Calibans I have known; Calibans I would like to meet

I recently saw the final dress rehearsal of the Shakespeare Theatre's The Tempest, a play that I've encountered many times over the years.  I enjoyed the production very much, and look forward to seeing it again before the run is over, now that the production is officially set and the few last-minute kinks that were present on that night are all worked out.  I left the theatre ruminating on several aspects of the production, chief of which was Caliban, played in Ethan McSweeny's production by Clifton Duncan.  The excellent Duncan makes a striking entrance onto the Harman's stage, emerging from below the stage, groaning under the weight of chains binding him to a heavy stone he must carry with him; the image is notable enough in print, but Duncan makes all the more impact as a black actor, climbing onstage and embodying the suffering of the enslaved Caliban for the next two hours.

It is hard to deny the colonialism and paternalism that forms a complex undercurrent of The Tempest.  It's easy to see Caliban as the colonized body, and hard to deny that his life would likely have been happier if he'd been left alone on the island he adores without the influence of Prospero reshaping his life.  Caliban is at best, however, a first-generation inhabitant of the island, rather than one of the native insubstantial spirits. If it's a colonialism narrative, it's a complex one, and it deserves exploration in production as much as in academia and the occasional blog post.  One of the most direct ways of doing so is through casting that brings to the forefront the 400+ years of European colonization of the Americas and the racial tensions that stem from those events which remain at the forefront of current events today. If the presence of Avery Glymph as Ferdinand complicates the simple demonization of Caliban's body, perhaps it transforms the narrative into one about the intersection of race and privilege.  McSweeny's production provides ample fruit for discussion, entirely to its credit.

It's worth noting that it is also the only time I've seen a black man in the role- the other two productions I've seen in the past ten years both featured white actors.  As a result, neither production offered the audience an opportunity to explore the tensions between the characters through a similar lens, and neither delved into the colonial politics of the play to such a gratifying extent as McSweeny's.

My very first Tempest was not one I ever actually saw mounted. Rather, it was an assignment during an undergraduate course that had the grandiose title of "Western Dramatic Tradition."  The assignment was to create a director's notebook for a scene in The Tempest.  We had to imagine the full production, and even though I'd never had the opportunity to think like a director before, I dived right into creating an entire production concept. My project included rough sketches of a set, costume designs for Ariel and Caliban (created via a superhero generator I found online), and the sort of detailed text work that would benefit actors.  I chose to look at the back half of III.i so that I could spend more time thinking about Caliban's "Be not afear'd, the isle is full of noises" speech.  I don't remember most of the details of my imaginary production, but I do know that I zeroed in on that speech with good reason, and it was the most important moment in the play for my Caliban. Above all, my imaginary audience needed to know how deeply he loved his island, and how at home he was among its magic.

I didn't give much thought to the race of any of my actors because I wanted my Ariel and Caliban to look entirely inhuman, making a clear distinction between them and the human characters who came later to the island. The introduction to my Oxford Shakespeare was filled with examples of monstrous Calibans stretching back for hundreds of years, and past-me was having too much fun with the hero generator to have a stronger justification for the choice.  Textually, of course, there's plenty of reasons to make an alien-looking Caliban, but my anecdotal evidence (an informal polling of myself and my roommate) may indicate that the recent trend in productions has been towards more recognizably human depictions of the character.

My second Caliban was Aaron Posner's 2007 production of The Tempest at the Folger. I would hardly be exaggerating to say that I didn't like a single thing about this production, and the complaint I most frequently return to is that Todd Scofield's Caliban was burdened with an utterly thankless gimmick.  Scofield's scene partners, Stephano and Trinculo, were entirely replaced by an emptied wine bottle and his own right hand.  It was baffling. It was bewildering. It was maddening.  I have acknowledged that Posner is a skilled director, but clearly, at some point he ingested the idea that directors today must "make Shakespeare their own" (ugh) and has chosen again and again to do so by reshaping the texts into an image of his own creation with cuts, interpolations, and sometimes- god help us- with puppets. I am drawn to Caliban because of his rage, his dignity, his fallibility, his joy and his despair.  I've never seen him half such a fool as I did watching Scofield forced to treat his entire subplot as the drunken hallucinations of a pathetic creature.

I remember very little about the next Caliban I saw during a production at the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, VA.  As best I recall, he fell into an often-trod middle ground of a middle-aged white actor dressed in raggedy clothes that seems by comparison like a non-choice in a wide realm of possibilities.

There's one Caliban that I've been waiting to see since I was 18 years old and flipping through the preface to my Oxford Shakespeare edition of the text.  The editor included a brief description of a production by John Ryder in 1871 in which the final image of the play was of Caliban, at last alone on his beloved island, soaking in the sun and the inheritor of the only realm he has ever desired or loved.  Where is that Caliban?  Let him look like a fish or look like my next-door neighbor, but give him his freedom and give him his home.  In a theatrical landscape where every good idea has already been staged at least once, can't someone steal this one, and then tell me, so I can come and see it?

These are the Calibans I've known.  They have challenged me and enraged me.  They have been forgettable, and they have been carefully tucked away in a folder along with other undergraduate paraphernalia.  I've never yet seen a Caliban that didn't look like a man, and I've never yet seen a Caliban played by a woman (though research show me that Kate Eastwood Norris played one at the Folger 14 years ago, and why the hell couldn't I have seen THAT performance instead?).  I'd love to see a Caliban that was not only freed from his shackles but left alone to live as he pleased in the place that he loves.  There are so many directions to take this character, and I look forward to seeing what I want, and to be surprised by an interpretation that I could never have imagined on my own.


Unknown said…
The Synetic version of Tempest ended with Caliban all alone—except I thought he looked lonely and bereft, rather than happy.

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