Coriolanus Without Rome

Coriolanus

by William Shakespeare, directed by Steven Berkoff
The Public Theater, New York City

The gressus of a well-born Roman male must have been one of the great sights of antiquity. Those destined for public life were trained to a macho swagger not tolerated in their inferiors. Cicero said this walk should borrow more from the wrestler’s moves than from the dancer’s. Movies about the Roman Empire often give us senators mincing about in togas. Actually, Rome’s leaders—roving the city with their gangs of clients and armed dependents—probably carried themselves more like “home boys” on MTV. A man who forswore such an entourage, like Cato of Utica, was more than once cudgeled in public and was constantly threatened with violence. Gravitas meant something more like throwing your weight around than like having a steady ballast.

Shakespeare shows, in his Roman plays, that he had read Plutarch well enough to know the atmosphere of Roman streets (which was not far from the jostling factions in his Verona). Plutarch says (21) that not even exile from Rome made Coriolanus lose his haughty badisma (Greek for gressus). Shakespeare read this pasage in Thomas North’s translation: Coriolanus “neither in his countenaunce, nor his gate [gait], dyd ever showe him selfe abashed.” He was bred as a fighter, and his managers (Volumnia his mother and Menenius Agrippa his mentor) treat him as a valuable property, one that can mow down all challengers. His mother exults:

Death, that dark spirit, in’s nervy arm doth lie,
Which being advanced, declines; and then men die.
II.i.157–158 (The Oxford Shakespeare, 1986)

Berkoff stages with great insight Volumnia’s opening scene with Virgilia, her son’s wife. Virgilia sits in the middle of a bright square of light, miming a dutiful and worried sewing (setting up later references to her as Penelope), while Volumnia treads the outer edges of the square, gracefully plucking roses (in mime), restlessly pushing at the enclosure of the women’s space, while she rhapsodically describes her son’s exploits on the field. Irene Worth plays Volumnia with an uncanny blend of maternal calculation about her son’s political future and delirious identification with his present martial exploits. Ashley Crow, as Virgilia, shrinking into herself at the center of this lethal stalking, conveys almost wordlessly her dread of her mother-in-law and her concern for her husband.

The minor roles—Roman mob, Roman army, Roman Senate …

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