"A fine volley of words, gentlemen, and quickly shot off" — Two Gentlemen of Verona

Yesterday afforded Stauntonites a rare opportunity — not just the chance to see the little-performed (and, in my opinion, under-appreciated) Two Gentlemen of Verona, but the chance to see two different productions of it in the same day. Mary Baldwin College’s MLitt/MFA Acting I class undertook a new challenge this year: mounting a 90-minute production as a culmination of the semester’s work. Directors Matt Davies and Colleen Kelly split the class into two casts, and both directors worked with both sets of actors at some point during the rehearsal process. I entered the Playhouse full of excitement, because — as my colleagues know and don’t hesitate to tease me about — Two Gentlemen of Verona is one of my pet favorite plays. I have a bizarre affinity for it and will vehemently champion its worth to any nay-sayers. Because companies produce this play so infrequently, however (it joins Cymbeline and Pericles as the least-performed comedies at the ASC), I haven’t had the chance to see a production in several years. As such, this opportunity was a real treat for me. The day reminded me just why I love this play so unabashedly, but it also reminded me why I think it deserves more study, to tease out the troubles it contains.

Seeing the play twice in one day illuminated the challenges that Two Gentlemen of Verona presents. I’m not just talking about the very odd relationship dynamics in the final scene — though I will get to that — I’m talking about the play as a whole, which juxtaposes quick, snappy banter with moments of real emotional searching and distress. Two Gents uses, more than any other play of Shakespeare’s, the device of stichomythia, the rapid alternation of lines between characters. You can see it at play in sections of The Taming of the Shrew and Richard III, and The Comedy of Errors comes close to using it as overwhelmingly as Two Gentlemen of Verona does, but nowhere else do as many characters volley words back and forth so much and so often. Both productions kept up the speed, using the stichomythia as an indication for delivery, but it was the first production that took that as their cue for the whole play. The first production had a broadly comic, slapstick sort of feel. They embraced the ridiculous situations, the bad puns, and the delightful humor of the clowns Launce and Speed. This approach definitely highlights the laughter, and it makes for enjoyable viewing

The trouble, though, is that the play also has real poignancy to it, and the rapidity of the language can sometimes overwhelm the need to let the characters have a little space to breathe. It’s easy, certainly, to play Two Gents just for laughs, and all of that stichomytha encourages the temptation. When your focus is on speed, on the back-and-forth of quips and cutting remarks, you can get a barreling-on effect. This approach is good in some ways, but I think that it ultimately undersells the characters.

For anyone unfamiliar with the play, what happens is this: Valentine and Proteus were best friends back in Verona. Valentine left first to join the Emperor’s court in Milan, where he fell in love with the Duke of Milan’s daughter, Silvia. Proteus initially stayed at home with his love, Julia, but when his father sends him along to Milan, he also falls in love with Silvia, and he decides to betray both Valentine and Julia to get her. Proteus exposes Valentine’s plan to elope with Silvia and gets Valentine banished. Julia, meanwhile, dresses like a boy and takes off for Milan to find Proteus. She discovers Proteus wooing Silvia (who is having none of this nonsense), but, despite her anguish, becomes his page in order to be near him. Silvia runs off to the forest to find Valentine, but gets kidnapped by brigands (the same who have made Valentine their chief).

This play is consumed by relationship dynamics — lovers, friends, parents, masters and servants — and in order for relationships to sell, the actors can’t succumb to the temptation to play only for laughs. There are too many moments that lay open the characters’ hearts and minds to the audience, and I thought the second production of the day hit these quite nicely. Julia’s decision to crossdress and to flee to Milan becomes less a gimmick and more a dire decision when you see her maid Lucetta genuinely worried for her safety, and it comments on her relationship with Proteus to hear Lucetta telling her, in stark honesty, that he’s just not worth it, warning her that (as the audience by now knows he has) he might have changed his mind. Silvia demonstrates fierce loyalty, not only to Valentine, but to Julia, a woman she doesn’t even know, as well. Her language when she chides Proteus for his deceit is as delightfully invective and as strong as anything that comes out of Kate’s or Beatrice’s mouth. Valentine has to convey his love for Silvia whole-heartedly, especially in his woeful post-banishment speech, or else he just comes off as a dope. Proteus, more than anyone, needs to show some emotional depth, or else he’s an entirely unsuccessful protagonist. We need to see him struggle with his decision to betray his friend and his lover, and his monologue in 2.6 walks an actor through his rationalization. During that monologue, the audience needs to see the discovery happen within him — to see him brush off hesitation in favor of lust, to see him talk himself into doing very bad things.

All of that emotional investment pays off — or, at least, it should — in the final scene. Proteus, following after Silvia, “rescues” her from the brigands, but when she delivers him another stinging set-down, he tries to rape her. Yes, rape. Yes, in a comedy. Valentine rescues Silvia and berates Proteus for his betrayal. Proteus repents, and Valentine (in strict accord with the rules of homosocial male friendship) accepts his apology and offers Silvia to him. Yes, he offers his fiancee to the man who just tried to rape her. Julia faints, then reveals herself, Proteus decides he loves her after all, and they all live happily ever after.

This is a weird scene, but the underpinnings of the relationship dynamics can clear up a lot. I could go on and on about it, as it formed a large portion of my Master’s thesis (and if you ever want to get me chatting for a good uninterrupted forty-five minutes or so, just ask) — but here I’ll confine myself to the considerations that were in my head last afternoon and evening: There are two ways to stage this. You can either move really fast, embracing absurdity, sending up what appears to be a completely ridiculous reversal. Or, you can let the moments be awkward and uncomfortable. You can let it be troubling. In my opinion, the latter is the better option. I see Two Gents as having as much of a problem ending as, say, Measure for Measure — and the great thing about problem endings is you don’t have to solve them. They have permission to be conflicting.

I was delighted when the second performance’s Silvia reacted so strongly, so negatively, to Valentine attempting to give her to Proteus. Silvia has no lines after Proteus’s attempted rape, but I don’t think that’s an error or an oversight on Shakespeare’s part, nor do I think her silence necessarily implies consent to what’s going on — either the attempted handing-off or Valentine’s reclaiming — not any more than Isabella’s silence in Measure for Measure implies her consent. I think her silence is conspicuous. Valentine acts precisely as he should in the dogma of male friendship, which had been, since the time of Aristotle, a codified relationship, considered the purest and most fulfilling of any human bonds. Many philosophers promoted the idea that “friends hold all things in common” — including, sometimes, wives. Not that you could have them at the same time (usually), but if your friend falls in love with your girl, the honorable thing to prove your devotion to him is to offer her up, as Valentine does. The supremacy of this homosocial dynamic was a familiar trope throughout the Middle Ages, and you can see it at work in other plays of the early modern period — Endymion, Damon and Pithias, The Maid’s Tragedy — but during the late-sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it was starting to fall out of fashion as a desirable relationship model. Throughout Two Gents, Shakespeare twists the standard language of male friendship around in a way that I believe is satirical. The end scene is not a promotion of this ideal, but rather an exposition of the trope’s flaws. Silvia’s silence calls attention to the problem of leaving women, romantic love, and sexual desire out of the equation. Sending the final scene up for pure comedy not only glosses over the very real problem of the attempted rape, but also discredits the underlying complexities of Shakespeare’s criticism.

I don’t know if the Acting I class will attempt the same experiment again next year, with two directors sharing two casts of the same play, but for this year, it definitely provided me with a welcome opportunity to reflect on one of my favorite plays. Seeing two different productions throws a lot of moments into stark contrast — and one of the main tenets of ASC Education is to try scenes different ways, discovering what effect different choices can have. Congratulations to both casts on all their hard work!