Reclaiming the Bard for the common man.
There was a time when attending a motion picture was not an occasion but an event. Most of the great movie houses that might remind us—the Roxy in Times Square, Fox Theater in San Francisco, the Loews Palace in DC—are long gone, but the Music Box remains. A local landmark on Chicago’s North Side, the theater still has its Austrian curtains, house organ, and even a hoary legend: the ghost of Whitey, the house manager who ran the theater from opening night in 1929 until Thanksgiving eve, 1977, when he lay down for a cat nap and passed away in the lobby.
The Music Box is an 800-seat theater, more than three times the size of Donmar Warehouse, another theater nearly four thousand miles away in London. What brought the two houses together was Shakespeare’s Coriolanus. A recent performance at the Donmar was beamed live, and later rerun, to cinemas all over the world as part of Britain’s National Theatre Live series. It was the first time the Music Box telecasted a production that completely sold out.
In Shakespeare’s canon, Coriolanus sits somewhere between rarely remembered plays like Pericles and Two Gentlemen of Verona and stock selections like King Lear and Romeo and Juliet. A story of pride and political intrigue plucked from Plutarch’s Lives, the play is a little like an olive: a bitter fruit from Rome and something of an acquired taste. Its title character is one of Shakespeare’s great creations—for an accomplished actor, a role almost as inevitable as Iago or Macbeth. T.S. Eliot called the play “Shakespeare’s most assured artistic success;” he admired it so much he wrote two “Coriolan” poems with an eye toward an unfinished tetralogy.
It’s unlikely enough that an art-house movie theater would sell so many tickets to a telecast of Coriolanus—but I should add that this was a morning matinee in Chicago on a frigid Sunday in February. When I arrived, then, I wasn’t exactly worried about finding a place to sit—but I was bewildered to discover a packed house where I expected an acre of open seats.
I found mine between two accommodating couples in the second-to-last row. At the other end of the theater, Coriolanus was already blasting the Roman peasants—you dissentious rogues—for daring to demand grain. For Shakespeare’s surliest character, he was quite comely, and considerably younger than the middle-aged men who typically inhabit the role. He was also the reason why the audience looked suspiciously like a pep assembly.
If the name Tom Hiddleston means nothing to you, you probably missed last summer’s Thor: The Dark World, in which Hiddleston reprised his role as Loki, the mischief-making demigod who has become the most successful villain in the Marvel movie universe. You almost certainly didn’t vote him MTV’s “Sexiest Man in the World,” a title he won last December in a 77-percent landslide. That victory was thanks to the very girls (and not a few boys) who were drawn to the Music Box that morning: they came not for Shakespeare’s gilded syllables, but for Tom’s sportive grin.
It has transatlantic appeal. The host of the telecast noted that the theatrical run at Donmar had sold out in twenty-four hours and that she had been surrounded at an earlier performance by “school kids” who “stood up and screamed their appreciation.” Her experience echoed my own and that of the handful of others who were drawn to the Music Box not for an international sex symbol but for the Sweet Swan of Avon. The sell-out was such a surprise to some regulars that a staff member took the stage at intermission to assure them the $15 tickets had not been handed out gratis (and to inform the irregulars that an encore performance would be scheduled ASAP).
I hope the grumbling was minimal. The last thing Shakespeare needs is votaries standing akimbo-armed before the front doors of the theater. Yes, the plays constitute some of the sublimest heights of human expression, but Shakespeare could also tell a good fart joke. If we sometimes overlook that, it’s because an aspic of expectation has embalmed the Bard. We don’t simply watch the plays—we bear witness, with the result that contemporary audiences can sit through entire performances with the kind of rigid composure better suited to being held at gunpoint.
It wasn’t always that way. Pick up Shakespeare in America, an anthology published by the Library of America this month to coincide with the Bard’s four hundred and fiftieth birthday today. A miscellany of poems, speeches, letters, and assorted ephemera, the book reminds us that, in this new England of ours, the admiration and appropriation of Shakespeare have most often been unabashedly demotic.
One of the first selections is an epilogue to Coriolanus by the Revolutionary War poet Jonathan M. Sewall. It was offered as an addendum to the play when it was performed for (and, perhaps, by) war-weary American troops stationed in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Though Coriolanus is often seen as a tale of liberty reaffirmed and loyalty rewarded, Sewall draws a parallel between the American troops’ rebellion and that of the title character:
A diff’rent scene has been display’d to night;
No martyr bleeding in his country’s right.
But a majestic Roman, great and good,
Driv’n by his country’s base ingratitude,
From parent, wife, and offspring, whelm’d in woe,
To ask protection from a haughty foe:
To arm for those he long in arms had brav’d,
And stab that nation he so oft had sav’d.
If Shakespeare was called upon to consecrate the divide between the colonies and home country, he could also split Americans. My favorite selection in Shakespeare in America is an anonymous pamphlet describing New York’s infamous Astor Place Riot of 1849. A simmering feud between the American actor Edwin Forrest and British thespian Charles Macready came to a head when Macready was invited to perform Macbeth at the tony Astor Place Opera House. Across town, Forrest decided to put up the same play in the popular confines of the Broadway Theater. The dueling performances became a contest—who were the rightful heirs of Shakespeare’s legacy, the aristocrats or the people? The people, for their part, tried to hasten a decision by breaking up Macready’s first performance: “Rotten eggs were thrown, pennies, and other missiles; and soon, still more outrageous demonstrations were made, and chairs were thrown from the upper part of the house so as to peril life.”
The performance, understandably, ended early. Yet Macready, undeterred and urged on by the city elite, agreed to a second performance three days later, one that would be guarded by hundreds of police and “several regiments” of the National Guard. They were needed: fifteen thousand people converged on the Opera House to disrupt the performance, and a battle ensued that saw over twenty people killed and scores more wounded.
Though history doesn’t tell of a similar contest on the other side of the pond, Shakespeare’s plays there were hardly subdued events. The Globe itself was never so silent unless the theater had emptied, and patrons had no qualms about delivering parting shots to an especially poor performance. Like contemporary audiences for a Thor movie, they had paid money for diversion and delight. Hamlet—even Hamlet!—was entertainment before it was art. Indeed, it survived as art only because it first excelled as entertainment. The unruly devotion of Elizabethan audiences preserved the plays for us, and the revelry of the uninitiated—with its laughter, sighs, and shrieks of delight—better approximates their humor than the gray liturgy of “art appreciation.”
It also recalls what it must have been like at the first night of a new play, an encounter with something unknown and extraordinary. At the encore telecast—I went, the Donmar production is superb—I bumped into a friend. She knew little of Coriolanus. She simply trusted the playwright and admired the leading man. They had entertained her before; it seemed safe to conclude they would do so again.
We sat together in the oblong theater, under the cobalt colored ceiling where tiny lights twinkle to indicate the stars. I said nothing of what was to come, from the hugger-mugger over hungry bellies to war-by-other-means to, at last, the incarnadine conclusion. I wanted that experience of Shakespeare, if only vicarious, of something entirely unexpected. So we watched, and when the stage fell dark and the players assembled for a bow, we did what seemed natural: we cheered.
The Donmar Warehouse production of Coriolanus arrives in New York this weekend, at the IFC Center, which will host a screening on Sunday, April 27, at 11 A.M., and a second on Monday, April 28, at 6:30P.M. More information here.
John Paul Rollert is a writer in Chicago. His work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, Boston Review, and the New York Times.