This Monday, May 18, we're reuniting members of the company of artists that brought CORIOLANUS to life with our 2016 Off-Broadway production for a livestream benefit occasion. We hope you will tune in for what promises to be a fun and rare opportunity to hear this delicious, decadently dangerous play. Below is Dakin Matthew's program note for our production.
ABOUT THE PLAY
The events dramatized in Coriolanus allegedly take place in the Fifth Century, B.C.E., after the city of Rome became a republic with the ouster of its last king, Tarquin. “Republican” Rome survived for almost five centuries, ending ironically only with the “republican-backed” assassination of Julius Caesar and the eventual coronation of his imperial successor, Octavius Caesar Augustus. It is worth noting that in Fifth Century B.C.E. Rome was only a city-state, with a few satellite cities under its control, and that Rome’s enemies were other comparable city-states only a couple of days’ journey away—like the Volscian cities of Antium and Corioles.
Essential to the successful political operation of the young Roman republic was co-operation among its three strata of power: the senators, the military, and the people. Aristocrats in the senate and at the head of Rome’s army tended to move easily back and forth “from th’ casque (helmet) to th’ cushion (Senate seat),” as Shakespeare puts it; senators rewarded and supported former and current military men with Consular offices. But the people could not be entirely overlooked; they had acquired a kind of veto power through the appointment of their own Tribunes, who could enforce certain of their prerogatives, whether the Senate agreed or not.
It is in this complex political situation that we first encounter Martius Caius, an incredibly successful soldier that the city-state desperately needs to protect it from its external enemies, but now calls upon to help quell an internal rebellion over a grain shortage that has left the people starving, even though the aristocrats’ granaries seem to be full. While some senators attempt to deal with the rebellion by reason and compromise, Martius—thanks to his severe upbringing under an honor-obsessed mother and his unequaled successes on the battlefield—knows only one way: brute force, whether of arms (which he would prefer) or of harsh, haranguing, insulting words (which is all the Senate will let him do).
When Rome’s neighboring foes, led by Martius’ archenemy Tullus Aufidius, try to take advantage of the internal dissension to launch yet another attack, Martius is called into action in that theatre of operations where he operates ruthlessly and flawlessly, the battlefield—and away from a situation which he handles crudely and ineffectively, politics. And his astonishing victory over the Volscians at Corioles brings him back to Rome in triumph and drives his fellows on the battlefield—by acclamation—to honor him with the name “Coriolanus,” and his aristocratic supporters in Rome to nominate him for Consul.
Yet he must pass one further test: he must appear before the people in humble garb, displaying his wounds and getting their “voices” (votes), and then have their election confirmed by the people’s Tribunes, who are so opposed to his elevation that they conspire to deny it to him by manipulating the people’s affections. What happens next, when the unbending soldier and the mob stirred up to mindless outrage meet head to head, is perhaps predictable—and yet stunning in its details.
Dakin Matthews | An actor, playwright, translator, Emeritus Professor of English, and dramaturg of over forty Shakespeare productions, including for directors Jack O’Brien, Daniel Sullivan, John Rando, and Darko Tresnjak. He won a Drama Desk Award for his Broadway adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry IV and has coached Denzel Washington, Neil Patrick Harris, and Camryn Manheim in Shakespearean roles. His handbook Shakespeare Spoken Here is in its sixth edition. He has appeared in over 250 stage plays, 250 episodes of television, and 30 films.