VCU Graduate Student, Dramaturgy
“Confusion now hath made his masterpiece!
Most sacrilegious Murder hath broke ope
The Lord’s anointed temple and stole thence
The life of the building”
In the context of the play Macbeth, these words mean one thing: Macbeth has murdered Duncan, the king of Scotland, while Duncan was residing in Macbeth’s home, as his guest. But in the period in which Macbeth was first staged, these lines resonated with meaning that we have long since forgotten.
In Equivocation, playwright Bill Cain brings to life the time of Shakespeare, and more specifically, the years immediately following the discovery of the Gun Powder Plot, the most famous attempt at terrorism or religious freedom fighting (depending on who you ask) in English history, where a group of radical Catholics attempted to blow up Parliament with mountains of gunpowder.
It’s important to understand the weight that the Gunpowder Plot held in the English mind. In his book, Witches and Jesuits, author Garry Wills describes it as follows:
“How to suggest the scale of it? For a parallel we might imagine America in the 1950’s, and suppose that a communist cell- made up of Americans acting under foreign direction- has planted a nuclear device under the United States Capital. It is timed to go off when the President is addressing both houses of Congress. All executive officers will be there, as well as all justices of the Supreme Court. The three branches of government will be wiped out. Every constitutional successor to the President will die with him. But then, at the last minute, the device is discovered and disarmed. The President himself deciphers a clue that had puzzled the FBI and the CIA. The Leader of the Free World thwarts godless communism, vindicating the providential role of the United States in an apocalyptic time of confrontation between Good and Evil”.
Not only was the significance of the Plot huge historically, but also it carried a religious context to it that is difficult to wrap our heads around today. When we talk about the powder and England’s response to it, we are not just talking about a single incident, but rather an entire way of thinking about god and about kings, and of kings as an extension of god, or at least anointed by him. James himself was credited with figuring out the plot from a mysterious letter, and this lent itself well to the story that God himself protected England and the king. For the fall of England, the great bastion of Protestantism, would lead to the rise of Rome and therefore the antichrist. The gunpowder plot was both apocalyptical in nature and its own thwarted apocalypse. Sermons on the Gunpowder Plot were given in the Church of England, emphasizing the holiness of the King, and how God had protected the King; therefore the Church of England had been also protected, and chosen, by God.
The entire nature of the bias against Catholics relied on the idea of natural order, and the holy protections of God against the unholy incarnations of the devil. Gunpowder itself was rumored to be a Catholic invention inspired by the devil himself, reveled to a priest by a demon in a vision. Both the instrument they used and their very beliefs were sacrilegious and dangerous. Catholic practices of sainthood were repainted as idol worship, and the practice of keeping reliquaries was painted as witchcraft. As terrifying as the Gunpowder Plot was, Catholics had long been in a battle for the life of their religion in England. The idea of equivocation, which unsurprisingly runs through the heart of Equivocation, were view as a twisting of the English language which was thought to be natural and holy, handed down by God. Oaths once sworn were to be abided by, or it could cost you your soul. Equivocation as an idea is mentioned in Macbeth, in the play’s one comedic scene, about which I will not go into too much detail only to say that you should see how the cast of Equivocation presents it.
We know that William Shakespeare wrote Macbeth right after the Gunpowder Plot, the parallel of the current Virginia Rep production addresses. So let’s look at that quote again. First, “confusion now hath made his masterpiece!” this confusion is because of the death of a King, not knowing who is now in charge, but it could also refer to the idea of a holy order were the King is protected by divine forces being thrown into disorder. Then: “most sacrilegious murder hath broke ope” – this murder of a King, or in the case of English reality, an attempted murder, is not only regicide but sacrilegious in nature, violating God’s laws as well as Man’s. Finally “and stole hence the life of the building”, one cannot help but think that an English audience hearing those lines could not help but think of Parliament itself, a building that is a representation of English rule, having the life stolen out from inside it.
This is not to say that Macbeth is a propaganda piece, but rather that it is a reflection of its time. In Equivocation, Bill Cain seems to suggest that…well, I’ll let you see for yourself if you haven’t already. It will tell you more about English history, religion and Shakespeare, and also raise questions of art you perhaps weren’t expecting. Enjoy.
Virginia Rep and Henley Street welcome University of Richmond as a Community Partner
Depending on how one looks at it, equivocation is a truth that masks a lie, or a lie that serves the truth. To equivocate, in other words, is to collapse the boundary between truth and falsehood. The supremely ambiguous Shakespeare—the protagonist of Bill Cain’s Equivocation—understood that human beings are by nature great equivocators. We are constantly engaged in simultaneously revealing and concealing ourselves— not just to others, but even to ourselves. And of course we are fabulously skillful at turning foul into fair and fair into foul depending on the perspectives we choose to take at any one moment.
As I worked on Equivocation, both for my class at the University of Richmond and as a guest dramaturg for the Virginia Rep, I ended up seeing equivocation everywhere around me. As a professor, I must confess to equivocating with my students when I don’t give them a straight answer, either in the interests of discussion, or due to my own doubts about the meaning of a particular passage. And perhaps students equivocate with me when uncertain about the answer I might be fishing for. . . or to conceal the aftermath of a particularly frenzied weekend! Actors, of course, are by definition equivocators, since they are at once themselves and not themselves—There is something inherently exciting about witnessing this intentional doubleness live. Directors, a little bit like teachers, work hard to get what they want out of their actors through a complicated dance involving praise, correction, encouragement, and coercion. And the play itself, of course—at the center of all this expense of spirit—equivocates with us… or at least the good ones do. What is it telling us? What does it mean? At the heart of every teacher’s, student’s, director’s, and actor’s struggle is this question, and the answers are never forthcoming. Indeed, what we all tend to discover is that any one, simple explanation is less interesting than the many possibilities for meaning that the work provokes.
Bill Cain’s Equivocation is such a play, partly because it is itself about Shakespeare, the great equivocator. By bringing this cultural icon to life, Cain explores and indulges our enduring desire to know who our most celebrated author really was. Our feelings and experiences as we imagine them in the English-speaking world have in many ways been deeply influenced by “Shagspeare,” as he is called here on the basis of an alternative spelling of his name: when we confront the indeterminacy of our identity, we are haunted by the ghost of Hamlet, when we love passionately, we may remember Romeo and Juliet, jealousy evokes Othello’s “green-eyed monster”, and the experience of absolute loss is forever tied to Lear’s disconsolate howls. And yet despite his deep understanding of human nature, Shakespeare told us very little about himself. Whom and how did he love? What did he believe? Indeed, some scholars have faulted him for writing plays that seem disengaged from the immediate political and social problems of his time, unlike many of his fellow playwrights, who could be explicit and biting in their depictions of contemporary corruption and injustice. In their thoroughgoing ambiguity, Shakespeare’s plays do not to take a clear personal stand on anything. They do not seem to speak truth to power.
Equivocation addresses this problem by imagining the playwright’s struggle to love his neglected daughter Judith, and to confront the propaganda machine of King James I’s reign. Specifically, it imagines the circumstances under which Shakespeare came to write his darkest tragedy, Macbeth. The play was composed around 1605, not long after James VI of Scotland also became King James I of England, and on the surface it seems to have been intended as an homage to the new ruler. This was, after all, Shakespeare’s first play about Scottish history, and it ends by looking forward to the establishment of the royal line from which James traced his descent. Macbeth also likely played to the king’s abiding fascination with the supernatural, packed as it is with witches, demonic spirits, and ghostly apparitions.
And yet Macbeth’s grim, unsettling vision of power and politics may also seem a rather odd way of celebrating royalty. Equivocation in fact proposes that this tragedy was also Shakespeare’s conflicted response to the events surrounding the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. In the official account of what happened, a group of disgruntled Catholic conspirators plotted to assassinate King James by blowing up the House of Lords during the opening session of parliament on November 5. The plot was discovered, leading to the arrest of Guy Fawkes as he guarded 36 barrels of gunpowder in the cellar below the House of Lords. Under the terrible duress of torture, which the law normally forbade, Fawkes gave up the other conspirators. Some of these were tortured in turn. Most ended up hanged, drawn, and quartered, including a Jesuit priest, Father Garnet, who likely was not involved in the plot.
Shakespeare’s Macbeth seems to allude to these events: Lady Macbeth’s advice that her husband should “look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under it”, may recall a medal picturing a snake hiding among flowers that King James had coined to commemorate the foiling of the plot. Moreover, Macbeth’s porter enlists among the damned “an equivocator. . . who committed treason enough for God’s sake, yet could not equivocate to heaven.” Jesuits in this period were notorious for advocating deceptive truth telling in the service of the faith, and Father Garnet was particularly suspect as the author of A Treatise of Equivocation.
Equivocation not only questions the official story of the Gunpowder Plot, but also grippingly imagines Shakespeare’s decision to tell the truth about it in an equivocating fashion. Inconsistencies in accounts of the conspiracy may perhaps justify the suspicion that it was engineered by The King’s own minister, Robert Cecil, as a way of forever destroying Catholic influence in England. Should we believe Cain’s fictional account, in which Shakespeare emerges as a hero of sorts by writing a play that has no heroes in it? There is enough historical plausibility in Equivocation’s reconstruction of events that we may if we wish to. Conspiracy theories, of course, can cut in two very different ways: they may truly expose facts that have been concealed in the interests of the powers that be, or they may in fact provide false “truths” that indulge our abiding need for clarity or understanding. And perhaps this is one of the intentions of Bill Cain’s play. With gentle irony, it reminds us of the fog within which truth about people or events so often seems to reside, yielding that double vision that the witches in Macbeth celebrate: “double, double, toil and trouble.”
September 26 – October 19, 2014
The Sara Belle and Neil November Theatre, Marjorie Arenstein Stage
at Virginia Rep Center
The Weinstein JCC had the honor of being a Community Partner for last year’s smash hit – Fiddler on the Roof at Virginia Rep. So when they approached me several months about the Weinstein JCC partnering on Becoming Dr. Ruth of course I said yes – even though I wasn’t really familiar with the show itself. I thought it might be a fun, nostalgic romp down memory lane. I remembered watching Dr. Ruth with my Bubbe (grandmother) as a child on daytime talk shows in the 80’s. She always struck me as a funny, joyful woman who made people smile with her small stature, her strong accent, and her BIG personality! At that age I didn’t really know what she was actually talking about – but I remembered her fondly and I knew our community did as well. So we happily embarked upon this partnership as Virginia Rep. has been a great partner in the past.
However, through this process the more I have learned about the dear doctor the more admiration I have developed for her. Seeing the show on opening night was a deeply moving and inspiring experience. Eileen DeSandre skillfully embodied, Dr. Ruth who the audience discovers is a brave, strong and loving person. What I initially thought would be a gentle trip down memory lane was in fact a timely, inspiring story of perseverance against enormous odds, finding humor in pain, the deep human need for love, and a fearless pursuit of self discovery. Through her journey this amazing woman has experienced enormous loss, disappointment, redirection, love and success. Hers is a story for us all to hear and remember in our most frightening moments of self-doubt, self-pity, and loss. I am grateful to have been able to hear that message and even more so to Bruce Miller, Phil Whiteway – and everyone at Va. Rep for bringing this story to our Richmond audience.
The Weinstein JCC Patrons of the Arts regularly tells Jewish stories and highlights Jewish artists – but we hope that these stories are universal in their appeal and touch the lives of people from all backgrounds. We are proud to partner with Va. Rep. on Becoming Dr. Ruth for this very reason and we look forward to future opportunities to share in great theatre!
By Erin Mahone