• Email
  • Print

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.1 And Peter Brown has shown that a demonstrative virility was still required in the second century of the Common Era.2 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.”3 So Steven Berkoff, directing Coriolanus in Joseph Papp’s marathon series of all the Shakespeare plays, is closer to the truth than might be supposed when he makes Coriolanus (Christopher Walken) a bikegang leader, bopping about with bristly challenge, keeping his followers in line, aching for a rumble with the rival gang leader, Tullus Aufidius. When Walken moves to battle (wielding invisible weapons) it is with a boxer’s shuffle and leer, dipping his left shoulder, drawing his right arm back.4 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, Volscian army—are all played by the same black-jacketed “gang” members. This allows for some spectacularly choreographed movements, to the inventive percussion score-and-performance of Larry Spivak. The battle scenes (enacted without visible weapons, sometimes in slow motion) inevitably look like the rumbles in West Side Story; but there are some magical moments—as when the Romans “ride” toward the Volscians using Agnes De Mille “dressage” movements. The anonymity and interchangeability of the actors is also good at suggesting the quality that the “mob” is named for—mobility. There is an almost Keystone quality to this mob’s quick changes of direction, as its loyalties flit from Coriolanus to the tribunes and back again. Shakespeare reflects Plutarch’s critical attitude toward mobs in all his Roman plays.

But this anonymity of the followers undermines the very thing Berkoff is trying to accomplish. He told The New York Times that he resents, on political grounds, the idea of “spear carriers” standing unobtrusively around the star players. He wants a social equality of parts: “My conception was to take all the small parts of this play and organize them as a union.”5 By the promiscuous use of identical figures as Roman patricians and paupers, as Roman soldiers and Volscian soldiers, Berkoff presents a nihilistic vision of war and political scrambling as purposeless, with robotlike participants acting on senseless urges. They are all reduced to interchangeable “spear carriers,” in a union of non-producers.

There is, admittedly, a jolt of bitter cynicism in the play; but Shakespeare’s political insights are complicated, and depend on the marked differences between (and within) the classes in Rome, as well as between Rome and Rome’s adversaries. Coriolanus is Shakespeare’s most complex political play, though it is usually presented as his simplest. Jan Kott calls it a two-character play, Coriolanus against the People.6 Even Bertolt Brecht’s analysis of the first scene, which is famous for sketching the many levels of political activity in the play’s opening situation, considerably simplifies that situation.7 For one thing, Brecht thinks the populace introduced in the first lines is leading the main revolutionary assault on Rome’s patrician government. He worries, for instance, whether they are sufficiently armed to encounter the legionaries. Actually, we learn later in the scene that the main body of the popular party has been elsewhere, wrestling real concessions from the patricians—five tribunes of the people added to the constitution. The Roman general Caius Martius (given the surname Coriolanus after his capture of the Volscian town of Corioles) has been a spectator, not a participant, at those events, and he comes in reeling with anger at them.

What, then, are the people we first see trying to do? They plan to assassinate Martius. They make up, in fact, the kind of private conspiracy that succeeds in assassinating Martius at the end of the play, where Volscians are the conspirators. The Roman people, though they are presented as shopkeepers and “mechanics,” are not a single “character.” They include the looters who run from battle with spoils (a scene Berkoff omits) as well as loyal soldiers who admire Martius. They include the spies who make the Romans superior to Volscians in intelligence (there is a scene where a Volscian spy meets a Roman spy and they compare intelligence notes like characters from a John Le Carré novel—another scene omitted in this production). Martius, the military aristocrat, passes most of the popular hurdles on his way to the consulship, and only a mounting scene of popular unrest, where the tribunes manipulate the people and the patricians back Martius with misgivings, leads to the exile of Martius. (Berkoff presents only one side of this conflict. Where Shakespeare has a superior force of patricians protect Martius and drive the people off, Berkoff leaves only the mob facing Martius, and he mows them all down with his fists!)

If the Romans are differentiated in their shifting positions around Martius, the Volscians to whom he deserts after he is banished are an even more distinct body of people in the play. We hear nothing of shopkeepers or mechanics among them—or of spies who are any good at their craft. The Volsces are a purely martial society, in which Martius is accepted enthusiastically, despite all he has done against them in the past. The Volscians never, as a people, reject Martius—that is why their former leader, Tullus Aufidius, has to organize a conspiracy to assassinate him. The many absurdities of Berkoff’s production reach their climax when the assassins become the only Volscians in the last scene of the play, leaving no one to speak the lines of the Volscian nobles who are shocked at the murder. So Berkoff brings in a Roman, Titus Lartius, to preside over this Volscian scene: It makes political nonsense of the entire play.

Martius himself has the swagger the mob cannot aspire to—but everyone walks the same way in Berkoff’s world, Roman or Volsce, noble or ill-born. Plutarch says that Martius, being orphaned of his father, did not have the upbringing (paideia, 2) of a political father. Menenius, who was Martius’s general when he first went to war, is his grandfather’s age, and a representative, like his mother, of outmoded values. The orator’s walk and eye and voice, all praised by Cicero, are evident in Martius:

When he walks, he moves like an engine, and the ground shrinks before his treading. He is able to pierce a corslet with his eye, talks like a knell, and his “hmh!” is a battery. (V.iv.18–21)

But Martius lacks the civil and suasive discourse that was supposed to crown the orator’s supremacy in public life. Words bewilder and madden him. The tribunes, knowing his “provocability” (what Plutarch calls his philoneikia, 3), taunt him with words that invade his mind and buzz there—“shall,” “traitor,” “boy”—as he tries to shake them out in frenzy.

Martius is really a Volscian in attitude, the natural leader of a simple society, and he thinks he sees in the Volscian leader, Aufidius, the last worthy opponent of a heroic age:

And were I anything but what I am,
I would wish me only he….
Were half to half the world by th’ears and he
Upon my party, I’d revolt to make
Only my wars with him. He is a lion
That I am proud to hunt.
(I.i.231–236)

Later, when he learns that Aufidius is at Antium, he says,

I wish I had a cause to seek him there.
(III.i.20)

Martius spares one of the citizens of Corioles, the town he has just captured, for observing the hospitable code of the heroic days. Named for his enemies, he is like them in ways that prepare for his desertion to them.

One of the many ironies of the play is that Aufidius is as displaced in his own society as Coriolanus is in Rome. Coriolanus is a Volsce by temperament; the crafty Aufidius might well be a Roman amid duller warriors. He rails against the Volscians’ inferior intelligence operations, and admits he cannot beat Coriolanus without the help of the kind of craft Romans accept in war:

I would I were a Roman, for I cannot,
Being a Volsce, be that I am.
(I.xi.4–5)

Thus, though the two heroes embrace in a lustful alliance, Martius’s friend Menenius Agrippa, who knows they are polar opposites, not mirror images, speaks a three-word Aeschylean line about them:

He and Aufidius can no more atone
Than violent’st contrariety.
(IV.vi.75–76)

As Berkoff has flattened and erased the complex domestic politics that drive Coriolanus from Rome (where his mother counsels dishonor, providing a morbid paideia to match with her unnatural bellicosity), so he omits all the complex diplomacy of the second half of the play. His Coriolanus marches vengefully on Rome; but the character as Shakespeare wrote it is also sending terms for surrender, giving Menenius a letter to confirm earlier offers to the Romans, asking the Volscians what they want in tribute—all matters omitted here.

When his mother leads an embassy to make Coriolanus relent, Miss Worth plays the scene magnificently, though Berkoff puts her under the restriction of appealing to a character not present in his production (Martius’s son) and makes her famous attempt to make anyone speak—Martius, his wife, even his son—look like appeals to Martius alone. He also deprives of its force her most powerful plea, the one in which she composes a lengthy epitaph for Coriolanus, describing how his name will be held in perpetual dishonor. We miss the point of this tremendous argument because Berkoff has omitted all but slight hints of the first embassy to Coriolanus, about which the general Cominius reports:

Coriolanus’
He would not answer to, forbade all names.
He was a kind of nothing, titleless,
Till he had forged himself a name o’ th’ fire
Of burning Rome.
(V.i.11–15)

Martius won the name of Coriolanus by capturing Corioles—it was the only special spoil he would take from that victory, and he said he would wear it with honor. What name will he receive if he conquers Rome? Romanus—by the unnatural repatriation of a son who has destroyed his mother city. It is the unholiness of this ambition that Volumnia spells out in her elaborate dwelling on the epitaph. Coriolanus does not yield simply to her will, as if he were the “boy” Aufidius calls him, but to a shocked recognition of the unnatural errand he has undertaken. And even this cannot be understood unless we see that his desire to burn Rome went beyond the Volscian war plan spelled out in the diplomacy we are deprived of.

Christopher Walken, though he looks sometimes like an Elvis impersonator, does what he can with the snippets of Coriolanus’s lines Berkoff has left him. The great central soliloquy of his three—the one where he ponders the interchangeability of love and hate, speaking of dream obsessions in language that Aufidius immediately echoes when they meet—is simply cut. More astonishing and disturbing, Walken omits the last word of his role, the climactic “Boy!” that, in answer to Aufidius’s taunt, turns Martius’s last boast into an agony. On opening night, I thought Walken might just have run out of breath in the soaring phrase Shakespeare gives him. But I returned, to a matinee, and he left it out again, though with breath to spare for it. (He also missed an entrance at that performance, and had to be covered by the man playing Aufidius.) Several reviewers have called the sixth in Papp’s Shakespeare series the best. Having seen one better (King John last summer), I wonder how any of the others can have been worse.

  1. 1

    De Oratore III.vix.220, developed by Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria I.xi. 18-19.

  2. 2

    The Body and Society: Men, Women and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (Columbia University Press, 1988), p. 11. Statius praises a young man for excelling all others of his age in haughtiness of expression and stride (vultu gressugue superbo), Silvae II.1. 108.

  3. 3

    North’s text in Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, Vol. 5 (Columbia University Press, 1964), p. 525. This passage gives extra warrant to IV.v.127 of the disputed Folio text, where war is called “sprightly walking.”

  4. 4

    Though Shakespeare has Coriolanus do most damage with a sword in his play, Plutarch said the hero preferred engaging his foes in hand-to-hand grapplings, making his muscles his only armor and weaponry (2, cf. North in Bullough, p. 506).

  5. 5

    Merwyn Rothstein, “Trims and New Twists to Clarify Coriolanus,” The New York Times, November 30, 1988.

  6. 6

    Jan Kott, Shakespeare Our Contemporary, translated by Boleslaw Taborski (Doubleday/Anchor, 1966), p. 190.

  7. 7

    Bertolt Brecht, The Collected Plays, edited by Ralph Manheim and John Willett (Pantheon, 1972), pp. 378-394.

  • Email
  • Print