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
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
Does 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
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.