When I first began to consider out loud the prospect of doing The Two Gentlemen of Verona, I received a surprisingly homogenous reply from my theatrical colleagues: “But, what about that troublesome end scene? How will you solve that problem?”
- If you haven’t read the play or seen our show yet (which you should!): huge spoiler alert. Here’s the plot in a nutshell:
- Valentine and Proteus are best bros in Verona, where Proteus is stupid in love with the fair Julia.
- Valentine, who proclaims that loves makes you a fool, journeys to Milan to seek his fortune and instantly becomes a fool in love with the Duke’s daughter, Silvia.
- Proteus’s dad then kicks him out of the house and makes him travel to Milan to be cool like Valentine. Upon arriving, he but sees Silvia for an instant and falls in love with her too. He vows to forget Julia and double crosses his friend to attempt to win Silvia for himself.
- His betrayal leads to Valentine getting banished into the woods where, for whatever reason, some outlaws make him their king.
- Meanwhile, Julia has disguised herself as a man in order to go visit her love only to discover him wooing Silvia instead. She is heartbroken but still serves as his page and aids him in wooing Silvia, who hates him.
- Silvia escapes her father (who all this time has wanted her to marry this dorky guy, Thurio) and goes to seek Valentine in the woods but is captured by the outlaws instead.
- The Duke and Thurio follow her. Proteus follows them. Julia follows him. Chaos ensues.
- Everything comes to a head when Proteus “rescues” Silvia from the thieves and she rejects him so strongly that this time he responds with violence . . .
Nay, if the gentle spirit of moving words
Can no way change you to a milder form,
I’ll woo you like a soldier, at arms’ end,
And love you ‘gainst the nature of love,–force ye.
I’ll force thee yield to my desire.
- But! It turns out that Valentine has been hiding in a nearby bush and rushes in and stops Proteus before he can actually rape poor Silvia. He shames Proteus real bad by declaring that Proteus has betrayed their friendship, making no mention of what almost happened to Silvia – who is silent for the rest of the play.
- Next, Proteus apologizes to Valentine, who in turn forgives him in a “bros before hos” moment and with this confusing line: “And, that my love may appear plain and free, All that was mine in Silvia I give thee.” What the heck?!
- And then of course, the Duke shows up, changes his mind about Thurio and pardons everyone, including the thieves, Julia reveals herself and la di da!
Okay, so I skipped a bunch (including the funny stuff with the ever-observant servants and the bit with the dog) but for purposes of this article, that’s the deal. A man arrives in a new town, sexually harasses his best friend’s fiance, gets his friend banished out of town, then chases the woman into the woods and threatens to rape her. He stops only because another man tells him to. Then this atrocity is glossed over completely and he is forgiven. Yuck.
But here’s the thing: the more I dug into it the more I began to think that the problem with this play isn’t the ending. The problem is on every page. Throughout the text women are spoken of as property, and at one point our supposed nice-guy Valentine goes so far as to say:
“Take no repulse, whatever she doth say;
For ‘get you gone,’ she doth not mean ‘away!’
Flatter and praise, commend, extol their graces;
That man that hath a tongue, I say, is no man,
If with his tongue he cannot win a woman.”
If Proteus and all the other men he knows consider women possessions, it follows then that rape is a logical next step. After all, if an object belongs to you, you can do whatever you want with it, right? Bear with me, I know that sounds terrible but truly, we have seen this enacted again and again and again and again, played before us not just in history but in today’s news media.=
The realization of how modern this problem is, hit me really hard. I remember in college hearing that one in four women experience sexual violence in their life time. It made me look around myself and wonder how true that was. So I began to actually ask the women around me if that was true and here’s what I discovered:
Me + My Mom + My Grandmothers = one incident
My four best female friends = two incidents
My strongest female mentors: My childhood theater director + My high school drama teacher + My college professor + My first boss = one incident
. . . Crap guys! This is a horrible, and it has plagued humans long before Shakespeare and continues to do so today. And, it is really, really not funny.
Yet, as a company we were committed to producing a comedy and as a curious artist I found myself excited to be faced with great challenge. How do we engage intellectually and artistically with this text in away that acknowledges not the problem of the ending but rather the ever-present reason that it exists – that is to say, the society that created it – and it’s relevance to you and I? How do we make this comedy playable without glossing over the meaty truth of what happens in it?
We had a lot of discussion pre-production and with the cast about how to articulate what we needed to say. More and more I found myself getting heated and began to demand a cathartic solution. I began to envision the ending played with jarring seriousness. I could see Silvia’s powerlessness, the fear in her face, and I could see Proteus having to see her eyes and realize what he is doing (is he out of control with biological urges or is he truly blind to her humanity?). I saw Valentine’s appearance, the shaming of Proteus followed by Valentine’s horrible betrayal of Silvia as he offers her to his friend . . . Ouch!
The cast graciously tried my dangerous blocking on its feet but watching it never felt right: Silvia standing, silently paralyzed, center stage as the scene happens to her and around her. The men, themselves victims of their environment, cluelessly doing what they are conditioned to do – devalue women as objects and relate only to other men. We even wrote a song for the cast to sing at the end to somewhat soothe the rough jagged edges of this sharp turn.
One thing I could not see however, was why the hell would Julia take Proteus back after witnessing a scene like that? Likewise, the actor playing Proteus, the amazing Morgan Picton who at times is a better feminist than myself, had great trouble portraying the character with any sincerity because of the unfathomable, villainous choice this romantic lead makes. What’s more, as I watched this awkward train chug off the tracks, a new vision began to appear. A vision of a horrified audience, some triggered with terrible personal memories, some covering their childrens’ eyes, packing up their picnics and running for the hills, my actors struggling to face their own demons nightly (“Am I a victim? Am I perpetrator? Am I ignorant? Am I righteous?”), and my fellow company members coming to me to say, “Kate . . . We trusted you to direct a comedy!”
As much I want to see more plays, films and media that connect effects to the causes, to be successful this production required a different approach, one developed more collaboratively in rehearsal and more fitting to the jovial attitude of the rest of the play. I believe that experimenting with the darkness did help inform what the kind of light we wanted to shed as a whole and that the time spent on my beautiful tragic failure of an ending was not wasted. We all can claim more ownership over what we have done now that we have flushed out the alternatives.
Suffice it to say we have softened the conclusion since our first endeavors and done so without regret. It is now completely suitable for park-going families and funny as hell. We have found other ways to confront the content: ways for the women to be strong and intelligent and have a voice, ways for the men to be obviously misguided and then be repentant of their folly, and ways for us as a company to wink at the audience and trust that they are smart enough to see the absurdity and falseness in this completely invented time and setting. We joyously highlight how much of a true play this is with our silly interpretations of Shakespearian costumes, impossibly fast character changes, and completely inauthentic depiction of Italy.
Our founding director, Austen, has a great method: try any idea three times. If it doesn’t work by that third time, move on to another. Likewise, leaving an idea behind does not mean that you are aiming for a whole new destination, just taking a different path to get there. After all, failure is merely a verification that you are human, and what is more human that theater?
P.S. Here’s the song lyrics we wrote:
We the animal fire theatre company
Wish to distinctly say (in verse!)
The way these women are treated is
plainly, simply perverse.
Furthermore, we wish to state,
With utmost clarity,
No human should be rounded down
to a piece of property.
We should have seen this coming
It is ingrained within the text,
Gentlewomen are neither chattel
Nor “Rare noteworthy object”
Belittled then we all become
When women have no choice
Power must be shared and
We must needs speak with one voice.
400 years this comedy
Has played for young and old
But misogyny is not buried yet
Nay, not even merely cold.
Somehow, Mr. Shakespeare,
We find no heroes in your play
Yet what you wrote, and what we quote
Is oh-so relevant today.
So keep taking boats to landlocked cities
And we’ll surely laugh along,
So long as you know that we know that you know that we know… (intended laugh line)
That this in our culture will always be wrong.
This entry was posted on Thursday, July 24th, 2014 at 8:58 am
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