Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Shakesblogging 450: Scattered Thoughts on Timon of Athens

So, after I finished my tenure portfolio and before the massive stacks of papers started to come in, I took off for the big city to see Timon of Athens. (There are also baby pandas there, which were ADORABLE, but this is not really a blog about pandas, so I shall restrain myself.) Anyway, when I heard there was going to be a production in a vaguely-nearby city, I figured I should go because it was one of the five plays I needed to see to complete the canon; but then I went to see the same company do Troilus and Cressida, which actually made me excited about Timon. The production of Troilus was fantastic, and they're similar plays, I think, darkly funny and cynical in similar ways, and totally unlike anything else Shakespeare ever wrote. I wasn't disappointed: it turns out that Timon is a lot more coherent in performance than I would have expected, and more entertaining.

Most of the actors were masked (and pretty much all of the parts were credited just as "Ensemble"), the exceptions being Timon, Flavius, Apemantus, and Alcibiades, our four truth-tellers. Everyone else was interchangeable, which makes sense, because this is not really a play about characters. (I'm wondering now whether it would have a better reputation if it had come down to posterity as a Middleton play, because you don't expect Middleton to be about characters, just about masks and hypocrisy and people doing nasty things to one another and being ironically witty about it.) But there was one moment I found heartbreakingly sad in ways that I did NOT expect; near the end when Timon drives Flavius off, Flavius puts on a mask for the first time.

One of the things that struck me was how many references there were to people "eating" Timon; there's one line where Apemantus actually imagines the guests dipping their food in Timon's blood, a grotesque bit of Last Supper-ish imagery. And it made me think, Timon is kind of trying to be Jesus, walking around and performing miracles for people, and then he turns out to be spectacularly unable to cope with the fact that the full Christ-figure package includes being betrayed, despised, and martyred. (But then, Jesus didn't have to deal with the discovery that ALL of his dinner companions were Judases, except one. Really, it's a pretty neat reversal.)

The whole idea of retreating from the world, of turning your back on society and its hypocrisies and going out in the wilderness to be philosophers, strikes me as one of the big themes that comes up again and again in Shakespeare, from Love's Labour's Lost and As You Like It, down through Lear and Timon, to The Tempest. But this is really the only one where the characters don't come back to society in the end, or at least try to create a new society on their own terms. They don't find growth or self-awareness either, only stasis.

As a side note, I kind of wonder if this might be John Shakespeare's story, right down to the finding-gold-in-random-places bit (in the form of a dutiful son getting unexpectedly rich in a new and disreputable profession). I wonder if Will never finished it because it hit too close to home.


Fie upon this quiet life! said...

I saw a production of Timon in Chicago, starring Ian McDermott -- maybe a year and a half ago. It was phenomenal -- so much better than expected. I really like the idea of doing it with masks, because you're right -- they are pretty much interchangeable. I really wanted to teach the play after that, but then, I remember when I read it that I didn't really like it that much and didn't get the humor. I think it takes a great production for someone to really appreciate this play. Glad you enjoyed it!

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

Also, inspired by the fact that you've seen all but 4-5 Shakespeare plays performed, I thought I'd see how many I've not seen. I counted film versions, which is probably cheating, but I've not seen 7. That's better than I thought!