Dido,Queen of Carthage and the Power of the Gods

IMG_0245When the Swan Theatre was opened by the RSC in 1986 one of its stated purposes was to stage plays by Shakespeare’s contemporaries and over the years I have witnessed some wonderful productions of works that I would otherwise have never have had a chance of seeing in real life. However, you don’t expect plays by Christopher Marlowe to come into that category. I’ve seen both parts of Tamburlaine, Edward II at least twice,  The Jew of Malta three times and countless productions of Dr Faustus.  Nevertheless, the company’s current production of Dido, Queen of Carthage, while not the only recent opportunity to see this little known work, is the first chance I’ve had, and while I wasn’t blown away by the performance, I am very glad to have been able to add it to the plays I can say I know on the stage as well as on the page.

Placing Dido in terms of Marlowe’s canon has always been a touchy subject amongst academics. It wasn’t published until 1594, a year after the playwright’s death, and there are no contemporary records of performances during his lifetime. Most commonly it has been thought to date to his time at Cambridge, mainly because it could be seen as an exercise in translation/adaptation of works he would have studied during that period. This means that we would be looking at a date of around 1585.  However, at least one scholar I work with sees it as more mature than that and puts it alongside Faustus, three years later.  Three years may not seem much, but in the career of a poet who was developing in his art as quickly as Marlowe was it does make a real difference to the way in which a work is evaluated.  Is it an apprentice piece, a curiosity of only academic interest, or rather a mature work deserving of a considered and fully professional staging?

One of the reasons that Dido is so often connected with Marlowe’s student days is the simliarity in stucture to the classical texts he would have been reading, especially in respect of the framing of the work by the appearance of the gods.  It’s always interesting to see how a modern production of a Greek or Roman drama tackles this because the concept of a god in the classical world was so different to our own or even to that of Marlowe, who was studying for an MA, which in his time meant studying for the Church. Classical gods, while having very substantial powers also have very substantial personalities and when this gets translated into twenty-first century terms they can  frequently be portrayed as the sort of entitled brat you want to see given a short sharp shock.  I thought about this quite a lot while watching the current production where Jupiter became a white bearded lecher lusting after Ganymede and Venus a petulant young woman prone to tantrums when she didn’t get her own way.  In fact, there may have been cultural references that I was missing because Cupid (very well played by Ben Goffe) in his pristine white shirt and red shorts, was definitely meant to make us think of Prince George. The overall effect, however, is to make the audience laugh and while I can see why a director might feel that this is the only way to approach the problem in a modern production, for me it undermines the very real power that a classical or classically trained audience would have recognised that the gods wielded over even such significant mortals as the Queen of Carthage.  Once Dido has been stung by Cupid’s arrows she has no option but to do everything in her considerable power to prevent Aeneas leaving Carthage and moving on to Italy in order to found Rome.  There is tragedy is this: a commanding woman being forced to behave in a way which strips her of every shred of dignity.  However, if she is seen as the puppet of someone you have just laughed at then unless the actress is careful it is too easy for her to appear more as a love-sick teenager ridiculous in her determination to keep a lover by transparent wiles that ten years on she will cringe over and which an audience cringes over now.  For me, despite the best efforts of Chipo Chung, too often the RSC’s production swung this way.  I’m not certain what the answer is to this.  There are some Greek plays where the gods only appear as a type of prologue and can at a pinch be omitted but as they are active participants in the plot line here you couldn’t take that approach with Dido.  Has anyone seen a production of this or a similar play which they thought worked in that respect?  And if so, how was it achieved?

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11 thoughts on “Dido,Queen of Carthage and the Power of the Gods

  1. Interesting discussion of a play I don’t know at all. But in general I think I prefer when the director tries to set plays as they would have been seen at the time, even if they seem out-dated to modern audiences. I always have issues with updatings of Shakespeare – sometimes the effort to make them ‘relevant’ leaves them feeling a bit off. The themes that are genuinely relevant will come through on their own without attempts to draw false parallels, I think.

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    • It is a real conundrum, I think. My own preference when I have been faced with this issue is to leave out the sections with the gods, but they are vital in this story and not just confined to a prologue that can conveniently be ‘forgotten’ which is often the case.

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  2. I think I would have been very annoyed with this production. I don’t know the play either, but it sounds as if the director didn’t have enough confidence to let it stand on its own merits. Going for cheap laughs seems to be to be disrespectful of the playwright and the audience. What a shame, as it’s aways nice to see less-known plays getting an airing.

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    • Yes. I think it might work if it was a comedy but when you are looking at tragedy turning the source of that disaster into a farce demeans the emotions felt by the suffering characters. I’ve been involved in productions of similar plays where we have simply cut the gods altogether, especially if they have just appeared to top and tail the story, as it were, but here they are too integral to the story as a whole, you can’t lose them.

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  3. I don’t know this play at all; I’ve never read it and never seen it. It seems to me that Marlowe’s plays generally are quite difficult to stage in terms of tone, there’s a lot of moral queasiness in say Tamburlaine or the Jew of Malta, don’t you think? It sounds as if it went a bit wrong here, a great pity.

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    • You’re quite right about the dubious tone of some of Marlowe’s plays. I think I was disappointed by this because we have had brilliant productions of both The Jew of Malta and Dr Faustus in the last couple of years which found ways of dealing with this without resorting to false comedy.

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  4. I’m not sure how I might have felt viewing this, given that I’ve no experience of the story previously. So, I probably would have simply appreciated the laugh, without having any other expectations in place. Mind you, I actually love it when directors try to bring Shakespeare’s plays into more modern settings, especially when it’s a play I know rather well, as it reminds me how current the themes are, even now. So maybe I have loose standards in this regard – hehehe

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    • I have no problem with modern productions of Shakespeare or his contemporaries if I think they maintain the points he was trying to make. We had the most wonderful staging at Stratford of Love’s Labour’s Lost around three years ago set just before the First World War. It made the point, for a modern audience, of the folly of what those four young men set out to do better than an Elizabethan setting would have done. It’s available on DVD and if you can get hold of a copy I think you would love it.

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  5. I wasn’t entirely convinced by the way the Gods were portrayed, but I found them more sinister than funny or farcical. Ben Goffe was very good, and a particularly unsettling presence every time he was on stage. The near contemporary dress wouldn’t have been my choice, but I believed in the cruelty of their stratagems, and because Dido is stripped of her dignity here it also made me believe in her final decision. But then I was totally carried away by this production, enjoying it so much that it’s faults seemed negligible to me.

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    • I was aware as I watching the production that I wasn’t enjoying it anywhere near as much as you had. It reminded me of something that I think we should take into account more often when considering theatrical works, namely that every performance is going to be different. Some will inevitably ‘sing’ more than others. I am always aware when I go to a matinee that those same actors have got to do the work all over again later that same day. Inevitably, they are going to have to hold something back.

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      • Initially for reasons of economy we now tend to go to preview performances, but they have a particular energy both from the actors and audience that I would miss now. From the audience there’s a tolerance, and willingness to be pleased, and on the stage sometimes a palpable sense that something is still a work in process, and fresh. I’m not sure if I’d say paying less makes me less critical, but it certainly makes me more ready to take a chance.

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