CHICAGO SHAKESPEARE’S TUG OF WAR: CIVIL STRIKE- Suffering Outside of Divine Providence

civil-strife0001From his earliest plays to his final works, William Shakespeare confirmed his world’s confidence in Divine Providence.

Divine Providence is the means by which God leads his creatures to their destined end. To thwart or reject this movement, is to risk the attainment of one’s destiny. Man is assured of Providential guidance, if, in conformity with the will of God, he faithfully observes His divine law.

With this in mind, the plays comprising the two-part Tug of War exist in a pattern of prophecy and fulfillment. University of Chicago Shakespearean expert David Bevington reminds us that prophecy serves “not to allow human beings to escape their destiny, which is unavoidable but to give them the opportunity to perceive at last the pattern of divine justice. The audience realizes that prophecy is divine warning too often unheeded by foolish human beings, and acknowledges the necessity of a fulfillment that is tragic and dispiriting but also comforting to the extent that it shows heaven to be just.”[i]

In Angel with Horns A.P. Rossiter has argued that the early history plays constitute a kind of state “morality play”, in which the forces of good and evil struggle for the soul of the heroine, in this case,  the beleaguered England. In this light, with the concluding play, Richard III,

 “in Providential terms, Richard can be seen as the result of a divine play in which evil ironically has a place in a larger scheme of things that is ultimately benign… Richard ultimately serves the righteous purpose of divine Providence in human affairs. He functions…as a scourge of God, whose plots or tyranny are permitted in order to bring just retribution upon offenders of the moral law…Evil is seen at last as something through which good triumphs, in English history, as in the story of humankind’s fall and a restoration by divine grace.”[ii]

The Providential view of history is central to America’s understanding of herself as well, nowhere more eloquently articulated than in Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address:

The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!” If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope — fervently do we pray — that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether

Barbara Gaines’ view of English history seems to have edited away most references to divine Providence. As a result, the Tug of War audience is presented with a world of existential despair, psychological passions run amok, and the Nietzchean Will to Power, as the only coin of the realm. Tug of War concludes with a director-created  theatrical masque in which love is presented as all we need.

The production values remain as strong in Civil Strife as they were in Foreign Fire. There doesn’t seem to be as much music, though the musicians (Matt Deitchman, Alison Chesley, Jed Feder, and Shanna Jones) are allowed to shine even brighter when they do play. Prominence is given to the stunning projection artistry of Mike Tutaj.

The actors remain as strong as ever. Freddie Stevenson is gone, but John Tufts remains to give life to the Duke of Suffolk, the Duke of Clarence, and Sir Richard Ratcliffe. Steven Sutcliffe returns most impressively as King Henry VI, giving the good-hearted monarch a full range of emotions and frustrations. Michael Aaron Lindner returns to give stunningly memorable performances as Humphrey and King Edward IV. Karen Aldridge’s Queen Margaret hits her stride in Richard III’s Act IV scene iii.  Heidi Kettenring commands the stage as she did in Foreign Fire, this time with a remarkable Lady Grey and an equally powerful Queen Elizabeth. Plus, she sings very well.  Larry Yando, an actor who is always good, gives a wonderful Duke of York, somehow suggesting in his characterization the Richard III to come. Kevin Gudahl presents as fine an Earl of Warwick as one is likely to find and Elizabeth Ledo joins the company with nary a trace of Irene Malloy from her wonderful romp in The Matchmaker. Her Duke of Summerset is a swaggering punk, while her Lady Anne beautifully balances the wildly conflicting emotions racing through the character. David Darlow’s performances are all memorable, distinct, and a joy to watch – his Cardinal of Winchester, especially. James Newcomb gives the Duke of Buckingham a strong presence whenever he is on stage. Don’t expect to see an Ian McKellen-like interpretation of Richard III by Timothy Edward Kane; it is totally different and just as effective.

However, “quandoque bonus dormitat Homerus” (Horace, Ars Poetica. v. 359).

For some reason, rebel leader Jack Cade, in a moment which could be used to illustrate an example of the Brechtian alienation effect, is portrayed as Donald Trump! It’s as if a cheap Saturday Night Live sketch fell out of the sky into a serious artistic rendering of William Shakespeare’s complex history plays. The idea shed no light on either Shakespeare and his world or on us and our world. It only let us know something all of us knew before we even entered the theater – the director doesn’t like Donald Trump. The idea is as cheap, inappropriate, and sophomoric as if a conservative director had played Jack Cade as a community organizer named Barak Obama.

Tug of War is a mighty effort which mostly succeeds, presented by one of the world’s most important Shakespeare theaters. Few cities can boast of such a great artistic opportunity.

[i] Bevington, David. Shakespeare’s Histories.  New York: Pearson Longman, 2007, page.553.

[ii] Bevington. Pages645-646.

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