I know that my fellow City Desk correspondent, Lydia Craig, is also reviewing this staged reading, so I’ve decided to focus on a very specific point of contact between The People vs Friar Laurence and Shakespeare’s
Romeo and Juliet: Friar Laurence’s exit at line 170 in Act 5, scene 3 of R&J (as found in the 1623 First Folio). Written by Ron West, with music and lyrics by Ron West and Phil Swann, this incredibly well-directed staged reading was co-produced by Steppenwolf’s LookOut and Second City Theatricals.
Writing about free will, the German philosopher Friedrich Schelling claimed that people will often prefer a decisive villain over an ineffectual moralist. That is, we seem to be drawn to people who actually do things, regardless of the moral implications. What Schelling is speaking to here is the fact that in “real life,” we spend a lot of our time not acting on any number of impulses we have on a minute-to-minute basis, living a life of duties chosen over desires. And this can take its toll on us, regardless of the consolations of “ethics.”
I think this insight says a lot about why audiences are able to enjoy Shakespeare’s villains and tragedies. We can find a proxy release for our desire for action in stage villains—Richard III, Iago, Edmund, these characters do things, they don’t allow themselves to be held back by petty social constraints, and they actually accomplish their goals. I think this can also help explain why we are able to enjoy tragic endings. Shakespearean comedies and tragedies cue us at the outset that they are setting out to do something: comedies set out to marry people, tragedies set out to kill people, and they tend to deliver. While it might be less confusing why we are able to take delight in comic endings, we can extend Schelling’s point to say that tragedies are also able to harness our desire for any action to their own generic ends. Really good tragedy finds a way to show us this fact about ourselves, that our pent-up desire for action can even lead us to delight in the death of others (on stage or off).
Hamlet, Lear, Macbeth, these plays all perform this double function of entertaining and edifying, inviting us to reflect on our delight in carnage even in the very moment we are experiencing this delight. And contrary to the reductive image of the play that has resulted from the American primary education system, in some key ways R&J does this better than these “great” tragedies: most pertinently here, because it works us sequentially through a (Shakespearean) comic ending and then a tragic ending. We get to enjoy the comic delivery of Romeo and Juliet consummating their romantic desires, then we get to enjoy tragedy fulfilling its promise of their deaths. Friar Laurence is the mechanism behind both of these generic actions: he arranges their wedding, then he stages death in such a way that it becomes real.
West and Swann’s The People vs Friar Laurence, by putting Friar Laurence on trial and claiming that he is responsible for what has happened, has located for us the character in R&J that acts as proxy for our desire. This musical comedy satire levels a series of accusations as to Friar Laurence’s guilt, claiming that he is a villain. After enumerating the different bumbling maneuvers Friar Laurence enacts, the final accusation as to his guilt comes from the hangman immediately prior to Laurence’s scheduled execution. In the final scene of R&J, Friar Laurence has entered the crypt where Juliet is supposed to awake from the death-counterfeiting potion he’s given her, only to find that Romeo has killed himself because he mistook Laurence’s theater of death for the “real thing.” Then comes this very odd moment: in the space of nine lines, Laurence says he has just heard a noise and they should run away, informs Juliet that Romeo has died, says he will “dispose of” her (in a nunnery), and then starts leaving on the strange line, “Come, go, good Juliet.” The whole bit is made more urgent and hurried by Laurence repeating that he has heard a noise. Here’s the speech as it appears in the 1623 First Folio, including Juliet’s first lines as she awakes:
Iul. O comfortable Frier, where’s my Lord?
I do remember well where I should be:
And there I am, where is my Romeo?
Fri. I heare some noyse Lady, come from that nest
Of death, contagion, and vnnaturall sleepe,
A greater power then we can contradict
Hath thwarted our entents, come, come away,
Thy husband in thy bosome there lies dead:
And Paris too: come Ile dispose of thee,
Among a Sisterhood of holy Nunnes:
Stay not to question, for the watch is comming.
Come, go good Iuliet, I dare no longer stay.
In The People vs Friar Laurence, the hangman asks Laurence the important question here: why did he leave a teenager alone in that crypt with a dagger, knowing she has just learned her husband has killed himself, and that she threatened to kill herself to his face earlier in the play?
Why does he exit at this point? Part of the reason is that he kind of is the villain in this play, at least as I defined one above. He performs an action that leads immediately to Juliet’s death, so in an odd way he is functioning as a proxy for our (tragic) desires. But the irony of “I’ll dispose of thee” and the tension in “come, go,” registers at the level of language contradictions in what Laurence wants that seem to be below the level of conscious thought, and his haste doesn’t leave him (much?) time to think about how his exit in effect participates in killing Juliet. So it’s a kind of tragi-comic, bungling action. He is and isn’t making something happen. He couldn’t possibly want her to die, yet how could he rapidly deliver all of that devastating news and then just run out? Is he a villain or just kind of dumb?
Why say all of this about Laurence, desire, sex and death? Because the American primary school education system really has ruined R&J for many of us, and audiences attending Steppenwolf and Second City’s incredibly well-produced staged reading might, therefore, miss how smart the insights are that their show has to offer. This satire wisely saves its most insightful indictment of Laurence for the end, but audiences (and I include academics here) that have refused to return to the text or “traditional” stagings of R&J might just see this as pointing up one more funny incongruity in the plot, as well as an affirmation of an “oh well” attitude that can seem necessary to get past otherwise confusing plot twists in Shakespeare’s plays. Putting Laurence on trial in general, then, puts our own violent delights on trial as well. The romping, satirical mode of West and Swann’s musical comedy acknowledges and plays into how many Americans have come to feel about R&J—caricaturing Romeo as an insufferable, “one note”
lover, or making multiple jokes about the mysterious origin of the Capulet/Montague quarrel—and at the same time educates us in the finer points of Shakespeare’s tragedy. In this sense, The People vs Friar Laurence is a “gateway play” back into Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and the specific insights it has to offer. There isn’t a moment quite like Laurence’s hurried, bungling exit from the crypt in any of Shakespeare’s other tragedies, and it shows us how even our goofy ineptitudes can be in service of “A greater power than we can contradict.”
Casey Caldwell is a doctoral candidate in English at Northwestern University, where he specializes in the ontology and sexuality of money in early modern drama and intellectual texts. He holds his MFA in Shakespeare and performance, with a concentration on directing, from Mary Baldwin College, an MA in philosophy from University of Auckland, and a BA in philosophy from University of Texas at Austin.