June 30, 2002
Rebirth in Venice and Two Lethal Queens of Hearts
By MARGO JEFFERSON
WHEN we're young we take it for granted that great art (like love) is just around the corner: a new writer or composer; a fresh way of painting; an unexplored continent of foreign films. As we get older, we experience the "new" in a different way. There are all those books we never read; that music we listened to, then rejected; the works we acknowledged with the dutiful admiration that means we won't be returning to them any time soon.
I've just had this "new" experience with two German writers: Thomas Mann, whose 1912 novella, "Death In Venice," is being performed and directed by Giles Havergal of the Citizens' Theater, Glasgow; and Friedrich von Schiller, whose play of 1800, "Maria Stuart," was presented at the Brooklyn Academy of Music by the Royal Dramatic Theater of Sweden, under Ingmar Bergman's direction.
I hadn't read "Death in Venice" for years when I entered the Manhattan Ensemble Theater to see Mr. Havergal give life to that fervid, stately tale. Neither had plenty of audience members, for when it ended I heard excited people murmuring, "It's so suspenseful!" and "Wasn't that amazing? I'm going to read the story this weekend."
This is a tale of violent, intricate emotions, tortured intellectual rigor and guilty erotic rapture. It opens in spring, the year, we are told with stern formality, "in which so grave a threat seemed to hang over the peace of Europe." The writer Gustav von Aschenbach, recently knighted at 50 and revered for fastidious, morally demanding works, is seized by a desire for travel, by a vision of "a tropical swampland under a cloud-swollen sky, moist and lush and monstrous . . . he saw hairy palm-trunks thrusting upward from rank jungles of fern." And so this august German, whose self-discipline is as hard-won as his fame, goes to Venice. Where else could he fall in love with the beautiful young boy Tadzio a Polish aristocrat with the look of a Greek god?
The tensions proliferate. Aschenbach is the master artist and the pitifully inexperienced suitor, torn between visions of chaste and erotic homosexual love. And with Tadzio's implicit consent, he watches him on the beach and in the hotel, even following him through the streets of Venice. Venice, which begins as a sensory paradise and ends as a disease-ridden abyss.
The prose keeps changing keys without ever resolving. At moments it wears a gleaming armor of dignity. At others, it is "as nauseatingly overripe as the cholera-infected fruit that poisons Aschenbach." (I am quoting Anthony Heilbut's brilliant book, "Thomas Mann: Eros and Literature.")
To hear it spoken aloud, in Robert David MacDonald's adaptation, is intoxicating. If you saw Visconti's film version of "Death In Venice," you probably remember its moody visual opulence. Mr. Havergal gives us the multiple gradations of thought and feeling that language can express, underscored (just briefly) with Berlioz, Shimanovsky, Varèse and the percussive clack-clack of typewriter keys.
This play proves the truth of Dumas's grand claim that all you need for drama is one man and four walls. I'm so tired of sets that are like nouveau riche houses, advertising how much they cost. The small stage of the Manhattan Ensemble Theater is dominated by a wooden pillar, a table with a typewriter, a chair, a bowl of fruit on a stand and a death-mask.
Mr. Havergal is a subtle actor, with a long, thin body and a long, fine-boned faced. Both perfectly embody the willed asceticism of a man who studies a death-mask on his wall with clenched fist whenever he must remind himself of his duty to art. His gestures are taut and constricted; they never quite complete themselves. He extends his legs and crosses his feet; we feel the anxiety of his effort to relax. When he draws them together again, the vehemently straight back is like a stern reproach. Passion wears him down. And it is wrenching to see how his cautious face nearly cracks when he is driven to say out loud (but out of anyone's hearing), "I love you."
As the director of the much admired Citizens' Theater, Mr. Havergal produced Graham Greene's "Travels With My Aunt," one of the delights of the 1995 New York season. But I don't want "Death in Venice" to finish its New York run (it closes tonight) and just go back to Europe. It is compact, mobile and potent. It should be traveling to theaters across the country.
The Royal Dramatic Theater of Sweden has already returned home after another frustratingly short, five-day run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. This time they brought us Mr. Bergman's reshaping of the 19th-century German classic about the endlessly fascinating, incessantly dramatized struggle between Queen Elizabeth I and Mary Stuart.
I hadn't ever read "Maria Stuart," and what a great work it is. History, invention, rhetoric, poetry, convoluted passions, complex political debate are all there, magnificently shaped and paced. Everything is at stake in the bloody, ruthless world of 16th-century Europe: religion and nationhood (Protestant England versus Catholic Spain and France); the uses of tyranny; the meaning of justice and law; the rights of rulers and the terrible power they have to turn private needs and rivalries into wars and affairs of state. As Maria tells Elisabet when they meet for the first and last time in the woods outside her English prison: "This is the curse and destiny of kings,/ That their estrangement tears the world with hate/ And looses all imaginable strife."
Elisabet's answer is implacable:
Do not accuse the hand of fate; blame your
Black heart, the wild ambition of your house.
There never had been enmity between us,
Until your uncle, that proud priest, drunk with
His dreams of power stretching greedy hands
To grasp all Europe's crowns . . .
(I am quoting from the Penguin translation of F. J. Lamport.)
Mr. Bergman brought us a severe and handsome production. As always, it was surprising in crucial ways. In her prison gray this Maria (Pernilla August) was pensive and dignified. Even when she threw herself on the ground, legs spread in orgasmic delight after humiliating Elisabet, she seemed less a sensualist than a matron having an Earth Mother moment. Great as he is, Mr. Bergman's sexual symbolism, like that of the equally great Martha Graham, can look almost desperately insistent. Wearing bright red and rust, Lena Endre, as Elisabet, was both a sensualist (she and Maria shared a lover in the duplicitous Lord Leicester) and a power broker. It's a fascinating role. As written and played, Elisabet is in thrall to and in command of fierce emotional and political desires.
The production impressed me, but the play overwhelmed me. There we were, watching expressive actors and taking pleasure in the sustained rise and fall of their eloquent voices. But they spoke Swedish, while we listened to Michael Feingold's English translation through headphones. Distracting? Yes, but it didn't matter much. We were too caught up in the words; their meaning in English, their sound in Swedish; their dramatic weight and consequence.
We always talk about seeing plays, rarely about listening to them. But works like these remind us how primal hearing is. We start making sense of the world through sounds and tones; before we can describe what we see we respond to how adults speak or read or sing to us. We listen and react, we eavesdrop and interpret. Such is the power of storytelling. When great literature becomes theater there is no separating the word and the deed.