Monday, October 8, 2018
“…Vedanta sets up no wall between religion and science. No Indian Galileo was forced to recant his heresies. Truth is truth. You can find it in the outside world, where we in the West have located what we like to call science, and you can find it in the world within, where – if we still believe in such a world – we confine religion. But they are different ways of looking at reality, not different realities.”
– Michael N. Nagler, Gandhi’s Way to God
Based on the Vedas, ancient scriptural writings that have influenced Hindu societies and religions for thousands of years, Vedanta (or Vedic philosophy) offers an alternative view of the relationship between religion / faith and philosophy / reason explored by David Davalos in Wittenberg.The characters of Luther and Faust embody the struggle that occurs when these two points of view refuse to acknowledge that they are looking at the same thing.
‘Luther: It contradicts the word of God.
Faust: It also happens to be true.
Luther: Apostacy! That way lies the road to hell!’
The consequences of this division play out in subtler, but no less important ways in this script. The conflict is not only between religion / faith and philosophy / reason as embodied by Martin Luther and John Faust. Conflicts emerge between the reason inreligion and the faith inphilosophy. Luther truly grapples with the devil once he understands that his own reason, which is leading him to a Truth, contradicts his faith. Faust suffers no less when the results of his reason lead to outcomes different from those he knewwould come to pass.
Hamlet personifies the schizophrenic mind which is forced to reconcile this conundrum. It is impossible for the young prince to escape the friction of these two forces because he encounters them while in the confines of University, which should be the safest place for these debates to happen. When Hamlet makes a decision based on one world view or the other he is given pause by the same voice that prods Luther: ‘what if it isn’t true?’ The question arises: is whatHamlet decides more important than the fact thathe decides?
The set for this production reflects the Vedic sentiment that there is ‘no wall between religion and science.’ One side of the set represents Luther’s office and classroom, the other, Faust’s. Both are visible for the entire play, always present in the mind of the characters and the view of the audience. Action happening in one location can bleed into the other, while the setting of the scene will be defined by projections. The audience has a visual juxtaposition of the internal influences working on the characters which are inescapable in the bubble that is a college campus.
Apparently, Fausts’ travels have not taken him pass the Middle East, for if they had, the Vedas would definitely be on his shelf. Perhaps then he would be able to see Reason in God and God in Reason more easily. However, that would not leave us with much of a play.
Wittenberg is a comedy, after all (tragical-comical-historical, if we are to put a fine point on it). It is a funny play, a humorous play, a witty play, a smart play – and yet the comedy comes from a place of tragedy. There is great comedy to come from watching people stumble around in the dark. Nagle describes the tragedy above: that we do not recognize that philosophy and religion are describing the same reality; that each are telling us something different, together giving us a more complete picture of the whole. There is great comedy to come from watching people stumble around in the dark.
Does Wittenberg settle this argument of which point of view best describes this reality? No. It is a good play in that it offers questions, opinions, follies and passions, but no answers. If Davalos gave us only one way to look at the world, only one point of view, that would mean this world and the play would be pretty flat.
- Andy Kirtland, Artistic Director
The New Renaissance Theatre Company
Monday, September 24, 2018
While working on the scenes between Faust (Kevin Moore) and Luther (Adam Rutledge), an image struck me: Grumpy Old Men. Remember that movie from the 90’s? Walter Mathau and Jack Lemon played neighbors in a small town in Minnesota who have known each other for their entire lives, and who communicate by yelling insults at each other. Despite their children’s marriage to each other, they play pranks on one another and generally work hard to make the other’s life a living hell. If that were the extent of their relationship, the comedy would only be old men behaving like jerks, and while that could be entertaining for a little while, there would be nothing to redeem the characters. Perhaps all characters need not be redeemed, but in the world of romantic-comedies redemption is the order of the day. In Wittenbergthe question of redemption hangs over both Luther and Faust.
If only the animosity between these characters exists, the play can become flat and static their arguments solidify into Religion v. Philosophy and Luther v. Faust with one winning at the expense of the other. However, what is interesting and emphasized in our work is not the points on which Luther and Religion diverge from Faust and Philosophy, but the points on which they agree. The compelling attribute of the relationship is the genuine love and concern these two frenemies have for each other.
Martin Luther is genuinely concerned about the state of Faust’s soul. It is his life’s calling to protect and shepherd those he truly believes to be in danger. When Faust needles Luther on points of religion, it is because he truly believes that Martin’s misplaced faith in institutionalized religion keeps him from realizing his true potential. These colleagues do not hate each other. Their debates are not about defeating or destroying the other. Their debates, discussions and disagreements are about saving a friend.
These frenemies seek each other out and push one another to live up to their perceived potentials. Luther comes to watch Faust perform at The Bunghole. Faust urges Luther to step up and accept responsibility for his beliefs. The priest administers help to the soul and the doctor does the same for the body. They do not hide from the other they are both made better by their relationship.
It is interesting to see them agree without realizing it, or perhaps they just don’t acknowledge it themselves. They understand that on some level they mirror each other. Despite the constant collegial animosity, or perhaps because of it, Luther and Faust are drawn to each other. The two enjoy the intellectual rigor of a good, clean debate. A tough debate, but one that does not get personal. They do not just ignore the other side of the argument but confront it in a manner that leaves room to bring their opponent over to their side.
This could just be wishful thinking on my part, but it is comforting to think that this kind of conversation could still be had in the public sphere. People with diametrically opposed opinions discussing their points of view, can passionately state their positions over a beer without sliding into personal insults. It’s hard enough to do this when discussing sports, let alone someone’s personal beliefs or their calling.
I hope this will be a take away for our audience. It is definitely a layer that we are folding into the play. It is enjoyable to watch these characters, and the actors portraying them, to squabble and bark their claims to the Truth. There is great humor jibes and jabs at one another that only friends can get away with. But it much more powerful to recognize the love that exists between them.
-Andy Kirtland, Artistic Director
The New Renaissance Theatre Company
Saturday, August 25, 2018
The New Renaissance Theatre Company is known for our Unrehearsed Shakespeare Project productions that have toured the Pittsburgh area since 2014. This fall we are taking the next step in our journey by producing the Pittsburgh premier of Wittenbergby David Davalos. The choice was made by Elizabeth Ruelas, our first Artistic Director because it ticks a lot of the boxes in our mission:
There are classical and historical characters. There is a modern imagining of what an university would be like. The script offers opportunities for our company members to collaborate in different ways. It is also a fun play!
Hamlet returns to Wittenberg University after studying abroad in Poland over the summer where he encounters the new theories of Nicholas Copernick. His world is sent spinning, literally. He seeks advise and solace from his professors Dr. John Faustus and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther, whose own lives are shaken up. Faustus is in love, and Luther is struggling with the church. These three giants of renaissance England culture come together before they grow into the influential characters that we know them to be. Davalos’ witty campus comedy offers something for everyone, the fans of Hamletand Faustand for those who may not be familiar with their stories.
It also presents an interesting situation, in which an enormous shift in consciousness and awareness of the world around the characters changes the laws and meanings of their very existence. Looking around us today, with the acceleration of technology and new advances in scientific and philosophic theories, it’s possible to believe that we are on the verge of such another discovery. What would happen to us today if all of a sudden, through the use of virtual reality, we discover some truth about existence of which we currently have no concept. How do you go back to work when you realize that what you’ve dedicated your life to no longer resembles the place where you have placed so much faith for so long? Unfortunately, very often, the one thing we want is the one thing we cannot have.
Already this project is presenting new exciting issues. First of all, we are selling tickets! We’ve started up with TicketLeap, so keep your eye out, and be sure to get your tickets early. We have also started a relationship with the Carpatho-Rusyn Cultural Center in Munhall, where we will perform Wittenberg. It’s an exciting time for us to forge new friendships and partners in the communities we serve. And for our friends, fans and followers it is an opportunity to support us in new endeavor as we continue to grow NRTC.
Wittenberg goes up 19 – 28 October at the Carpatho-Rusyn Cultural Center, 915 Dickson Street in Munhall. Tickets will be on sale shortly. For more information, visit our website www.newrentheatre.com.
- Andy Kirtland, Artistic Director
The New Renaissance Theatre Company
Sunday, May 6, 2018
Working onAs you Like itis a nostalgic experience for me. In the summer of 2002, this play was my introduction to Demitra Papadinis, The New England Shakespeare Festival and the unrehearsed technique.
That spring, I auditioned for the first time at the New England Theatre Conference in Natick, MA. Standing outside the closed hotel room, waiting for my turn to walk in and do I know not what for a complete stranger, I found myself with a gentleman in glasses with dark beard and moustache. When the door opened, he entered and I could hear a friendly conversation. I felt even more out of place as I was clearly an outsider. I don’t remember much of what followed. The light in the room was dimmer than it should have been. I read a monologue from As you Like it. It was Slyvius. There must have been a conversation about what I was auditioning for (I had never heard of NESF or what was called the unrehearsed first folio cue script technique), but I don’t recall what was said. A couple of weeks later Demi offered me a position as an intern which included the role of Sylvius. I was not to read or see the play, and there was a mandatory 2-day workshop in Loudon, NH. Loudon was an eight hour drive from Carlisle, PA where I was a junior in college at the time. The workshop weekend also started finals week. After a slight hesitation (this was, after all the first professional job I was offered) I accepted.
On my long drive that Friday evening from Carlisle to Loudon, I picked up a fellow cast member at a train station in Connecticut, just across the New York border. John was waiting for me sitting on the sidewalk outside. We arrived at Demi’s farmhouse at around 1:30 in the morning, in plenty of time for the workshop that was to take place the next morning. The bearded man with glasses was at the workshop, too. He clearly had done this before. Kim, as I later learned his name to be, was a regular.
That July was a full four weeks for us four interns: Iris, Mike Y, another Mike Y, and me. Our quarters were above the studio added on to the farmhouse: young artists, flopping in the garret. For the first week we got everything ready: helped with costumes, drove all over New England putting up posters, mowing the lawn. Once the rest of the cast arrived, we had a solid 3 weeks of performing 6 days a week at different small towns from Connecticut to Maine. We interns split our time between performing and being the front of house, which gave us a unique perspective on this weird unrehearsed thing we had gotten ourselves into. The interns drove the vans, and were in charge of packing and unpacking them. We did the laundry. But every night after the shows, some of the cast would gather in a screen room away from the house to play cards, or board games and share whisky into the night – which was a feat considering many nights, we did not return to the farm house until midnight, and whichever intern was on laundry duty had to start about 6am.
There were beautiful drives to Killington and Manchester, Vermont. After a performance in York, Maine one of the cast members, the owner of the York Inn, invited us to a party at the hotel. At that performance, a random passerby guessed correctly (and quite unexpectedly) that we were performing the play in the unrehearsed fashion. It so happened he played the role of the 2ndBrother in As you Like itin the unrehearsed manner for Patrick Tucker in London. He still did not know what the play was about. A van broke down after a blistering hot show in Kennebunkport, ME, and David and I stayed with the van till it was fixed, and drove it back, late at night blasting James Brown on back roads through dark forests. Jarol performed the role of Audrey à la Milton Burle. Polly and I cooked a proper English breakfast one day, baked beans and all. There was the bathroom lined with impossible numbers of rubber ducks. The cast passed the hat when I got a speeding ticket trying to get us to a show on time. I learned that if you have to wear tights for an outdoor performance in the summer, thigh-highs are the best option. After everyone had left, the interns still had a couple of days to help clean up the show, and Demi took us all out to dinner. It was one of the first times I had sushi.
It was an exhilarating and exhausting experience that has informed everything since. It was a great place to be, especially as someone who has taken to the unrehearsed technique. At the time, NESF was the only place working in this manner on any scale, and 2002, I believe, was its 7thseason. It was a great group of people, many of whom returned several times to perform with Demi. Kim Carroll, the bearded man with glasses, has since continued his performing, directing and fight direction / choreography career, and has started teaching at institutions such as Harvard. John Kissingford, my travel companion, and his wife, Kate, returned for another tour with NESF and started No Holds Bard, performing unrehearsed in Denver. Mike Yahn, the first Mike Y I interned with, returned several times as did I. Maybe my glasses are rose-tinted, but that makes no difference to me, nor does it diminish the impact that first unrehearsed job has had on my journey so far.
One of the actresses who played Celia generously bought each intern a gift: a square shot glass engraved with AYLI. It is still one of my favorite glasses to sip a good whisky out of. I plan on doing that quite a bit as I now take on As you Like it, unrehearsed, from the other end – as I like it, and I like it very much.
-Andy Kirtland, Artistic Director
Sunday, January 7, 2018
2018 marks the fifth year of The Unrehearsed Shakespeare Project, produced by NRTC since 2016. While everything in a young theatre’s life is a milestone, five years is a pretty big marker, and we are excited and grateful to be here.
For our fifth tour, we will demonstrate how, as Shakespeare once said, ‘all the world’s a stage.’ As you Like it and The Life of Henry the Fift display fantastic examples of role-playing in different facets of our lives. They display how we play different characters for one another, and the personas we create for ourselves. When, why and for whom do we put on these characters?
In As you Like it Shakespeare gives us one of his most beloved heroines: Rosalind. Initially dressing as a man for safety in exile, Rosalind’s persona, Ganimed, ends up instructing Orlando, the man whom she loves (and who loves her in return – yet is incapable of seeing through her disguise), how to woo the woman for whom he pines (herself). A woman playing a man, pretending to be a woman - a part that was originally played by a boy - presented on the stage speaks to the play-acting facet of our lives in a very fun way. This is also the text that gives us the famous speech by Jaques, the forest-wandering cynic and philosopher, for which this season is named and which is so well-remembered by many from high school English class. By far As you Like it has the most music of any play NRTC has produced to date, ensuring that this play will entertain.
The Life of Henry the Fift speaks to role-playing of a different nature. Young Henry’s reign and reputation are tested against the raucous image he projected as a youth. He must present himself as the King his people need him to be. Two of the best-known speeches of this play, indeed of Shakespeare’s canon, are exhilarating examples of political theatre: ‘Once more unto the Breach, / Dear friends…’ and the St. Crispan’s Day speech. Are they propaganda to inspire the troops, or strong words to convince himself? Removed from the common people he associated with before ascending to the throne, Henry disguises himself as a rank-and-file soldier on the eve of battle to discover what his people really think of him. He even reverts back to playing pranks as he was wont to do with his pals in Eastcheap. But which is the real Henry: the prankster, or the prince? What does he gain by the parts he plays?
Continuing with our theme that ‘all the world’s a stage,’ and starting our season off in February, NRTC will extend our geographical reach to New York City. We are co-producing a staged reading of Twelfth Night, or What You Will with Holla Holla Productions, directed by NRTC Co-Founder Elizabeth Ruelas. Company Member Nick Benninger will be traveling to the Big Apple to take part in the reading. In this story of love, loss and reunion, Viola pretends to be a man and the servant Malvolio becomes someone he thinks someone else wants him to be. Along with taking USP to Artscape in Baltimore for the last three years, this is the next step in realizing our goal of offering our company members opportunities to perform in diverse markets outside of Pittsburgh. If you will be in New York on February 24 & 25, be sure to check out the show.
Think about what roles you play in your day-to-day dealings with other people. Who do you play them for? Why? When are you a mother? When are you a wife? When are you a friend? What is the difference? But please don’t think about it too hard at the show. We invite you to come and have a good time. The only role you need to play with us is as an audience member – and we’ll be sure to remind you of that.
-Andy Kirtland, Artistic Director
Sunday, November 19, 2017
Hello Friends, Fans and Followers,
The New Renaissance Theatre Company
Thank you for an amazing 2017! This past season was another experience of growth and change for NRTC. We received our first grants as a 501(c)(3) organization. We became one of the inaugural members of Britsburgh’s Performing Arts Society. The Unrehearsed Shakespeare Project added performances and venues to its tour, playing in Beaver County for the first time, and returning to Artscape for a third year in a row. We had our largest cast to date and reached more audience members in a bigger geographical area than it has in the past. We had a change in leadership as I took over the position of Artistic Director from Elizabeth Ruelas, my fellow co-founder. Those of you who follow us on social media may have noticed a change. That is due to our company member Nick Benninger, our new Media Manager. Nick will entertain and engage you in the digital world when we are not performing in the real world, and keep you informed when we are.
This is the time in the season when most of the action is happening back stage. The company is working hard setting up our 2018 season, which will include USP’s 5th Annual Summer Tour! And to that end, we are excited to announce that we will bring As you like It and The Life of Henry the Fift to parks in and around Pittsburgh and beyond in July! We are still hammering out schedules and locations, so stay tuned.
We strive to create and offer opportunities for our company members outside of the Pittsburgh area. Some theatres here bring actors in from outside. We want this to work the other way. For example, for the last 3 years, we have taken performances to Artscape in Baltimore, MD. 2018 will see our first project in this direction outside of USP’s tour. We will partner with our friends in New York, Holla Holla Productions, on a staged reading of Twelfth Night, directed by Elizabeth Ruelas. Details will follow.
Another aspect of the company that we will be emphasizing is our education program. NRTC offers workshops in the Unrehearsed Cue Script Technique for schools, universities, students, professionals and people of all ages. We will conduct a series of Pay-What-You-Will Workshops in neighborhoods and communities in the areas we bring USP. These will be announced as they arise, so keep your ears to the ground. If you’ve seen one of our unrehearsed productions and wonder how we do it, if you’re curious about the technique or the company, if you haven’t made it out to a show because you don’t know what to expect or you’re just a fan of Shakespeare and want to see a different way of interpreting his texts these workshops are for you. We would love to see you there.
At this time of year, I am thankful for the cast, crew and company for a great season; the company and board members for all of their hard work getting us to where we are today and pushing forward to where we will be in the future; all of the people and organizations that have partnered with NRTC; and to our fans, friends and followers who give us a reason and the support to do what we love to do. The New Renaissance Theatre Company could not have come this far, The Unrehearsed Shakespeare Project’s fifth anniversary (!) without all of you. For your past, current and future support, you have my sincerest gratitude. Thank you.
The New Renaissance Theatre Company
Thursday, August 24, 2017
These blogs were originally posted on my personal blog in 2012 when USP directed The Two Gentlemen of Verona and A Midsommer Nights Dreame for UnSeam'd Shakespeare Company. I think they represent my feelings and thoughts about the play.
As I set out to direct The Two Gentlemen of Verona, one characteristic of the play becomes undeniable: this is not one of Shakespeare’s better plays. However, it is better than usually given credit for.
The play is obscured by attempts to improve upon it or by digging for deeper meanings than the play contains. The characters themselves are treated either much more loftily than written, or not given the respect they deserve. Violence and homosexual overtones are added making the plot and action more implausible than it already is to modern sensibilities. These improvements still often leave the audience unsatisfied.
The play was not meant to disappoint, but to entertain. Shakespeare wrote the play by the dramatic rules governing comedy. When he wrote this play he had not yet the tools to break the rules as he would later. Modern critics believe that Shakespeare hatched fully developed in his powers and it is the playwright of Hamlet, Macbeth and Othello that they credit, or fault, with The Two Gentlemen of Verona. We cannot blame William Shakespeare of the late 1580’s for not being the playwright he would later become.
Any writing on The Two Gentlemen of Verona must begin with its conclusion, probably the most criticized and problematic element of the play. When taken as the only acceptable outcome given the style and rules Shakespeare followed in its construction, the ending is logical and believable. The conclusion is awkward enough to our modern sensibilities and expectations, but it is truthful to the world of the play and in no way violates the rules.
The end of the play begins with the attempted rape of Silvia by Proteus.
Proteus Nay, if gentle spirit of moving words
Can no way change you to a milder forme;
Ile woo you like a Souldier, at armes end,
And love you ‘gainst the nature of Love: force ye.
Silvia Oh heaven.
Proteus Ile force thee yeeld to my desire.
This is all that is given us textually, because Valentine, who was listening nearby immediately jumps into the scene. But what is he breaking up?
The line, ‘Ile woo you like a Souldier, at armes end,’ can be taken a couple of ways. Either Proteus could mean: ‘I will love you at the end of a weapon,’ or ‘I will lay my hands upon you.’ Given the imagery of ‘Souldier’ and the different meanings of the word ‘armes,’ either could be acceptable and a valid point for the use of violence in this scene. However, Silvia’s response is: ‘Oh heaven.’ (emphasis mine). There is no exclamation. Given everything that has happened in the play up to this point: Proteus’ use of guile instead of force in his dealings, Silvia’s ability to handle men with her charms, the fact that they are not alone – Julia (dressed as Sebastian) is present; all of these factors, when reinforced by strong characterizations by the actors, go to alleviate any possible danger in the exchange. If anything Proteus is biting off more than he can chew, and it is quite plausible that the ‘armes end’ that Proteus’ speaks of are Silvia’s and she may actually be holding him at bay.
Also within the rules of the comedy, there must be reconciliation. Valentine must discover Proteus’ betrayal and he must forgive him. For that reason, Proteus must make a big show, believable or not, for Valentine to witness. Modern interpretations make more out of this attempted rape in an attempt to make the play more exciting than it is, but by doing so what comes after is hindered and made awkward.
Only 15 lines later comes this exchange:
Proteus My shame and guilt confounds me:
Forgive me Valentine: if hearty sorrow
Be a sufficient Ransome for offence,
I tender’t heere: I doe as truly suffer,
As ere I did commit.
Valentine Then I am paid:
And once again, I doe receive thee honest;
Who by Repentance is not satisfied,
Is nor of heaven, nor earth; for these are pleas’d:
By Penitence th’Eternalls wrath’s appeas’d:
And that my love may appeare plaine and free,
All that was mine, in Silvia, I give thee.
In making the rape dangerous, this forgiveness becomes impossible to accept. Nothing in The Two Gentlemen of Verona is dangerous. From the outset of this comedy we know that the friends will end friends, that the lovers will be together, and protagonists’ reputations will be intact. The introduction of a real danger shatters this, and should be avoided for the unity of the piece.
On the heels of Valentine’s forgiveness comes the most troubling line in the play: ‘All that was mine, in Silvia, I give thee.’ Much of what people feel about The Two Gentlemen of Verona hinge on the interpretation of this line. What are we supposed to think?
Many believe that the line is a show of absolute sacrifice on behalf of Valentine to prove that his friendship with Proteus has been thoroughly healed. Here male friendship is paramount in the range of human emotion and the throwing aside of one’s hard-earned beloved is seen as a fitting demonstration of this ideal. Is this what happens?
It is widely commented on that after Silvia’s utterance of ‘Oh heaven,’ during the attempted rape, she is silent for the rest of the play. Why? If she is given to Proteus as a token of supreme friendship, it is supposed that she is passively accepting of her fate, or that she is angered into silence. The audience is not given an insight into what she is thinking because as soon as Valentine says this line, Julia (still disguised as Sebastian) faints, and the next 36 lines are devoted to the discovery of her true identity and the happy reunion and reconciliation of her and Proteus. Silvia does not break this moment with any sign of protestation, nor does she say anything when Valentine declares his love for her, openly defying her father the Duke and Thurio, nor anything when her father consents. Already in the play she has demonstrated that she is willing to defy her father, spurn the advances of unwanted suitors and run away risking her life to be with Valentine. Silvia is no wilting flower, bowing to the whims of men. But in this interpretation of the line, the entirety of her character’s actions have been forgotten, and she is made a complacent mute.
It has been suggested that ‘All that was mine, in Silvia, I give thee,’ is meant to say that ‘all the love that was for Silvia, I give to thee as well.’ This interpretation still begs the question: why is Silvia silent? At this point, she has been reunited with Valentine, in the next she is witnessing Julia and Proteus together (as she has been advocating for), she sees Valentine stand up to Thurio and the Duke and ultimately gets what she wants: to marry Valentine. What words can express such happiness?
Any anger, spite or vengefulness at her situation at the conclusion of the play violates the laws of the comedy. It puts a strain on the plausibility of the action, and Shakespeare strains his audience enough with the devices he uses to reach the pre-destined happy ending. Modern directors and critics should not add more.
Homosexual overtones are often added to The Two Gentlemen of Verona to absolutely no purpose whatsoever. Harold Bloom says of Valentine that he ‘becomes worth consideration only when we take his perverseness seriously, since it appears to go considerably beyond a mere repressed bisexuality.’ It would be a feat for Mr. Bloom to show any example of bisexuality in Valentine, or indeed any character in the play, or to demonstrate anything even approaching perversity in the text. Yes, Valentine and Proteus have a strong filial affection for each other, but there is no hint of attraction. Their conversations revolve around their travels and being in love with women.
Could all this talk of travel and women cover deeply repressed homosexuality? Yes, if the play were written by Tenneessee Williams, but it is not. It is written by an Elizabethan playwright who did not write psychology, but only action for the stage.
The only chance here for any homoerotic themes or action is when Julia arrives disguised as Sebastian. Unlike Viola in Twelfth Night, she does not make half-veiled advances towards her lover. She only comments on her situation when she is with strangers or alone on stage with a sympathetic audience. Unlike Olivia in Twelfth Night, Silvia does not fall in love with the woman dressed in drag. Unlike Rosalind in As You Like It, Julia does not try to trick Proteus into seeing the girl beneath the boy. This type of play is out of bounds in The Two Gentlemen of Verona.
By making Valentine and Proteus secret wishful lovers, Mr. Bloom and others add a level of complexity to the characters and meaning to the play that does not exist. Giving sexual tension to Proteus and ‘Sebastian’ would do the same. It would be just as easy for an American to understand Cricket by applying the rules of Baseball.
As with the homosexuality and violence, some try to find a deep meaning in this admittedly shallow play. Andrew Dickson thinks ‘The Two Gentlemen seems to ask, at the very least, whether ideals purchased at this kind of price are worth their cost. Is Valentine’s ideal of friendship worth abandoning the woman he is engaged to marry? Can Proteus’s [sic] ever be trusted again?’
The Two Gentlemen of Verona asks no such questions. The play asks nothing of its audience. This perhaps is the hardest thing to grasp. We think that this play must be something other than it is because Shakespeare wrote it, but it is not very good. We must be missing something.
What is missing is its simplicity. Valentine is named so because he proves to be a true lover. Proteus is named so because he is as changeable as his namesake. The play is a comedy, therefore the friends must remain friends and lovers must be together in the end. There is a bit with a dog and witty servants. There is a woman dressing as a boy, outlaws and music. What else should be expected of a comedy?
The play shows how love changes us. Proteus changes from a lover to a kind of tyrant. Valentine, from an adventurer to a lover. Julia, from a woman to man. Silvia, from a clever woman to a mute. The Duke, in his story of love, from an old father to a young man. The only person who is not changed is Launce, who loves his dog. Of course, everyone else is turned into a clown by love, and that is Launce’s natural position. Perhaps it renders him immune.
The Two Gentlemen of Verona, as a play, is what it is. It is not up to us to make the characters more interesting than they are. It is not up to us to make the story funnier or more exciting. It is our job to bring the story that is there to life, not to fight it, but to work with it. So what is there in the play?
Mark Van Doren points out that ‘Friendship is one of the gods here.’ The other god must be Love. This is a play about two young friends on the cusp of growing up and dealing with these two deities. Making it about anything else does a disservice to the play. It may be a harbinger of things to come when compared to the rest of Shakespeare’s cannon, but on the stage The Two Gentlemen of Verona must be allowed to stand on its own. It may not be one of Shakespeare’s better plays, but it can do that just fine.
Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. © 1998 Harold Bloom
Dickson, Andrew. The Rough Guide to Shakespeare. © 2005 Andrew Dickson
Van Doren, Mark. Shakespeare. © 1939 Mark Van Doren
Much is made of Launce in The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Some critics believe that he was added later to spice up the unpopular play. But why go back to add this one character rather then rewrite them all? More likely Launce was Shakespeare’s most inspired invention in this apprentice play, and it may just be due to the originality of Launce that Shakespeare’s career went further.
The longing for Launce to be a time-traveler is a symptom of a larger sickness often mis-diagnosed inThe Two Gentlemen of Verona, and that is that while there is humor in the play, it is not very funny. This criticism is wrong-headed and stems from a belief that the lovers are much loftier than they are; that they are older than they are; that because they are capable of such reasoned arguments that they are much more mature than they are. It is this view, and this characterization on the part of the actors, that the back-and-forths in the text somehow become parlor room tennis matches of wit written by Oscar Wilde. They are not. Shakespeare’s verse and rhetorical devices are the vehicles that he uses for expression in all his plays. Any character at any time is capable of speaking in verse, that does not mean that character is elevated, educated or elite. At their very cores, Silvia and Julia are maids and Valentine and Proteus are at the age when young men
‘seeke preferment out.
Some to the warres, to try their fortune there;
Some, to discover Islands farre away,
Some, to the studious Universities.’
The characters are young and playful. They are not standing on opposite sides of the stage, kegs turned out, three quarters to the audience declaring verbal backhands. There is horseplay, intimacy, alternating shyness and bravado. They are vibrant and over-the-top in their emotions. But that is only part of their humor.
The other part is in their behavior. Yes, Proteus does terrible things to his friends, but always remember that this is comedy, this is farce, and there is never any danger of things ending badly for these characters. Does that diffuse the drama and remove the tension of the play? The short answer is: Yes. But the play is not meant to be dramatic or filled with tension. Any tension in the play has been imposed upon it and violates the world of the play. The results are usually unsatisfying productions of The Two Gentlemen of Verona.
Think of ‘a very special episode of [insert prime-time sitcom here].’ Everything starts out as expected: stock characters going through the motions, audience laughter punctuating expected jokes, the same conventions being exploited that you saw last week. Then there is an accident, someone gets hurt in a drunk-driving accident, or a friend has overdosed on cocaine. They die, and there is an attempt at gravitas at the close, which is without the theme music and laughter that always ends the show. Then, the cast appears backstage, sitting in folding director chairs to give you a heartfelt message expressing the very real-life dangers that have entered the make-believe world of their characters. It is all so unbelievable, because it violates your expectations, your assumptions, and the world of the comedy. The ending is disappointing and unfulfilling. The next week, the show continues as if nothing happened, because to dwell on the event would be to change the show completely. This is what happens when tension and danger is added to The Two Gentlemen of Verona, and when the characters are treated as something other than they are.
This may be a simplistic view, but this is a simplistic play. To treat it as anything else hurts the play and bores the audience. The Two Gentlemen of Verona should not be taken seriously.
As far as Launce is concerned, he is a wonderful creation. He is often the second favorite in the play, behind his dog Crab. We will leave Crab alone because we cannot conjecture on what was meant to happen with the unwritten role of the dog. If it obeys, it is funny. If it does not listen to its master, it is funny. Had Launce been an interlopation, and on top of that the crowd favorite that he has become, most likely Shakespeare would have found a better exit for him from the play rather than have him disappear to find Proteus’ dog only never to return. One expects that had he been added later, or improved upon, he would appear once the lovers had been united to tell us about his adventure with Crab. Instead he fades away. The actor who originally played Launce probably also played another important character in the last scene, but even so his absence is not commented on, letting us believe that he should not be missed in the first place.
While entertaining, the servants’ stories are not important to the plot of The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Their absence only becomes worth comment because they are treated more honestly and truthfully than the lovers. The servants are allowed to be human, physical and emotional, while the lovers are almost always treated as ‘gentlemen and ladies.’ They are allowed to be witty but are restricted from being as humorous as Shakespeare wrote them. Their actions are treated with more seriousness and gravity than they deserve or is called upon in the script. When they are given that liberty to be played as written, much of the play falls into place in ways from which it is usually restricted and the humor of the servants no longer eclipses the play.