September 14, 2008
Tempest #2 – Caliban & Other Guys

[Next post Oct. 2: on actual vacation for two weeks!]
I’m sculpting puppets for Rash Acts in January while thinking about The Tempest for September, behind schedule on both. Laminating papier mache on the head of the Cheshire Cat, puzzling over Ariel and Caliban.

Ariel is elemental, a force of nature, transformative. Held in check and controlled, he’s the energy of fire, explosions, or splitting the atom. And as dangerous. Action delights him. He could happily set Prospero afire and joy in the dancing flames. Mankind harnesses and controls the natural elements, colonizes them, crafts a civilization based on their enslaved but lethal power that’s always crying “Set me free!” Prospero as the nuclear engineer.
Paradox that Prospero forces Miranda to visit Caliban but never allows her to see Ariel. The secret knowledge that allows him to contain this force is damnable — black magic akin to necromancy, which he later confesses — unfit for his daughter’s knowing, though her life depends on it.
This slant on Ariel gives stronger life to his scenes with Prospero, I believe — a servant whose merest touch could kill his master. Not malign, simply ”other,” an alien intelligence. That’s why it’s so astonishing when Ariel confesses empathy.
Apparent contradiction here. Prospero describes Ariel as “a spirit too delicate to act her earthy and abhorred commands.” How does this mesh with my concept of Ariel’s nature?
Caliban. He’s mortal. He’s deformed in some way. He’s human — I see nothing interesting in making him half-alligator. Nor in making him African, Mestizo, or Indian — for me that popular gloss adds a narrative that simply flattens the play and the historic complexities of the colonial experiences it references.
For me, the compelling fact of Caliban is his isolation. His mother is the refugee, the émigré. He’s born into an alien landscape that’s alternately embracing and terrifying. His exiled mother dies in his childhood. At the age of twelve, strangers appear: a father and an infant, magical beings, his salvation, his never-known family. He’s not seeking freedom or dominion: he’s seeking connection, family.

The teenage Caliban and the child Miranda are each other’s only playmates. Prospero tutors his daughter, and the tiny girl tutors her “big brother.” Then Miranda becomes adolescent; Caliban is 27 and without a mate. What must happen, happens: a clumsy attempt at sex. Prospero is horrified and enraged, and at that point the tortures and enslavement begin.
And, I believe, when Caliban says, “Thou didst prevent me,” he’s referring to having been castrated. That would be perfectly in character for an Italian duke and outraged father of an adolescent girl, and what else would assure Miranda’s safety? And when he conspires with Stephano and Trinculo to overthrow Prospero, he holds out no prospect of having Miranda himself: he offers her to Stephano. For Caliban, there’s no hope of freedom or restoration, only for being part of a less oppressive regime and finding a semblance of kinship.
Much more thinking required.
Visit to Larry Reed of ShadowLight, talking about his several productions of [[The Tempest]] based in Balinese shadow & music traditions. Saw several of his videos, one with students, one with professionally trained Balinese performers, both using large shadows of the masked live performers. Both interesting, but the vast difference was in the actors’ whole relationship to gesture and spine. For the Balinese, the physical style was totally organic to the mask, very spare but fully expressed. For the acting students, they’d clearly been coached to go beyond realistic conversational gesture, but still vast disconnect between the body and the head. The source of gesture, its linkage with the word, its connection with spine — this is the huge challenge we must face.

I need to learn to sketch better. Maybe practice by copying my son’s skilled cartooning, capturing only the essential lines of expression. Still need to find the character in the clay, but sketches can be a shortcut.

Larry Reed: The key line in the play is Prospero, speaking of Caliban, “This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.” Caliban and the entire cast of characters as aspects of Prospero’s dream, c.f. Gestalt psychology. So also, then, the whole visual/aural field of action: the island. What is the experience of that island? Shifting, constantly transformative. Utterly alien, enclosing, comforting, generous, deadly, psychotic, beatific — the backwater of every human passion, achievement, crime and blessing.

On the way to SF on the bus, I read Eileen Blumenthal’s review of the Perth UNIMA Festival, describing a painter/puppeteer drawing huge swaths & smears on his canvas as the story proceeds. This is the sense of The Tempest‘s environment-in-process. Could I do this with rear projection, with the action of the drawing itself as part of the experience? How to do this technically?

More soon.
–Conrad Bishop