The past two weekends I've had the great pleasure to attend productions of dramas by two of the greatest playwrights in the history of literature. In Chicago the company of Shaw Chicago is currently performing a reading of Saint Joan by George Bernard Shaw, thought by some to be his greatest play. A week ago I attended a showing of Coriolanus by Shakespeare in the series of videotaped live performances from the National Theatre Live from London. Here are my comments on both of these great plays:
by George Bernard Shaw
"There are no villains in the piece. Crime, like disease, is not interesting: it is something to be done away with by general consent, and that is all [there is] about it. It is what men do at their best, with good intentions, and what normal men and women find that they must and will do in spite of their intentions, that really concern us." - George Bernard Shaw
"The most inevitable dramatic conception, then, of the nineteenth century is that of a perfectly naive hero upsetting religion, law and order in all directions, and establishing in their palce the unfettered action of Humanity . . ." (GBS writing in The Perfect Wagnerite.)
In Saint Joan Shaw attempted, and perhaps achieved, a masterpiece based on this conception. The play is a perfect example of the hero as victim transformed into savior. In the first scene the Robert de Baudricourt ridicules Joan, but his servant feels inspired by her words. Eventually de Baudricourt begins to feel the same sense of inspiration, and gives his consent to Joan. The servant enters at the end of the scene to exclaim that the hens, who had been unable to lay eggs, have begun to lay eggs again. De Baudricourt interprets this as a sign from God of Joan's divine inspiration. It is with this simple beginning that the spirited spirituality of the seemingly innocent young Joan begins to take over the play to the point where she is leading the French troops against the British. Her voice exhibits a lively purity that is augmented by an unlimited imagination. Both her voice and her visions are inspirational, but cannot protect her from ultimate betrayal. The result of that betrayal leads to the end that we are all familiar with.
Shaw's play features Joan as an outsider who seems lonely only when she is among those who voiced the common opinions of the day. Her multi-faceted personality is hidden behind her single-minded pursuit of a vision of god's design for her life. Saint Joan is a tragedy without villains. The tragedy exists in a view of human nature where the incredulity of intolerance of both religious and secular forces battle each other. It is made even more interesting by Shaw's epilogue that brings the play into the current time and provides an opportunity for Shaw to discuss the play with the audience. Whether this play is truly great or almost great it is definitely Shaw at his dramatic best.
by William Shakespeare
"He is their god. He leads them like a thing
Made by some other deity than nature,
That shapes man better; and they follow him
Against us brats, with no less confidence
Than boys pursuing summer butterflies,
Or butchers killing flies."(Act IV, scene vi)
Several years ago I read this play as part of a class at the University of Chicago. It was a revelation that entranced me with its drama. Even so, the warrior Coriolanus is perhaps the most opaque of Shakespeare's tragic heroes, rarely pausing to soliloquise or reveal the motives behind his prideful isolation from Roman society. Instead, the play demonstrates his character through his actions and his relationships. The relationship with his mother, Volumnia, is the most important of these. The tension of her love for him reaches heights that are only exceeded by those of Coriolanus fame as a warrior for Rome.
This is not the Rome of the Caesars but that of the early days when the republic was in its formative stages. It was a city concerned with warring neighbors like the Volscians who are an ever-present enemy. While Caius Martius' success in battles with this enemy lead him to military honors and earn him the name Coriolanus, he does not have the temperamental qualities that would allow him use these accolades for political purposes. He is held back by his own nature and his situation leads to banishment by the crowds who once cheered him. His speech to them as he leaves Rome is memorable:
"You common cry of curs! whose breath I hate
As reek o' the rotten fens, whose loves I prize
As the dead carcasses of unburied men
That do corrupt my air, I banish you;
And here remain with your uncertainty!
Let every feeble rumour shake your hearts!
Your enemies, with nodding of their plumes,
Fan you into despair! Have the power still
To banish your defenders; till at length
Your ignorance, which finds not till it feels,
Making not reservation of yourselves,
Still your own foes, deliver you as most
Abated captives to some nation
That won you without blows! Despising,
For you, the city, thus I turn my back:
There is a world elsewhere."(Act III, Scene iii)
It is, for me, the best of the lesser-known of his plays and stands tall by the side of the other two great Roman history plays, Julius Caesar and Antony & Cleopatra. In particular, the psychological depth of the character of Coriolanus, his relationships with his mother and subject Romans, and the dramatic action make this play a delight to read.
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