Present (from top, left to right along each row): David Whitworth; Colin Ellwood; John Chancer; Will Lewis; Rob Pomfret; Sakuntala Ramanee; Juliet Grey; Valerie Gogan/Simon Usher; Adam Tyler
Schiller’s Mary Stuart is about a woman aspiring to saintliness but beset by passion and with a diffuse sense of existential, primal guilt. Despite here making very free with history, Schiller creates a plausibly real world and the play resonates as a haunting and haunted meditation on guilt, the acts and rituals of its expiation, and on the ambiguous relationships between morality, politics and eternity. Schillers subsequent tragedy The Maid of Orleans/Joan of Arc (read on Friday 16th October) similarly features a female protagonist pulled between the sensual and the serene. Experienced here in Robert David Macdonald’s crisp translation for the Glasgow Citz from 1988, Schiller’s Joan (very unlike his conception of Mary) begins in a kind of full-throated, barrelling saintliness, fueled by faith in both the Virgin Mary and France. This has a galvanising and balming effect on her fractious fellow countrymen. But then her common humanity kicks in, and she looks down from the saintly tightrope she has so far confidently bestrid. Frozen in the twin headlights/spotlights of desire and realpolitik, and still refusing to remove her protective armour (literally and metaphorically) she wobbles and falls, her rhapsodic song of simple faith abruptly staunched. (When publically and spectacularly accused of witchcraft by her own father at the supposed moment of her triumph, she completely loses the gift of speech. Whether he is the ‘small boy’ here, she the ‘emperor’, and whether she is metaphorically ‘naked’ or ‘clothed’, is one of the playwright’s main points of exploration). Her subsequent triumph as imagined by Schiller is in her ultimate return to the saintly highwire in full knowledge of the potential consequences of the laws of human gravity, and with a willed rather than assumed clothing/armour of faith. Kierkegaard would have understood and approved of this trajectory, if not of its supposed conceptualisation as tragedy….and certainly not of the hilarious and enticingly weird ‘superwoman’ denoument of Schiller’s play, in which mighty-atom Joan leaps to simultaneous victory, vindication and death in a single bound: Saints of the (other) world, you have nothing to lose – or shatter - but your chains…. There are some great scenes in the play, such as Joan’s encounter with a mysterious black knight embodying her internal doubts, and also some great melodramatic/heroic set pieces. The psychological and situational complexity involved is mainly realised in a mythical/emblematic register (we the audience are clearly intended to think by mean of Joan and her situation, as is the case with myth, rather than empathetically with her, in accord with fully-embedded realistic situational drama). So issues such as the perils of being trapped by an unsustainable ‘celebrity’ image; the gender-identity and class disruptions (as well as the issues of faith) are all tantalisingly but rather blithely presented, as if the imperatives and temptations of spectacular stage action, set piece and meliflous, smooth, leisurely heroic verse have mulched the gritty content, just as – characteristically - the story-structure of myth takes complex situations and smooths the internal awkwardnesses off them. The play accordingly comes across as Chopin when we want Beethoven, or maybe even (I think I may have done Chopin a bit of an injustice there) as rather hollow sub-Brahms…. The set pieces are clearly contrived with melodramatic intent (the unselfconscious absurdities of Eighteenth Century heroic tragedy were of course at the time in the process of sliding towards the ‘fighting from memory’ formalism of Victorian popular melodrama…and Schiller seems here kind of caught between the two. Maybe too many drafts powered by the playwright's love of the guilty pleasures of stage gesture resulted in facile form pulverising the granular content….or (again, to suggest a more favourable perspective) is it inner complexity being externalised as positional ‘mythical’ ambivalence and ambiguity. Who knows….Staged myth is usually a lot ‘tighter’ than is the case here….it – myth – seeks to avoid the time and opportunity for too many questions to be asked of it till afterwards and outwardly. As suggested above, myth is centrifugal in its meaningfulness, realism is centripetal). Whatever, our reading on Friday generated some wonderfully engaged and richly inflected ‘soundings’ from our (in the event) unexpectedly small group (shades of Agincourt - which of course is part of the play's immediate dramatic context - in the group's rising to the many-charactered and lengthily-articulated challenges). A fascinating, if at times challenging afternoon. And that ending! Abandoning all plausibility (along with well-known historical fact) to enter the world of comic book fantasy, It is strangely effective in its shameless concept-completing, wish-fulfilling, glorious absurdity. An almost Brechtian ironic acknowledgement of the absurdity of the whole enterprise? Or a final bold and glorious endorsement of divine potency (think the chariot in Medea….)? . Maybe in a modern production, that unresolved tension would be the point…
Always interesting to get a sense of what really works for the reading group and what doesn’t. What I think we need is a kind of fluent knottiness, well-placed gristle…..a balance between complex interiority on the one hand, and forward-moving fluency on the other….this Schiller tended to sacrifice the former for the latter….but then again "each experience is an arch/wherethrough gleams that untrammelled world…." Looking forward to the next one now that we are embarked on our autumn voyage.
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