Monday, March 25, 2024

37 Days of Shakespeare, Day 17: Timon of Athens

Timon of Athens, first broadcast April 16, 1981
  • Possibly written: 1606, possibly his 32nd play
  • What’s it about? Wealthy Athenian Timon throws lavish parties and gives generously to everyone who needs it, but when his bill comes due he tries calling in some favors and everyone abandons him. He has one last feast for his friends but serves them only water and condemns them, then goes to live in a cave where he spurns everyone and dies alone.
  • Most famous dialogue: Not much, but Nabakov drew the title of one of his greatest novels from this play: “The moon’s an errant thief whose pale fire is snatched from the sun”
  • Sources: It probably draws upon the twenty-eighth novella of William Painter's Palace of Pleasure, (the thirty-eighth novella of which was the main source for “All’s Well That Ends Well”) as well as  Plutarch’s Lives, Lucian’s Dialogues and a lost comedy on the subject of Timon, allusions to which survive from 1584. 
  • Interesting fact about the play: In the 20th Century, scholars began to claim the play was co-written with an uncredited Thomas Middleton. It feels like pure Shakespeare to me (as opposed to “Henry VIII”, which felt co-written) but you never know.
  • Best insults:
    • Unpeaceable dog
    • Thou disease of a friend
    • Smiling, smooth, detested parasites, courteous destroyers, affable wolves, meek bears, you fools of fortune, trencher friends, cap and knee slaves, vapours and minute-jacks.
  • Best word: A twofer: “unclew, I crave no pelf”
  • Best production of this play I’ve seen: I had never seen nor read this play.
  • Notable Names in the BBC Adaptation: A young Jonathan Pryce as Timon!
How’s the cast?
  • Pryce is astonishingly good. This is my favorite performance in any of the 16 plays I’ve seen. Heartbreakingly naïve when rich and profoundly angry when poor, he’s always riveting to watch. Everybody else is great too, especially John Welsh as Flavius, the servant who finally breaks the bad news to him.
How’s the direction by Jonathan Miller?
  • Miller produced this season and directed several episodes. For this one, he hired a different director who wanted Asian costumes. That would have been odd but interesting, but Miller, as we’ve seen in other plays, felt strongly, for some reason, that all of Shakespeare’s plays, no matter where or when they were set, should have Elizabethan dress, so he fired the director and took it over himself. As it turns out, the costuming is the only choice I disagree with in this otherwise brilliantly staged production. Astoundingly, almost the whole second half is shot from one angle with an almost still camera and almost still Timon, rejecting everyone who seeks him out on a stony beach, one by one. It shouldn’t work but it’s wonderfully intense.
Storyteller’s Rulebook: Not Everything Needs to Have a Happy Ending

When I began this project to cover all 37 adaptations, my biggest worry was about the 16 plays that I had never read nor seen. Were all of these plays unknown to me for good reason? Would I be slogging through 16 quagmires? That hasn’t been the case with the ones I’ve covered so far, since all the new ones have been watchable, but none have been truly great. This changes that. This is a perfect play, right up there with Shakespeare’s best.

We’ve just covered four plays that were all supposedly comedies which were, for one reason or another, not very funny. I started this play, as with “The Winter’s Tale,” knowing nothing. Like that one, this one seemed like a tragedy, but I was prepared for this, too, to bizarrely swerve to comedy at any moment. It does not! This is our first pure tragedy since Hamlet and it is a welcome relief.

Avoid the temptation to tack a happy ending onto tragic material. Respect your audience. If it would end badly, let it end badly.

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Every Great Play is About Donald Trump

Shakespeare’s greatest quality is his timelessness, and the mark of a timeless play is that it can suddenly become very timely, even in the far-flung future of 2024.

One of the richest men of his day flaunts his wealth ostentatiously. When some bills unexpectedly come due, he goes to his fellow billionaires and entreats them to lend him the money, but they all turn him down. He tries to sell some property but realizes that it’s all mortgaged ten times over and his in name only. Does this sound familiar? What a delight to watch this play out in Shakespeare and in real life this week! Especially delightful because, in this version, he ends up dead.
Storyteller’s Rulebook: Add More Moments of Humanity

What can we add to Shakespeare? Will additions only subtract? Miller largely just trusts the text here but he makes a few tiny additions that are brilliant.

At Timon’s party, mime-like entertainers come out and prance around for the revellers, much to everyone’s amusement. Eventually the party breaks up and all of Timon’s friends drift off one by one, followed by Timon himself. As soon as the last rich person is gone, the ethereal entertainers suddenly abandon their postures and pounce on the abandoned feast, hungrily devouring it. This was not in the text.

It’s a rare laugh in a very serious production, but it’s also a very believable and human moment. To this day, we all feel like painted puppets of our wealthy overlords, looking for the chance to break character and stop performing, if only for a few desperate moments.

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