The Object of Art: Artistic Director Vincent Carlson-Brown gives an inside look at the 2018 season, an introspective focus on the themes of madness and greatness in this year's productions:
"Madness in Great Ones"For the Greeks and Romans of antiquity, madness was seen in the outsider individuals, the "other," the outcasts of society. The lunatics, however, of those civilizations were not completely ostracized, but rather revered. The mad ones had access to the gods; they were regarded as priests; they were conduits to a very specific spirituality. These "others" were believed to have the sight towards and perception of another reality. So in turn, they had special wisdom about and insight into the current state of life. They had a prescient knowledge of the future, and these individuals were eagerly sought out in order to decipher signs and omens. Madness, in this time, was not merely an infliction, but a touch of divinity, and those who spoke incomprehensibly or acted inconsequentially had access to a unique power that was not normative.
For those in Shakespeare's time, madness was viewed as an unbalance of feelings, an extreme of passions. The Elizabethans believed the emotions and personalities of a person were controlled by four humors. These humors were connected to an element within the body, and these elements created different dispositions. An excess of black bile would present a melancholic humor or feeling. Phlegm would exhibit phlegmatic or stubborn traits. Too much hot and moist blood would give the person a sanguine personality. And yellow bile would reveal itself in a choleric disposition. The excess of these fluids would cause an unbalance within the body and in turn lead to an extreme emotion. So "lunacy" or mental anguish and instability could actually be traced back to a flush of yellow bile which would lead to a choleric temperament. And what caused an excess of yellow bile? Eating too much red meat. The cholera would cause anger and rash feelings. This distemper ("dis-temper" - as in "not tempered, not balanced") taken to the extremes would cause madness. The Elizabethans thought that madness/mental instability came from a prolonged state of anger/madness; from existing in an excessive duration of extreme passion.
For the Victorians, madness was an abnormal oddity that required medical attention. The desire to cure these afflictions often superceded rational thought and reasonable action. The scientific community had acquired the ability to label patterns of behavior as specific diseases. Once a disease had a name, a cure could be sought. (It is interesting that the Victorian "disease" came from the Elizabethan "dis-ease" [uneasiness]) The Victorian cures for these behaviors were often more horrific than the symptoms they sought to eliminate. One might question the effectiveness of lobotomies and electro-shock, and doubt that the survivors of these procedures remained alive in any meaningful way.
For us, in the contemporary world, our own awareness of mental health and how we treat and support individuals that are affected is still in process. The relationship between chemical and emotional and mental and circumstantial states is in a period of inspection and discovery. What we do believe now is that modern madness is a real and substantial mental health issue that requires attention; medically, socially, culturally. And it must be stated that the term itself, madness, has become taboo. We can certainly explore the history of madness and what different societal and scientific constructs teach us about ourselves and how we deal with each other. And we can look to examples in literature, in Shakespeare's plays, for the presentations of mad and great characters. We should, without fear, pandering, or equivocation, share these stories on the stage, and discuss them in the bar after, or in the classroom or the kitchen. What is it that we see, in delight and terror? What are these stories and these moments, these characters and these behaviors able to teach us about the human condition?
Shakespeare's plays, comedy, history, and tragedy, are full of characters who come into contact with bouts of madness. Hamlet famously puts on an "antic disposition" in order to flush out a confession from his murderous father-uncle. Both the audience off the stage as well as those on it (his fellow characters) bear witness to the extent to which Hamlet dives down into (pretend) lunacy. Hamlet himself questions his own mental state periodically throughout the play in soliloquies and dialogue alike. "What a rogue and peasant slave am I!" (II.2) "I am but mad north-northwest." (II.2) Does the act of putting on madness inevitably lead one to the very thing itself? We are left to wonder if Hamlet's playacting has gotten the better of him as we yearn to decipher the truth in his double-speak. Certainly his behavior catches the attention of its intended, as the new King Claudius intimates to his closest court advisor, "Madness in great ones must not unwatched go." (III.1)
What is meant by "great ones"? Large in space? How a character commands attention or fills up a room? Great in personality? A charming or mysterious attractor? A leader, either by example or by appointment? Great as in extreme? Large feelings and large passions? Great words and ideas expressed? I would say yes to all of the above. Certainly Hamlet exhibits these qualities, as does King Lear, another famous character who flirts with insanity. King Lear and the topic of madness has been inspected in detail both on stage and on the page; in epic performance and critical discussion; in theatres and in scholarly journals. Perhaps King Lear's saddest tragedy is his self-recognition as it arrives too late. He confesses to his Fool, "O, Let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven! I would not be mad." (I.5) King Lear's fight with his impending madness is indeed a great battle, as the tempest-tossed storm scene in the real world creates a metaphor for the storm in Lear's own mind. Hamlet is great in many ways, so too is King Lear. But in what other of Shakespeare's characters can we find threats of madness? Who else is as great as the Danish Prince or the Mad King of Albion? How do we define madness and greatness as we explore our own human condition? For Nebraska Shakespeare's 2018 season, I wanted to explore these ideas in every offering. I wanted to tie our performance slate together with a unifying theme, so that we may reveal "Madness in Great Ones."
Harold Bloom, in his book, The Invention of the Human, describes Shakespearean greatness by the acts and spirits of the characters. Great characters are seen by the "excess [that] marks them. [Their] souls cannot be extinguished." For Shakespeare on the Silver Screen, I wanted to show a great and expressive character, an individual whose largest passion drives an inextinguishable soul. Ralph Fiennes' film, Coriolanus, puts Shakespeare's great Roman warrior front and center, into a contemporary war-torn military state. Coriolanus was born and bred a great soldier, but his struggle comes when his family and government attempt to force him into public service as a politician. This does not go well for the man whose great authority in arms does not translate to the floors of civil debate. A great character, an excess tour-de-force, who wrestles with his duty and the maddening confrontation of assumed political ambition. "This Coriolanus is grown from man to dragon. He has wings; he's more than a creeping thing." (V.4) Coriolanus is a tragic epic, a fit story to be told with the greatness of cinematic scale. It is especially timely and relevant for today's political minefield.
|On The Silver Screen|
February 21 & 28
April 22 | 3 PM
In April, the Director's Reading Series will feature the lesser-known history play, Edward III. Shakespeare was believed to have doctored at least a handful of scenes for this play, writing alongside fellow Elizabethan playwrights, a practice that was actually typical of the time. This story kicks off the multi-play history cycles which Shakespeare alone details in his Hollow Crown and War of Roses plays. From Richard II (grandson of Edward III), through Falstaff and Henry IV, heroic Henry V, to Margaret, Henry VI, and concluding with the famous hunchback Richard III, the dynastic cycle of family wars and grabs for the throne points to its origins in Edward III. Rarely produced because of questionable authorship, the play explores the first steps of English nationalism against the French on a great and vast scale, while allowing a peek into the troubling individual expressions of the mad and salacious King Edward III as he attempts to woo the wife of his closest ally, the noble Earl of Salisbury. A staged reading with Nebraska Shakespeare actors will feature a discussion on Shakespeare authorship and potential conceptual treatment following the play.
June 28-30, July 1, 6, 8 | 8 PM
|Much Ado About Nothing|
June 21-24, July 2, 5, 7
Blue Barn Theatre | July
Juno's Swans, our all-female performance program continues in its third year with a production of Julius Caesar. Perhaps no other play in Shakespeare's canon features a character that is too great, too epic for its own story. Indeed, it is the central conflict between the Roman senators and the all-encompassing Emperor of the free world. What do we the people do if a single individual's rise appears to spell doom for the good of the republic. Are we loyal to the position and the process? Do we respect and heed the tyrant? What change can be affected if we are dissatisfied with the oppression of an idiosyncratic ideology that has grown too great for containment?And what consequences are faced if we "kill the snake in its nest" to prevent the portends of a dangerous future. As conspirators Brutus and Cassius seek to topple the proud and dominant Caesar, the supernatural omens stack parallel to the foreboding events, and what remains after assassination is a maddening sequence of events that demand an answer from the actions of the few for the professed good of the many.
|A Midsummer Night's Dream|
September and October