Robert Day meets Barbara Mowat (co-editor of the Folger Shakespeare) and they go to see Coriolanus together in Washington and discuss plays, Shakespeare and politics. This is the second in Day’s must-read, intermittent “Chance Encounters of a Literary Kind” series at Numéro Cinq, a series of apparently random personal meetings and literary juxtapositions that lead to surprising intuitions. “Chance Encounters” is intelligent, literate conversation at its best — all too rare these days — written with aplomb in Day’s trademark amiable and self-ironic style.
By design I am driving Barbara Mowat (who, along with Paul Werstine, is the editor of the Folger Shakespeare) to her Washington D.C. home on Capital Hill. We have been at dinner with journalist friends of mine where I shopped my theory that Sarah Palin is a plant of the Democratic Party, a deep, deep mole who was recruited as a college student when someone from the DNC saw her as Goneril in a production of King Lear.
What we have now is Sarah Palin as Rogue Sarah Palin, the woman who won the election for the Democrats in 2008 with her verbal gun-play, and even now looks through cross-haired scopes in search of anyone wanting to deprive Donald Trump of a tax break for his helicopter. Like Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie, Dame Palin will peel off her mask toward the end of the script—but not until Hilary has been elected President in 2016. Just you wait and watch.
“I’ve never seen it,” I say. I am trying to remember if I’ve ever read it. “Sure.”
“It’s probably his most political play,” she says.
“In reference to my…?”
Barbara and I go back. She was the Dean of Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland, when I was running a boisterous and politically incorrect literary center for student poets and writers. Barbara was amused. Most deans would not have been.
As we turn onto Connecticut Avenue I remember that I had read Coriolanus, among 13 other plays in a course called Shakespeare Rapid Reading–a play a week to the semester’s end. Coriolanus was the final one, and now that my brain is flooding (‘gurgling’ is a better word) with the details of that course, I recall that if our professor was not puzzled by Coriolanus, those of us who drank our red beers at the Gaslight Tavern after class were.
Coriolanus had no great flaw, only a series of arrogant mistakes; no fall from grace, in fact no grace at all but a mean-spiritedness from the start that takes on different forms as the play goes along—much like his name. And because this was the sixties, those of us listening to Joan Baez on the jukebox in the Gaslight thought Coriolanus’ trashing of the poor in want of food amounted to let them eat cake. Our revolutionary mantra was: Free Food and No Banking.
“The forty-seven percent,” I say out loud as we continue down Connecticut Avenue. “The Tea Party.”
“What?” says Barbara.
“I was just remembering how Coriolanus got all bent out of shape because the poor wanted food. And what Mitt Romney said. And how the Tea Party attacked Obama over Food Stamps.” We are quiet while I circle a circle. Twice, until I get off where I am going.
“Shakespeare calls the poor ‘Plebeians,” Barbara says. “And the nobles are the ‘Patricians.’ Coriolanus is ‘bent out of shape’—as you put it—because the Plebeians’ food riot won them tribunes in Rome’s new Senate.” Before she was a tolerant Dean, Barbara was a patient Shakespeare professor.
To continue the conversation I find myself hoping bits of flotsam from the play will rise to the surface after all these years: Something about Volumnia, Coriolanus’ mother. Wounds from battle. A Kent-like character trying to bring reason to the action (good luck). A kid who rips up butterflies. Coriolanus as traitor. Death in the final scene. That’s about it.
“Turn here,” Barbara says, taking me off Connecticut before we reach Dupont Circle. “Otherwise you’ll get entangled with traffic on Mass Avenue.” A woman who knows her way around texts and traffic.
“The play begins before Rome was Rome; have I got that right?”
“A city taking shape. Maybe the size of Washington. No empire. What it will become is up to Coriolanus. There is a scene toward the end where the Folio stage direction reads: ‘He holds her by the hand, silent.’ In that moment the fate of Rome is being decided.”
I am thinking that the only stage direction I remember from Shakespeare is ‘Exit pursued by a bear.’
“’Exit pursued by a bear,’” I say.
“The Winter’s Tale,” Barbara says.
Drive on McDuff.
The canard in recent years has been how utterly modern Shakespeare’s plays are: Hamlet’s introspection is our Vietnam syndrome. Lear’s folly speaks to family values: what to do with a mad old father who won’t give out the password to his mutual fund account? There is Othello and all that goes with being a Moor in white bread America; Lady Macbeth and the dark side of feminism. Between theme and scene we’ve got it covered. And all of it imported with its modernity intact from the early 17th century to ours. Including Coriolanus.
Before we go to the Shakespeare Theatre Company production of Coriolanus, Barbara sends me the Folger edition of the play with the inscription: “For Bob, a Shakespearean in spite of himself.” Such stuff are dreams made of.
Reading it, I was struck by how much Coriolanus and his play are alike, as if he had fashioned it himself to be so. Being modern is one thing, being Post Modern is quite another. Still, there it is: our anti-hero and his play both misshapen from that disproportionately long opening scene (is it the longest opening scene in Shakespeare, I wonder?) to a plethora of mini-scenes scattered throughout, without a romantic balcony one among them. Nor a Fool to name the folly of the future should the present be prologue. Only the thoughtful Menenius as a mediator, who, like Kent fails against raging internal storms.
Then there is the brooding nature of both the text and the character. No soliloquy down stage, but instead flashes of anger to tell us who he is, not that we know for sure who he is even if he claims such knowledge himself. It is not so much what Coriolanus does that defines him as what he won’t do: show his wounds, for one; obey his mother, for another; reason when in need. The man and his play are defiant. Old fashioned ‘form and content’ gurgling up from my undergraduate studies.
I wonder where it comes from? Did our playwright get bored with the formula of his previous tragedies, replacing comic relief scenes with shards of black wit; dropping strong subplots that mirror main plots, then thinning out the plot itself until there is less of one than meets the eye? Even the memorable lines are few and not all that memorable: ‘Bid them wash their faces and keep their teeth clean.’ is no ‘To be or not to be.’ And ‘Nature teaches beasts to know their friends’ is not ‘But, soft! What light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.’ We Falstaffs at the Gaslight Tavern thought Coriolanus’ ‘The gods sent not corn for rich men only,’ worth memorizing until we realized it was delivered with contempt for the poor. In the end (and all through the play) you get the sense that our author, like his character, is not going to show off. Been there, done that.
The play should have been a wreck to assemble because of its defiance at being well-wrought. And audiences are, after all, pulled along by what screenplay writers call ‘rooting interest.’ Other than the fate of fledgling Rome there is not much of a home team to root for. But still it was compelling, partly because of the acting and sets– and the virile violence it all conveyed. (I wondered if I were the only one afraid Coriolanus might smash the fourth wall and march his wrath off stage toward Row 26, Seats 4&5). And watching it in Washington D.C, the political heart of our country, we were struck by how, as Barbara had observed, political it was.
“It’s the extremes,” I say to Barbara afterward.
“Yes,” she says.
“Howard Baker as Menenius,” I say. I am fishing for connections.
“He, too, would fail in times like ours,” she says. “As would his wife.”
“A brief on sore losers: George Will. Fox News. Lindsey Graham?”
“He’s not violent; he’s not a traitor; he seeks common ground for common good, so no. But he won’t show his scars, that’s for sure.”
“Not like Lyndon Johnson.”
“Not at all.”
“Nancy Regan as Volumnia?”
“No Sarah Palin?”
“Too bad for you,” she says.
We talk on like this walking in the sunshine toward my car and discover equations are not easy to make; the play on stage became more a brew than a math problem. However, there was that moment Barbara had mentioned, the scene where Coriolanus holds his mother’s hand, a scene which I had spotted and nudged Barbara to make sure. When I bring it up, she says:
“Because the play takes place when Rome was vulnerable to the many tribes and armies nearby, had the Volscians, led by Coriolanus and Aufidius, been successful in defeating Rome, then Western history would have been a different story than the one we know.”
I have lost track of where I parked my car in thinking about what I am hearing. Barbara continues:
“Shakespeare shows Coriolanus impervious to the requests for mercy from Rome: he is determined to destroy the city. When his mother arrives, he starts out just as impervious to her pleas. Then something happens inside Coriolanus, and Shakespeare renders the moment that saves Rome not as a soliloquy but with that stage direction ‘He holds her by the hand, silent.’ This allows Rome to survive and seals Coriolanus’s fate (as Coriolanus well knows). I can’t think of any moment in drama quite like it.”
I see my car down a side street and steer us that way.
“Maybe it is not the politics we have these days that makes the play political” I say, “but fear of the politics we might one day have.”
“That too,” Barbara says, as I open the door for her and she gets in. On the way to Capitol Hill I ask:
“Who was your Shakespeare professor?”
“Fredson Bowers, at the University of Virginia. And yours?”
“Charlton Hinman,” I say. “We were told he was a great textual scholar.”
“He was,” says Barbara. “He also studied with Fredson Bowers at Virginia.”
“A chance encounter between us after all these years.”
“What fun,” she says.
Getting to Barbara’s house I explain my new theory that, like Sarah Palin, Dan Quayle was a deep mole for the Democratic Party, both of them unwittingly brought to America’s political theater by the Sol Hurok of the Conservative Movement, a.k.a. William Crystal of the Weekly Standard.
“But the Republicans won,” says Barbara.
“Somebody didn’t read the stage direction toward the end,” I say.
—Robert Day with photos by Scott Suchman,
from the Shakespeare Theatre Company production of Coriolanus
Robert Day‘s most recent book is Where I Am Now, a collection of short fiction published by the University of Missouri-Kansas City BookMark Press. Booklist wrote: “Day’s smart and lovely writing effortlessly animates his characters, hinting at their secrets and coyly dangling a glimpse of rich and story-filled lives in front of his readers.” And Publisher’s Weekly observed: “Day’s prose feels fresh and compelling making for warmly appealing stories.”