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A reflection on Pericles and the ethical beauty of suffering

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 2, 2011 - Why do we choose so often to watch the suffering of others? I know people who subject themselves to hours of reality television purely because of the mean-hearted satisfaction generated by feeling superior to the ridiculous and debased people featured on them. Award seasons recognize tragic dramas purely because suffering itself can be so beautiful and transcendent. Others still watch hours of news coverage of natural disasters and global crises because they feel they owe it to the victims to feel for their pain.

Somewhere in the middle of this is where "Pericles of Tyre" lives. The play, commonly credited to Shakespeare but in fact a collaboration, just concluded a run at the Black Rep in a production that brought a sharp edge to the play on which it balances the competing demands of the fantastical and the real.

"Pericles" is most often described as a fairy tale-like, and indeed a lot of the fairy tale is here: super-bad villains, a noble king separated from his throne, a beautiful princess, a magic healer, even marauding pirates. But it has reality, too, even if sometimes we don't want to admit it: girls forced or tricked into slavery, once noble cities driven to despair through natural disaster, families separated by human trafficking, the real threat of pirates, countries undermined through the frailties of their leaders.

Perhaps the biggest challenge of the play, and one of the main reasons it is so often staged as a fairy tale, is its structure. Most notably, it's episodic to an extreme degree, hopping about the Eastern Mediterranean between scenes that are spread out over decades. So that audiences can follow this frenetic movement, the play features a narrator in the personage of the medieval English poet Gower, who speaks in some shockingly schlocky verse (almost certainly not written by Shakespeare).

Pericles (played at the Rep by Ka'ramuu Kush) and his daughter Marina (Sharisa Whatley) are the two central characters, and between them they come in contact with upward of 40 others, so that any production requires actors to play multiple roles, an opportunity often seized on by directors to draw significant parallels between characters, thereby encouraging mythological interpretations. The Black Rep minimized thematic doubling and divided the part of Gower among the cast, both choices resulting from what I suspect is a desire to downplay the mythological in favor of enhanced realism.

For the Black Rep's production, director Andrea Frye changed the setting from the mystical Eastern Mediterranean to the very tangible trans-Atlantic realm of the African Diaspora. Thus the destruction of the quasi-mythical city of Tarsus is made real as the shambles of Port-au-Prince. Similarly, the otherwise jarring shift in the second half of the play to a brothel in Mytilene, which in the original is more like a scene from the city comedies of Ben Jonson than a fairy-tale romance, becomes quite relatable as a shift in location to colonial New Orleans. The goddess Diana and her temple at Ephesus become instead an African goddess imported by her followers across the Atlantic whose temple can be found on "Gullah Isle."

This is a useful and literal adaptation that brings the play's themes out of imaginary distance into close proximity. Pure realism would be frankly impossible with this play, but the Rep's production was both laudable and interesting in that it, unlike most previous producers, looked beyond surface structure to explore the play's contemporary relevance.

Despite the fairy tale elements, the play somehow manages to tell its story of the vicissitudes of fate while minimizing fantasy and the hands of the divine. Instead of one mystical element after another moving the plot forward, here one superstition undercuts the next. Witness a sea captain, who superstitiously insists that the storm battering his ship cannot abate until the ship is cleared of its dead. This forces his passenger Pericles to set adrift the body of his wife Thaisa who has just died in childbirth. But the superstition-induced hastiness means Thaisa may have been cast out when she was still alive, so the healing in the next scene by the physician/magician Cerimon (the incomparable Linda Kennedy) might as likely have been medical as magical.

The most explicitly magical scene comes late in the play, when the goddess Diana appears to Pericles, guiding him toward his lost wife. But this appearance comes, significantly, not in Pericles's reality but in a dream, perhaps a manifestation of his own private wish that Thaisa had not died, and driving him to the shores where her casket would have landed.

Odd and intangible as the play may be, it is also strangely wonderful, full of bizarre twists of fate and that tell-tale fantastic mix of the tragic and the comic so indicative of Shakespeare's late plays. The second half of the play is undeniably transcendent. Having watched the main character suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune for at least 15 years of his life, the play's conclusion -- which I won't spoil -- is a small miracle of the theater.

But while the ending makes the play, the preceding two hours -- full of Pericles's suffering as an exile, pursued by assassins, tortured even by love and hope as they are snatched from him at the very moments he feels them -- make the conclusion's psychological impact possible. At some level, the suffering, it seems, more even than the hope that serves as its contrasting foil, is the heart of the matter.

Incidentally, the second half of the play contains what we suspect are most of Shakespeare's contributions to the script, with much of the rest credited to the otherwise obscure George Wilkins. Evidently, Shakespeare had not only more skill than his collaborator, but better taste: his verse is certainly better, but so is the subtlety of the play's inner workings in the Shakespearean scenes. Where the Wilkins scenes wallow in Pericles's suffering, Shakespeare's make a miracle of it.

Indeed, glorifying suffering is what makes this strange, almost alien play surprisingly contemporary.

Modern performances of the play are scant, perhaps because of its difficulty (it requires that remarkably flexible cast of actors, remember), but also, I suspect, because it has been seen as lacking in contemporary relevance. For many decades, Shakespearean performances have tended to stress either contemporary relevance or a "timeless" aestheticism, and this play has been seen as faulty on both counts. I have no interest in furthering a wide-scale defense of the play on aesthetic grounds, but I can certainly further a defense of it on the grounds of relevance.

Even without the kind of resetting that the Black Rep presented, those brothel scenes alone should be a wake-up call to anyone who thinks this play lacks relevance. The suffering of Pericles passes on to his daughter Marina, but while he was merely exiled, she was enslaved. With an estimated 1.5 million people trafficked each year in the U.S., fully a third of which are trafficked for sex, this is neither distant, mystical, nor comic. Neither is it the stuff of fairy tale.

While Marina's enslavement certainly carries direct contemporary relevance, on a wider level, the play is relevant by virtue of the pure fact that suffering itself exists, and that we choose to watch it. As a culture we seek out -- and often celebrate -- suffering in the narratives we choose to consume. But watching the suffering of others should be an ethical act of self-reflection and not simple self-satisfaction. To be an ethical act, it should make us care more and not less about the people we see suffer and to be more aware of our own suffering. We should feel for the victims of suffering and, furthermore, question the processes by which that suffering is enabled. Ultimately, we should do so with an eye to discovering if we share culpability for those processes.

Both play itself and the Black Rep's production minimized the social processes that make Pericles's and Marina's suffering possible, but it does not minimize the impact of the dream of escape. It is that very real, very relevant dream that permits the ultimate resolution of the play to be such an emotionally powerful experience. That is what makes seeing this play a prime example of the ethical consumption of the suffering of others.

Anita M. Hagerman, PhD, teaches in the English and performing arts departments at Washington University and Webster University. She condensed Pericles of Tyre to a 45-minute touring production involving only four actors and one set to accompany the Black Rep's production.

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