Friday, October 18, 2019

Review: "Klingon Tamburlaine" at the Complex Theater in Hollywood

"...he tampers recklessly with sacred things..."

Sophocles' definition of HUBRIS in Oedipus the Tyrant line 89

Behold, The Klingon Tamburlaine. I first heard of it this summer, when it played as part of the Hollywood Fringe Theater Festival. The instant I saw the phrase, I had strong feelings. You see, Tamburlaine is a play by Christopher Marlowe, the man who invented blank verse. Since Marlowe's murder in 1593, no human being---except for his friend and exact contemporary, William Shakespeare---has equaled him in sheer mastery of the mother tongue we share. "Marlowe's mighty line" has been a catchphrase among those passionate about poetry in English through four centuries. The phrase comes from Ben Johnson's great elegy "To the Memory of My Beloved the Author, Mr. William Shakespeare," which says: far thou didst our Lyly outshine, 
Or sporting Kyd, or Marlowe's mighty line
And though thou hadst small Latin and less Greek, 
From thence to honour thee, I would not seek 
For names; but call forth thund'ring Aeschylus, 
Euripides and Sophocles to us...

Marlowe was a brash atheist, and a proudly hedonistic homosexual, at a time when both were capital crimes. He survived by serving as a spy for the English Crown. The title of Harry Levin's excellent 1964 study The Overreacher is the most apt term for what Marlowe was, this utterly fearless author of The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus. That play's about a genius whose unbounded hubris ultimately damns him for eternity. Faustus plainly is Marlowe in important ways, a man whose deal with the Devil granted him immunity for the fiercely transgressive behaviors and traits that defined him. 

Note the contempt for danger in Marlowe's use of words: fearless, he will say anything, no matter how hubristic, in the service of his truth, "good or bad." For example, Doctor Faustus includes actual Latin incantations to conjure up the Devil, and records show Elizabethan  audiences were terrified. One legend holds that during one night's unique performance, there appeared a "super-numerary devil," one more devil than usual, though all the actors were present, in make-up, and accounted for. Apocryphal or not, the legend's meaning is loud and clear: the impact of Marlowe's art was shockingly strong. Contra Auden, his mighty line "made things happen." 

If you've got an ear for poetry (Matthew 13:9), you marvel at Christopher Marlowe's stride; the heavy silk and airy iron of it, his floating gossamers, his darts of solid steel! Stamina, momentum, swinging forward on a sort of phonetic steed that banks, keeping to the curvature of the thoughts girding up the overarching story; the shifts of gears he pulls off, steering the verse, tracing the curvature of his thinking as it traversed the ready myth; Marlowe's musical hammers falling, syncopated, offset by footsteps, heartbeats; come to think of it, hoofbeats. Faustus quotes Ovid as the final hours of his life slip away and Damnation is imminent: O lente, lente, curite noctis equii! "Slowly, slowly run, O horses of the Night!" The faster the horses drive the Night ("nightmare" is a very interesting word to research), the sooner Damnation will torment Faustus forever. And notice the onomatopoeia in Ovid's Latin line that Marlowe quotes with such terrible new pathos. It's one of the best examples of that literary trope ever written: the meter of O lente, lente, curite noctis equii! [rhymes with Oh went he, went he? Heard him say not his exit.] is the rhythm of a cantering horse! But not a racing one. 

Here's one of my essays about Marlowe, in this book:

I have little interest in artistic transgression for its own sake, which often proves to be little more than a stunt meant to build a brand. That's not what Marlowe is doing; he's coming forward about the side of the human spirit that terrifies the rest of the community: the manic side, the fearless, unprincipled, grandiose and dangerous side of each person. That universality is inseparable from its opposite, when a unique individual goes the distance with ultimate questions and is consumed by his choices in their power.

So I felt both dismay and amusement when I chanced on The Klingon Tamburlaine, a production in which some of my fellow Americans were "doing theater" in an unusually oblivious way. The school of directing in which an entirely alien "concept for this production" is fitted onto an old play like a condom on a banana---to demonstrate... something, I guess. It's irreverent, but what it disrespects is exactly what I respect the most. I'm not much interested in anybody's irreverence toward, say, Dante (or Marlowe, both of whom I revere), since irreverence toward dominant and illegitimate institutions of power and privilege is more meaningful than a snarky diss tossed at the Great (I said it) artists like Dickinson and Shakespeare who make life bearable and even blissful. 

So excuse me, ladies and gentlemen, but no: fuck smearing Star Trek all over Tamburlaine the Great. Because that actually is "cultural appropriation." Though I know the work of some of the KT production's actors from their fine performances with other theater companies' productions in which they shone--I could find nothing to appreciate in this mess. "The Klingon Tamburlaine" should never have happened. I heard about it. I wrote a sonnet about it. I saw the production. It verified my impression.