Drowned Out

Julie Taymor’s The Tempest

Melinda Sue Gordon ©2010 Tempest Production, LLC

There were high hopes for Julie Taymor’s The Tempest. She had a track record, having rescued one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays, Titus Andronicus, from the waste heap of Elizabethan theater where academics such as Harold Bloom thought it belonged. Bloom called it a “poetic atrocity” and claimed the role of Titus was not “playable, except as parody.” But Taymor’s cinematic miracle made Shakespeare’s genius visible. On her screen we discovered archetypes of some of Shakespeare’s greatest characters, and her Titus (Anthony Hopkins) found a way to play his part after all. With Titus she achieved what even celebrated directors rarely can: a modern and lasting interpretation of a Shakespeare play. It is impossible now to think about Titus Andronicus without seeing it through her lens.

The greatest modernizer of Shakespeare for American theater was, like Taymor, a woman. Margaret Webster rediscovered the full-length Hamlet, with Maurice Evans, decades before Kenneth Branagh. She then teamed the marvelous Paul Robeson with Uta Hagen in the first realistic Othello and made theater history. And in 1945 she saved from obscurity the Tempest, rarely performed in the United States at the time, and gave it a post-colonial spin. I was a child when I saw it—my first play. Webster had cast a black actor, a onetime boxer with a splendid physique, as the “monster” Caliban. In startling contrast, Vera Zorina, a ballerina clad in delicate white, was cast as Ariel, toe pointed across the stage. The racial divide of our still-colonial world was the context Webster gave The Tempest—the stinking half-fish monster became a black human being. The dignity of that Caliban made an unforgettable impression on me. Webster’s Tempest made what is thought to be Shakespeare’s last play popular and accessible to audiences.

Earlier in the century, The Tempest had remained a puzzling text. Scholars thought it incomplete and attributed parts of it to Ben Jonson. In an ingenious essay about the play, Henry James imagines that the author is a great composer and performer who goes home in the evening and begins to improvise on the harpsichord: the themes are familiar but different; he is revisiting the possibilities of the instrument and his own superb art. The neighbors can listen as the music wafts out the open windows, but what they hear is not for them. The analogy is apt. One can find many familiar Shakespearean themes in The Tempest, and James’s sense that it was not written for an audience is certainly not wrong. However, the standard modern interpretation is that The Tempest is Shakespeare’s farewell to the theater, that he is Prospero, the protagonist, and the books drowned at the end of the play contain the mysterious magic of his unsurpassable greatness.

Taymor, who staged The Tempest in 1986 and has been thinking about it ever since, has taken this interpretation by the throat and given it a feminist reading. Prospero becomes Prospera, and Taymor does something Shakespeare never did: she shows us a woman of might who assertively wields her power. Helen Mirren is formidable as this empowered sorceress; Felicity Jones as her daughter may be the most perfectly beautiful Miranda ever cast. But it all goes terribly wrong.

The feminist spin is not the problem. The problem is Taymor’s art.

I am not alone in believing that Taymor is an important contemporary artist. The book Julie Taymor: Playing with Fire—a catalogue of her work in theater, opera, and film—is a testament to her erudition and imaginative genius. She is also a brilliant choreographer. The dance-march of Titus’ army at the beginning of Titus is unforgettable. Indeed every scene in that film was a work of art, each a superb composition alone and as part of the whole. Some critics said the movie was over the top, but its energy brought Titus to life. Others reflexively dismissed Taymor’s Titus as they would any modern interpretation of a “sacred” text. But Taymor made audiences believe that after five centuries someone finally understood what Shakespeare meant.

Her Tempest makes me feel the opposite. Rather than taking us deep into new understandings of Shakespeare’s play, she seems on an out-of-control ego trip. All the flourishes that worked in Titus seem overwrought in The Tempest. Her style smothers Shakespeare’s substance. Worst of all are the computerized special effects—amateurish, even cartoonish, by contemporary standards, and put to poor use especially in scenes featuring the actor Ben Whishaw as Ariel.

Caliban does a shockingly real impersonation of a gorilla.

In Shakespeare’s text Ariel, a spirit, becomes a beloved companion of Prospero—“Do you love me master?” Ariel asks. And it is Ariel who feels sorry for the betrayers of Prospero, who are suffering under the spell she casts on them at his command. Though not human, Ariel feels compassion for humans and leads Prospero to forgiveness, one of the central themes of The Tempest. Since Sylvia Plath’s second book of poetry, Ariel, feminists have found much more in Shakespeare’s spirit. Ariel is the suppressed and imprisoned creative soul of Plath—and perhaps of all women—finally released.

In Taymor’s film Ariel sometimes is a naked male, his genitalia computerized away. At other times he develops pubescent breasts that wax and wane, and then he turns into a terrifying, screen-filling, black monster with large, menacing breasts. Taymor can point to a line or a word that justifies every excess—the term “harpy” does appear in the text—but Shakespeare’s words lose their meaning when her harpy fills the screen, resembling more a creature from the nightmarish world of Hieronymus Bosch than from Shakespeare’s gossamer play.

Taymor’s film is a series of explosive images, not a narrative. Even her settings are distractingly extreme and spectacular: her island in Hawaii is simultaneously a black moonscape of frozen lava, a forest, and a jungle. Each would have been enough; together they make a visual smorgasbord. To be sure, Taymor’s creativity is evident; every scene signals her artistic ambitions. And even if The Tempest fails as a film, perhaps it can be unpacked, scene by scene, to teach future generations of film students the possibilities of cinematography. Still, the whole is not up to the sum of these parts.

Part of Taymor’s problem is to be found in James’s interpretation: by only writing for himself, Shakespeare has made it difficult to find the red thread of coherence that would guide an audience. And Taymor is not inclined to help. She is not an old-fashioned Hollywood storyteller, whose films audiences can relax with and enjoy on their night out. Her films are oneiric, a train of images. Her postmodern style is reminiscent of Bergman’s and Tarkovsky’s, and perhaps even less bound to traditional narrative than those predecessors’.

Nor is Taymor bound by the post-colonial context of Tempest interpretation. She cast a black actor, Djimon Hounsou, as Caliban, but then coated him with mud and fish scales, his own skin showing through only in a moon-like circle around his left eye. (Shakespeare’s words justify this: Caliban is part fish-monster and a mooncalf.) Whether improvised by the actor or at Taymor’s behest, her Caliban does a shockingly real impersonation of a gorilla. Taymor has returned him to the status of the alien other, a primitive beast, not a human being. His only moment of human dignity is a silent face off with Prospera toward the end of the play in a scene invented by Taymor.

One problem all contemporary interpreters of Shakespeare face is how to treat his interludes of humor, which typically rely on malapropisms and the stupidity of the unwashed and uneducated. To current sensibilities, most are not funny, and The Tempest is not exceptional in this case. Unfortunately, Taymor dives right in.

In one such interlude, Caliban mistakes two drunks, the butler Stephano (Alfred Molina) and the jester Trinculo (Russel Brand), for “gods.” Mirroring the betrayal of Prospera in Milan, the three plot to kill Prospera and make Stephano king of the island with the virginal Miranda as his bride. The humor is lost because it depends largely on our enjoying Caliban’s abject humiliation. Stephano tells Caliban to stoop and kiss his foot, a gesture of complete submission that was apparently too crude for Hounsou or Taymor to enact. But the whole subplot lasts too long in Taymor’s Tempest and despite the actors’ best efforts, touches raw nerves in the contemporary audience, not funny bones.

In all the visual chaos and discordant episodes, the important moral themes of The Tempest are lost. Prospera’s forgiveness of those who betrayed her is almost trivialized, and the film ends without the great epilogue in which Shakespeare’s Prospero tells us that all his power and forgiveness mean nothing unless there is salvation through the grace of his audiences. This was no sin of omission. All Taymor’s sins are of commission. When the credits roll, Prospera’s books drown, and we hear the epilogue, converted into a dirge by Taymor’s longtime partner, composer Elliot Goldenthal. Taymor did not forget the epilogue or fail to recognize its importance. Rather she has cut the last binding thread of self-control and used the epilogue to keep the audience in their seats to read the credits.


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About the Author

Alan A. Stone, Touroff-Glueck Professor of Law and Psychiatry at Harvard Law School, is author of Movies and the Moral Adventure of Life.

Alan Stone,
Forgiving Woody,
All of Humanity,
The Rebel