This was a problematic season at the Delacorte: in addition to All’s Well That Ends Well, we were treated to a riveting production of another “problem play” – Measure For Measure, one of my favorite plays and one that I’ve rarely seen done to my satisfaction.
The play presents numerous problems to a director and the actors in the company. Isabella is an extremely difficult character for contemporary actresses to get inside – in our society, homosexual panic about one’s emerging sexual feelings is a commonly-explored theme, but heterosexual fear of sexuality isn’t so much explored as condescended to. Angelo, meanwhile, is apt to be portrayed either as a one-dimensional villain, or to be softened in performance; we have a hard time accepting that he is what the play says he is: a magnetic, masculine, coldly rational reactionary undone by an inability to handle his own sexual stirrings. (Actors and directors slated to do the play should consider reading Oriana Fallaci on the Ayatollah Khomeini; she called him one of the most sexually magnetic men she’d ever met.) And, if we confront him directly, we have an even harder time coming to the point of forgiveness that the end of the play demands. (I note, again, that if Angelo were played as a reactionary unaware of his own homosexuality, and Isabella as a young man preparing for the priesthood to escape the first stirrings of his own in that direction, then we’d understand their relationship much better – their mutual attraction and repulsion; Isabella’s willingness – even eagerness – to see her brother die rather than sleep with Angelo to save his life; Angelo’s otherwise somewhat puzzling determination to corrupt Isabella rather than woo her honorably; etc.) And then there’s the Duke, the fantastical duke of dark corners who, though we are told by his faithful lieutenant loves nothing so much as to know himself, takes considerable pains to make sure none of us out here in the audience really get to know him. A man who cruelly manipulates Isabella, making her think her brother dead when in fact he was saved, all in order to … well, it’s not clear. Test her? Test Angelo? Just to see how far he can take this crazy plot he has concocted? It’s a terribly difficult role to play as a character, as opposed to a theatrical construct, but that’s what’s demanded.
And then all these difficulties come to a head in the final scene, when the Duke will not stop play-acting, far beyond any bounds of rational motive; Isabella (and we) are expected to forgive Angelo, though he never confessed or repented until the Duke is unmasked, and he knows he is already undone; and then the Duke, in a final act of lunacy, proposes marriage to Isabella.
But these are really challenges, not problems. Measure is classified as a “problem play” because, supposedly, it isn’t a proper comedy or romance (and plainly it’s not a tragedy). But what is the problem with it? Why is it not a proper comedy? It ends in a marriage, after all. Or why is it not a romance? The conclusion is a scene of revelation and reconciliation, of the healing of breaches and the apparently dead brought back to life. Why is there a problem? Is it in the play – or in us?
* * *
For many modern critics, the problem is indeed the absurdity of the Duke’s proposal of marriage to Isabella at the end. This ending comes so completely out of nowhere, and is so out of tune with the mood of the moment, and the Duke himself is so fantastical, that many have rejected the possibility that this might, in fact, be a happy ending. And they have warrant in the fact that Isabella herself does not answer the Duke, and that the Duke, in fact, has to propose twice, recognizing the first time that he has spoken badly out of turn, as Isabella has still not digested the fact that her brother is still alive.
But reading the play this way, I think diminishes the journey that Isabella has gone on, and that we have gone on with her. Isabella has gone on about as long and difficult a journey as any heroine in Shakespeare (her main competition is Imogen in Cymbeline). She has gone from being someone eager – she’s not the slightest bit ambivalent about the choice – to see her brother die rather than contemplate sacrificing her virginity to save him, to being someone willing to forgive the man who put that choice before her, and then, when she gives in (so he thinks) betrayed her by killing her brother anyhow (so she thinks), and who arrogantly threatens her with prison rather than admit his crime – this man, she forgives, for the sake of the woman who still loves him. She has gone from absolute for death to, very nearly, absolute for life, even the life of such a worm as Angelo.
If the Duke’s proposal is an affront, an absurd insult, then we have to ask why that is. If she cannot forgive the Duke for manipulating her, and her feelings – and he does so, mercilessly – then we have to ask why that is, since she was able to forgive Angelo for much worse. If she cannot think about marriage at a time like this, after all she’s been through, or if, worse, she still wants to be a nun, then her willingness to forgive Angelo for Mariana’s sake starts to look a bit like defeat – a willingness to let others live because she herself no longer has the will to do so. The more I think about it, the more I think that the Duke’s proposal is the last leg of Isabella’s journey which, if she refuses to go on it, calls into question the whole journey before it.
Moreover, I’m not convinced that the Duke would be a bad match for Isabella. For one thing, a woman with such a rampant father fixation is inevitably going to wind up with a paternal husband. (It’s not an accident that Isabella first bonds with the Duke when he is in a habit, so that she calls him “father.”) For another, I think a close examination of the play shows that Isabella comes most to life when she is entwined in the Duke’s fantastical schemes. Why should that be, I wonder, if she didn’t have something of that fantastical spirit in her – even if that spirit, entwined as it is with her own sexuality, is something she is running from in fear.
I’ll make an extended comparison to clarify why I think the match isn’t crazy. Stanley Cavell wrote a marvelous book about the classic Hollywood comedies called Pursuits of Happiness, in which he claimed to find the origin of many of the most appealing and profound of these comedies in the structure of a Shakespeare comedy. In a Shakespeare comedy the lovers confront a breach in their love in the world of the town, and have to go off into the wilderness – the “green world” as he calls it, a place of healing – for the breach to be repaired, so that we can end with a reconciliation that is also a wedding. You can easily see how this works for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or for As You Like It; and Cavell’s emphasis on the theme of breach and reconciliation connects Shakespearean comedy with Shakespearean romance, which is very satisfying. These plays he connects to classic Hollywood comedies such as “The Awful Truth,” “The Lady Eve,” and “The Philadelphia Story.”
There’s one movie on his list, though, that doesn’t involve a retreat to the “green world” to heal. Quite the opposite. That’s “His Girl Friday.” Cary Grant plays a newspaper editor whose crack reporter and one-time love, Rosalind Russell has come back to announce that she is leaving for good – leaving journalism and marrying another man. The action of the movie drags her back into the world she thought she had escaped – wanted to escape – and, ultimately, not just back to Grant’s employ, but back to his arms as well. In the heart of the action, Russell must interview a caged criminal condemned to death, trying to get his story and, thereby, get him freed.
Cavell calls the dark, cynical, death-haunted space that Russell retreats to the “black world” in contrast to the “green world” of the paradigm comedies, but it serves the same function. This horrible place is where Russell must go, in order to heal the breach with her destined mate (and with her own nature). The fact that the space is black rather than green, death-haunted rather than life-filled, says something about these characters, and the nature of the larger world in which they dwell, but structurally it is the same as in the paradigm comedies.
I think Measure for Measure functions similarly. It’s a comedy all right, but there is no green world for Isabella to retreat to. Only the black world of the Duke’s prison, presided over by Abhorson the executioner and Barnadine, the convict fitted neither to live or die. This is where she belongs, where she, ironically, will find life. And the Duke is a fantastic in the same mode as Grant from “His Girl Friday” – a man of tricks and deceptions who manipulates everyone – most especially the woman he loves – to get her in the position to recognize the truth about her nature, and come home to his fantastical bed.
* * *
The real “problem” that most directors and audiences have with this play is that they try to allegorize it. And the play seems like it wants to be allegorized – the friend who joined me at this production said the play reminded him of Shaw, with so many characters seeming to be there to make a “point,” a point they made in frequent satiric speeches. But this, I think, is a trap, most especially for the actor playing the Duke. The Duke is a deeply strange character, but he is a character. He’s not the director of the play – he’s a man trying to direct people as if they were in a play. His proposal to Isabella is not the completion of some allegorical movement on her part, she standing in for the human soul and the Duke standing for Christ or whatever. It’s a sign that he sees an affinity there – a human affinity, between his own nature and hers.
The hard part about playing the Duke as a character, which is what is required if the play isn’t to become a relatively sterile allegory, is that the Duke loses control of his own plot. In the magnificent and insane final scene, the Duke “returns” to Vienna, and is met at the city gate by an Isabella, who accuses Angelo publicly. But the Duke dismisses her allegations, and leaves the scene – returning in the friar disguise that he wore for most of the play. And, as the friar … he continues to play a part. It’s not clear what he’s aiming at, what his plan is – it’s not clear that he has a plan of any kind. Once he is unmasked by Lucio, his behavior becomes comprehensible again – he doles out information bit by bit, leading all the characters, Isabella in particular, to the emotional place he wants them. But before that his behavior seems downright crazy. Why won’t he give up the disguise?
Well, I can think of two mutually-reinforcing explanations that make sense. The friar disguise accomplished two things for the Duke: it enabled him to escape formal responsibility for his actions without giving up the ability to shape events. And it brought him close to Isabella. Fear of reassuming formal authority, and fear of losing Isabella, strike me as entirely sufficient explanations for the Duke’s refusal to doff the disguise at the moment that – by his own plans – he must.
* * *
I’ve gone on long enough about the play – I should say something about this production. When I see a production of Measure, what I care about most of all is how Isabella is played. And Danai Gurira was the first Isabella who, in my estimation, came close to encompassing this fascinating and complex character. The creepy-crawlies she got when she had to tell her brother what Angelo wanted of her, and her fury when, after initially agreeing he had no choice but to accept death, he asked Isabella if she mightn’t bend a little – I’ve never felt the force of that scene before in performance; I’ve felt it on the page, but always found some falsehood on the stage. Not this time. And her chemistry with Andre Holland as her brother, Claudio, was very fine; though he’s supposed to be the elder, you could tell that she’d been used to dominating him by sheer force of personality. And Isabella is a powerful personality – she wants the most restrictive cloister possible because she knows how strong the chains will need to be if they are to bind her fast.
Michael Hayden was also one of the better Angelos I’ve encountered, falling short mainly in not being convincingly a commanding male. I believed that he believed in his own rectitude. I believed the self-loathing that overcame him when he discovered he had sexual feelings, too. I believed the cold determination with which he set out on his new path of iniquity, to make a conquest of Isabella and then hide his crime by murdering Claudio. What I didn’t believe was that Mariana adored him after all these years of abandonment. Because, well, he just wasn’t all that. But be that as it may – what we did get was more important, which is a believable torment inside Angelo that too many productions deny us.
And then the Duke. His first appearance on the stage is enormously promising. We are shown a bed, a mass of tangled figures sprawled thereon, which suddenly tumble off, revealing themselves to be a host of horned black-faced demons, who scatter as the Duke, no longer buried under them, sits bolt upright in stark terror, and frantically begins to dress. I say this is enormously promising, because it establishes that the Duke is a character rather than some kind of theatrical construct. He has a psychology. He’s haunted by demons. What those demons are, we don’t know – his own repressed desires? His guilt at having let the city of Vienna descend into rampant vice? It doesn’t really matter. I once saw a production of Measure that opened with an elaborate scene in a bawdy nightclub; partway through the scene, the Duke arrived, and was seated in a box (in the audience) with a bottle of champagne. The floor show began – and then the place was raided, by Angelo and his goons. The Duke had to be whisked out before his deputy could discover that he frequented such a den of iniquity. This was certainly a powerful and dramatic opening, and it established adequately strong reasons for the Duke to flee Vienna – but it pretty much corroborated everything that Lucio said about the Duke, and hence reduced him to a ridiculous, even villainous figure. And if that’s who the Duke is, then what’s this play about? I much preferred this production’s opening: we know the Duke is fleeing out of fear, and a fear that exists in his own mind, but it is up to us to decide what he is afraid of.
Unfortunately, the rest of Lorenzo Pisoni’s performance doesn’t quite live up to that opening. The detachment of his performance for most of the play – as if he were genuinely above the action, rather than merely posturing to be so – is part of what lent this production the Shavian air that my companion identified. Indeed, Pisoni’s Duke was most alive in his confrontations with Lucio, played ripely by Reg Rogers; Lucio’s accusations that the Duke himself was fond of a nighttime escapade now and again seemed genuinely to get under this Duke’s skin. That’s the strongest hint we have in the rest of the play of the forces at play inside the Duke, forces that must find some kinship in those inside of Isabella and Angelo for the ending of the play to make sense.
And that ending, focused as it was on Isabella, redeemed much that gave me pause before about the way the Duke was performed. Isabella, as noted, doesn’t say make any reply in the text to the Duke’s proposal of marriage. I’ve seen the moment staged as humble acceptance; I’ve seen it staged as outraged rejection. Gurira, in this production, wanders downstage and stares out into the audience, a bit bewildered, as if to say: I thought I was done. My brother is saved. My chastity is preserved. I thought I could leave now. Was this really only the beginning? Yes, Isabella: it is only the beginning. I would like to see a production where this moment is played as a moment of actual connection between the two principal characters, but if I’m not going to get that then this is a very credible reading of the scene, and of Isabella’s feelings at this moment.
The rather heavy main plot of Measure is leavened by episodes of exceptionally black – and exceptionally funny – comedy. With two exceptions, these are handled magnificently by this production. Carson Elrod makes a perfectly infuriating Pompey Bum – I have never laughed louder at the scene where he is interrogated by Constable Elbow in front of Angelo and Escalus, the Duke’s other minister, though equal credit in that scene must go to David Manis, as the dim-witted constable, and whichever actor played the drunken customer of the brothel where Pompey works as a tapster. And Elrod was equally hilarious – and equally pointed in his humor – in the later prison scenes (which included an extended bit of audience interaction). My only hesitations in the humor department related to Tonya Pinkins as Mistress Overdone and Lucas Caleb Rooney as Barnadine, both of whom seemed to me to be playing to the audience rather than inhabiting their roles. Though I did very much appreciate Barnadine’s whooping and charging off to make more mischief when he receives his pardon. It always struck me that this particular decision on the Duke’s part is at least as ridiculous as his marriage proposal – he seems to have learned nothing from his experiences in disguise, and is as determined to be lenient now as before he appointed Angelo to impose a new stringency. I’m glad to see that the director, David Esbjornson, agrees with me.