Director’s Notes

Increasing divisions between socio-economic classes, threats from an unrelenting outside foe, a growing sense of disenfranchisement among the common man, questionable intentions of leaders, and calculated political manipulation of the masses - is it the 2016 campaign season in America, or Shakespeare's Coriolanus? Daily, I am struck by how prescient this political thriller seems and by how brilliant and relevant Shakespeare's examination of the theatre of politics remains to this day. Back in late 2011, I lobbied to include Coriolanus in the 2012 STNJ season after successful explorations of the play with our summer interns and in our Lend Us Your Ears play reading series. For various reasons it did not make it onto the roster that year. Though disappointed then, I could not be more pleased to be delving into this play now, during what is perhaps our nation's most volatile election in living memory. Coriolanus is, without a doubt, Shakespeare's most overtly political play, and I believe it is also one of his most underrated and overlooked works. T.S. Eliot called it Shakespeare's "most assured artistic success." In what could be a simple retelling of the fall of a celebrated Roman hero, Shakespeare provides a fascinating and multi-facetted social and personal lens through which we can examine our own loyalties, politics, and integrity. There are heroes to be sure in Coriolanus, yet they are flawed and righteous and cruel, and their adversaries are, despite their Machiavellian machinations, frequently honorable or loyal or forgiving. Shakespeare does not take sides outright, and we will attempt to avoid doing so in this production as well. Rather, we hope to present the full scope of each faction's point of view and allow them to fight passionately for what they believe is right.

Coriolanus Through Time

Like all of Shakespeare's plays, the social mores and political views of each era have altered greatly the way in which Coriolanus has been presented over the centuries. In the 1930s, a production presented by Comedia-Francaise incited riots when both the Fascists and the Communists saw the production as propaganda for the other side. The Nazis extolled the heroism of the titular character, stating that Coriolanus leads "as Hitler in our days wishes to lead our beloved homeland." Following WWII, the play was banned by occupation forces in Germany until 1953. When the ban was lifted, Bertolt Brecht directed his own adaptation of the play depicting the plebeians and the tribunes as the unquestionable heroes of the play. For much of the latter part of the 20th century, the popularity of Coriolanus waned in the U.S., partially due to the play's depiction of the citizens as fickle, mindless followers - an image at odds with the western ideals of the common man. The play, however, has found a resurgence in the last decade, as Shakespeare's complex hero, often inflammatory rhetoric, and volatile political arena seem to mirror our own times to such an uncanny degree.

Rome at the Rise of the Republic

Plutarch's Lives of Noble Grecians and Romans serves as the primary source for Shakespeare's play, and though Shakespeare frequently takes artistic license, several passages are pulled nearly verbatim from the translation to which Shakespeare would have had access.

Set around 490 BCE, Coriolanus takes place in the early years of the Roman Republic. Just fifteen years prior to the opening action of the play, Rome was ruled by a king. Though Rome had expanded and was considered prosperous under the reign of Lucius Tarquinus Superbus, the King and his son were brutal and cruel to the people. Eventually the nobles (patricians) and the commoners (plebeians) expelled this last king of Rome, and created a new form of government run by the people. A senate (from the Latin senex for "the elder" or "old men") was formed, and two consuls were elected to one-year terms. Consul was the highest office of Rome, and each month the consuls alternated in holding imperium over Rome and its provinces. Though elected by the nobles and the commoners, it was understood that only one of noble blood could be consul. The plebeians quickly saw that this new system was no better for them than life under Tarquin, and they threatened to secede from the infant republic. The patricians eventually gave in, and the plebeians were granted representation through tribunes elected by the people. Not all of the members of the ruling class agreed with this change.

Caius Martius was a decorated war hero and a member of the patrician class of Rome. Following the seize of Corioli (493 BCE), he was given the surname Coriolanus. A few years later a grain shortage struck Rome. When shipments arrived from Sicily, Coriolanus proposed distributing the grain evenly among all the people of Rome, but only if the pro-plebeian government was expelled. For this, the tribunes charged him with treason. Martius was eventually exiled for refusing to appear in court. He allied himself with Aufidius, a leader of the Volscians, and waged war against Rome for several years before the Volscians were defeated.

-Brian B. Crowe