- homepage link


Maile Okamura and Noah Vinson in Mark Morris's staging of Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet," 2008. Photo: Gene Shiavone

A Note on Death, Modernism and Mark Morris's Staging of Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet
By Martin Harries


Human sacrifices all around! Barbaric delights!

-- Bertolt Brecht, "A Short Organum for the Theatre"

Why are we still so ready for Romeo and Juliet to die?

Simon Morrison, a musicologist, discovers that Prokofiev's first version of his ballet includes a finale in which the lovers survive; Mark Morris now stages the world premiere of this version. And Alistair Macaulay, in the New York Times, surely speaks for many when he rejects this version: "And by giving us -- surprise! -- a happy ending, Mr. Morris clinches how uninterested he is in telling any kind of story." Macaulay writes as if the surprise were no surprise at all but the usual infantile pandering, as if any story in which the lovers do not die is no story at all, and as if it were Morris and not Prokofiev who had contrived this divergence from Shakespearean writ.

Who does not share some scrap of Macaulay's disdain? We have a kind of contemptuous pity for those eighteenth-century fops and their Victorian descendants who could not bear to see Cordelia die; now we can also disdain those modernists who needed to let Romeo and Juliet dance on into some ethereal world after this one.

Even a sketch of this particular modernist tale is complex. (I draw all the following details from Morrison's chronology in the wonderfully detailed program for Bard's Summerscape festival--click link.) Prokofiev writes the first version in consultation with important Soviet collaborators; the new ending reflects a political allegory in which transcendent youth overcomes feudal stagnation. Prokofiev, a follower of Christian Science, is no believer in death anyway. But in the mid 1930s, Soviet commissars begin to crack down on more adventurous music and push for a cult of the classics: by 1938, Prokofiev has completed the familiar tragic ending. Later, in 1941, Prokofiev disowns the first version: "The reasons for this bit of barbarism were purely choreographic: living people can dance, the dying cannot." But maybe the barbarism lies in this disowning of the happy ending?

Arrests of members of Prokofiev's circle punctuate Morrison's chronology like obituaries. It should give us pause when we find ourselves endorsing the Soviet enforcers of aesthetic correctness. There is also no promise that simply to reverse the judgment of the commissars will be satisfactory. The situation was complex; it remains complex.

Mark Morris and Simon Morrison. Photo: Joanne SavioDoes the final dance in Morris' ballet work? Responses will inevitably vary as the production tours to several cities over the coming year. I would say that it almost worked, and might well work as the dance develops in time. Unlike Macaulay, I felt that Morris had succeeded in choreographing the romance between the lovers in earlier scenes (Maile Okamura and Noah Vinson, the Sunday I saw the work). This Romeo and Juliet abandon themselves to each other, and shut Verona out. Is it so terrible that Verona does not kill them for it?

Whether freak or revelation, Morrison unearthed something fascinating in the career of Prokofiev, and in the reception of Shakespeare. But what I am most concerned to note is how this discovery illuminates one of the sometimes forgotten projects of theatrical modernism. One strand of modernism came not to mourn the death of tragedy, but to bury it, and to celebrate its death. Tragedy seemed inextricable from the old regime; Marxists, in particular, were suspicious of the glamour with which tragedy graced unnecessary suffering. When Brecht criticizes the barbaric entertainments of earlier tragedy, he has in mind its perpetuation of a cult of violence and loss.

True, this rejection of tragedy can also look like the building of Potemkin villages to defend against finitude. It also contributed to some regrettable plays: Jonathan Kalb aptly reminds me of Vishnevsky's Optimistic Tragedy and other actually existing socialist anti-tragedies that give one a whole new respect for plays in which people die cruelly. The denial of death has provided cover for some unfathomably fatal projects.

I, too, feel more comfortable when Romeo and Juliet die as they should. Nevertheless, it came as a shock, at once delightful and ringed with suspicion, to recall a historical moment when it seemed necessary to imagine that they might not have to die at all. The notion that that moment might live now seems, yes, childish and barbaric, but few understand or can stage such childishness and barbarism better than Morris. I wonder how this happy ending will travel. I wonder whether, in time, it will seem an urgent dance against the lazy celebration of tragedy or, instead, another stratagem in the history of another culture in crisis and in denial about its own complicity in mass death.


©2003-10 All rights reserved. Do not duplicate or distribute in any form without express permission. Hunter Department of Theater . 695 Park Avenue . New York, NY 10065 .