Shakespeare in 2016… does it hold up?

So… in Love? Now that I’ve become, in age, the first half of a set of quotation marks; though perhaps

So… in Love?

Now that I’ve become, in age, the first half of a set of quotation marks; though perhaps you may prefer ‘clickety-click’ if you’re inclined to play bingo. Or, by jingo, if you don’t find that so slick, perhaps I should modify my lingo Franca. No doubt spoken by the lovely Bianca, sister of the lively Katherine from ‘The Taming of the Shrew’. Phew! And now on to the topic at hand: I’m questioning just what does it mean to be “in love”? Prithee, take heed of the business I expand…

We had gone to Mt. Victoria, because Wendy (aka Coco) was engaged to play at the theatre – Mt. Vic Flicks before the feature film, for the long weekend, was due to start. The film? Kiss Me, Kate – in 3D no less! Here, I must confess that I’d never before seen a film in 3D, and I must also confess that I wasn’t aware the technology existed back then in 1953. My God, what an innovation! This is the gloriously silly adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. Now one of the many memorable songs from this production is ‘So in Love’. The song is sung by the two protagonists: Fred and Lilli who also portray Petruchio and Kate in the play within a story; a little convoluted to be sure. In a strange way, the use of 3D seemed to add another layer to the blurring of the stories. However, the two characters (Fred and Lilli) are a formerly married couple who have got together to star in a musical version of The Taming of the Shrew. Interestingly, this song is not performed in a theatre but rather in Fred’s apartment as an audition; which is a departure from the stage production. The relationship between the two characters is reminiscent of the love/hate situation in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, but is nowhere near as toxic. The composer – Cole Porter is on hand to play the piano (how very convenient!), played by an Australian actor, more or less forgotten now, one Ron Randell.

The ‘real’ Cole Porter wrote the music and songs for Kiss Me, Kate and, in his own inimitable style, gave a particular slant on the vexed question of being ‘in love’. Incidentally, Kiss Me, Kate was his most successful musical. It just goes to show you that the battle of the sexes is still endlessly fascinating. Cole Porter, who was married to Linda Lee Thomas – a wealthy heiress eight years his senior, was actually bisexual. He maintained that love ‘of all different kinds’ was possible between consenting adults, be they men or women. Indeed, another song by Porter (though not in KMK), was ‘What is This Thing Called Love?’ This song was considered to be somewhat controversial in its time. These days some wags add a further layer of controversy by simply placing a comma, or the three dots of an ellipsis, after the word ‘called’; thereby altering the thrust of the proposition (pun intended). Interestingly if not ironically, the chord progression of the song forms the basis of several jazz compositions, such as Subconscious-Lee by Lee Konitz and Wham Bam Thank You Ma’am by Charles Mingus. Cole Porter also wrote Love for Sale, which, essentially is a song about prostitution that conspicuously, he considered to be his best song and reflects his attitude to love in its many gendered forms. Indeed, it could be argued that Porter considered love is a many-gendered thing! Excuse the dreadful pun and yes… I’m aware he didn’t write the song, Love is a Many-Splendored Thing. Porter had his concerns about what he perceived were the constraints of marriage.

Yet it would be a bit simplistic to dismiss the Porter’s marriage as being simply one of mutual convenience. Undeniably, it was reciprocally useful for them to marry. For Linda, it brought continuity of social status and a companion who was the exact opposite of her first husband who was abusive. To Cole Porter, it conveyed a veneer of heterosexuality in an age when homosexuality or LGBT was not publicly approved. They were, furthermore, honestly devoted to each other and remained married from 1919, until her death in 1954. They were in fact ‘So in Love’. Apparently, there were physical relations between them that Cole described as ‘adequate’, but also added that the intimacy between them, that he considered to be of far greater importance, was ‘exquisite’. Theirs was a very sophisticated arrangement; quite distinct from the source material that Cole Porter drew from for his inspiration for Kiss Me, Kate.

Scholars argue that the play – The Taming of the Shrew must have been provocative, even in Shakespeare’s day, owing to the fluctuating nature of gender politics; driven no doubt partly by the fact that Elizabeth I was the reigning monarch. Of particular worry to this patriarchal society were ‘shrews’; belligerent wives who struggled or weakened the presumed authority of husbands within marriage. A great number of pamphlets, plays and sermons of the 1500s address related topics. Namely, the taming of shrews or ‘scolds’ by their husbands and their public humiliation in stocks, or by repeatedly dunking them in a river. Let us not forget that Henry VIII (Elizabeth’s father), had his wife Ann Boleyn beheaded for alleged adultery, incest, witchcraft and conspiracy to assassinate the king. Admittedly, parts of this body of literature took a very diplomatic approach toward women, but much of it was patronising and downright misogynistic.

Moreover, within some of these works, it is a challenge to separate between behaviour that is presented as an ideal or being parodied. This indistinctness is found in abundance in The Taming of the Shrew and in Kiss Me Kate, which manages to parody chauvinistic activity whilst at the same time endorsing its alleged societal validity. Both interpretations revel in the quick wit and feistiness of its heroine (Kate) even while approving her humiliation. Witness that (in KMK), Petruchio/Fred spanks Kate/Lilli repeatedly. Even in this filmed version, Howard Keel spanks Kathryn Grayson and this scene has been retained, which, some might now consider controversial; rather a confronting sight in 3D. This is nothing of course. It is lightyears away in comparison to the hard-core porn freely available these days on the Internet. No singing, but plenty of moaning! Here the line between sexual activity and actual violence (simulated or not), has been blurred. They might be in… but it is anything, but… love! To quote yet another Cole Porter song: Anything Goes!

Yet much of Porter’s more provocative lyrics from the staged production of Kiss Me, Kate were expunged. Doubtless, to avoid the dreary wrath of the film censor, thereby blunting the comedy and making the results somewhat insipid. Significantly, Kate’s famous speech at the conclusion of The Taming of the Shrew has been retained. Was this purely a device to appease the sensitivities of the audience from 1953, with its patriarchal values still firmly in place? Everyone wanted a musical to have a ‘happy ending’ and Cabaret the movie, which doesn’t maintain that tired cliché, didn’t come along until 1972. Consequently, the two protagonists are still ‘So in Love’! But are they really?

We removed our 3D glasses, I said with tongue in cheek, ‘Well Madam, have you learnt well this film’s missive? Wives should be meek, not dismissive of their husband’s wishes – Kiss Me, Coco!’ She replied, ‘Aye my Lord and when I am bored with thee, I will take the greatest glee in telling thee… Get thee hence to a taxidermist! You arrogant so and so! A kick instead for your inflated ego!’

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