Troilus and Cressida
"Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past."
--Slogan of The Party, from 1984, by George Orwell
For the first time since 1964, the Colorado Shakespeare Festival (CSF) performs Troilus and Cressida. Why so long between productions? As with many companies, the argument is that this play is somehow not up to the same level of dramatic and poetic quality as most of the other works in the canon, and perhaps there is a small measure of truth to this, but the real issue is that most modern scholars, most folks in the acting community, and most audiences members don't have a clue as to the intent of the play.
From another angle, however, what we experience in the CSF's well-acted production is a playwright's adaptation of an ancient Greek story brilliantly woven with commentary on issues facing the court of Elizabeth I, at the time that the original version of this play was first staged—December 27, 1584, under a different title, A History of Agamemnon and Ulysses—by the Henry Evans-led Oxford's Boys, in a performance before the Queen and her court at Windsor Castle.1
Just as the war between the Greeks and the Trojans in Troilus and Cressida was in its seventh year when the play begins, at the time of the play's first performance, Elizabeth's Britain had been embroiled in a war in the Lowlands for seven years (1577-1584), allied with the Protestants (Netherlands) against the Catholics (Spain). And just like the combatants in Troilus and Cressida, in Elizabeth's court there were many noblemen vying for military assignments and power. In other words, this play is, in many ways, a delicious and satirical look at a variety of courtiers, as told through the eyes of one of them, who had a gift with words and with staging his thoughts, and used this gift to argue for his own case and mock or praise others, depending on his relationship with them.
The play contains a heated exchange between Agamemnon and Ulysses that uses language and rhetorical tricks found in Euphuism, a style fashionable in the early 1580s, when John Lyly's series of novels regarding Euphues (Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford) began to catch the fancy of the literati. The arguments between these two Greek generals are directly related to some of the issues in the Lowlands. Essentially, de Vere (Ulysses) is arguing for intervention and for a leadership role representing the epitomy of aristocratic and military ideals, whereas Agamemnon's ideas (Leicester's candidacy; i.e., Sir Robert Dudley) are rhetorically weak and tedious. Through Ulysses, de Vere "eloquently expresses the feudal, royalist philosophy of a divinely ordered world."2 He also notes that the chief problem facing the invading army (the ancient Greeks and Elizabeth's Britain) is a military hierarchy that is rife with anarchy and confusion, as a result of too much equality among the officers, whose roles should be more precisely defined and whose authority should be obeyed.3
|Mare Trevathan as Ulysses|
and Austin Terrell as Ajax
Photo: Jennifer M Koskinen
This argument takes on a different hue in this production. In a pre-production press release, director Carolyn Howarth comments that she hopes that putting women in positions of militaristic power proves that men aren’t the only ones who can pull off hubris and biting humor. Well, yes, as far as the hubris part of this goes, one need look no further than Hillary Clinton to see that women are just as good as men at calling in drones with their cellphones to bomb children and for biting humor (belittling their enemies) and destroying sovereign nations. Nothing new here. Regardless, in Howarth’s production, the traditionally male roles of Ulysses (Mare Trevathan), Agamemnon (Kelsey Didion), and Aeneas (Lilli Hokama) are female characters dressed as male soldiers, and reciting the male lines, with "he" changed to "she" when necessary.
The actresses exude the spectrum of macho and belligerent attitudes and behaviors we would expect, just as the Amazons surely did, even if there are a number of exchanges where the original intent is lost. Given how long its been since anyone may have seen a production of this play, the loss of this context is disappointing, and its effect on the production is a repeated distraction.
|Sean Scrutchins as Thersites|
Photo: Jennifer M Koskinen
As you may recall from ancient history, the Trojan Wars began with the kidnapping of Helen from her Greek homeland—by marriage she was Queen of Laconia (a province within Homeric Greece), the wife of King Menelaus—to Troy, by Paris. The Greeks are hellbent on retrieving her. Meanwhile, in Troy, Pandarus (Howard Swain) is trying to broker a romance between his beautiful niece, Cressida (Carolyn Holding) and the handsome warrior, Troilus (Christopher Joel Onken). Swain is hilarious as the lecherous voyeur, keeping the hormones running hot between the two, even as he repeatedly embarasses them. The dynamic between Holding and Onken is funny and sweet, as they test the boundaries of courting propriety while holding back their strong physical attraction.
Elsewhere in Troy, the passion between Helen (Lindsey Kyler) and Paris (Jihad Milhem) is interrupted by the proposition that Helen should be returned, to end the war. The pair are vociferous in their opposition to this strategy, joyfully retiring to the boudoir whenever possible.
|(Rear) Howard Swain as Pandarus,|
Christopher Joel Onken as Troilus,
and Carolyn Holding as Cressida
Photo: Jennifer M Koskinen
In the Greek camp, concern grows over the great warrior Achilles (Geoffrey Kent), who refuses to leave his tent, where he is ensconced with his lover, Patroclus (Spencer Althoff), a young, handsome commander. The Greek Ulysses proposes to Troy that each side send their best warrior to fight each other, instead of continuing to engage the two armies. As a means of stirring Achilles to action, Ulysses and her brain trust pick Ajax (Austin Terrell) to do battle for them, instead of Achilles, to fight Hector. Achilles is offended as intended.
Kent, in his anachronistic skivvies and bathrobe adorned with a Taoist symbol, drinks from a beer can with the plastic packaging dangling to the side. His nonchalance, lovelorn posturing, and sunny repartee are a humorous sidebar to the war; and yet, on the flipside, when spurned by his compatriots, Kent as the wounded statesman comes bubbling up, before he turns ferocious warrior and hunts down Hector (Steven Cole Hughes). Hughes' presence give us a strong taste of Hector's warrior nature. Althoff is charming as the mild, young lover. Terrell's one-brick-short-of-a-load Ajax adds punch to the hilarity of the barbs tossed his way by the other Greek officers.
|(L to R) Spencer Althoff as Patrochus|
and Geoffrey Kent as Achilles
Photo: Jennifer M Koskinen
Arguably the canon's most ascerbic clown, the deformed Thersites, is brought to boisterous life by Sean Scrutchins, who provides strong commentary on the action, when he is not insulting noblemen and scoundrels alike with some of the best character assassinations the playwright has to offer.
Now, consider the subtext of the Troilus and Cressida, which is Elizabethan court politics in 1584, plus later re-writes.
"Elizabethan authors had equated Essex with the legendary figure of Achilles at least four times in the preceding five years (from 1579-1584), so no doubt the playwright, Edward de Vere was displacing some of his resentment towards Southhampton (Ed.: For not marrying his eldest daughter and for his scandalous [at the time] conduct) onto a man he already disliked. In Troilus and Cressida's Greek officers' camp, then, Southhampton's alleged sexual dalliances with a fellow officer become an accusation of degenerate and improper conduct against Essex himself."4 Though, with Shake-speare's poetic license, this can also be read with Southhampton (the subject of what orthodox scholars describe as the homo-erotic themes in the Sonnets) as Achilles and Patroclus as Pierce Edmonds. In either case, those in attendance at court would have recognized the dual allusions.
|(L to R) Geoffrey Kent as Achilles and|
Steven Cole Hughes as Hector
Photo: Jennifer M Koskinen
Achilles and his fellow commander Patroclus represent Shake-speares's one same-sex friendship, outside of Othello and Iago's troubled relationship, that is touched with intimations of homosexuality. Rather than fight and serve honorably with their fellow Grecians, Achilles and Patroclus prefer to while away the days in the tent, privately enjoying each other's pleasures. Troilus and Cressida's railing satirist Thersites spells out the rumors against Achilles and Patroclus5:
Thersites [to Patroclus]: Thou art said to be Achille's male varlet.
Patroclus: Male varlet, you rogue? What's that?
Thersites: Why, his masculine whore. Now the rotten diseases of the south [venereal diseases] ... take and take again such preposterous discoveries!
Patroclus: Why, thou damnable box of envy, thou, what means thou to curse thus?
Thersites: Do I curse thee?
Patroclus: Why, no, you ruinous butt, you whoreson indistinguishable cur, no.
Thersites: No? Why are thou then exasperate, thou idle immaterial skein of sleeve silk, thou green sarsenet flap for a sore eye, thou tassel of a prodigal's purse, thou!
Clearly, this sequence is in the hall of fame of literary insults.
On a more elevated note, in Troilus and Cressida, the idealized officer Ulysses utters Shake-speare's most eloquent homage to the Elizabethan chain of being: nature's rank and degree for everything and everyone.6 So, amidst the infighting of the nobility over military roles in the war in the Lowlands, it is only fitting that the playwright, who probably played Ulysses in the original court version of the play, gives advice, from personal experience, to Achilles (Essex):
Achilles: What, am I poor of late?
'Tis certain, greatness, once fall'n out with fortune,
Must fall out with men too. ...
What, are my deeds forgot?
Ulysses: Time hath, my lord, a wallet at his back,
Wherein he puts alms for oblivion,
A great-siz'd monster of ingratitudes.
Those scraps are good deeds past, which are devour'd
As fast as they are made, forgot as soon
As done. ...
For beauty, wit,
High birth, vigor of bone, desert in service,
Love, friendshiop, charity, are subject all
To envious and calumniating Time.
One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.
"Here again, where Ulysses serves as de Vere's mouthpiece, Achilles might be seen to represent Essex—although Ulysses's caring and sage counsel make it more likely that Southhampton was the intended audience."7
The renamed Troilus and Cressida, an updated version of the 1584 Agamemnon and Ulysses, was probably staged at court, or before a select set of nobility in 1599 (Although the play was first published in 1609, its first recorded performance was not until 1679.8), based on a reference in an anonymous 1599 play, Histrio-Mastix ("The player whipped"), which satirizes Troilus and Cressida, and in which we find a pointed reminder as to which playwright is being spoofed, when the play's "Troilus" speaks of himself in the third person as someone who "shakes his furious spear."9
Near the end of Histrio-Mastix, the play's character "Poverty" says:
I scorn a scoffing fool about my throne,
And artless idiot that like Aesop's dawe [crow]
Plumes fairer feathered birds. No, Poverty
Will dignify her chair with deep divines.
Philosophers and scholars feast with me.
As you may have noticed, "Aesop's dawe" and "Plumes fairer feathered birds" are a direct reference to Greene's Groatsworth of Wit (1592), which lambasted a country bumpkin, the Stratford man, for stealing the work of other playwrights, including de Vere.
Ben Jonson came to a similar conclusion (in 1599) about someone he calls "poet-ape."
Poor "poet-ape," that would be thought our chief,
Whose works are even the frippery of wit,
From brokage is become so bold a thief
As we, the robbed, leave rage and pity it.
At first he made low shifts, would pick and glean,
Buy the reversion of old plays. Now grown
To a little wealth and credit in the scene,
He takes up all, makes each man's wit his own.
And told of this, he slights it. "Tut, such crimes
The sluggish, gaping auditor devours;
He marks not whose 'twas first, and aftertimes
May judge it to be his, as well as ours."
Fool! as if half-eyes will not know a fleece
From locks of wool, or shreds from the whole piece.
Regular publications under the name of Shake-speare continued from 1593 until 1604, and then fell silent for five years (following de Vere's death), until de Vere's second wife Elizabeth Trentham de Vere prepared to move from King's Place in Hackney, which she had shared with her husband. At that point, four "new" Shake-speare works (Pericles, King Lear, Troilus and Cressida, and the Sonnets) were published. A later window began with the publication of Othello in 1622 and culminated with the First Folio (including 18 plays that had never been published) in 1623, "according to the true and original copies," enabled by de Vere's youngest daughter, Susan, and her husband and her brother-in-law, the earls of Montgomery and Pembroke.
Clearly, the Stratford man peeved de Vere, who lampooned him in such roles as Christopher Sly, Costard, Will, and Bottom. In another, more pleasant, biographical reference in Troilus and Cressida the playwright, having once made his pitch for a military appointment (1584), now, as his mortality draws nigh, paints himself as a handsome and bold warrior (indeed, in his youth, de Vere was one of the finest jousters at court) courting Cressida, a stand-in for Elizabeth, when de Vere was a young man and the Queen was of a certain age. Pandarus, who sets up the amorous rendez-vous, is no one other than a caricature of William Cecil, Lord Burghley, at the time de Vere's former guardian and future father-in-law.
Given the biographical nature of this play (and virtually all of the canon), the question remains as to whether Howarth's direction, and her leveraging of the festival's "gender parity" across the ensemble, lends itself to increasing our understanding of the play or of any contemporary political situation.
Going back to Howarth's interview in the pre-production press release:
Given the change in command, Howarth says cutting the play’s many lines about the weakness of women was a no-brainer. But by and large, she says, the most powerful gender statements unfold without any script edits at all.
“When you don’t even touch the script, you’re forced to see how the men of the play deal with women in power,” Howarth says. “They can’t just run roughshod over the women anymore; they have to be dealt with, interacted with, as equals. So that creates tension, and a whole other set of obstacles comes up.”
In other words, the play, its original meaning, and the text must be changed to accomodate the beliefs of certain self-styled progressives. Since the play wasn't written to be a commentary on how men view women in power, what we have here is an interpretation that runs roughshod over the original intent, thereby creating a whole other set of obstacles for the audience to understand the message.
Face it, to see women play men's role during the Trojan Wars is odd, considering that women had so few rights, but, hey, political correctness was bound to catch up with William Shakespeare, whoever he was; after all, he is an old, dead white guy. So, context be damned, let us recreate the past in our own image and pretend that sexism, racism, bigotry, elitism, and slavery did not exist. Certainly, this will serve us well as we move forward, secure in our denial of what came before us and in the certainty of our own self-serving enlightenment.
The Colorado Shakespeare Festival has made gender parity in its ensemble dictate how they perform the canon: each year, they perform one dressed up staged reading of a history play in the manner of what they call "original practices," meaning the actors follow procedures (except for all male casting) that were used on the public stage, years after most of the plays had been performed at court, and then they perform other plays from the canon and substitute women for men in key roles and pretend that this gives insight into some deep hidden meaning in the play. Whereas, when the company is performing a contemporary writer's historically inaccurate play about Shakespeare, for example Bill Cain's Equivocation, no attempt will be made to alter the gender of any characters. Is this because there is no great hidden meaning to be found by changing the gender of the characters? If so, why does a contemporary white guy get a break where Shakespeare does not? There's got to be some deep answer here, but it is not clear what it may be.
So, there you have it, the "politically correct" version of Troilus and Cressida. Perhaps in another 52 years, by the year 2068, those of us still standing will see a version of this play that provides actual context for the master's point-of-view.
If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.
--Original preface to Animal Farm; as published in George Orwell: Some Materials for a Bibliography, 1953, by Ian R. Willison
The Colorado Shakespeare Festival's presentation of Troilus and Cressida runs through August 6th. For tickets: http://www.coloradoshakes.org.
1 The play was never preserved, but even the orthodox scholar Albert Feuillerat thought that de Vere might be the author. (Mark Anderson, 'Shakespeare' By Another Name, Gotham Books, New York, 2005, p. 201.)
2 Ibid., pp. 201-2
3 Ibid., p. 203.
4 Ibid., p. 316.
5 Ibid., pp. 315-6.
6 Ibid., p. 316.
7 Ibid., p. 317.
8 Ibid., The misunderstanding regarding the first performance of this play seems to stem from a version of the play first printed in 1609, in which the printer, George Eld, included a front-page advertisement stating that the King's Men had performed it at The Globe, but before the end of the year a corrected version disowned this notion (based on a corrupted quorto [i.e., from the script thief of Stratford]), stating in the preface that the play was new and unperformed in public, and "never clapper-clawed with the palms of the vulgar ..." Ibid., pp. 362-3.
9 Ibid., p. 317.