Unquestioned Integrity: The Hill/Thomas Hearings

By Gelb, Hal | The Nation, September 20, 1993 | Go to article overview

Unquestioned Integrity: The Hill/Thomas Hearings


Gelb, Hal, The Nation


With summer and the Shakespeare festivals, I got to thinking that the most salient feature of American productions of the classics is their restting in a time and place far distant from the one the playwright intended. A perfectly ahistorical strategy. Other eras have no reason for being but to provide metaphores for our own. A first-century B.C. Roman leader as understood by the son of a Warwickshire glove in Elizabethan England is viewed as interchangeable with a late-twentieth-century American politican, a Jewish merchant in sixteenth-century Venice as indistinguishable from a Jewish merchant in Mussolini's Italy. Unfortunately, the playwrights who wrote what we now call the classics weren't writing about our time, so such productions often end up a hash, confused and full of vestigial elements. And their directors speak about our circumstances--that is, beyond providing the extraordinary news that our society is sexist, racist and politically corrupt.

Watching the first part of Robert Woodruff's controversial staging of John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi (1613) at the American Conservatory theatre in San Francisco this winter, I thought he might be up to something different. The production greets its audience with a giant, cagelake scaffolding, reminiscent of the Living Theatre's Frankenstein. In its calls and on the stage floor, one sexual pustule of our era succeeds another in brutality toward the flesh. The are flagellants in studded collars, a woman restrained by nipple clips, buttoned-down corporate types who coldly make it with corporate women on steel desks (George Tsypin, scenery; Sandra Woodall, costumes; James F. Ingalls, lighting; Bruce Odland, sound design). Altogether, it's a terrific embodiment of the violent, virulent Jacobean spirt of Webster's play, which, itself set in Italy, Englang's traditional antiself, is full or moral and political rot and portentous physical and psychic terrors, including, centrally, the Duchess's torture and murder for defying her brothers' prohibition against remarriage. The imagery, which more and more throughout the evening focuses on the degradation of women, is also a pretty good mirror of life outside the theater.

And yet because this expressionist, performance-influenced mise en scene is aggressively presentational and functions more as a kind of statement, a readily translatable metaphor for society, than as the world the characters inhabit, we are freed from the usual pressure to collapse history and accept the two worlds, the narrative's and the mise en scene's, as the same. On the one hand, we see a mirror of society; on the other, we hear a story from late feudal times. There are similarities to be graped, but the two things are not the same. In such a setting, Woodruff suggests in an unfortunately vague program note, "the sixteenth century Italian court at Malfi [serves] as a locus for thinking about our own systems of political and corporate power, and how these structures promote behavior that degrades women."

That's the theory. In practice, for long stretehes of time the show reverts to the illustionistic and inhabits the present just like more traditional productions (the characters are after all in modern dress). Consequently, this staging is prey to all the usual problems. The Duchess's late feudal world and our alienated, advanced industrial society are fused, and forces formerly central to Webster's play--family honor, the demands of kinship, skepticism that threatens order, fear of damnation--haunt the stage like ghosts, still distrubingly present although you don't know what to make of them. What's this family with its ducal and ecclesiastical power doing in this bureaucratic, corporate setup anyway? Running a winery?

Ultimately, the A.C.T. production doesn't bring enough light to forces currently at work, either. In a press release, Woodruff suggests that in the Duchess's world, as in our own, the feminine is threatening to the power structure and therefore feared. …

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