Greenblatt & Mee’s Cardenio (2008)
I hate being a theatre critic. I don’t know how professionals do it without going mad. I feel the same way about driving in Boston. But, Wednesday, I drove up from NJ to Cambridge’s Loeb Drama Center to see the American Repertory Theater’s première of Stephen Greenblatt and Charles L. Mee’s Cardenio, the third play calling itself
Cardenio I’ve seen in two years.
There is no doubt that Greenblatt and Mee know their Shakespearean devices. Cardenio is full of them, and the AMREP website gleefully offers a commentary page where audience members can list the ones they spotted. Unfortunately, some of these devices are (at least in my opinion) abused. For example, when Shakespeare ends a play with a song, as in Twelfth Night, it is, so to speak, finishing off the package with a pretty bow; when Cardenio ends both acts with a song, it seems more to have been done because the playwrights cannot think of an ending. Similarly, the play demonstrates all too clearly the truth of C. S. Lewis’s observation that Shakespeare’s technique of metaphorical variation, in the wrong hands, quickly degenerates into a mere stylistic tic of cataloging.
There is also a problem at the heart of the play, which is that it has very little to do with the
Cardenio story. Instead, it is (rather slightly) based on the episode of
The One Who Was Too Curious for His Own Good, a tale that is found and read by the
Cardenio characters as an episode within their story, itself an episode within the story of Don Quixote. Lewis Theobald’s 1727 redaction, Double Falshood; or the Distrest Lovers, the only direct evidence we possess of the text of Shakespeare and Fletcher’s Cardenio, has none of this. (One hopes that they have not been led astray by the late Charles Hamilton’s mad identification of Middleton’s The Second Maiden’s Tragedy as the lost Cardenio, for, while its B plot is obviously taken from
The One Who Was Too Curious, it has no narrative DNA from the
Cardenio story at all.)
But Greenblatt and Mee instead make
Cardenio a fictional episode within their version of the
Too Curious tale. Here things become difficult for someone who has done his homework, for the characters cite no other source for their text than Double Falshood (though they never name it, although it is named in the program—incorrectly, as
The Double Falsehood), and they never express anything but contempt and suspicion toward Theobald (whom they also never name), though their text is clearly based on Theobald’s, although the characters’ names are changed back to Cervantes’ names, and there is further dialog in obvious imitation of Shakespeare, though it is never explained where these additional lines are supposed to have come from. In addition, the cast of the play within a play (we never see more than a few odd lines of it) is wildly inappropriate to do
Double Falshood with. (There are far too many women, and yet we are told that the second ingenue must be played by a man for lack of an actress.) On the whole, this entire aspect made me feel like Norris Lacy watching
The DaVinci Code.
No doubt part of the problem is that Professor Greenblatt, at least, did not set out to write a play—not even a closet drama—but rather a piece of laboratory equipment for his new discipline,
[cultural] mobility studies. It would be easy here to say that he has succeeded, but I wonder whether he actually has. When tracing how stories run from culture to culture, is it wise to use a story that has laid a goose egg (the reviews of
Cardenio in performance were generally damning) in what is, whether we like it or not, the dominant culture of the planet? (I waive the further problem of it being also the culture of the experimenter.) I do believe that what he is attempting is a worthy extension to scholarship, and no doubt I, as a scholar, albeit an amateur one, specializing in
Double Falshood, am ill-chosen to address the question.
I hate being a theater critic.