Most of my reading over the past month has been drama. Briefer-than-usual reviews of the three plays I’ve read recently follow.
1. Prince Friedrich of Homburg, by Heinrich von Kleist
I have less to say about this than I imagined. It didn’t worm its way into my heart like my favorite plays do. It was tight and chilly and the characters were hard to like. Nonetheless, there’s some interesting stuff going on. The Elector is a spectacular manipulator whose manipulations–more reflex than anything at this point–backfire on him, as is pointed out by a minor character who reveals that the entire sequence of events that forms the play would not have happened if the Elector had not interfered with the sleepwalking Prince in the first scene.
The Elector reminds me a bit of the Duke in Measure for Measure. I’d like to expand on that, but I don’t have the energy to dig for evidence at this point.
2. Fortune, by Marina Tsvetaeva
I’ve been slowly translating this play for months, and finally finished a first draft a few weeks ago. It’s mostly decadent poetry–roses, champagne froth, alabaster cleavage–combined with some sharp political commentary in one soliloquy, as the main character prepares to be executed by the revolution he once served, against his interests and those of his order.
But the main thrust of the play is in the protagonist Lauzun’s (French Revolution enthusiasts will recognize him by the name Biron) “gift” from Lady Fortune. He’s innately seductive, without knowing precisely why he’s so fascinating to the ladies. Over the course of the play, he changes from the bewildered young man dumped by his first girlfriend, to a self-assured courtier who has Marie-Antoinette at his feet, to a prisoner enjoying the last sweetness of life with the jailer’s daughter.
3. Conversations in Tusculum- Richard Nelson
This play by an award-winning contemporary playwright was first performed in 2008. It concerns Cicero, Brutus, Cassius, Porcia, and Servilia under the rule of Julius Caesar. It’s hubris to cover the same territory as Shakespeare’s incredible Julius Caesar, and Nelson doesn’t try–he situates his play mainly in the lead-up to the realization that, as Shakespeare’s Brutus puts it, “It must be by his death.” This Brutus doesn’t need Cassius to lead him to that conclusion–they both stumble towards it unwillingly.
Caesar is portrayed, unfairly and inaccurately, as personally cruel and manipulative rather than simply ruthless. He’s more the typical tyrant, more like Sulla or any number of 20th century dictators than himself. (For what it’s worth, I find Caesar a perfectly appalling character in history, but his portrayal here just isn’t fair). There’s also some veiled commentary on the Iraq War, Bush, and terrorism which I think weakens the play.
But it was an intense read that I couldn’t put down. Nelson anatomizes the characters’ reactions to the off-stage Caesar’s mindgames and their self-disgust. Eventually it becomes clear that Brutus will either kill Caesar or himself (as it happens, historically, he did both). The ghost of Cato hovers over the characters, reminding them that they have options other than just, as they put it, sitting around talking.
Cassius is a bit underdeveloped (and certainly nothing to the Shakespearean character) but it’s nice to see a play explore the hint in Cicero’s letters that Junia Tertia (Servilia’s daughter, Brutus’s sister, and Cassius’s wife) slept with Caesar and how that might have affected this tangle of relations.
By the time it ended, I was sorry the play, whatever it’s faults, couldn’t have been longer.