Coriolanus, the enemy of the popular (theater)

OK, seriously…how many out there have read Coriolanus? I know, you all are, because you’re reading it with me, right? <wink> How many of you have seen a stage production (no, not the cool Ralph Fiennes movie or the adequate BBC Complete Works version, but a honest-to-[hopefully]goodness production)? Fewer hands, I’m sure (full disclosure: me, neither).

So why?

Is it a case where there’ve been productions, but since it wasn’t part of the usual arsenal of Shakespeare (Midsummer, Hamlet, Twelfth Night, Romeo and Juliet, and the like), you decided to take a hard pass?

Or was it because there just haven’t been productions available?

For me, it’s definitely the latter. At this point, unless I’m willing to trek to Staunton, Virginia, or Philly, in the next couple of weeks, or hit it lucky with the lottery so I can check out the Royal Shakespeare Company in the fall, I’ll probably have to wait Oregon Shakespeare Festival gets around to it as part of their Canon in a Decade initiative; that project started last year, and Coriolanus–at the earliest (since they’ve already announced the Martius-less 2018 slate)–won’t hit the boards in Ashland until at least 2019.

Now, I’m willing to bet it’s the lack of availability for you all as well (after all, if you’re following this blog, you’re probably [at least bordering on being] a Shakes-freak like me). So what gives? Why isn’t Coriolanus produced?

According to A.C. Bradley, Coriolanus is “scarcely popular. It is seldom acted, and perhaps no reader ever called it his favourite play. Indeed, except for educational purposes, I suppose it is, after Timon, the least generally read of the tragedies.” Is it part of a vicious cycle of negatively fulfilled expectations and self-fulfilling prophecies: companies don’t put it on because they think no one will come out since no one knows the play; but no one knows the play because they haven’t had the chance to see it? I can buy this. I’m willing to bet that those who caught the powerhouse Timon of Athens in Ashland last year are more than willing to catch another production if/when it’s done.

Or is it in the play itself? Or, more pointedly, the character?

Caius Martius is not exactly a cuddly character. He’s no Prince Hal. He’s not funny or fascinating; no Richard of Gloucester. He’s not ambitious as we watch him scale the ladder of success; no Macbeth. He’s not exactly a conflicted character who interests us on a psychological level; no Prince of Denmark. He’s not an audience co-conspirator (he’s got, really, only one soliloquy); so he’s no Iago. And his fall isn’t devised by another, whereby we watch in horror as his life falls apart; he’s no Othello. His fall comes from his own decisions and arrogance (read Lear), but he has no real turnaround or epiphany (like that character) to merit catharsis.

Yeah, this main character could make for a tough marketing “sell.” But it’s not like the play is universally loathed. T.S. Eliot held the play in high regard, calling it one of “Shakespeare’s most assured artistic success(es).” Of course, this is from the same essay in which he called Hamlet “most certainly an artistic failure.” Remember, I don’t totally disagree with Eliot’s Hamlet diss (see what I did there). And there is history of its being produced in times of strife. The blog for the School of Politics & International Relations, University of Nottingham, notes:

The tragedy’s political meaning has been highly contested. In the twentieth century, Coriolanus was claimed by both fascists and socialists. Production was briefly banned in 1930s France as dangerously pro-fascist and provoking disturbances. Yet the playwright Bertolt Brecht saw Coriolanus in a socialist political tradition.

And in writing for the Atlantic magazine, Monika Bartyzel writes:

In Hitler’s Germany, the play served as educational propaganda preaching military bravery and heroism in the face of questionable democracy. Post-war, it became the tool for Brecht to write about Marxism. By the late ’80s, it helped presage the rise of leather-clad Tarantino tough men: Papp’s festival saw Christopher Walken as Coriolanus strutting across the stage in a black t-shirt and long leather jacket.

[You can see why Fiennes set it in present-day Europe, shooting it in Serbia, with an obvious nod to seemingly neverending conflict in the Balkans.]

Given its relative popularity during politically charged times, it will be interesting to see in the next few years, with political/ideological conflict in this country ratcheting up, whether we see more productions of Coriolanus

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