Revivals Past 2015, Part I: The Roots of English Theater — Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine at TFANA

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Tamburlaine on his chariot, drawn by conquered rulers. Photo Gerry Goodstein.

Tamburlaine on his chariot, drawn by conquered rulers. Photo Gerry Goodstein.

I can think of one, perhaps two or three people, who might possibly know all the theaters in New York City. I certainly don’t, although I make it my business to know as many as I can. It really is quite an active scene, with more new plays than one can keep track of, much less attend…even works improvised in front of our eyes, but this all rests on a bedrock of revivals, which may be in the minority, although they seem to flourish everywhere. There is always the question of how good the new shows actually are and whether the the revivals are filling a yawning gap. If you talk to actors and directors, you’ll consider the issue seriously. You’ll find the entire mixture in New York Arts—good, bad, and indifferent—with a healthy component of revivals, ranging from high-profile visiting companies, for example Sophocles’ Antigone with an internationally-celebrated star to the Barnard Columbia Ancient Drama Group’s unforgettable production of a lesser-known play by Euripides in ancient Greek. In this retrospective article, I’d like to discuss a few productions and a few companies which have brought me particular pleasure over the past year. Their productions were important enough, in their different ways, and excellent enough, to make a difference in how I view our theatrical landscape. What they all share is a deep devotion to serving the text and historical character of the works they produce, whether they are classics or long-forgotten obscurities.

There is no question that both parts of Tamburlaine were hugely popular plays in their own time and for close to a decade after its premiere in late 1587. Marlowe, who was then twenty-three, having gone down from Cambridge about a year before, responded to its popularity by writing a sequel. As both parts were entered in the Stationer’s Register in August 1590, they were published together that year, followed by a second edition in 1592, a third in 1597. There followed separate publications of the two parts in 1605 and 1606. All this shows that its popularity, at least among the general play-going audience (i.e. not the most sophisticated or fashionable) into the reign of James. Tamburlaine‘s influence on Shakespeare’s early plays is well-known, as well as its role in expanding the ambitions of theater to its own grand scale. Criticism of its bombast and lack of subtlety surface early, however, and, by the time the theaters were re-opened by Charles II, Marlowe was largely forgotten.

While his less unwieldy plays, above all Doctor Faustus, began to receive occasional productions with the growth of historical interest in early English theater, Tamburlaine, with its two parts, each substantial in itself, requiring together over six hours to perform, has proven more difficult. It would be well-nigh impossible to attract modern theater-goers to seeing both complete on separate days, as Marlowe’s contemporaries saw it, except, perhaps in an especially serious festival setting. Most companies have chosen to combine the two parts and to cut them down to a manageable length, still hard to carry out adequately in less than three hours—more of a challenge for post-war fundaments than for those of older generations.

This is the sensible course, Michael Boyd, former director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, chose to take for New York. Any thought of producing Tamburlaine here, however, could well seem less than sensible, given that no one has attempted to mount it since 1956, when Tyrone Guthrie’s production, which had been quite successful in Stratford, Ontario, closed after twenty performances when imported to Broadway. Hence TFANA’s enterprise seemed like a Herculean feat. There have been a few British productions since the millennium. None of these have made much of a mark beyond the usual ripples of critical approval, except for one, David Farr’s 2005 production at the Bristol Old Vic and the Barbican, which was roundly attacked for censoring a crucial scene late in the Second Part, when Tamburlaine burns the Koran, his own holy scripture, presumably to avoid offending Muslims. Farr had a ready answer…but there are certain things one doesn’t do. in any case, none of these appear to have made history, but, I believe, Michael Boyd’s production did, in that it brought young Marlowe’s first stage triumph fully to life for a mixed audience. I hope none of them will forget what they saw and heard and will go about for years to come, bragging that they were fortunate enough to attend Michael Boyd’s great Tamburlaine at TFANA.

The Theatre for a New Audience has been a force in New York and in the classical theater world for many years, originating roughly around the same time in the late 70s as Shakespeare and Company in Lenox, Massachusetts. However, their superb new theater in the Brooklyn Cultural District seems to change things. With a capacity of 377 seats, with a stage surrounded on three sides by the audience, the auditorium recalls the Tina Packer Playhouse at Shakespeare and Company, which is similar in size. The notable difference is that the rear of the auditorium can be more readily adapted to serve as a secondary stage or entrance to the main playing space, with good sight lines for the audience. The front, of course, is nothing but a stage. This double-ended capability was put to powerful use during the course of the action. The acoustics are among the best you will hear in any theater. With all credit to the well-trained, excellent cast, every line came across crisply and fully intelligibly. I’ve heard this in other productions there, above all, Arin Arbus’ fine King Lear, with a great performance by Michael Pennington, and actor’s actor, if there ever was one.

Marlowe’s play presents a vast panorama of Asia, from his native Scythia, where the shepherd/bandit Tamburlaine first commences his rise, to the shores of the Mediterranean, where he meets his death, beginning and ending—in this production—closely attached to his chariot, which can serve as well to support Tamburlaine’s throne, as to carry him into a battle, and later, his deceased beloved Zenocrate’s preserved body. As he continues his progress westwards, various chattels and prisoners accrue to this mobile center of operations. At times kings and nobles pull it along, as if they were beasts. As a constant with continually changing accidentals and a means of nomadic travel, the object threads a path through Marlowe’s action and verse.

One more basic in Boyd’s production is the way in which he manages to equate action and word. The energetic, violent, even shockingly brutal actions we see on stage blend and exchange fluently Marlowe’s powerful, if potentially monotonous verse. Ear and eye were equally well-served—and in an original way, demanded both by Christopher Marlowe and by Boyd’s concept his play (shared heartily by TFANA, as expressed in a statement by Richard C. McCoy, Chair of the TFANA Council of Scholars) as a play for our times, when, indeed, a great deal is being played out in the same part of the world where both Alexander the Great and the historical Tamburlaine cracked skulls.

This identification of rhetoric and action is both true to the spirit of the classical rhetoric of Marlowe’s formation, and an effective means to make rhetoric accessible and fresh to contemporary audiences. This began with Boyd’s performing text, which did not stint on words. With many speeches cut by half or one third, the force of their language could still find expression, while the tempo and energy of interchange and action jolted forward at a pace to which most of us are accustomed today. Boyd achieved a practical compromise which, also, didn’t curtail Part II excessively. Some directors have trimmed it down to a scant fifth act. Even if, as is thought, Part II was written in haste to capitalize on the huge success of Part I, and each part individually and together are episodic in their narration, structure and balance are important aspects of their unity. This came through solidly over the course of the performance.

When, soon after we make his acquaintance, we see Tamburlaine casually dispatch a recalcitrant interlocutor, we immediately recognize that we are in a familiar world, where life is cheap. One values one’s own life sufficiently to fear its loss at the hands of an obviously more powerful opponent, or a tyrant with invincible forces in place. Tamburlaine’s way to the crown he so much desires is paved with terror, and he entirely open about his desire to sow fear wherever he goes. In achieving this, he is totally ruthless, and his cruelty to defeated opponents knows no bounds. Yet, like Zenocrate, the Egyptian princess he captures, woos, and weds, we rather admire him. As this production makes eminently clear, the monarchs he topples have it coming, ranging as they do from the childish stupidity of Mycetes, king of Persia, to the arrogance and violence of Bajazeth, emperor of the Turks. Tamburlaine’s adversaries are a catalogue of human vices, and we don’t flinch as we see them destroyed in the most wretched ways imaginable. He does well to rid the world of them, even if he replaces them with nothing better. His power-hungry nature, redeemed in part by his extravagant love for Zenocrate, offers no better world-order, no better system for human life.

The philosophical framework is clear enough. The poor Scythian shepherd who subjugated western Asia is the Machiavellian hero, the man who, no matter what his origin, can take his fate into his own hands and change the world, to make a place for himself in it. Must he accomplish this without divine aid? That is how Tamburlaine dealt with it. His will and his own amoral system served him well against everything but death, first Zenocrate’s and finally his own, but before his end, he makes the atheist’s most complete gesture, the burning of holy books. Note how the burning of scripture is different from burning idols or temples. The Koran was the book to burn in his world to show one’s contempt for the Divinity, but the gesture is especially powerful in the context of a culture which was changing from a religion of ritual and symbol to a religion of the book, as altars were stripped, paintings were covered or destroyed, along with vestments and sacred implements, to be replaced by boards of the Ten Commandments and lecterns for the Bible. Marlowe, with an eye to the political and religious situation around him, presented his own grim view of the nature and workings of power and how various people like Tamburlaine, Mycetes, Bajazeth, the Soldan of Egypt, and other monarchs relate to it. Tamburlaine laid the foundations for Shakespeare’s early history plays, King Henry VI, Parts I-III, Richard III, and Richard II. It is also interesting to imagine a young Thomas Hobbes, born in 1588, the year after the premiere of Tamburlaine Part I, taking in a performance, which could well have happened during his formative years.

Marlowe acquired the reputation of being an atheist (which was a crime in the eyes of Elizabethan law) through the accusation of fellow-dramatist Thomas Kyd, with whom he shared a room for a while. An incriminating treatise on the Holy Trinity was found in the rooms when Kyd was the sole occupant, and he claimed under torture that it belonged to Marlowe, who was later arrested on that charge and released, partly because he was himself a government agent, a spy. Among his duties was to identify suspected papists—which is understandable, since he moved in intellectual circles following his departure from Corpus Christi College, Cambridge with an MA, where he had studied for seven years, supported by a scholarship which required that he take holy orders in the Anglican Church. This was how the son of a Canterbury cobbler obtained the full classical education that his contemporary, William Shakespeare, missed. Some of his earliest works were translations or adaptations from Virgil and Ovid. However, a more politically fraught author left a stronger stamp on him—one which he passed on through Tamburlaine and other works to Shakespeare and others. While at Cambridge, Marlowe translated Book I of Lucan’s epic poem, De bello civili, an account of the internecine war which destroyed the Roman Republic. In this he dispensed with the customary epic apparatus of Olympian gods, whom poets used to direct the action in their narratives and to provide a parallel divine reality. Marlowe developed the grand rhetoric which resounded in his blank verse, as well as a taste for unmitigated violence and bloodiness, to which he gave full expression in Tamburlaine. Equally significantly, although no one would have discussed in openly in the 1580s or 90s, Lucan rose and fell under the fear-ridden reign of Nero. His relationship with the emperor inevitably turned sour, and Lucan joined a conspiracy against him. Discovered, he was ordered to commit suicide at the age of twenty-five. The parallels between Nero’s murderous behavior and the relentless persecution of Catholics and traitors under Elizabeth was not lost on Marlowe and some part of his audience, and he himself was immersed in the dire processes of that police state. Meanwhile, Londoners witnessed an ongoing spectacle of undercover priests and other conspirators lightly hanged, disemboweled, castrated, entrails roasted before their living eyes, bodies dismembered and dragged through the streets. Of the more important ones, the severed heads were carried on pikes to London Bridge, where they were displayed for all who crossed—not far from the entertainment district in Southwark, with its brothels, bear gardens, and theaters, where the Lord Admiral’s Men played Tamburlaine at the Rose and other venues.

The more seasoned members of the audience at TFANA also experienced a flowing overlay of theatrical reminiscences in this production that keeps one leg planted in the present-day Middle East and the other in Elizabethan England. The rhetorical eloquence and visceral violence constantly resonated with dramatic currents which have enriched modern stages through the twentieth century: Pirandello, Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty, Brecht (that wagon of war!), Eisenstein, and perhaps a touch of Tarantino. Our Tamburlaine appears as an evil Mother Courage, not following, but leading armies to their destruction in the theater of war, and not with a drumming woman, but the mummified corpse of his beloved Zenocrate testifying to the monster’s inward humanity. This and other allusions were brought off subtly, without self-consciousness or arch cleverness. In the hands of a less experienced director or a less accomplished cast these might have only been a source of annoyance, but instead, it achieved just what Mr. Boyd intended—one very much in the Elizabethan spirit—an exciting spectacle which anyone could appreciate conjoined with rich associations for the connoisseur. Michael Boyd attempted an ambitious feat—doing full justice to historical Elizabethan dramaturgy as well as contemporary issues and modern theatrical ideas—and he succeeded.

The largely American cast could have been hand-picked for Marlowe’s varied landscape of the Middle East, although few if any could claim descent from those regions. As vivid and insightful as all the characterizations were, with not a single weak performance in the lot, it was nonetheless an ensemble performance that rotated around a central charismatic star, John Douglas Thompson, who could well be the greatest classical actor we have today in the United States. He was master of both the physical and the verbal demands of a role, which may possibly have not been performed successfully since the reign of James, or perhaps Edward Alleyn, who created it. Thompson spoke Marlowe’s verse with just what it needed, energetic power for the meter and ample variety of inflection and color for the language. He is on stage a great deal, sometimes in silence, but usually making things happen through his grandiloquent speeches. the production also called for constant activity and athletic movement. The performance was to a large degree powered by Thompson’s magnetism. His Tamburlaine had a powerful foil in Bajazeth, Emperor of the Turks, played with terrific energy and refined delivery by Chukwuji Iwuji, a Nigerian-British actor who was trained in the United States and works primarily in Britain, notably at the Royal Shakespeare Company. Anyone who saw the Bridge Project’s uneven production of Richard III will remember his fine turn as the Duke of Buckingham as one of its few bright spots, but here, in a more prominent part under Michael Boyd’s direction, Iwuji truly came into his own, standing up to Tamburlaine in a larger-than-life exchange of insults, delivered by both in earth-shaking, but nuanced voices from the far ends of the long axis of the performance space. This was an unforgettable moment, when two outstanding actors engaged in an antiphonal challenges before crossing swords. In Part II Iwuji returned with equal power in the smaller role of the King of Trebizon, whom Tamburlaine yoked to his chariot to pull it along before having him dispatched.

Merritt Janson as Zencocrate and John Douglas Thompson as Tamburlaine. Photo Gerry Goodstein.

Merritt Janson as Zencocrate and John Douglas Thompson as Tamburlaine. Photo Gerry Goodstein.

Tamburlaine’s captive and later consort, Zenocrate, Daughter of the Soldan of Egypt, was played by Merritt Janson, who played opposite John Douglas Thompson’s Othello a few years ago at Shakespeare and Company as an especially affecting Desdemona. In Tamburlaine she faced the challenge of bringing off a long part, representing a character who reveals much less about herself. Janson’s regal poise and exceptional beauty helped her to keep our interest and to make convincing her decision to obey Tamburlaine, still a poor shepherd-turned-brigand when she meets him, and become his wife. She remains staunchly loyal, no matter how many people die in agony at her husband’s hands. Zenocrate remains something of a mystery, because that is how Marlowe wrote her, and Janson and Boyd were wise not to try to explain her too much.

Merritt Janson and John Douglas Thompson were not the only Shakespeare and Company alumni in the show. James Udom had just come from a memorable, intuitively perfect portrayal of Mark Antony in a splendid production of Julius Caesar at Lenox the previous summer, and his performance as George in a 2014 Hubbard Hall production of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men was singled out by Keith Kibler with extraordinary praise in our sister publication, The Berkshire Review for the Arts. In Tamburlaine, he gave three memorable performances, Ceneus, the King of Barbary, and Calyphas.

It is impossible not to give special mention to the wonderful comic actor, Paul Lazar, who showed not only how incredibly funny he could be, but also his capacity for nuanced insight in three roles, Mycetes, King of Persia, Zenocrates’ father, the Soldan of Egypt, and Almeda. The Soldan is virtually the only one among Tamburlaine’s conquests who exhibits any civilized or sympathetic traits. While making his ground-note the Soldan’s basic impotence, Lazar injects some humane and thoughtful moments as well. Lazar played each of the three roles, as different as they were, in the same basic style, which is how the Admiral’s Men’s clown, George Attewell, would have played the parts in 1587, if, in fact, those were the parts he played. However, Paul Lazar’s dry, understated, thoroughly New Yorkish humor, might have struck the original audiences as a delightful surprise. Keith Randolph Smith was also deeply affecting and impressive as Tamburlaine’s follower, Techelles.

General praise, I regret, for the rest of the cast, who were consistently excellent.

This landmark event was the work of a company that stresses Shakespeare, but offers premieres, as well as 19th and 20th century classics. New York has theaters that fill other highly desirable niches—forgotten American plays, some of which were great hits in their time; forgotten British plays of the same ilk; recognized classics. As busy as a New York theater-lover can be, one can still find not more than a smattering of Ibsen, Strindberg, and Shaw. There remains a considerable territory for the next installment of this retrospective series to explore.

About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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