Mysteries of Fragility

“The play conceals a mystery” (42). That’s the Romanian theatre director Aureliu Manea (1945-2014), from the recently published collection of his writings, Imaginary Performances in Shakespeare (Routledge, 2020). I’m not nearly competent to assess Manea’s contributions to theatrical performance. I write about how, as he imagines productions of different Shakespearean plays, he appeals to the vulnerable reader, or vulnerable theatre goer, because Manea clearly distinguishes experiencing performance from reading. “Ordinary reading is unsatisfactory” (69), he writes; “Like a layer of snow, the words written by the playwright conceal future fruits.” As Manea writes about how he would stage different plays, he suggests–he wouldn’t want to do more than to suggest–these fruits. His constant theme is mystery: the mystery of theatrical performance that can transform a text that “has something apparently cold about it” (69) into performances that live not only on the stage, but in the experience of the audience participants.

When Manea writes that ordinary reading is unsatisfactory, he is not going in the direction of suspicious readings. That way of reading is given a thorough discussion in Toril Moi’s Revolution of the Ordinary, and I won’t go off on that now. Against the background of academic “critical” suspicion, Manea can seem almost naive in some of his understandings. About The Merchant of Venice, he writes: “I do not see any Jewish problem in this text” (7). Manea’s Prospero in The Tempest is not the colonialist, patriarchal figure some now understand him to be, but someone who “dedicates his final wonder to his beloved daughter” (11). In The Taming of the Shrew, Petruchio comes to liberate Katherine from her stultifying family, not to gaslight her into submission to himself. “The process of becoming, accompanied by music and strange gestures, will symbolise the birth of a free soul,” he writes about how he imagines staging Shrew. “Everything will be enveloped in mystery, as if it were something difficult and cumbersome, a forging of new relationships between man and world, between man and his fellow man” (49). The gender biased language in that quotation probably isn’t innocent, and Manea’s claims for what some consider Shakespeare’s “toxic” plays should certainly give us pause and maybe offend us. Maybe I’m being too generous in looking elsewhere, at what’s of immense value in his imagined performances.

The job of Petruchio in Shrew is to wake up Katherine, whom Manea understands as a Cinderella character. Or better yet, as I understand his argument, Briar Rose, who sleeps in a castle that is spell-bound in time, until she is awakened…–and that’s the problem: it’s another story about a woman needing a man to wake her up. Can we get past that to a human dilemma: we of all genders need someone, or something, to wake us up; the soul needs awakening, and constant reawakening. That goes back to Joseph Campbell’s idea of the great mythic tension between stasis (Briar Rose’s sleep or the dragon’s hoarding) and renewal brought by the hero.

For reasons I don’t understand, Manea doesn’t understand Rosalind in As You Like It as playing this hero role; he passes her by, which I regret. Nor does he discuss Cymbeline, in which Imogen exemplifies the hero who revitalizes a moribund court and country. He does imagine a properly heroic role for Viola in Twelfth Night: “In my production, Viola will arrive here in Illyria through a tunnel in time. She will be dressed in the fashion of the unknown…. She is a vulnerable being, so delicately frail that we feel an urge to protect her. After her arrival, things will carry on as if nothing has happened, but at the same time, imperceptible changes begin to alter the age-old provincial way of life” (54). Yet it ends sadly: “Swallowed by the city, Viola will follow the path of sacrifice out of too great a love for man” (55).

I simply don’t know how Manea can recognize this about Viola, but not apply the same insight to Katherine in Shrew. But he’s an artist: he sees his imagined production. He sees Viola one way, and Katherine another. That, so far as I am learning, is what it is to be a director. And the production then has to make his way of seeing compelling for his audience. I’d love to have seen his Shrew, if he ever staged it. Maybe he does me the greater service by leaving me to imagine his production.

All this is about vulnerable reading on several levels. The distinguished philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer wrote a book called The Enigma of Illness that disappointed me, because as I read, at the time I read it, I missed him developing the sense of enigma that overlaps with Manea’s sense of mystery. In the enigma of care, specifically in hospitals, the drama of stasis and renewal is endlessly played out, but the ending is often that the patient, who arrives like Viola in Illyria, frail yet capable of instigating change, ends up being swallowed by the institution. Physicians and nurses are too often like the Petruchio who violently gaslights Katherine, depriving her of rest and sustenance until she submits to his view of reality, and not like Manea’s Petruchio who “should resemble the enchanters in Fellini’s films, those strange directors, those seekers of the beautiful, wandering through utterly ordinary towns, true creators of modern enchantments” (48). As usual, I ask far too much of people who are, especially now, not only overworked but literally endangered. This is an especially poor moment to desire a recognition of the enigma that illness is. But such poor moments are also the best moments, because that’s when everyone realizes their shared vulnerabilities, and when institutionally proclaimed certainties are shakiest and most readily questioned.

Here’s Manea’s other contribution to vulnerable reading. He reminds us that we should never stop looking for enchantment, beauty, the casting off of “an unfavourable guise” and the “true arraying of the body” (49). I cannot ignore, but I can set aside, Manea’s occasional indifference to the toxicity in Shakespeare when I read the following, and consider a life dedicated to offering people experiences that might reawaken them: “The mission will be the more wonderful the closer it comes to the stars. It is true that we do not always grasp that the sky above us is starry. But that is why there is art, in order to reveal such truths” (70).

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