Where is the past when you need it? If you want to read an old novel, you can buy it or get it from a library. If you want to see an old film, you may be able to buy it, rent it, stream it, catch it on a cable channel, see it in a revival house. Old music? Regardless of what you mean by that, it’s probably been recorded. And if you want to read an old play, you can find it the same as other books. But most of us no more want to read a play than we want to study the blueprints of a building, the sketches and patterns and fabric swatches that led to a piece of clothing, the score for a piece of music. We want to see or hear the thing realized. Some old plays still turn up in production; many do not, except in the work of classic theater companies. Luckily, New York City has a handful of such companies, but it now has one less than it did for a long time: on June 17, the Pearl Theatre Company announced it was shutting down, after 33 seasons.
What manner of beast is this play Measure for Measure? The ruler of a city decides it needs to be cleaned up and straightened out, but instead of doing it himself he gives someone else the job and goes on vacation. The man he appoints, a strict moralist, cracks down on crime as expected, but he also proves to be prone to corruption. (Shades of contemporary crusaders such as former New York attorney general Eliot Spitzer here.) It looks as if either a nun must lose her virginity or her brother must lose his head. But this disaster-in-the-making doesn’t come about, because the play changes course. The duke hasn’t left town after all. He sticks around, disguised as a monk, to see what happens, and he ends up having to fix the fixer, so to speak: he must become the one who guards against the guardian, as Plato might’ve put it, which the duke does through a set of relatively comic maneuvers that often recall Much Ado About Nothing. Continue reading