Hearing Marlowe’s music: Tamburlaine at TFANA

Warrior bling: Tamburlaine (John Douglas Thompson) and Techelles (Keith Randolph Smith) in TFANA's Tamburlaine.

Warrior bling: Tamburlaine (John Douglas Thompson) and Techelles (Keith Randolph Smith) in TFANA’s Tamburlaine.

Marlowe’s ghost keeps turning up, like Marley’s but a lot less often. Christopher Marlowe’s afterlife on this earth (he believed in no other) finds him turning up as a character on occasion, while his dramas appear before us only a little more frequently. He was the subject of a freewheeling play by David Grimm called Kit Marlowe, which New York’s Public Theater premiered in 2000, and his most recent appearance (to my knowledge) was in the delightfully droll and offbeat film Only Lovers Left Alive (2013), set roughly in the present, in which he’s not exactly even dead. (Wikipedia lists the latter along with a few other cases here.) As for Marlowe’s plays, when’s the last time you had a chance to see Tamburlaine, Doctor Faustus, Edward II, or The Jew of Malta?

While granting that wishes count for little, we can still ponder what to wish for in seeing one of these rare birds. Consider it this way: If Shakespeare’s Hamlet were not routinely read in schools and routinely performed but were instead barely known to us (for example, in one of those dystopian futures that everyone is writing about—imagine Shakespeare in the world of The Hunger Games), and if someone were going to produce it, would you be content with a cut-down version, or would you want to see the whole play? Even in our world, with Hamlet fluttering frequently into view, we seldom get a full look. At 3,776 lines in one reckoning, Hamlet is Shakespeare’s longest text and is usually shortened for performance; when rendered uncut, as in Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 film, it runs four hours. For whatever reason, theater audiences appear reluctant to sit for that long. Is it because we know the play and expect to see only the best parts?

Opera audiences seemingly have more patience. Operas are often trimmed, with variations, cabalettas, and entire arias going by the wayside, but it’s often to lighten the singer’s load, not the audience’s. Yet the Metropolitan Opera, in its current season, isn’t shying away from presenting Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (among the longest in the repertory) at an estimated running time of five hours and 50 minutes.

For that matter, time-gobblers are almost the order of the day on the page and onscreen. Long novels have been stirring up controversy for years now. Ian McEwan precipitated the latest round when he told a Guardian writer in September that “Very few really long novels earn their length.” Entering the fray the previous year, Laura Miller reminded gripers that “Long novels have never, ever been out of favor” and cited the continuing popularity of Dickens, Thackeray, et al., in support. The debate was underway in the early aughts too; in 2004, a New York Times book review noted the “sheer tonnage” of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle. Meanwhile, the most talked-about movie of the moment, Interstellar, barely squeaks in under three hours. Nor do we content ourselves with a single work of film or fiction when a series can be spun out. (Brief thoughts on sequelitis are included in an essay I posted in July on Medium.) There’s a long history to this “but wait—there’s more” approach; we all know how Scheherazade kept her head. And Marlowe contributed to it. Though it’s possible to regard the two parts of his Tamburlaine as one 10-act play, forming a satisfying whole that dramatizes the rise and fall of a conqueror, the work didn’t begin that way. As the editors to an Oxford English Drama edition put it, “we must imagine a performance of Part I all by itself—a performance so successful as to require a sequel.”

In opera, the drama is in the music (as Joseph Kerman argued), and in Marlowe, the music is in the verse—T. S. Eliot wrote of the “melody” in Tamburlaine—and so we might reasonably ask to hear the full, majestic score of this rather operatic two-part play, or something very close to it, despite the cost in time. The production history of Theatre for a New Audience suggests a way. In its 2007 season, TFANA performed The Jew of Malta in repertory with The Merchant of Venice. Might not the same be done with Tamburlaine, whose two parts run about 2.5 hours each? It could even be presented in one night, à la Meistersinger.

I’m speaking in terms of an ideal. As a practical matter, it can be hard to sell one unfamiliar play, not to mention two. What we have a chance to see, in a production now being presented by TFANA, is a combined and condensed version of the Tamburlaine plays, given in a single performance, broken by a single intermission, and squeezed into about three and a half hours including the interval. One gets a good synoptic view of Marlowe’s enterprise and of Tamburlaine himself, who is a remarkable creation, equal parts admirable and despicable.

Bajazeth (Chukwudi Iwuji), formerly the emperor of Turkey, who's kept in a cage by Tamburlaine.

Bajazeth (Chukwudi Iwuji), formerly the emperor of Turkey, who’s kept in a cage by Tamburlaine.

So persuasive is his speech and bearing that the first man to challenge him, Theridamas, is won over to Tamburlaine’s side without a weapon being lifted. Zenocrate, too, goes in fairly short order from being unwilling captive to wholehearted lover. Tamburlaine’s nimble mind moves quickly between war and love, leaving us struggling to keep pace. Near the end of Part I, he has barely finished ordering that a peace delegation from the ruler of Damascus (of three sinless virgins, no less) be slaughtered and hung upon the city’s walls, and the entire city be put to the sword, before he launches into an extended apostrophe to Zenocrate and beauty. Tamburlaine is an overreacher, a titanic striver, a more martial form of Faustus, and a conceivable precursor of such modern-era messianic figures as Ibsen’s Master Builder and Shaw’s Andrew Undershaft. He’s even an amplified version of many contemporary business leaders, whose rapacious ambition wins widespread praise. (We seem to think conquest is only natural, which is exactly what Tamburlaine thinks: “Nature… / Doth teach us all to have aspiring minds.”) The man is unstoppable throughout Part I, and at its end he “takes truce with all the world” only so he can solemnize his marriage with Zenocrate. In Part II, he returns to form, becoming again “the scourge and terror of the world” and even “the scourge of God.” There proves to be only one limit he cannot defy.

Just as in productions of Hamlet, the best parts of the text appear to be here, in a version prepared by Michael Boyd, who also directed. The production proceeds apace without feeling rushed, but it never feels unhurried either. There seems to be no time for lingering. Marlowe’s verse sprints forth from absolutely everyone in the cast with quick-stepping precision—this is the clearest diction I’ve heard in a theater in a long time—but one wishes the lines could unfurl with a little more leisure now and then. The effect isn’t inappropriate; Tamburlaine’s mind seems always to be dashing ahead of our ability to comprehend and adjust, so why shouldn’t the show itself dare us to keep up? In any case, it has to be said that many subtleties and shadings in Marlowe’s text have been trimmed away.

Tamburlaine (in background, with whip) and Techelles, with Usumcasane (Carlo Alban, in foreground) and two of their captive kings (Tom O'Keefe and Matthew Amendt)

Tamburlaine (in background, with whip) and Techelles, with Usumcasane (Carlo Alban, in foreground) and two of their captive kings (Tom O’Keefe and Matthew Amendt).

Boyd’s staging includes occasional idiosyncrasies. But there are also beauties and dark marvels in TFANA’s production, among them the detailed musical scoring, written and performed live by multi-instrumentalist Arthur Solari. One hears gongs, cymbals, tympani and drums of other timbre, marimbas, even an eerie water-bowl effect that’s like a note from a glass harmonica. The moments in which blood is spilled, of which there are many, are deftly rendered as well, and in one case remarkably chilling. The night I attended, Merritt Janson’s Zenocrate seemed a little subdued, less vivid a counterpart to Tamburlaine than I had expected. But John Douglas Thompson played Tamburlaine with much sweep, fervor, and command, adding frequent reminders of street swagger.

Preview presentations are sometimes off the mark; not the one I saw here. Despite a couple of line stumbles, the first-week performance I attended was thoroughly well prepared. I haven’t spoken in detail about the staging or the performances only because I was less than prepared myself, with a mind clouded by overwork, and I took no notes. I leave it to other critics to provide a fuller account.

It was Tamburlaine’s vice, and Faustus’s after him, never to be satisfied. Maybe it’s catching: TFANA has given us much of Tamburlaine, and still I wanted more.

Tamburlaine, Parts I and II, by Christopher Marlowe, is being performed by Theatre for a New Audience at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center, in Brooklyn, New York, through December 21, 2014. Ticket information here. Reviewed at the November 7 performance. Photos by Gerry Goodstein.


8 thoughts on “Hearing Marlowe’s music: Tamburlaine at TFANA

  1. A very good “read,” as they say, John — thanks for providing this to me; I’m doubtful I’ll be able to attend, but it encourages me to get out the old Oxford World Classics volume of Marlowe’s plays and fill in the blanks.

    By the way, Jesse Berger’s Red Bull Theater produced a rather fine version of Marlowe’s Edward II about ten years ago, and I believe they also produced a reading of Brecht’s adaptation of the play during that run as well.


    • Thanks, George. I was pretty sure that Red Bull had done something of Marlowe’s but didn’t check their history. I know that Target Margin has delved into Tamburlaine; I saw an informal presentation of a section of it. And, if memory serves, a European company brought an Edward II to NYC, probably at BAM. Opportunities do arise…


    • George, your remark on other presentations led me to search the Theatre Communications Group website. That reveals three productions of Tamburlaine (including the current one), seven of Doctor Faustus, four of Edward II, and two of The Jew of Malta (including TFANA’s). New York’s Classic Stage Company presented two of those, as did Chicago Shakespeare Theater. The results represent only TCG members and include only what’s been reported; the Red Bull and Target Margin offerings that you and I recall weren’t among them, nor (necessarily) were any visiting productions by foreign companies.


  2. It does seem that we need more access to long-form drama as significant as Marlowe’s. Seeing and hearing are absolutely essential to our moral and aesthetic (is there a distinction here?) development. I haven’t see Faustus onstage since a somewhat silly collegiate production in the 60’s. The others, never. Pairing of Jew of Malta and Merchant of Venice is inspired–with what could we pair either half of Tamburlaine? T 2 with Macbeth, maybe? And to Je suis ergo sum I can only reply “I think we are entitled to ask — and here one is irresistibly reminded of Voltaire’s cry, ‘Voila’ — I think we are entitled to ask, Where is God?”


    • Thanks, “jlewis433.” I believe you described to your genre class on Drama a Faustus production in which “I’ll leap up to my God. Who pulls me down?” was accompanied by Faustus falling from a ladder. Silly indeed. Was that your collegiate production, or (as my shaky memory tells me) a Richard Burton production?


  3. Thanks for an excellent and thoughtful review! I saw the same preview, and had mixed feelings about it. I’m a lifelong fan and (very amateur) student of Marlowe, and in a lifetime of reading and rereading his plays have had too few opportunities to see them performed, so I was very excited about this one. LIke you, I thought the production had very interesting features, and you’re so right about the music, it was great, spot-on, totally effective. It could have shared Christopher Logue’s brilliant title for his great modern translation of the Iliad: War Music. The weird ancient and all too familiar modern clang and drumroll: clashing spears and shields at Troy; bombs going off in Iraq.

    I also thoroughly agree about the wisdom of presenting the full plays, either separately or together. The interesting thing about Target Margin’s Threefold World was that having decided to cut it so as to present a manageable joined whole, they really did cut it, more deeply than TFANA did, but somehow in such a way that the play retained much more of its essential elasticity and sense of drive and development, plus the sense of being infused with poetry rather than simply sugarcoated with it.

    I agree that John Douglas Thompson made a very good Tamburlaine, but I think he has an even better one in him; I’d love to see him do it with a full script and not limited by an auteur’s vision of what he should be putting into it and what not, but just digging out everything he can of what Marlowe put into the character and the play, a lot of which I felt was missing at TFANA.

    Tamburlaine is much more than TFANA’a direction too nearly makes him, a rambunctious Tartarian Scarface who spouts great verse. TFANA gets that he is a contradictory character, but they get less that he is also a complex one, above all in his trying to make sense of himself, which should run as a crosscurrent beneath the tsunami of his supremely confident self-presentation. He seems to be that absolute creature he shows to the world, with all the personal power, charisma and mental agility you so brilliantly describe, and he works on that level as sheer entertainment and as a triumph of dramatic and poetic art. But he also works as a deeply thought out character study of the man of enormous talent born to obscure social estate, which Marlowe was himself, and it was a type he thought much about and presented again in Faustus and in Barabbas, the Jew of Malta. Like Barabbas and Faustus, Tamburlaine must be his past as well as his present; he expresses memories of that obscure past as well as plans for his brilliant future; he is ambivalent about his “low” origin, embracing and rejecting and flaunting it by turns: he “disdains to wear” his shepherd’s weeds, yet he reminisces about the “lovely warmth” of shepherd’s campfires. Those lines were there, but their ambivalence was something I didn;t feel strongly enough in Thompson’s reading—and I wonder if that was the actor’s choice or the director’s. As a tragic protagonist not to the manor born, Tamburaine was a literary first: the TFANA production thoroughly appreciates that, but while playing up the daring of Marlowe’s creation they pass up some of its subtler dimensions.

    Also missing was Tamburlaine as a natural force, and that might have been the line cuts. In the play, he describes himself and others describe him using conspicuous nature imagery—and the earliest and most concentrated instance of this—Menaphon’s awed report of him to Cosroe—was among the speeches that were cut, and it shouldn’t have been; it is key.

    Finally, the production captures Tamburlaine’s increasing cruelty, destructiveness, and megalomania in part 2, but loses some of his deliberate subversiveness. Like Andrew Undershaft, in his escalation of its horrors Tamburlaine makes war upon war. In himself, he is the apotheosis of his world’s highest values: vertue—courage, aspiration, and potency—yet his bloody doings are also a fierce indictment of those values. You note in your review that he is equally admirable and despicable, which is a good way to describe the idealism versus the reality of war itself. That reality is reinforced in every possible way, including the King of Arabia—an exemplar of martial idealism—describing point by point (in front of his betrothed) his physical sensations as he dies of his wounds.

    Tamburlaine’s way of making war outrages the conventional warmongers of his world: his caging of emperors, spitting of virgins, sacking and razing of towns are all carried out without one nod to the chivalrous disguises of bloodshed insisted upon by his aristocratic opponents. Beyond the display of his personal will to power, he is making a crucial point: You gold-plated kings and plumed captains, this carnage is what war is. How do you like it? So it is a mistake not to play up the comedy of his enemies’ indignation at his outrageous deeds—and I thought TFANA could have done that more, because I think probably they got this: Tamburlaine is the most savage guy in the room, but he is not the only savage.

    Which brings up the one apparent gesture of chivalry Tamburlaine does use: His customary invitation to a peaceful surrender, made to each town or city he besieges. The routine of the white, red, and black streamers, armor, tents, etc., was not presented visually in TFANA’s production, or not so I noticed. Too bad, because it is more than mindless vainglory, a mere psychopathic ritual; it is a deliberate exposure of the traditional warlike mindset, the unfitness of military honor as a social, civic, or spiritual value. Each besieged leader who in the name of his personal honor refuses Tamburlaine’s offer of bloodless conquest is shown to be doing so willfully and hopelessly, at the expense of the lives of civilians he is bound to protect.

    Mycetes may be a fool and Calyphas (no fool) may be a slacker, but they speak the truth about war: anyone who makes war is a murderer, whether he fights by the Queensberry rules or not. Tamburlaine epitomizes the ambition and the cruelty of war, and he also exposes, judges and punishes them in others: his claim to be a scourge is not folie de grandeur—it is exactly right.

    I think on the whole that the production did many smart things with the play but in the end they kind of outsmarted themselves: they seized on some of the plays best ideas, but then tried to put them over with cleverness, and sacrificed depth and dimension and more surprising revelations than the ones they initially grasped. I didn’t really mind the actor who played Mycetes reappearing as a number of other cowardly, weak, or silly characters, though I did find it more distracting than illuminating. But I was really sorry they cut out the character Perdicas and put Meander in his place in Calyphas’ sulk-in-the-tent scene. Meander’s ubiquity in the TFANA production (in the original play he disappears with Cosroe’s short-lived regime) is obviously supposed to be making a point, but it is one conceived by the director, not the playwright. Marlowe’s writing of the scene is filled with subversive imagery and the quiet ambivalence that underlies so much of this roiling play, and the situation and relationship of the contemporaries Calyphas and Perdicas should make you think, by ironic contrast and similarity, of Achilles and Patroclus.

    When young Perdicas is replaced by middle-aged Meander, this gets totally lost. Instead, the scene makes a shallower point: Calyphas relies on Meander; Calyphas is just like Mycetes. Except, oops, he isn’t. Unlike Mycetes, he dominates his companion, he knows and stands by his own opinions and he is adept at expressing them himself; he has wit and language, he also arguably possesses a passive courage to match his father’s active valor: it takes guts to do your own thing in the teeth of a dad like Tamburlaine. His personality is more powerful than his obediently warlike brothers’, and that should be quite clear. He utters not a word while his father drags him forth to be executed—Amyras and Celebinus protest for him. He has had his say. Calyphas was one of the things Target Margin got right in Threefold World. TFANA has yet to fully develop his importance as a character.

    They also need to do that with Zenocrate. The play’s female characters should be as strongly played as the males. Marlowe does not under-write his women. In TFANA’s production, the actresses playing Zabina and Olympia did justice to their roles, but Zenocrate, instead of being a worthy match and powerful foil for her lover, his highest validation and his undercutting, as Marlowe wrote her, was played (or directed) as a pale and self-contained icon, who takes color only from Tamburlaine’s worship of her. (I kept thinking, the audience must be wondering what he sees in her—something you don’t wonder at all when you read the play. I even wondered what the King of Arabia saw in her.) Her human spark was smothered beneath her iconic dignity; her horror and remorse when she came upon the dead Bajazeth and Zabina were so subdued as to be hardly evidentt—she didn’t even seem surprised to find them on the floor with their brains bashed out, and her “behold the Turk and his great Emperess” speech was disappointingly phlegmatic. Her death scene, which should be sharply moving and prefigure Tamburlaine’s own, was an anticlimax, since she never seemed more than half alive to begin with. I think her performance may well have been director-driven, the idea being that her dignified aristocratic stillness should center his wild man-of-the-people restlessness, but it didn’t come off that way for me.

    So, in short, bravo to TFANA for taking this play on and giving it a very strong production, with many good ideas and some very good performances. But they could have embraced more of the play than they did, and done it no harm. Given the temptations presented by the play’s modern relevance, there was actually less auteur in it than there might have been, which was good, but there was also less author, and that wasn’t.


  4. Thanks, Jane, for that exceedingly well-phrased and well-thought-out commentary. One good thing about TFANA’s production is that it provides an occasion for discussions such as yours, which illuminate the text and tell us what we’ve been missing.

    Another such discussion was posted on November 24 on the New York Review Blog. You can find it here.


    • Thanks, John, for directing me to that NYR review, which I found a very gratifying appreciation of Marlowe and his play, and even, because the reviewer was much warmer in his praises of TFANA’s production of it than I was, made me think maybe I should go back and give it another look. (Could it be that I am too hard to please when it comes to the staging of my favorite works?) Still, I stand by my comments until I do, and meanwhile thank you for the threefold pleasures of your blog, which besides your excellent writing and sharp commentary also provides occasion for these discussions!


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