It’s no easy task trying to beat Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare at their own game. Though the two Elizabethan rivals took their inspiration from well-known sources, pilfering plots and characters with abandon, it takes a playwright of considerable daring, if not downright cheek, to ransack in turn their canonical treasures. Rarely, however, is there a shortage of dramatists willing to give it a shot. Two current offerings bear witness to the ongoing contest—Bertolt Brecht’s Edward II, an adaptation of Marlowe’s homoerotic tragedy of the medieval English king, and Arthur Sainer’s Jews and Christians in the End Zone, a revisionist perspective on Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. If both seem to present losing efforts on the part of the modern writer, the fault lies as much with the inadequacy of the productions as it does with what some might consider the overreaching nature of the literary challenge.
Nearly 80 years ago the young Brecht reworked Marlowe’s drama, and it’s taken his American champion and translator Eric Bentley nearly half that long to find it a proper New York venue. Though it might seem absurd to produce a translation of a German adaptation of one of the great Elizabethan tragedies, Brecht never adapted anything without transfiguring it. His biggest commercial success, The Threepenny Opera, is based of course on John Gay’s 18th-century London comedy The Beggar’s Opera, but even when working without the musical genius of Kurt Weill, Brecht managed to convert plays by Shakespeare and George Farquhar to his own distinctive brand of theatrical politics.
In Marlowe, King Edward II provokes civil war by refusing to give up his “favourite,” Gaveston, a sybaritic young man whose presence incites his besotted majesty into gross mismanagement of his duty. Toppled after years of war by the Queen and her lover, Mortimer, Edward is placed in a squalid dungeon where he paradoxically discovers his divine grace before being humiliatingly murdered with a red-hot poker. Brecht not only condenses the action of the tragedy, he bluntly confronts the sexual nature of the King’s relationship to Gaveston (where Marlowe flirts more cagily with it), and transforms Mortimer from a power-obsessed villain into a reflective scholar corrupted by worldly ambition. He also softens the brutal ending and replaces Marlowe’s jeweled rhetoric with more direct language. While the original pits Machiavellianism against the ever turning Wheel of Fortune, the 20th-century version examines the value of human resolve from the murkiness of a moral swamp.
Though there’s more contemporary political realism in the Brecht, its theatrical effectiveness remains exasperatingly unclear. The chief problem lies in the miscasting of Harris Berlinsky, a Jean Cocteau company veteran with the regal bearing of an overworked New York City public school teacher. His performance hamstrings Karen Lordi’s production, which is otherwise an improvement by Cocteau standards, if ultimately too tame by any other. This is the play, after all, in which Brecht the director daringly put his soldiers in whiteface to reflect the alienated shock of war—a choice Lordi pays homage to, while taking few equivalent risks of her own.
** If Julie Taymor’s gore-fest of a film Titus doesn’t betray Shakespeare’s capacity for making mistakes (and the way in which those mistakes can be compounded by naive directorial indulgence), then perhaps no amount of discussion can raise awareness of the flaw inherent in The Merchant of Venice. The problem—anti-Semitism—manifests itself in the handling of Shylock, the spat-upon moneylender, who famously tries to enforce a bond under Venetian law entitling him to a pound of flesh for an unpaid debt. His character is meant to serve (impossibly) as both a comic villain and a wronged, grief-stricken father. Were he simply a farcical Machiavellian like Barabas in Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, as the scholar Harold Bloom has argued, his fate would be less incendiary. Given human lineaments and context, however, he shatters the comic frame of the play. His fourth-act degradation through a forced conversion (pure “Christian fantasy,” says Bloom) makes the final-act celebration in Belmont an unseemly experience for anyone with a short-term memory.
Ironically, Shakespeare’s genius for breathing complex life into his characters is in large part responsible for the dilemma. Sainer, whose Jews and Christians in the End Zone amounts to a meditation on Merchant from a post-Holocaust perspective, hasn’t the same problem. His work is all commentary, with very little human substance to ballast it. Though he sensitively explores a range of historical issues, he never finds a language or theatrical landscape in which to reanimate Shakespeare’s cast.
Director Tanya Kane-Parry’s embarrassingly acted production makes it too easy to dismiss the impulse behind Sainer’s work, which no matter how clumsily rendered reflects a genuine moral passion. But this, as Shakespeare and Marlowe might have told him, is just one theatrical ingredient in a long, varied, and, ultimately, inimitable list.