Richard in Richard III is intended to be a villain. Shakespeare paints him as evil on legs. And yet, we get impatient when he’s off the stage. Clarence has a long speech filled with poetry. Yes, yes, beautiful, but could you wrap it up and bring the monstrous brother on again? Richard’s treatment of the women in the play? Appalling. And clearly Shakespeare expected the perverse members of the audience to enjoy it. Richard seduces Anne, the widow of a man he has killed. Once she is gone, he marvels at how credulous she is. “Was ever woman in this humor wooed?/Was ever woman in this humor won?” The audience usually laughs.
The audience frequently laughs with Iago, too. I remember seeing a production of Othello with Christopher Walken in the role. Walken quickly made common cause with the audience as if to say, “The rules these others are playing by are so square. We’re hipper than that, aren’t we? We’re modern.” On some level, he suggested that Othello and Desdemona deserve what they get because they believe in such dated crap as fidelity and honor. Again appalling. But how many times have you see a production in which Iago hasn’t run off with the evening?
One of my favorite Restoration comedies is William Congreve’s The Double-Dealer, which begins (like Richard III) with the villain, the well-named Maskwell, addressing the audience with a frank confession of his villainy and his intention to screw over everybody in the play. Ultimately he is thwarted, but he has a long run of doing damage to the more virtuous people onstage, and his hypocrisy and cynicism are both horrifyng and funny. And appalling yet again.
Taking this to modern drama, we have Stanley in Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire. One of the things that reportedly dismayed Marlon Brando and Jessica Tandy was that some in the audience quite evidently were on Stanley’s side in taking down Blanche. John Osborne took it a step farther. When he wrote what I believe is his response to Streetcar, Look Back in Anger, he clearly meant for our sympathies to be with the abusive Jimmy Porter. Yes, he behaves badly, but underneath he is honest, sensitive, and that makes up for so many petty failings. Right?
A few dramatists took early shots at these guys. The Wheelhouse Theater company recently revived Kurt Vonnegut’s play, Happy Birthday, Wanda June, which was an attack on the Hemingway model of masculinity. The original production in 1970 did well enough (well enough to be made into an obscure film starring Rod Steiger) but the play itself was largely forgotten until Wheelhouse gave it an efficient staging. I have always found the script to be a little too self-conscious, but there’s no denying that Vonnegut was early to arrive at laughing at this kind of guy rather than with him. Another notable critique of the rogue male came a year later c/o Jules Feiffer’s script for the 1971 film Carnal Knowledge (it was originally written as a play; director Mike Nichols decided to take it straight to the screen), in which that cinematic personification of the rogue male, Jack Nicholson, ultimately can only get it up in the last scene if the hooker played by Rita Moreno engages him in fantasy games.
I find it intriguing that 48 years later, Feiffer’s daughter, Halley, has created her own spin on the rogue male and why a smart woman (one who writes for The New Yorker!) would fall for him in a play called The Pain of My Own Belligerence. (I note that Halley’s gifted mother, Jenny Allen, actually does write for The New Yorker.) The character Hamish Linklater plays, Guy, is even more radioactively alarming than the one Nicholson played, openly copping to his own sociopathology. Halley stars as Cat, the target of Guy’s attentions. The first of the play’s three scenes is a marvel of writing and playing, a dance of advances, retreats, mock punches and real bites. Clearly, Halley doesn’t think much progress has been made in the half century since her father first explored the topic. (The rest of the play is also strong, if a shade less intense.)
There are a few non-toxic men onstage this season. Atticus Finch, for one (in Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird). Give me a few minutes and I probably can come up with a few others. OK, I liked some of the guys in Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman (though the villain is a nasty piece of work). As for the two leading sort-of sympathetic male figures in the stage adaptation of Paddy Chayefsky’s Network, one is a raving lunatic and the other is pathetically chasing his fading youth in an adulterous affair.
The truth is, we seem to be at a point when figures of masculine virtue in serious drama are pretty rare. The husband of the character Tyne Daly played in Theresa Rebeck’s Downstairs is a menacing brute. The head of the halfway house in which Marin Ireland’s character takes shelter in Abby Rosebrock’s Blue Ridge is a hypocrite abusing his position of authority. The rich art collector played by Alan Cumming in Jeremy O. Harris’s Daddy is a charming predator. And the people responsible for the faltering organizing document of our country, as described in Heidi Schreck’s What the Constitution Means to Me, were a batch of propertied white guys who owned slaves. (I have still to see the stage versions of Rupert Murdoch and Bill Clinton in Ink and Hillary and Clinton.)
Hell, even the title character in Tim Blake Nelson’s Socrates–a classic heroic figure if there ever was one–is oblivious to the needs of his wife and family.
But maybe all of this isn’t surprising given the unappetizing lump in the Oval Office. Ya think?