Saturday, August 26, 2006

RE2: 3 Henry VI - Evil


Interesting comments from Ernst about Vice. I wonder what the audience reaction to the Medieval dramas was like when these characters appeared on stage? Would that have informed the Renaissance reaction? Or would the Ren-folk, being more secular and worldly, have had a modified reaction to characters like Richard and Aaron and Iago? As a member of a more modern audience, I have trouble seeing anything as "evil." Wicked, maybe, but I'm always looking for or expecting some explanation for the way a person acts, and evil is a nature not a cause.

An aside: when I was studying literature and theater in London on a Carleton program, our program coordinator invited RSC actor John Carlisle into our class to speak. He was playing Don John in Much Ado About Nothing opposite Derek Jacobi and Sinead Cusak (as Benedick and Beatrice). One of us -- not me! -- asked how he prepared for the role. He gave us 15 minutes of backstory -- how Don John had been abused as a child, how he resented his brother Don Pedro, how he'd run around with juvenile delinquent types as an adolescent. Holy Stanislavsky!

Now, Don John may not be up there with the Aarons and Iagos and Richards, but his objective is purely desctructive. Carlisle's preparation, to imagine a past from which the character's present has organically grown, reflects the modern audience's disconnection from pure evil as an acceptable motivation. After thinking about this for a bit, I realize that I don't really believe in evil, and what's more, it now occurs to me that I tend to scorn and belittle those who traffic in such cartoonish extremes: Star Wars, Christian fundamentalists, George Bush, etc. (And even the Star Wars franchise spent $348 million over three new movies to provide a background for Darth Vader, explaining his evil -- he had a tough childhood.)

My father will point to my long association with comic books as a rebuff to this, but I grew up in an age when all the villains had reasons for their villainy; nobody was just plain bad. In Spider-man, the Green Goblin was insane, in keeping with the late '60s and '70s cliché that every villain was a psychopath. Kraven the Hutner was simply acting on a Darwinian principle of survival of the fittest. Dr. Octopus's megalomania was the result of a laboratory accident. The Lizard's transformation from human to beast left him with reduced, animalistic mental capacity. Most of the rest of them were just glorified crooks with super powers. Heck, I even look at Nazis (in movies and such) and think -- there's a bunch of guys who got duped by a megalomaniac who, in turn, had a rotten childhood. Evil is the negative consequence of what we do, not who we are.

Which raises an interesting question: If not Vice, of the stock characters of Medieval drama and commedia del'arte, which still work effectively in modern drama? Miles Gloriosus? Maybe. The Smart Slave (il Furbo)? The last time we saw him, played by Gregory Hines, was in Mel Brooks' History of the World, Part 1. I'm voting for The Courtesan, or The Whore, only now she has a Heart of Gold. (But whatever happened to the 17th-century stock character Drunken Dutchman Resident in England?)

I think John is making a similar point when he writes "We are supposed to see these people as evil, whether it's a comic evil, a Manichaean evil, or a Satanic. But they are also practical and Machiavellian." When Richard steps away from the action and tells us,

"Then, since this world affords no joy to me,
But to command, to check, to o'erbear such
As are of better person than myself,
I'll make my heaven to dream upon the crown,
And whiles I live, t'account this world but hell,
Until my misshaped trunk that bears this head
Be round impaled with a glorious crown" (3 Henry VI, 3.2.165-171)

we understand the motivation behind the villainy. Here is a character who, first, has been referred to as a "crookback prodigy," "a foul misshapen stigmatic," "thou misshapen Dick," and "an indigested and deformed lump." We 21st-century folk know what such negativity can do to a person's psyche. Teachers and parents are taught that students and children become what their overseers imagine them to be. Second, he realistically understands that he is not going to be successful at love ("Love forswore me in my mother's womb"), so his decision to seek the crown and murder everyone in his path is nothing more than successful job self-counseling. Do what you're good at.

So, how closely does this character, whose motivations and inner rationale are clear, reflect the stock character of Medieval Vice? Perhaps one reason why Richard III continues to be a successfully staged drama is because even as our appreciation for stock characters recedes (perhaps), Richard continues to be character we can understand in terms of "why."

One last thought: If John's etymological exploration is pedantry, bring on the pedants! That was cool. I am absolutely thrilled to know that the most sour-faced and sour-souled man in all of baseball, Bud Selig, is really named Bud Blissful, that the owner/baseball commissioner with the soul of a used car salesman is really Bud Pious! Now there's an irony for the ages. Thanks John.


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