Walter Pater once wrote, “Shakespeare’s kings are not, nor are meant to be, great men,” something that is deeply understood by director J.R. Sullivan in his new production of Richard II at the Pearl Theatre. Sean McNall, playing the title role, presents both a physically and politically diminutive figure: slim, pale, and sickly looking—a kind of deflated Peter Lorre—this “landlord of England” spends most of the play looking up at actors nearly a head taller than him. His Richard is squeamish, non-committal, and totally incapable of controlling his subjects; as we watch him fight a losing battle to maintain a regal demeanor, we wonder if he ever really wanted to be king in the first place.
Drama about pedagogy tends to follow an insufferable formula: if the professor/high school English teacher/football coach is not used to voice a series of banal platitudes, then he is there to assuage white liberal guilt in some vaguely or explicitly racist way. For that, I would rather open my wrists in a bathtub than have to sit through another god-awful “O Captain! My Captain!” scene again.
Peter Brook, the theater legend who directed the original run of Fragments in London, writes, “Today, with the passage of time, we can see how false were the labels stuck on Beckett—despairing, negative, pessimistic. Indeed, he peers into the filthy abyss of human existence. His humor saves him and us from falling in. He rejects theories, dogmas, that offer pious consolations, yet his life was a constant, aching search for meaning.” This is both succinct and spot-on. It is certainly easy to see why these early, false labels were applied to him—in a key scene in Waiting for Godot, Pozzo furiously booms, “Have you not done tormenting me with your accursed time! … One day, is that not enough for you, one day he went dumb, one day I went blind, one day we’ll go deaf, one day we were born, one day we shall die, the same day, the same second.” Such proclamations make it easy to forget that the relationship at the center of the play—that between Gogo and Didi—is a loving one.
François Truffaut once said of Hitchcock’s movies, “The love scenes were filmed like murder scenes, and the murder scenes like love scenes.” The same could be done with comedy and tragedy in the theater; it would be nice to see Twelfth Night, considering all its darker elements, staged as a tragedy and to see Hamlet, loaded with all that dramatic irony, staged as a comedy. And at first, John Kurzynowski’s Doctor Faustus seems to effectively follow this idea; the eponymous character (played by Matt Carr) is presented as an arrogant self-aggrandizer, someone whose ambitions far outreach his intellect—every time he mispronounces “Württemberg,” for example, his assistant Wagner (Tina Shepard) quickly responds, “Vürttemberg.” There is also an endearing hand-made quality to the production, with angels’ detached wings being flapped by actors standing behind them, recalling the self-conscious theatricality of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America.
Love’s Labor’s Lost is a strikingly knowing play. Centered on four friends who rashly swear off women—only to fall in love, or think they fall in love, almost immediately afterwards—it unfolds with gentle irony, laughingly observing the absurdly narcissistic nature of most romantic tropes. The play closes—like Shakespeare’s later works The Winter’s Tale and Cymbeline—on a mixed note; in fact, it is the only one of his comedies besides The Comedy of Errors that does not result in a wedding, and perhaps the only one with a patently unhappy ending. Love’s Labor’s Lost also runs wild with wordplay—Harold Bloom described it as “a festival of language, an exuberant fireworks display in which Shakespeare seems to seek the limits of his verbal resources, and discovers that there are none.”
There is a moment in James Agee and Walker Evans’ Let Us Now Praise Famous Men—possibly the pinnacle of white liberal guilt—in which Agee accidentally startles a young Black couple: “I was trying in some fool way to keep it somehow relatively light, because I could not bear that they should receive from me any added reflection of the shattering of their grace and dignity, and of the nakedness and depth and meaning of their fear, and of my horror and pity and self-hatred; and so, smiling, and so distressed that I wanted only that they should be restored, and should know I was their friend, and that I might melt from existence: ‘I’m very sorry! I’m very sorry if I scared you! I didn’t mean to scare you at all. I wouldn’t have done any such thing for anything.’ … The least I could have done was to throw myself flat on my face and embrace and kiss their feet.”