October 13, 2009
Tempest #50—Caliban & Kisses

In the flurry of performance, I’ve been neglecting the posts here. Will start up again.

Our Tempest is coming up to its fifth and final weekend, going very well. Shooting video of every performance for dvd editing, and it’s truly humbling, in starting the edit, to see every minute of the show, 107 minutes, 14 performances to date, and how !#%$!!X%!!! far away from “perfection” we are. I recommend this process highly as an
essential, though painful, learning experience. Thankfully, our audience doesn’t see it that way. As a friend pointed out, we see the two media with entirely different sets of eyes.

We’ve had lots of wonderful written responses. But this one (prefaced by very effusive positives) evoked some thought, and I wanted to share it.

>I did not like Caliban – that is I didn’t like the puppet representation.
>I wish you had made him as evil and other worldly as was Ariel —
>an imaginative sprite and other worldly. The Caliban
>puppet reinforced that great myth of the US white society: that men
>of color are evil, bad, etc. I do regret that you chose that configuration.



My response:

Dear ______—

Thanks for all your responses, this included. I’d like to follow up on this Caliban question, as I feel it’s a serious and provocative one. I don’t want to pass it off lightly.

“Evil and otherworldly” I can’t see. In some ways, he’s a metaphorical contrast to Ariel. But to me the power of the character is that he’s totally concrete: He’s born on this island to an exiled Algerian woman accused of witchcraft; he’s deformed; he’s in his late twenties; he was adopted into Prospero’s care, was a companion of Miranda, and felt love and tenderness for the first time in his life; he did something, details not specified, that Prospero saw as seeking to “violate the honor of my child”; he was enslaved and continues to be subjected to systematic torture; he’s filled with rage; and, like Ariel, he desperately longs for freedom. Those facts don’t add up to
“otherworldly.” He has to be given a real and specific face. Nor do I think they add up to an embodiment of pure evil, though indeed they’ve had the same effect that oppression often works on people: they’ve made him a rage-filled, dangerous, easily-corrupted creature. And one who, heartbreakingly, still retains some humanity, a sense of beauty, and a dream of something better.

I don’t think that nexus of traits is untrue to life. Prospero likewise is an amalgam of extreme contradictions, as is, for that matter, Ariel, combining that Robin-Goodfellow playfulness with the implacable, amoral force of an Elemental, and only at the end showing a startling glimmer of human empathy.

But I realize that doesn’t speak to your main point: that making him non-Caucasian reinforces a false stereotype. And this is a huge problem in contemporary stagings of masterpieces from a culture that saw “blackness,” deformity, and illegitimacy all as evidence of an evil nature; that was deeply anti-Semitic; that saw inherited hierarchies as God-given; that saw the treatment meted out to Kate in Shrew an occasion for merriment; etc. So a fantasy-style Caliban might be a means of getting around this. But to me, that’s not possible without significantly rewriting the play. Likewise, though I agree with the political intent of it, I feel that attempts to reverse the equation, to suggest Caliban as the wronged but noble-hearted native under Prospero’s imperialist heel, just flatten the play – it’d require a total rewrite to work, and that’s been done though I think not very successfully.

As a theatre artist, I’m not able personally to avoid ugly elements in characters who are at-risk for “stereotype.” If I create a generic, two-dimensional evil black man, swishy gay, dumb blonde, fanatic Arab or greedy Jew – whether as realism or as farce – then I’m being both stupid and irresponsible. But if those are concrete elements in a multi-faceted character, then I feel I’m reflecting an image that helps us see these “types” as real individuals. And that’s responsible artistry.

So the best I can do for Caliban is just to bring out the reality of the contradictions in his character and in his relations with Prospero, with Miranda, and with his drunken would-be liberators. If those aren’t very specific and clear, then I agree that it’s possible for the audience to jump to seeing only the stereotype. And as in innumerable other challenges of the play, we’re maybe only half successful. Our 90 hrs. of rehearsal should have been double that. As with our puppet Macbeth, which we had in touring repertory over a span of 15 years, at this stage there were elements we were only beginning to explore. It’s a matter of constantly honing in on the clarity of moment-by-moment truth.

So, just offering this for thought. And again, I’m grateful to you for raising this provocative question. If I have a chance to restage this Tempest in the future, I’m pretty sure to stay with my design and interpretation of Caliban. But that moment-by-moment evolution of the character will definitely be informed by serious tussle with the issue you raised. Many thanks.


And received a very gracious response. Definitely this issue should be addressed in the study guide we prepare for the school tour.


I’ve been startled by the response to a particular moment in the play: a kiss between Ferdinand and Miranda at the end of 3:1. A number of people have expressed rapture at it. Stage and movie kisses are a dime a dozen, and young love—unless it’s tragic—is more often than not an object of amusement. It’s very well played by the puppeteers, and probably their necessary care in making sure the puppets’ lips don’t bonk translates as the tenderness of Miranda’s first kiss. But what is it that makes that moment such an object of wonder?

My thought is that it’s an indicator of the power of the puppet medium. The very artifice of it brings about what Brecht termed the Verfremdungseffekt, making us see this thing we take for granted as “strange,” as something new. Prospero’s aside, “At the first sight they have chang’d eyes,” extends to our eyes as well.

Could it be done as movingly by live actors? Probably, but I’ve never quite seen it have that effect. The only comparable moment that comes to mind was in our staging of The Winter’s Tale with Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble, the moment when Leontes (Whit Maclaughlin) took the hand of the statue of Hermoine (Laurie McCants) and whispered, “Oh, she’s warm.” There, Shakespeare likewise has used a Verfremdungseffekt—the fantasy of the statue coming alive—to focus us with almost unbearable emotion on that moment, the miracle of renewal.