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?


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