The Theatregoer Antony and Cleopatra at the Loeb through May 9
A C??BRADLEY, who wrote the only essay on Antony and Clipatra worth saving, said that the play was less powerfull than the other great tragedies because the element of reconciliation was stressed so forcefully. But if King Lear is Shakespeare's greatest tragedy. Antony and Cleopatra is surely his greatest play. And this is due precisely to the element of reconciliation. Its structure is vast and symphonically cohesive and organic. No play can equal the sustained intensity of the lyrical poetry, the unfailingly perfect interpenetration of theme, plot, character, time image, and metaphor. In Nilus and Tiber. East and West, queen and soldier, Shakespeare found brilliantly effective dramatic terms for love and war, surely, the most successful dramatic terms for any of his plays. The startling sensuo??sness of the language, which "hits the sense": the resor?? ?? the two death scenes: and, above all, the incomparable balance of the love and war plots, urge Antony and Cleopatra as the greatest lyrie heoric dramatic poem in literature.
The play treats the imerrelation of honor and love, in their transform action from reputation and sexual infatuation to a gidly vision of higher honor through self-forgetful love, Both Antony and Cleopatra are heroes, rulers, and lowers. They live in the world of policy, but they envision a world of gods. The tragedy is that reputation and love are irreconcilable in the world. To ask for honor is to ask for death. This is the hero's fate. To ask for love is to ask for life in another worid. Troilus and Cressida -a bitter, earlier, centrifugal labor-examined whether a man can act honorably in the name of love. Antony and Cleopatra explores how the soldier in love is liable to betray himself as a soldier and how the hero in love is at war with himself. The reconciliation of will and heart, passion and reputation, is the strong told of grace of Cleopatra's love. And this is only a particle of the play's substance.
Daniel Sclizer's Humanities 105 production deserves high praise for scorning the tactile orgies, eruptions of radical pathologies, raucous vocal distortion, audience involvement (read intimidation), gymnastic runaways, and fatuous political irrigation's which have afflicted numerous productions this year. We got through without bluejeans, mad scenes, copulation, fashionable violence, obscenity, and references to Bobby Seale. The words are the play (any play) and Seltzer gave us the words with acceptable cuts and no Grotowski exercises or similarly insulting polemical interment. Give me the words and allow me to decide what I am experiencing.
IT IS of course impossible for students to convincingly portray a demi-atlas and a serpent. Gordon Snyder as Antony was the less auspicious failure, while Susan Yakutis, charged with the greatest woman's role in drama, seemed more afraid than madequate. Snyder lapsed into manneristic anger, often indulging in worthless shouting; Miss Yakutis lapsed into the torpor rather than the lightning of a serpent, and was manneristic in her fire. Neither penetrated to the fire of the heroic ardor of will, the incandescent poignancy of love. A line shouted is a line destroyed. Neither actor was able to go beyond the lines to the poetry-to the rhythm of jealousy, scorn, fear, shame, love, and deliverance.
The roles are long and unsurpassable difficult. Miss Yakutis has a good deal of breath and body control but was the most mechanical and aloof I have ever seen her. Snyder was repetitive in gesture and volume, and is in fact, exceedingly careless in his part. I doubt that he comprehends the nature of Antony's shame in the great scene III, XI. for he was clamorous and brutal. This is the still moment of shame. The tone should be lyrical self-examination, during the exhaustion of shame through to the reassertion of resolve. It is the tone of Achilles by the sea, of the first speeches of Samson Agonistes. Volume is not anger, humiliation, or passion. The voice of beauty is quiet, intense. Mr. Snyder delivered a surfeit of apostrophes, read too many end-stopped lines, and tended to pause too long on the caesturas. But Miss Yakutis perfectly captured Cleopatra's shock at her power to lead Antony to desert and thus betray himself in this scene. It is the moment of deepest learning on her part.
Snyder also badly misjudged the end of Act III, by eradicating Antony's joy in his ironic recovery, which is really his moral devolution. The Antony of this production seemed incapable of lyric relaxation, of case, forgiveness, vision, and music. The Cleopatra is too often the shallow playacting little girl or the burning termagant. The secret of Cleopatra is that she is always capable of her speeches at the close of Acts IV and V. She must always act in the intuition that her honor and her safety are irreconcilable, that a race of heaven is a death on earth, that to be noble to herself is to be capable of the love of the gods.
Michael Schiffer's Enobarbus was monotone but fitfully engaging. His death scene redeemed his absurd flippant, balmy, detachment at the opening. He read every line the same (piano) but it was an agreeable reading. Timothy Clark as Caesar gave disquieting signs of yet another misconceived, automaton, bloodless ruler, but gradually infused this crucial role (for it is a drama of East and West, both imperfectly noble) with the life and subtlety it demands. Clark gave dramatic center to each of his scenes, and so offered the finest performance of the evening.
AS FOR THE rest of this vast cast, I can only make limited suggestions. The Soothsayer should not be played like Tiresias. Chairman and Iras, two thankless roles must either put on more or different clothes. The colored battle-screen made no contribution. More seriously, the court at Egypt was enervated and decidedly unexotic, unmajestic, uninercurial, and rather bland, tired, and timid. There was petulance instead of the passionate anger of a moody, selfish, regal, lover-queen. Miss Yakutis must avail herself, as I know she can, of a range of tones and rhythms, and soar and admonish and implore and pout and sing her way to complexity. The soldiers are unremittingly declamatory, laboring to render each line as massively as possible. They don't speak to each other, but keep trying to lurch into Shakespeare's execrable Titus Andronicus oratory. Too many speeches are self-contained. The wonderful music of speech, and the counterpoint of the scenes themselves, should be woven into breathing movements of lyrie felicity and heroic urgency. The company tends to interrupt speech with gesture, but this is a small problem indeed. I wished, above all, for the quiet felicity which allows the poetry to be released in human similitude.
The production is faithful to the text and so deserves high praise. The players are still somewhat awed by their parts, still a little unconscious of each other. Remember that I went opening night, that this play has more scenes than any of Shakespeare, that the lead roles are ferociously difficult, and that the play is his greatest achievement in lyric poetry, which can't abide even minute inattention as to voice and motion. After the disintegration of The Three Sisters and The Tempest, it is moving to find a director who nobly produces this incomparable symphony of a dramatic poem with such integrity. The honor, love, death, the sorrow, rancor, and joy of laughter and release are all present and unencumbered. This is a gentle and monumental play of soldiers, and lovers, and gods, of grief and crowns and consolation, of metaphor and music which even Shakespeare never surpassed. And this is one of the most welcome, the most sane, and the most honorable productions of the year.