I attended The Cedar City Shakespeare Festival a few weeks ago and they performed the play that was the most popular in Shakespeare's day: Titus Andronicus. The masterpiece is not given the same kudos today and is often seen as a “lesser” play, but its pervasive villainy and the toxic darkness of revenge were so well acted and directed by the company that I could see why it was so popular at a time when people routinely watched hangings for sport. After watching, I was inspired to study the villainy of this work further to apply to the writing of modern revenge themes.
The basic plot: Titus kills the son of Tamora the Goth as revenge for the deaths of his sons in battle with the Goths. The murder tumbles into a play of back and forth espionage for gruesome revenge with numerous killings, the chopping off of hands, cutting out of a tongue, and even the murder of Tamora’s two sons who are then chopped up and served to her in a meat pie (yes. I’m creepy, I did buy and eat one of the concession’s delicious meat pies before entering the theater).
So what writing lessons did I get out of this?
1. Know your character's motivations: As horrific as it is, we are still somewhat sympathetic to the architects of villainy in this feud. Each has lost children/siblings/friends at the hand of the other. While some villains skew to sociopathy, most are deeply broken at some point. Shakespeare only lightly alludes to the pain of Titus losing his sons at the start of the play when Titus first kills Tamora’s son, but it's there. And we are definitely sympathetic to a woman who is forced to watch her own child murdered. Later, when she plans to have her sons rape then have Titus’s daughter’s tongue cut out and hands chopped off, we may hate her, but we understand. A little. She is a round character.
2. The devil is in the (background) details: The most haunting image for me—by far—was when Titus kills his daughter as a mercy act. The daughter knows it’s coming and accepts. The father stabbing his own daughter is the height of tragic, and was beautifully performed, but my memory is of the background. Unlike everyone else on stage or in the theater, Tamora is cold to the mercy killing. So cold she’s just sitting there eating her pie. And the dramatic irony of us knowing she is unknowingly eating her own children coldly while her enemy kills his child is played out so subtlely and beautifully here I will never forget the scene. Its total degradation of everyone highlights the epitome of the inevitable results of revenge. And it reminds me that an intense scene can be rendered sublimely poetic by layering a small detail in the background.
|Spielberg's first film: my mom is the one on the left. Isn't she beautiful?|
3. Stop just before the absurd: I attended the festival with my delightful mother who attended high school with Steven Spielberg and was even in his first film. When she met up with him after filming Jaws, he commented that the trick to horror was to go to the point just before the terror was so extreme the viewers could only cope my viewing it as comical. This performance nailed that line, and Spielberg’s advice will forever haunt me.
If you live in Utah or nearby, I highly recommend that you get to see Titus Andronicus before it closes & I Hope your Monday is far from horror-filled. Come back soon to get highlights on the AMAZING SCBWI conference three of us just attended.