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Serving the Eye Better than the Ear

By Caldwell Titcomb

STRATFORD, Conn.--When the American Shakespeare Theatre opened here in 1955, it offered productions of Julius Caesar and The Tempest. Whether by coincidence or design, the current season consists of the same brace of plays, augmented by a revival of last summer's staging of Twelfth Night.

In between, there have been two other mountings of The Tempest--in 1960 and 1971. The version that Edward Payson Call directed in 1971 was largely a failure, but William Ball had managed in 1960 to turn out the finest Tempest I have ever seen, thanks to a strong cast headed by Morris Carnovsky's Prospero, Clayton Corzatte's Ariel, and Earle Hyman's Caliban. And this despite the ill-advised total omission of the opening storm scene.

This time around, however, director Gerald Freedman has not skimped on the titular tempest. The ship's crew stands on deck, swaying in unison. The foreyard and rope ladders are raised, and the sound of eight bells signals high noon. The sky darkens and one hell of a storm strikes. The crew and noble passengers are eventually pitched into the roiling sea, represented by the violent agitation of a huge black cloth, and are saved from drowning by a bevy of naiads in turquoise body-stockings.

The only trouble is that the thunder sheets and other off-stage sound effects are so loud throughout that the sixty-odd lines of text are almost wholly unintelligible. It would be wiser to use a much lower decibel setting, with a final crescendo at the actual foundering.

But there is no denying the opening scene's strong visual impact. Indeed the production generally serves the eye a good deal better than it serves the ear. The play contains a lot of magic and spectacle, handled most ingeniously (and without the 140-man stage crew that Charles Kean needed in 1857). When Miranda is put to sleep, she slumbers levitated a couple of feet above ground. The instantaneous appearance and disappearance of the banquet (borrowed from Book II of Vergil's Aeneid) is truly miraculous, as are the periodic flashes of St. Elmo's fire all over the place in the air.

For the masque celebrating the betrothal of the young lovers (which made the play especially apt for use in the marriage festivities of the daughter of James I), Ray Diffen has provided lovely gold-haloed costumes for the goddesses Iris, Ceres and Juno, who sing a terzetto by John Morris and oversee a pretty ballet of nymphs choreographed by Kathryn Posin (though Freedman has needlessly abridged the text in order to extend the singing and dancing--needlessly, since only The Comedy of Errors is shorter, and this production has a running-time of only two and a quarter hours).

The Tempest takes place in a single afternoon on an island in Bermuda (as the text itself informs us), which lay unsettled until Sir George Gowers and his crew were shipwrecked on its coast in 1609. Several accounts of the expedition and wreck circulated in England the next year, and these provided Shakespeare with much of his material. The dramatist, in order to make the island a way station between Africa and Naples, simply transferred his Bermuda from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean.

True to the real Bermuda, Ming Cho Lee has designed a coral setting. There is a large entrance to Prospero's den, which can be closed off in several ways, and steps leading to an upper level from which Prospero and Ariel can look down upon the happenings they control.

No other Shakespearean play has elicited such a range of interpretation and evaluation. If Agate declared it one of his "unfavorite" plays in the canon, Dover Wilson thought it Shakespeare's greatest work, Wilson Knight and Henry James placed it at the top of English literature, and Quiller-Couch proclaimed it the supreme work in all literature. For me, it has unsurpassed moments, but as a whole ranks below The Winter's Tale among the four late romances. Everyone agrees that the play means more than it says, but what that meaning is remains a bone of vigorous contention.

The central role is that of Prospero, the play's Grand Puppeteer, which was highly suited to the talents of Richard Burbage, for whom Shakespeare fashioned his Richard III, Hamlet, Othello, Lear and other major parts. The role is more than three times as long as any other in the play, and the character has been thought to stand for God, Jesus, Fate, Justice, Art, Intellect, the Ideal Ruler, the Colonizer, the Grumpy Old Man, and a host of other things including Shakespeare himself.

At this weekend's press opening, Kenneth Haigh's Prospero seemed imbued with a weariness that I don't think either he or the director intended. Haigh's load this summer is enough to tire anyone: when he is not doing Prospero, he is playing either Brutus (an even longer role) or Malvolio. At any rate, his Prospero is not yet a sustained piece of work.

On occasion Haigh substitutes another word for the one Shakespeare wrote; at times he fails to heed the pronunciation required by the verse [exTIRpate, wronged, solEMnized]. His lengthy narration at the start is too slow, and his famous "revels now are ended" speech lacks sufficient musicality. He is much better in the abjuration soliloquy--which many have thought to be the playwright's own valedictory, although Shakespeare went on to collaborate on Henry VIII, The Two Noble Kinsmen, the lost Cardenio, and perhaps Sir Thomas More. Haigh has a long way to go before he matches Carnovsky's 1960 Prospero.

It is often claimed that Prospero is omnipotent, but he is not. He can do certain things when he wears his magician's robe, but other things depend on the willingness of his superhuman servant Ariel, who hopes to store up enough brownie points to earn freedom from his master. The very name Ariel suggests the "airy spirit" Shakespeare described him to be, though the name is actually a Hebrew one found in the Old Testament, one of whose meanings apparently was 'hearth of God.'

Whatever the etymology, Ariel is an androgynous creature, and over the years the part has been played by boys and girls, men and women. Among the female Ariels one might cite Kitty Clive in the 18th century, Maria Foote, Priscilla Horton and Kate Terry in the 19th, and Fania Marinoff, Agnes Carter, Rachel Kempson, Elsa Lanchester and Margaret Leighton in our own. For the most famous American production of The Tempest (in which only Arnold Moss' Prospero attained distinction, but which still ran a hundred performances on Broadway in 1945), director Margaret Webster engaged as Ariel the ballerina Vera Zorina, who moved beautifully but could not handle the lines.

This summer we have a young man, Ray Dooley, clad in a silver body-stocking with ligamental cords running from arms to torso. Dooley moves with admirable lightness, assisted by John Morris' delicate flutes, harp and chimes. His speech, however, is erratic; and his discourse (in a harpy's disguise) to the villainous nobles is an almost total loss. In "Come unto these yellow sands," "Full fathom five," and "Where the bee sucks" Ariel has three of Shakespeare's loveliest lyrics; but Morris' supporting vocalists cannot hide the fact that Dooley is simply no singer. The yardstick for the role remains Clayton Corzatte--who moved, spoke and sang to perfection.

The most engrossing--and most gross--of the characters in The Tempest is Prospero's "savage and deformed slave" Caliban, the subhuman offspring of a witch and a devil. It is incorrect to regard Ariel and Caliban as polarities. They are undeniably contrasted; but they also share a number of traits, such as distaste for physical labor, a yearning for freedom, a delight in pranks, a love of nature, an appreciation of music, and a fear of their master. Ariel has some coarse language and Caliban some ethereal lines.

The name Caliban may simply be an anagram of cannibal (Shakespeare took some material for the play from Montaigne's essay on cannibals), or it may be related to cauliban, a Gypsy word for blackness, At any rate, Freedman has assigned the role here to a black actor, Joe Morton. A black Caliban is no novelty: the 1945 Webster production had the boxer-turned-actor Canada Lee, whose performance I found too monochromatic; and the 1960 mounting here had an exemplary Earle Hyman, who had been a superlative Othello here three years earlier.

Some people have complained that casting a black Caliban is a racist act and turns the play into a white-supremacist tract. They need to examine the play more carefully. For one thing, King Alonso is on his way home from marrying his daughter to an African king. More important, Caliban is far from the most evil character in the play. It is true that he has tried to ravish Prospero's daughter, but he was not born to reason or to know right from wrong; he is not immoral, but amoral. It is also true that he plans a rebellion against Prospero. But Prospero, of all people, having been driven out of his rightful dukedom, ought to appreciate that Caliban resents Prospero's blithe colonialistic seizure of power on an island that was Caliban's exclusive domain.

Prospero, so often described as omniscient, refers to Caliban as a creature "on whose nature nurture can never stick." But he is quite wrong. In the dozen years Prospero and his daughter have lived on the island, Caliban has striven to better himself and has learned how to speak well. In the course of the play he learns valuable lessons and at the end asserts, "I'll be wise hereafter, and seek for grace."

It is one of the play's points that Caliban, for all his subhuman qualities, is superior to the civilized royalty who wilfully embrace a career of corruption and evil. Shakespeare distilled the idea in Sonnet 94, which ends, "Lilies that fester smell worse than weeds."

Joe Morton (whom Bostonians will remember for his central role of Mr. Geeter in the long television series Watch Your Mouth, shown last year on WGBH) is giving the one outstanding performance in the current Tempest. With the splotchy face and long nails referred to in the text, Morton has worked out a fully rounded characterization. He crawls on his belly, he walks with a special bow-legged gait, and he indulges in puling vowels and animalistic exhalations of spleen. He knows how to emphasize the explosive consonants with which the dramatist peppered his part, and he displays a splendid singing voice in his robust freedom song (in which Morris has replaced his high woodwinds with the more appropriate tuba and bassoon).

Morton superbly conveys the pathos, humor, pain and joy that make up much of this remarkable character. He is a worthy successor to our century's most celebrated Caliban, the late Robert Atkins--who first played Prospero but switched to Caliban and went on doing the latter for 40 years, portraying him as the kind of New World savage that Elizabethan voyagers liked to bring home for public side-show display; and to the extraordinary hippopotamian Caliban that Earle Hyman embodied on this very stage.

The two young lovers in the play pale beside their counterparts in the earlier romances. Anne Kerry's unnaturally studied elocution and rather monotonous vocal timbre do not help Miranda. As her suitor Ferdinand (whom Prospero tests in too testy a manner), Peter Webster is handsome enough and speaks acceptably, save for a couple of misplaced accents.

Shakespeare paid insufficient attention to King Alonso and his five lordly cronies--"that dismal sextet," Agate called them. The actors can do little but go through their plot-serving paces, though someone should have kept Theodore Sorel from going way out of vocal control in Alonso's "billows" speech. As old Gonzalo (a weak retread of Polonius in Hamlet), Daniel Benzali gets an unintended laugh from today's fuel-conscious audience when he outlines his ideal commonwealth as having "no use of...oil." And it is a nice touch, at the end of the play, for him to bow to Caliban with a kindly smile.

James Harper and Jeremy Geidt deserve credit for getting more fun out of the boozing Stephano and Trinculo than the roles really contain. But it is Joe Morton's Caliban for which this production will be best remembered.

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