When Caius Martius returns triumphant and blood-soaked from Corioli, he is awarded with a new name: Coriolanus. His new name travels from voice to voice as it swallows up the roars and reverberations of Rome, and it is all that remains when, upon Aufidia’s threshold, he loses himself:
Only that name remains.
The cruelty and envy of the people,
Permitted by our dastard Nobles, who
Have all forsook me, hath devoured the rest,
And suffered me by th’ voice of slaves to be
Whooped out of Rome.
Despite his loss of citizenship and vestiges of civil life, his name thrives to become a harbinger of doom for the same Romans that “devoured the rest” of Caius Martius. It his name that Volumnia appeals to, “the benefit/Which thou shalt thereby reap is such a name/ Whose repetition will be dogged with curses,” before she gets down on her knees to create an “unnatural scene.” His name binds him, moves him, and kills him. The same name that propels him to fame and drives him to exile is the one that lives on beyond both his social and physical deaths.
What is a name, then, if it can travel so far and so differently on the tongues of so many diverse voices without being devoured like the bodies and actions that it subsumes? Once Caius Martius is named Coriolanus, does his name belong to him? To the generals and senators that named him? Or to the people of Rome and their tribunes? How does Caius Martius negotiate his performance when he is given a name that exceeds him? These are the questions that attracted me when director Paul Cook first explained that he was interested in the relationship between façade and substance in Coriolanus, and they are what guided the framing question that we developed in conversation with the design team: “What is the value of a name?”
This is a strange and abstract question to ask of a play that is so gritty and political. Yet, it is also a question of vital importance in a world where power is constantly shifting and its maintenance requires continued performance and negotiation. In such a world, the awareness of a name’s mutability can mean life or death. We enter a Rome in the midst of an emerging Republicanism that threatens to overthrow the traditional order of patrician rule that Caius Martius longs for. He tells his mother, Volumnia, “I had rather be their servant in my way, than sway with them in theirs,” because he recognizes that with his new name he is required to bow before the people he detests and, in so doing, rebel against the rigid hierarchies of nobility that he believes in. The tribunes, newly granted representative power, incite the people against Coriolanus, who they see as a menace to their freshly acquired power. The patricians, recognizing the fragility of their own power, seek to assuage both the stubborn Coriolanus who threatens to expose their dominance and the people who would replace the patricians with tribunes. In this play, no one side is given the higher moral ground. Each character acts according to their own interests in order to create or maintain the world they imagine, and no one strategy is successful. In a world where names are contested things, power is only as good as its performance, and the political body is only a pretty tale—one that travels and changes easily from voice to voice.
The traveling and changing politics of Coriolanus’s world have also travelled in ours. A production at the Comédie-Francaise in the 1930s famously turned into riots when both communists and fascists believed the play was propaganda for their side. Versions of the play were then briefly banned in 1930s France as well as in 1940s American-occupied Germany for their fascist undertones, and Coriolanus was reimagined by Bertolt Brecht in the 1950s as a play that celebrates the power of the people. The wide gamut of interpretations points to the ambiguity of the play’s politics and belies any inclination to draw clear conclusions about the play’s political message. However, Coriolanus is rightly heralded as Shakespeare’s most political play because the play suggests that politics and the names it traffics in are malleable, and the depiction of political mutability is potentially more subversive and empowering than the celebration of a specific political ideal. Where there is malleability, there is risk, but there is also creation and hope for those who understand the value of performance and the dangers of rigidity.
This Coriolanus is set in a dystopic world of high fashion and violence in which blood becomes the luscious flow of fabric and the tinkle of plastic jewels: everything is fake and spectacular. For a dystopia, it is wondrously utopic, and at the end we are forced to ask whether anything has changed. As in any good dystopia, at first glance, it seems that nothing has. The patricians remain in power, the tribunes have defended their position, the people remain as they were, and a young Caius Martius—only a short time ago caught tearing apart a butterfly with the ferociousness of his father– parades through the gates of Rome, guided by his mother and grandmother who are celebrated as Rome’s saviors. Like the jewels and fabric, the pieces are all set back in place for the performance of power to begin again. However, what has changed is that the vanishing-act of power has been revealed, and what is left is a set of characters attempting to negotiate their power in a world where appearances and names exceed actions.
In the current political climate in which “post-truth,” “fake-news,” and “twitter-storm” are still the words of the hour; the president is an unpredictable and often inciteful performer; and the media responsible for mediating between the public and the government struggles as an institution; it can be tempting to draw parallels between the world of Coriolanus and ours. The parallels, though, are less between characters and their real-world cognates and more between the systematic issues that lie just beneath the surface of spectacle. Façade and structure flow into one another and all that is left is the bare violence and deceit that underlies both.
Unlike the dystopia of this Coriolanus, the stage it is performed on is what Michel Foucault calls a “heterotopia,” or a place of difference, where multiple spaces crash and interact. In the world of the play, we must try to impossibly choose between the unattractive positions of Coriolanus, the people, the tribunes, and the patricians. That choice is made more complicated in our world by the intersection of the dystopia of the play and the utopia imagined by a diverse cast in a racially and ideologically polarized environment. In this Coriolanus, several characters who were men have been rewritten as women, and the cast is multiracial. In a play all about power, these casting choices are as important as the relations of power between characters. The story of Coriolanus becomes not a story of a temperamental tyrant, but the story of a black man who is characterized as hyperviolent, cast out of society, and then killed by the white woman who takes him in. The story of Aufidia becomes the story of a white woman gaining political power through the sacrifice of a black man. The story of Coriolanus also becomes the story of three powerful women—Volumnia, Sicinia, and Aufidia—shaping the world’s political landscape.
These narratives are both painfully familiar and uncannily unfamiliar in the context of American political life, and the problems they pose are as deep and urgent as those we can imagine in a Rome at the cusp of political change. Do we choose to condemn Coriolanus as a tyrant and in so doing condemn a black man killed by civil society for failing to perform according to its rules? Do we fall in love with Coriolanus and replace the dangerous spectacle of tyranny with family drama? Do we choose to condemn the people who would sacrifice the life of a black man for political expediency and in so doing condemn democracy? Or do we construct our own monstrous political body out of the incommensurable interpretations that emerge out of the revealed structural wounds of a changing Rome and a changing United States?
Our narratives intersect with the narratives of Coriolanus. They contribute to the many layers, the many spectacular and contradictory surfaces that make up and are exceeded by the name Coriolanus. At the intersection of all of them are the various power dynamics of both our own and Coriolanus’s political landscape. The task that remains is to continue to perform and work through these surfaces and dynamics in order to affirm honestly and without hesitation that the city is indeed nothing but the people.
I encourage you, as you watch this play, to ask with us, “what is the value of a name?” Or, who gets to become powerful and how? Tangle and untangle the relations of power between characters, actors, and roles. In the end, a dystopia may remain the same, but the struggle to perform in it together will have created something new.