The following is an excerpted version of a conversation between Teddy Jefferson, whose “Rorschach Tempest” was published in the Spring 2010 (61.1) issue of Shakespeare Quarterly, and Martino Marazzi, who translated an extended bilingual version of the piece that was recently published in Italy by sedizioni, an Italian publishing house based in Milan.
Martino Marazzi What inspired you to write “Rorschach Tempest,” and how did you decide to choose this form and this strange and unexpected setting?
Teddy Jefferson Let me answer the question backward. The seed of the piece was research I did for a recent production of The Tempest. I was there for opening night, in the tenth row. The house was filled with the top theater brass and literati and press. Scene two: Prospero was telling Miranda the strange story of how he used to be Duke of Milan, but after a few lines he stopped speaking and began circling Miranda in a state of panic and desperation. He’d gone completely blank. It was the universal nightmare of finding yourself on stage with thousands of people watching you and not knowing your part. Miranda tried to prompt him but he just kept pacing round and round, like a madman. The audience wasn’t sure what was going on, whether this was deliberate or not. It felt like it went on for hours. Then, finally, the line came to him, and the play resumed. Why did this happen? In his eyes, there seemed to be the possibility that he simply couldn’t pull it off. The gears had frozen. It no longer made sense to do this play four centuries after it was written centuries during which man walked on the moon, murdered 60 million people in a decade, deciphered the genome, developed and used nuclear weapons, etc., etc. The elemental strangeness of doing theater—particularly classical theater—had come to the surface. He had suddenly become self-conscious, like a horse balking before a jump. Who was he during this brief gap in words? And did this affect what followed? The plainness of this crisis—Why do this play? Who am I actually playing?— and the absence of clear answers was what drove my piece forward. What was The Tempest to its time? Can we know the past? Can we know the present? What would it mean to know the present? Prospero’s pause is perfectly in line with these questions, and the use of Shakespeare to demonstrate the incompleteness of our understanding, where the tension between the familiar—the parts that strike us as plausibly modern—and the unfamiliar creates a kind of epistemological unease. And this unease should be the goal.
As for the second part of your question, Japan emerged as the setting for the piece partly because its total foreignness to the world of the play, which cleared the mind of the blinding jungle of Shakespeariana. Also, Japan has one of the greatest ranges anywhere of traditional art forms which it maintains obsessively while ravenously ingesting the new modes and technologies that some might think render the old forms obsolete. The West, conditioned by the worship of “progress” and the market—nature for the modern westerner—understands most culture as entertainment which must either pay for itself to continue to exist, or be artificially sustained as relics, in which case their vitality wanes inevitably. But if a traditional form—let’s stick with theater—is not entertainment, what is it? For the West, there is no ready answer: ritual? Sport? Therapy? Is theater more than, or other than, entertainment? Shakespeare’s contemporary Francis Bacon had the best description: theater is to the mind as the bow is to the fiddle. And then this also from Bacon: “The minds of men in company are more open to affections and impressions than when alone.”
Martino Marazzi To what extent is Lenz your ideal director?
Teddy Jefferson In a way yes he is, in his disposition—Lenz is a tireless manic omnivore, unbound by any orthodoxy, iconoclastic, curious, and intense. I look forward to seeing his works. My hope is that at least two of the productions described in the piece will be done, the Oedipus Rex performed during the Indi 500 (or a King Lear during a Grand Prix), and the final version of The Tempest with the twin trucks on the abandoned runway by the sea. Lenz is the perfect antidote to many of the tedious narcissistic schools of theater that proliferate these days, enervated by consensus and real estate. But Lenz has a more important feature as a director: anarchy. Of all the inherent features of theater, this might be the most important. It is built into the operation of the medium, which is unstable the way a radioactive atom is. The spectacle is absolutely real and absolutely false. You are continuously reminded, however drawn in you are by the illusion, that it is a game, a trick that could be disrupted at any moment. And this double state is compounded by the audience, which adds yet another unpredictable element. The theater I find most gripping is that in which this feature, this precariousness, lies closest to the surface, and illusion, performance, physical exertion, speech, and artifice are all equal. Everyone who has worked backstage in a theater has felt this. The story of the Brooklyn Prospero going blank is a case in point. In a theater performance, ten separate systems, or realities, are running at the same time, some on display, most hidden, but it is the sum that generates the intensity of the spectacle. It breaks surface away from what lies below it. It undermines the structures of commonplaces and “truths” constantly forming in our heads. Perhaps because of this, theater was always the first art to be shut down in times of political tension, the most demonized by authority. Queen Elizabeth formed a company of players to do pro-monarchy propaganda to counter the seditious messages she feared were seeping from London stages. Today it would be impossible for anything short of homicide to happen in a theater that would even draw the attention of the authorities. The attention of a censor is something a playwright would dream about now, when the ideas in a play are secondary at best. Especially today, when people are so hypnotized by the new electronics that their content barely matters.
Martino Marazzi In your Tempest, you go deep into the question of the relation between Shakespeare and realism. How much is Shakespeare engaged in simply rendering real characters and circumstances—real for his age, and potentially our own as well? I mean “realism” here as a mode of reproduction that is critical of a given historical context. And how much are his plays a bid for separation, a form of counterfeiting, of creating a deliberate break with that historical reality—an act not of flight but rather of radical estrangement?
Teddy Jefferson The question of realism is the perfect segue. Chekhov said if you put a real nose on a painting you ruin both. That’s the simplest pronouncement on realism. It’s very different in the visual arts, where the succession of styles and modes is accepted simply as a range of conventions for representing the human. To use a tiny sample, with the Egyptian figure, Cimabue, Giacometti, Daumier, Marvel comics, in each you recognize the human. What complicates things in theater is the fact that the roles, whenever they were written and whatever their style, are played by contemporary live humans, which creates a necessary and inescapable tension. It is impossible to know how much our behavior and thought today correspond to that in previous centuries and millennia. This tension between the contemporary and the ancient or old adds yet another electron ring to the medium.
But your question was more about content than presentation. Shakespeare undeniably took on the issues and circumstances of his time—treachery, murder, conspiracy, betrayal, love, disguise, dissembling—all of which were to be found in high concentration among the royalty, his primary focus. The life of Queen Elizabeth provides every detail of the most savage and bloody of his plays. Things got off to a fast start in her household: her father had her mother executed when Elizabeth was three, probably for not having produced a male heir. While the plays are filled with what we might see as political critique, this had to be well disguised or he would risk punishment. The sense of urgency and danger in the period was intense. Every decade or two, the plague would kill about a tenth or more of the population of London. Breughel the Elder’s Triumph of Death from 1562, today seen as surreal, was documentary painting. Theater, seen as a breeding ground for both dangerous thought and disease, would be shut down not for renovation but during outbreaks of the plague to avoid contagion. The Queen ran a network of spies and enforcers as plotting against her continued unabated. The struggle between Catholicism and Protestantism was deadly and relentless. You could easily be killed for what you believed. Insofar as much of this made its way into Shakespeare’s plays, he would be classified as a realist, but one who had to disguise and encode his real message—if, in fact, he was making timely political statements—to keep his head on his neck. Nor was this a simple operation, given that the theater was closely monitored for and regularly animated by seditious ideas. The sense of relevance and danger would have added to its appeal and sets it clearly apart from the pleasant, occasionally bracing, bourgeois entertainment that it has too frequently degenerated into.
The question of whether his characters resonate with our age is an interesting one. A large number of people, and actors especially, relate intensely to Shakespeare’s characters, who, they feel, provide a fuller and more intact humanity. One reason is that they are often boiling with contradiction, which modern people would say they share with them. Harold Bloom’s version of this position is the most extreme, that our idea of ourselves, of the human, is so dominated by Shakespeare that it is impossible to see past him; that we understand ourselves in his terms; that his interiority is our interiority. It is a breathtaking idea whether we find it convincing or hyperbolic. But the basic question is, What are we watching when we watch Shakespeare? Plays from four hundred years ago written almost exclusively about royalty (albeit with all classes represented) by a man who was not of royalty but well down the social ladder. How is it that modern people for whom monarchy is incomprehensible and obscene, whose minds have been shaped by Darwin, Freud, and Einstein, see themselves more in Shakespeare than in the playwrights of centuries later? Is it that Shakespeare was simply a genius in human understanding, and chose the monarchy as his main subject simply because that was the practice at the time? This is the universalist perspective. Is it possible that Shakespeare is more of a mirror for modern people than he was for his contemporaries? Or did the behavior of the monarchy in those days provide a scale and extreme range of action and consequence that drew out Shakespeare more completely than any other subject would have? Or might the modern audience see in Shakespeare’s king and queens a stature and romance lacking in daily life? Is it possible that what draws people most to Shakespeare is something that is unfamiliar, or interstitial, something that occurs only in the words? Is it a frequency of language or thought, a conceptual or metaphoric intensity, that simply satisfies and thrills the listener, whatever the theme? Perhaps because Shakespeare worked in a period when English was still magmatic, nonstandardized, nonbureaucratized, rough, when the amalgam of other tongues was fresh and dynamic, the language radiates an energy that people crave without knowing what exactly it is?
Martino Marazzi Reading your piece one has the sensation that just when we are carried as far as possible away from the “real” Tempest, the bickering and plots of Renaissance Italy, we find ourselves closer than ever to Shakespeare, because he lives, as you just said, “in the ear” as much as “in the eye.” Where does Shakespeare’s theater take place: on the stage, or in the mind?
Teddy Jefferson The plays go through the ear into the mind, like the poison in the play-within-the-play in Hamlet. The plays take place in the words. Everything of importance is in the words, the mood, the scenery, expressions on others’ faces, the pratfalls of the jester, the quality of the light, the pain from the sword, or the poison, even details about one’s costume. If something matters, it is mentioned. Characters announce their surroundings. The complete reality is carried in their speech, launched by it. In contrast, from the mid-1800s on, stage directions in plays become more and more elaborate and crucial. In O’Neill, or Pirandello, they constitute almost a parallel reality, novelistic and exhaustive. There is a simple test to perform on Shakespeare: in all of his plays can you find a single pause? Can you even introduce a single pause somewhere into the dialogue? No, because everything that happens is remarked upon. If a character falls silent, or is delayed in reaction, another character will point this out. The pause belongs to contemporary realism which is grounded largely in what is not said, and in the awkwardness of the situation. In Shakespeare, the script is sovereign, an unbroken ribbon or track.
But you can go further in this direction. A certain emotional and conceptual or intellectual intensity is reached solely because of the way things are said. This is less a matter of verse or image than something more raw and elusive, partly aural, rhythmic, but mostly the extraordinary angulation and speed of the milling of ideas and sense. There is something bracing and affecting in the sheer combination of words, the density of utterance, the speed at which characters digest and play off each other’s speech. There is no chitchat. The level of articulation is extraordinary. Take the exchange between Hamlet and the gravedigger—a good example, because it shows that every social level of the plays has the same linguistic caliber. A lot of bad Shakespeare performance involves acting out the lines, grabbing your crotch to point out a bawdy pun. The effect is the destruction of what is said by illustrating it. The language is so intricate and sophisticated that you can neither speak it nor follow it unless the words are primary. To gussy up a line of emotional intensity with tears and sobs is to destroy both. What this means then is that not only the scenery and atmosphere but even the characters’ behavior and movement are carried in the words. It is not that clarity of self-expression displaces, or obviates, displays of emotion and gesture. Rather, to a large extent, it sublimates them. The discussion of what an actor is to do with Shakespeare (other than speak clearly) is for another day and a taller bottle of wine. The point though is that so much is happening in the words, at so many levels, that all else must be very carefully gauged to them.
Martino Marazzi You are very careful not to propose a return to the old trick of “theater within the theater.” Indeed, you give a very clear indication regarding the impossibility of a naive theater that accepts the script as simply a score to be played “faithfully” or “philologically,” note by note.
Teddy Jefferson Years ago, I was assistant to the Rumanian director Lucian Pintilie on a production of The Cherry Orchard. It was the night before opening. I was sitting next to him taking notes. At the top of the show, as directed, a little boy darted across the stage and turned over a rake, leaving it teeth-up so when the bumbler Yepikhodov entered he would step on it and the handle would swing up and hit him in the face. As soon as the boy exited, however, an audience member in the front row jumped up onto the stage, turned the rake over, and walked off through the actors’ exit mumbling about saving the actors from danger. The cast froze in shock. Lucian, though, leaned forward with amazement and delight and said to me, “Fantastic, just like Pirandello!” This is the territory of theater within theater, or metatheater. It isn’t something that is added into a play but the gearbox of the medium, which a director can choose to hide or leave in view. Pintillie thought that theater was about the dead, a medium of conjuring, the stage as Ouija board. There is a common border between acting and spirit possession, and if we weren’t used to it as a profession, we might think that this activity of ingesting the words of other beings and pretending to be them were a psychological condition, or a religious pathology like speaking in tongues. The normalization of acting in theater as a career, the professionalization of the field, obscures the primordial, contagistic, unconscious operations of theater that serve to draw you outside of the rationalized, utilitarian world view. Theater as other. Theater as a response to the predeterminism and fragmentation of social life, in which the conventions and structures we live by appear strange and incomprehensible, theater as a funhouse mirror when the distorted image it reflects back is the true one.
All of this might seem a bit hocus-pocus but it arises from the same quality I pointed out a while ago, that the fusion of a script, live performers, and an audience activates something in the mind that no other art form can. Many Shakespeare productions try to update the play or relocate it to a familiar period—the Vietnam War, Nazi Germany, fascist Italy, for example. The impulse in these cases is to normalize the play, to counterbalance the basic fact that there is something strange about putting on a play written hundreds of years ago about kings and queens. Why should this strangeness be camouflaged? That should be the starting point. The continuing fascination with these works should be accepted as a mystery, not the norm.
The amalgam of past and present found in productions of classical theater is something less appreciated in the United States than the rest of the world, perhaps because the real mythology of this country is technology and futurism, not Mount Olympus. In Iran, for example, people will regularly cite couplets from a thousand years ago to elucidate something happening today. In the United States, the present is so overpowering that anything left over from the past must constantly justify itself (usually financially) or risk being liquidated or simply wither away. It is like a form of sadistically compressed evolution, in which each species is questioned at every generation as to why it should be allowed to continue to exist. The market has taken over the function of nature in evolution; it is the tribune, the high court of continuation. This is both bad and good. The bad is obvious. Look around at the landscape of constant demolition and turnover. The good is, or can be, a constant restless reexamination of everything. As an environment to live in, it can be nightmarish and electrifying.
Martino Marazzi So we are the first real actors, with our desires, our dreams, and our nightmares, and this is why we see ourselves in puppets and marionettes. You can be sure the acting schools won’t be rolling out the red carpet for you.
Teddy Jefferson The idea that we are controlled by forces we are not aware of is both repugnant and fascinating to people, whether that force is the unconscious, or the devil, or the logic of machinery. At the same time that Western society fetishizes the construct of the individual in politics and even more in commerce and advertising, science is asserting that our behavior in matters from religion to crime to love is biochemically or genetically predetermined. This involves the most basic ways in which we see ourselves and each other as individuals, what we like and what we do. We are told that Van Gogh’s style of painting was caused by a neurological condition. (It is worth asking whether we think in terms that science dictates, or whether science adopts terms that fit the current mood and appetite of the species.) In this context, then, the use of marionettes becomes the only true realism—albeit in a very literal, superficial sense. Ironically, the effect of using marionettes or puppets is the opposite: it doesn’t call attention to the puppeteer and show up the lifelessness and flatness of the puppet. Instead, the puppet exudes an inexplicable superanimation. You can argue that we see ourselves more clearly when portrayed by puppets, though only when performed at a high level, because of the slight abstraction. The Japanese Bunraku tradition is of course at the highest level, emotionally and anatomically, and the detail of the movements, of the left hand and face in particular, is so vivid and precise that you watch in amazement. The fact that the puppet is manipulated by three highly trained operators introduces a very interesting conceptual element: it takes three bodies and six hands to convincingly render human movement in a single puppet. The voice, then, comes from a fourth person. Now extend this idea from physical movement to consciousness. Could the mental structure of the human be similarly broken down and contracted out the way that movement was? What becomes immediately evident in this slightly crazy line of reasoning is that in theater we don’t think in terms of models of the mind and self. The unity and solidity of character is generally accepted as a given.
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Teddy Jefferson is the author of One Inch Leather: 14 Stories (pendulum books), and plays The Wedding, The Desk, and The Insomniac. His translation of Pirandello’s However You Want Me (Come tu mi vuoi) won the PEN translation prize. Savitri in the Forest of Death, written for choreographer Preeti Vasudevan, was just performed in Madras and Delhi and nominated for the META Indian Theater award. He was a dramaturge for the Bridge Project’s Shakespeare productions and edited the modern theater volumes for Harold Bloom’s Chelsea House series. Today Mother Was Burned at the Stake, an exploration of the inquisition against the Cathars, will be published in late 2013. He lives in New York.
Martino Marazzi is Assistant Professor of Italian Literature at the Università degli Studi, Milan, Italy, and has been a Fellow of the Italian Academy for Advanced Studies at Columbia University. He has widely written on literary and cultural relations between Italy and the United States, editing various works by Italian American writers (L. D. Ventura, A. Giovannitti, M. Fiaschetti, E. Bartoletti) and has published studies on modern and contemporary Italian literature (from Cavour and Pinocchio to Calvino) and on Dante criticism. His most recent books are Voices of Italian America (Fordham University Press, 2012), and A occhi aperti. Letteratura dell’emigrazione e mito americano (FrancoAngeli, 2011). He is also the author of two books of fiction: La fine del Purgatorio and Filogenesi (Sedizioni, 2008 and 2010).
To see Teddy Jefferson’s essay in sedizioni, go to http://www.sedizioni.it/sedizioni/catalogo/Voci/2011/11/13_ted_jefferson,_rorschach_tempest.html.
Copies of sedizioni can be ordered at http://www.deastore.com/libro/la-tempesta-alla-prova-ediz-teddy-jefferson-m-marazzi-sedizioni/9788889484630.html.