In Chicago, the Psychomachia of Pericles

“Few love to hear the sins they love to act.”
Pericles I.i.141

On the way to the theatre my friend asked me for a brief synopsis of what Pericles, a play rarely staged (the fact of which successful sold her on coming with me), was all about. At first I started rambling about its prose romance sources, that the structure was inherently different than that of most Shakespeare where you weren’t aiming for a climax in act four and its denouement in act five, but rather was a series of episodes, like an action-adventure film, that accrete into a conclusion. The look on her face said, interesting but how is that going to help me? (I felt oddly vindicated later when I read the following in the director David H. Bell’s notes: “Pericles is a kind of ‘action hero’ that you know nothing about; we see the action but we don’t fully understand the motivations. That’s the element that makes some think the play is underwritten.”) I took a second to collect my thoughts and distilled the play down to the two elements I remember being most striking: (a) this is a story of dads who are far too interested in their daughters’ sex lives; and (b) this story is sequential and episodic, organized around shipwrecks that never really wreck.

In history, Pericles was a great leader and statesman of Athens, who inspired the civilization to developments in art and culture, but also lead them into the Peloponnesian War and died of plague himself shortly after. This play charts the story of the private life of Pericles, which may or may not have informed his politics. I think it is on these points director Bell and I largely concur, but beyond it, many choices made for this production only further confused me. I went back to the director’s notes after the show to piece together his thoughts. I think it is fair to say that Shakespeare was experimenting with the medieval method of dramatic construction called psychomachia, the story of spiritual conflict: it is the allegorical contest for the spiritual welfare of mankind that David Bevington argues was the “basis of nearly every morality play in the English drama.” In his book From Mankind to Marlowe: Growth of Structure in the Popular Drama of Tudor England (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1968), he argues its emphasis became increasingly secular in the mid-sixteenth century, “preaching lessons of civil rather than religious conduct” where “representative social types often outnumbered the more abstract personifications.” Thus Pericles is not supposed to be a culturally-specific figure, but an ‘everyman’ of sorts (and the performance given by Ben Carlson was certainly ordinary enough). Thus, Bell argues “Shakespeare is making a transition to the spiritual” by writing his own epic for the stage, rife with “wonder and miracle.” The theatre “becomes church; it is spiritual.”

Pericles (Ben Carlson) battles a tempest on the high seas as his sailors man the ship. Photo by Liz Lauren.

What is this transition to “the spiritual” get us? For Bell, it is the recognition of “the power of redemption.” So Pericles as an art object is suppose to lay at the nexus of ordinary, spiritual, and redemption. I think here is where we find the fault-line in this production: how does one combine ordinary and spiritualism to produce redemption? I’m not saying that this is impossible, but I do think that the production does not fully and specifically theorize what counts as miraculous/spiritual/epic/wondrous. Furthermore, while this is certainly the “story of a man’s life and of learning the lessons of his life as he’s living it,” historically or otherwise I think it is hard to justify Pericles as an ‘everyman.’ He’s certainly no ordinary soldier or clerk. And finally, redemption would seem a very tricky affect to produce in theatrical experience because of the timing and ephemerality the word implies. The “re” requires that this emotion can only happen late in the game, accounting and responding to things that have already occurred. This begs the questions: What is the first half of the play about, then? For what is Pericles in need of redemption? And if we are following Freytag’s Pyramid of dramatic action—not all-encompassing but no doubt useful—redemption is an affect conditioned by timing and requiring not an episodic structure like that of this play, but one that includes a climax and denouement. So not only is the emotional goal of cultivating the “power of redemption” at structural odds with the source materials of this play, it is also a one-time-only kind of affect. This is to say, while we can feel redemption towards the end of a play, how can we feel redemption throughout a play?

Well, there is a way, actually. Barbara Mowat argues in her book The Dramaturgy of Shakespeare’s Romances (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1976) that while we may be able to identify elements of comedy and tragedy within romances, the theatrical experience of a romance employs unique tactics and strategies. These effect a particular kind of experience that is invested in naturalism rather than realism. More importantly, a sensation of oscillation by blending presentational and representational, as well as explicitly narrative with dramatic qualities. Romance is not tragicomedy, but a third and discrete category of drama from comedy and tragedy predicated on the mixing of compositional tactics that typically seem oppositional to one another. Mowat breaks down drama into two fundamental forms, closed and open. Closed forms follow a narrative “curve” where the plot is “based upon syllogistic or qualitative progression, which work within generic conventions, which make use of repetitive and incidental forms to give a sense of unity, of coherence, of wholeness to the work and to the experience of responding to the work.” Open works avoid this curve and “do not follow syllogistic or qualitative progressions (progressions in which ‘one incident in the plot’ prepares us for some incident to follow logically, or in which ‘we are put into a state of mind in which another state of mind can logically follow’—in which, in other words, the premises stated or the problems raised in the initial situation are decisively resolved in the final action).”

Pericles (Ben Carlson) and his true love Thaisa (Lisa Berry). Photo by Liz Lauren.

This is all to say that by oscillating between tragic and comic strategies, vacillating between seemingly real and unreal moments, dramatic romances as open form literature produce a sense of “dislocation and amazement” and a “theatrical experience which breaks through the aesthetic, deliberately destroying dramatic coherence and consistency in order to waken us.” Consider also that romances like Pericles “do not focus on a problem or a central conflict or idea”—like redemption—but rather “they are instead circularly open, with the entire movement of each play in the direction of a return to original happiness—not to a new happiness better than that which opened the play (as in most of the comedies), but instead to a happiness approximating that known at an earlier time…always toward restoration.”

On the surface it would seem that Pericles makes good sense for the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, with its older, conservative subscriber base and healthy financial situation—in short, lots of money to throw at inherently conservative drama. And Bell did make some attempts to foster the oscillation effects built into the play to produce this particular kind of theatrical experience that moves from the abstract to the real and back again. When I first registered the costume design, all I could think of was that we had wandered into a pajama party in Atlantis. The ensemble was washed in a shimmering blue, and those of political power were given vaguely Orientalizing accoutrements; it was just enough to produce an aesthetic of 19th-century expansionist racism where all non-Western cultures clearly were poor, formless tailors with a gluttonous penchant for color blocking. (It was especially weird since post-9/11 theatre has rapidly, adroitly, and productively embraced the cultural specificity of the aesthetic and literature of the non-Western world.) One might chock this up to the assumption that Jacobeans wouldn’t have known any better about their Mediterranean and Ottoman Turk neighbors, although a huge amount of research in the last two decades has proven otherwise. Two fun examples: first, Elizabeth I was engaged to a Moroccan sultan for a hot second in the interest of trade routes; second, among the several Black individuals brought from Spain as part of Katherine of Aragon’s entourage was a prolific trumpeter, who served as a favorite of King Henry VIII’s throughout his lifetime and can be seen in portraits and tapestries of royal events.

So, the costuming doesn’t hold up as a rendering of fantasies about foreignness or wondrousness to us or to the Jacobeans—although I suppose it certainly served as an abstract element. There was also the operatic use of scale and space in the playhouse, one designed to look like the indoor Blackfriars where Pericles would have most likely been performed. They removed the balcony/musician’s room (this space goes by many names) to make the playing space seem especially expansive and epic, then filled it in two ways. First, they used the back wall as a scrim, projecting onto it fire and water images. I know it seems trite and overly-critical to say, but this reminded me of the old animatronic show at Las Vegas’ Caesar’s Palace my grandmother would take me to as a girl; definitely the new show replicates the kind of fire-and-water techniques used at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre. Second, they used a motorized platform that would raise up from a trap to substitute for the missing balcony at moments when it was needed. None of this was bad, but I wanted the production to run with it and commit to the camp. I think my experience in Pericles was akin to that had by Daniel Mendelsohn as he described it in a review of Noel Coward plays for The New York Review of Books: “for all its ravishing decor, this Private Lives is devoid of glamour; it’s so suspicious of camp style that it ends up having no style at all.” While these elements certainly produce a sense of wonderment, it was without a sense of logic that would help them cohere or at least speak to the play’s more concrete elements.

Noblemen battle to win the affection of Pentapolis’ princess, Thaisa. Photo by Liz Lauren.

If we can ascribe any intentionality to Shakespeare, I think it would be that he intended the romances to be difficult, weird, and antique so we might feel more piquantly the juxtaposition between the real and unreal, the abstract and the recognizable. I have to confess, it was these concrete and seemingly culturally-specific scenes to which I was looking forward. Certainly my favorite is II.i, where having just washed ashore from a shipwreck Pericles meets three fisherman savvy about their political situation. The humor in this moment I imagine would have made Jacobeans laugh in the same way we do at the “annoying peasants” scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. This, the Mytilene brothel scenes, and the Pentapolis joust provide important opportunities for humor that are necessary to contrast with the serious moments, according to Mowat, in order for the emotional effect of the play to work. For my friend the best moment in the show was definitely the joust and following dinner scenes, deployed with smart and expert fight and dance choreography. (If only the sound design been so smart; as it was, it vacillated noticeably and uncomfortably between a canned theme and the richness of live instrumentalists.) Ensemble member Eric Parks deployed expert comedic timing in a number of his brief deliveries, and especially being willing to take a pole to the face three times. In the napkin dance, STOMP-like musical breaks (I suspect choreographed by the percussion members, Jed Feder and Dan Toot), and other jig or extratheatrical moments the playfulness of the ensemble superseded the seriousness of Pericles’ journey for a time, giving us the balance we so sorely needed.

Carlson has been in at least a dozen productions at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre and Bell has directed sixteen at this theatre, and yet it pains me to say these were the stale elements of the production. The ensemble members were doing the most engaging and tonally consistent work, taking up every opportunity for humor they could find. A particular exclamation of “why‽” by Parks reduced us to the worst case of church giggles. And that was the thing: you felt like you weren’t allowed to laugh. And this may well not have been the fault of the production, but its context. It was a Friday night, where tickets go up another price bracket because of the weekend, so the audience was especially white and especially octogenarian. The irony is, the aged poet John Gower was removed as a functional chorus from the play entirely: not only would he have been a face this audience could relate to, but he serves as an important organizational feature to give the play coherence. This is not to say the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre isn’t doing things to appeal to a new and changing subscriber base. Certainly the collaborations with the Q Brothers and their inordinate success is my favorite thing the playhouse has ever done. Adaptations are a smart way to catch new audiences. But what about some thoughtful Shakespeare? Isn’t that ultimately the point? As I look at the rest of the season, there won’t be a single full-scale Shakespeare production at the playhouse until next fall.

Through a series of misfortunes, Marina (Cristina Panfilio) is held prisoner in a brothel commanded by Boult (Derrick Trumbly). Photo by Liz Lauren.

At a bar later that night, my friend and I deconstructed the play. We realized we are entering an age when we would like to and can actually afford to become theatre subscribers. She acknowledged that without a companion who liked Shakespeare (I live two hours south of the city and couldn’t commit to regular tickets), she wouldn’t because the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre productions are so inconsistent, more likely to give you unfocused and conservative theatre like we just saw than anything else. We identified our frustration with the production ultimately in its world-building: at times wanting to be something of the now, at other times magical, and still at others of the world of Shakespeare. Inconsistently providing us with smatterings of all of these elements simply wasn’t useful, and I can’t imagine the tactic was working as a way to grab a variety of playgoers. Reflecting on the incest element that touches off the action of the play, we both agreed we would like to a see a play that meditates on the weirdness of father-daughter relationships (and before you say King Lear or Titus Andronicus, one that doesn’t require the daughter to die to get to the point). Back from the holidays, she revealed her siblings have given their stepdad new pajamas because they were tired of him sleeping naked, and I that my father still seems to have no problem walking around in the morning in nothing but his skivvies even when I am home. I think Pericles could be a play that does so, a play whose own weirdness could engage the strangeness of ordinary life.

  • The Chicago Shakespeare Theatre’s production of Pericles, Prince of Tyre plays in the Courtyard Theatre through 18 January 2015.