Experimental thespian Tim Crouch’s I, Malvolio is a study in what it means to laugh at another’s sorrow. The play is part of a sequence focusing on lesser, unsung, and often unlikable characters from Shakespeare’s oeuvre, including Caliban, Peaseblossom, Banquo, and Cinna. Comedies like Twelfth Night, from which Crouch draws for the roughly ninety-minute piece, were and are vehicles for compelling ensemble work, while tragedies often serve a celebrity front-man. Part of the ingenuity of this one-man Shakespearean comedy is to explore, in form and in content, where exactly that sweet spot between comedy and discomfort lies.
You find this funny, do you?
“You find this funny, do you?”: Crouch’s Malvolio asked this of us over and over as he subjected himself to a series of embarrassments. While cracking wise at the average age of the afternoon matinee audience, he summoned up three students to aid in his public shaming. One, a boy he nicknamed “Bluey” for his blue shirt, he had kick him in response to the signs on his back: the first read “turkey cock” and second “kick me.” Another, “Pinky,” for his pink shorts, was asked alongside a young woman to help facilitate an on-stage hanging. While at first the audience’s laughter was immediate in response to these antics, by the time we reached the hanging scene the laughter was forced and uncomfortable—the audience uncertain of the script they were to follow. Routinely pointing at the audience to accuse us of sins varietal, as much as Malvolio inquired of our sense of humor he also intoned that he would certainly have “revenge on the pack of you.”
Structuring the arc of Malvolio’s interrogations of us was his re-narrativizing the plot of Twelfth Night. Crouch makes two particularly astute observations about the possible motivations compelling his character’s puritanical attitude. First, he reminds us that Malvolio not only organized and served for the lifetime of Olivia’s recently deceased brother, but also her father. Second, he reflects on the fast approach of Sir Toby Belch, whose behaviors interrupt the fragile routine the household has barely had a chance to cobble together after these deaths. Aside from the interloping Sir Toby and Sir Andrew Aguecheek, arguably Malvolio and the Fool are the only male members of the household left—reorganizing the flow of power in the household into a matriarchy. Not only is Malvolio a Puritan trapped in the world of a play, but he is trapped in a household now run by women. Accosted by the constant interruptions of Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, the Duke Orsino and his household, Malvolio is unable to move through the natural progression of mourning.
Many a good hanging
In this light, the play quite literally adds insult to Malvolio’s emotional injury when Sir Toby and his crew bait him with the forged letter. The letter makes an appearance on stage, crumpled at the outset and then orbited around by Malvolio as if it were the gravitational center of his injury—a site of trauma he can’t help but rehearse. Rotating, he weighs his own sanity, insisting that despite the “ontological duality” of his presence in a theater—simultaneously in Illyria and in Chicago—he is “not mad.” Working through this ontological duality with a speedy set of jokes of local color (no few references to the presidential race were made), Malvolio works through the sanity of his cross-gartered response to the letter. We are reminded briefly of the darkest moment in Twelfth Night, Malvolio’s entrapment in a pit by the Fool to keep him from impeding the more procreatively and hierarchically suitable coupling of his lady to a mysterious twin she has only just met. (Again, his desire to slow that courtship seems anything but insane outside the world of Shakespeare’s play.) More than the letter, the pit is the catharsis, the event that underscores the line where laughing at the ways in which the ego and the body will out crosses into schadenfreude. He concludes: we, the audience, are Sir Toby in this Chicago theater; we are the bully on which he must have revenge.
And he does get it. In the last act of I, Malvolio, our leading man rejects his noose and instead strips out of his soiled undergarments down to a leopard-printed thong. From there, he gradually applied face powder and period costume to reassume his position as rule-maker and -enforcer of the hierarchy that bullied him so. At the end of the first act, we were told to sit up straight and stay exactly as we were while he stepped off stage; he returned rather immediately from what seemed like an otherwise pointless exercise. Now re-dressed, we were instructed by Malvolio once again to sit up straight, keeping just as we were until his return. He left, and we waited. And waited. Awkward shuffling commenced. A clever member of the audience shouted out, “Come back, Malvolio! All is forgiven!” Crouch had sacrificed his applause so that Malvolio might have his revenge on the audience, and by extension, Sir Toby. We never knew when the play had ended—and still don’t. We never knew when it had started, for that matter, since Malvolio had been on the stage waiting for us since we arrived and the black box space used universal lighting throughout.
By examining Malvolio’s motivations for clues as to why he may have been such a target for abuse in the world of Twelfth Night, I, Malvolio confirms that this character is in fact deserving of dislike, but not for the reasons one might assume. While Malvolio spends the adaptation accusing and coercing the audience into playing the role of the bully, as the Puritan valet he has far greater bullying to answer for—in upholding the social norms and mechanizing aristocratic hierarchy—than his audience. By exploring the zone where humor transforms into hate, I, Malvolio asks us to consider what is to be gained by troubling the rule-makers.
Elizabeth Elaine Tavares is an assistant professor of Medieval and Renaissance Literature in the English department at Pacific University. Specializing in Shakespeare and Tudor drama, her research foci include playing companies, theater history and performance. Her publications have appeared in Shakespeare Bulletin and Shakespeare Studies among others. She currently serves as scholar-in-residence with the Original Practice Shakespeare Festival in Portland, Oregon. She holds advanced degrees in English Literature and History from DePaul University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Read more about Elizabeth…