[personal profile] neonchameleon
Yesterday I went to see the RSC perform the Taming of the Shrew in Stratford upon Avon. It was played uncut, very straight, and performed extremely well with all the characters being more than understandable. At a technical level I would therefore have to give it full marks. I have just one basic question about the performance.

Why would anyone want to watch a play like that?

For those of you who don't know the Taming of the Shrew, the basic plot is pretty simple. A rich man has two daughters, the elder of whom (the Shrew of the title) is sharp-tongued and more than slightly vicious. And a very sweet and pretty younger daughter who (it's implied and was certainly played in this performance) is more than slightly manipulative and self-interested, probably egging her sister on so she can be the innocent victim (again I can't remember whether that bit was in the text or just the performance). The younger daughter has multiple suitors, but the father won't let her be married until after the elder daughter (who has scared away all potential suitors). Enter the villain - who lies his way into marrying the elder daughter for her inheritance and dowery. And then he proceeds to torture her (sleep deprivation, starvation, humiliation, possible rape implied) while telling her he is doing it out of kindness until he's broken the poor girl's spirit.

I don't understand why this is entertaining to anyone. And none of my ideas apply.

It's not the appeal of darkness. That play/performance wasn't even slightly dark. It was as black as a shit-filled binbag on a pile of coal in the open under the noonday sun. The lightest thing about it were the wings on the flies circling to try to find the shit.

It's not a BDSM kink, I trust. It shouldn't come as much of a surprise to anyone on my flist that I've got a minor one. And although I can understand a BDSM-themed Shrew that performance wasn't it. Safe, sane, consensual. None applied. Nor was there anything to do with sex. Just pure power and cruelty.

The obvious idea for the Taming of the Shrew is that it's meant to be funny. The only previous time I've seen the Shrew it was a comedy. I didn't like it then (a mix of poor acting and that I don't find that type of humour particularly funny). But although there were funny moments in it they were almost all in the Bianca (younger daughter) subplots. And then they weren't very frequent.

It wasn't horror either. Didn't hit the right notes at all - no adrenaline.

I just don't understand the appeal. The play was disturbing enough that I walked out about half way through the second act, knowing that I wasn't enjoying it at all and worried about a hyperventilation attack - and it didn't get any better. Could someone try to explain it to me?

Date: 2008-07-20 04:21 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] hilarityallen.livejournal.com
The things I've seen written by actors also suggest it's a deeply troublesome play. Some people have tried to put a frame story round it, making it a dream of a brow-beaten husband. Others have gone for a deeply sarcastic rendering of the final speech, that suggests Kate hasn't capitulated, which might give it a hint of 'indominability of the human spirit'. But it's quite troublesome, because Shakespeare isn't mysogynist (he wrote bastards of either sex). He does do black humour, and very edgy stuff (see Timon of Athens), but he doesn't seem in other works really to think that treating a woman bad gets her submission. I don't think there's a BDSM kink really either; as I recall the play, there's no suggestion of pleasure in submission. What the main character gets is a sarcastic acknowledgement that he thinks he's in charge. It's a very problematic play, far more so than The Taming of the Shrew (once again, Shakespeare does equal opportunity git-ness - the Jews and the Christians come out looking bad.) This is one of the reasons it's so rarely performed these days. I don't quite understand this one.

Date: 2008-07-20 04:43 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] herringprincess.livejournal.com
far more so than The Taming of the Shrew
I assume you mean The Merchant of Venice?

Date: 2008-07-20 05:14 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] hilarityallen.livejournal.com
Well, yes. Apparently brain got stuck on auto-pilot.

Date: 2008-07-20 05:24 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] herringprincess.livejournal.com
Know the feeling. Just thought I should point it out in case someone read it and went huh? :-)

Date: 2008-07-21 11:03 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] neonchameleon.livejournal.com
but he doesn't seem in other works really to think that treating a woman bad gets her submission

Treat someone that badly and they will submit. Sleep deprivation and hunger are two of the more powerful torture techniques going. In many ways probably more powerful than the rack, thumbscrews, or waterboarding. We're talking Guantanamo Bay levels of torture here.

What the main character gets is a sarcastic acknowledgement that he thinks he's in charge.

Only if the play is performed sarcastically. The one I saw was played straight. Brr!

Date: 2008-07-20 05:07 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] herringprincess.livejournal.com
I'm with you. I've never really got on with that play. I think what I find difficult is the humour - I'm quite a fan of black comedy but the humour in tTotS is more sort of.... haha isn't it horrible. Which doesn't really do it for me.

The only way I can make sense of it is as more to do with Domestic Discipline than sexual BDSM. Katharina clearly needed something to sort her out and what it took was someone who's more of a bastard than she is bitch. But that still makes me feel uncomfortable, because Petruchio needs something to sort him out too. And there's no evidence that their relationship has made him a better (or, frankly, less odd) person. In that time, the phrase 'safe, sane, and consensual' may not have been in use, but anyone should be able to see that Petruchio is not a stable enough person to be allowed that kind of control over someone 'in their best interests.'

So yeah. I am still hoping one day I will see a performance of it that makes everything suddenly clear.

Date: 2008-07-21 11:08 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] neonchameleon.livejournal.com
But that still makes me feel uncomfortable, because Petruchio needs something to sort him out too.

I'd say that Petruchio needs far more to sort him out than Kate. Kate may have been vicious, but it seemed the viciousness of a child rather than deliberate in quite the way of Petruchio.

or, frankly, less odd

What's wrong with oddness?

Date: 2008-07-21 01:11 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] herringprincess.livejournal.com
Petruchio needs far more to sort him out than Kate
Agreed. Have you seen The Tamer Tamed, out of interest?

There's 'unconventional' odd and 'keep him away from me' odd :-P

Date: 2008-07-21 02:07 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] neonchameleon.livejournal.com
Have you seen The Tamer Tamed, out of interest?

Alas, no.

There's 'unconventional' odd and 'keep him away from me' odd :-P

I'd have said that the trouble was that Petruchio was a sadistic sociopath rather than that he was odd. I like quite a lot of odd people and have an emotional reaction to odd being used as a slur along the lines of the one I have to "Black", "Jew", or other such terms.

Date: 2008-07-21 02:39 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] herringprincess.livejournal.com
I quite liked it but the characters weren't that consistent with The Taming of the Shrew. Petruchio wasn't that bad, for example.

I'm sorry, but 'odd' is not comparable to 'Jew' as a slur. Being Jewish or being Black is a matter of stark fact, and somebody having a problem with it is intolerant. 'Odd' is a matter of opinion, and covers a whole range of attitudes or behaviours which have in common a disregard (for whatever reason) of norms and convention. This can be endearing in certain contexts, harmless in others, or downright threatening when you're in a vulnerable position and you cannot predict somebody's behaviour because they are not following 'normal' rules of conduct. I like quite a lot of odd people too, but I also feel perfectly justified in seeing being odd as a bad thing when someone's lack of consideration for the norms and values of society makes me feel threatened. e.g. being confronted with a man who does not follow 'standard' rules of personal space. When I describe Petruchio as 'odd', I mean his disregard for social conventions makes him unpredictable and hence threatening. I would rather be under the power of a bastard who nevertheless follows a clear, socially defined set of rules, purely because you can see what he's going to do next.

Date: 2008-07-21 03:56 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] neonchameleon.livejournal.com
I'm sorry, but 'odd' is not comparable to 'Jew' as a slur. Being Jewish or being Black is a matter of stark fact, and somebody having a problem with it is intolerant.

Off the top of my flist, being autistic, aspergic, transexual, or even gay is a matter of stark fact. Yet all the above (in many areas) come under the heading of odd. And, for that matter, being a member of a different race or religion to the surrounding area makes you odd and if the race is tied up with the culture you come from you are outside the prevailing conventions of the surrounding group.

Every single reason you have described for odd being bad applies to the members of any minority group in situations where the minority is thinly spread. And I believe this form of xenophobia to be the underlying root of the less malevolent strands of racism, as sent up slightly by the Avenue Q song "Everyone's a little bit racist". (The more malevolent forms normally need to be "Carefully Taught" as in South Pacific - and I seem to be using musicals for morality today).

The bad thing in Petruchio isn't that he's odd - it's that he's a sadist and a sociopath. The bad thing in the example you mentioned is that he will not back off even when you have asked (I'm reminded of the stories of the Italian (IIRC) diplomats chasing the English ones round the room).

And that is why my racism alarm bells were going off even tho I can see at an intellectual level that they are not the same thing (although I maintain that the overlap is extremely substantial).

Finally, to me in the audience, Petruchio did follow a clear and well-defined set of rules that weren't hard to follow out. Kate had it much harder because one of those rules was "Anything Kate does that isn't direct and unquestioning obedience is wrong" (which he pretty much stated in one of his monologues). And one of the things that made him so chilling to me was quite how clear and defined his set of rules was.

Date: 2008-07-20 11:39 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] sea-bright.livejournal.com
I'm wholly in agreement that the original version is just disturbing.

On the other hand, I have seen a couple of hacked about/reinterpreted versions that worked very well. One was a garden show a couple of years ago, which actually managed to be a very entertaining evening out. They cut some of the more unpleasant sections, which helped a lot. They also introduced an obvious physical attraction between Kate and Petruchio (pushing them in the direction of being the sort of couple who fight all the time but then have fantastic make-up sex), and indicated that by the end of the play, Kate had learnt how to manage Petruchio and the two of them had reached an accommodation that worked reasonably well for both of them. When Petruchio won the wager in the final scene, he handed his winnings over to Kate, hinting that the whole thing had been planned between them beforehand. They also added a fair amount of additional comedy (they were quite a small company, and dealt with the doubling this inevitably involved by inspired use of the play-within-a-play set-up), which helped oil the wheels a bit. I'm not sure it was quite the play Shakespeare intended, but it worked.

The second version I've seen and liked was the BBC Shakespeare Retold adaptation, which wanders further from the original (though keeps the same basic plot), but which also made itself palatable by making it clear that, hopelessly mismatched as they may seem to be, the central pair do actually have strong feelings for each other, and by allowing them to reach a final state where it looked as though they might actually manage to be happy together when neither of them had been beforehand (not because they were incomplete without a partner, but because the relationship had changed both of them significantly).

I have a feeling that one of the reasons the piece keeps getting done is that I can imagine the central roles are enormous fun to play. That gives a reason to keep it in the canon, and while I suspect most versions these days have been edited at least somewhat in an attempt to make them less unpleasant, apparently there are still people who will occasionally try to do the thing as it was originally written...

Date: 2008-07-21 05:24 am (UTC)
liv: cartoon of me with long plait, teapot and purple outfit (Default)
From: [personal profile] liv
There is an awful lot of comedy and entertainment around seeing a weaker person humiliated and abused. An awful lot. Is laughing at Petrucchio destroying Kate so much less comprehensible than a comedian pretending to sexually assault a woman as part of his act? I don't think it's BDSM, I think it's dehumanizing someone in order to be able to enjoy a psychodrama of cruelty. Shakespearean audiences attended public executions for entertainment; seeing a woman literally tortured into submission, when they knew it was just acting and in the context of a play full of witty banter, must have seemed pretty tame by comparison.

Date: 2008-07-21 11:26 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] neonchameleon.livejournal.com
There is an awful lot of comedy and entertainment around seeing a weaker person humiliated and abused. An awful lot.

I know. It's one reason I can't stand e.g. Little Britain. (And I understand the appeal of it).

Is laughing at Petrucchio destroying Kate so much less comprehensible than a comedian pretending to sexually assault a woman as part of his act?

Yes (bad as your example is). At least if you empathise with the characters when you watch. There are limits to the comedian example. Although in other ways it is worse because it involves a real person.

Shakespearean audiences attended public executions for entertainment; seeing a woman literally tortured into submission, when they knew it was just acting and in the context of a play full of witty banter, must have seemed pretty tame by comparison.

A very good point. :-)

Date: 2009-04-19 10:28 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Yeah. I enjoy acting in Shakespeare plays a great deal but would refuse to take part in Shrew unless the text was changed. The whole thing just leaves a nasty taste in my mouth.

Doh!

Date: 2009-04-19 10:50 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] strangederby2.livejournal.com
Sorry forgot to log in there.

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