Not Last in my Book

ASC Timon of AthensThe worthy American-Shakespeare-Center players made history in the Shenandoah Valley this past Friday evening (3:30 in the resolution recitation below).

The good Lord gave me the privilege of witnessing it, on opening night.

Over the course of the past 25 years, all of Shakespeare’s plays, on stage.

But, momentous as the achievement may be, this was not the company’s finest hour. Timon of Athens deserves better than last place. And the play deserves a sharper and far more sober production.

We have admired Timon’s venom before. The character’s misanthropy could burn the hairs off the back of a wild boar. And, indeed, by play’s end, Timon has become utterly humorless. Watching a grandee who cultivated flattering love turn into a cauldron of the most cynical hatred: not funny. (Timon’s cynicism makes even the grossest gangsta rapper seem like Goldilocks by comparison.)

For some reason, though, this production plays Timon’s most eviscerating tirades for laughs, with campy physical comedy. (Like they did to Merchant of Venice in fall of 2012. I forgave them then…)

Maybe this generation has grown nervously uncomfortable about the reality of evil, of hatred, of bitterness in the human soul. Timon of Athens gives us the dregs of a man who has lost all hope–believably rendered, eloquently expressed. It is real; it is horrible; it is not funny.

How could any reasonable thespian play this speech from Act IV–which Timon, from his misanthrope’s cave, addresses to one of general Alicbiades’ girlfriends–for laughs?

WARNING Speech rated NC-17

Be a whore still: they love thee not that use thee;
Give them diseases, leaving with thee their lust.
Make use of thy salt hours: season the slaves
For tubs and baths; bring down rose-cheeked youth
To the tub-fast and the diet. [Elizabethan-era remedy for venereal disease]

Even Timon’s speech to Alcibiades, who plans to march on Athens, elicited laughter in Staunton this past Friday evening:

Be as a planetary plague, when Jove
Will o’er some high-viced city hang his poison
In the sick air: let not thy sword skip one:
Pity not honour’d age for his white beard;
He is an usurer: strike me the counterfeit matron;
It is her habit only that is honest,
Herself’s a bawd: let not the virgin’s cheek
Make soft thy trenchant sword; for those milk-paps,
That through the window-bars bore at men’s eyes,
Are not within the leaf of pity writ,
But set them down horrible traitors: spare not the babe,
Whose dimpled smiles from fools exhaust their mercy;
Think it a bastard, whom the oracle
Hath doubtfully pronounced thy throat shall cut,
And mince it sans remorse: swear against objects;
Put armour on thine ears and on thine eyes;
Whose proof, nor yells of mothers, maids, nor babes,
Nor sight of priests in holy vestments bleeding,
Shall pierce a jot. There’s gold to pay soldiers:
Make large confusion; and, thy fury spent,
Confounded be thyself! Speak not, be gone.

Hardly funny.

American Shakespeare Center may have made history with this Timon of Athens, by rounding out the canon. For that, the institution deserves the world’s gratitude. (It certainly has mine.)

But how about going back to the drawing board on how to handle the Misanthrope. If you want to give us this play–which is not, by any means, Shakespeare’s dregs–give us the genuinely appalling genuine article, sans nervous laughter.

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