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Coriolanus and moving on

I have considerable personal history with Coriolanus. I first read the play as an undergrad English major, while I was in love with the man who later supplied half of Seth’s DNA; some years later I studied it in grad school and came to love its complexity; still later, I taught it to students who found it boring till I persuaded them it was about war vs. peace, democracy vs. oligarchy, and pride vs. compassion. So watching the play in Ashland, I was actually watching three plays: the one I read in 1969 when I was a long-haired romantic college girl in love with an arrogant professor twice my age; the play Shakespeare wrote, based on Roman sources, soon after he finished writing Antony and Cleopatra, around 1609; and the play a specific director created for an audience in Ashland, Oregon in 2008–the title role so brilliantly acted that I have to count it among the top five live performances I have ever seen in my life.

Here’s the situation that appealed sufficiently to Shakespeare that he gave it the full force of his language: an aristocratic and forceful woman, Volumnia, rears a soldierly son, Marcus. He so distinguishes himself as a military strategist and brave fighter that he’s awarded the honorary title “Coriolanus,” and his countrymen decide to draft him as a politician and diplomat. The great soldier is man of action, not diplomacy; he’s a disaster as a politician. He has no respect for the electorate, and in his brash and arrogant pridefulness, he so infuriates the Roman populus that they strip him of his powers and banish him. Burning with a desire for revenge, he finds Rome’s most powerful enemy, Aufidius the Volscian, and with him plots the overthrow of Rome. But at the last moment, Coriolanus’s mother, wife, and son appear, and Volumnia appeals to him–not to spare Rome, but to save his own honor by negotiating a peace between the Romans and Volscians. Something clicks in Coriolanus. He backs off. He negotiates. Peace happens. And then Aufidius, furious that he didn’t get to slaughter the Romans, has Coriolanus murdered.

It’s the kind of set-up William Shakespeare loved. The real action happens inside the man (as in Hamlet, Macbeth, Lear, Othello, Antony): Coriolanus is torn between pride and reason, between revenge and compassion. Shakespeare spells this out very clearly in the crucial scene when Volumnia approaches her son. Coriolanus says:

“Do not bid me
Dismiss my soldiers, or capitulate
Again with Rome’s mechanics: tell me not
Wherein I seem unnatural: desire not
To ally my rages and revenges with
Your colder reasons.”

As soon as he says this, the audience knows he’s doomed–because in Shakespeare, rage and revenge never triumphs over reason in a great man. And by that moment, we’ve had five acts convincing us that Coriolanus is a great man. He’s a hot-head and a man who prefers hand-to-hand combat to a committee meeting, rather like Laertes (who serves as a foil to Hamlet); but Coriolanus has depths and doubts like Hamlet’s, and his final decision marks his genuine coming to wisdom, his maturation into a proper Shakespearean hero. Shakespeare gives Volumnia a long speech in which she begs her son to regain his honor by making peace. But it would not be Shakespeare if Coriolanus allowed himself to be manipulated. What happens is that the wise mother, who knows her son and knows his strengths and his vulnerabilities, functions as his conscience–she speaks his soliloquy aloud for him–and like the Shakespearean hero he is, he makes the honorable choice, knowing that it will be his undoing. He sacrifices his life for the greater good. He restores order to his homeland, makes peace between the Romans and Volscians. And by doing that, he earns his real heroism.

What makes the play difficult–and controversial–because my opinion of what goes on is not shared by all who have studied the play–is this speech Coriolanus makes, as he shifts his course right after his mother makes her plea:

O mother, mother!
What have you done?”

He seems to blame her. If you want to take it literally, this is the point at which you could interpret him as being dominated by his mother. But he goes on,

“Behold, the heavens do ope,
The gods look down, and this unnatural scene
They laugh at.”

What’s unnatural? It’s unnatural (in Shakespeare’s world) for a woman to preach reason to a man.  He goes on,

“O my mother, mother! O!
You have won a happy victory to Rome;
But, for your son,–believe it, O, believe it,
Most dangerously you have with him prevail’d,
If not most mortal to him.”

She could not prevail if he didn’t agree to let her prevail. She reminded him of what he knew but preferred to ignore.  Shakespeare creates Coriolanus’s mother as a “manly” woman, just as Cleopatra is–in force, in her ability to, as we might say, speak truth to power; in her cold reasonableness. Sidebar: I have long believed that Shakespeare intended his audience to perceive Cleopatra as a man, as Antony’s male lover. Passion for the forbidden other vs. duty to the obligatory wife. I can certainly imagine the same male actor playing Cleopatra and the mother of Coriolanus.  But that’s a topic for another day.

So back to 1969: I loved the play back then because I imagined it helped me to understand the impolitic and arrogant man I loved, so rash and so full of rage and revenge. I believed, as so many young women do, that he would change, as Coriolanus did–that he would mature into a more compassionate and reasonable being ( ignoring the fact that he was already 50 years old).  Only in plays, I’m afraid.

The greatness of the production in Ashland is the acting. It’s a marathon piece, and the young Danforth Comins who plays Coriolanus is strong enough to sustain a pitched level of intensity and self-righteousness right up to the breaking point. His physicality is unbelievable–except we completely believe it, because in that intimate black-box theatre space, he is in our faces. He breathes on us. He spits on us, we feel his sweat, and when he falls, our bones vibrate. When Coriolanus is banished and wheels against his attackers and thunders, “I. BANISH. YOU,” the whole audience feels it has been banished to hell. And when he gets it, when he realizes that he can’t be a man and destroy his homeland out of petty revenge, we crumble with him.

The fights are wonderfully choreographed; the costuming  of urban guerillas, fascistic Roman officers, and Volscians in army fatigues works. But the genius is the acting. Not the directing. In my opinion. The director seems to think that the tragedy of Coriolanus is that he is pussy-whipped. So he directs the woman who plays the mother to be cold, mean, controlling, and unrelenting. The wife is a wimpy little thing who is blown away by her husband and mother-in-law. And when Coriolanus relents (not because he has changed his mind, but because, in this version, he yields to his mother’s devices)–we lose interest in him. His murder is anti-climactic. I think the director, Laird Williamson, who has spent 13 seasons at OSF, missed what Shakespeare wanted the play to say. But I forgive him. Not that he would care whether I do or not. I forgive him, because he allowed Danforth Comins to deliver one of the most magnificent performances I have ever seen: voice, body, and a kind of soul-deep whirling intensity that sears memory like a branding iron. I may one day see a more intelligent interpretation of the meaning of the play, but I don’t believe I will ever see a more powerful performance of the title role. So I am really, really glad I went to Ashland. And now that I’ve said that, I can get on with my life.

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8 responses to “Coriolanus and moving on”

  1. a telling commentary, Kendall ….

  2. Kathryn says:

    Not like you to be so minimalist, Stephen. What does it tell? That I am an insufferable academic, perhaps?

  3. No, that wasn’t the impression at all. It occured to me you’ve missed your calling. I’m afraid I don’t know this play, but you certainly shed new light on Cleopatra! You also managed very neatly to slip in an interesting biographical detail or two, of the sort that help to explain the critic’s criticisms. Bravo

  4. Kathryn says:

    She takes a bow. Thank you Stephen.

  5. Dave says:

    I have always LOVED your writing about movies and now this!
    I have to tell you that I went to Ashland in 1996 when I was teaching ESL in Seattle. I drove down there with a Japanese student. We stayed at the same hostel you did. We also saw Coriolanus. My student from Japan struggled with Shakespeare’s language, but so did I! We were both mesmerized by the performance, however. Now I am mesmerized by your commentary. Your writing is so beautifully clear.

  6. Kathryn says:

    Incredible coincidence, Dave! Same hostel. Same play. Same town, 12 years later. Takes my breath away. i wish you could have seen this guy Comins. He was amazing. I hope Brazil is being good to you.

  7. Dave says:

    Thank you, Kendall! Sao Paulo is a whirlwind of a city. I’m scared, seduced, aroused, thrilled, enchanted all in a single bus ride. I sometimes wonder what the hell I was thinking , coming to a city where I barely speak the language, a city where even the locals don’t stop at red lights for fear of being robbed, a city that sprawls wider than LA. Then I remember; I came because Brazil allows me to be here with my partner. America doesn’t. Oh, it’s not easy to get the permanent visa to stay….the paperwork is daunting! But it IS allowed, in this the country with the most Catholics on Earth. I guess it’s also allowed that I could find a teaching job my second day off the airplane. It’s allowed that I have never felt so alive, and most of all, so willing to accept whatever life is going to throw at me.

  8. Kathryn says:

    I am going to print out that comment and tape it to the wall. You couldn’t express my approach to life any clearer. Hooray for the teaching job. Hooray for feeling alive and willing to accept what comes. Hooray for you, Dave!

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