Red Bull Theater
I went to see a staged reading of The Duke of Milan at Red Bull Theater on Monday night. Even with the talented cast, a staged reading (which, per union rules, has limited rehearsal and requires actors to hold scripts in hand) of this lesser known Jacobean play didn’t really provide me with enough art/craft/process meat to chew on as I usually do in this blog. Fortunately, there’s still plenty to write about. Because how many of you did I lose with the word Jacobean?
Yeah, that’s what I thought.
Unless you are a specific type of theater, literature, or history nerd, the word Jacobean probably induces a near total shut down of sensory perception. I say “lesser known Jacobean play,” you fall asleep with your eyes open. I, however, like to pose as this type of theatrical and literary nerd. I’m weird like that. But the truth is that aside from the later Shakespeare plays, I don’t know very much this period in English theater.
Let’s play a game. I’m going to write down everything I think I know about Jacobean tragedy and then I’m going to Google it and see if I was right. I promise not to cheat. Jacobean tragedy is dark, bloody, and gory, with lots of killing. There is a great deal of betrayal, revenge, madness, and even incest. Other words that come to mind are ornate and twisty, and it makes me think of the colors black, gold, and red. I see lots of tall sharp collars behind women’s heads, and men who could probably be teleported to the low, gritty, crime-infested underbelly of Guy Ritchie’s modern day London and no one would notice. People would just think they were violent blokes who liked to wear tights.
Now to Google.
Okay, not bad. Although I can’t find any scholars who describe Jacobean drama as “ornate and twisty with lots of black and gold,” my impressions don’t seem to be far off. So my next question is – why aren’t we all getting down with our Jacobean selves? Doesn’t bloody revenge, madness, and betrayal seem like a rollicking good way to pass the time? We like it in our cinema, so why don’t we see more of it on the stage?
But maybe this line of questioning is off base. After all, Red Bull Theater has shot to prominence in NYC over the past five years as a theater company specifically focused on presenting Jacobean plays. Their productions of The Revenger’s Tragedy and Edward the Second both enjoyed successful extended runs in Off-Broadway houses. Clearly they must be doing something right. They must be serving an unmet, bloodthirsty need in the theater-going public.
Still, there’s something fusty in me that suspects – and then resents – a general lack of appreciation for Jacobean drama. I think it’s because of my love for Shakespeare. I don’t really associate Shakespeare with all that dark, gory, thugliness, but he did write in that era and my resentful suspicions must really be in defense of him. I love Shakespeare’s plays because when I speak the words of his characters, they trigger in me feelings that are very human and have clear emotional logic. His characters make sense to me on an empathic, human level, which I believe is entirely due to the words and rhythms Shakespeare gives them. I’m going out on a limb here, but I don’t think depicting empathetic humanness through language was the concern of many other Jacobean playwrights. They seem to be focused elsewhere. Perhaps on depicting a type of despair in the human condition, on depicting the bloody unfairness of it all.
Maybe that’s the disconnect – if there is one. Maybe it’s easier for folks to connect with four hundred year old plays – with the “old timey” language and costumes and customs – when that human empathy is front and center. Maybe it’s harder to stomach the old timey-ness when it’s all serpentine plot and bloody dark revenge. Perhaps audiences prefer their revenge straightforward -- not so ornate and twisty (ha-HA!). But as I say, I’m talking out of turn here. I don’t have a lot of Jacobean play-going experience to draw on. Looks like I’ll have to check out Red Bull’s Duchess of Malfi in February to see what I can learn.