Ask Philippa: THE TEMPEST Edition

Philippa Kelly by Robert Friedman

Philippa Kelly by Robert Friedman

Philippa Kelly, resident dramaturg for Cal Shakes and production dramaturg for The Tempest, shares her thoughts on the current production, and invites your questions. The Tempest runs May 30–June 24, 2012.

The Tempest is a “Romance” play, best introduced in relationship to King Lear, written six years before it in 1605.  Lear is a tragedy that leaves its audiences in a diminished Britain amidst the wasteland of loss, with only Lear’s brief reunion with his beloved Cordelia to comfort us, and even that reunion made bittersweet because both are dead by the time the curtain falls. The Tempest affords a more elegant wrap-up: Its fairytale structure—the power of Prospero’s magic; the mysterious setting somewhere in the Mediterranean; and the satisfaction of final redemption and of a wedding to close things—allows Shakespeare to tie up the play’s loose ends and to make what many have seen as his farewell to London and the stage. As Jonathan Moscone said at the Inside Scoop, the play is full of beautiful tropes—love, romance, loss, relinquishment—and we’re asked to open our hearts unguardedly to all of them via the production’s spectacle, movement, and beautiful poetry.

Are you going to see our  production of  The Tempest? 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.

This entry was posted in Ask Philippa, By Philippa Kelly (dramaturg), Main Stage, The Tempest and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Ask Philippa: THE TEMPEST Edition

  1. Bernard Jones says:

    Why did Mr. Moscone cast a woman for the parts of Caliban and Antonio, not to mention Ariel (which traditionally is played by a male)? I suppose I’m a die-hard traditionalist, but I very much dislike it when women are cast in men’s parts (or the other way around for that matter). Of course I realize that in Shakespeare plays, there are more male roles then there are women parts but I find that a poor excuse to continue the practice of women playing men–which I find too often the case with Cal-Shakes.

  2. Philippa Kelly says:

    Dear Bernard,

    I am actually glad that you wrote, because this is a question that many people would have: why cross-cast when it is not necessary? Aren’t there enough men available? In Shakespeare’s time it was felt to be ‘necessary’ to cast young (prepubescent) men in women’s roles because it was frowned upon to have any woman on the English stage – you generally had to go across to France to see women on-stage if you happened to live before the Restoration. Shakespeare himself was very intrigued by the idea that perhaps many of the traits we experience as ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ are not as ‘natural’ as one might believe – and so he used the casting limitations of his day to explore and play around with this whole idea of ‘intrinsic’ gender. (For instance, Rosalind in As you Like It is very cognizant of the limitations on behavior exerted by gender rules, and she does a lot of playing-around with this recognition.) When you come to see this play (or I hope you will, despite your disappointment about the casting choice), I want you to listen out for Prospero’s line, ‘This rough magic/I here abjure.’ ‘Rough’ is a very important word here (for reasons I’ll explain in my grove talk, which I’ll be giving 45 minutes before the show): but, for the purposes of what I’m saying here, it is very important to the feeling that Jon wanted to exploit in this production. You’ll see a production that celebrates the ‘rough magic’ of theater itself and the way it can beckon the imagination. A ship crashed upon the shore; a piece of fabric that becomes a storm; a magic ‘sound’ that signifies a blessed moment of passion felt between two strangers… It is a really beautiful production, and I think that when you see it you will love it. I think you will also look at Catherine Castellanos playing not one, but two, male roles, and you’ll feel the ‘rough magic’ that she has pulled around herself to create these characters, living and breathing on-stage in front of you. Let’s see what you think, anyway.

  3. Bernard Jones says:

    Ms. Kelly:
    Thank you for getting back to me on the question I had as to why Mr. Moscone chose to cast women in many of the male roles in The Tempest. Aside from the fact that I’m a hard-core traditionalist and therefore if a character is male, he should be played by a male, there are other reasons why I object to women playing male roles, especially with reagard to The Tempest.

    It is interesting to note that of all the characters in The Tempest, all but one are male. It is also interesting that The Tempest is considered a romance when it features only one female. When considering the majority of Shakespeare’s plays, male characters overwhelmingly out number the female ones. Some have argued that consequently Shakespeare effectively wrote in a masculine tone for the majority of his characters regardless of their gender. It is an historical fact that-–as you point out–most actors during the Renaissance period performing Shakespearian works were male which would explain why Shakespeare wrote the majority of his characters as male.

    With the above in mind, I view The Tempest as an excellent example of what our world would be like if populated solely by males. It is effectively a study of the competition between forceful or–if you will–macho males and their contention for supremacy on the island. Prospero, for example, spends the majority of the play exercising his ability to dominate the males who inhabit his “territory”. We are led to believe Prospero’s motive is revenge but quickly realize that his pursuit is not one of retribution but rather a query of ultimate male supremacy. Within this premise lies the dilemma that each male character is competing for their position within the theoretical pecking order on the island. Consider the power Prospero has over his sprites Ariel and Caliban. He seduces Ariel with the promise of freedom all the while exploiting the sprite’s magical powers. The play culminates with Prospero making good on his promise, releasing Ariel from his stewardship. However, Ariel’s exodus from male suppression occurs only in the final scene. Caliban is used by Prospero to complete his “dirty work”. The interesting difference between the fate of Ariel and Caliban is the fact that Caliban’s fate is somewhat ambiguous. It is not clear whether he is released from his slavery or is doomed to perpetual stewardship at the end of the play. Clearly Prospero’s “rough magic” is used to dominate other males.

    So to conclude, to have females play male roles in the very male dominant Tempest–as Mr. Moscone has done–is to completely ignore one of the play’s major themes–that of men competing with other men.


  4. Bernard Jones says:

    Any comments regarding my response above?

  5. Hello, Bernard! Publications Manager Stefanie Kalem here. Philippa is up at the Bruns Amphitheater, busily helping the cast and creative team put the finishing touches on the show before tonight’s and tomorrow night’s previews, and Saturday’s big opening night!

    I’m certain she’ll respond to your latest comments early next week.

  6. Whose version / printing of The Tempest would you recommend to someone who wanted to read it before and/or after seeing the play? Any favorites and if so, why?

    • Philippa Kelly says:

      Hello Kate,

      We always like the Arden at Cal Shakes – in fact, Domenique used this as her template for the first round of cuts she made.

      But I always love my trusty Norton Complete Works, I have to say, edited by Greenblatt et al – I carry it around all over the place and it is almost in tatters. What I love about it is that it is based on the Oxford Shakespeare texts; it has a heap of great essays by very interesting thinkers, including the brilliant Greenblatt (one essay preceding each play); it has the annotations right across from each line, which makes them very easy to read; and it also has the longer notes at the bottom of each page (again, very user-friendly).But you have to not mind having a dead weight in your bag – it is rather heavy. (You could actually use it as an exercise weight, if you got a Riverside edition and carried that in a bag on the other side!)

      If you ever find an old edition of any play edited by Kenneth Muir for a dollar or 2, grab it – his editions are beautifully thought-out, because he makes his edition his own kind of ‘close reading’ of the play. Also Reg Foakes

  7. Philippa Kelly says:

    Dear Bernard,
    I know that our wonderful publications manager, Stefanie, let you know I’ve been up at the Bruns for most of the last 24 hours – but I am back very briefly (before doing the grove talk tonight) and have been considering your question and your very thoughtful observations.

    Firstly, romance – we think of ‘romance’ as ‘boy + girl’, but in Shakespeare’s terms ‘romance’ also refers to a hybrid of comedy and tragedy. So, for instance, Lear (written 6 years before this play) takes us right up to the cliff of despair, and throws us over at the end so that we have to find out own way to some kind of resolution (nihilism, perhaps, or redemption). The Tempest has this potential, but it veers off at the end to provide a satisfying conclusion – willing relinquishment on prospero’s part, freedom for Ariel, and marriage for his daughter and the prince of Naples.

    I do think the boy/girl issue is intriguing. Perhaps what I will say for now is that once you’ve seen the show, your thoughts might stay the same, or they might change. Let’s see. Many people do say that in a male-dominated society like Shakespeare’s, the big purple passages were designed for men – so that, in a sense, it is lovely to give them to a woman today and see what she does with them.

    I also want to tell you something about mothers and daughters in Shakespeare’s time. Daughters (upper class ones) were strictly monitored by their mothers in order to make the vendable. Look what Shakespeare does with his young girl characters – he takes away the mothers, solving the problem both of finding a boy who can plausibly play a much older person of the opposite sex, AND allowing these young girls to go free and find their own way unconstrained by a mother.

    I have to go get ready for the theater now. See you and your family/friends up there, I hope. There are some very good deals, and the weather is perfect.


    • Bernard Jones says:

      Philippa: Please forgive me for going on and on about this issue of women playing men parts, but just let me say briefly that I found your comments about romance in Shakespeare interesting and valid but how does that really address my assertion that The Tempest is very masculine work and one of its principle themes being the competion between males and their contention for supremacy? Therefore, casting women in male roles seems quite incongruous, especially in The Tempest.

      But putting all of that aside for the moment, perhaps I’m just old fashion. I feel that if a character is male he should be played by a male–regardless of weather I’m watching a drama or a fantasy. Casting women in male parts in able to see what they can do with the roles doesn’t seem lovely to me at all, it just seems gimmicky and helps to undermine suspension of disbelieve.

  8. Philippa Kelly says:

    Hello Bernard, what I’d say broadly is: ‘Tell that to Shakespeare!’ If he’d felt the same as you, he’d have written plays with only men in them. But let’s see what you think when you see the play. See you out in the grove!

  9. George Hersh says:

    Dear Dramaturg

    The Hersh review: Well done!

    The art of the double elevated. Hurwitt’s favorable review got most of the point.
    The “sprites,” introduced as black clad enablers of magical elevations and effects, become the agents of the final scene’s allowing of the simultaneous on-stage presence of both aspects of the doubles. No audience member is deceived, but all are enchanted. Made stronger by the contrasts between the doubler’s parts and the artful use of costume as symbol for stage of action. We never confuse Prospero with Stephano or the prince with Trinculo and yet we have opportunities to be confused which are artfully evaded. The evil brother and Caliban make a superb double, brilliantly acted in each metamorphosis.

    Good use of stage mechanics in Ariel’s translocations.

    The symbolism of trunks. That with which one packs to travel and that which may contain or transport anything or anyone. And the troupe making do with what it has to work with.

    Slight criticisms.
    Too many books on stage. Prospero is dependent upon ONE book, so far so good. The magical tradition makes much of the existence of some individual book, either a manuscript compiled by the mage in the course of his researches or a miraculous treasury of all the essential knowledge surviving from the potent past. Prospero’s preferred volume, never seen opened, fits either need.

    But the library that he has been allowed to carry to the island is too large and too imposing, more than that enfeebled craft might have been expected to carry. And then, on stage, Prospero’s treasured books are reduced to a mere staircase for careless entrances and elevations. A desecration that Prospero would never countenance.

    The end of staff and book is well done (as are all the sound effects, starting with the vocal tempest wind and shading into whatever is needed). I would have wished the staff broken before disposal.

    Stardust is all well and good, but too extended. Just because you have superb choreography to substitute for the masque doesn’t mean that you must rival the masque in stage time length.

    Ariel’s butterfly symbolism is a good character establishment. The original passage of a small butterfly was muffed and recovered nicely on our night. But that Ariel, who can take any needed form, is inherently butterfly, that’s touching. Ari-el, is, of course, the Lion of God, but Shakespeare didn’t really care, I think. He probably heard “airy” and was happy with that.
    Prospero’s relinquishment of magic. Shakespeare is brilliant in establishing that Prospero’s command of Ariel is the result of an act of charity rather than a potentially damning invocation of a spirit. But, for a happy ending, Prospero must give up magic. It was the distraction that lured him away from his proper role as leader. He discovers that as he realizes that his rule over the island amounts to little but an mockery of his former state of authority. And, continued use of magic would lead to the suspicion of demonic pacts and inherently evil motivations. No one, not even Prospero, can practice magic without the risk of losing his soul. Marlowe’s Faust was there as demonstration that magic can ravish the sense out of the academic and reduce miracle to childish deceits and wanton indulgence.
    Theater is as close as most of us get to magic, Shakespeare, as you observed, must have felt both the reward and the peril of continued indulgence of his power.

    More power to you!

    George Hersh

  10. Philippa Kelly says:

    George! It’s you! So glad to see you at the grove talk and the show yesterday. And what a fascinating response! I particularly love this clause: ‘…his rule over the island amounts to little but an mockery of his former state of authority’ – this is a very astute and ironic observation. As for the one book you mentioned as the optimal, take a look at this line from the play: ‘…knowing I loved my books,/he furnish’d me
    From mine own library with volumes that/I prize above my dukedom.’ Given that Prospero was pushed off Milan on the boat with Miranda, a number of books, and some food, I think it admirably suits your clause above to have the bulk of the books simply constitute a staircase (it emphasizes your idea of the ‘props’ on the island constituting a kind-of mockery of the power Prospero had in Milan.) I love that you wrote such an engaged and detailed response, George. Thank you!

  11. Thomas Brown says:

    Hello Mrs Kelly,
    Recently I have been wondering about the meaning of the quotation from the tempest “We are such stuff as dreams are made on”. I know that this is famous line spoken by Prospero but I just cannot fathom what it would mean.
    Could you please explain this to me.

  12. Philippa Kelly says:

    Good morning Thomas,
    This is a very interesting line to single out, as it is so full of resonance. As he moved toward the (early) end of his writing career, Shakespeare wrote 
into this play his own farewell to London and the stage. So when he talks of 
humans being made of the stuff of dreams, he is talking of the illusory nature
 of everything we think of as ‘real’ in this life. It all disappears, and we will
 become the airy ‘nothing’ of dusty dreams. How ironic is it that he is provoked 
to such a thought by a marriage, the moment when people are at their most
 vibrant and when life seems to matter most!

  13. dianne Sweer says:

    Lovely Philippa,
    I so enjoyed your pre-show talk today and was struck by your comparison of Tempest to Lear—they both defy nature (as in the natural order of 17th century thought). Lear defies the concept of divine right by dividing his kingdom and arbitrarily giving it away and Prospero defies the authority of God when he neglects his “kingdom” for total immersion in the “black arts.” Lear’s enlightenment however results in tragedy; he loses his daughter to death and his own death seems to be the only release from a life unbearable. Prospero’s enlightenment is happily more timely and he loses his daughter to life and love. Wonder how much Shakespeare’s own understanding of fatherhood influenced these two remarkable studies in parental responsibility??? Thank you again for turning on the light; my grandaughter who is an intern this summer suggested that I see the play again but in the evening—her reason—it’s just so much more magical—what do you think?? Her name is Cordelia (naturally) Kritz—say hi to her from her grandma.


  14. Philippa Kelly says:

    Hello Dianne,

    What a beautiful post! Thank you for your appreciation. And your brilliant comment yesterday in the grove and now this one today.

    I think that Shakespeare, in his late plays, played over and over this theme of fatherhood. Susannah (conceived out of wedlock) was definitely his favorite child. She married John Hall, a man not trained in medicine but who practiced as a physician (you could do this then). Shakespeare had great respect for Hall, and it only increased his favoritism of Susannah. Judith was his second daughter, born as a twin with Hamnet who died at age 11. Maybe this was one reason Shakespeare didn’t like her much – because she reminded him of this grief? She married at a late age (31) and her husband son thereafter had a child born to another woman. This enraged Shakespeare (the shame of it) and so, a month before he died, he cut Judith out of his will. So… fathers/daughters was a complex theme for him.

    DEFINITELY come at night! You’ll get a whole different sense.


Please leave a comment

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

We’re so pleased to be able to offer this forum for our community to see behind the scenes of a working theater organization, and for our patrons and friends to be able to provide their insight, as well. Please observe the following guidelines:

• No personal attacks
• No profanity
• No shameless self-promotion

We do not wish to moderate this important dialogue, but we reserve the right to remove inflammatory, off-topic, or otherwise inappropriate comments. Thank you for participating in the conversation!