Shakespeare never presented a stage director with more problems than he did in Antony and Cleopatra; thus any production of the play is cause for excitement. Coleridge thought it Shakespeare's "most wonderful" work; and in recent years a band of university scholars has been busy vociferously proclaiming it the greatest of the Bard's tragedies.
I suspect, though, that in almost every case the cathedra from which these pronouncements have emanated has been an armchair in a professor's home; and, further, that the evaluation has rested almost wholly on the language of the play. It is perfectly true that, as poetry. Antony and Cleopatra is masterly--in fact, unsurpassed by any other work in the canon; but, as dramaturgy, it is a failure, albeit an instructive and fascinating one. Poorly constructed, it suffers from what those in the trade call "second-act slump."
Now there is also no reason that a playwright must necessarily observe the three classical unities, but here Shakespeare violated them with a vengeance. The work covers the whole decade from 40 B.C. to 30 B.C. Well, all right. But, too, it hops, skips and jumps all over the then-known world. All the world's a stage, perhaps; but no stage can be all the world. As to action, there is nothing that can really be called a plot-line. We have instead a diffuse, kaleidoscopic melange of tiny incidents. The work contains, believe it or not, forty-two scenes some only five or six lines long: and they often go by and shift locale with cinematic speed. In fact, Shakespeare has given us less a stage play than a movie script; and the camera might do almost as much for Antony and Cleopatra as it did for Olivier's screen version of Henry V.
These are but a few of the factors to be reckoned with in essaying a successful staging. The current production at the American Shakespeare Festival has a great many virtues. Fortunately, director Jack Landau seems to have gotten most of the nonsense out of his system in his Twelfth Night and has, for a change, approached Antony--given its cast--with a welcome sense of responsibility. Enormously aided by Tharon Musser's lighting, by Rouben Ter-Arutunian's basic but effective settings and stunning costumes (which range from a black-and-gold tent-like shroud in which Cleopatra commits suicide to the sketchiest of breechclouts worn by her Egyptian slaves), and by an extraordinarily precise crew of stagehands, Landau has achieved a visual treat that moves smoothly and employs the possibilities of the Festival's stage with impressive virtuosity. And he is not afraid to adopt a simple, symmetrical Renaissance blocking when this can support the situation of a scene. Take, for instance, the meeting of the Triumvirs (II, ii)--the ancient equivalent of our "smoke-filled room." Facing the audience, Lepidus sits in the center behind a wide, stone table and appears to need to draw strength from his furniture to compensate for his own weakness. The two other Triumvirs--Antony and Octavius--enter and sit separated by the table, testing and feeling out each other's strength while often refusing to let their eyes meet. The wary, equal opposition of powers crushing weakness between them is enhanced by the diagonal placing of Enobarbus and two lesser officers on Antony's flank, and of Agrippa and two corresponding officers on Octavius'.
Still, this production is not free from major disappointments, which could and should have been foreseen and forestalled by Landau and others concerned. The fault, dear reader, is not in ourselves, but in our stars--in this case, two Hollywood movie stars, Katharine Hepburn and Robert Ryan. They are both fine performers in their proper spheres, which in neither case includes Shakespeare. This unsuitability carries with it no ignominy; and the obvious devotion and will of these two cannot compensate. In the past decade, Miss Hepburn has played Rosalind, Portia, Beatrice, and Viola--none with great success. Ryan has done Coriolanus professionally and other roles informally. The handwriting on the wall is clear. The fact that a movie star, Marlon Brando, gave us in the film version of Julius Caesar an Antony unlikely to be surpassed is no cause for a general Hollywood stampede to the Bard: Brando is a unique genius, probably the greatest acting talent our country has produced (come to think of it, I'd like to see him tackle Ryan's job). In the title parts of Antony and Cleopatra, neither Ryan nor Miss Hepburn can begin to convey the magnificent, rich orchestration of the verse, which is so fitting for the overripe society it reflects.
Both roles are difficult in the extreme, and for quite different reasons: though central to both is the curious fact--which I have not seen propounded elsewhere--that the play is not high tragedy at all, indeed, it would be possible--though I am not proffering this as the best solution, to play the work as essentially a near-Shavian high comedy; and of course Shaw did at least treat the Egyptian queen in similar fashion, though taking her at a much tenderer age, in Caesar and Cleopatra. Shakespeare did not present us here with an exalted love: Cleopatra is a nymphomaniac; and sex is, for Antony, just an animalistic gratification. Neither of the lovers is a noble person who experiences a tragic "fall" or deterioration. And we do not undergo a catharsis through "pity and fear" by witnessing their death. Nowhere in the play is death regarded as something terrible; we are not sad when Cleopatra takes her life, but rather rejoice in this final triumph she wreaks over Octavius. Both the lovers evince a death-wish; and we can even say that Antony and Cleopatra set up a menage a trois with Death as the third party.
Now Antony is a tragic figure, but not in this play. For all his dashing around, his is a virtually static character. We see only the results of tragedy, not the tragedy itself. The very opening lines of the play, delivered by Philo, tell us Antony has already hit bottom--and that's where he stays. He is no longer a great man: he is vicious and sadistic; he shows signs of incipient alcoholism; his military judgement (not even Shakespeare makes credible his decision for a sea battle) and prowess (he even bungies his suicide) are quite gone. Once in a while we are told that Antony was great; Shakespeare should have shown us--but, since he didn't the actor somehow should, and this Ryan fails to do. Ryan does not even make anything of Antony's one superb action in the play: the dispatching of Enobarbus' "chests and treasure" after the latter has deserted. I shall never cease to regret that Shakespeare didn't write another play covering Antony's life during the year between the end of Julius Caesar and the start of Antony and Cleopatra; there lay the stuff of a real high tragedy, a tale to compare with the analogous one of Aeneas and Dido.
Shakespeare's Cleopatra is, as Charmian says, "a lass unparallel'd," but Miss Hepburn's is not, alas, unparallel'd. This Mt. Everest of female roles has foiled many a seasoned Shakespearean within recent memory, including Vivien Leigh. Eugenie Leontovich, Mary Newcombe, Dorothy Green, Katharine Cornell, Janet Achurch, Peggy Ashcroft, and Edith Evans (though the last two came close). The celebrated willing suspension of disbelief does not extend to accepting Miss Hepburn as a sensuous femme fatale who ages from 28 to 38. Only once is she amorously convincing, when she gradually moves in toward Antony ("Eternity was in our lips. . .") and lightly caresses his bare arm. But she lacks the "infinite variety" that Enobarbus attributes to her. Whereas Antony is a fixed entity, Cleopatra is never fixed. Pick almost any adjective you like, and you can find support for its applicability somewhere in the script. She is utterly chameleonic in behavior, and nearly as complex as Hamlet. But Miss Hepburn's range is far too limited; and she indulges in the sort of pseudo-emotional descending vocal wavering that delighted the fans of Julia Marlowe many decades ago but is now wholly out-of-date. She does, however, deliver some of her vituperative and ironic lines effectively, and manages to achieve a certain dignity in her death scene.
Most of the supporting roles are in admirable hands. John Ragin offers a cleanly acted and crisply spoken Octavius; Morris Carnovsky rounds out resourcefully the sketchily-drawn Lepidus, a V.I.P. who's not V.I.; and Clayton Corzatte is touching as Antony's attendant Eros. Earle Hyman makes deep music of Alexas' lines; and throughout long silences he shows himself the master of what the late Ethel Barrymore called 'perhaps the highest art of an actor--the art of beautiful listening" (he is less effective doubling as the asp-smuggling Clown at the end).
Enobarbus displays the noble loyalty we associate with Horatio in Hamlet, the Bastard in King John, and the Earl of Kent in King Lear. His demise is the sole truly tragic aspect of this play; but one cannot call Antony a tragedy about Enobarbus as one can call Julius Caesar a tragedy about Brutus. Donald Davis' traversal of Enobarbus' famous Barge narration is not up to par, but his later scenes of repentance and death are powerful acting Rae Allen (Charmian), Will Geer (Agrippa), Claude Woolman (Menas), and Richard Waring (Sooth-sayer) are commendable in smaller parts; but Patrick Hires' cracking falset-to as the eunuch Mardian is a miscalculation.
At the opening performance, Norman Dello Joio's incidental music was often highly obtrusive, especially the brass tuckets. The softer portions, such as the supernatural music and the funeral music for Antony, are also of far better quality.