A TALE OF TWO CITIES

JAN VOS'S ARAN AND TITUS (1641)


Review

Ton Hoenselaars en Kristine Steenbergh

 

Aran en Titus, of Wraak en Weerwraak, a montage production by Ivar van Hurk and Het Oranjehotel. Premiere: Groningen, 13 February 1999. Seen at Theater Bellevue, Amsterdam, 26 March 1999.

Director: Ivar van Hurk. Text: Jan Vos and Bret Easton Ellis, adapted by Ivar van Hurk. Literary Advisor: Maaike Bleeker. Sets: Geert van der Velden. Costumes: Lukas Kwant. Lighting: Imeen Rijsdijk.

Richard Gonlag: Man in Restaurant. Mattijn Hartemink: McDermott, Marcus Andronicus, Patrick Bateman, Quiro (son of Thamera). Caroline van Houten: Thamera, Janette, Cindy, Jean. Herman van Keulen: Saturninus, Bassianus, Van Patten. Ad Knippels: Hamlin, Titus Andronicus, Patrick Bateman. Nartan Meerlo: Rozalijn, Evelyn. Romana Vrede: Aran, Patrick Bateman.

For years, Shakespeare used to be more popular on the stage in the Low Countries than his seventeenth-century Dutch contemporaries. Recently, this tradition has started to change somewhat, as playwrights like Gerbrand Adriaensz. Bredero and Joost van den Vondel have come to be performed more often, with a growing preference also for their lesser known work. With the choice of Jan Vos's Aran and Titus [orig. Aran en Titus, of Wraak en Weerwraak (1641)], the Groningen-based theatre company Het Oranjehotel would seem to continue this tendency, though not, one is glad to note, without a generous nod of recognition to Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus.(1) Given this retro-active tendency, however, it would be naive to assume that the trend to roll back the theatrical carpet to the seventeenth century implies a lack of interest in contemporary matters.

    This production of Jan Vos's Aran and Titus is spliced with generous portions of Bret Easton Ellis's novel American Psycho, whose main character Patrick Bateman we find impersonated here by the majority of actors. Hence, the action is located both in ancient Rome, and in a New York setting that is dominated by the fashion- and food-obsessed young and upwardly mobile, whose main concern is with city nightlife and entertainment. In their rapid telephone conversations, these citizens exchange social trivia, frantically reserve or cancel tables at fashionable restaurants in town, and air their rather sadist fantasies. But Ivar van Hurk's New York also has the odd loafer, drifting about drugged on the wrong pills and under the impression that he is a witness to atrocities like rape, mutilation, murder, and cannibalism of the kind that Jan Vos recorded in a classical Roman entourage. Amidst the New York scenes of superficial cosmopolitanism and inner-city vagrancy, the Roman tale of Aran and Titus emerges, doubled by the same six actors who remain in modern garb.

    Somewhat predictably, perhaps, the New York plot, with its individuals and couples slowly converging on the city's restaurants and other nightlife, ultimately coalesces fully with the Roman plot of Aran and Titus in the famous banquet scene where Titus serves up to Thamera [or, Tamora] the corpse of her son in the form of a pudding, and his blood as the accompanying wine. The integration of the two plots here is powerful. It makes credible Thamera's boulimia as well as the stylized and ritual shootout that follows when she is told that the very little that is left of the meal represents "the remains" of her son in more than just the traditional sense of the term.

    The dovetailing of Titus and American Psycho invites a close comparison between the world of Rome and that of New York. Initially, the horror of the American scene overshadows the events of Aran and Titus. The rape of Rozalijn (the Dutch equivalent to Shakespeare's Lavinia) by the sons of Thamera is gruesome, but most of it takes place offstage. Even when Rozalijn returns to the stage with both hands chopped off, and spits out her tongue with generous quantities of blood, this visual image is considerably less disturbing (it is sensitively acted, even), than the extensive reading to which the audience has just been treated from the Bret Easton Ellis novel, with its elaborate description of Christie's corpse being mutilated by serial killer Patrick Bateman. Discretion marks the Roman tale as the blood from the wrists of Rozalijn and Titus pours out in the form of light-blue paint that has a deliberately artificial and even serene appearance. The contrast between the Roman and New York tales is probably never starker than when a dumb Rozalijn attempts to communicate the horrors she has been put through. In Shakespeare, as in Jan Vos's Senecan adaptation of the play, Rozalijn-Lavinia movingly alerts her father to the Ovidian tale of Philomela whose rape was avenged by her sister Procne. In this stage adaptation, the tale from Ovid has been replaced by a revolting section from Easton Ellis. As the two sources for this stage adaptation intersect, the civilized is mixed with the crude, and each mutually reinforces the other. The dignified suffering of Titus and Rozalijn exposes the gratuitous pleasures of Patrick Bateman, and vice versa.

    The discrepancy between the nature of Bateman's acts of horror, and the still dignified suffering of Titus and his family forms the basis of the production as it develops. As the plot progresses, the motiveless malignity of Bateman provides an ever starker contrast to the justified revenge that Titus seeks to execute on Thamera and her sons. The Aran character, at that point acting also the part of Bateman, addresses the audience in a brief but pertinent soliloquy:

My pain is constant and intense, and I do not wish anyone a world that is better. I really want to torment others with my pain. I want no one to escape. But even after acknowledging this -- as after nearly every crime I have committed -- and facing these facts, there is no catharsis. I do not acquire any deeper insights into myself. My story yields no new understanding. This confession is meaningless.

[Orig.: Mijn pijn is constant en hevig en ik hoop ook niet op een betere wereld voor wie dan ook. Eigenlijk wil ik dat mijn pijn anderen teistert. Ik wil dat niemand ontkomt. Maar zelfs na dit te hebben toegegeven -- en dat heb ik, bij zo'n beetje iedere daad die ik heb gepleegd -- en deze waarheden onder ogen te hebben gezien, is er geen catharsis. Ik verwerf geen diepere kennis over mezelf, nieuw begrip kan uit mijn verhaal niet worden afgeleid. Deze bekentenis heeft niets betekend.]

    In the mean time, Titus faces up to his mission as a justified avenger. Like a true professional, he closes in on his unsuspecting victims. He does so not without a quaint sense of delight in his expertise. As Titus prepares for the last supper, his boisterous enjoyment, which may, of course, well be a form of madness, comes to prevail over any serious contemplation of the horrors of revenge. Thus, new affinities are suggested between Titus and Bateman, a degree of identity that does not necessarily reflect favourably on Titus himself, who becomes the emblem of revenge that corrupts.

 

Engraving (1648) of the final scene of Jan Vos,  Aran and Titus

 

    In line with this process of deindividuation, of making the once civilized Titus now resemble Bateman, one may note that what all characters in this production -- with the exception of that disillusioned Aran the Moor -- have in common, is the perhaps somewhat worrisome desire as well as the ability to derive physical satisfaction from inflicting pain, or from suffering it oneself. The last supper, at which both plots of this adapted version of Aran and Titus meet, is to be seen as the culmination of this experience. In a highly stylized manner, following the disgusting interval of Thamera indulging her boulimia, those present at the last supper, in slow succession, shoot one of the other guests. Each subdued shot, discreetly fired from under the table in order to pilot the audience's sense of horror away from the shot in question to an appreciation of its effects, leaves the victims in a serene state of euphoria, an experience each time underscored by a soundtrack playing the well-known taped experiences of people with near-death experiences, as they hover over their own corpse, or move through proverbial tunnels towards the heavenly light at the end.

    The last supper scene in this production of Aran and Titus stresses an apparently universal human need for violence, the longing for a profound form of satisfaction, for some intense mode of illumination, which is really to be experienced only in the process of dying. From this perspective many moments in the play retroactively begin to make sense. Like the fetish in the play with culinary climaxes. Like the obsession with snuff sex. Like the more palatable violence that emerges during phatic, every-day conversation, where the husband tries to get through to his prattling wife first by spitting at her, next by crawling across the dinner table ostentatiously to blow his nose in the hem of her dress, and finally by throwing the lid of a pot at her, which, even when it lands on her head, fails to make her stop talking about the dinner engagements for next week, about who has bought the apartment next door from whom, or who is to be married on Sunday. Violence in this production is generated by a need to penetrate the slick social veneer, the small talk, the norms of civilization that mankind has created to contain his animal urges.

    For reasons that should be obvious, Aran and Titus is a dauntless and raw stage production meant to disturb some, and certainly bound to disgust others. It is successful in this, despite the fact that the director's authority and the actors' skills do not always match the ambition of the original objective. The message of this Aran and Titus is not optimistic. With the interaction of a Renaissance plot and a postmodern one, we are perhaps meant to acknowledge that the world has never looked any different from the way Aran and Titus come to see it. Certainly, the audience are sent home wondering whether Jan Vos's 1641 tragedy, as well as Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus, were more than just regular plays on the popular theme of revenge. Surely, Vos and Shakespeare cashed in on a range of distressing desires and sentiments much like those which some Americans paradoxically claimed they were free from when they wanted Bret Easton Ellis in the electric chair.

1. For a discussion of the historical relationship between Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus and Jan Vos's Aran en Titus, see Willem Braekman, Shakespeare's "Titus Andronicus": Its Relationship to the German Play of 1620 and to Jan Vos's "Aran en Titus" (Ghent, 1969). An authoritative version of the Vos play may be found in Jan Vos Toneelwerken: "Aran en Titus," "Oene," "Medea," edited by W. J. C. Buitendijk, Van Gorcum's Literaire Bibliotheek, 28 (Assen and Amsterdam: Van Gorcum, 1975).

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