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.
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.
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.