No Shakespeare play has been subjected to so furious, sharply divided and sustained debate over its basic merit as Timon of Athens. The play is seldom produced, in part because it seems unfinished. It lacks Shakespeare’s usual consistency of poetic genius, the second half is haphazardly structured and some speakers are even left without names. The military subplot is ill-conceived or incomplete, and the title character, with his unmitigated extremes, is often thought an emblem or a symbol, not a real human being. Few people know the play, and those who’ve heard of it often inherit more surrounding controversy than theatrical substance.
Nonetheless, given that most contemporary Shakespeare is director’s theatre, Timon’s absence from the stage seems odd: Texts are chopped and rearranged and reset so thoroughly that the canon is forever new. Certified flaws may actually seem apertures of opportunity for prying open the play and reconfiguring it at will. “Unfinished” becomes a special invitation.
Director Michael Langham, whose production of Timon runs through Jan. 5 at New York’s National Actors Theatre, was fascinated by the challenge of “finishing” Shakespeare’s work–reordering scenes, matching names to speeches, boldly amputating lifeless text–but he was attracted to the play for primarily emotional reasons. “I’ve been lucky enough to do a lot of Shakespeare in my life,” he says. “Working with a dead author you’re always searching for what or who is the real person; where do you hear the heartbeat, where do you hear the pain or the joy? I felt I was closer to the real voice, a very vulnerable voice of total despair, closer to Shakespeare in this play than I have felt with any other.”
Story of monumental loss
The story is one of monumental loss and disillusionment. Timon, a wealthy Athenian lord, freely gives his fortune away to those he believes are his friends. When his riches evaporate and he appeals to those same friends for help, they deny him outright. In his pain, horror and fury, Timon spurns Athens to live in a remote forest cave, where he curses the species that has so brutalized him. While digging in the earth for root vegetables to sustain him, he uncovers a stash of buried gold. Almost immediately a parade of opportunists descends upon him, professing friendship while begging pay. Timon rebukes them all, giving gold only to his soldier friend Alcibiades, who is leading an attack on Athens. Having exhausted his supply of vitriol, Timon composes his own epitaph and dies in his chosen grave by the sea.
If artists and critics alike have been flummoxed by the severe contrast between the first half’s convivial swirl and the second’s desolate, cold procession, perhaps it’s because the play journeys too far afield from versions of reality ratified by realistic drama, where “consistency” and “smooth evolution” or “gradual unveiling” are representation’s virtues. In fact, sudden, extreme reversals frequently are the rhythm of life; human behavior is the instant, stark divide. But the total barrenness of Timon’s emotional destination, his reckless rush from society to solitude, can prove too uncomfortable for audiences when there aren’t any amenities or delays, just a plunge from buoyant satire into heartbreak.
This transition works, as Langham and actor Brian Bedford demonstrate, if you understand its source. Timon’s excessively passionate dedication to a simple credo, “Give without receiving,” seems in Bedford’s portrayal to be generated by a lack of self-love and a fundamental mistrust of friendship and humanity itself. Bedford’s Timon has to make a world where he can trust and believe and love, because his inner impulse is to question the value of those feelings. His every gesture communicates desperate, hopeful effort and its attendant vulnerability. When reality ruptures this special sphere of Timon’s own design, says Langham, “The bile is ready to come out. Timon’s other side has been waiting there all along,” held in check by vigilant, willful fantasy.
Timon’s been called everything from Christ-like to irredeemably foolish, but what’s more compelling than these epithets is the fact that he suffers the pain of wounded belief. Timon’s loyal steward observes how “strange” it is “when man’s worst sin is he does too much good,” and asks, given the example of his lord’s downfall, “Who then dares to be half so kind again?” Although, as Bedford plays him, Timon is immature, unwise, unwilling to listen, see or learn, his vast emotional capacity is an awesome, necessary thing. “We’re a bit short of idealists,” says Langham. “We’re short of banners to follow. Here was a banner to follow, but it was so naive, so simplistic, that it was bound to be abused. He’s misguided, but at least there’s a passion toward something.”
The effort it takes to hate
If we long for such belief despite its wild impracticality, how can we possibly survive its opposite in the second half of the play? Bedford helps by never letting us forget the effort it takes truly to hate. He emphasizes Timon’s misgivings about this arduous pursuit, and so eases away from the obvious plentiful supply of spite and bile and rage toward a sweeter sorrow, treating the play’s second half like a blues number and letting the music of the words console its great big broken heart.
Duke Ellington score
When Langham first directed the play at Stratford, Ontario in 1963, he commissioned a score from Duke Ellington. That score has been adapted by composer Stanley Silverman for the current revival, which is set in the oblivious splendor of 1920s Europe. The instrumental jazz music floats easily in and out of the action, wooing us with its smooth, stylish celebration of Timon’s lavish party, then mourning his devastation, and ultimately mocking his return to wealth with playful, giddy rhythms. The music brings alive a crucial spirit of irony, not in the sense of trenchant sarcasm or the latest skeptical pose, but a compassionate, cosmic awareness of the hurtful distance between aspiration and fact.
The great hopefulness of 1963 has been lost, and Langham returns to the play at a moment when society needs to find in its ruined faith some sort of renewed possibility, but feels too freshly betrayed to trust. He stages Alcibiades’ final storming of Athens as a loud, pyrotechnic assault on all the senses, a choice that absolutely blasts away the sinister ornaments of intricate speech with unadorned ballistics. The confusing military subplot at last makes perfect sense as emotional if not strictly logical wordless revenge for all the oppression and ostracization wrought by liars on believers. Subsequent news of Timon’s death encourages a more sophisticated, sober call for balance and compromise in human affairs, but it’s the basic hurt that endures.
Do we blame the believer for his vulnerability? No more so than we remind the blues singer it’s his own damn fault for having fallen in love. There’s something drastically beautiful, even comforting, in the simple extremes of a heartfelt song of woe. Timon’s is the sad old song of knowing no in-between.