Sunday, January 14, 2018

I See Shakespeare's Worst Play

So, today Janice and I went down to the Seattle Center (also known as the site of the '62 World's Fair) to see TIMON OF ATHENS, which gets my vote for Shakespeare's worst play, hands down. I'd been curious if, bad as it is on the page, it had any redeeming qualities on the stage. The answer, I'd say, is No. Too bad.

We stayed for the Q&A with the cast (most of whom were very good, esp. the guy who played Timon's loyal stewart), whose explanation for its being so bad was twofolds. First, they said Shakespeare co-wrote it w. Thomas Middleton, who they claimed wrote the worse bits. Unfortunately for this argument, the dialogue, which they blame on Midddleton, is rather better than the many, many soliloquies, which they credit to Shakespeare.

Second, they thought the play was unfinished, just a draft. So any line they didn't like cd be seen as a place-holder, meant to be replaced later by something better.

These arguments fail to address the true weakness of the play: it has an utterly unsympathetic main character. Timon* goes from being foolishly generous beyond his means (think generosity junkie)
to being bitterly misanthropic, with lots of nasty little rants about how horrible everyone is.

So, it's good to get a chance to see this, but while the play is better on the stage than on the page, it's, in the words of Marvin the Paranoid Android, "still very bad though". Though it does make me want to see MACBETH on stage if it comes anywhere near.

--John R.

*whose name I've always pronounced as 'Ta-MOAN', but which they said as 'TY-man', rhyming w. Simon. Though I don't suppose it matters.


David Bratman said...

By the standards you're using, my vote for Shakespeare's worst play would go to Othello. How could anyone possibly be so stupid?

However, having seen a good production of Timon and enjoyed it much, I'd guess the problem here is that what you've seen is a bad production. I'm going to see Othello again this summer, and maybe this time it'll be a good production and my opinion of the play will improve thereby.

John D. Rateliff said...

re. OTHELLO, while it's not a favorite of mine, there's no denying the power of watching a sociopath (Iago) who's found the perfect target (Othello).

I'm glad to hear you've been fortunate enough to see a good production of a rarely-staged play, but for me the talent of the cast was thrown away on the sheer badness of the script.

For me Shakespeare's handful of really rotten plays are important because they show us how even the greatest talent comes a cropper once in a while. The Beatles recorded "You Know My Name" and "What's the New MaryJane" (though to their credit they didn't release the lattter); Shakespeare wrote TIMON and TITUS and PERICLES. they also, respectively, created "Hey Jude" and MACBETH. Knowing a genius's limits is interesting in and of itself.

--John R.