A Shift in Critical Understanding of Life from Sex (The Sin of Heterosexual Transgression) to Social Problems

Adam and Eve recite Shakespeare’s Sonnet

Sonnet 66

Tired with all these, for restful death I cry,
As, to behold desert a beggar born,
And needy nothing trimm’d in jollity,
And purest faith unhappily forsworn,
And guilded honour shamefully misplaced,
And maiden virtue rudely strumpeted,
And right perfection wrongfully disgraced,
And strength by limping sway disabled,
And art made tongue-tied by authority,
And folly doctor-like controlling skill,
And simple truth miscall’d simplicity,
And captive good attending captain ill:
Tired with all these, from these would I be gone,
Save that, to die, I leave my love alone.

All dessen müd, nach Rast im Tod ich schrei.
Ich seh es doch: Verdienst muß betteln gehn
Und reinste Treu am Pranger steht dabei
Und kleine Nullen sich im Aufwind blähn
Und Talmi-Ehre hebt man auf den Thron
Und Tugend wird zur Hure frech gemacht
Und wahre Redlichkeit bedeckt mit Hohn
Und Kraft durch lahme Herrschaft umgebracht
Und Kunst das Maul gestopft vom Apparat
Und Dummheit im Talar Erfahrung checkt
Und schlichte Wahrheit nennt man Einfalt glatt
Und Gutes Schlechtesten die Stiefel leckt.
All dessen müd, möcht ich gestorben sein,
Blieb nicht mein Liebster, wenn ich sterb, allein.

What can theater add to Shakespeare’s sonnet? Can a proof be improved? Can you add anything to poetry, especially to that of Shakespeare who himself never mixed his poetry with his plays (with all the “poetic” qualities of their monologues and dialogues)?

Robert Wilson has done the impossible – he found a way to connect the drama of human bodies to the Shakespearean sonnet 66 by mobilizing his dramaturgic and directorial thinking. He adds the Biblical story of Adam/Eve’s “basic” sin and punishment to the poetic text that doesn’t have any Biblical references. The daring juxtaposition of the Bible and Shakespearean sonnet opens a new semantic space between the two works of art that gives the director a chance to create not only a new work of art – an all-encompassing mini-drama and a moral tragedy, but a new genre where classic allegory, poetic generalization and hypnotic action find a magic unity.

Wilson deploys Shakespeare to prove how outdated the Biblical concept of Adam/Eve’s sexual transgression (allegedly matching the punishment of banishment from the Paradise) is, when the excess of patriarchal power over human nature was represented as godly (idolized) wisdom. By making “historically aged” Adam and Eve remember in front of our eyes their life after expulsion; Wilson reformulates the Biblical idea of our “founding parents’” sin as not connected with human sexual desire at all.

Shakespeare’s sonnet is about social corruption and our sinful behavior as members of human society. It is sharply and unambiguously a “social criticism” delivered with existential passion of moral indignation. Shakespeare talks about fight for power and for a higher place in the social hierarchy as a shamefully ultimate goal of human life. What does all of this have to do with Adam and Eve’s punishment? In Wilson’s representation Shakespeare corrects Adam/Eve’s story as ludicrous and gives us the chance to redefine the basic human sin as not sexual desire but as social fight for power over other people. This radical change invites a different interpretation of god’s motivation to banish our progenitors into social life. It looks like that to punish sexual curiosity god condemns people not only “to work painfully hard” but to become relentless and cruel fighters for superiority in an extremely hierarchical social order – he obviously prefers us to fight than to make love. That’s how we were forced to start a violent human history instead of staying in the Paradise of amorous and sexual freedom.

This Wilson’s exclusion (with the help of sonnet 66) of inter-gender problem from moral interpretation of human life made it necessary for him to re-define human genders – he shows us an aged Adam and Eve who (finally) understood that the basic human sin is not sexual desire at all but the murderous social drive for power. We see the famous (infamous) tree and a seducer – it’s not Eve anymore (it was pure projection on her of men’s misogynous feelings) but an androgynous figure from harlequinade symbolizing human irrational passions for being corrupted. Adam and Eve are equally responsible for their “fall” (although Adam retrospectively looks like the one who was more in charge of seduction).

We see an outworn Adam and Eve remembering their life in terms of Shakespeare’s sonnet. Old Adam is dressed in women’s clothes, old Eve – in men’s. It is as if they thought of the opposite sex for too long and have ended up looking like one another. The reason for this “cross-dressing” is the necessity to break our identification of the “primal” sin with sexual behavior – to open the gate for socio-political interpretation of our basic sinfulness as specie. Simultaneously with Adam/Eve’s gradual understanding that our belonging to human soul is much more important than our genders, wisdom has come to them that sinfulness is not in sexual yearnings, but in yearning for social success by any price. How inadequate the thinking of the old god is – for innocent sexual play he punished us with a corrupt social drive to rival with each other. Of course, it is true – sexual maturing can enhance competition and proclivity to hate and to fight. And here is Robert Wilson’s main point – something is wrong with the traditional idea of sexual maturation into adulthood because this idea fuses love and sex with search for power and possession. Power impregnates love and poisons it with jealousy and hate, and it over-stimulates sexual desire. Our very mutuality becomes corrupt by calculations – on part of nature (reproduction) or society (personal/group enrichment and empowerment).

The juxtaposition of Shakespeare’s sonnet with the Old Testament’s story leads Wilson to correct the early Biblical prejudice against sexual drive (and to show us how to get away from our culture’s fixation on personal relations) in order to help us to get the ability to critically address the conditions of our social life.

*”Shakespeares Sonette” by Robert Wilson and Rufus Wainwright at the Berliner Ensemble, 2009.