Christus Marcius Coriolanus

“Now we see that you are possessed.” (John 8:52)

Leave it to our Passiontide readings from St. John’s gospel to bring us face-to-face with this particular fact every year: No reasonable person can regard Jesus of Nazareth as an unremarkable, nice guy.

What possessed Him?

He was, after all, a kind, attractive, intelligent, skillful man. He had a pleasant enough future ahead of Him, had He chosen to embrace it. Instead of provoking all the authorities in Jerusalem, He could have lived out His life as a respectable teacher in the relatively quiet precincts of the north; He could have found a sweet Galilean lass; eventually, He could have died in His bed, remembered fondly and with honor.

jerusalem-sunriseBut something possessed Him. So He stepped into the seething cesspool of petty jealousies and vicious antagonisms that was Jerusalem. Something possessed Him to say just enough about Himself, and at just the right times, to lead to His being mercilessly scourged and crucified during Passover, while He was still in His early thirties.

We can have no real doubt that He neither had a perverse death-wish nor was He so obtuse that He didn’t know what His words would lead to. He was neither suicidal nor naïve.

So what possessed Him?

Something in Him raged against falsehood, smallness, and death with such serene indomitability—a fire burned in Him that the close air of the fallen world simply could not contain, but only fanned. A zeal for conquest overtook Him. He became literally hell-bent on pulverizing every ounce of life-choking b.s. that the arrogant and hypocritical human race has managed to pile up on the surface of this earth, over the course of the groaning millennia that we have lived here.

Jesus would not back down. He came like a flaming battering ram at the twisted face of faithless deceit and selfishness. He cracked a hole in the fortress of Satan. And then He ran in by Himself, like Gaius Marcius Coriolanus charging the Volscian city of Corioli alone. The only weapon Christ held in His hands was His absolutely fearless willingness to open them up for the nails.

He was a man possessed. Possessed by the one power that actually can wash away all the evil in the world with one cleansing stroke. He was Personally possessed by divine Creator.

Genre of our Age

I have never had a whole lot of time for Ralph Fiennes. But the man deserves his props for making his Coriolanus movie.

Shakespeare’s Coriolanus play, which T. S. Eliot regarded as the finest of the Bard’s tragedies, has hardly anyone in it for the audience to like.

The hero, frequently called proud, cannot justly be convicted of that vice; he bends his knees piously before Rome’s gods. But what he is is hard. And when the one person who can soften him—namely his mother—moves to do so, his softening costs Coriolanus his life (as he foresees).

This hard Coriolanus holds the unflattering title of being the favorite Shakespeare character of the Nazis, who distributed copies of the play to schoolboys.

Indeed, it is impossible for the audience to like Coriolanus, or his mother, or his wife, or his adversaries—neither his military nor his political opponents have any heartwarming qualities. The only sympathetic characters in the play are Coriolanus’ friends among the Roman nobility, particularly Menenius Agrippa.

Coriolanus, though fearless in battle, lacks the courage to accuse himself of his own faults. Menenius, on the other hand, over a glass of wine, manages to indict the craven Roman tribunes for all their foibles, while in the same breath he freely acknowledges all his own.

Brian Cox’s Menenius makes Fiennes’ movie. The ebullience of the longsuffering friend takes the edge off the Rambo theatrics of the battle scenes. Menenius’ suicide (only hinted-at in the play) signals the summary ending of the movie. From here, there is nowhere to go but downhill fast. Only a few minutes later, Coriolanus, too, is dead.

…Bringing us to my real point:

When only one instance of a certain artistic type exists, then it stands alone, sui generis. But when a second instance comes along, Aha! We now have a new genre.

Rarely does every line of a Shakespeare script manage to get itself spoken when one of his plays is produced.

Usually some, if not many, lines are “cut.” This practice shortens the running time, removes particularly difficult vocabulary or obscure references, makes it easier for actors to memorize everything they have to say, etc. When I performed in Macbeth in 1981, we cut the entire scene in which Malcolm and Macduff discuss the state of Scotland. In his movie version of King Lear, Orson Welles completely removed the charater of Edmund.

(Kenneth Branagh’s triumphant Hamlet movie, in which every line of the script is spoken, stands as the ‘anti-type’ of the genre I am preparing to describe to you.)

So: “Cutting” a Shakespeare script has constituted common practice for centuries. But what about when more than half of the lines get cut? More than 75% cut?

What about when: The actors speak lines from the original script and all the action follows the original plotline. But what is actually being produced is not so much Shakespeare’s play, but rather a stylized video, in which some of Shakespeare’s lines are “sampled,” to great dramatic effect, in a contemporary setting?

Brian Cox lovably enacts Menenius
I would call this a new genre.

The idea appears to be: We will have a fast-moving movie depicting a Shakespearian storyline; chunks of the original script will be delivered by all the clever means we can devise (including using cable newsmen on tvs in the background, delivering crucial plot-developing lines); and we will wind up with something genuinely new.

In this new thing, every spoken word will have come from the pen of the Bard, and every frame of film will meet the standards of contemporary movie-making technique. We will draw audiences into an experience of Shakespeare’s poetry that no preceding generation has ever had. We just have to leave 85-90% of Shakespeare’s actual words on the cutting-room floor.

“Sampled Shakespeare.” Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 Romeo + Juliet. Ralph Fiennes 2011 Coriolanus.

Just to prove my point about “sampling from”—rather than merely “cutting”—one example from each movie…

1. In Romeo + Juliet, Claire Danes, trapped into marrying Dave Paris, shows up desperate at Father Lawrence’s apartment. She cries: “Be not so long to speak. I long to die!” She has no more to say in this scene of the movie.

In the original script she adds:

O, bid me leap, rather than marry Paris,
From off the battlements of yonder tower;
Or walk in thievish ways; or bid me lurk
Where serpents are; chain me with roaring bears;
Or shut me nightly in a charnel-house,
O’er-cover’d quite with dead men’s rattling bones,
With reeky shanks and yellow chapless skulls;
Or bid me go into a new-made grave
And hide me with a dead man in his shroud;
Things that, to hear them told, have made me tremble;
And I will do it without fear or doubt,
To live an unstain’d wife to my sweet love. (Act IV, Scene 1)

2. In Fiennes’ Coriolanus, Menenius, via the t.v., chides the hungry crowd that they “may as well strike at the heaven with their staves as lift them against the Roman state.”

In Shakespeare’s script, Menenius goes on to tell the parable of the belly, just as Plutarch himself originally reported (in the source Shakespeare used to frame his play):

He said, namely, that all the other members of man’s body once revolted against the belly, and accused it of being the only member to sit idly down in its place and make no contribution to the common welfare, while the rest underwent great hardships and performed great public services only to minister to its appetites; but that the belly laughed at their simplicity in not knowing that it received into it all the body’s nourishment only to send it back again and duly distribute it among the other members. “Such, then,” he said again, “is the relation of the senate, my fellow-citizens, to you; the matters for deliberation which there receive the necessary attention and disposition bring to you all and severally what is useful and helpful.” (Plutarch, Life of Coriolanus)

Anyway: I love this new genre. (Not as much as I love reading Shakesepare’s scripts, but still–I love it a lot.) Long may “sampled Shakespeare” prosper.

Defiant Pride on Screen

Did you know that Ralph Fiennes has made a movie version of Coriolanus, to be released in the U.S. in the fall?

Coriolanus is Shakespeare’s biggest badass. He is a Roman warrior who charges into the city of Corioles. The other soldiers hold back. The gates are shut…So Coriolanus subdues the city by himself!

That is just the beginning. The Romans hail Coriolanus as a hero, but the tribunes of the people are jealous. Impenetrably proud, Coriolanus refuses to play politics, so his enemies stir up his infamous choler and then contrive to have him banished for treason.

Coriolanus’ speech before leaving the city is just about the most audacious badass diatribe ever written:

You common cry of curs! whose breath I hate
As reek o’ the rotten fens, whose loves I prize
As the dead carcasses of unburied men
That do corrupt my air, I banish you;
And here remain with your uncertainty!
Let every feeble rumour shake your hearts!
Your enemies, with nodding of their plumes,
Fan you into despair! Have the power still
To banish your defenders; till at length
Your ignorance, which finds not till it feels,
Making not reservation of yourselves,
Still your own foes, deliver you as most
Abated captives to some nation
That won you without blows! Despising,
For you, the city, thus I turn my back:
There is a world elsewhere.

Mel Gibson’s reaction to Gary Sinise’s demand for ransom in the movie of that name reminded me of Coriolanus’ fiery defiance:

(WARNING: Low-quality video, plus a lot of bad words.)

(Mel gets the boy back alive, by the way, and Sinise winds up…well, not alive.)

This Fiennes movie of Coriolanus could really stink. There is a precedent: in 1983, the BBC made a movie version, with the hero depicted as a thwarted homosexual. It is a disgrace, and I have never seen cinematography more obtuse.

But be that as it may, long live Coriolanus! May the defiant badasses of the world prosper in triumph.