Coriolanus in performance


This play, In Hands' production and Howard's acting, was not at all a modern political tract on the 'class war'; it was among other things an exploration of the nature of dramatic illusion, and its uncomfortable place in society. Dictators are maintained in power by mass illusion: so are actors. Audiences need fantasies of an impossible ideal, and want to be included in the process of maintaining them. But such fantasies do not stand still, they enlarge and encroach, and when they become too much of a threat, they have to be banished; when they disappoint by turning human and into problematic reality they are called 'traitor' and killed. Either process, banishment or killing, is a loss, and that loss cannot be lived with. So as that one victim dies, having entered the stage to go to his death in a moment of blazing theatrical glory, we are asked to help to memorialise him, so that he is neither too close nor forgotten - he is enshrined in a 'tragedy', well away from the everyday, but operative in the hidden areas of the mind. In the play's last words,

Yet he shall have a noble memory.


Alan Howard, described to me by many people I met on this tour as the finest actor in Europe today, brought to Coriolanus exceptional powers of physical presence, voice, intelligence, and experience. A man whose presence can be warm and witty and deeply engaging, he can also be subject to powerful rages if he feels that anything at all is in any way liable to interfere with the work of the company in presenting the very best that is possible. Touring, with its perpetual scramble to get on top of local difficulties in time, its constant moving out of any sort of familiar nest, is something very ambivalent for him, for his reception in these weeks in many European cities, after memories of A Midsummer Night's Dream, and Henry 5, was something not far short of delirious. He began this tour justifiably angry about the conditions which modern economics impose on such a company, arguing passionately on behalf of the RSC backstage staff, for example that such miracles as they achieved should not have been expected as a matter of course. (I recall a Paris review of the Peter Brook/Paul Scofield RSC King Lear some years ago, which congratulated the British Government on so fully subsidising so magnificent an achievement, the hideous untruth of which must have caused some teeth to be ground down to the gums.) He was also, like all of the company, tired. In the eighteen months since the production had opened at Stratford, he had also played, during eight of those months, almost without a night off, King Henry in the three Parts of Henry VI, Antony in Peter Brook's production of Antony and Cleopatra, and Rover in John O'Keeffe's Wild Oats. To all his parts he brings two personal qualities - very hard work in preparation, with private research about the part carried further than is common; and one-hundred-per-cent giving while on the stage.

Sitting quiet and apart one day, he developed for me a little of all his understanding of the part of Coriolanus, though he took considerable pains to make me understand that the result of all his feelings and thoughts was in the performance - 'I don't write about it. I act it.' He suggested that the man is a metaphor for Rome. Everyone has an attitude to him. They all want him to be their Coriolanus. Thus, the Citizens would love him if only he would pretend to love them, if he would manage to do his shopping in the same supermarket: Volumnia's attitude is incredible - 'were my son my husband'! Menenius lies about him, is prepared to work away in the background politically, in order to help the Senate - they have messed things up with too many concessions, and now want to put a hard man on the streets, and Menenius has suggested that he is suitable. Virgilia is the only one who keeps her silence. For the rest, he is the battle-ground for all their problems, for the arguments between the Senators and the Citizens, between the Senators and the Tribunes, between his mother and Rome. This understanding, he said, governed the development of the singing of the word 'voices' in scene 13. 'It was an idea of Terry's. I was already emphasising the word. Terry said, 'Give it onomatopoeic resonance, take it further, make it like a street vendor.' So Coriolanus would put himself at their disposal, offer himself as part of the wheeling and dealing that his mother and Menenius have been working on, to make him Consul.' Everyone wants Coriolanus in his own image; he has to embody everyone in the play. 'Look in here,' he says, 'I have this thing inside me, this body politic. I am made up of those elements.' So when he gives up Rome, he is in a real sense giving himself up. Practically, he is rescuing Rome, but in the long term he is destroying himself. So the tragedy of Coriolanus is the tragedy of the whole play. Everyone, Howard felt, had died at the end to a great extent - 'except possibly the Citizens, who curiously have learned something, and thus have got something, possibly, out of it.' The Tribunes are finished. Menenius retires to a small cottage in Essex and grows geraniums. Aufidius struggles with his memoirs. Virgilia and Volumnia are destroyed, living together in an empty house. (Menenius and the two women, however, still have the grandchild.)

Howard was unsentimental about Menenius. Certainly he was not unlike Falstaff, but he related him to the dangerous, not-so-attractive side of that fat knight, who knew that the Prince of Wales was becoming the future King. So Menenius, with all that wit and humour, has an iron fist in his velvet glove - his description of Martius fits himself, 'a bear indeed that lives like a lamb.' Menenius admits to having lied his head off in Rome about Caius Martius. He tells the two Volscian sentries, ' Like to a bowl upon a subtle ground, / I have tumbled past the throw, and in his praise / Have almost stamped the leasing' - the 'book of his good acts' has been 'haply amplified'. Yet to Caius his bark is worse than his bite. On 'Down with that sword' he sees that Caius has a lot of the devil in him, is having a ball, - is in fact at that moment a big baby.


But for all that, Howard insisted that an aspect of Coriolanus is the sheer enjoyment he gets out of physical violence and killing. He enjoys it, and it is real. At the same time - 'all that funny stuff when he comes down from Corioles, about the poor man who used him kindly .... and "then Aufidius was within my view / and wrath o'erwhelmed my pity." Pity? This is a personal thing for him, the discovery of the possibility of this in him. It is one of the first human marks in him we see. He's saying, "I'm not getting weak, am I?" ' It has been said that he is tactless to greet his wife, on his return, with talk of widows and mothers that lack sons. But Howard felt that he was greeting her with what was in his mind, what he has been dealing with. ' Just as the racing-driver's wife must have in mind the possibility ........ oil and fire, glass, heat and speed: the actual thing you've been doing must be the thing that's close to you and frightening to you. It is in fact an added attraction. He doesn't pretend its a bed of roses out there. From just before the play starts, he is beginning to be something else, going out into another world, so on "mothers that lacked sons" I played it off Volumnia.

There are so many fewer opportunities than in other tragedies for personal soliloquy, he noted: few opportunities where he expresses his own problem. This he found especially fascinating because of the use of the 'internal soliloquy' - ' in the middle of the scene he talks to himself ' as at the start of scene 15 or in the market-place. It is all inensely personal, and mysterious. It is as if, he felt, through the play Coriolanus was becoming something that belonged to another world, more, even than a vampire or a superman: something more like an angel of death. He was fascinated by Coriolanus' avoidance of a mid point: ' he conceives himself in some areas to be so mother-dominated, vulnerable but by his standards so much less - babies, beggars, school-boys, virgins, eunuchs. So his notions of being something other and unearthly are tempered by these alternatives, ideas of himself kept within, largely hidden, in order to protect himself from the implications of such an angel of death.

' There is something very macabre and Jacobean about a lot of the play. Coriolanus is so much more than a bully-boy. He is in touch with some other state or sphere, and he seems to have a complete disregard for death. Nobody in this play is killed until the end, and everyone talks about him. Nowhere in this play does somebody die. It is very weird. The war at the opening is a strange nightmare. Cominius, hardheaded and rational, finds that trying to explain this terrible thing that has started to happen blows his mind, as if almost he were describing a Dracula or a Satan. There is a whole area in the play expressing a power above the normal, growing. In that moment with his mother when she asks him to lie down he knows that it is the beginning of the end. The truth is in the things he doesn't say. He simply recognises this end, as it were of the process, the ' inevitable strokes ' that it is ' fond to wail .... As 'tis to laugh.'

The women plead with Coriolanus not to invade Rome

' The recognition that there is Providence in the fall of the sparrow - once that is known, then ..... pouf. At Holds her by the hand silent, he is reconciled to her, takes her to him, makes it happen, but now a line or two later, on "But let it come" he belongs elsewhere.' He pointed out the Shakespearean three words, 'Ripeness is all', 'The readiness is all', 'let it come' with which tragedy moves into another realm; the hero is beyond moral consideration, and moving up into the empyrean: he quoted Christ's, 'Let this cup pass' in Gethsemane.

The play can be so precise, but only Coriolanus seems to know his way round this pervading mystery of 'elsewhere'. In early days of rehearsal, apparently, a good deal of time was spent calculating how fat Antium was from Rome, how long was that exile for which he wanted a kiss of equal length. Howard, now, was convinced that the 'world elsewhere' was the 'city of kites and crows'. ' He goes into the desert - a natural reminiscence, possibly, of meeting Satan as Christ did. Everywhere he goes it's scorched earth, salt, ruined buildings, kites and crows picking off dead bodies. He says, "I did this". He saw that growing element in the play as connected with the uncompromising nature of the man. ' He is always Rome's ultimate deterrent. He always beats the Volscians, always. Now, think what it would have done in 1945 to call an Atom-bomb hero "Mr Hiroshima". What a terrible thing that would be to be branded with the name of the city you have destroyed, and for ever after condemned. Worse, society would think in terms of trying to normalise him by giving standard rewards. A warrior, poet, mathematician, scientist, saint, martyr, any individual that becomes one of those things but is not satisfied is like Isaac Newton saying he had found a "a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, while the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me". Though society says, "You've done it" he has to reply, "I've only just started, I haven't done anything." Society is not interested in that, and is faced with the terrible problem of what to do with the hero who won't take any reward. The normal method of controlling is the Upper Chamber, the Civil List. Supposing that then he - Mr Hiroshima - won't lie down - the world gets worried. That uncompromising state will not do. Here is a candidate for a mental home - or a cross. There is a lot of that in that man under the imagery.'

' The Devil, an Angel of Death made for death, a dragon or a god - where is he between that and "gracious silence, hail"? He doesn't want to get involved in all the rabitting and the chat and the politics: he knows it as a stupid thing - "Don't make me wear that stupid garment" he says. His tiny encounter with First Citizen in that scene ("The price is, to ask it kindly") is a sudden understanding between two rude people for a moment: he is sure of himself. Caius Martius just can't lie. He is one of the few heroes who simply cannot act - quite unlike Hal or Henry 5 or Hamlet.'

Approaching the end, Howard found something very strange about being a beggar-man to go muffled to your worst enemy. Coriolanus, he felt, is by then weary of it all, and he is pretty confident that Aufidius will finish him - not there and then, but sooner or later. His impact on Aufidius' household is equally odd. In scene 12, a Volscian had described him as 'the devil', to which Aufidius had retorted 'Bolder, though not so subtle'. Now in scene 23 there is talk of 'witchcraft' in him, and the Volscian soldiers use him 'the grace'fore meat'. Yet Coriolanus' choice has been right, to go to the mirror of the Roman world. Aufidius is not of course a noble savage, but a hugely subtle and highly proficient politician, whose warrior-qualities are on the wane (a stage incidentally that Coriolanus quite avoids. He is not prepared to compromise his warrior-caste). Aufidius is not winning. Howard said, 'He needs to renew himself, and so - a very primitive thing - will "renew me in his death". By killing Coriolanus he will take on his powers. When they shake hands it is a diabolical moment. Coriolanus knows that in that agreement he will go to his death - but it will be worse for Aufidius. The deal that is done - "stand by me in this cause" - means that the ultimate moment is going to happen. Between two Samurai, honour has been compromised.

Alan Howard with Charles Dance - Aufidius

The way that Coriolanus makes it happen at the end throws Aufidius. Coriolanus ensures that it gets out of hand. The clean stroke is all right, but the treading to death looks ghastly. Coriolanus cries, "Come on, all do it, all do it", and the speech heading on "Kill, kill, kill, kill, kill" is "all Con". Aufidius of course has lied, he has not writ his annals true. Does he perhaps go mad trying to write his history, afterwards?'

Howard said that he used to think the ending of the play, as a comment on love, very pessimistic, as if it were saying that there cannot be pure love, that love does ask for compromise, negotiation, obligations. Coriolanus' mother is trying to pull him, and it seems he dies for those sorts of reason, and Howard found it depressing. Then he realised that Coriolanus dies in a kind of exhilaration, as a creature from a different sphere: as if he had been someone far beyond even the superman, and he has to go back to the strange people he came from. His trip has ended, and he has to return - perhaps to Mars? - leaving the mayhem behind that the others have created. No father is ever mentioned - it is as if his mother bore him alone, almost like the virgin birth of a god: and Coriolanus is attended by three women everywhere, making a sort of pietà.

It is, Howard reiterated, a very dense play indeed. He was disturbed lest anyone should think that in a few hours of talk we had done any sort of justice to the play, or to his thoughts and feelings about it. 'What Terry did sublimely well was to make the play available, make the hundreds of options clear, allow the shift and varieties of opinion in the play to come through.' From the earliest days of working on it, they had all been aware of the movements inside the play, which seemed to be of two kinds. An event happened, or something was said, which coming a moment earlier or a moment later would have fixed a direction, but as it was, it just did not do it.

Similarly, they all found that they would find a firm position to talk about a matter, which would then hold for only about twenty lines. 'The play has been done such a disservice in the past: people have approached it with a mind made up, which is wrong, even though it is invitingly full of concrete images - "stone walls", "one nail" - which describe a fixed world as well - that world of T.S. Eliot's poem.'

' There is something of Coriolanus in every single person: a romantic desire to get on with what I want to do, making possibilities against a gathering beaurocracy, a human instinct for emphasis on the individual's rights, yet still within a society. This is something deeply in the Christian mythology. It would be very interesting to see what would happen if Coriolanus were to be played in a Buddhist society.'

He now found the end equally disconcerting, in that the play was thrown into the laps of the audience, asking 'What are you going to do about it?' 'It is not the ending of Hamlet. It is more the world of Earl Mountbatten's funeral: we are all asked to assist. Everyone has been guilty and not guilty; everyone acting for the right reasons and for the wrong reasons. The people who go wrong in the play, who make the tragedy, are not aware of events perpetually moving: too many people are in a position of stone. What's bleak is that you can't absolutely point the finger at anyone else. We are never let off the hook: everyone in the firing squad has live bullets. Talking to people afterwards, some of the audience, actors, friends, I found that they were left in a very peculiar state of extreme exhilaration and exhaustion, unhappy and hopeful, emotions heavily engaged, trying to work out what was right or wrong.'

Extract from Coriolanus in Europe by David Daniell, page 162-168. Athlone Press, 1980.

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