In this month's edition of Script Reading Roundup (brief thoughts on plays that I've read): three plays about British Isles royalty and one play about a little old lady from Texas.
The Trip to Bountiful by Horton Foote
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
“I’ve waited a long time. Just to get to Bountiful. Twenty years I’ve been walkin’ the streets of the city, lost and grieving. And as I’ve grown older and my time approaches, I’ve made one promise to myself, to see my home again… before I die…”
Such is the premise of Horton Foote’s elegiac drama The Trip to Bountiful. Mrs. Carrie Watts lives in a cramped apartment in Houston with her kind but weak-willed son Ludie and her frivolous, overbearing daughter-in-law Jessie Mae. For years, she has been trying to sneak away to her East Texas hometown, Bountiful, and each time, her relatives catch her before she can leave Houston. But one day…
The Trip to Bountiful is largely a touching character study, but there is a surprising amount of suspense as we watch to see how Mrs. Watts will make her escape. I also liked how Mrs. Watts is kind of an opaque figure during Act One (which is dominated by Jessie Mae’s chattering) but comes into her own when she sets out on her journey.
Admittedly, it’s disconcerting to see that according to the stage directions, Mrs. Watts is only 60. She seems much older than the 60-year-old women I know nowadays; indeed, in recent productions, the role is often taken by a more elderly actress. (Cicely Tyson was 88 when she played Mrs. Watts on Broadway in 2013!) At any rate, it is a lovely role for an older lady who can project an unpretentious, middle-American dignity. It is not a “diva” role; quite the opposite.
Another Southern writer famously said “You can’t go home again.” The Trip to Bountiful complicates that statement: when Mrs. Watts returns to Bountiful, she finds it diminished, abandoned, a ghost town. But nonetheless, it is still home.
Macbeth by William Shakespeare
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
All right, Shakespeare, you win: I don’t hate Macbeth. But it took me a long time to get to this point. As a teenager, I saw a terrible production of Macbeth and then acted in a terrible production of Macbeth; later, I saw a few more productions that didn’t do much to change my prejudiced mind, and wrote an essay about how Macbeth is the most over-produced Shakespeare play merely because every middle-aged white male actor thinks he should play the Thane of Cawdor. By that point, my hatred of Macbeth had hardened into a kind of shtick: I found it amusingly contrarian to say I hated this play that everyone else seems to adore, so I played up my dislike for it.
But I’m nearly 30 now, so the time has come to put away childish things and admit on the Internet that Macbeth is never going to be my favorite Shakespeare play, but I certainly don’t think it’s bad.
How did I get to this point? Seeing Sleep No More in New York City helped—it’s not every Shakespeare play that lends itself to transformation into a physical-theater gothic-noir haunted house. The introduction to the Pelican Shakespeare edition helped, or at least allowed me to forgive my high-school drama teachers for not doing any cross-gender casting (which resulted in me playing a non-speaking ensemble member while boys who couldn’t speak blank verse played all the thanes). The Pelican editor, Stephen Orgel, digs deep into how the play presents women as a disruptive or antagonistic force, and managed to convince me that putting female thanes in Macbeth might well make a hash of its themes. Reading Harold Bloom’s
Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human
helped; one of my objections to Macbeth was always that the minor characters do not have much personality, but Bloom suggests that that’s intentional. If the “secondary males in the play” are “wrapped in a common grayness,” Bloom says, it is only so that we more readily identify with Macbeth and “journey inward to [his] heart of darkness.” Or, in other words: Marissa, stop thinking that you’ve found a flaw in Shakespeare; the man was a genius and he knew exactly what he was doing.
So, all right: assuming that competent actors play them, Macbeth and his Lady are fascinating characters. The play moves swiftly and its language obsessively focuses on a few major threads of imagery: blood, shipwrecks, birds, sleep, nighttime and darkness. That imagery, plus the supernatural elements, give Macbeth a unique atmosphere among Shakespeare’s plays, even though I hate it when productions focus on the supernatural bits at the expense of everything else. (A pitfall that has beset Macbeth almost from the start, it seems; the Hecate character is an interpolation by Thomas Middleton. Jacobean audiences couldn’t get enough of those witches!) The scene where Macduff learns the news of his family’s death will wreck me every time. And, even though we know Macbeth is a murderous tyrant who deserves what’s coming to him, Shakespeare somehow makes us sympathize with his paranoia, terror, and nihilism.
I still think Macbeth is not a great choice to produce in a high school or college setting. And I still think there are probably too many productions of it overall.
But no, I don’t hate it.
Cymbeline by William Shakespeare
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I can’t recount the plot of Cymbeline out loud without bursting into giggles. Which is kind of odd: this play is not really considered a comedy in the same way as
A Midsummer Night's Dream
are, yet I can describe the stories of those plays with a straight face. Cymbeline, though… when I try to explain the sequence of events that result in the heroine waking up next to a headless body and mistaking it for that of her husband, I can’t stop laughing.
As other people have said, this play feels like what would result if you fed all of Shakespeare’s other plays into an extremely intelligent super-computer and asked it to produce something “Shakespearean.” It’s easy to imagine that Shakespeare knew he was at the end of his career and decided to play around with his pet motifs, including some winks at the audience. I mean, the play begins with two unnamed lords saying, basically, “Remember when King Cymbeline’s two little boys vanished without a trace? I wonder what happened to them.” (Gee, do you think that’ll become important later on in the story?) And by the end, Shakespeare has thrown so many plotlines into the play that it takes a scene nearly 500 lines long to resolve everyone’s story.
Very little in Cymbeline is profound, but a lot of it is awfully fun. Princess Imogen is a delightful heroine, the role of the self-involved dolt Prince Cloten can be hilarious in the right hands, and there are many other nice opportunities for comedians and character actors. The most difficult role is probably that of Imogen’s husband Posthumus, because it’s very hard to feel sympathy for him after he makes a wager on his wife’s fidelity. (One possible solution, which I saw in a production in summer 2015: portray Posthumus as extremely drunk at the time he makes the wager.) Overall, I think Cymbeline can be a charming, amusing, and unexpected choice for summertime Shakespeare in the Park companies, or for high schools who don’t want to stage Twelfth Night or Midsummer for the umpteenth time. Because, trust me, it’s as funny as either of them.
The Lion in Winter by James Goldman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Where has The Lion in Winter been all my life? Why didn’t I read it when I was 16 years old and equally obsessed with Shakespeare’s
Antony and Cleopatra
and Edward Albee’s
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
(It really reads like a cross between those two plays.) As a lover of eloquent dialogue, larger-than-life characters, handsome men and strong women, why did I wait so long to encounter this brilliance?
James Goldman’s play is based on real-life political intrigues involving King Henry II, Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, their three ambitious sons, and the French royal family, though with dramatic license taken to make it juicier. Taking place over a period of less than 24 hours, the plot is a complex swirl of alliances, manipulations, and betrayals, with various territories, marriages, and thrones used as bargaining chips.
Goldman makes no attempt to write dialogue that sounds “medieval,” or to replicate the exact circumstances of court life in 1183. (The royal family decks the halls with Christmas holly themselves—there are no servants or minor courtiers to be seen.) But at the same time, he grants his characters their full measure of dignity and charisma. He humanizes them but he does not cut them down to size. They are wittier, more attractive, more passionate, more conniving than everyday people, and I love all of these glorious monsters.
In one of the play’s most famous lines, Eleanor shouts “Of course he has a knife. He always has a knife. We all have knives. It is eleven eighty-three and we’re barbarians.” And indeed, the metaphor I keep thinking of to describe this play is a jeweled dagger. It is elegant and cutting, hard and glittering, extravagant and yet just right.