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Haynes Thigpen as Hippolito, Christopher Oden as the Duke, Matthew Rauch as Vindice in Jesse Berger's adaptation of "The Revenger's Tragedy," Red Bull Theatre
Rewriting Revenge
By Gordon Carver

The Revenger's Tragedy
By Cyril Tourner
Adapted by Jesse Berger
Red Bull Productions at
The Culture Project


Revenge is the naked idol of the worship of a semi-barbarous age.
-- Percy Bysshe Shelley

From Titus Andronicus's happy concoction of child-stew, to the Sicilian proverb used as Kill Bill Vol. 2's tagline, "Revenge is a dish best served cold," revenge tragedy has shown a natural affinity for culinary metaphors. Theater in the early capitalist system of Jacobean London was consumed, much like blockbuster movies today, at an astonishing rate. The Globe had an average of ten new plays in repertory at most times. Market appeal partly explains the shape of the revenge tragedy's development. Kyd's Spanish Tragedy around 1590 was such box-office dynamite that it spawned a variety of imitations: Shakespeare's Hamlet in 1600-01 (another box-office success), Marston's Antonio's Revenge in 1602, Tourneur's Revenger's Tragedy in 1607, Chapman's Revenge of Bussy D'Ambois around 1610, Middleton's The Changeling in 1622, and Webster's Duchess of Malfi in 1623, to name but a few. Imitation and repetition, combined with small technological advances in stage machinery and new staging techniques (the experimental use of sheep's blood, for instance), pushed successive playwrights to pander to audiences' tastes and extend the boundaries of moral depravity onstage.

Jesse Berger's recent snappy revival of The Revenger's Tragedy at The Culture Project leapt whole-heartedly into this debauched world, quickly establishing a sexually violent, might-is-right society. At the start, the lush red curtains were drawn back by Matthew Rauch as Vendice to reveal a deep, narrow stage teeming with masked figures in ominous floor-length black cloaks. As driving percussive music kicked in, the figures twitched into a series of tableaux, turning 180 degrees to reveal another set of masked faces staring mockingly back at us. The tableau of actors in this added anti-masque broke into a savage dance that narrated the rape of Lucretia, the nobleman Antonio's wife, by the Duchess's youngest son Flaminio (the play's back story). The whoops and hollers of the dancers, the flashes of muscled legs, bare torsos, bare buttocks, and gold lamé thongs introduced the animalistic, highly exhibitionist, more-than-a-little homoerotic theatrical environment.

The color palette was schematic and bold: blood-red, black, flesh-white, and gold. As Vendice finished his first soliloquy, a cloaked figure far upstage exited and revealed Hippolito, Vendice's brother, poised to ask whether Vendice was "still sighing o'er death's vizard?" On the upstage wall hung a large convex gilt-edged mirror, glaring like a malignant oculus, which would have reflected the audience's distorted image back at them, if the light were a bit brighter. This was Tourneur's "Venice," heightened in its brooding menace by Berger's design team (sets by Evan O'Brient, costumes by Clint Ramos, lights by Peter West, masks by Emily De Cola), and standing in, as did Kyd's "Spain" and Shakespeare's "Denmark," for the English Jacobite court.

Vendice, like all revenge protagonists, is a showman par excellence, and Rauch enhanced his character's entertainer instincts now with a manic melancholia, now with religious verve, and now with a seasoned smugness--a virtuoso playing to the crowd. Another hallmark of the revenge form is the protagonist's highly self-conscious use of theatrical devices, manipulated and managed by the revenger both as the means for exacting revenge and as an end in itself; he takes as much delight in concocting bloody scenes as the audience does in observing them. Hieronimo, in The Spanish Tragedy, was the first to feign madness and kill his victims under cover of an enacted masque. Hamlet (a complicated protagonist, himself aware of the revenge tradition and continually testing and subverting it) also feigns madness -- or does he? -- and uses the Mousetrap (a Renaissance symbol for Christ's baiting of the Devil) as a means to determine Claudius's guilt. Vendice not only casts himself in the alternate role of Piato the Pimp, but also invents a disguise for his dead fiancée's skull in order to poison the Duke. He also organizes the first of two disguised Masques in which he and his allies slaughter the newly appointed Duke's son, Lussorioso. (The second masque, enacted by Lussorioso's two step-brothers, who also want to kill him and take power, arrives too late. In a frenzied moment of competitive ambition and self-slaughter, they manage to leave only a single henchman as witness.)

The first point to note about these highly reflexive and theatrically overdetermined plays is that they denote a new phase in the history of the idea of the individual, but in a manner that mixes the twin currents of medieval Christian drama and Classical Aristotelian tragedy. From the moment Herod stepped out of his own Medieval mystery play, knowingly evil and yet knowingly funny, the precedent was set for a key figure in renaissance English drama, the self-conscious anti-hero. Marlowe's Dr. Faustus (ca.1588-93) was a breakthrough example of the exceptional Humanist individual lifting (and damning) himself through his own intelligence, and that play exhibits its medieval debt quite plainly. One contender for the first true English anti-hero is Shakespeare's Richard in Henry VI, Part 3 (ca.1590-92), forerunner to the hunchbacked title character of Richard III (c.1597) and a clear prototype for Iago.

Matthew Rauch as Vindice, Petronia Paley as Gratiana in Jesse Berger's adaptation of "The Revenger's Tragedy," Red Bull TheatreThe dramatic interest of these figures rests on a moral problem: how can the audience admire the eloquence, ambition, determination and inventiveness of these characters while simultaneously disapproving of their means and ends? This is the bind that Hamlet finds himself in, as he considers model after model of courageous action - Hercules, Pyrrhus, Fortinbras. It is also the paradox every playwright of a revenge tragedy faces when deciding how to kill off his protagonist. How do you put a stop to a seemingly unstoppable revenge ideology? In a society supposedly governed by a code of honor, and with a dissolving feudal kinship system under pressure from an emerging meritocratic, mercantile class, revenge as a policy was a dangerously anarchical threat to the stability of power. The period's political history is instructive about the spiraling consequences of this anarchical threat. In 1610 the English Parliament offered the monarch the "Great Contract," a deal which would have guaranteed James an annual pension were he to forfeit some of his feudal rights. James refused and the following year dissolved Parliament, a vindictive and self-protective action sustained by his son Charles I (who ruled from 1625 until his execution by the state in 1649), which helped bring on the English Civil War.

Francis Bacon, a sharp moral and political philosopher of the time and later an impeached Lord Chancellor, wrote an essay on revenge -- showing just how topical it was -- which succinctly pinpoints its collapsing logic:

Revenge is a kind of wild justice; which the more man's nature runs to, the more ought law to weed it out. For as for the first wrong, it doth but offend the law; but the revenge of that wrong, putteth the law out of office.
"Of Revenge" (1625)

Tourneur's Revenger's Tragedy has an especially problematic answer to this paradox of endings, and it is one that Berger (the adaptor and director of this production, and founder of Red Bull, a New York theater company partial to Jacobean classics) feels compelled to change. In the script Antonio, the nobleman whose wife was raped, assumes leadership after Vendice and Hippolito have successfully engineered their gleeful blood-bath. Only because Vendice is so proud of his scheme's elegance -- "'Twas somewhat witty carried, though we say it - / 'Twas we two murdered him" -- does he gloatingly confess responsibility to Antonio, who, not surprisingly, sentences the brothers to death. Hippolito, also unsurprisingly, complains that Vendice revealed the murders, to which Vendice replies in a self-accusatory but heroic strain:

Thou hast no conscience, are we not revenged?
Is there one enemy left alive amongst those?
'Tis time to die, when we're ourselves our foes: […]
This work was ours, which else might have been slipped!
And if we list, we could have nobles clipped,
And go for less than beggars; but we hate
To bleed so cowardly; we have enough,
I'faith, we're well, our mother turned, our sister true,
We die after a nest of dukes. Adieu!

The logic of Vendice's brand of revenge has an inbuilt safety catch: when the inducements to revenge have all been eliminated the motor itself self-destructs, stopping the cycle and allowing this new Venetian city-state to emerge clean of blood and whole again. The contours of Vendice's epistemology are sharp; he has lived to revenge, he has executed revenge, his mother and sister are free from moral corruption, so he can acquit himself of life nobly, pleased with his accomplishments. This mindset is comparable to that of a modern suicide bomber, which attracts some people with its purity and single-minded commitment, but ultimately repels others with its coldness and the naïve simplicity of its moral outlook.

It is possible that the neatness of Tourneur's ending rang hollow even to his contemporaries, since it didn't follow the precedent of the highly ambiguous conclusions of The Spanish Tragedy or Hamlet. In the former, the Ghost of Andrea and Revenge (personified) plot together to taunt the newly dead souls in the underworld, raising revenge to a metaphysical imperative. In the latter, Horatio speaks of "accidental judgments, casual slaughters," while Fortinbras, ruthlessly opportunistic in seizing the Danish throne, compares Hamlet most oddly to "a soldier" -- a role for which the Wittenberg scholar was particularly unfitted. The Revenger's Tragedy presents a modern director with a dilemma: the play has no equivalent to an Aristotelian scene of recognition. If Vendice's last words are taken at face value, as the play's moral summation, then one is left with a clear, resounding endorsement of revenge. No doubt this is why so many modern directors are inclined to adapt the play's ending .

Berger's vision tends towards a darkening of the original. His debauched Venice is populated by cynics and shrouded in moral despair. The most illustrative example is the final treatment of the virginal Castiza, Vendice's younger sister. Berger has cut an early scene of reconciliation between Mother and Daughter, playing what should be Castiza's test of her mother's virtue as if Castiza had actually been convinced to prostitute herself and so reversed her moral beliefs. The young girl emerges, bedecked in a red and black corset, just as the curtains are being drawn, and the lingering final image in the production is of Castiza bending to her knees to administer the newly appointed Antonio some heartless fellatio. Antonio, this play's sole beacon of moral hope, a man whose own wife has killed herself as a result of forced sexual violation, is now a participant in the culture of sexual corruption. Berger distorts the moral parameters of female behavior in order to say something about the inevitable, familiar cycle of political corruption, contaminated by carnal desire. To be Duke in this world is to play a role that is necessarily, cynically, built on exploitation.


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