Wednesday, May 10, 2006
Walking out on Chaucer's slurring words
by Ari Roth

A little waft of anti-Semitism blew into town for three weeks and then departed, but not before leaving thousands of theater-goers at the Kennedy Center stunned by the specter of unadulterated, unmediated images of the Jewish blood libel as it played out in one archaic section of Geoffrey Chaucer's “The Canterbury Tales” performed by the esteemed Royal Shakespeare Theatre of England.

The section was the infamous “Prioress' Tale,” and while it initially shocked many silenced theater-goers--both Jewish and non-Jewish--only to propel them to dash off letters to the press, to the ADL, and to the Kennedy Center and other interested theaters, the offending tale also met with a surprising hosanna from Washington Post Pulitzer Prize winning essayist, Phillip Kennicott who, this past Sunday, as the production was taking its final DC bow before continuing on its world tour, admired the aesthetics of the offending tale's direction as well as the bold, unapologetic nature of its presentation.

The Post congratulated the RSC for staging the tale “with exquisite theatrical care and visual beauty,” going onto describe its unfolding as a courageous achievement.  “In an act that is bold in our politically sensitive age, the Royal Shakespeare Company lets the Prioress have her say. There's no attempt to bracket the tale, or subvert it with winks and nods that demonstrate the higher political sensitivity of the director or of the modern audience.” Kennicott continues, “A little Christian boy who loves the Virgin Mary is killed by Jews stirred up to violence by Satan. Animated by a holy miracle, the boy's body keeps singing until it is discovered by the Christians -- who then kill all the Jews.”

Kennicott almost fetishizes the aftermath of the onstage death.  “The suffering of the boy's mother is poignant. The ominous and threatening presence of the Jews is rendered with masks that emphasize long, hooked noses. And the final scene is a gorgeous tableau that reproduces the classic "Pieta" of Michelangelo, the mother holding her dead child. What the Nun intends to be beautiful -- images of childhood, innocence and sacrifice -- are beautiful. What she intends to be ugly -- the supposed Jewish perfidy -- is ugly.”

Before Kennicott's appreciation, the theater community was shocked by how little ink had been devoted to alert readers of the crude material awaiting.  Neither Peter Marks' review in The Post, nor the Kennedy Center playbill, nor the RSC website had any explanatory information that might have helped audiences make sense of what they were seeing, and why.  Instead, for three profitable weeks, the production lavished theatrical care on the act of  Jewish ghetto-dwellers conspiring to slit the throat of a 7-year-old Christian boy.

Why stage such a section?  Kennicott suggests that exposing the lure and the raw fascination of such coarse material helps to reacquaint an inured audience with the power of pernicious slander.  Further, Chaucerian scholars point out that the tale demonstrates the hypocrisy of the Prioress herself who is shown to make a great display of compassion for her puppy, while displaying perverse disregard for an entire people. Chaucer's mission, through the vast canvass of “The Canterbury Tales,” was to expose the fraudulence of the self-important and the ungodliness of the sanctimonious.

Unfortunately, these sophisticated readings were indiscernible in the playing out of “The Prioress's Tale.”
The problem lies in the RSC treatment.  Here is an otherwise lustily-performed show set in Medieval England with bits of a modern sensibility sprinkled in (for example, actors of color, both male and female, play the roles of wives and princes) with winks and jokes suggesting a contemporary anchor, such as rock and roll strummed on a lute and an act-opening rap chant.  The 6-hour production, divided over two nights, is often a romp, taking glory in the bawdiness of the tales and their enduring entertainment.  But then comes this wildly miscalculated interlude, where the ensemble sports long crow-like beaks to simulate the “Jeweyre” who, we are told, are usurious and villainous, "Hateful to Crist and to his compaignye."  The RSC production embraces the ugliness of the Jewish community.  The production chooses to support the monstrous portrait with masks of inhumanity, as opposed to ambivalence on the part of the participating chorus re-enacting the nun's story.  And there is barely a comment from the "Chaucerian" narrator, a stand-in for the author.

For most of its scenes, this production announces to the audience that it will be no slave to history.  And then it goes and slavishly foists up an anti-Semitic screed.

As an artistic director devoted to presenting provocative material with a commitment to producing many, many new plays, I have a tolerance for provocation.  I also believe that controversial issues must be dealt with, both on stage by the characters, and off-stage by the theater, in printed matter and in public discussions.  But none of this was present for the RSC production. There were no public discussions.  There were no explanatory notes.  As an audience member, I was unprepared and in the dark.  But then a light bulb went off at the end of fifteen minutes of unacceptable theatricalized bile; I could do what I'd never done before in this city in a theater mid-performance; I could vote with my feet.

This is why my wife and I walked out two scenes before the end.  It was our less disruptive, but still demonstrable way of saying out loud to the RSC that it made a terrible artistic and moral decision.

As my wife said on the car ride home, "the fact that the Royal Shakespeare Company feels like it can get away with the portrait and feel that it's funny and of a piece with the rest of the evening shows just how different the climate for condoning anti-Semitism is in England."

As for the theories of Phillip Kennicott as to whether audiences are ready for work that presents vicious hatreds and provocations without a contextualizing moral framework:  Stay tuned.  The controversy surrounding the presentation of the very modern play, "My Name is Rachel Corrie" is just around the corner.

 

 

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