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Thoughts from the Literary Manager on The Tempest

by Joy Meads

This production of The Tempest, the first Shakespeare play Steppenwolf has undertaken in our 33 year history, represents something of a departure for us, and I imagine many of you were surprised to see the title in our season announcement. The idea emerged a little more than a year and a half ago, when the artistic staff first met to discuss a season organized around the concept of the imagination. As we began to brainstorm titles, The Tempest was the first play to be put forward, prefaced by the disclaimer “of course, we’re not likely to produce this…” But the play’s vigorous and multifaceted exploration of the imagination intrigued us all and the idea immediately resonated around the table. Soon enough, Tina Landau signed on to lend her bold, human, expansive theatricality to the project as director, the incomparable Frank Galati agreed to shoulder the formidable role of Prospero, and a number of ensemble members stepped forward to join the cast. (Indeed, I’m thrilled to report that The Tempest features the participation of no fewer than ten ensemble members). As this dynamic group of artists joined ranks, enthusiastic and a little trepidatious, we knew that Steppenwolf could bring immediate, rigorous, imaginatively bold life to Shakespeare’s strange and wonderful tale. And, further, that this timeless work held the capacity to provoke a conversation with urgent contemporary relevance. From that first meeting, our discussion of this season’s theme has been predicated upon the firm conviction that imagination—the capacity of the mind to venture beyond convention and explore the unknown—is of vital consequence today. It is a necessary pre-condition for change, making possible the type of radical metamorphoses that occur throughout The Tempest. I was reminded of this during President Obama’s inaugural address, when he answered a sober catalogue of our current challenges by affirming the power of imagination to transform those ills. He positioned our imaginative capacity as a core element of our national inheritance, listing “curiosity” as a fundamental American value. It’s true, of course: our story consists of waves of immigrants embracing the uncertain promise of an unknown land. Historically, we are an intrepid people, driven by the imaginative possibilities of discovery. Written a mere four years after the founding of Jamestown, The Tempest is animated by this same entrepreneurial spirit, filled with both the wonder and the terror of a “brave new world.” The island, beyond the reach of familiar geography, forces the play’s characters into the imaginative act of encountering the unknown. The violent storm that opens the play demolishes established hierarchies, empowering a sailor to bark orders at a king. The seeming destruction of the ship strips the travelers of the familiar and casts them onto an exotic land. Their surroundings are mysterious, bizarre, unknown, and perhaps unknowable. Such a place lends credence to the strangest fantasies; as Sebastian proclaims, “now I will believe that there are unicorns.” It’s interesting that—as wild and unpredictable as these new surroundings are—the island’s profoundest mysteries seem to be within the hearts of the people upon it. Throughout the play, characters are bewildered by the people they meet, unsure how to categorize them and often reluctant to ascribe them humanity. Again and again, the characters shy away from imaginative exploration of the unknown territory of others’ consciousness. Prospero is perhaps the premiere example of this failure of empathetic imagination. As Duke of Milan, he hid himself away in scholarly isolation—for him, his “library was dukedom large enough”—casting the responsibility for his citizens onto a brother, Antonio, he ill-understood. To Prospero, “rapt in secret studies” and oblivious to the fact that his brother might covet a title to match his responsibility, Antonio’s usurpation was wholly unexpected and utterly incomprehensible, the act of an inhuman monster. Twelve years later, Prospero’s still-fresh anger shudders through his speech, disrupting his syntax and erupting into irritation with the attentive Miranda, a clear signal that he has come no closer to understanding his brother. He views his other betrayer, his erstwhile adoptive son Caliban, as such another malignant enigma: “A devil, a born devil, on whose nature nurture can never stick.” His avowed revenge—“I will plague them all, Even to roaring.”—emanates from the need to control that which he is unable to understand. It is the impulse to burn down the unexplored forest to obliterate its fearful mystery. Ironically, Prospero’s empathetic imagination is unlocked by the inhuman spirit Ariel. Stricken by Ariel’s sympathy for his enemies, he says: “Hast thou, which art but air, a touch, a feeling of their afflictions, and shall not myself, one of their kind, that relish all as sharply passion as they, be kindlier moved than thou art?” Recognizing the shared humanity that connects him to his enemies, Prospero surrenders his isolating power and opens himself to the mystery of others, finally claiming Caliban with the words “this thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.” There’s a contemporary echo of Prospero’s self-righteous rage in our polarized national discourse, as contentious pundits and politicians goad us to view our neighbors as inscrutable others. Against the strengthening threats we face, the false safety of isolation becomes increasingly attractive. In such a time, it is vital that, like Prospero, we once again summon the intrepid courage to venture forth and embrace the unknown. Only then can we unlock the potential for transformation, and, ultimately, for liberation. This is the essence of theater itself: each night a group of strangers is transformed into a fleeting community embarked together on a voyage of discovery. If we’ve done our job, theatre has the capacity to reawaken our empathetic imaginations and strengthen the bonds between us. Prospero appeals to this potential in the play’s final moments, nodding to our recapitulation of his imaginative journey and asking us to recognize ourselves in him: “As you from crimes would pardon'd be, let your indulgence set me free.”