Coriolanus has never been one of Shakespeare's most popular plays. Its action is entirely made up of abrupt political reversals which never add up to a satisfying dramatic sweep. Eric Bentley called it "a play that combines the more forbidding features of both tragedy and comedy to the exclusion of every melodramatic and farcical possibility." And the play thwarts our natural sympathies toward its characters. As Jan Kott describes them in Shakespeare, Our Contemporary, "The people in Coriolanus are stupid and ignorant; they stink and collect stinking rags in battlefields. The tribunes are little, deformed and deceitful. Coriolanus is brave, great and noble. But the people are Rome, and Coriolanus is a traitor to his country." The play is deeply suspicious of both heroism and democracy, and in the ethical battle between the arrogant patrician warrior and the countrymen he would rule, Shakespeare ascribes many layers of complexity and contradiction to both sides.

Precisely for these reasons, Coriolanus is an exciting and pertinent play for this particular moment in American culture, as has been shown in two major productions this season: John Hirsch's staging for the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego, which had a six-week run at the end of the summer; and, as part of Joseph Papp's Shakespeare marathon, a production starring Christopher Walken and Irene Worth, directed by Steven Berkoff, which opened in November at the New York Shakespeare Festival and played an extended run through January.
Both were radical adaptations of Shakespeare's text, and both were immensely popular with audiences. Yet they could not have been more different. Hirsch's was an up-to-the-minute, media-age spectacle, while Berkoff's was intimate and stylized. The interpretations were precisely contradictory: In Hirsch's production, what happened happened because of a problem in society; in Berkoff's, because of a problem in Coriolanus. Yet each was equally convincing and equally fascinating; together, they were the best productions I've seen all year.

Productions of Coriolanus in this century have been so scarce -- measured against the tide of Macbeths and Hamlets and Midsummer Night's Dreams -- that they have almost always borne some political significance, especially in translation, though the political message has been remarkably malleable. In 1935, the Maly Theatre in Moscow mounted the play as a "drama of individualism" portraying Coriolanus as "a superman who had detached himself from the people and betrayed them." In France between the two world wars, a new production at the Comedie Franc,aise was cheered as an antipopulist diatribe, provoking riots, the dismissal of the director and a suspension of performances. A 1960 production at Prague's Army Theatre reportedly represented Coriolanus's chief adviser Menenius as a "rather nasty old loquacious fox of a politician," while the tribunes elected to represent the plebians in the Senate were "wise, honest, sincere, deep-thinking, class-conscious."

In Germany, American authorities occupying Berlin banned the play in the years just after World War II. For the Berliner Ensemble, Brecht prepared one of his most famous adaptations which, while preserving a good deal of Shakespeare's text, altered its tone almost completely to conform to his Marxist ideology. The publication of a lengthy 1957 dialogue among Brecht and his dramaturgs as well as eyewitness accounts of the subsequent Berliner Ensemble production (which toured the continent in 1963 and 1964) demonstrated just how doctrinaire Brecht could be in his adaptations. In his view, the common people are incapable of admiring Coriolanus's skill in battle or being easily swayed for or against him; they banish him not as a hysterical mob but through a sober judicial process. Coriolanus is permitted neither charismatic influence over the populace nor the option of a sentimental response to his mother's pleas in defense of Rome; in fact, he's incapable of acting on any motive except to benefit his own (patrician) class. "Thus," British critic John Elsom notes, "Coriolanus was not a hero whose pride and bad temper alienates the fickle masses, but a tyrant: The working soldiers, not Coriolanus, won the war, he merely took the credit." (The clash between Brecht's idealistic expectations and workaday political reality is dramatized by Gunter Grass in The Plebians Rehearse the Uprising, which portrays Brecht in rehearsal for Coriolanus.)

Among British productions, two famous ones featured Laurence Olivier in the title role -- at the Old Vic in 1938 he was "the arrogant patrician, a pillar of fire on a plinth of marble"; Peter Hall's staging for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1959 stressed the influence on Coriolanus of his political mother (played by Edith Evans). At the Old Vic in 1952, in a production said to have "a Tory emphasis," Anthony Quayle "played the part as a furious and impatient young bull, but not a mad or treacherous one." Peter Hall directed the play again in 1984, this time at the National Theatre with lan McKellen and Irene Worth, in a production with two theatrical innovations. The time frame was deliberately skewed, so that after sword-fighting all night, Coriolanus was brought down in a hail of bullets (shades of Ingmar Bergman's recent march-of-time staging of Hamlet); and Hall seated 90 members of the audience onstage to participate in the crowd scenes (since the audience consisted largely of tweedy professors and middle-aged women with handbags, this device largely backfired).

Joseph Papp's short-lived black and Hispanic Shakespeare company performed the play in 1979 with the leading roles played by Morgan Freeman and Gloria Foster. Several critics noted the presence at a preview of Mayor Edward Koch and City Council president Herman Badillo. "The relevance of this early 17th-century drama to current city politics is positively uncanny," noted Marilyn Stasio in The New York Post, calling Coriolanus "not a man for all seasons, perhaps; but at least a man for every election year."

SEPTEMBER, 1988, SAN DIEGO: John Hirsch's Old Globe production is perfectly aware that it's taking place in the midst of a presidential election campaign. The audience arrives to confront two huge banks of television monitors flashing footage of tanks in battle, urban squalor, Senate hearings on the Iran-Contra scandal, commercial advertisements, and snippets of Wheel of Fortune and Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. The television sequences, powerfully conceived and expertly edited by Matthew Eisen, serve several functions. Beginning as a design element that lodges the time of the play in our own, they become part of the narrative, as certain messenger-type speeches are delivered on-camera. They also contribute to the metaphorical engine of the production, Hirsch's focus on the curious relationship between politicians and the populace in a media age like our own -- a time when the widest audience is reached through technology rather than flesh-pressing, when policy decisions are influenced by paid lobbyists, and when candidates tailor their campaigns to the results of possibly specious public-opinion polls (in which 1,000 people reached by telephone supposedly reflect the mandate of 200 million). That television is a medium that distorts and conceals truth as readily as it conveys it is an irony worthy of Coriolanus.

The moment he appears in the person of Byron Jennings, handsomely clothed in a marine officer's uniform with his red hair sharply trimmed in a crewcut, this Coriolanus is recognizable as the production's equivalent to Lt. Col. Oliver North. But the parallel is not simplistic, a cheap device pandering to lazy theatregoers. lt is useful because North is a suitably ambiguous character in American public life: To some, he is an outright hero, a real-life Rambo accustomed to kicking ass and getting things done; to others an honest and well-meaning patriot led astray by cynical superiors; to still others a living symbol of the CIA's immoral covert operations around the globe, hiding behind the supposed approval of the American electorate. No two people can be expected to react identically to the mention of his name -- which creates exactly the right atmosphere for a performance of Coriolanus.

These contemporary political references serve the point of Hirsch's production, which seems to be examining the question of leadership in American society today and how to make it answerable to the public. The constant presence of the TV monitors and the occasional intrusion of cameramen for closed-circuit TV-news broadcasts emphasize the isolation of Coriolanus from the hands-on practice of governing, while giving the job a new high-tech twist. Like dealing well with troops in battle, dealing successfully with the press doesn't automatically make someone an ideal chief of state, a leader's capacities may be masked or even obviated by the necessity of performing for the omnipresent camera.

Perhaps making the point that Coriolanus is justified in feeling himself more equipped to rule the country than the average Wheel of Fortune addict, the Old Globe production stirs considerable sympathy for the ill-fated leader -- especially on the occasions of his departure from the city he has nobly defended (by helicopter in Hirsch's production, stunningly designed by David Jenkins), and his exile from family and loved ones. Yet he is an enemy of the people in theory, and he puts the theory into practice by knocking on the huge barn door and joining the Volscians to lead them against his own homeland. (Here Aufidius and the Volscians are of Latino origin, conjuring all those Central American conflicts where raggedly defended borders separate entirely different political systems; the effect is as if Oliver North got fed up at our lack of appreciation for his anti-Communist crusade and signed up with the Sandinistas.) Was it sentimental of the Romans to merely banish Coriolanus? It would have been more contemporary simply to execute him. Stalin would have, so would have the Khmer Rouge.

Shakespeare never dictates what better path Coriolanus might have taken, nor does he suggest a better candidate for consul. That's what makes the play so unsatisfying dramatically, and so pertinent today: It throws the questions back at us. Leadership is at such a premium that we will forgive a lot to get the real thing -- but where do we draw the line? Where does a public servant's intransigence or self-serving become counterproductive ? Are we so hungry for leaders that we will accept almost any reasonable facsimile? And having conspired to create a system that gives points to surface attractiveness, controllable (or concealable) corruption, and minimum acceptable electability, how do we reward actual leadership? How do we expect people even to recognize it?

Hirsch's production is in every way a public-minded spectacle. One scarcely perceives the performances as individual acts, the actors appear as icons on a public landscape -- not puppets, but generally recognized figures from our media culture. Dakin Matthews' Menenius, who speaks in an easygoing Southern drawl reminiscent of Sam Ervin or Sam Rayburn, is exactly the kind of good ol' boy capable of disarming a hostile assembly; Elizabeth Shepherd's Volumnia, a tres chic society lady in a wheelchair, is modeled, Hirsch admitted in an interview, on Rose Kennedy. The enormous popular and critical success of the production has endorsed the artistic team's willingness to interact deeply -- both emotionally and intellectually -- with issues of the times. But I suspect that part of what makes the production feel so right is its appropriateness for the space of the Old Globe's Cassius Clay Theater, whose proscenium offers an unusually broad embrace of the audience as well as a wide, flat panorama for Shakespeare's action.

The configuration of the New York Shakespeare Festival's Anspacher Theater -- a three-quarter thrust with seats rising steeply on three sides and the fourth side defined by two unmovable columns -- certainly wields enormous influence over whatever goes into it. Directors ignore its invitation to intimacy and its resistance to spectacle at their own peril. Perhaps because the audience spent so much time in close proximity to his face, Christopher Walken's performance dominated Steven Berkoff's production, certainly more than Byron Jennings' did at the Old Globe. And Walken repaid our interest with a fascinating performance.

Although he is well-known from his movies (he won an Academy Award for his monologue as a shattered Vietnam vet in 1988's The Deer Hunter), Walken is not a star performer; he doesn't stand for or reliably deliver any leading-man quality, except possibly a certain crazy-eyed eccentricity. But he is one of our most unpredictable, impressively theatrical actors, even in films. Almost unrecognizable, he tap-danced in his boxer shorts in Pennies from Heaven; in Jonathan Demme's TV movie Who Am I This Time? he played a low-metabolism stockboy who submits to being cast in community-theatre productions like a guinea pig taking experimental drugs, completely unconscious of the power that overtakes him onstage. In Andrei Serban's production of The Seagull, Walken's long-silent Trigorin launched his long discourse on writing not as seductive reflection but as an aggressive torrent of stored-up words; it was his graceless self-absorption that heated up Nina's own self-centered fantasy about being destroyed by a strange man. And walking into the last 10 minutes of Jerry Zaks's revival of The House of Blue Leaves at Lincoln Center as Hollywood mogul Billy Einhorn, Walken shot outrageously direct looks at the audience, effectively jolting us awake to what a bizarrely unmoored-from-reality world had been created in Artie Shaughnessy's living room in Queens. No matter what, he knows how to create a presence in the room.

NOVEMBER 1988, NEW YORK: Christopher Walken's Coriolanus is contemptuous and contemptible, and quite eccentric. One moment he stands stock-still like Joan of Arc in the dock, passionately nailing Shakespeare's prose in a showdown with Menenius (played with avuncular grace by Paul Hecht); the next he lets his silk jacket slide off his shoulders, a gesture of boredom (though whether it is the actor's or the character's is unclear). He is plainly a fighter, though physical rather than tactical in his prowess; sparring verbally with the people's tribunes (played like sleazy graft-hunters by Larry Bryggman and Andre Braugher), he puts on the Italianate street style of a guy who's halfway into a senseless fistfight before anybody knows it. This mercurial and sometimes mannered performance wouldn't fit every production of Coriolanus, but it fits Steven Berkoff's.

As Brecht did, Berkoff turns Shakespeare's play into one of his own: stylized, choreographed, made to be played at full throttle (more popping eyes, more bulging veins, please!). Like Brecht, Berkoff sees the teeming hordes as the central character of Coriolanus; he gives them the final curtain call. But Berkoff's mob bears more resemblance to beer-soaked soccer fans and impulsive tabloid buyers than to Brecht's sensible citizens. In the play's very first scene -- in which the Roman rabble gather to execute Coriolanus for helping to hoard the grain supply, exchange insults with him, then end up following him off to fight the Volscians -- the crowd enters wielding baseball bats and dressed in tattered monochrome costumes, looking for all the world like the bully boys out of Berkoff's own plays East and West. There are only eight of them, but this bunch -- distinguished by physical type and ethnicity, reciting their lines in unison -- seems to fit Henry Morley's description of a 200-strong mob in an early 19th century Coriolanus, which "fluctuated to and fro, as their violent assent or dissent impelled them, with a loud and overwhelming suddenness and one-minded ponderosity, truly fearful to think of encountering."

No current director utilizes ritualized, Greek-choral staging better than Berkoff. With slight changes of wardrobe and occasional half-masks, on a set consistsing exclusively of 12 black lacquered chairs, the male ensemble efficiently plays the Roman senate and the Volscians as well as the Roman plebes -- economically underscoring, perhaps, Coriolanus's uniformly willful resistance to them all. And the completely non-naturalistic fight scenes churn up an energy that is purely theatrical: Without weapons or props, the soldiers engage in hand-to-hand combat to an agitated drumbeat, which halts abruptly for pauses filled with choreographed panting.

Berkoff has cut the role of Coriolanus's son (the one who earns his grandmother's approval by tearing butterflies to pieces) so that when the women enter, an entirely different, Kabuki-style drama begins. Ashley Crow's Virgilia sews an imaginary garment; Irene Worth's Volumnia moves in a strange gestural dance. Worth and Walken are recognizable as kin -- they could have come from another planet, their faces full of secret smiles and unreadable expressions. As he made clear in Greek, his ardently sexual adaptation of Oedipus Rex, Berkoff sees nothing negative or weak in the close relationship between a boy and his mother -- if anything, just the opposite. His reading seems to be that when the plebes take office, they mistakenly put on patrician airs rather than ruling with their own familiar homely ways; therefore, after Coriolanus is banished, Rome feels strangely dandified, emasculated, as the people's tribunes strut about smugly in their designer pimpwear.

If it lacks satisfying dramatic development or psychological portraiture, Coriolanus does contain one killer scene, a scene that never fails to grip audiences, a scene nearly as audacious as Richard III's wooing of Lady Anne, whose husband he has murdered: It's the scene in which Volumnia travels to the Volscian camp to persuade her son not to march on Rome. We've already seen the extent of Volumnia's influence on her son, when she urges him to compromise and endure the rituals required for confirmation in public office -- which backfires because he cannot hide his contempt for empty show. He has already spurned his trusted adviser, Menenius. He's angry and hell-bent on revenge. Volumnia's blatant play for his compassion might well make him angrier still. And Coriolanus does resist his mother's pleas. She taught him how to play hardball; no changing the rules now.

But his mother begs him. She gets down on her knees. In Berkoff's production (as in Peter Hall's 1986 production), Irene Worth, perhaps the finest classical actress alive, dressed as a bag lady, lies flat on her face on the floor in supplication. In aching silence, Walken peers out of his inscrutable mask at this grovelling figure, so public, so nakedly emotional. How can he not capitulate?

This is a moment that the Old Globe production goes one better by comparison. Jennings' Ollie North of a Coriolanus is proud, brusque, seemingly impervious to any deviation from his carefully mounted battle plan. So Elizabeth Shepherd's elegant Volumnia cannot simply make her case on the grounds of common sense; she might as well be assuring her son that his membership would still be valid at the country club. No, this military mother drops any pretense of matching wits. Instead, she hauls herself -- painfully, without help -- out of her wheelchair and begs for mercy on her crippled knees.

This capitulation scene has often been played as a kind of suicide pact between mother and son, as reviewers noted in Ian McKellen's performance; in Papp's 1979 production, Gloria Foster seemed almost proud to have engineered her son's death. And in Peter Hall's 1959 production, the capitulation was merely the prelude to an elaborate self-sacrifice, to judge from Kenneth Tynan's description: "Olivier is roused to suicidal frenzy by Aufidius' gibe -- 'Thou boy of tears.' 'Boy!' shrieks the overmothered general, in an outburst of strangled fury, and leaps up a flight of precipitous steps to vent his rage. Arrived the top, he relents and throws his sword away.... He allows a dozen spears to impale him. He is poised now, on a promontory some 12 feet above the stage, from which he topples forward, to be caught by the ankles so that he dangles, inverted, like the slaughtered Mussolini."

In neither Hirsch's nor Berkoff's production does Coriolanus's death so logically follow his capitulation to his mother. Christopher Walken's behavior is so capricious in general that one senses he expected this reversal to be taken in stride as another one of his quirks. He is executed nevertheless, as per the production style, slowly and ritualistically. This scene is slightly corny, as only slow-motion violence can be.

The final moment of the Old Globe production, meanwhile, is its most frightening and unpredictable. Jennings' Coriolanus seems positively humanized in responding to his mother's entreaty, and he seems fully confident that this will serve as an example of merciful leadership among his Volscian admirers. Yet he is strung up and slaughtered, and the play is over in a move as swift, brutal and tragic as only political violence -- the airport homecoming that turns into the corpse on the tarmac -- can be.

Shakespeare took his account directly from a contemporaneous translation of Plutarch's Lives, so we know that Coriolanus perished in just this barbarous manner. Still, it's shocking onstage, not so much because a valiant hero has been destroyed, but because an arrogant tyrant-in-the-making seemed to be on the verge of discovering the art of political survival through honest compromise. And that learning process, essential to creating peace among nations, gets interrupted to the detriment of all sides. Plutarch goes on to tell us that, without Coriolanus's protection, the Volscians were subsequently defeated and enslaved to Rome.

The shocking ending, though, is one of the things that makes Coriolanus feel so pertinent to this particular moment. As dictatorships thrive and nuclear weapons make even the smallest warrior nation a global threat, we've never more urgently needed a body politic -- and leadership -- adept at allowing a difference of opinion to avoid a lethal showdown. And when tyrannical leaders are deposed around the world and corrupt politicians driven out of office at home, the uneasy question (for them but also for us) is "What now?"

The deep, irreconcilable dilemmas at its heart are what makes Coriolanus unpopular yet important. Can people change and be rehabilitated? Can their valuable experience be salvaged? Can differences be settled, and punishment meted out, without senseless violence?

Chillingly, Shakespeare's answer in Coriolanus seems to be no. But the way the play works as political theatre is to say: If you think the world can be otherwise, prove it.

American Theatre, March, 1989