When trying to write this wrap-up piece on Troilus and Cressida, I kept thinking it needed a subtitle. But what to use? I came up with two almost immediately:
How do you solve a problem like Cressida? (with apologies to Rodgers and Hammerstein)
Troilus and Cressida: How I learned to stop worrying and love (OK, like) the play
Do I focus on the misogyny that I found in the play (thus, the first subtitle)? Or do I go with the undercut heroic and romantic expectations in the play that lead to my revelation a few weeks ago that the play is a tragedy with Pandarus as our tragic hero?
It’s such a strange play.
On a first read-though, the play was weird enough, but on a second, it became a more cynical, more ironic, more modern piece of nastiness. Despite what I had written earlier —
Some, Joyce Carol Oates and Jan Kott among them, have argued that this play is a wonderfully modern piece. But Shakespeare wasn’t writing for us, he was writing for his own time, the audiences of his own day… was it a misunderstood anachronism four hundred years ago, only to be buried in a literary time capsule and to spring full-grown and and genre-less, completely contemporary, into our time?
— I was really beginning to see what both Oates and Kott were saying.
I’m grappling with the dichotomy of the experience of reading the play, and the concept of the play as a performance piece.
Like I’ve said before multiple times, this play is unusual for a number of reasons, not the least of which (at least for this discussion) is its outlier status as a piece that was meant to be read (remember the Second Quarto’s preface, “A Never Writer to an Ever Reader”).
Plays, in and of themselves as performance, are ephemeral. There is no record. They exist only for the moment of presentation to the audience. What the audience walks way with then is some tasty melange of memory, a priori knowledge, and the change of mental state due to the experience of the performance. The performance is rooted firmly in the present. While we may bring to it certain pieces of intelligence and experience (that’s the a priori bit), the play only exists in its current, in-the-moment, performance. Our future recollection then is unfathomable. And the playwright knows this.
Written works, however, are different. As a printed record, they are meant to last. They are a work for the future. There is no ephemeral present for the written work. It’s there for all time (and I wonder if this gets at the root of Ben Jonson’s statement of Shakespeare being “not of an age, but for all time”). It’s meant to be taken in by future readers in their ages (as opposed to the play’s performance in Shakespeare’s age). And if that’s the case, then the cynical, thoroughly modern READING of Troilus and Cressida is perfectly valid.
And it’s great (both the theory and this reading of the play).
But… (you know, there’s always a ‘but’)
Does that mean the play in performance must be housed in some hermetically-sealed history-based chamber? A museum piece? Long-time readers know how much I hate those kinds of presentations.
So how do you solve a problem like Troilus and Cressida? I’ve never seen a live performance of the play. I’m not even sure there is a solution for the performance problem of the play.
What’s the Alcoholics Anonymous quote? The first step to solving a problem is admitting you have one. We have to admit we have a Troilus and Cressida problem.
I hated this play for most of the two months we’ve spent on it (ready to drop it down to Two Gents or King John depths). It was only after the tragedy/Pandarus thunderbolt to my head that I started to turn around. Don’t get me wrong. I do not now suddenly love this play. I do not now want to spend more time on this play. But I do have to admit it has merit. I am not going to rate this as one of the best or my favorite play. But I am going to give is some credit.
How much credit? Well, I’d put it in lower half, hovering around the lower third, at number 16 overall, just bumping The Merchant of Venice down both overall and as a problem play. As a tragedy, though, it’s still pretty low, the lowest thus far.
And now I’m ready to move on to … uh, oh. Another “Problem Play” … All’s Well That Ends Well.
Well, well, well…