Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Giving a Hand to Titus

Titus Andronicus is the first and bloodiest of Shakespeare's tragedies.  It piles horror upon horror in a way that is scarcely believable for modern audiences.  In Act III, scene i, Aaron cuts off Titus's hand on stage.  This futile attempt to save the lives of Titus's sons turns out to be merely a ploy of Aaron's. Titus exits the stage bearing--in his remaining hand--the severed head of one of his sons.  His own severed hand is carried off by his daughter Lavinia.  She, however, must carry it between her teeth--because after she was raped, both of her hands were cut off and her tongue was cut out of her mouth.  Such a grim catalog of horrors might seem impossible to take for some audiences.

All indications, however, seem to affirm that Titus Andronicus was an immensely popular play in Shakespeare's day.  The critic Julia Briggs, in discussing Titus Andronicus and similar gory revenge tragedies, postulated that the modern reader's failure to understand these works "reflects more on our own limited sympathies and tastes than on any innate failure in them."  Of course, Shakespeare's audience today, like in his own time, need not rely on text alone.  Over the last century, Titus Andronicus received more productions than perhaps during any other period since Shakespeare's day. These productions were often extremely successful and aided audiences in expanding their "sympathies and tastes" to better understand and appreciate a very difficult but very powerful play.

Before the twentieth century, productions of Titus Andronicus were scarce and generally poor.  One version, rewritten for the noted African-American actor Ira Aldridge, even warped the play so much as to make Aaron, the villain, into the hero.  A 1923 production of the play at the Old Vic, though generating more than a little derisive laughter, proved that the play could still be done as written.  The time was becoming ripe for a revolution in how audiences see Titus Andronicus.

That revolution came in 1955 with Peter Brook's production of the play starring Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh.  In his book The Empty Space, Brook described his production as "a ritual of bloodshed."  Brook's stylized staging used such theatrical devices as red streamers for blood.  These unrealistic choices did not take away from the audience's bond with the characters, even in the most gruesome scenes.  As one critic noted, "the enormous physical agony of the severed hand was almost unbearable."  The response of both audiences and critics was overwhelming.  Brook was hailed as a "genius," the production as "pure theatre," and Olivier's Titus as "one of the finest performances of his career."

Brook's surprisingly successful production immediately received several imitators.  These interpretations, like Brook's, were all inherently theatrical.  One production at The Old Vic was staged as a play within a play, as wandering Elizabethan actors performed Titus Andronicus in the courtyard of an inn reproduced on stage.  Brook had begun a trend away from Realism, and toward the stylized and theatrical.  The Old Vic production continued this trend by placing the play in its original context, but the play could also succeed in very different contexts.

Producer Joseph Papp had already tried staging Titus Andronicus--with limited success--when in 1967 his groundbreaking production opened at the outdoor Delacorte Theatre in Central Park.  Directed by Gerald Freeman, this Titus drew upon the theatrical traditions of ancient Greece and feudal Japan, employing music, elaborate costumes and masks, and a chanting chorus.  In the infamous first scene of Act III, the heads of Titus's sons were represented by empty masks.  Despite the lack of gore, the audience gasped at the sight of them.  The production drew rave reviews.  By placing the work in a new context, it succeeded in getting past stomach-churning gore and in helping the audience to see the pure psychological horror of the play.

The seventies saw several more productions in the theatrical tradition of Peter Brook. A 1971 production in Glasgow used black paint to signify missing hands.  The 1974 production at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival used an off-stage chanting chorus and had scarves signify blood.  This production, directed by Laird Williamson, also included some more naturalistic touches.  When Lavinia was raped and mutilated, for instance, she shed realistic blood, unlike Brook's ravished innocent.  The 1978 production at the Globe Playhouse of Los Angeles also managed to avoid sensationalism, and be "horrific but not grotesque" according to one reviewer.  In the same year, the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival produced a ritualistic Titus Andronicus in which the entire cast remained on stage for most of the play.

Not all productions, however, followed the lead of Brook.  The 1972 production at the Champlain Shakespeare Festival in Vermont had nothing symbolic about its violence. Played with grim cruelty, and attempting to make the characters as realistic and human as possible, the play was a hit with some while it alienated others. Audience members called the play "appropriate for viewing by a board of pathologists" and "X-rated" among other things. Some patrons reportedly fainted at the performances, and when the severed heads were brought in during Act III scene i, people left the theater. While undoubtedly a moving and unforgettable performance, it failed to create the more intellectual understanding of the play that more stylized productions tended to encourage.

This bloody trend was continued in the next decade by such productions as Vincent Dowling's in Cleveland in 1980.  Like the Vermont production nine years earlier, Dowling's realistic gore caused some people to become ill and others to faint.  There was little applause from the shocked mid-western audience.  An unimaginative production by the Royal Shakespeare Company the following year failed to impress the audience with even shock and horror.

A more successful production, staged by a Canadian cast and directed by Brian Bedford, was "devoid of blood while gripped with inner tension" according to one reviewer.  The 1981 American Players Theatre production used a similar approach, hiding violent acts from view.  Lavinia, for instance, had her back to the audience the whole while as she held her father's hand in her mouth.  While drawing praise for showing restraint, these productions simply toned down the violence, as opposed to converting it into a different, more theatrical and ritualized form.  They never made a break into a different style that might allow the audience to become more connected to the text, and perhaps come to a greater understanding of Shakespeare's intentions.

The Royal Shakespeare Company staged the play again in 1987, this time with great restraint. Shakespeare calls for Titus's hand to be cut off while he is still on stage, but the production hid the horrific moment from view.  Likewise, severed body parts were carried in bags, not seen.  William Freimuth, on the other hand presented the play in the same year at the opposite extreme.  His production at the Source Theatre in Washington, D.C. took the excessive violence of the play to its logical--or illogical--extreme.  Titus Andronicus was reinterpreted as a parody of revenge tragedy.  In Act III, scene i, for instance, Titus had the heads of his sons delivered to him by a paperboy on a bicycle. The absurdity of such a production shows the difficulty, if not impossibility, of presenting a Titus Andronicus in the spirit of Shakespeare while still using the stage conventions of modern Realism.

Not all productions of the eighties, however, left behind the symbolic theatrical trend.  In 1989, the Stratford Festival in Ontario presented cut versions of Titus Andronicus and The Comedy of Errors as two one-acts. Heavily influenced by Japanese Kabuki theater, the production had a marked Asian style. Such elements as a lavishly staged puppet show clearly placed the play in the world of the theatrical. Reviewer Wallace Sterling remarked, however, that while the puppetry "might have worked in a fuller, broader version of this play," it ended up appearing as "an unnecessary appendage."

Paul Barry's 1989 production at the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival combined the theatricality of Brook with the restraint that had saved the Royal Shakespeare Company's production in 1987.  Barry concentrated on the theater of rituals, as funerals, weddings, and coronations were highlighted, and choral chanting filled the stage.  Barry avoided the excesses of both stage blood and symbolic scarves and ribbons.  Instead, hands were simply bandaged, and Lavinia's mouth was left open to represent her severed tongue. This restraint from both extremes of the realism spectrum was mirrored by James Bazewicz's sparse but effective set design.

A similarly minimalist set was used in Julie Taymor's production at Playhouse at St. Clement's in 1995. Acknowledging her debt to Peter Brook, Taymor had the ravished Lavinia appear with a line drawn across her mouth to represent her severed tongue, and had branches sprout from the stubs on her arms. Not all aspects of the production, however, were this stylized.  With a grisly naturalism, blood continued to seep through the rag that bound Titus's stump where his hand used to be.  The production drew from two very different traditions, but it did so successfully.  Many of these elements also made it into Taymor's 1999 film version Titus.

In 2011, I saw the Public Theater do a splendid production of Titus Andronicus with Jay O. Saunders in the title role. The production featured literal buckets of blood being poured onto the stage. But is it time for a new production? New York Shakespeare Exchange thinks so! The company recently announced they will do the play in early 2015. I saw that company do King John back in 2011 and was rather impressed. It will be interesting to see what approach they take to this fascinating play.