At LAMDA, we plunge into the winter term with the haunting, bone invading, darkness of the Jacobeans. Jacobean plays, to classify them on a purely experiential level, are like Shakespeare if you take all of his lofty language and chain it down to the depths of Tartarus ——there’s the beauty and intelligence of his heavenly language but it’s weighted down by the muscularity of a society whose only light seems to come from the all too close flickers of hellfire against the walls. Shakespeare’s words unspool like thread ——sometimes they unwind languidly, with the luxury and lightness of a lover’s tongue, at other times the string knots together like a rope and hoists the sail, navigating the play across turbulent seas. Whatever the subject matter, Shakespeare’s language always knits itself together again; his words are a tapestry, every word interwoven with every other. Even at its lowest moments, there is a smoothness to his language. Webster’s words, on the other hand, are chewed up and spit out like the finest quality tobacco —his language is still marvelous and rich, bold and flavorful, but it has to be spit forth from your gut.
For the first half of this term, I had the great privilege to rehearse a workshop performance of John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi. Published in 1612, The Duchess of Malfi epitomizes the genre of the Jacobean drama, which carried forward and expanded the tradition of the Elizabethan tragedy (i.e. Shakespeare.) Set in the Italian court, it is the story of the widowed Duchess, who, in order to avoid the control of her brothers, marries the head of her household in secret. This early act of feminism does not end well and, like most tragedies of the day, the play ends in a blood bath that would make the people who write the Saw movies shudder. The Italian court is never a safe place to be in Jacobean or Elizabethan dramas.
I shared the role of the character Bosola; Bosola is an academic turned mercenary. He works for the two brothers; he is in the midst of doing their dirty work, killing the Duchess and her family, when he suddenly has an epiphany and becomes her avenging angel of death. Bosola is bedraggled by the bureaucratic bullshit of the Italian court. But it’s the world he lives in so he makes his uneasy peace with that (so uneasy that over the course of the play it rather undoes itself in a spectacle of blood and retribution) and he survives. But like a mole, if you spend too long in the darkness you lose your ability to see the light. He survives but at what cost?
Surviving. I know what it’s like to survive; I’ve spent half of my life teetering on the edge of poverty. I come from a family of survivors, people who have often found their lives in such dire circumstances that there was nothing to do but make it through the day or the hour ahead. I know what it is to watch people I love survive. Someone very dear to me is surviving now. Surviving means you’ve got just enough in you not to die. But it erodes you, stretches you, makes you feel ‘like butter spread over too much toast.’ Survival’s not the battle, it’s the bargain. It’s the pitch we give ourselves until we find that day we’re not surviving any more, but living. Sometimes survival is necessary; sometimes it’s all we can do. But there’s something that happens when it becomes a permanent rather than a temporary state of being. The character I portrayed, Bosola, realizes all too late what his survival has cost him, what he has allowed himself to do in the name of ‘just surviving.’ And yet there is a certain level of sympathy, even empathy, I have for his way of thinking. The world he lives in is hypocritical and contradictory, as is his thought process. Yet I found him so compelling, so heartbreaking, and so human because, in the end, he knew and acknowledged those worst qualities about himself. I have often found self-awareness to be one of the most useful and rarely found traits a person, or a character, can possess. A sense of self-awareness can imbue any character, not matter how complex or compromised, an aura of truth otherwise found to be lacking.
I recently saw the power, and oftentimes, the tragedy of self-awareness, demonstrated in a production of the play Red Velvet, written by Lolita Chakrabarti. Red Velvet is the story of the first black actor, Ira Aldridge, to play Othello on an English stage. His run in the role lasted two performances—despite receiving soaring praise from audiences, British critics savaged him off the stage.
I saw the production with a very close friend of mine who, amongst being an incredibly talented and hard working actor, is an African American woman. There is a moment in the play when Pierre, the stage manager (and close friend) who helped cast Aldridge, tells Aldridge that it’s over; that his big shot has come and gone. It is the rupturing of more than just a friendship, it is the proscribed undoing of dignity. At one point, Aldridge tells the story of performing theatre in secret in a local barn, back home in America, staying up all night just to get a chance to act. He recounts how the barn was torched, while he and several other young men were still inside, how death seemed imminent, and how he was rescued by the kind of pure chance that often defines the measure of a life. He almost died just because he loved to act, they very same thing I love, the very same thing my friend loves and built her life and career upon. And then Aldridge gets down on his knees and begs his friend to help him keep the part.
We have no dignity before what we love, whether it be a craft or a person, we’ve nothing but our unguarded vulnerable hearts to offer. In this moment Aldridge offered his very heart, and I think Adrian Lester (the actor portraying him) did too. And so did my friend. We were both in tears, holding on to each other, looking to comfort each other due to the emotionality of the scene and, from the baggage our friendship bears of only very recently really being allowed to exist. But there was and is an important distinction in our tears: The difference is my tears were sympathetic, hers were empathic. I can never know, never truly understand what she has had to put up with, what she has had to endure, what she has had to survive through in order to do what she loves.
At the end of the play (spoiler alert)it’s revealed that Aldridge has never returned to the British stage and that, although he has gained a highly respected reputation performing across Eastern Europe, he is only able to perform those parts because he puts on whiteface before each performance. Sometimes we impersonate the very thing that has oppressed us because it is only from within that flawed system we can possibly hope to over turn it. We have to endure that which seeks to destroy us, if for no other reason than to prove that we can only ever be eroded, worn, but not completely destroyed, not completely erased.
At the end of Red Velvet, my friend turned to me and said, “I don’t know about you but I’m standing up.” And without missing a beat she rose to her feet. Following her example, I rose, and looked behind us, and I watched as the entire Garrick Theatre followed her lead, and gave the cast a standing ovation. My friend reminded me that we have to have the courage to honor our feelings, to not worry if the person beside you or behind you has stood, but to give the standing ovations we are moved to give.
Perhaps that’s what keeps us afloat, when nothing can go right and dreams crumble to dust in our hands ——is that there is some small part of us still capable of being moved. So long as we can be moved, we’re still human, not matter the compromises and sacrifices we have to make, there still lies in us the potential to be moved. And with movement comes the chance of change. It’s not a guarantee, far from it, but potentiality is why we go on, it is the hope that feeds us when we’ve nothing else to live on.
We will all have moments, weeks, years, where we will be able to do nothing more than survive. Some even have a lifetime of it. But in the midst of the burden that is stark survival, what allows for moments of laughter and joy and love, all those elements that carve out the shape of a life, is the deep human reserve of potential, the potential for circumstances to change, the potential to heal, to find love, to be moved, the potential to live.
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