Down in the pit. The misery of being a woman in Nottinghamshire back when coal was king forms the preoccupation of Husbands and Sons, a composite of three one-act plays by D. H. Lawrence. Before they were rediscovered and staged, Lawrence’s dramas were an obscure part of his output, and now they risk being too dated to be vital. Like early Eugene O’Neill, the stage-minded Lawrence of 1911 to 1913, when these plays were written, aimed at naked social realism. The women trapped by brutal husbands working in the colliery stand on the brink of ruination from mining accidents, impending strikes, the cruel work hours that destroyed men’s bodies, and always the shadow of poverty.
One of the odd and unique interesting qualities of King Lear is its fantastic and vague setting in prehistoric Britain, that Shakespeare chose a tale of a king you couldn’t find in a list of the Kings and Queens of England, even while he gave the play something of a history play shape, with British Kings and princes, crises of succession and fighting with each other and France. But it isn’t a history play, it's based on a britannic myth that was already a myth in the middle ages, and the play is set around about some time in the misty, undocumented bog before Ethelwulf, Egbert and Offa, and after Arthur, but perhaps not, maybe it predates the Romans, maybe even the Celts? It's in a parallel timeline no doubt.
A recent visit to London offered interestingly comparable back-to-back performances: Alban Berg’s opera Wozzeck at the English National Opera, London Coliseum, Saturday evening, May 25th; and the next afternoon Shakespeare’s Othello at the National Theatre. Both works center on a military man, mad from the start or driven mad as things progress, who comes to kill his lover (female) out of sexual jealousy, and then kills himself. Comparison of the two works (the Berg opera, of course, based on Georg Büchner’s play Woyzeck) can lead one into interesting thoughts on the nature of tragedy, modern tragedy versus classical tragedy, the function of character and fate in such dramas, and so on. But remarkably, these two London productions were given the same setting: the military world of the recent Iraq and current Afghanistan wars—thereby making a particular and strong point about the nature of experiential and environmental pressures upon such characters as we see.
Molotov cocktail hour. Writing a three-act play while imprisoned under orders from the Czar probably wasn't as romantic as it sounds. But when the play is as good as Gorky's Children of the Sun (premiered in 1905), the feat is impressive, all the more because it took him only a month. Gorky means "bitter" in Russian, and he had taken it as his pen name when producing reams of revolutionary journalism on behalf of the rising Bolsheviks. Yet this particular play isn't bitter, revolutionary, or tilted toward gritty realism the way The Lower Depths is. That earlier play made Gorky world famous, luckily for him, since it took a protest by eminent foreign writers to coax the Czarist police to release him from the Peter and Paul Fortress, his new play drying on the page.
Too clever by halves. Although T.S. Eliot was describing Marlowe's once popular, now buried play, The Jew of Malta, when he dubbed it a savage farce, the phrase is a wide paintbrush for Jacobean tragedy, whose absurd motivations, wildly outsized emotions and sheer body count tempt us to burst out laughing. One of the breeziest writers of the day, Thomas Heywood, shuffled genres like a card sharp, and there's no reason to believe that he took his most famous tragedy, A Woman Killed With Kindness (1603) too seriously. There's not much reason to revive it either, except as a study in stage contraptions antecedent to the great age of folderol bien fait in the Victorian theater, which gave us masterly contrivers like Scribe, Sardou, and the like.
Whether or not Charles Lamb was over-generous in calling Heywood “Shakespeare in prose”, it quickly becomes evident watching Katie Mitchell’s production of his best work A Woman Killed With Kindness (first performed in 1603) that neither director nor cast have much faith in his literary merits. Frenetic stage action across an expensively exquisite split-set by Lizzie Clachan and Vicki Mortimer aims to literally bulk out what the company clearly believes is an insubstantial text, one merely possessing salacious plot elements for a prurient modern audience seeking high-brow soap-opera. In the comfortable house to the right we have the unhappy marriage of John Frankford and his wife, destroyed by her infidelity with their houseguest, Wendoll, while she is heavily pregnant. To the left, in a grander but colder manor, Anne’s brother Sir Francis Acton engages in an altogether less lusty and consenting relationship with Susan, the woman he is offered as compensation for bailing her murderer brother Sir Charles Mountford – by Charles himself.
Old shoes re-souled. There's a silent background to The Cherry Orchard for anyone born during the Cold War. The theme of social change, ambiguously written by Chekhov, took on a ferocious literalness after 1917. The niceties of the play are overshadowed by our knowledge of show trials, pogroms, and Soviet monsters to come. With all of that gone up in smoke, we find ourselves starting over. Now the opposite dilemma has appeared: what to do with a Russia sliding into irrelevancy? Putin is barely a mini-me compared to Stalin. The whole society, soaked in vodka and oil revenues, has been drained of significance: terror, class war, an ancien regime, elegiac memories, idealism, and even apparatchiks — all those soulful overtones gone flat-line.
Grand mal Caesar. As an example of a mountain bringing forth a mouse, nothing is more perfect than reviewing an exhaustingly long, exhaustively serious drama. When the reader hears that the subject is the foibles of organized religion, the boat has sunk before the first torpedo is fired. Nevertheless.