Saturday, February 14, 2015

Shakespeare Uncovered: “The Taming of the Shrew” (British TV, 2013-14)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched a quite interesting Shakespeare Uncovered episode about the play The Taming of the Shrew, which the narration identified as Shakespeare’s first play (usually the three parts of Henry VI are regarded as Shakespeare’s first plays, but there’s quite a lot of scholarly disagreement as to just how much of the Henry VI plays are Shakespeare’s work, and at least in the case of Henry VI, Part 1 I’m convinced only one scene of the play we have is by the Bard), and Morgan Freeman, narrating, argued that Shakespeare was a young man from the sticks of Stratford-on-Avon trying to make his mark in the big theatrical world of London and that The Taming of the Shrew was his star-making play. Freeman got the job of narrating this because in 1990 he appeared in a Shakespeare-in-the-Park presentation in New York City that relocated the play to the 19th Century American West. He presents this as if no one had ever thought of doing that before, which simply isn’t true; in 1971 my junior college, the College of Marin, presented a Taming of the Shrew production set in the Old West and got an invitation to take the production to a Shakespeare festival in Edinburgh, Scotland, where Princess Margaret and her husband attended the last performance. What’s more, the Petruchio of that College of Marin production went on to an illustrious celebrity career and, if anything, at his height was probably a bigger star than Morgan Freeman ever has been: Robin Williams. (Now you know why I was so irritated when the obituaries on Robin Williams made it seem like he’d been born full-blown on the stage of the Comedy Store in L.A. in 1975 and utterly ignored his previous career; I saw him at College of Marin in Shrew and at least two other plays, as the romantic lead Orsino in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night — relocated to 18th century California under Spanish rule — and as Algernon in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest.)

What’s most fascinating about this program is that it mentions Shrew as the template for virtually every screwball comedy that came out of Hollywood in the classic era — the show begins with trailers for three movies that allegedly evoke it, all of them starring Katharine Hepburn: The Philadelphia Story, Adam’s Rib and The African Queen. (Hepburn would have seemed the perfect actress to have played Shakespeare’s Katherine, and not just because of the coincidence of her name — and she did indeed play the part, but only on stage in a performance that, alas, went undocumented on film or video.) Indeed, it was ironic that KPBS was showing this on the day of the release of the film version of Fifty Shades of Grey, since that too could well be read as a modern-day version of Shakespeare’s tale, complete with handcuffs and whips (through much of the second half of Shrew Petruchio tries to bludgeon Katherine into submission by locking her up and starving her), and as I’ve noted in these pages before Ayn Rand’s novels also feature powerful, domineering women laid low by even more powerful, more domineering men (almost as offensive as her political economy is Rand’s insistence that women get themselves sexually liberated by being raped).

It’s also fascinating to hear modern authorities, not only actors (including Meryl Streep, who played Katherine to Raul Julia’s Petruchio in a 1978 performance that fortunately does exist on tape and would seem well worth watching) but directors and scholars do an awful lot of special pleading to claim that Shrew isn’t the blatant piece of rampant sexism it all too clearly is — complete with that long final speech for Katherine in which she apologizes for her entire life to that point and proclaims the need for women to be obedient to their husbands. Ironically, Shakespeare wrote this hymn to male privilege and power in a country whose absolute ruler was a woman — I couldn’t help but recall the marvelous bit of dialogue in the film The White Angel, with Kay Francis delivering the performance of her career as Florence Nightingale, in which she muses that the only woman in her time and place (19th century England) who was allowed to have a will of her own and act independently was the Queen — but Elizabethan England was at least as rampantly sexist as Victorian England in terms of a woman who hadn’t inherited a royal title being able to have a life independent of men and define her own role in society. One hears talking head after talking head in this program attempt to redefine Shrew for the modern post-feminist age, to say it’s not “really” about the need for men to subjugate women (and for women to learn to love being subjugated), that there’s some subtext in the script modern performers and directors can use to revamp the piece as a proto-feminist tale instead — and if there are any such subtexts it’s only because Shakespeare was too good a writer, and too attuned to the complexities of human nature, to make Petruchio and Katherine as one-dimensional as the play’s basic plot would seem to call for, so he inserted them unconsciously. It’s also bordering on the preposterous to suggest that Shakespeare was drawn to powerful women and was therefore a “closet” feminist — not only were most of Shakespeare’s strong-willed women villainesses (like Margaret of Anjou and Lady Macbeth), victims or both (like Cleopatra), but in his productions they weren’t even played by actual women!