Thursday, March 30, 2006

Titus Andronicus - Preliminary (Before Thinking) Notes


It's hard not to start with nervous laughter.

I have three memories of Titus Andronicus. At age 20, while stationed in the US Army in Watford, England, during the Korean War, I saw a production at Stratford with Laurence Olivier, Vivian Leigh, and Anthony Quayle. I knew nothing about the play, but I took along a couple of my army buddies, probably to show off I was a class above our daily culture of picking up cigarette butts and complaining about the chow. The production is now famous, directed by Peter Brook, and I remember more of it than I seemed to have retained from many plays I saw when I was that callow. Aaron the Moor (Quayle) dominated my focus, and I remember 17 murders (actually there are 14 if you count the poor rustic who is executed for delivering a letter to Saturninus and Aaron who is condemned to die, licked to death by earthworms (?), but not actually disemboweled on stage). The ragout served up to Tamora at the banquet of course arrested my attention, good stuff for a twenty-year-old seeking any sort of ironic dissonance from army life (remember we were required to complain about the food).

And I remember Vivian Leigh. She played Lavinia who is mutilated horribly at the end of Act II, hands amputated, tongue cut out, to prevent witness about her rapists. Brook displayed her with vivid scarlet ribbons flowing from her mouth and from her empty sleeves. Lavinia is on stage for much of the remainder of the play, as a silent reactor and accomplice to her father's grief. She wept. She touched Titus. She moaned. I have never forgotten this tableau, though in my subsequent drama watching, I regret that I have only seen Vivian Leigh that once, and her most memorable lines were "mmumh... mummph... mmamum." If only she had read Christy Brown's My Left Foot. [Nervous laughter]

But that made Titus my play. Only I knew about it. The next scene is my PhD oral exams. Seven professorial interrogators and just me. Two and a half hours. No witnesses. It all went very well, and I became more and more confident. I gave a fulsome answer to a 300-word question that I could see into as merely "Alexander Pope? yes or no?" I could quote from Beowulf (in Anglo Saxon, for God's sake). I knew the difference between Una and Duessa in The Faerie Queene (I'm sure my answer was not just "plus one"). We got toward the end, and there was time for the profs to just fool around, so one asked me if on the first day of classes, I was suddenly given a Shakespeare course to teach, what three plays would I choose. Really loaded. I fell silent (at which point Jean was listening outside the door and thought perhaps I had dropped dead) until the questioner said, "just what three plays; we won't ask you to explain your choices." "Whew!" goes my mind, and I blurted out Hamlet, Twelfth Night, and Titus Andronicus ("my" play). So, of course, I spent another ten minutes trying to explain a play I had never read and had not seen for ten years.

Once, I went to see The Long Riders with some friends. The Keaches, the Quaids, and the Carradines raid Northfield. MN. Horses leap through glass, the Youngers die in slow motion. JoeBob says check it out. Great movie, but the three wives all went out to the lobby to eat popcorn for half an hour. So, third memory, there is the Julie Taymor/Anthony Hopkins movie. In my life of movie going, it is the only time I have had to turn away from the screen. "Perhaps we could make more dramatic sense out of Titus Andronicus if we could see it as an unharrowed hell, a satyr-play of obscene and gibbering demons," says Northrop Frye (Anatomy of Criticism, 292).

So, fourth, I am shocked by Titus Andronicus. I'm shocked that Shakespeare goes from "Long live our Emperor Saturnine!' (I.i.233) to Mutius: "Help, Lucius, help!" [Titus kills him] (I.i.291); from "Lavinia will I make my empress" (I.i.240) to "Thanks, noble Titus, father of my life!" (I.i.253) to "No, Titus, no, the Emperor needs her [Lavinia] not,/ Nor her, nor thee, nor any of thy stock" (I.i.299-300). Look, guys, this is only 67 lines. Mercutiio takes twice as long just to footnote Queen Mab.

I'm going to break now, but I plan to come back to genre (unless Ernst gets me off the hook about Seneca); about character (from Stratford in 1954, I still think Aaron is the most compelling); about Randall's tracing through honor, loyalty, justice, vengeance to the feeble little "Then, afterwards, to order well the state" (all Shakespearean tragedy ends with a world well shrunk, e.g., Duncan, MACBETH, Malcolm. And my impulse is to think about Ernst's "camp" in terms of irony rather than send-up. If you gang up on me, I could be persuaded to read The Changeling or Bussy D'Ambois or reread The Duchess of Malfi. I have seen, recently, Jude Law at the New Vic in 'Tis Pity She's a Whore. Perhaps I will get up the courage to watch Titus or, at least, Jane Howells's BBC version, too chicken to be set in Northern Ireland.

Which brings us to the note that Laura Bush started exercising when she married George W because it was part of his lifestyle, which explains why she's also stopped reading. But our discovery is George W. Bush has read Titus Andronicus! ("We are but shrubs, no cedars we")

Talk to you soon,

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