With 37 plays in the Shakespeare canon to choose from, the chances of four American theatres staging one of his most obscure works – Pericles, Prince of Tyre – all during the same winter would seem awfully remote. But to listen to the actors who performed the title role, this convergence of Peticleses isn’t really a coincidence. Synchronicity is the word they’re more likely to use.
For Jung is in the air, and Joseph Campbell too. And Pericles is seemingly a play whose time has come round – again. As the first of Shakespeare’s four romances – those fantastic, often mystical tragicomedies which rounded out his career – Peticles enjoyed a popularity in its day which was rivalled apparently only by the likes of Hamlet and Henry V.
We can merely speculate on why the Jacobeans adored this episodic play, written in a style so archaic even then that rival Ben Jonson derided it as a “mouldy tale.” But to those actors who recently played Pericles, the appeal to modern audiences is clear. This is an archetypal hero’s journey – of adventure, great loss and finally redemption. The complex, navel-gazing prince of Denmark still holds us rapt, of course. But it seems that society in the late 20th century is also yearning for the mythic simplicity and hopefulness of Shakespeare’s prince of Tyre.
Because this romance is so unfamiliar to playgoers, even to Shakespearean actors, these four American companies were free to explore Pericles unencumbered by the often oppressive stage tradition that attaches to the better-known works. But it also meant having to figure out on their own an especially difficult play. Not the least of the hurdles they had to overcome was persuading audiences to accept the improbable actions and miraculous feats of its characters.
Such, then, was the challenge facing those five actors who undertook the role of Pericles this winter: Campbell Scott at the New York Shakespeare Festival, Peter Aylward at Shakespeare Repertory in Chicago, Charles Shaw Robinson at Baltimore’s Center Stage, and, at the Guthrie Lab in Minneapolis (where the role was split), Charles Janasz as the young Pericles and Richard Iglewski as the old Pericles.
In the interviews I conducted with these men during the runs of Pericles, they described the vexations and rewards of playing the role, and responded to what their peers had to say as well. Their comments prove illuminating not only with reference to this particular Shakespeare work and to how actors approach an obscure part; their firsthand experiences also give us clues as to what kinds of theatre and stories our culture seems now to be hungering for.
When analyzing tragic heroes such as Macbeth and Othello, actors tend to focus on the characters’ psychology – their motives, weaknesses, Passions. Players of Pericles, however, seem invariably to begin by describing the character’s journey-not what he thinks, but what he does, and especially what happens to him. They find a parallel to Pericles in myths and folk tales, where characters tend more to be types, even symbols, and where the meaning resides less in a character’s individuality than in the action.
Indeed, Pericles is so eventful that one almost needs a scorecard to keep track of the action as it ranges across six cities in the Mediterranean and more than 16 years of time.
After being introduced by a figure, Gower, Pericles drops the first of its many bombshells. A young prince from Tyre is trying to win King Antiochus’ daughter by solving a riddle. If he fails, as have many princes before him, it will cost him his life. Pericles deciphers the riddle correctly, but to his horror it reveals that the king “to incest did provoke ” his daughter. This initial incident establishes the tone of this character and propels him through many vicissitudes of fortune.
Charles Janasz: It’s a play about a hero who right away confronts a taboo – like meeting a dragon he needs to kill. This taboo he meets, incest, is completely appalling to him. Yet at the same time he has to deal with the fact that he is attracted to this woman. After he’s interpreted the riddle, he says, “Fair glass of light, I loved you and could still,” so he’s forced to examine his feelings about incest.
Charles Shaw Robinson: Pericles is very direct, and very pure in how he encounters the world. His natural choice is joy. That’s why he’s so disturbed when he encounters the evil in Antioch. Life is never going to be the same for him, because he’s seen that it’s possible for the worst kind of evil to present itself as honorable and as something to be attracted to.
Janasz: I saw it somewhat like the story of Siddhartha becoming the Buddha. Like Siddhartha, Pericles starts out having everything, being protected, wealthy, insulated. He goes out into the world, sees evil in his encounter with incest. Knowing his life’s in danger, he flees to Tyre, but can’t stay there because Antiochus is still after him. So he sets out again and encounters suffering, in the famine in Tarsus, deals with that by giving them aid, gets shipwrecked, loses everything. He meets the common man in the fishermen and is revived by them, discovers in Pentapolis a kingdom where joy is, where relationships are healthy. He falls in love, gets married to a princess, Thaisa – and not because of his status or caste, since they don’t even know he’s a king, but on his own merits. He finds out he’s going to be a father, and can safely return home, but there’s another storm. The baby is born, the mother dies and has to be thrown overboard, and he must leave his baby in Tarsus, since she won’t survive the journey home. Wham, wham, wham.
But the Worst – and most fantastic – is yet to come. His sea-born daughter, Marina, is given into the care of the rulers of Tarsus. Sixteen years later, however, the jealous foster-mother plots her murder. At the point of death, Marina is captured by pirates and then sold to a brothel, where she succeeds in preserving her virginity and reforming the licentious clientele. When Pericles at last comes to Tarsus to collect her, he is told that Marina has died. This final trial causes him to lapse into a catatonic state of grief.
The last act overflows with miraculous coincidence and divine providence. In the most moving scene of the play, Pericles’ spirits are restored when his daughter is serendipitously brought to him. “Thou,” he tells Marina, “begettest him that did the beget.” His joy leads him to hear, as no one else in the play is able to, the music of the spheres. “What this represents,” Peter Aylward explains, “is a coming together with the cosmos.” finally, guided by the goddess Diana, he is reunited with his wife, Thaisa, whom a physician at Ephesus had restored to life several scenes earlier.
Campbell Scott: You’re always afraid, especially in the times we live in, of playing the miraculous scenes. You always think that everyone is a cynic. It’s just a matter of protection, especially in a city like New York. But of course, everyone needs and wants to see something like this. To see miracles, to see resurrections, huge passions, coincidences, and to be nourished by that hope. You don’t have to believe it, exactly to still be nourished by it.
At first I thought, there’s no way I can do this. Certainly, my feelings about those scenes have changed. Now they are the best scenes to to, the ones the audiences respond to most powerfully.
Richard Iglewski: We have the hope in Pericles that when things get so bad, maybe the gods intervene out of kindness, for the betterment of man. This is something that our contemporary cynicism and chic attitudes marginalize in favor of practical, technocratic, down-to-earth choices. But one is never more than a step away from magic.
When a play like this erupts in so many productions at one time, I think synchronicity is at work. It’s because we have mutually sensed we wish to explore this kind of journey.
With a Play as spectacular and action-filled as Pericles, one might suspect that an actor’s job would be relatively easy just learn the lines and hang on for the tide. Pericles, after all, has very few of the soliloquies that his counterparts in Shakespeare’s tragedies have, and none of Ins speeches plumbs the depths of his psyche.
Nevertheless, these performers considered the role to be rife with its own unique difficulties.
One such problem – the sometimes wooden, uninspiring verse of the first two acts – seems not to be Shakespeare’s fault. Several of these early scenes are thought by scholars to be by another hand. Shakespeare or not, though, the actors have to slog through it. Aylward noted the “clunkiness” of the verse, and Scott that some of the lines “feel like a piece of concrete.” When the master “finally kicks in,” Robinson offers, “it’s like I’ve been treading water and then I suddenly reach solid ground.”
But a more formidable challenge arises, paradoxically, out of the relative simplicity of the character. When trying to figure out what makes Pericles tick, these actors were faced with some potentially unanswerable questions: Whether Pericles is essentially passive – a mere cog within a grand, cosmic pattern. Whether he develops as a character. And whether his apparent passivity, a trait so denounced in our society, is in fact the key to his final redemption.
Peter Aylward: It’s true that the episodic nature of this play robs the character of some of his complexity. Pericles has often been thought to be a bland, passive role. He certainly doesn’t have the undercutting wit and flashes of genius of Hamlet. But he does have a great capacity to suffer and to bounce back finally from his greatest calamities.
Still, it is a tough challenge. Pericles must react to what’s given to him. It’s always difficult to wait until the time when you get the information or the emotional charge from the other person that then wakes him up. Some roles you feel as if you’re in charge, but Pericles has to wait.
A good example of this comes at the end. You have to find the right state of being for a person who hasn’t spoken for three months, and then, as Marina speaks to him, he slowly wakes up and has this incredible emotional discovery dawn on him.
Curiously Enough, each of the actors pointed to Hamlet as a useful antithesis to this role. Scott found himself far more “exhausted and wired at the same time” after a performance of Pericles than after Hamlet, even though the latter role has nearly twice as many lines.
Scott: I always end up comparing him to Hamlet, for some reason. If that role is “internal,” then Pericles is sort of “external.” After he leaves Tyre and goes off into vast Neptune’s ocean, he begins to be acted upon, and never seems to have time to get his bearings the way Hamlet constantly does.
You have a feeling of not quite finishing something. We joke about how Pericles has to do it all, “he dances, he sings, he bleeds.” But essentially he’s just reacting to so many outside events. He barely has time to catch his breath and then he’s in another storm. That’s one reason why Hamlet’s so wonderful to watch, because we see someone asking questions, solving problems, or trying to solve them. But Pericles says, “We cannot but obey the powers above us.” The solution really comes from Marina, she is the one who is resurrects him. She is the moving force of the play.
And While The actors in fact disagree with each other on the question of just how helpless Pericles is in bringing about his ultimately happy ending, all concur in finding this part an emotionally taxing one. It may well be that actors, and our culture in general, are more comfortable with characters who actively control their destiny, for better or worse. To portray Pericles effectively, a few of the actors suggest, a performer must virtually become as vulnerable and emotionally reactive as Pericles himself.
Robinson: In tragedy there’s this sometimes wonderful, sometimes terrible feeling, that the heroes are the prime movers in the story. That by their choices and actions their entire lives can be defined. They choose evil, and something terrible happens to them, or they make the wrong choice, and they’re destroyed. But it’s their own doing.
We all want to believe that that’s the way life works. But the truth is, more often than not, you’re given a set of alternatives, some worse than others, and we’re not sure why things turn out as they do.
Iglewski: Very often, Pericles wants to be in control but finds that he isn’t really in control of much. Marina embodies a different kind of control, in her faith and in her purity. It’s ultimately more real. This was the really challenging part about playing Pericles. Like so many of us who exhaust ourselves trying to be in control, I found that perhaps giving up control is the best way of really finding it.
If These Actors’ comments on Pericles so often verge on the mystical, that seems only natural. Shakespeare’s romances display little of the anxiety and existential doubts that run through the great tragedies. Instead, the final works – with their many miracles and divine interventions – demonstrate a certain serenity about humanity’s position in the universe. Life is full of great losses, Pericles and the other romances insist, but we are not alone in a void. Instead, that which has been lost is very often restored to us in one way or another. Above all, what is cherished and even invested with magical properties – is the simplest of gifts: the love of a child for her parent and a husband for his spouse.
As our culture grows more and more disenchanted with a materialist, technocentric model of life, the alternative view that these romances offer would seem to be particularly welcome. This seems, in fact, to be the case. Although The Tempest has never been long-absent from the stage, the lesser-known romances, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale and Pericles, are becoming increasingly popular.
Popular, but not necessarily widely understood. Interpreting these plays intelligibly to a modern audience is not an easy task, as these actors can attest. The romances aren’t the escapist works of a doddering playwright – a mere recycling of fairy magic from his youthful A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Rather, they are unique and, to us, often elusive.
Robinson: The spiritual journey is what fascinated Shakespeare in all the romances. But it’s the most difficult thing to dramatize. It’s too easy to turn into pomposity or preciousness. Perhaps the only way to suggest it is through symbolism and folk tale rather than through realism.
It’s important to keep in mind that this play is related to the morality plays that an Elizabethan audience would be very familiar with. They were deeply interested in plays relating an individual to a kind of larger moral landscape.
Obviously in 1992 we have trouble with those morality tales. It tends to instantaneously feel like melodrama to us. We’re more comfortable with a Lear, who screams at the gods, than a man who suffers and yet won’t let go of his faith in spite of it all.
Janasz: At first I wasn’t all that thrilled with the play. I had only seen it once before, and that production was only able to deal with it through a kind of campiness, very jokey. Cerimon, who brings Thaisa back to life, was played as a type of mad Dr. Frankenstein.
I suppose it’s because our modern, cynical audiences find it so difficult to enter into a world where faith is so powerful. Yet we are a society right now that is facing so many crises, and feels so battered by reality. Maybe to us too it can be, as Gower calls it, a “restorative.”
The Great Challenge to performers of Pericles, then, is to convince us how it can be that the magical is also real. Happily, this is something our symbolic, non-naturalistic stage would seem to be well-equipped to explore.
And it may also be that our audiences aren’t as skeptical as some of these actors fear. Certainly, a production that trots out the sentimental readings of previous centuries or sends the play up with contemporary spoofing is unlikely to bridge that gulf between the miraculous world of Pericles and our own. But many theatregoers do seem eager to be moved by Shakespeare’s romances and other equally mythic stories – and, as this group of actors makes clear, a performance style befitting these stories is still evolving.