Two especially exciting productions of works rarely performed here—Dmitri Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and Christopher Marlowe’s two-part drama Tamburlaine the Great—converged recently in New York. Jubilantly expansive as each was in its expressive means, each in its way posed questions about how the horrors of history are somehow transmuted into the exuberance of art. Each also obliquely instilled an eerie consciousness of these works as messages displaced in time, sending out signals originally aimed at spectators in Russia in 1934 or London in 1587 that we intercept and read by our own lights, as if they were delayed warnings or cries for help.
No performance of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk can escape the circumstances of the opera’s suppression in 1936. The story has been told many times—it is told three times in the program of the Metropolitan Opera’s recent production—of how Stalin went to see the opera at the Bolshoi and stalked out ill pleased, and of how two days later a denunciation in Pravda of the work’s “fidgety, screaming, neurotic music” announced a new and harsher clampdown on art and artists. Shostakovich rightly read between the lines that not only his career but his person might be in danger; he survived the years of the terror, and after Stalin’s death issued a revised and retitled Lady Macbeth, but never wrote another opera.
That event continues to weigh on the work, as if Stalin’s ghost were perched somewhere in the balcony, still registering displeasure at each of those “quacks, hoots, pants, and gasps.” The opera becomes a victim of oppression, a cry of freedom by default. Yet as far as I know there is no evidence that Shostakovich consciously intended such a reaction. Alex Ross has even suggested that Lady Macbeth, with its ugly portrayal of the wealthy peasant class, marked a deliberate attempt to conform to Stalin’s emerging anti-kulak campaign, and thus might be seen, Ross wrote, as “nearly an opera in the service of genocide.”
Or, more likely, Shostakovich was adhering to his own path, somehow unaware that this was no longer possible. Where that path was leading we cannot know, since he was prevented from going there. Even if he had written other operas, it is unlikely that they would have contained such screams of rage, such howls of derision, such flagrant invocations of the power of sex to assert itself violently and destructively. It is not hard to understand why Stalin hated the opera.
Shostakovich’s source was a novella by Nikolai Leskov, published in 1865. The darkest and dourest piece of Russian realism imaginable, it begins in boredom, progresses through lust and murder, and ends in exile and suicide. A young woman is locked in a loveless and childless marriage to a prosperous merchant, bullied by his father, oppressed by a mode of life that gives her nothing to do:
Katerina walked about the empty rooms, yawned out of sheer boredom…. She would take a nap for an hour or two, and when she woke, there was again the same Russian boredom, the boredom of a merchant’s house, the sort of boredom that, people say, would make one glad even to hang oneself.
Without overture Shostakovich opens on the complaining Katerina Ismailova, alone in her room. The music renders with precision the sound of being on edge—“fidgety,” as Pravda put it. Katerina’s moan of discontent is followed directly by the entrance of her father-in-law, a character of rare unpleasantness even in opera annals, a hateful grumbler compounded of rapacity, sanctimony, and sadism. By the time he exits, Katerina is already singing about the rat poison with which she will eventually kill him. The boredom initially invoked has gone rancid, turned into a toxic mix of resentment and general malice.
Not for Katerina alone: the next scene opens on a prolonged episode of sexual harassment bordering on gang rape, as a female worker is taunted and abused by a crowd of laborers. When Katerina intervenes, she is brought face to face with the newly hired Sergei, and the two make rapid contact by means of an impromptu wrestling match. Illicit sex is the only possible counterforce to the squalid, narrow, punitive world of the Ismailov household. When it comes, it is with the full force of a wailing and thrusting horn section, followed by the deflation described comically by sliding trombone. It is only the end of the first act and everything is already well beyond salvaging.
Shostakovich characterized Lady Macbeth as “tragi-satirical,” and it is at many points a grotesque vaudeville. Graham Vick’s intensely inventive production (which premiered in 1994 and is now revived for the first time in fourteen years) pays due attention to the grotesque component. No production faithfully set in the period of Leskov’s tale could fully accommodate the opera’s sudden shifts from naturalistic observation to comic caricature. It refuses to stay put. The orchestra sustains a music of nerves and pressure and impatience, a sharp-edged scampering, lashing out in isolated figures for clarinet or bassoon, roaring into fraudulent celebration in the third act, coming down with a heavy metallic crash in the fourth. If the characters are in the nineteenth century, Shostakovich is in the early 1930s, soaking up his own local ambience of dread and uncertainty and unmoored desire. His Katerina might be a distant cousin of James M. Cain’s Cora in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934), a roughly contemporary narrative consumed with the itch of ennui boiling over into passing lust and casual killing.
To say that Katerina dominates the opera is a gross understatement. Her inner life may be impoverished and desperate, but it is the only inner life we are allowed to glimpse. The rest are clowns or monsters, or at best bystanders. At the Met, the entire cast mustered a convincingly slashing effect, but Eva-Maria Westbroek embodied Katerina with an anchoring force from that first complaint to her final descent into the gloomy landscape that signals her approaching death—“In the wood, right in a grove, there is a lake,/almost round and very deep/and the water in it is black.”
More or less a cold killer in Leskov’s tale, Katerina was for Shostakovich a sympathetic figure of hopeless rebellion. It is an extraordinary role in that nothing else keeps the opera from spinning off into a hundred separate glittering pieces. All it has of point or motivation is the simmering frustration she voices as she lies in bed—“No one will stroke my white breast,/no one will tire me out with his passionate embraces./The days go by in a joyless procession,/my life will flash past without a smile”—just before the virile and heartless Sergei shows up on cue at the end of the first act.
Westbroek brings tremendous heart to the part even if her costume, a yellow print dress, is designed to make her the comic epitome of the frumpy sexpot stuck somewhere way out in the provinces. We would seem to be in the Soviet 1950s or 1960s, and the high status of the Ismailov family is denoted by furniture and consumer goods of the most debased and worn-out quality, a tatty sofa, a boxy TV, a refrigerator. There is even a car, parked on stage to establish immediately the free-form nature of the staging. The walls of Katerina’s room are painted with clouds, and are constructed with built-in doors that pop open occasionally to reveal hordes of unwanted intruders or witnesses. It is a busy production that gets busier as it goes along.
The musical interludes between scenes here provide underscoring for strenuous ballets involving, in turn, mobs of sexually aggressive workmen, women making symbolic love with vacuum cleaners, and bearded blood-spattered brides. The drama’s spaces expand to make room for earth-moving equipment, a giant moon, a heap of garbage bags. In the third act, as the chronology edges from one era into another, a supersized Pop Art fist (out of Roy Lichtenstein or the TV Batman) stretches across the stage, and a disco ball sheds blinding gleams. The car is successively crushed by a giant medallion, stuffed with a corpse, and at last lifted vertiginously above the stage by crane. That this visual clutter and hyperactivity merely underscores and never swamps Shostakovich’s continually unsettled sonic landscape testifies to the music’s power. No bright colors or awesome deployment of high-tech stage devices can make the opera any less harsh than it is. It is harsh even when it means to be funny.
There are effects—scattered red petals, a fountain spring up mid-stage—that in another setting might encourage an atmosphere of magic. But this is a resolutely unmagical opera, without mysteries or mystification. Between the collectivism of brutalized workers and the collectivism of beaten-down prisoners, socialist uplift is in short supply. Policemen are operetta buffoons; the priest is a drunken lecher; the workers are devoid of solidarity or compassion.
Shostakovich was determined to have his audience see everything. No offstage nuances here, it all happens in front of your eyes; every shade of gratification and pain is sung: the workers harassing the hapless Aksinya, the adulterous couple having sex, Boris dying from rat poison, Katerina’s husband being strangled, and in the end two women drowning, as Katerina throws herself in the river, dragging the faithless Sergei’s new girlfriend down with her. (The turbulent waters envisioned in the libretto are transformed into a cesspit where prisoners have been emptying buckets throughout the fourth act.)
The Siberian depths into which the opera finally subsides—after Katerina and Sergei have been arrested and sent into exile—bring out a note previously unsounded, through the voice of an old prisoner (the part was beautifully sung by Dmitry Belosselskiy): “Road, where the chains have been dragging,/where the bones of the dead are still lying.” From beneath the modernist grotesque something older emerges, in tune with Leskov’s description of “a handful of people torn from the world of men and deprived of every shadow of hope, their feet sinking into the cold black mud of the highroad.” It is not exactly transcendence, but it is some kind of escape. Graham Vick ends with an image of the convicts marching on, only half-perceived behind the stage, while in overhead riggings armed guards look down.
The career of Christopher Marlowe’s world-conquering Tamburlaine progresses like a river in flood, rising steadily and irresistibly and spilling over into actions of spectacular destruction, sparing nothing that stands in opposition. The force of that river is embodied in language, whether spoken by the Scythian conqueror or by those he conquers. Marlowe’s “mighty line” of full-throttle iambic pentameter was a triumph of streamlining. In Tamburlaine the Great (1587), his first major play—produced three years before Shakespeare’s first play, The Two Gentlemen of Verona—the thudding pulse and great mouthfuls of sound—“Black is the beauty of the brightest day” or “Over my zenith hang a blazing star”—turn dramatic poetry into a species of stripped-down arena rock.
Here was a verbal music tailored to express hyperbolic desires and hyperbolic deeds. Reading Tamburlaine it is not hard to imagine how, helped by what must have been quite a performance by the legendary actor Edward Alleyn, it swept away all competition on the London stages of the 1580s. (Capitalizing on the first part’s enormous popular success, Marlowe wrote Part II in 1588.) It has been, however, hard to imagine how that power might be resurrected on a contemporary stage.
With the indispensable presence of John Douglas Thompson taking charge of the title role, Theatre for a New Audience (TFANA) has managed just that at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn. The production, directed by Michael Boyd, is the first in New York since 1956, when Anthony Quayle starred on Broadway in Tyrone Guthrie’s poorly received version. (It is not clear when, if ever, the play was done in New York before 1956.) Boyd has trimmed the work drastically—the show runs about three and a half hours—but has done remarkably little injury to its structure and proportions, retaining its religious and geopolitical intricacies, the failed alliances of Christians and Muslims, the maneuvering of Persian and Turkish and Egyptian and European interests struggling to fend off the conqueror’s threat. The Elizabethan audience would have been well aware of the fourteenth-century conquests of the Central Asian despot we call Tamerlane.
Boyd has also managed to bring out the ways in which the first and second parts of Tamburlaine are distinctly different. The first ends in the exhilaration of victory, as “Tamburlaine takes truce with all the world”; the second works twisty and disturbing variations on the theme of “the scourge of God and terror of the world,” plunging ahead from one cruel and annihilating scene to another until, with the hero’s death, the play itself seems to be sucked up into “the wrath and tyranny of Death.” It is not a work to be approached by half measures.
To revive Tamburlaine is a bit like opening the door to some of those demons summoned up by Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. The energies unleashed are destructive and uncontainable—or, if that effect is not produced, there is little point in doing the thing in the first place. There is no way to have an easy relation to this authentically bloodthirsty play. Even playing some bits for comedy, as Boyd does here and there, doesn’t palliate the unnervingly seductive force of Tamburlaine’s will to lay everything low before him. That force is seductive not simply by being swathed in poetic language but because Tamburlaine incarnates the fiery essence of poetry itself.
He does not merely use language, he is language, dominating the world as much by words as deeds, peremptorily and successfully wooing the abducted Egyptian princess Zenocrate and winning the loyalty of the Persian general Theridamas, who has been sent to oppose him. The world he conquers by armed force he has first invoked in a delirium of place-names, an incantatory cataloging of exotic cities and countries, mountains and rivers, a geographic ecstasy that envisions a progression “from Persepolis to Mexico,/And thence unto the Straits of Jubalter” and vows that “when holy Fates/Shall stablish me in strong Egyptia,/We mean to travel to th’ antarctic pole,/Conquering the people underneath our feet.”
“You see, my lord, what working words he hath,” Theridamas notes to the Persian king, “But, when you see his actions top his speech,/Your speech will stay.” Tamburlaine’s ever more elaborate atrocities are no more than an extension of his words: he fulfills what he has promised, just as his rise to power itself fulfills what was written in the stars. Even when his actions appear outrageous, as when he stabs his son to death for having balked at fighting in battle, he moves calmly and surely, borne up by the intoxication of astrological election. He cannot lose because the universe is on his side and he knows it: “I hold the Fates bound fast in iron chains,/And with my hand turn Fortune’s wheel about.”
The modern equivalent would be less the self-congratulating arrogance of a go-getting entrepreneur or gangster, and more the self-entranced certitude of Hitler addressing a rally in Munich in 1936: “I go the way that Providence dictates with the assurance of a sleepwalker.” But to cast Tamburlaine in the image of power-mad dictator would have to elide the strong sense that Marlowe holds him up not to be condemned but to be admired; wondered at, as a prodigy; thrilled by, as a wish-fulfilling destroyer of effete kings and hypocritical politicians, the wish-fulfillment compounded by his being a lowborn bandit who “came up of nothing.”
The play has much darker thrills, of course, an inventory of them that licensed Elizabethan spectators to sup full with horrors: virgins impaled on lances, enemies starved and taunted, confined in a cage or fitted out like horses to pull a war chariot, royal concubines distributed among the soldiery for mass rape, a governor hoisted up on a wall for target practice, the whole population of a city massacred and flung into the surrounding river until the waters overflow their banks. To read the text is to be knocked between Marlowe’s poetic arias, continually vaulting from one gorgeous exaggeration to another, and such stage directions as “She runs against the cage, and brains herself” or “He cuts his arm” or “The Governor of Babylon appears hanging in chains on the walls.”
To find equilibrium between poetry and violence is the challenge of any production. In this version a premonition comes with the swift and unfussy dispatching (not indicated in Marlowe’s text) of one of Zenocrates’ attendants, reluctant to join with Tamburlaine; the amplified crack of his neck being broken, worthy of an old-style martial arts movie, elicited a rustle of slightly uncertain laughter. That involuntary complicity gradually gave way to a more appalled fascination. When a captive’s tongue was being sliced off and tossed onto the stage (another detail not spelled out by Marlowe), a woman to my left was visibly shocked; and by the play’s end a more somber mood seemed to have won out over comfortable theatrical fun. This was achieved by the deftest possible shifts of tone within scenes, from anachronistic sight gags (a character thumbing on stage through the show’s playbill) and bits of byplay with first-row spectators to Grand Guignol grotesque to sudden plummeting depths of horror—while still managing to keep in primary focus the encompassing beauty of the language.
It is essentially impossible for a modern audience to relive anything like what Marlowe’s spectators experienced. What was a live and shocking event of spoken language, tremulous and volatile, has calcified into literature. A modern stage production must translate much of what that language originally accomplished by its own powers into expressive staging and design and gesture. The TFANA exploits the Polonsky’s courtyard stage to menacing effect, with armies advancing and retreating from all sides and bladed weapons brandished almost too close for comfort for those in the orchestra seats. The blood spilled in a multitude of ways, in blots or floods, welling up or gushing out or raining down, makes for extended variations on the color red. The production is unremittingly swift and pointed, with eighteen actors doubling roles repeatedly, and with punctuation provided by the percussive gong tones, shimmering or grinding as needed, of Arthur Solari’s musical score, played from a balcony above the stage to suggest some more ancient ritual theater.
Along with the actors, the production assumes a double role, functioning at once as play and commentary on the play—not a single imposed interpretation, but a constant kaleidoscopic shifting of possible subtexts, possible parallels. Different eras jostle one another almost imperceptibly in the rush of events: the Christian knights carry swords; the doomed virgins of Damascus wear burkas; the temporizing governor of Babylon a well-tailored business suit; Tamburlaine and his associates drift from ancient to modern in the ragtag fashion of warriors from the hills, their weaponry gradually becoming more up-to-date.
The actors add further layers to the text, filling in its gaps with, for example, the laughter, welcoming smiles, and generous body language by which Tamburlaine and his confederates communicate among themselves, the camaraderie of pirates high on plundering or of revolutionary compañeros in the fervor of victory or of high school football players when they find themselves on the winning side.
The doubling of roles and the quick transitions between scenes emphasize the ensemble nature of the playing, but certain actors are especially notable. Merritt Janson as the well-born Zenocrate captures the enigma of her being at once prisoner and object of devotion; Saxon Palmer helps bind the play together in four separate roles (including the rulers of Persia, Hungary, and Babylon), each a model of political duplicity; Chukwudi Iwuji as the caged Turkish emperor Bajazeth is a worthy counterpart of Tamburlaine in his doomed, enraged protests; and Patrice Johnson Chevannes makes the most of the maddened final speech of Bajazeth’s wife Zabina, an extraordinary passage that in her hands becomes central.
John Douglas Thompson, dominating but not overpowering the rest of the cast, finds nuances in what is not the most nuanced of roles—notes of sincere passion, paternal love, paternal wrath, intellectual energy, and even (briefly indeed) relaxed affection—without mitigating Tamburlaine’s terrifying essence. He creates a unified person of the most extreme contradictions: inflexible, brilliant, ceaselessly curious, incapable of mercy, incapable of self-doubt or of any self-reflection at all, hooked on the vitality of his own bottomless cravings.
It all makes sense until, in Part II, it assumes its true deranged proportions: following the death of his beloved Zenocrate, Tamburlaine becomes the figure of amour fou, preserving her body so that it can accompany him in future battles, while burning to the ground the town in which she died: “This cursed town will I consume with fire,/Because this place bereft me of my love;/The houses, burnt, will look as if they mourn’d.” Next he will be burning the Koran, defying its God to take vengeance on his blasphemy. (Unlike his historical model, Marlowe’s Tamburlaine is not Muslim.) In his dying moments—he is not slain, merely “distemper’d suddenly” after burning “the heaps of superstitious books”—he seeks with almost his last breath to extend his war to the ruling forces of the cosmos: “Come, let us march against the powers of heaven,/And set black streamers in the firmament,/To signify the slaughter of the gods.”
Tamburlaine was originally a history lesson, whatever its reliability. The historic Tamerlane died at the beginning of the fifteenth century, after carving out an empire stretching from Turkey to India and embracing large swaths of Mesopotamia, Persia, and Central Asia. An inevitable eerie accompaniment to any modern production is the sense of a war begun long ago that continues to unfold. The geographic references with which the text is dotted—Syria, Egypt, Turkey, Gaza, Arabia, the Red Sea—provide their own commentary. The history of the present moment becomes a coauthor, adding expressive footnotes. As death closes in, Tamburlaine studies a map of the world, tracing his victories and measuring how far he fell short: “And shall I die, and this unconquered?” As he reels off the place-names, the contemporary spectator is apt to feel the map itself closing in, as distant places and events—the burning of cities, the massacring of populations—intrude on the theatrical space. Tamburlaine dies but the play remains unresolved, an open wound.