In Praise of Passion


by Gary Taylor

Not what an academic does best. Passion. That’s why, generally speaking, theatre folk distrust the tribe of pedantic analysis. Because, as even Aristotle recognized, punters go to the theatre for passion.

So when it comes to reimagining “Shakespeare’s Lost Play”, Greg Doran, who has spent his life acting and directing, should have a profound advantage over Professor Starched Shirt. And, true to form, Doran goes looking for passion. Impoverished Lewis Theobald’s pathetic funeral, attended only by a single life-long friend; hunchbacked Alexander Pope’s surprisingly tender letter to a departed friend; the petrified young actor John Downes, drying on stage in front of a packed house that included King Charles II, in a stretched moment of terror that would reroute his life—these stories tell us nothing about the authenticity of Double Falsehood, or the lost Jacobean play, but they fill the pages of Doran’s memoir with imaginative sympathy for human suffering.

And what do you remember about Doran’s Cardenio, if you saw it in the theatre? What I remember is the loud, raunchy, chaotic street festival–and the haunting voice of the flamenco singer Javier Macías, floating high above the stage in the Swan Theatre–and the prolonged Fight Club physical battle between Cardenio and Fernando in the final scene. These were the moments which justify Michael Billington’s praise of the RSC Cardenio as “theatrically powerful”. They were certainly more engrossing than anything I saw in the Classic Stage Company’s earnest, faithful, dull revival of Double Falsehood in New York last March.

Part of the reason I passionately wanted Terri Bourus to direct my own reconstruction of The History of Cardenio is that, like Doran, she disagrees with Aristotle’s dismissal of the importance of theatrical music and spectacle. She has been a professional singer and dancer; she is certified in stage combat. She met with the play’s choreographer, Paige Craigie, in October, and our three musicians began working together even before the play was cast. At the second table reading, last Tuesday, everyone got to hear Tyrone Van Tantenhove (Fernando) and Alys Dickerson (Violenta) sing two of the play’s five songs. It was as exhilarating for the rest of the cast and crew, as we hope it will be, next month, for audiences.

But there remains a fundamental difference between Doran’s approach and mine (or Terri’s). The most passionate elements of Doran’s play were wordless. Javier was presumably singing words, but they were in a foreign language, and they are not reproduced in Doran’s script; effectively, his voice was simply a musical instrument, rising above the other instruments in the band, providing the script with a movie soundtrack, which drowned out some of what the actors were saying below.

Shakespeare and Fletcher were both brilliant at representing, and delivering, passion. But they did so with what Hamlet calls “passionate speech”. English words in English sentences. And that is precisely what Doran’s script never delivers. As the famous RSC voice coach Cicely Berry said, after an early workshop reading, “It’s the language, isn’t it? It’s just not Shakespeare. Not surprising enough. It doesn’t fly” (76).

When Doran realized that he would need to write some new scenes and new dialogue for the play, he went to John Barton to learn to “bombast out a line or two”. Barton gave him, as an instructive exemplar of blank verse, the line “I want to go and have a cup of tea” (44). Very British, but not very passionate.

Hester Booth, image from the V&A Museum

It’s not that Anglophones are incapable of Passion with a capital Penis. Shakespeare, Middleton, Marlowe, Webster, Ford were all master passionistas. Anybody paying attention to the Republican primaries knows that Americans can generate as much “sound and fury, signifying nothing” as Zorba the Greek, and nowadays American drunk undergraduate dirty dancing can be as sexually charged as anything that tourists will find in Spain, or Cuba. But Theobald, writing for decorous Augustan critics and for the decorous actor Barton Booth and his decorous wife Hester Santlow, undoubtedly stripped much of the passion out of the Jacobean play. And that passion cannot be recaptured in John Barton’s iambic pentameteacup. Moreover, those plodding Bartonesque rhythms might have been convincing when inserted into scenes from the three Henry VI plays, where the verse is not much better. But twenty or more years later, when The History of Cardenio was written and performed, dramatic verse had been radically transformed by the poetic experiments of Shakespeare, Jonson, Middleton, Beaumont and Fletcher. One thing we absolutely and undeniably know about “Shakespeare’s lost play” is that it was not written in the verse style of the late 1580s and early 1590s.

Doran and I (and Bernard Richardson, and almost everyone else) agree that Theobald omitted the scene, narrated in Don Quixote, in which Fernando bribes his way into a woman’s house in order to seduce her (if possible) or rape her (if necessary). Cervantes tells the story from the woman’s perspective, so he provides the foundation for her speeches. Here is a sample of Doran’s version of her passionate resistance.

With me your violence cannot prevail,

Your wealth gain grace, your words have power to cheat,

Nor yet your sighs and tears have power to move.

And here is my version of the same moment:

The services that you would do me, sir,

I know full well, and fulsome, it abhors me.

Are there no drabs at court, that you must venture

So far abroad to feed your codpiece? Fie!

And I am not so simple, though a poor

Unpracticed maiden, to untie my ribbon

At the first fair word, and take for love

A little scratching on a guitar, or

This golden show of changeable attire,

Nor showers of dropped ducats, cracked sighs and tears

Cannot blow down my fastness–for what follows?

Honor goodnight, another broken maid

Gotten with child by promises.

Is my version as good as your favorite “passionate speech” by Shakespeare? No. Is it better than Doran? Ask any actress.


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