Theatre from the cracks in the psyche of culture

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SCREAM August 2000

The Tragedy of

Romeo and Juliet

and Youth Suicide

 

 

 

 

 

 

From Plato to Saint Augustine to promoters of fad ideologies of the 20th. Century, there has been a concerted effort to destroy the creative and subversive instincts of children and adolescents. The need for the child to overthrow the parent and assert his/her own will is at odds with the interests of the established society to maintain its privilege and order.

The end result is too often SUICIDE!

With psychologists, councillors, teachers and parents blinded to the obvious, it is interesting to note Shakespeare's observations.

Shakespeare's Tragedy Of Romeo and Juliet is a surprising and well textured study in youth suicide: its causes and sociological dimensions.

This may be a surprise to people used to assessing Shakespeare's works through the eyes of well reserved academia. Too often the play is studied as an isolated collection of characters. "Study" videos and texts will discuss how a character might be played. The Friar, for instance, might be a bungling old fool or a well-meaning and wise man. Such analysis short changes Shakespeare. He has created a cosmos with each part inter-related. The tendency to de-emphasize the suicide is an example of this short coming.

Shakespeare deliberately created very young characters (Juliet is only 13; her mother is only 28). He makes momentous events happen very quickly ... like explosions. The Friar's future also might well be short lived, considering the Prince's suggestion about who will be "punished". Burning at the stake would not be out of the question.

The radical ideologues of the 1960s, while keeping positions of relative power and influence today, might well learn from the dilemmas offered to us by the Friar. Though essentially well meaning, he is like the Merlin and the alchemist: the social engineer playing a kind of god ... a clinical psychologist gone amiss and acting beyond the social contract accorded to his role. He goes back to the old religions with his interest in herbs and natural healing (does this make him "new age"?). His spirituality transcends his functional and religious role. Yet he is directly responsible for the horrendous events that occur.

As a teacher, I wouldn't like to contemplate life after an event like that witnessed in Romeo and Juliet. If the church doesn't burn him, then his conscience will. The Prince succinctly refers to the double suicide as "murder". And he is right. It is a slow and predictable murder.

Are modern parents and others in authority any different from Shakespeare's characters? Are Romeo and Juliet so different? Funny! We often claim the youth of NOW are the same as the youth of THEN: with the same issues confronting them. But when it comes to the adult world, somehow we ignore the obvious and claim some exemption from guilt.

Romeo and Juliet are killed by smug adults doing everything in their power to separate their children from their own humanity. Sex, desire, idealism are easy targets for a fearful society consumed with protecting its unstated values. Rules and social controls are established for creating guilt, submission and fear ... and so the necessary malleability for continued control.

The question of balance between individual desire and fulfillment and social order and constraint is the central focus of the play.

The grotesque adult world and the need for some other beauty: some ethereal dimension to existence as articulated by the young adventurers leads to a picture of inevitable tragedy.

An absurdist view of Shakespeare's play might suggest that the greater tragedy is actually the very thought that survival might depend on submission to, and compliance with, the very gross and trivial balance of violence that separates the two families in the play. The acceptance of tribal loyalties would be a safer option than the allowance of individualism to buck the accepted stereotyped action and path. Romeo and Juliet are not sociologists or social/political radicals. They simply wish to follow a very human instinct. It is their intelligence that causes them to conceal their humanity and adopt a bizarre course of action in isolation.

As culture is often defined in terms of its enemies, be they different religious groups, other historical enemies or any group perceived as the oppressor (eg. "men" by separatist feminists or "blacks" by white supremists in America), the worst thing any member of that culture could do is to cross over. Witness the participants in "mixed marriages" in Australia of not so long ago (if not still today). Witness the words of an old Catholic woman near her moment of death lamenting the shame she had thrust upon her for marrying a non-Catholic Mason in the 1930s. Hear her recognition of betrayal by her family for their ostracism. Witness her self derision for allowing others to make her feel guilt for the actions of her youth. Listen and we might gain a better idea as to how to view the actions of our youth today.

The crabs of culture will tear to death any crab that tries to climb out of the pot to freedom in a cultureless sea. Romeo and Juliet were wise to remember this. However, they were too trusting of the representatives of that culture (the Friar and the Nurse) and were too untrained in the ways of survival to see a better path.

How many young people turn to heroine or other drugs at age 13 or 14? Not a lot. But enough to surprise the most far-sighted crab in the cultural pot. How many seek the road of self destruction rather than accept the cage of cultural control and surveillance?

How many doyons of culture practice denial and assume no responsibility for the destruction of their youth?

Shakespeare recognized the question. In his later years, he could not get away with a play like Romeo and Juliet. The play was subversive then. And it is subversive now. It challenges so much of our precepts about order and social behaviour. The play is not a romance. It isn't simply a fairy tale about "two star crossed lovers". It is a tragedy in every sense of the word.

And long before Freud and Jung, Shakespeare illustrates the model through which respectable and well-to-do young people, who appear to have everything, can extinguish their own lives. Perhaps people shouldn't be offended by what they see. Rather, they might take notes and see how WE are all a party to the destruction and alienation of our youth.

Romeo and Juliet presented by Daramalan Theatre Company on the 10th. 11th. and 12th. of August at The Belconnen Theatre at 8.00pm. and at 2.00pm. on Saturday 12th. August.

Directed and designed by Joe Woodward and with an original music score by Damien Foley, the production utilized live stage performance with a movie version presented concurrently. With influences from Japanese NO Theatre and Butoh, along with some middle eastern dance, the production was universal and highly visual. The SHADOW HOUSE PITS influence will be immediately obvious.


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