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Shakespeare’s Tarantino Play
Julie Taymor resurrects the despised Titus Andronicus.

Alan A. Stone

Coming off her critical and commercial success with the Lion King on Broadway, Julie Taymor’s ambitious Titus has been a major box office disappointment. For her first feature-length film she boldly chose Titus Andronicus--the first and, by academic consensus, least of Shakespeare’s tragedies. Taymor plunged headfirst into its blood and gore, with no compromises for philistine moviegoers or the faint of heart. Her savage depictions, all based on the text, make an easy target for condescending critics, who also get a once in a lifetime chance to trash the Bard of Avon. Seizing that moment, one reviewer opined that Shakespeare’s play was a "crapulent piece of effluvium," and wondered why it had not been a major career setback. The critic damned Taymor’s filmmaking in similar Latinate obloquy.

When I professed my unqualified admiration for the film to a Hollywood producer, he gave me his best bottom-line snicker and said, "Oh! So you’re the one." The Los Angeles Times panned Titus as a "giant meat grinder making hash of everything it depicts." And the snickering producer assured me that the smart money was never on Taymor.

Titus may disappoint its financial backers, but for me Julie Taymor’s version of Titus Andronicus is a milestone artistic achievement, both as film and as Shakespeare interpretation. I am not alone in this judgment. Ray Greene, founding editor of Boxoffice Online, described it as "the single most visually dazzling movie of the last half decade." Jonathan Forman, of the New York Post, wrote that the film "Makes a brilliant case that it is the Shakespeare play for our time, a work of art that speaks directly to the age of Rwanda and Bosnia."

Shakespeare is the Mount Everest of Western Civilization, and for a hundred years filmmakers have tried to climb it. Depending on how one counts, there have been no fewer than 275 film versions of Shakespeare’s plays. Perhaps no one person will ever see and compare them all. But to my mind, Taymor’s Titus belongs with the best in living memory: Olivier’s Henry V, the Brook-Schofield King Lear, Zeferelli’s Romeo and Juliet, and Branagh’s uncut Hamlet. And Taymor has done something more difficult than these other filmmakers: she has rescued Shakespeare’s only despised play from its academic graveyard, breathed new life into a corpse that had been dead for centuries, and demonstrated once again the truth of Ben Jonson’s tribute, "he was not of an age, but for all time."

Far from a setback to Shakespeare’s career, Titus Andronicus was said to be one of his most popular plays. Elizabethan audiences were bloodthirsty. They took pleasure in bear baiting, and were accustomed to public executions and heads rolling at the Tower of London. They lived and died with the plague: an epidemic closed the theaters during the two years Shakespeare supposedly wrote Titus and The Rape of Lucrece. The survivors relished mayhem and murder on the stage and Shakespeare gave them what they wanted.

Titus, a story of revenge set in a decadent Rome with the Goths at the gates, begins and ends with killing. In between a character is raped, her hands cut off, and her tongue sliced out to render her silent. Titus, a Roman general, has his own hand cut off in exchange, he thinks, for the lives of his two sons, and instead is rewarded with their severed heads. Titus kills one of his own sons in the first act and his only daughter, Lavinia, in the last. This bloodthirsty plot careens from ritual murder, to rape, to mayhem, to a cannibal feast in which Titus serves Tamora (Queen of the Goths, taken captive by the Romans) her sons cooked in a meat pie.

Inspired by Seneca and Ovid, Shakespeare’s play is a theatrical anticipation of Hobbes’s war of all-against-all that stops at nothing. Elizabethan audiences lapped it all up, but fifty years after Shakespeare’s death, Edward Ravenscroft was already condemning it as "a heap of rubbish." By the time Samuel Johnson assembled the standard edition of Shakespeare’s plays, in 1765, Titus Andronicus had become apocryphal. Surely, scholars claimed, the sainted Shakespeare could not possibly have written such savagery. Johnson spoke for the opinion of the next two centuries: "The barbarity of the spectacles, and the general massacre which are here exhibited, can scarcely be conceived tolerable to any audience." Frank Kermode, writing for the Riverside Edition of Shakespeare in 1974, relented somewhat; he argued that Titus Andronicus, though the least of the tragedies, had been "unjustly despised." Acknowledging Shakespeare’s authorship, he tried to justify this exhibition of rape, murder, and severed hands, as a "distancing of horror … to reinforce the feeling of strangeness and unreality."

Harold Bloom concedes that Shakespeare, "Alas, undoubtedly wrote the play," but he disagrees with Kermode’s softening of Dr. Johnson’s verdict. In his recent overview of Shakespeare’s work, he wished that his beloved bard "had not perpetrated this poetic atrocity." He asserts, "I will demonstrate that Shakespeare knew it was a howler." The insuperable problem of Titus Andronicus, as Bloom understood it, was that the "audience never quite knew when to be horrified and when to laugh." This was his experience when he attended the Peter Brook production, in 1955, which featured Laurence Olivier as Titus Andronicus. Apparently Brook and Olivier, in the kind of reading Kermode gives the play, attempted a highly stylized version to keep all the gore at a "symbolic distance." But at performances the audience still could not help laughing. Bloom is convinced that a play which is supposed to be a tragedy and makes people laugh has to be a parody, "a bloody farce." Shakespeare, he believed, was exorcising the Ghost of Marlowe, a kind of therapeutic working through to reach the universal humanism of his own true genius. The smoking gun for Bloom was Titus’s line to his daughter Lavinia, "Bear thou my hand, sweet wench, between thy teeth." Bloom challenged scholars who insisted that the play was a "sincere and serious tragedy" to read that line aloud several times. Bloom could "concede no intrinsic value to Titus Andronicus," and he vowed he would never go to another production of this exorcism unless it was directed by Mel Brooks.

A new Bishop in the High Church of Shakespeare scholars takes quite a different view. Jonathan Bate, the new editor of the Arden Edition of Shakespeare and King Alfred Professor of Literature at the University of Liverpool, has written about the important relationship between Shakespeare and Ovid, who provided the story of Philomela’s rape and the bizarre revenge that Shakespeare used in Titus Andronicus. Bate tells us he read the play without preconceptions as a teenager and loved it at once. He assumed that the young Shakespeare enjoyed the "cheeky mingling of horrific violence and black humor." Bate the scholar agrees with Bate the teenager and has become an enthusiastic supporter of the intrinsic value of Titus Andronicus. His students at Liverpool share his love for Titus Andronicus and have cheekily dubbed it "Shakespeare’s Quentin Tarantino play." According to Liverpool opinion, the supposedly insuperable horror-laughter problem of Titus Andronicus can be put down to an old-fashioned sensibility.

Julie Taymor owes something to the Liverpool school. She speaks of a new sense of apocalyptic humor in the younger generation, to whom Titus appeals; she is indebted to Bate’s reading of the play. But she bridles at comparisons with Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, which to her mind trivializes violence. She confronts the horror of it all until we understand the laughter of madness in ourselves. In any case, her achievement is strikingly her own, and it goes far beyond Grand Guignol humor.

Taymor had not been drawn to Titus; it came to her. The off-Broadway Theater for a New Audience had been staging Shakespeare’s plays. Taymor had directed The Tempest there and someone had the brilliant idea of offering Taymor the opportunity to direct the little known Titus Andronicus. Taymor’s career trajectory is, to say the least, unusual, but in retrospect it seems to have been designed for this opportunity.

BORN IN 1952 in a Boston suburb, Taymor was a child of the 1960s who was fed on creativity and thrived. Some children have an imaginary companion, while others surround themselves with toys, puppets, and stuffed animals, with which they act out various fantasy scenarios. Most children quickly replace this puppet theater of active imagination with television cartoons. In Julie Taymor’s life, that play was the beginning of an artistic career. She loved puppets, and never stopped pursuing her love.

Taymor went from playing with puppets to drawing and creating puppets for her theater. By the time she went to Oberlin, she had already studied folk theater in Sri Lanka and mime and puppet theater in France. At college and beyond she pursued the origins of theater in myth and religious spectacle. I first became aware of Julie Taymor’s talent when her stunning masks and puppets helped make the King Stag one of the truly memorable successes of Harvard’s American Repertory Theater. While her peers moved on to New York and Hollywood, Taymor explored the mythopoetic origins of traditional Indonesian theater, where those roots still flourished. She went as an artist, not an anthropological observer. Later she was part of a theater commune in Bali, and she has followed her muse in theaters of tradition all over the Asian Rim. Her puppets and masks are works of sculpture that will find their way to museums; she is a master of the visual and performing arts. As her production of the Lion King proved, she could turn Disney cartoons themselves back into spectacular puppet theater.

Steeped in exotic myth, dance, folklore, and theater of East and West, she brought an archetypal imagination to the screenplay and direction of Shakespeare’s Titus. She understood what scholars hypothesized, that this Roman horror had theatrical roots in the religious spectacle of medieval mystery plays. Under her direction, Titus was to be a pagan spectacle, a narrative of mythical dimensions and primitive power.

Taymor’s Titus has so much raw power that it makes one question the categories of tragedy, comedy, and parody. The demonic element in human creativity reaches beyond these conventional categories. My fantasy is that if Bloom asked Shakespeare whether he intended Titus’ line to Lavinia as tragedy, comedy, or parody, he would respond, "That is a good question, but the truth is I never thought of it one way or the other. I just went with my demon." Taymor has found a way to make that demon, which belongs as much to her as to him, speak again. And when it does, it can make you shiver in horror or laugh like a child in sadistic delight.

Titus is not a Kenneth Branagh production, like his magnificent Hamlet, in which Shakespeare’s lines come first and the film medium worshipfully, though imaginatively, serves the text. Nor, as several film critics dismissively have suggested, has Taymor simply stolen a page from Leonardo DiCaprio’s MTV version of Romeo and Juliet, or several pages from Ian McKellen’s Richard the III. There is high camp, excess, contemporary transformation in those films as there is in Titus. But they do not convey the sense that an animating intelligence wrestled with Shakespeare, found his demon, and made it produce the images and ideas of her own imaginings.

Taymor has thrown herself into this film in every possible sense. The opening scene shows us an androgynous child at a table heaped with action toys. Taymor-as-child is imagining a puppet theater battle. There is a paper bag helmet over his/her head with holes torn for the eyes and the mouth. A portion of a hot dog protrudes from his/her mouth. Taymor wants every image projected on the screen to have levels of meaning and she starts in this first scene. The child’s imaginary battle gets out of control as it often does when children pursue violent fantasies. He/she begins to knock the toy figures about, squeezes catsup at them, attacks a piece of cake. As the child explosively destroys the toy battlefield, the room explodes with a real bomb; a real war is at hand. A giant figure breaks into the room. Identified in the credits as a clown, the figure more closely resembles the strong man of Fellini’s great film, La Strada. This Anthony Quinn figure takes the child in his arms and goes rushing downstairs out of the modern apartment. The door slams behind them like a vault and the giant stands in Rome’s empty Coliseum. He lifts the terrified child over his head and the ghosts of Ancient Rome roar. Taymor has arrived in Shakespeare’s Rome and in the Coliseum--the first great theater of cruelty.

Like much great modern art, this film is inspired by the primitive and draws on the art of the past--one thinks of Picasso. When the Roman army--returning from victory over the Goths, covered with clay, and carrying Titus’s 21 dead sons--comes marching into the Coliseum, one is reminded of the incomparable terracotta Army of the Chinese Emperor Qin. And Taymor’s warriors do more than march; they move in a solemn choreographed procession, step across step, in a stunning parade. Before a word of Shakespeare’s text is spoken, the epic theater myth has begun. We will see the slaughter and mayhem that follows through the eyes of Taymor’s back-from-the-future child.

Theater audiences have to imagine Rome as a small stage. But Taymor has created one for us across a vast horizon. Hers is a kaleidoscopic view seen backward through history. Here, Rome is not a painstaking archaeological reconstruction but an archetypal eternal city. Taymor aims not for verisimilitude but a kind of collective truth assembled out of the museum of civilization’s memory and her imagination: the fierce wolf that suckled Romulus and Remus, an intact Coliseum (the one still standing in Croatia), the catacombs, Roman ruins, and Roman orgies. Taymor also emptied the Cinecitta store rooms, and added motorcycles, a Popemobile, and many of the vehicles we last saw in Fellini movies. Her anachronisms are meant to add layers of meaning, as when she uses Mussolini’s architecture to stage the Emperor’s election and a video arcade to show the hoodlum mentality of the Goth brothers who rape Lavinia. The images of her Roman Netherworld and her theater of cruelty will take root in your mind. She intends to shock us and shame us and implicate us in the horror of it all. This is not savagery distanced as Kermode would have it, nor a Bloomian parody. And it is not Pulp Fiction: Taymor wants us to howl as well as laugh. Her Titus is not the tragedy of a man, it is the tragedy of mankind. It is not a catharsis but an opportunity to witness the Roman Empire and reflect on our own orgies of violence.

TAYMOR, WITH THE HELP of extraordinary acting, has made all of Shakespeare’s cartoon characters come to life. In this process one discovers that the two-dimensional characters of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus are the prototypes of Shakespeare’s greatest characters. Titus is a great warrior who does not understand politics or Machiavellian intrigue. He is the hapless victim of Aaron the Moor, who is evil incarnate. Titus will become the noble moor in Othello and Aaron will become Iago. There is something of Lear in Titus’ willful divestiture of power, something of Coriolanus in his warrior virtues, and something of Hamlet and Lear in his seeming madness. Taymor’s Titus opens a new window on Shakespeare’s tragedies. Perhaps Titus Andronicus was the motherlode that started it all and not just a bad beginning.

Anthony Hopkins’ interpretation of Titus is breathtaking. He is the centerpiece of the structure Taymor has designed. Hopkins has to say the line, "Bear thou my hand, sweet wench, between thy teeth." At the performances I attended it prompted a few nervous giggles, but no hilarity. Taymor has staged this scene right out of Fellini’s La Strada. The same Anthony Quinn giant from La Strada drives up in a three-wheeled van. A young woman sets out folding chairs for Titus and his family as if for the street performances of La Strada and to the same Fellini music the giant lifts up the side panel of the van to reveal the heads of Titus’s two sons and the severed hand that was meant to ransom their lives. The Fellini moment is so surreal, so cruel, and so meaningfully anachronistic: it is like a dream within a dream that exhausts all the conventional possibilities of human emotion. It was the absurdity of horror, not humor, that one heard in the line. And Taymor’s camera paused on the image of Lavinia with the severed hand in her mouth as if daring the audience to laugh.

It is hard to imagine any other living actor playing Titus as well as Anthony Hopkins. But Jessica Lange’s performance as Tamora, Queen of the Goths, is equally wonderful, suggesting that Taymor deserves some of the credit. Tamora and her three sons are part of the trophy that Titus brings home from the wars. Lange has to be old enough to be the mother of three grown sons, vibrant enough to be sexually attractive to the emperor Saturninus, cunning enough to control him, and a good enough actress to speak Shakespeare’s lines. She manages it all. When Titus announces his intention to sacrifice her oldest son she pleads, "sweet mercy is nobility’s true badge." And when Titus insists, she curses, "O cruel, irreligious piety." The quality of this poetry speaks for itself and Jessica Lange does it honor.

Shakespeare’s plot calls for the Emperor Saturninus to be taken with Tamora’s sexuality at first sight. Instead of ransoming the captive Queen and her two sons for the coffers of Rome, he marries her and makes her his empress. Taymor helps this all along at every level. Alan Cummings plays Saturninus as a strutting, polymorphously perverse Caligula. He wears more lipstick than Lange and behaves throughout the play like an impulsive, spoiled child who wants his mommy and really gets her.

Taymor decks Lange out in a costume--the gleaming golden naked torso of a voluptuous woman. It is an eye opener and not just for a childish impetuous emperor. Although Taymor’s artistic imagination is boundless, this sculpture costume is one of her paradigms. One of her greatest theatrical successes was the staging of Stravinsky’s opera Oedipus Rex in Tokyo. Her actors wore the masks she designed on top of their heads. When it came time for Oedipus to blind himself, he stabbed the eyes of his mask in a gruesome gesture of stylized violence. Lange’s costume makes a theatrical gesture of naked sexuality with the same kind of ingenious artifice.

The great part in Titus Andronicus is Aaron the Moor. He has the lines, "But I have done a thousand dreadful things as willingly as one would kill a fly, and nothing grieves me heartily indeed but that I cannot do ten thousand more." A little sing-song for Shakespeare’s poetry, but to the point for a "self aware, self amused" villain who turns love into lust by convincing Tamora’s sons, who are quarreling over Lavinia, that the sensible "policy" is to kill her husband and "take your turns" to "serve your lust." They carry out his recommendations with the kind of hideous elaborations that only humans are capable of performing.

Harry J. Lennix, who has the part of Aaron, is a veteran actor, but Shakespeare is not on his resume. Taymor has given his face an impressive cross hatching of ritual scars, but she cannot say his lines for him. Somehow, Lennix pulls it all off brilliantly, and we can believe that Tamora, Queen of the Goths and Empress of Rome, has long been his prisoner "fett’red in amorous chains." Created by Shakespeare more than four hundred years ago, Aaron is the antithesis of Shakespeare’s Uncle Tom Othello. Most strikingly, he is smarter, more Machiavellian, more self aware, more virile, and if he is hated for his color, he hates back. "Ye white-limed walls! Ye alehouse painted signs! Coal black is better than another hue." These are his lines when the sons of Tamora want to kill the black infant who will prove even to a brainless Roman emperor that he has been cuckolded by the Goth Queen and her Moor. Yes, Aaron is a devil whose last words are, "If one good deed in all my life I did, I do repent from my very soul." He spits his evil in the face of Rome, but in fact he has given his life to save his son.

Shakespeare’s list of real villains is very short: the bastard Edmund in Lear, the deformed Richard III, and the envious, impotent Iago in Othello. Aaron the Moor is the only one of these great villains who could walk out of the folio and onto the streets of the 21st century. Aaron sums up the ordeal of listening to the story of Titus Andronicus, "I will vex thy soul to hear what I shall speak." Even more unbearable is to watch it unfold on the screen, but it is worth bearing. Shakespeare’s play ends mercilessly with Titus’s only surviving son, now Emperor of Rome, giving instructions on what to do with Tamora’s corpse. "Throw her forth to beasts and birds to prey, her life was beastly and devoid of pity, and being dead, let birds on her take pity."

It is a heartless ending to a cruel text, and one has no difficulty understanding why "cabinet critics" have for so long despised Shakespeare’s first tragedy. There is a great divide between those who read and reread Shakespeare’s plays in the quiet of their studies and creative theater people who collaborate in bringing the text to life in an actual production. Personally, I find it easier to understand those, like Bloom and Kermode, who read the play with jaw dropping dismay than those, like Bate, who loved it. But I believe Taymor’s awesome production should convince everyone who worships in the Church of Shakespeare that Titus Andronicus is not to be dismissed as some youthful aberration, but should be understood as the beginning of all Shakespeare’s great tragedies--a part of the treasure.

Taymor’s film ends as it began with that androgynous boy I take to be herself. Halfway through the film it becomes clear that the boy is Titus’ grandson and now his father is the Emperor. The new Emperor in Taymor’s reading fulfills the vow he made to Aaron to save his black son. He hands that beautiful coal black infant to his own son who slowly, holding the baby in his arms, walks out of the theater of cruelty into the beautiful dawn of a new day. Like everything else in Taymor’s film, it has several layers of meaning. It is excessive. It is over the top. But so is Titus Andronicus. If there was any doubt about Julie Taymor’s standing as a creative artist, Titus should dispel it. She has made a film that does honor to her and to Shakespeare.

Originally published in the April/May 2000 issue of Boston Review

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