Theatre Mirror Reviews - "The Tamer Tamed"

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"The Tamer Tamed"

Reviewed by G. L. Horton

"The Tamer Tamed"

by John Fletcher
directed by Michael Burnet

I’ve wanted to see “The Tamer Tamed” ever since I first heard of its existence, and this summer Shakespeare and Company is making an offer no Shakespeare lover can refuse: John Fletcher’s feminist sequel to “The Taming of the Shrew” is being presented as part of the company’s free Bankside program in the tent-enclosed Rose Footprint outdoor theatre. The theatre itself is charming, the large acting ensemble mainly youthful but with enough experience and skill to make a good case for Fletcher’s script as a neglected gem that deserves a place in the repertoire alongside other non-Shakespearean comedies such as Jonson’s Volpone or Middleton’s A Chaste Maid in Cheapside. But the best reason for doing or seeing “The Tamer Tamed” is the light it throws on “Shrew”-- which Shakespeare & Company is performing this summer in its indoor Founder’s Theatre, right next to the Rose. Fletcher demonstrates what many social historians have declared impossible--that an audience in Shakespeare’s era could be as easily persuaded to side with a rebellious wife as with a domineering husband.

For those who have yet to hear about “Tamer”, the script was written some years after the success of Shakespeare's perennially popular “Shrew”, and was successfully presented by Shakespeare's company, the King’s Men, in conjunction with the Petruchio/Kate play. Some scholars believe that Fletcher wrote the play as an audition piece, to prove that he was up to the company’s standard, and that the strategy worked: Fletcher did go on to co-write plays with Shakespeare, notably Henry VIII, and became the resident dramatist for the King’s Men after Shakespeare's retirement. “Tamer Tamed”, under 3 different titles, held the stage at least till 1670, when it shows up in an entry in Pepys’s diary, but later seems to have dropped from sight--- apparently when its bawdy humor and blatant feminism were no longer laughing matters.

In Shakespeare's “Shrew, Petruchio presents himself as an above average specimen but a basically normal guy who simply wants the good things in life. But Petruchio isn’t a normal guy-- he’s a charismatic variation on the Miles Glorious of classic farce, jaw-droppingly self confident. He doesn’t want to wait for his wealthy father to die to get his hands on ready money. Marry a rich shrew? No problem for a man who has no doubts about his leadership abilities. A little behavior modification will make a comfortable wife out of a sharp-tongued bullying virgin who doesn’t give a damn that she’ll never be voted Miss Congeniality. Petruchio’s friends, like the audience, are aware that the gentleman is a sharp-tongued bully himself, and nearly impervious to the social sanctions that keep most gentlemen within the bounds of acceptable behavior. We feel that the bullies are well matched, not least because there is attraction between them. But although Kate’s tongue is Petruchio’s equal, in all other ways the man has the upper hand. Petruchio does outrageous things to Kate, and gets away with it partly because Kate has behaved so badly so often and so publicly that public opinion as well as her own family is against her. But mostly he gets away with it because he can-- women circa 1600 have no more rights than children or slaves. The church gives a female’s husband or father the moral right of command and her the duty to obey, and the state gives her male guardian the legal right to imprison or beat her to enforce his commands, however unreasonable.

Audiences from Shakespeare’s day to this have laughed at the battling pair’s antics as Petruchio fights fire with fire by holding up the mirror of exaggeration to Kate’s demands and tantrums. We buy the happy ending, where Kate capitulates. Why? Because we enjoy seeing a spirited woman broken? More likely because we’ve seen Kate miserable early on, when she gets away with bullying her father and sister, and are willing to believe from her wager-winning triumph in the “best wife” contest with her sister and Hortensio’s espoused rich widow in Shakespeare's final scene that Kate may be happier with Petruchio as mentor and senior partner. We see that as a team they will command respect within their community. We are encouraged to take the sparks that have flown between the couple as evidence of sexual compatibility, and imagine that love will cement a mutual bond of peace. Skeptical feminists tell us that we are fools to believe that this is a happy ending: Once the honeymoon is over, this pair will have a miserable marriage.

John Fletcher’s sequel to “The Taming of the Shrew” shows us that it isn’t just PC moderns who are skeptics. In Fletcher’s version, Petruchio (Tom Wells) is credited with taming Katherine, but that victory was really only a moment of truce in the battle of the sexes. The pair’s married life was one long struggle, as the husband sought supremacy and the wife resisted with scolding and rebellion. Now a widower --- we never discover when or how Kate died --- Petruchio has held on to his social identity among his friends as the notorious Tamer, but his reputation among women is as a monstrous wife abuser who is a danger even to a female with the temperament of a dormouse.

The older but not wiser Petruchio has been worn down by constant marital battle. He’s now closer to the normal man he took himself to be, no longer looking for the challenge of a spirited wife with the energy and intellect to stretch his own powers. He’s a shell-shocked marriage survivor. As second spouse he wants a gentle pliant maid who will simply be quiet and obey, never triggering in his traumatized psyche the nightmare memories of battles past:

“The bare remembrance of his first wife
Will make him start in's sleep, cry out for cudgels,
And hide his breeches out of fear her ghost
Should walk and wear'em yet.”

Petruchio thinks he has found such a maid in Maria (Catherine Taylor-Williams), a cousin of Katherine’s but a sweet girl of modest temper, and one who has welcomed his suit. Once married, however, Petruchio discovers a very different Maria-- a woman who is determined to turn herself into a feminist warrior, to set aside her own modesty and gentleness and fight for the rights of all women. She is set on this course by Katherine's sister Bianca (Sarah Taylor), who insists that Petruchio’s example of tyranny must not be allowed to stand. Even as he is on his way home from their wedding to bed his bride, Petruchio is boasting to his friends about how he will excel them all in bedroom prowess. Tamers rule!

Like Aristophanes' Lysistrata, Maria decides that the way to end war is to withhold sex. She locks Petruchio out of the house as her opening gambit, announcing that she will not let him in until he agrees that a wife has inalienable rights. Petruchio at first assumes that Maria is joking, and answers with jests of his own. But once he sees that she is serious, he is outraged. He tries to break down the door, and calls for his friends to come and help him lay siege to his house. But Maria’s cause is trumpeted far and wide, and female reinforcements pour in from city and country to guard Maria’s walls and dump insults and loaded chamber pots onto the heads of the besiegers.

So far, so good, in the Shakespeare & Company production. The actors are energetic and well spoken, the costumes by Sarah Hilliard and assistant Ellie Steingraeber are colorful, the Rose stage facade with balcony above and doors below ideal for the in-and-out movement of the main plot. The subplot, which concerns Maria’s younger sister Livia (Julie Webster) who is in love with a sweet young gentleman named Rowland (Dave Thier) but promised by her father (Robert Lohbaur) to a rich old man named Gremio (Jeffrey Kent) --- apparently the Gremio who courted Bianca in “Shrew” --- seems less interesting, but may provide a contrast in the differing ways the sisters will go about getting what they want from a husband. The sex jokes are working, and the stereotypes too. When Maria presents an endless scroll containing her list of demands, Petruchio scans it quickly and summarizes: "liberty and clothes!" --- which brings down the house.

The Lysistrata-like confrontation is the high point of the show. There are more ploys and counter ploys, but the play gets less interesting as it goes on. I’m not convinced that it is all Fletcher’s fault. It seems to me that Maria should be protean, a quick-change artist, but that underlying all the forms she assumes is a person of warmth and empathy. Lysistrata the warrior-woman is but the first acting role. Each successive persona Maria assumes is more extreme, calling for a complete change of costume, posture, manner, vocal pitch and accent --- which ought to add up to the wonderful effect of an infinite variety rivaling Cleopatra’s, the Maria who is described to us by an amazed pair of minor characters:

   Ped. Oh her tongue, her tongue.
    Gru. Rather her many tongues.
     Ped. Or rather strange tongues.
    Gru. Her lying tongue.
     Ped. Her lisping tongue.
    Gru. Her long tongue.
     Ped. Her lawlesse tongue.
    Gru. Her loud tongue.              
     Ped. And her lickrish --  
    Gru. Many other tongues, and many stranger tongues
Then ever Babel had to tell his ruines,
Were women rais'd withall; but never a true one.

This astonishing build-up of effects just didn’t happen at the Shakespeare & Company performance I saw. I’m willing to believe that in trimming the script from full length to an hour and fifteen minutes without intermission the adaptor cut out mostly the dull parts, but something is missing-- text, subtext, or direction. It’s my hunch that with a bit of re-working a through line could be found that would keep the action rising to a climax that is sentimental as well as comic, and that such an ending would be both thrilling and emotionally satisfying.

Maria says early on that if she is able to convince Petruchio of the error of his ways it will be “a miracle”. Why not play it as one? The ending of “Tamer” is not so very different from the resurrections and reconciliations that mark the endings of Shakespeare’s late romances, which some believe were influenced by the sentimental strain Fletcher shows in his successful collaborations with other writers. I remember weeping tears of joy during the last scene of "Pericles" at Shakespeare & Company’s student production some few seasons back, when the miraculous Marina turned lust and despair to love and hope. In the last scene of “Tamer” the dead body of Petruchio is delivered to his wife’s door. We may suspect that this is just another ploy, but there is nothing in the lines to assure us that he is not dead indeed-- his servants and friends are grieving. In words that ring true to me on the page, a despairing Maria delivers a kind of anti eulogy through her tears, lamenting her husband’s wasted life, declaring that if he could not repent and reform he and the world are better off now that he is dead. This is shocking --- and it works on the supposedly dead corpse like shock treatment. Petruchio sits up in his coffin, not vengeful or enraged but in an agony of distress and regret --- and from the few disjointed phrases he utters, presumably he is weeping, too:

    PP: Unbutton me, --- I die indeed else. O Maria,
Oh my unhappinesse, my misery. ....
Why, why Maria.        

Maria responds to Petruchio’s breakdown with a plea for forgiveness, which is either a reversion to the modest loving soul she was before she took up arms against Petruchio’s bullying, or an utter change of heart:                 

     Maria: I have done my worst, and have my end, forgive me;
From this houre make me what you please: I have tam'd ye,
And now am vow’d your servant: Look not strangely,
Nor feare what I say to you. Dare you kiss me?
Thus I begin my new love.
     PP: Once againe?
     Mar: With all my heart.
    PP: Once again Maria!           
O Gentlemen, I know not where I am.  

Director Michael Burnet has chosen a tough, intellectual style of staging, going for straight-ahead conflict over ambivalence, and reinforcing it in his casting, costuming, and direction of the leading women. Julie Webster lists Antigone as a bio credit; Sarah Taylor has played Kate in Shrew, as has the leading lady, Catherine Taylor-Williams, who has also performed Queen Margaret in Richard III. These actresses have more pliable characters to their credit, too, but in “Tamer” they show their heroic side, imposing but cold as marble. The men seem to shrink and recede into the background when their opposites draw near. It’s very difficult to believe that these formidable females are meant to engage our sympathies as underdogs, even though plot-wise the ladies win by using the powers of the weak that they share with the traditional comedic Clever Servant --- deception, persuasion, disguise, wit. What’s good about this production of “Tamer” is so good that I’d love to see Shakepeare & Company take another run at a fuller version of Fletcher’s script, giving it the multidimensional attention that makes their repeat productions of the Shakespeare plays they have explored in depth so satisfying. To thank the company for mounting this “silenced” play and perhaps encourage them to do it again soon, I left a generous donation in the money-box the audience passes on the way out. I can only hope that multitudes will do the same. This play is well worth it, enlightening as it entertains.

"The Tamer Tamed" (4 July - 3 September)
Rose Footprint Theatre, Bankside, Kemble Street, LENOX MA

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