Shakespearing #32.2 by John King
Even More Thoughts About Coriolanus
Last week, I discussed how Coriolanus eludes me because I don’t feel any empathy for its characters, the minor character Menenius excepted.
Considering that my chief axiom about Shakespeare is that he is best known in performance rather than on the page, I thought it best to carry over how I experience this lack of empathy in performance. I have seen Coriolanus twice, once with the Ralph Fiennes film of 2011, and once with the 2013 stage production mounted by the Palm Beach Shakespeare Festival.
Now I have seen Hamlets I felt nothing for, due to bad acting, but even a modest success at Hamlet lets the humanity of his character surprise me, despite having too many Hamlets in my life.
Can a superior performance make me feel empathy for characters whose chief attributes seems to be they have their heads up their asses? Can I think of Coriolanus as being other than the -anus play?
The 2011 film is deeply impressive on numerous levels.
The cinephile in me likes noticing that Fiennes, who played Francis Dolarhyde in Red Dragon, is acting with Bryan Cox, who was the first Hannibal Lecter in the first film version of Red Dragon, Manhunter.
Vanessa Redgrave and Jessica Chastain and Gerard Butler look intelligently cinematic, yet appropriate to this twentieth-first century adaptation of Shakespeare.
And to hear Fiennes deliver Shakespeare’s lines so majestically and ferociously is exquisite, like hearing a Stradivarius go at something that might have been composed by Paganini.
Fiennes does not persuade me that Coriolanus’s pride (which rips apart both Rome and his sense of identity) is tragic, tragic precisely because it is morally necessary to give his very life meaning—although the delivery is compelling to hear, even if I don’t quite care.
What Coriolanus does for me in such a performance is to dramatize how politics and rhetoric form a public mask that bears no true resemblance to the experiences as a soldier that has made Coriolanus a public figure to begin with. His relationship with his enemy, Tullus Aufidius, is more real to him that his relationship to his people, or to his wife. These experiences, these triumphs, are not translatable to those without such experiences. Hemingway wrote about this in “Soldiers Home,” from his story collection In Our Time.
I am not sure if it is a mark of boredom, or merely a different aesthetic experience, that my mind watches the tragic dramaturgy of Coriolanus from a vast emotional distance.
If I keep watching, it must be good, even if I cannot articulate why or how.
When my friend, Kevin Crawford, performed this play in the summer of 2013, he made the spectacle even more abstract, a Rome sort of set in outer space. He and the other actors pantomimed the use of weapons, and when Coriolanus and his fellow soldiers lay siege Aufidius in Corioli—the conquest of which city the hero is granted the name of honor, Coriolanus—they banged the air, and the foleys boomed with their fury.
Kevin was beardless, and totally bald, thus removing one more mark of personality from the hero who was wrestling more with eternity than with Rome, its citizens, or Aufidius, for his sublime sensation of immaculate pride.
The poster showed Kevin clutching his face, as if he were going insane.
Kevin was roughly my age, but had been acting since he was a teenager, and there were no huge challenges left for him in the great bard’s work. He wanted to mount a production of Cyrano, that dramedy about the distance between our public and private selves, about how complicated our need for companionship in essence is.
Sweating in a field in Jupiter, Florida, as Coriolanus raged to create a public self he could recognize, I felt more on his strange journey than ever before.
Most of the cast of the Palm Beach Shakespeare Festival was now young, and had missed the twenty-two years of shows Kevin had experienced.
Coriolanus is a late Shakespeare play. Like The Tempest, it is weird. Perhaps this was Shakespeare sensing the end of his dramatic career. No one’s imagination in the history of letters had come close to his work—he was in an aesthetic isolation. He was trying to exist fully.
Kevin would churl at this psycho-biographic pass at Coriolanus, most likely, although he would have humored me.
That summer run of shows were Kevin’s last. He died quite suddenly on December 2nd, 2013.
I miss him more than I can say.
John King (Episode, well, all of them) is a podcaster, writer, and ferret wrangler.