio is assigned as porter to prevent interruption so he denies Antipholus entry to his own house to dinner. Antilpholus sends Dromio for passage on a ship while Angelo gives him a golden chain. Antipholus sends Dromio for a rope and asks Angelo for the chain. Dromio returns with passage on a ship and Antipholus says "I sent thee for a rope," but sends him to Adriana for a purse to pay his bail which Dromio gets and returns it to Antipholus who is pleased at the inexplicable largess of the local citizens. Ya' got that???

OK. First, all this defines "dramatic irony": the audience is in possession of information that the characters do not possess. We must add which of the above will be designated by later editors "of Syracuse" and which "of Ephesus." Thus, we can objectively observe/analyze why the characters behave as they do, watching why they make all those errors because their assumptions are flawed. We humans seldom have necessary and sufficient facts or information, yet we must act and react. Thus, mistaken identity becomes a lab for seeing how most of our relationships run along on only partial apprehension. When we encounter new situations or new people, as in those "mixers" colleges used to arrange for incoming freshmen, we reach for clues so we can react rather than respond the next time we meet them. "Oh, you're the girl from Duluth, the guy majoring in theater, the one who wore a tie-dye shirt to the dorm meeting and turned out to be a Young Republican in disguise." If we had to respond to every single detail, we would never get through a day. But our -- more efficient -- reactions, nonetheless, tend to be partial, superficial, often wrong. So in that we base our assumptions about the next situation, the next encounter, on expectations from what we already think we know, we set ourselves up to be foolish.

Part of the delight for me in Comedy of Errors is watching the characters not get it. Logic or a preponderance of coincidence might lead to conclusions about "separated at birth" (and we must suspend disbelief about why after 18 years the twins are dressed identically), but first there are compelling rationales substituted: magic, witchcraft, worlds of dreams, enchantment, inspiration -- that is, possessed by spirits -- though not quite "vast right-wing conspiracies" or "intelligent design." And madness. These are reasonable cultural ways of accounting for how not unreasonable assumptions are constantly frustrated by illogical responses. "I sent you for a rope." "No, sire, you sent me to fetch a trunk." "Owww!" At least no one cries out, "I saw Goodman Antipholus dancing with the devil!" It is not until the level-headed Adriana in Act V, finally describes the situation as "past thought of human reason" (V.1.189), that this little society can begin to believe their eyes rather than rely on their assumptions. As a director would I find the "owww!" to be sufficient? If not, would I put the Three Stooges, Adam Sandler, Will Farrell, Pauly Shore out of business.

There is another form of assumption and perception that comes into play: reputation. The Duke, after Egeon's (interminable) exposition, is moved so that "were it not against our laws,/ Against my crown, my oath, my dignity,/ Which princes, would they, may not disannul," would pardon the pitiful old man, but a "passed sentence may not be recall'd/ But to our honor's great disparagement" (I,1.142-44, 147-48). Gotta stay the course, or honor and dignity might be questioned. Maintaining reputation potentially seems an occasion for human folly greater than errors of mistaken identity (but I'll wait until Measure for Measure to explore this). In Act V, the [second] merchant of Ephesus, confused about why Angelo, the goldsmith, could not pay his debt because an Antipholus refused to pay for a chain, asks "how is the man esteem'd here in the city?" and Angelo replies with the highest of credit ratings, "Of very reverent reputation, sir ... His word might bear my wealth at any time" (V.1.4-5, 8). Dromio finding himself engaged to the strange and stranger Nell is funny; Solinus condemning a man to death for the sake of the dignity of consistency with inflated politics; Angelo advancing credit based on reputation for probity is how capitalism works (Kenny Boy Lay must surely have been described as "of credit infinite, highly beloved," at least by those he gave campaign contributions to). Compared to all the mistaken identities in The Comedy of Errors, these are a minor matters, but it provides a bit more dimension on assumption and perception.

One more form of reputation and behavior arises when the Abbess is entrapping Adriana into a confession that the latter has been shrewish to her husband, thus being responsible for his infidelity and even his madness. "Hath not his eye/ Stray'd his affections in unlawful love--/ A sin prevailing much in youthful men,/ Who give their eyes the liberty of gazing? You should for that have reprehended him" (V.1.50-53, 57). "Why, so I did ... Ay, but not rough enough ... As roughly as my modesty would let me." Modesty is a "virtue," but it is one of keeping up appearances (Restoration Comedy will separate reputation from truth absolutely), and soon the Abbess has led Adrianna into confessing to 24/7 nagging and is condemned: "The venom clamors of a jealous woman/ Poisons more deadly than a mad dog's tooth" (V.1.69-70). Watch out, guys, a nagging wife is worse than rabies, especially when disguised by a reputation for modesty.

Remember that my mentor Cyrus Hoy said "comedy is not a laughing matter." So, here I go, taking Adriana and Lucinda seriously. When we first meet her, Adriana tells her sister that, though she has sent Dromio [of Ephesus] to bring her husband Antipholus home to dinner, they have not returned. But bachelorette Lucinda lectures her sister on the sovereignty of husbands in a marriage: "A man is master of his liberty:/ Time is their master, and when they see time,/ They'll come; if so, be patient, sister" (II.1.7-9). "Why should their liberty than ours be more?" "Because their business still lies out a' door ... O, know he is the bridle of you will" (II.1.10-11, 13). Men, Lucinda claims "Are masters to their females, and their lords:/ Then let your will attend on their accords." Adriana counters "This servitude makes you keep unwed" and Lucinda replies "Ere I learn love, I'll practice to obey," and if a husband stray, "Till he come home again, I would forbear" (II.1.24.31). Her theory ignores the real experience of a wife of an unfaithful husband. Shakespeare not only doubled the number of twins in Plautus, but he also doubled the number of non-courtesan women. This is important to me because the above allows for a real debate about sovereignty, between the theoretical and the experienced. And I find Adriana the credible side of this argument (I never let my students say "Shakespeare believes" because all the arguments and dramatic tensions are divided among characters, but here Adriana's question of why men should get more liberty than women does not seem sufficiently answered by "they spend more time outdoors"). And Luciana's theories of feminine obedience are undercut because she is not arguing from experience.

Later it is the now-celibate Abbess who again lectures Adriana on how she must have been responsible for husband's insanity by denying him his marital "sports," his "sweet recreations," while upbraiding him at dinner and in bed about his wanderlust (emphasize "lust"). The Abbess even practices ur-psychology by attributing Antipholus's unaccountable behavior to loss of wealth or death of friend, until she hits on the wife's jealous fits as the cause. Yes, Adriana is hurt, and jealous, and concerned that marriage may have comparatively diminished her beauty. But if Antopholus of Ephesus does have a mistress-and he exchanges the chain promised to Adriana to the Courtezan (in exchange for "sweet recreations") then jealousy is justified. Lucinda, on the other hand, who has been the "expert" on the rights of husbands, suddenly becomes the target of her sister's [apparent] husband's advances-how should her ideals on men's rights to philander stand up when Antipholus [though of Syracuse] says, "Sing, siren, for thyself, and I will dote ... Thee will I love and with thee lead my life" (III.2.47, 67), which sends her in panic to fetch her sister, thus undercutting her argument about male liberty.

Still, Adriana's fundamentally serious plea about the sinfulness of adultery (II.2) arouses laughter because the audience sees it is addressed to the wrong Antipholus [of Syracuse]. Thus, because the audience knows what the characters do not, we are in a position to see how such flaws of human behavior are based on (mis)perception. It's fun to see Adriana hypothetically ask Antipholus [of Syracuse] how he would repond had her body been contaminated by "ruffian lust." It's not hard to imagine what this Antipholus is thinking. I note again there's not much sex in Shakespeare. Othello may be described as playing the beast with two backs with Desdemona, Angelo may sleep with the disguised Mariana, mistaking her for Isabella in Measure for Measure, Richard III beds widowed Lady Anne (that's really creepy), and that's Borachio observed shagging Margaret in that window in Much Ado About Nothing, though the point is it is not Hero. Branagh, against the text, flashes back to Hamlet naked with Ophelia, or at least with Kate Winslett (could it just be Branagh's dream?), though this would be before Laertes tells his sister to watch out for young princes, they only want the one thing. Zefferelli gives us 1½ seconds of Juliet's breast and 13 seconds of Romeo's backside (trust me, I timed it, because this is the evidence public high schools use to ban the film), though this is after they have consummated their marriage vows.

But consider the sexual tension we get in Comedy of Errors. Adriana, neglected and jealous of her wandering husband, who we know has gone off to give a golden chain to the Courtezan in exchange for more than a hot dish (sorry, Minnesotans), begs an Antipholus to come into her parlor. Antipholus [of Syracuse], indeed, gets a good meal and later a bag of gold, but, oh, my, consider the possibilities. Remember in the modern "identical twin" comedy, Dave, Kevin Klein, whom the secret service has selected as a double for the President, does not sleep with first lady Sigorney Weaver, given that the philandering president has forced her into separate quarters. The film plays with possibility when Weaver confronts Dave when he is in the shower, but her focus is on public policy rather than on private parts. I hope it isn't my 20th century sensibility that imagines more intimate complications. At the end, Antipholus of Ephesus seems reconciled to Adriana, Antipholus of Syracuse tells Lucinda he will make good his addresses to her, and the Abbess is reunited with Egeon, her long-lost husband. The Courtezan gets her own ring back but no golden chain, which seems a little mean to a hard-working businesswoman. Anyway, comedy ends with harmony (at least until the curtain comes down) and here the "dance" is the restoration of marital love.

Jean and I saw a production of Georges Feydeau's An Absolute Turkey (Le Dindon) in London about ten years ago. Feydeau is regarded as "the father of French farce." The play was translated and directed by Peter Hall, former director of the National Theatre, who also directed a ground-breaking 1968 film of Midsummer Night's Dream. Turkey was at the Globe in the West End (on Shaftesbury Avenue -- now renamed the Gielgud so as not to be confused with the new old Shakespearian replica). The sets -- a drawing room, a hotel room, and a study -- were dazzlingly designed by Gerald Scarfe. The brilliant cast was led by Felicity Kendal, one of the most charming actresses I've ever seen, best known in America for the BBC comedy Good Neighbors. The blurb on my copy says, "Feydeau, the supreme master of farce, displays all his dramatic tricks as his characters are pulled back and forth spinning dizzily in a surrealistic climax of complications." I do remember in one scene there were three doors, a trunk, curtains, a bed, and all the action was lovers and husbands and mistresses and hotel guests entering and exiting and hiding with exquisite timing. In another scene a butler enters, finds clothes on the floor and says "Another skirt! There's always another skirt!" Everything was set up to delight me, a theater lover. I was amused by Act I, bemused by Act II, rather bored by Act III, and now, even with the text by my side, I can't remember anything from it.

Point? The Dromios are among my favorite characters in all of Shakespeare -- yes I would double-cast Buster Keaton if he would embellish his performance with some Johnny Carson double-takes. But my The Comedy of Errors has to have enough vital depth of character, as represented by the intelligent, vulnerable, yet independent Adriana and her naively righteous, anti-feminist sister Lucinda, to counterpoint the wonderfully complex sets of mistaken identities that invite me to see and see into how we humans must wander through a maze of flawed relationships because our reactions to appearances are seldom adequate for reasoned understanding. There must be more than farcial timing. The play must be about people.


Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Comedy of Errors - Opening Remarks

Some thoughts before reading The Comedy of Errors:

We will all have various familiarity with many of Shakespeare's plays. I used to insist that my students could not engage in civilized discourse about anything unless they knew the plot of Hamlet, if only for allusions, analogies, and access to editorial cartoons. (It turned out the only "literature" everyone knew was The Wizard of Oz: "Gosh, Toto...there's no place like home.") Me, I've read Comedy of Errors often enough to have taught it at least three times, each time in a "dramatic comedy" course, sequentially between the source, Plautus's Menaechmi, and Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. Back when they talked about genres (when I was a math major and had no clue what the English prof was saying when he said "jonnrrahh"), someone claimed Shakespeare wrote histories until he perfected the form with the Henriad, then stopped; wrote comedies until he wrote a perfect Twelfth Night, then stopped; wrote tragedy until King Lear, then stopped; wrote romance until The Tempest, then stopped all together. He began it all with The Comedy of Errors, got "farce" right the first time out, so he never wrote another, in that he had nowhere else to go.

Plautus has a set of twins separated at birth, so Shakespeare raises it to two sets. I suppose Feydeau could go to three sets, and Steve Martin would try four, but ... I have never believed Shakespeare worried about genre. If one starts with a form, then fills in blanks, the play will be awful. See Sam Johnson's tragedy Irene. (Actually, don't see it; take my word for it.) Still, it might be fun to fool around with seeing how a Dromio is sent for a rope and comes back with a trunk, and explore perception, assumption, and mistaken identity. Mistaken identity is not merely a cliched comic convention. If I expect something, I'm more likely to see what I expect. I do think "Comedy" is comedy, even if the Antipholi (ah, ha, our first joke) keep hitting the Dromios over the heads with sticks and ropes and sides of mutton. So, I've read it, taught it, seen at least four productions that I remember, and watched the Flying Karamazov Brothers's version on video.

I wonder if we will be tempted to pretend we are reading each play for the first time. I think I will a bit, just so I can see each play anew. But I hope we will still bring forward stuff we know, if it helps discussion, and we all should be free to ask each other for stuff--"OK, Findlay Major, where does Menaechmi fit in here?" or "Hey, Mike, could you get away with this with high-school sophomores?" No need to show off.

"Comedy is not a laughing matter," says my mentor Cyrus Hoy. Shall we consider why Shakespeare's most playful play begins with a sentence of death, which still hangs over Syracuse until Act V? Despite the St. Paul Academy (and the Blake School?) students' mantra, "you are over-analyzing," could we consider what it all means? I've already suggested I'm interested in perception and mistaken identity. I think I will collect alternate explanations--magic, witchcraft, a world of dreams, enchantment. Shakespeare adds a second set of twins to Plautus. But he also adds a second woman to Plautus's virago Matrona. Why? And it is the unmarried sister who lectures the wife on a husband's sovereignty in marriage. I wonder what the Southern Baptists ("wife as submissive chattel") think of the dispute between Adriana and Lucinda. To me, if I remember, Adriana's argument for equality for wives looks legit, even though it is fueled by (legitimate) jealousy, and it is an interesting draft of Katherina's exhortation to wives at the end of Taming of the Shrew.

Then, we could explore farce. Indeed, the lines constantly show that the Dromios are whacked on the head--the three stooges plus one--and the female geography description of Nell, the cook, is called the "greasiest passage in Shakespeare" by Eric Partridge in Shakespeare's Bawdy, if I remember.

Might we imagine how we would direct Comedy of Errors? Could you single cast the Antipholuses and the Dromios? Is, as I once saw, casting a Fillipino and a Korean as identical twins racist? (I have no directing experience, ever.) Me, my taste, rejects farce-to-the-max, but I really like it when it is understated. That's been true all my life, but I have been lectured at by a 16-year-old Poudre High School boy that Adam Sandler is America's greatest actor.

I hope there are some pre-reading questions in here, such as what is Egeon doing in this play? Do we tolerate coincidence? And, inevitably, why can't the characters figure out what's going on until Act V ("because it would be a very short play," is not permitted as an answer)? Whatever we think about this last will carry over to Twelfth Night. A prof once asked me how would the audience know which Dromio was which, and I volunteered each could wear a different colored ribbon in his hat. I was jeered--moral: never volunteer--because the "correct" answer is the text will tell you. There is always enough information to recognize which twin is confronting which twin.

I remember picnicking on the green before a production of Comedy of Errors in Boulder, CO, and an actor costumed as Shakespeare strolled up and asked us if we wanted to know anything about the play. I said I was good, I had taught it, and we had seen a production at Boulder twenty-five years before and vividly remembered one of the Dromios had shinnied up his six-foot staff and fell and was hurt and the audience was shocked rather than laughed at the banana-peel slapstick. The old actor wistfully told us that he had played Antipholus in that production. If we have seen productions, I hope we can swap anecdotes. Ask me about Dromio in a dune buggy sometime.

Who would be the best Dromio--Buster Keaton, Joe E Brown, Johnny Carson, Jay Leno (did you know that in commedia dell'arte the "leno" is the pimp?), Step'n Fetchit, or Adam Sandler?