Measure For Measure on the Stage

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Measure For Measure on the Stage

Near the end of his well known treatment of transgression and surveillance in Measure for Measure, Jonathan Dollimore makes an observation about the world of the play that deserves further consideration by feminist scholars:

the prostitutes, the most exploited group in the society which the play represents, are absent from it. Virtually everything that happens presupposes them yet they have no voice, no presence. And those who speak for them do so as exploitatively as those who want to eliminate them. (85-86)

Although Dollimore's comment about the absence of the prostitutes holds true for the written text of the play, twentieth century theatrical productions of Measure for Measure have largely tended to fill this void by granting the prostitutes a concrete physical presence on the stage. It might be argued that, by giving this neglected and exploited female population a theatrical incarnation, a performance of the play draws attention to the plight of these women and thereby accomplishes some aspects of a feminist agenda. However, a detailed review of the recent Anglo-American stage history of Measure for Measure reveals that the specific way in which prostitutes are embodied and employed in a given production determines the extent to which the production constitutes a feminist appropriation of the text.

The treatment of prostitution in performances of Measure for Measure usually falls into one of three categories, which I will refer to as the conventional, lascivious, and adverse portrayals. A conventional presentation depicts the prostitutes as a generally ragged, vulgar, but appealing crew, the routine comic tarts of theatrical tradition, long-suffering but relatively untroubled in their lives of sexual debauchery. By contrast, a lascivious portrayal features an exhibition of the bodies of the prostitutes, offering the spectacle of their seductive sexuality for the consumption of audience members. Finally, an adverse treatment emphasizes the degrading and brutal aspects of the sex trade in an attempt to foreground the exploitation of women (and sometimes children) reduced to the bartering of their bodies by economic necessity. This adverse portrayal most nearly approaches a feminist appropriation of Measure for Measure, but it also tends to sacrifice the comic tone of the play's underworld. Can a feminist appropriation of Measure for Measure highlight the demeaning quality of prostitution without forfeiting the option of a comic interpretation of the lowlife of Vienna? This paper will address this question by concluding with a study of one particular production directed by a feminist, Joan Robbins of the University of Scranton, and her employment of prostitutes on stage at several key moments in the play's action.

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***

Fleeting references to prostitutes (other than Mistress Overdone, the bawd) in productions of Measure for Measure first begin to appear in reviews of mid-twentieth-century revivals, such as those directed by Peter Brook at the Stratford Memorial Theatre (1950) and Margaret Webster at the Old Vic (1957). For instance, Alice Venezky recalls that "Peter Brook set the action against a sordid medieval Vienna, with its prostitutes, beggars, cripples, and degenerates" (75). As he explains in The Empty Space, Brook developed this background as means to illustrate his theory of the Holy and the Rough:

In Measure for Measure, we have a base world, a very real world in which the action is firmly rooted. This is the disgusting, stinking world of medieval Vienna. The darkness of this world is absolutely necessary for the meaning of the play ... When so much is religious in thought, the loud humour of the brothel is important as a device, because it is alienating and humanizing ... We must animate all this stretch of the play, not as fantasy, but as the roughest comedy we can make. (88)

Clearly, Brook chose to animate the prostitutes for a primarily comic purpose, as is borne out by a production photograph depicting a nattily dressed Mistress Overdone, backed by two of her women, lamenting the closing of the brothels in 1.2. A strikingly similar photo of the same scene in Margaret Webster's production depicts two prostitutes with loose, straight hair wearing gowns with stereotypically low-cut bodices, posed with their hands perched on their hips. These two photographs appear in Kittredge (108-9) and Clarke (n. p.) respectively. In both cases, the punks serve merely to swell the scene as a comical backdrop, and little attention is paid to the sordid nature of their function.

In a comparable way, the 1978 BBC-TV production directed by Desmond Davis also portrayed the prostitutes, in the words of Graham Nicholls, as "the raddled Cockneyfied harridans of stage convention" (87). However, Davis intensified the impact of the arrest of Mistress Overdone and her whores in 3.2 by treating it as a separate scene occurring within the brothel itself. While Mistress Overdone pleads with Escalus in the foreground, behind them, prostitutes in white nightclothes are dragged kicking and screaming down the stairs "with some Jacobean-style invective [added] for the furious girls" (Nicholls 62). This additional emphasis may provide the prostitutes with some of the voice and presence whose lack Dollimore bemoans, but again, the essentially humorous nature of this treatment precludes the expression of any feminist point through the expansion of the prostitutes' role. Curiously, even John Barton's production at Stratford-upon-Avon (1970), widely regarded as the first feminist version of the play (because Isabella did not clearly accept the Duke's proposal of marriage), did not interrogate prostitution from a feminist standpoint. According to Penny Gay, although spectators saw "whores, pimps, and criminals on the stage," reviewers "complained that Barton's 'underworld' was far too clean and cheery" (129).

Certain North American productions of Measure for Measure have also been content to characterize prostitution lightheartedly. John Houseman and Jack Landau's 1956 effort at Stratford, Connecticut set in the nineteenth century offered "a gaudy parade of petty crooks, trollops, woeful lovers and dishonest officials" ("Stratford" 161). A Life magazine review of this production features, under the caption "FRIAR AND FLOOZY ... MEET IN PRISON ..." a photograph of the disguised Duke approached by a seductively smiling prostitute costumed as a wild west saloon girl, flanked by two other beaming hussies. This portrayal represents a combination of the conventional and lascivious treatment of prostitution, for the revealing nature of the central prostitute's costume puts her sexual allure on display for the audience as well as for the Duke. In 1985, at Stratford, Ontario, under Michael Bogdanov's direction,

The whole theatre was turned into a kind of brothel-nightclub. An extended, suggestive and quite unwarranted prologue, involving a frenzied sexual dance, culminated in a circle closing in on the club's number-one patron--Duke Vincentio himself ... who gradually subsided to the floor amidst a rhythmically attentive knot of whores and transvestites. (Dawson 74)

Similarly, the 1987 Shakespeare and Company production at the Oxford Court Theatre in Lenox, MA began with "a prescene in which punks and pimps and prostitutes dance sensuous dances on the central platforms and recline on a luxurious satin bed" (Nelson 96). While such sequences usefully establish the atmosphere of sexual corruption in Vienna, they also invite viewers to derive salacious pleasure from the sensuous dances of the prostitutes rather than to consider the exploitative nature of prostitution itself.

By contrast, the tone of one recent American production's treatment of prostitution was not essentially comic, but such a portrayal does not guarantee that the overall effect of the staging will constitute a feminist appropriation. Director Barry Kyle's 1996 revival at New York's Theater for a New Audience offers a sobering rendition of the scene featuring the arrest of the prostitutes handled so humorously in the BBC version. As reviewer Ben Brantley describes,

The rounding up of the bawds and whores is especially brutal, with the comic constable Elbow ... turned into a sadistic thug who whacks his prisoners with a night-stick. And those under arrest are made to strip down to full frontal exposure before donning concentration-camp style uniforms.

Although Kyle's rendering of this segment unflinchingly represents the violence and degradation suffered by Mistress Overdone's women, this brutality is portrayed as a quality inherent to the officers under Angelo's authority rather than specifically to a life of prostitution. Moreover, the gratuitous choice of stripping the prostitutes down to full frontal nudity threatens to arouse a sadistic, voyeuristic pleasure in the audience that may work against the sympathy evoked for the victimized participants in the sex trade.

However, three RSC versions of Measure for Measure produced within the last 15 years have made concerted attempts to present prostitution itself in an adverse light. Nicholas Shrimpton, after commenting on the strength of the female bond established between Isabella and Mariana in Adrian Noble's 1983 production, observes,

This subtly feminist shading went hand in hand with a distinctly hostile attitude to the play's low life ... [T]he pimps and punters were played to frighten rather than to charm us. The human warmth and realism of Pompey's "they will to't" [2.1.230] were here excluded by a sense of the threat posed to women by prostitution, pornography, and sexual harassment. (204)

As Shrimpton points out, Noble's "feminist shading" eschews the option of a "charming" portrayal of the prostitutes, but such a choice also seems, perhaps unavoidably, to exclude the "human warmth" generated by a comic portrayal of the lowlife characters. For an equally startling alternative to the conventional stage prostitute, we may consult the reminiscences of Roger Allam, who played the Duke for director Nicholas Hytner in 1987:

Most of our whores were rent-boys, run by Pompey, working a gents' toilet that rose from the floor. This was our attempt to de-anaesthetize the clich‚d presentation of prostitutes in Shakespeare's plays, and thus shock and awaken our audience anew to the meaning of the scene. (27)

Depending on the nature of one's own understanding of feminism, the decision to substitute young boys for women as Pompey's charges may or may not constitute a feminist appropriation of the text. While some might argue that Hytner's choice panders to an assumed homophobia in his audience and even co-opts prostitution as a primarily male activity, others might reply that feminist concerns extend to the exploitation of children of both sexes and that forcing spectators merely to confront the existence of homosexual prostitution can also serve a feminist agenda.

Most recently, Steven Pimlott's production, which opened in 1994, announced both its feminist stance and its adverse treatment of prostitution before the show began through materials included in the playbill. Along with selections from Marilyn French's Shakespeare's Division of Experience, the program featured "two pages of horrific excerpts from journalist Nick Davies' report ... on prostitution and drug dealing among the young homeless in contemporary London" and "an anonymous essay on the history of prostitution in Southwark" (Geckle 13). In 1.2, Pimlott introduced Mistress Overdone as "a wrecked Marlene Dietrich clone, bound by her sciatica to a wheelchair" (Jackson 357) and her girls as "mini-skirted, heavily rouged whores in flaming wigs" (Maguin 106). But according to reviewer George Geckle,

The shocking element in this scene, however, is the arrival of the Child (not in Shakespeare's text), a young girl of about ten years, a new addition to "the service" [1.2.102], as Pompey terms Mistress Overdone's trade. This stage business ties in with the excerpts from Davies in the program, but nothing more is done with it in the production, which makes it ... an obtrusive bit of editorializing. (13)

For Geckle, Pimlott's interpolation of the novice whore seemed too overtly polemical because it was not well integrated with the rest of the production. Similarly, Russell Jackson writes, "it seemed gratuitous that ... Pompey should bring on a prepubescent girl for Overdone's approval, suggesting that pedophilia was among the vices catered to in the suburbs" (357). but the fact remains that the shocking quality of this performance choice prodded the reviewer into further contemplation of the horrific details of child prostitution in contemporary London, thereby appropriating Shakespeare's text for a modern feminist purpose. And yet, by choosing to portray his underworld characters in an unconventional and "sleazy" fashion (Geckle 14), Pimlott also relinquished much of the comic tone of those sections of the play. As Russell Jackson recalls, "by refusing to make these characters or their occupation picturesque, the production suggested that the portion of his realm that the Duke knew nothing about was complex, sinister, and (to many of his subjects) commonplace" (357).

An equally sinister link between prostitution and the sexual abuse of children appeared in the 1994 production of Measure for Measure by the Shakespeare Repertory in Chicago, directed by Barbara Gaines. As reviewer Justin Shaltz remembers,

Garishly made-up prostitutes and transvestites dance a raucous Parisian can-can in the play's early moments, accompanied by piano and hoots and hollers from their clientele. Brightly footlit, the dancers' colorful costumes and heavily painted faces seem grotesque and distorted, their lurid appearance inspired by the Post-Impressionist art of D‚gas and Toulouse-Lautrec. The prostitutes pantomime explicit sexual acts with a slew of customers ... A darker aspect of sexual licentiousness is a fleeting--but quite disturbing--image of a priest molesting a young boy, then quickly walking away while the kneeling child contorts in shame and horror. (24)

Like Bogdanov, Gaines begins her performance with an explicitly sexual dance of whores and transvestites, but the "grotesque" and "lurid" appearance of these figures differentiates this adverse portrayal from Bogdanov's lascivious treatment of prostitution. Gaines' further juxtaposition of the pantomimed sexual acts of the prostitutes with the image of a priest sexually molesting a young boy demonizes by association all forms of sexual licentiousness, and therefore also inhibits a comic depiction of the play's underworld. As Shaltz points out, "Gaines' emphases on sexual decadence and the abuse of authority tend to overwhelm the few moments of humor in the play" (25). Thus, it remains to be seen whether a production that aims to retain a predominantly comic attitude towards its lowlife characters can still address a feminist agenda on the subject of prostitution.

***

Yes, it's an appropriation. I think when you do Shakespeare in 1996, you have to appropriate it. Why do it otherwise?

Joan Robbins, Director of Theater at the University of Scranton, thinks of herself as a liberal feminist. Despite the fact that she does not begin her directorial projects with the primary goal of creating feminist appropriations, she believes that her political orientation inevitably colors the performance choices made in her productions, which thereby address some of the concerns of feminism. For example, Robbins chose to include Measure for Measure in her 1995-96 season largely because it deals with current issues like sexual harassment and unwed motherhood relevant to contemporary women. Furthermore, as in all of Shakespeare's plays, the female characters of Measure for Measure are to a disturbing degree restricted and manipulated by their male counterparts, a situation Robbins intended to make manifest to her audience. However, as Robbins explains, these feminist concerns were subordinate to her sense of the spine, or through-line, of the production:

My basic metaphor for Measure for Measure was that Vienna was a world out of balance, and that in such a world, people subscribe to forms of extremism. That, for me, became a clear idea about the action of the play and how everyone fits into this world. The extreme choices of the underworld characters are dictated to them by the urgent necessity to survive. So, I needed the underworld to be there; I needed to create it in the flesh, and part of this underworld was prostitution, the trade of sex, which traditionally has been carried out mostly by women. The prostitutes, then, had to be personified. All quotations from Joan Robbins are taken from a personal interview conducted by the author and are reproduced in an edited form with Robbins' permission and oversight.

Like the directors of recent RSC productions, Robbins felt the need to give the play's prostitutes a physical embodiment on stage in order to interrogate their profession as a crucial element of Viennese society, but unlike the adverse treatments of prostitution surveyed earlier in this paper, her version did not strive to portray the underworld as an entirely sinister subculture:

Vienna possesses different worlds within it. For instance, there's the underworld, which has this raw energy; it's full of the life force, full of color, but it's also full of illicit sex and crime. The polar opposite of that world is inhabited by the people who are as cold as ice: Isabella, who is entering the nunnery, and Angelo, who has led a restrained, Puritanical life. Despite the fact that the underworld is plagued with syphilis, ridden with vice, and saddled with babies no one wants to support, there is a positive side to it, an aspect that is more human than the world of Angelo and Isabella. Through the comic vivacity of the low characters, Shakespeare was suggesting that there's a middle ground that needs to be found. There's got to be a sense of measure to everything.

Like Peter Brook, who sees "the loud humour of the brothel" as "humanizing," Robbins insists on an acknowledgement of the positive aspects of the play's lowlife community, but unlike Brook, she also accepts the challenge to employ the prostitutes in such a way that her production expresses a feminist point.

In order to examine how Robbins' production attempted to achieve this goal, we must look at certain critical moments in the performance during which prostitutes appeared on the stage. The play began with a Prologue, which Robbins describes as follows:

We have three minutes of mimed activity, underscored at the start with a very romantic tango, during which Claudio and Juliet come dancing out, very much in love, innocently at first, but getting more and more carried away with each other sexually on a park bench. At that point, a new, racier piece of music begins, and the underworld characters climb out of a couple of traps in the stage floor. So we see these sleazy citizens of the underworld literally crawling up out of the sewers, ready to ply their trade, and at first, they're this very energized, fun-loving group of people. What eventually emerges is a financial hierarchy by which the prostitutes sell their wares to the clients, Pompey takes money from the prostitutes, a pickpocket takes money from Pompey, and a criminal takes money from the pickpocket. Also, there is a gradual increase in the darkness of this street life: with another change in the music, the stylized sexual activity escalates into violence against the prostitutes; Pompey slaps one around when she tries to hide money from him. There's a sense that this world is full of life, but it's also extremely rough; the criminal violently murders the pickpocket at the end of the sequence. What we were trying to establish, of course, was the reason why the Duke was leaving: there's a life force in Vienna that's completely out of control, turning against itself, and he needs to deal with it.

Typically, Robbins develops her pre-scene chiefly as a means to exhibit the "world out of balance" so crucial to her conception of the spine of the play, and yet her stage manifestation of this world does not conventionalize or trivialize the hazardous lives of the prostitutes. Their sexual acts and the violence against them by their pimp are prominently portrayed, but in a stylized fashion, so that the audience perceives these events as part of a slightly unreal, nightmarish vision of the Duke. Indeed, the fact that the segment ends with the murder of the pickpocket draws some of the focus away from the treatment of prostitution carried on in the rest of the sequence. As Robbins comments, "If we had wanted to make a feminist statement as our primary goal with the Prologue, we might have concluded with some sort of violence against women as the climax of the action. That's a very interesting choice, but we didn't make it."

During the play proper, the first time the prostitutes appear is in 1.2, which Robbins set in Mistress Overdone's brothel. While Lucio and his cohorts drink at a table center stage, several women of the house tempt these gentlemen, negotiate transactions with other clients, or lounge on a circular staircase exhibiting their wares in a manner reminiscent of the stylized movements of the Prologue. Particularly on display in this scene are the expressive costumes of the prostitutes:

In the course of her research, [costume designer Helen Ju] found this exotic, draped look, which I really liked because it was vivacious and very colorful, and those were things that I wanted to communicate about the underworld. The hats were particularly unusual, with sequins and feathers that gave the women a sort of peacock-like quality. They also wore partial masks that symbolized the fact that, when they were prostitutes, they were playing a role that society had dictated to them: woman as sexual object. That's who a prostitute is, right? The man doesn't want to know her as an individual, he just wants to have her. We also blocked some of the prostitutes on the circular staircase peering through the railing like caged birds, which we emphasized by placing a real birdcage on stage as well. We tried to show that the whores were just objects, in an animalistic way, for the men's pleasure.

Although Robbins legitimately defends the design of the prostitutes' costumes as a tool for feminist appropriation, in another sense, the alluring qualities of these outfits may have tended to glamorize prostitution itself and thereby to achieve the opposite effect for which a feminist production might strive. When asked to comment on this possibility, Robbins responded,

I do think that we had a contradiction in the production because, in some ways, we pursued a feminist agenda, but we also clothed the prostitutes in vivid, beautiful colors, which accentuated their energy and their capacity for pleasure and a colorful life. But I ask myself, what would have been the alternative? Should we have put them in more Brechtian costumes? Beggar's Opera stuff? Filthy dresses with hems falling out, and holes in their stockings? It is worth noting that in Noble's production, which featured a hostile attitude towards prostitution, "the whores and bawds vaguely recalled The Beggar's Opera" (Warren 456). That would have been closer to a naturalistic statement about the social problem of prostitution, but then again, could we then have established the comedy in those scenes as well? If we had implied that the prostitutes were poor, dirty, and hungry, that their lives were tougher than we portrayed them, we would have sent a more negative message than we did about the underworld of the play. And for me, what was interesting was that, inasmuch as Isabella and Angelo are upstanding people, the underworld has its positive aspects as well.

Robbins' remarks here cut straight to the problem. While a full-fledged feminist appropriation of Measure for Measure seems to demand "a naturalistic statement about the social problem of prostitution," such a treatment also makes it difficult to establish the comedy of the brothel scenes necessary to a balanced view of the underworld's virtues and shortcomings. To the extent that the full spectrum of Shakespeare's portrayal of the play's lowlife characters is given equal prominence, a feminist appropriation becomes more problematic.

Another moment of tension between feminist appropriation and comic tone occurs near the end of Robbins' production. Like some other recent directors, Robbins' chose to embody the only prostitute specifically named in the play, Kate Keep-down, and to highlight her presence at those points at which other characters speak of her. Kate Keep-down has also appeared in productions directed by Trevor Nunn at the RSC's The Other Place in 1991 and Michael Kahn at The Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C. in 1992 (see Smallwood 356 and Johnson-Haddad 467). For example, during her arrest, Mistress Overdone says of Lucio, "Mistress Kate Keep-down was with child by him in the Duke's time, he promised her marriage. His child is a year and a quarter old come Philip and Jacob. I have kept it myself; and see how he goes about to abuse me" (3.2.193-97). In Robbins' version of this scene, the bawd and her whores are being dragged off to prison by Escalus and the Provost; as she speaks, Mistress Overdone and the other prostitutes turn meaningfully to Kate, who hangs her head in sorrow at Lucio's mistreatment. This short segment prepared spectators for a climactic moment in the production, when the Duke announces,

Proclaim it, Provost, round about the city,
If any woman wrong'd by this lewd fellow,
--As I have heard him swear himself there's one
Whom he begot with child--let her appear,
And he shall marry her. (5.1.506-10)

Robbins describes the ensuing action as follows:

Our set has three levels, and the upper level is used by the crowd observing the Duke's return in Act 5. Kate's been standing up there the entire act, and she's extremely conspicuous because she's the only one dressed as a prostitute. When the Duke makes his announcement, Kate screams with delight that she's being allowed (ordered I should say), to marry this guy, and she comes racing down to join Lucio, who, of course, reacts with great distress at the prospect of marrying her.

Night after night, this sequence provoked the biggest laughs in the show, but as Robbins explains, the hilarity of the moment, to some extent, conflicted with the feminist point the staging was also intended to express:

Kate, like Juliet, has had a child out of wedlock; she therefore represents the problem of illegitimacy at the lower end of the social scale. She isn't able to care for her child, and the father is unwilling to take responsibility for it, so emphasizing that moment in the play provides a degree of social commentary, the notion that one of the problems caused in this society by sexuality out of control is children without homes. In a way, the Duke addresses this problem by mandating that Lucio marry Kate, which implies that he will also be responsible for his offspring. In our production, it's performed as a moment of levity, no question, and I don't think that a feminist idea is foremost in a spectator's mind at that point. It may even be a choice that pokes fun at a woman who has had to sell herself for a living, but I think the audience is laughing more at Lucio than at Kate.

If Robbins is correct that the humor of this sequence is directed, not at the prostitute, but at the man who has deserted her, then perhaps this staging represents an acceptable balance between feminist appropriation and comic tone. Although the dignity of the wronged woman does not emerge absolutely unscathed, the fact that the audience sides with Kate in her desire to make Lucio pay for his exploitative acts can be viewed as a feminist victory. Feminist appropriations of Shakespeare and comedy do not appear to be entirely compatible, at least with reference to a tonally problematic play like Measure for Measure, but with inventive choices, a director who is cognizant of this friction may be able to strike an appropriate compromise between the two goals.

Works Cited

Allam, Roger. "The Duke in Measure for Measure." In PLAYERS of Shakespeare 3: Further essays in Shakespearean performance by players with the Royal Shakespeare Company. Ed. Russell Jackson and Robert Smallwood. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1993. 21-41.

Brantley, Ben. "Shakespearean Vienna With Modern Tensions." New York Times 22 Jan. 1996: C14.

Brook, Peter. The Empty Space. New York: Atheneum, 1968.

Clarke, Mary. Shakespeare at the Old Vic 1957-8. New York: Macmillan, 1958.

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