The Return of “Ask Philippa”!

Philippa Kelly, Resident Dramaturg for Cal Shakes, shares her thoughts on our 2011 productions.

Philippa Kelly and Joel Sass by Jay YamadaTitus Andronicus, when it first hit the boards in the early 1590s, was a raging success, threatening to steal audiences away from the bear-baiting that was one of Elizabethan England’s favorite spectator sports. This bloody, fast-moving play is Shakespeare’s contribution to revenge tragedy, a formula of wrongdoing, revenge, and inevitable bloodshed that was as popular in the playwright’s time asLaw and Order is today. But even in his salad days, Shakespeare succeeded in making this play more complex than the conventional genre from which it emerged: As well as a rollicking grisly ride, Titus Andronicus gives us questions about loyalty, statescraft, and the power of words to shape deeds and lives.

Are you going to see our production of Titus? Do you have questions or comments about the production’s themes, creative choices, or anything else? Please leave them in the comments, and I’ll be sure to respond.

Pictured above right: Philippa with Titus director Joel Sass; photo by Jay Yamada.



36 thoughts on “The Return of “Ask Philippa”!

  1. Dear Philippa:
    I am curious to know which Shakespearian character (or mix of characters), in your view, comes closest to prefiguring President Obama?

    • Dear Charles,

      What an interesting question. Certainly Titus is not, in my opinion, at all similar to president Obama. Titus has a rigid emotional spine – he does everything by the book, believes that men should be as they seem, and that all should be done in the name of honor. He gets a terrible shock when he turns down the mantle of emperorship and awards it to Saturninus, and then is not treated with the same respect he has accorded Saturninus. (He does not seem to understand that the ritualized slaughter of Saturinus’ new wife’s firstborn son may disadvantage him in terms of pillow talk!) Shakespeare specializes in portrayals of men of power – Titus, Lear, Coriolanus, Othello, for example – who are magnificent: but their misunderstanding of power makes them very vulnerable. Power is not ineluctably embodied in a person – power is contextual. Personal achievement and magnificence does not guarantee continued possession of power. Obama really understands this. He also has a terrific capacity to delegate and to listen to advice – unlike all of these characters I’ve mentioned, who are notoriously bad at taking advice. Obama’s intelligence and political skills remind me of Iago’s – but his principles are the opposite of Iago’s. By the way, Shakespeare reaplayed again and again the crumbling of feudalism, which was, in fact, being played out in his own political world, as the infallibility of the monarch was repeatedly challenged by events. (This is why Elizabeth, and James after her, insisted so strongly on the re-evocation of Divine Right, the idea that God’s divine authority was embodied in the person of the monarch.)

      • Brian, I missed this one – I am so sorry it must have fallen between two longer questions and I didn’t see it. For sure, Mark Antony is a fabulously effective orator. By the way, ‘orator’ (from the French ‘oratour’) had only been in English parlance for about a century and a half by Shakespeare’s time. It surprises me to think it.

  2. Tonight at the pre-performance talk someone asked why this play had not been performed before by CalShakes in its 38 year history. Having seen the play now, I know why. What a disaster. Good acting and production values but it’s a terrible play.
    By the way, why isn’t the name “andro-nEYE-cus? That would show the etymology (Andro, Niko)) and also be three trochees TI tus AN dro NI cus.

    • Hello Geoff,

      Thanks for your response to the play. I’m disappointed that you didn’t end up liking it. It’s a play that is so much based on spectacle and movement, as well as on the structure of revenge precedent (it marked Shakespeare’s bursting-forth onto the stage in the early 1590s) – but the play does actually look forward to many of the themes that are more maturely handled in Shakespeare’s later tragedies. For instance, the theme of a leader giving away his responsibilities becomes the engine of King Lear – of course, Titus isn’t responsible to lead Rome, because he hasn’t inherited the role of emperor (he is offered it). But he gives away the leadership to someone who is clearly incapable – Titus gives it away asa a pro forma gesture, and exercises a mind-boggling kind of blindness is so doing. This theme of personal and social blindness is developed in both Lear and Coriolanus. Then there is the theme of revenge which would be fully developed in Hamlet. Then the theme of the actor taking over the dramaturgy of his own play, that would be developed in Othello and Hamlet, and, indeed, in many of the comedies. The theme of the irresistibly attractive villain is fully developed in both the play, Othello, and in Richard III. Thank you for coming, and I hope this response gives you some point of interest.

  3. Philippa, In your Grove Talk last night preceding the performance of Titus you alluded to laws initiated by the monarchy to ban the widespread practice of revenge which is highlighted and in-your-face in the play.
    So I was wondering if we see some of this played out in later works such as The Merchant of Venice?

    • Dear Bob,
      What an astute comment. Yes, in The Merchant of Venice we see a character who would normally have been dismissed as a social outcast, giving us a sense of what it FEELS like to be a Jew in this incredibly racist society. Shakespeare was a magpie: he alighted on sparks of social interest and took them up, using them to fire his dramatic engine. It is so much more dramatically interesting to explore a character’s motivations than to dismiss him as a villain (i.e. to notice him as simply an element of plot structure.)

  4. Hello Philippa:
    What is the significance of Aaron’s baby? The boy becomes the burden of the Andronici family.
    Thank you,

      • Hello Brian,
        I found an internet connection here in Boonville, and so will take the chance to answer your question. A very interesting question, which I will answer with an observation. Do you notice the way that Young Lucius licks his finger after tasting the pie? He becomes imbued with the revenge psychology passed down by the older generations. He may mediate this, but he will not be able to bypass it. The baby has been allowed to live because older Lucius is a man of his word – so maybe this is a signal that the young are in some respects to be liberated from the prejudices of their eldders? What do you think? The play really leaves us with questions/suggestions, rather than predictions.

        • Hi Phillipa,
          Thanks for the thoughtful response. I just got back from a short vacation myself.

          The finger licking was exactly what got me thinking along these lines. You could take it as given that the elder Lucius will keep his word, or as his personal defiance against the revenge model as you described. I’ll contend that it doesn’t matter *why* he keeps Aaron’s baby alive, because the die is already cast for the next generation. I hear the crying as a reminder that the protagonists for the next generation of vengeance and violence are already in place. The finger licking indicates to me that Young Lucius will follow the example of the previous generation. Perhaps he could have been liberated, but instead he tasted the blood and wasn’t at all repulsed. Aaron’s baby will live, Young Lucius will live, and the cycle continues. They’ll both grow up in an utterly poisoned world. Shakespeare might hope that his audience will take away a lesson, but I see little hope that the characters will learn the same lesson. There just isn’t anything that’s going to liberate them from their elders.

          • Hello Brian,

            This is a beautifully articulated response, Brian. There is a darkness here, but I do think that the fact that Lucius has spared Aaron’s baby gives some cause for hope. But as you say, it will grow up in a poisoned world. Shakespeare (and those in his time) were fascinated by the whole notion of free will – how free we are to choose, and what ‘freedom’ really meant. If humans are given free will by God, isn’t it part of human potentiality to exercise that choice? Does ‘obedience’ constrain a human within narrow limits? Faustus was a part of this thinking, by the way. Thank you for writing back, Brian.

  5. Hello Sean,

    I think the relationships between parents and children are all fraught in this play, and are all intimately linked to revenge motives. We have Tamora and Andronicus being inspired to take revenge because of the damage and destruction each does to the other’s children. We have Aaron offering to reveal the details of his revenge plot in return for the safekeeping of his baby. We have young Lucius licking the blood from the pasty at the end, looking like he vows to continue the battle his elders have started. AND YET we have also the crying of the baby at the end – Joel’s suggestion that the older Lucius, having honored Aaron’s bargain (no one else has honored any words since the play’s first scene!!), is now allowing this child to live on as a gesture of defiance against the revenge model.

  6. Dear philippa, I always enjoy the grove talks, You bring lots of interesting information . For example, you mentioned that the fake blood was mixed with soap to get it out of the costume easily. But how do they make up fake blood ? . Thank you so much for this chance to ask questions. Edith

  7. Hi P: So looking forward to seeing this tonight; I have been following the reviews and am surprised ahead of time that Aaron’s role is not picked out in the press as crucial to the summary of Titus’ plot. I have always been amazed by Aaron’s gift of rage and power as consiglieri to Tamora. It has always seemed like his play, to me, with most of the action hatched and plotted out of his rage at having been enslaved. Perhaps my perception is wrong that this portait of race and rage is totally ahewad of its time?

    • Hi Edith, it is always lovely to see you as well – I actually notice if I don’t see you quite early in the run! The fake blood for the mouth is made with corn syrup and food coloring. I am not sure what else we use for the body blood (besides soap) but I will ask the prop shop when I return to Berkeley. I’ll write again, AND I will look forward to seeing you in the grove at Verona.

    • Dear Amy,
      Did I answer this? If not, I am so sorry. And it is typical of your brilliance to point it out in this way. I think Aaron is the first of Shakespeare’s characters to actually try to wrest the dramaturgy away from the other characters and take it into his own hands – like Don John, Hamlet, Iago. Amy, I’d love to catch up with you sometime. xxx

  8. Hi Phillipa,
    You’re terrific! A Cal Shakes treasure! Thank you for the Grove Talk on Sunday, 6/5: an excellent introduction that helped me understand the context of the play, and thank you for the Meet the Artists event afterwards. Joel’s commentary was really helpful, especially the comparison to the Coen Brothers films (the image of the wood chopper scene at the end of “Fargo” lept to mind).

    I wondered about the omission of Titus killing his youngest son, Mutius, in Act 1. (At least this happens in my copy of the play, the same one that is on sale in the Cal Shakes bookstore: the Signet Classics paperback, 2005 edition.) A little less blood, perhaps?

    I’m sorry, too, that Geof Chandler didn’t like the play, although he apparently enjoyed the Cal Shakes production. What about his question of pronunciation? Was it “andro-nEYE-cus” to Shakespeare?

    Thank you,


    • Hello Richard,

      Thank you for the lovely comment. I so appreciate it. Joel felt that to have Titus kill his son in such an off-the-cuff way at the beginning – ostensibly to show loyalty to the new emperor, but really as an act of gratuitous violence against his own family – was really an impediment to the production. Some people feel that it is a useful way of showing how straight-laced Titus is – a soldier first and foremost – but actually you don’t need that act to show this. And in a sense the danger is that Titus seems dehumanized early on. When Joel suggested this to me, I looked at the play and the production history and noted that, since this scene was most probably introduced after the fact, it may have been introduced to allow Tamora to have a costume change in certain elaborate productions. So we took the leap and went without it. What do you think about the omission? I’d love to know. I love Joel’s adaptation features because I think Shakespeare actually wrote his plays doing the same thing, and wrote them so as to allow for this. Many people feel overly reverential to the Bard, and feel, like Jonson, that he never blotted a line so no lines of his should be blotted… Sorry if this is a bit rushed (and even if there are typos) – I am almost losing this connection up in Boonville. But I do pride myself on geting back to people within 24 hours! I’ll be back in the grove on wednesday. It is lovely up here, by the way.

      • ps Richard, I think George meant ‘Andronicus’ with the ‘eye’ in it to suggest the horrors of ‘an eye for an eye.’ This is my guess.

  9. I can’t figure out the reason for Titus giving Lucius Jr. the knives to bring to Chiron and Demetrius. What did I miss?
    Really enjoyed your presentation and the ‘cheat sheet’ in the program!

    • Hello Kathe,

      Titus basically wants his grandson to reveal to Tamora’s sons that he KNOWS how corrupt they are. They are the sons of a monster and have done monstrous things (‘bloody villains’). Shakespeare lived in a society where messengers and letter-writing were extremely important forms of communications. If you look at his plays, they are FULL of messengers. They thus also underline his constant playing-out of the theme of miscommunication. Miscommunication is the course of most of his plot twists. We are who we are for others by word and show – but it is exactly these forms of communication that can be so easily misinterpreted.

  10. Dear Philippa,
    Thank-you again for your informative and entertaining grove talk.
    I have one question then a thought or two on Titus Andronicus. The scene where Titus kills his daughter bothered me. First, in this production I thought at first that it was a play with in the play. That is, that he did not kill her. She was faking it as part of the deception of the Emperor and his Queen. Did he kill her because of Roman belief in honor? Did Shakespeare kill her as part of the spectacle that is this play?

    In an eight day stretch we attended quite a few entertainment events. We saw Shotgun’s “The Care of Trees”, a Giants game with fireworks, The Blue Man Group, “Titus Andronicus”, and an A’s game. That is more than we usually get to in a month. I was thinking of how all these productions relate to one another, sort of nagged on by things you said in the grove talk.
    Part of the enjoyment of a ball game is the fans. The reaction and interaction of the fans to the proceedings on the field came to mind in terms of the audience for which Shakespeare was writing Titus. The audience was expected to respond to the actors’ calls for support, thus increasing the revelry and entertainment value.
    The Blue Man group was a spectacle. The little depth played only with minor American embarrassment.
    “The Care of Trees” seemed written by a young author, because of the pacing and the tendency to bang the audience over the head to get a point across. I felt the same impatience in the before intermission scenes of Titus Andronicus. If Shakespeare were writing movie scripts, Titus would be his “Fast and Furious.” Still, though, Shakespeare finished the play well. He gave depth to Titus, gave him character. It is interesting to see a young playwright work through conflict, and then, with hindsight, see how early work may have influenced a later play’s development and direction.

    • Hello Mike,

      Firstly, the death of Lavinia: you’ve picked up on a very interesting point. Titus kills Lavinia because he sees this death as a mercy, rather than have her live on in shame. Ttitus asks Saturninus why he thinks Virginius kills his daughter, Virginia, who was raped; and Saturninus replies that Virginius does so to save her from living in shame. Titus then replies that Virginius offers him a ‘pattern’ and ‘precedent’. He will kill his own daughter rather than have her live in shame. Notice the words ‘patern’ and ‘precedent’, though – Shakespeare is offering a fascinating ‘metadramatic’ reference given by his character, Titus: something that would look forward to all his future years of writing. Metadrama refers to the situation where a character refers to the fact that he/she is playing on a stage. This dramatic focus in turn signifies BOTH the unreality of all temporal life (‘life’s but a walking shadow,’ Macbeth would later say) and the ‘reality’ of everything that happens on a stage. Fiction is not so far from life, and life itself is not so far from fiction, no matter how we might want to believe that it is. Titus is saying to the audience, ‘Fiction has offered me a precedent. I’ll follow this on my stage.’ He thus alludes to the very fiction he is a part of – to the fact that drama is all about choices, just as life is. We are only as good or as bad or as noble or as cowardly as the choice that we make to play out a particular moment. This is why it is said in Macbeth about the dead traitor: ‘Nothing in his life/Became him like the leaving of it’ – the moment of death is itself a little drama that can nay-say, or repudiate – or, indeed, confirm, if we want to ‘play’ it that way – all of one’s actions in the past. But the killing of Lavinia also gives room for Lavinia herself to be part of the moment, and Joel and our actors brilliantly take up this opportunity: our Lavinia sort-of walks into her death, or collapses into it, willingly. Father and daughter are here united in relinquishment. Titus knows that his own end is nigh. He wants his daughter gone from this world, as he can no longer protect her. And she wants to be done with this life as well. There are completely different ways in which she could have played this death, and I love the suggestion that Joel and Jim and Anna have chosen. It makes a little drama all of its own in this larger ‘metadramatic’ moment.

      And now to the references you make to other productions you saw in an 8-day stretch. You refer to the productions in which audiences have a role – they have had quite a role in this play too (more than any other of Shakespeare’s plays) and our audiences have sometimes gotten quite involved in their own part as cheering or disapproving Romans who make a judgement about appeals made to them from the stage. Shakespeare wrote this play as a crowd-pleaser and crowd-teaser.

      I am so happy you enjoyed Titus’ trajectory. I feel that Jim embodies a Titus whom we come to care about. Interestingly, I just want to say a further thing about Titus. Do you notice all the loss of body parts in this play? This is all about dismemberment – which seems a strangely literal thing to say. But dismemberment also signifies the falling apart of the body corporal that is Rome. Titus’ hand is his symbol of warfare. Without it, what is he? Well, Jim suggests that he is still a force to be reckoned with – he discovers this depth and dexterity within himself. Lavinia, too, discovers an incredible dexterity – even humor! – within her poor mutilated body. I am sorry to be so verbose, but your questions and observations really interested me.

  11. Philippa,
    Wonderful acting and staging. But, as for the play…

    My understanding of victorious Roman armies is that they were loyal to their general, not to Rome. I understand that Titus may have been tired of raping and torturing and mutilating (who of us wouldn’t be?) in the pursuit of victory, but his army should still have been loyal to him. So how is it when Saturninus starts messing with him, Saturninus who as far as we know has no army at his beck and call, Titus just doesn’t call in his lieutenants and tell them to crush this insect?

    The second hard to swallow plot turn is when Lucius, Titus’s agent, goes to the Goths and talks them into following him into battle. Titus has just raped, tortured and mutilated them, and they are going to join him in attacking their former queen? I would think they would be attacking Titus in support of their queen. But then politics and war do make for strange bedfellows.

    I was interested in the discussion among Shakespearians as to whether the play was a parody or not. My thinking is that Shakespeare probably wrote it as a young playwright trying to make a quick name for himself. I thought of William Faulkner, who hadn’t really cracked the literary gates until he quite deliberately wrote a shocking novel, “Sanctuary.” Everyone knew his name after his character Popeye entered their world. Shakespeare, I imagine, thought of his audience: “You want blood and gore, I’ll give you blood and gore.”

    Then again, when Saturninus entered in the second half wearing a woman’s apricot-colored nightgown, probably bought at Macy’s, I thought maybe the director really sees this as a parody, an evil transvestite lording it over a fierce macho commanding general. A sort of Rocky Horror Show.

    Almost final thought: if I had been Shakespeare’s editor I would have cut out tons of useless verbiage which did little to advance the plot. It coulda been a one-act.

  12. Don, this is a fascinating question as to why the Romans don’t support their former leader, who’s been fighting on their behalf for 40 years. We have two choices here (and they are not incompatible): to question Shakespeare’s dramaturgy, or to suggest that he is staging a questioning of the very nature of authority. He would do this again and again in different dramatic contexts: in Lear, in macbeth, in Hamlet, in the plays that display flawed or absent Dukes… What IS authority, that it can mean so little once its name is gone. In Lear we have the fabulous exchange between Lear and the disguised Kent, who wants to serve Lear. Lear asks him why he would do this, and Kent replies, ‘You have that in your face that I would fain call master.’ So this can be seen as an early investigation into teh substance (and insubstantiality) of authority.

    As for why the Goths so willingly march on Rome with Lucius, it does seem somewhat implausible that the Goths would so willingly join Lucius against their former Queen. But remember, Tamora has accepted the role of Empress of Rome. The Goths might be angry about losing their Queen, who was dragged off as booty and then ‘happily’ (!!) new-adopted to Rome. But I do think that any further implausibility might be laid at the door of Shakespeare’s dramaturgy. He was still flexing his muscles as a playwright, as Anna put it quite beautifully at the Q and A last Sunday.

    As for the parodic element, I tend to agree with you. I think Shakespeare wrote this to capture all the audiences who were into drama, especially revenge tragedy. He wanted to throw EVERYTHING into this – murder, revenge, laughter, death, birth, hope and futility. It’s all there. I love the scene where Saturninus enters in his gown, because it shows (quite hilariously) the fragility of ego in this emperor of Rome. In the last post I talked about Shakespeare’s staging of challenges to the very notion of authority. The burlesque element underlines this. (I should mention here that in his time, the King or Queen was believed to embody the authority of God in him/herself. His play is carefully set in a pagan world, but authority – what it was constituted of, what it meant – was at the front of people’s minds as old Queen Elizabeth marched toward her death without an heir.

    As for your comment on the unnecessary language – this is probably a matter of taste, although I think this play does lack some of the beauty of Shakespeare’s later passages. It has some here, but it has a lot of nuts-and-bolts revenge writing as well. But I’d also say, ‘We can see most language as unnecessary if we only want information – but whoever was satisfied with just information?’

  13. Philippa,

    My wife, Ellen Dietschy, and I are huge fans of yours. We were eager to hear you talk about your book on Thursday, June 23. We had a flyer that talked prominently about a lecture series at the Lafayette library, showed you speaking there on June 16 and, on the back side, said you would repeat this talk on the 23rd. What it did not make clear, however, was that the latter talk was to be on the Cal campus rather than in Lafayette. We pre-registered, then showed up the library, found the community hall locked and learned, after multiple inquiries, that the talk was going on in Berkeley and we were missing it. We were crushed, having wanted so much to hear you speak – and buy the book so we could have you autograph it. Will you be delivering that lecture again anytime soon?

    • Hi Alan,
      What a lovely email. I am so sorry about that confusion. I should let you know that the book is being sold at the theater at the Bruns. And if you let me know when you are seeing Verona, I can come early and give you a special mini- talk on the book wherever you set up. I am so honored that you would want to know about it. By the way, I’m doing the grove talks for Verona on all three preview nights (6th, 7th, 8th), on first night, and on every Sunday matinee. ill you be there for any of those. Also, Sedge Thompson is interviewing me on West Coast Live (about the book) next saturday (2 July). It is aired on KALW.

      Thank you again, Alan and Ellen.

  14. All in all…a very commendable performance considering how difficult this play is in both content and staging. My question—why does young Lucius (sometimes referred to as boy) taste and swallow the “human pie?” This action is not in the text so I’m assuming it’s the director’s interpretation which seems completely out of character with the child’s sensitive reaction to his grandfather’s death. Are you implying that vengeance is an inherent addiction of sorts and these Romans, Goths and the Andronici have learned nothing thus being condemned to replay this “flaw” forever. Given that Shakespeare has outdone Marlowe in the REVENGE category, it appears to me that this production has forced a contrived and false interpretation in the final scene.

  15. Hello Diane,
    Thanks for your feedback. What Joel wanted to achieve in this ending is an interesting ambivalence wrought of the two children. So firstly we hear the cry of Aaron’s baby, which signifies that Lucius has been true to his promise and has refrained from killing the baby to punish his father (the sins of the father shall not be visited on the child); and secondly to have young Lucius grieving but also tasting the blood – the taste of the blood is indeed part of his grief (his grief must find an outlet). It is a contrivance, yes – but it has evoked a strong reaction, which is also good. I hope I’m not sounding facetious – I very much appreciated your email.

  16. Hello, Philippa,
    Took us 10 days to catch up with your very kind reply to my 6/24 query re: your talk about your book. We are attending Verona this Sunday, July 10, and will make a serious effort to get there before your grove talk so we can take you up on your most generous offer. You are a dear soul as well as one very sharp cookie. Thanks for all you do.
    — Alan and Ellen

  17. Wow, we caught the final performance of Verona Project yesterday and were blown away! I love that one of the performers explained that they hope to continue performing in his backyard…

    During intermission, several in the audience were agreeing that this was better than what we’re seeing nowadays on Broadway. Our group of 5 consensus is that the creative energy and music were “off the chart” and felt like we were watching something special which deserves not only to live on, but to flourish!

    How can we reach out to Amanda Dehnert to let her know how strongly resonated with her audience?

  18. This is really interesting, You’re a very skilled blogger. I’ve joined your rss feed and sit up for in search of extra of your fantastic post. Also, I have shared your website in my social networks

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *