Shakespeare’s Halloween Pumpkin
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Shakespeare’s Halloween pumpkin has no wide jack-o’lantern grin. Titus Andronicus has its jaws clenched tight on Elizabethan revenge porn. The play hasn’t a good word to say for our species. Pious scholars blushed and for a time claimed that Shakespeare didn’t write it. Finally they let it pass if only in silence.
Blood flows from the first scene. Having defeated the Goths, generalissimo Titus returns to Rome with VIP prisoners. Tamora, the captured Goth queen, pleads with him for the life of her first-born son. But Titus is a stickler for tradition and coldly insists that Roman ritual calls for the youth’s sacrifice. The blade falls.
Politics are at home in the storm of blood. A new emperor must be named to replace their dead father, and the brothers Saturninus and Bassianus fight over which of them it should be. Titus, asked to arbitrate, plumps for the former, which leads directly to his daughter Lavinia’s rape and mutilation. Her tongue is pulled out and both hands cut off. Two sons of Titus are enticed into a pit with the murdered body of Bassianus. Their death follows although Titus is tricked into cutting off his own hand in a gesture to save them.
No surprise that Titus has moments of madness. However, he gathers his wits sufficiently to bake two of Tamora’s sons—the rapists—in a pie and serve it to their mother and the Emperor her lover. That’s the main course of a climactic meal. For afters, Lavinia plants her silverware to fatal effect in Tamora, and Titus, informed by his mute daughter that she is too shamed by her loss of chastity to go on living, obliges with a quick snapping of her neck. Emperor Saturninus, displeased with goings on and the taste of the pie, skewers Titus with a spiky table ornament before he himself is spreadeagled dead on the tablecloth by Titus’s sons—they are legion—who have served as waiters at the lively banquet.
Now the 21st-Century may have like Macbeth “supped full with horrors”, but unlike him prefers to look on the bright side. Its horror films are like tricks-or-treat, a Halloween caper. A creditable staging of Titus Andronicus has to sail the river of blood toward some meaning beyond butchery. It has also to keep a character like Aaron the Moor from rocking the boat. He is a villain so absolute he makes his evil paramour Tamora, whom he despises, appear human. Aaron is coal-black skinned in a white-supremacy Roman world. As for redeeming features or excuses, he has none. Macbeth finished as a nihilist but could blame the witches and his wife for messing with his conscience. Aaron was born all bad and will die saying,“If one good deed in all my life I did/I do repent it from my very soul.” What’s more, he makes his black skin the source of his evil. How are we going to get away with that at a time of Black-Lives-Matter? It comes on top of a misogynic view of motherhood in the case of Tamora and of Lavinia’s bad example of not overcoming the shame of rape and instead begging her patriarch father to end her life.
The British way in its rare stagings of the play is not to tamper with Shakespeare’s text. The problem becomes to respect every word and not serve up grand guignol or horror with a giggle. Typical is director Jane Howel’s 1985 effort for the BBC’s-Time Life’s monumental collection. It can’t tame the words so it restrains the actors who proceed in a hurry to get the job done. They leave an impression of being bored with the job.
Enter Julie Taymor. She is the American theatrical director whose study of mime in Paris and experience of puppetry and traditional dance-drama in the far-east, especially Indonesia, led to astonishing visual work. Taymor’s only serious departure from Shakespeare’s text concerns Aaron’s black baby-son fathered on Tamora. Aaron saw him as a future instrument to further his father’s performance of nay-saying evil. Shakespeare let the infant die as part of Aaron’s punishment. That’s one death too far for Taymor. She allows the child to survive in a hopeful sunrise scene.
Taymor directed Titus Andronicus for the New York stage in 1994. She noted,“This play is as much about how the audience experiences violence as entertainment as it is about the tragedy of the endless cycle of violence itself.” In 2000 her film Titus appeared. It was one of those rare occasions that a film version of a Shakespeare play rivalled the best productions of it on the English stage.
Taymor was aided by a superb Anthony Hopkins as Titus. His pre-movie career was in the masterly playing of classics on stage. His Titus is a cold man of steel reduced by sorrow to madness with a feverish thirst for revenge alone keeping him alive. Alan Cumming gives Saturninus, the young emperor, an added dimension. His campy capriciousness makes sense as a spoiled mother’s boy bedazzled by Tamora’s maternal dominatrix. This meant that Tamora had to carry a charge of middle-age sex appeal, and Jessica Lange in her golden glow was the perfect answer.
But Taymor’s Titus is much more than a display of acting talent. Some of its
Images are unforgettable: The ravished Lavinia, her hands replaced by sprigs from a bush; the demented Titus scribbling his messages to the gods; Aaron with his demoniac sneer being buried alive for his crimes; the returned Roman soldiers in the bath washing the clay of war from they bodies; and, not least, Saturninus on his upholstered throne under the hungry mouth of a sculptured tiger. The film though shot in more than a hundred different locations between Croatia and Rome’s well as on Dante Ferretti’s Cinecittà sets impresses by its visual unity and constant sombre light. Lurid incidents are kept from overshadowing a more painful less flamboyant human truth.
Nevertheless, it was no surprise that Titus bombed at the box office. The public wasn’t ready for Black Comedy short of comedy. It wasn’t horror for fun and thrills but opened a terrible insight into human nature. Titus cost 18 million dollars in money of the time and earned less than 3 million. On the other hand, Taymor’s 1997 stage adaptation of Disney’s The Lion King, has been seen by more than 90 million people in 19 countries, and is still going strong in its 25th global production.
Much of The Lion King’s success is due to its being family fare. Titus Andronicus is rather about the pitfalls of parenthood. General Titus in pride has slain one of his own sons. It leads to his daughter’s ghastly ruin. Queen Tamora’s avenging of her son’s death ends in her consuming his siblings at table. Aaron’s infant son cannot survive his father’s crimes. Shakespeare’s horror show is not about threats from without but from monsters who rock the cradle and show off their children’s photos.