I wanted to write a review of The Cleveland Shakespeare Festival’s Troilus and Cressida, one of Shakespeare’s rarely performed “problem plays”. And yet, I have been struggling to write it. Not because I didn’t like it (I did) but because I find myself thinking about the play itself, even more than the interpretation.
I was unfamiliar with the basic story of Troilus and Cressida. I believed that it had something to do with a love story, and it is. But the love story takes place in the backdrop of the Trojan War. More specifically, it takes place during the period of the Trojan War that Homer immortalized in The Illiad.
I haven’t read The Illiad, but a couple of years ago I listened to an audio recording. I justify this because
1 I came to accept that I was never going to read The Illiad the whole way through
2 Even if I did, I can’t say I wasn’t cheating, because I would have read an English translation, not the original Homeric Greek.
3 When The Illiad was first composed, people didn’t read it. They listened to the bards recite it. As such, listening to The Illiad is actually far closer to the way The Illiad was meant to be experienced than simply reading it. (That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.)
The Illiad is gory, and also surprisingly moving. It tells the story of a short period of the Trojan War, just before the end. It tells how Achilles spends most of the time sulking, and the Greeks die. Achilles decides to stop sulking when his friend is murdered by the Trojans. Achilles returns to the battlefield and kills Hector, prince of Troy and the tamer of horses, and drags his body behind his chariot. The gods disapprove of his desecration of Hector’s body (Hector is portrayed as a noble man by Homer) and Achilles’ divine mother convinces him to meet with Priam, king of Troy, and to return Hector to his people for burial. The Illiad ends not with the Greeks’ games of triumph after a successful battle, but rather with Hector’s funeral. It is full of pathos.
I couldn’t help but think about The Illiad when I was watching Troilus and Cressida, and I am sure that it has been this way for audiences throughout the centuries. It would have been even more so for them, since they would have been much more familiar with Homer.
And when I wasn’t thinking of Homer, I was thinking of Tom Stoppard.
Tom Stoppard’s most famous play is Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. In this, he tells the story of Hamlet through two very minor characters. They go through the entire play without ever knowing what the greater story of Hamlet was about, just as they do in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
Troilus and Cressida is Shakespeare’s version of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.
In the midst of a much larger, famous story, Shakespeare tells the story of two minor characters, that are only remotely aware of the much greater story.
Troilus and Cressida’s story, in some ways, seems out of place. Shakespeare frames the story of the young lovers in the backdrop of the Trojan War. Cleveland Shakespeare Festival’s production makes the war very clear. The men wear modern day army fatigues, which somehow places the war front and center to the drama. And yet, the production ends with the cast singing a song about a breakup. It seemed out of place. After all, how does this song fit in with the death of Hector, the tamer of horses?
But upon further reflection, I decided that the focus on heartbreak actually makes sense. The story of the Trojan War begins with Helen, the wife of Menelaus, the king of Sparta, leaving her husband and going to Troy with Paris. Because of this, the Trojans and Spartans fight for ten years, and Troy is eventually demolished. Seen in this light, Troilus and Cressida is essentially the same story in microcosm. It even ends with Troilus vowing revenge on the Greeks, implying that the war will continue.
One last thought.
I saw the performance at James A Garfield’s historic home. The representative read a quote from James A Garfield in which he describes his love for the play. In the quote, Garfield describes Cressida as a “wanton.” Is this fair? No doubt he is referring to the scene where Cressida is sent to the Greeks, after her father has betrayed the Trojans and gone to the Greeks’ camp. As soon as she enters the camp, the soldiers begin demanding that she kiss them in turn. In the Cleveland Shakespeare Festival production, this was portrayed as sexual harassment. I think that’s the right call.
Now, on to Twelfth Night! I can’t wait.