Play: Timon of Athens
Rating: 3 Stars
Timon of Athens is the deepest of deep cuts in the plays of Shakespeare. Some Shakespearean companies make a point of completing the entire cycle of his plays (37 plays in total). This can take decades. The OSF in Ashland has been around for some 80 years or so and I believe that they’ve only completed the cycle four times or so.
When completing the cycle, Timon of Athens is always pretty much the last holdout. At OSF, a play like Hamlet will play nine months out of the year. When they stage Timon of Athens, it’ll be lucky to have a three month run.
I’m not aware that Seattle Shakespeare Theater has any great plans to complete the cycle. A couple of years ago, they did do Titus Andronicus, which is another relative Shakespearean obscurity. I wrote about it in this blog previously. They took a Tarantino-esque spin on it, which actually placed it in a harrowing light. It was a pretty brilliant approach for a relatively small theater to take.
In the nearly thirty years of its existence, the company had never put on Timon before. If you need further evidence, that should again tell you about it’s relative obscurity. Considering the innovative spin that they put on Titus, I was interested in what they’d do with Timon. Not to mention the fact that there are so few opportunities to see Timon live that I thought that I should see it now while I could.
There’s some question regarding its authorship. There’s pretty much an academic consensus that Bill did not write all of it himself. There is evidence that some of it was authored by another playwright named Thomas Middleton. It’s not clear if they collaborated or the play was incomplete and one of them finished it or one of them was serving as a script doctor or whatever.
Let’s start with a couple of words about the play. Timon is a very wealthy Athenian who enjoys nothing more than indulging all of his friends and is a patron to many artists. He spends his money wantonly and ends up deeply in debt. Confidently, he reaches out to his friends in his time of need. His friends, without exception, turn their back on him. Enraged, he quits Athens and lives his remaining days as a misanthropic hermit.
Usually multiple cooks does not improve a play, and it proves true here. The first three acts are actually pretty conventional. The last two acts just kind of fall off the rails a bit. It devolves into a number of semi-random people visiting Timon in his hermit state and Timon railing at them and driving them off. The plot doesn’t really progress. There is a side plot where Alcibiades, another of Timon’s friends, has been exiled from Athens and is now raising an army to conquer it. The Athenian leaders meet with Alcibiades and basically say, can’t we all just get along? Alcibiades says fine and all shake hands. It is then announced that Timon has died (he dies off-stage, ala Cormac McCarthy’s treatment of Llewelyn Moss in No Country for Old Men).
So, really very little plot and resolution in Acts IV and V. It barely qualifies as a tragedy. In Shakespeare’s typical tragedies, the stage is usually littered with dead bodies by the end. Here you have a guy, that by this point is not very sympathetic anyway, dying off stage.
Timon does have some lineage to King Lear and to Titus. In all of the cases, you have a powerful man knocked off his perch and he then becomes mad as a result. In the case of Timon, it seems like tragedy light.
With Titus, his remaining sons are executed or exiled, and in revenge he murders his enemy’s children and serves them to her in a pie. With Lear, you have his actual daughters turn on him and treat him with contempt. He ends up raging mad in a storm blasted heath.
In the case of Timon, his friends treat him poorly and he ends up cranky and living in a cave. It just doesn’t have even close to the same tragic scale as the others.
Having said all of that, the play is not without merit and, if anything, resonates to our modern world.
The whole profligacy of Timon and the way that he has hangers-on that basically exist just to leach off of him reminds me of today’s celebrity society. You have the celebrity who comes out of nothing, becomes insanely rich, and then surround themselves with friends / groupies that serve to build him up but also leads the celebrity to financial ruin. Think about Allen Iverson blowing through an estimate $200 million. Think about the following lyrics from Kanye’s Monster:
All I get is these vampires and blood-suckers
All I see is these niggas I made millionaires
Milling about, spilling they feelings in the air
All I see is these fake fucks with no fangs
Trying to draw blood from my ice-cold veins
Timon’s profligacy is reminiscent of our world. His generosity isn’t really based on altruism as much as on grandiosity. He likes showing off how much money he has. In fact, he shows off by giving away money that he doesn’t have. You can’t say that he was fooled by his advisers. His faithful steward, Flavius, beseeches him to moderate his spending, to no avail. He is the essence of conspicuous consumption. Haven’t we all had that friend that always insists on paying? That is not a mark of generosity but a demonstration of power.
How about a precursor to fears of sexual disease epidemics (be it Herpes, AIDS, or antibiotic resistant gonorrhea)? After Timon exiles himself to his cave, he finds a box of gold. Instead of re-burying it or using it to pay off his debts, he proceeds to give it away for a variety of dubious causes. He gives some of the gold to two ‘harlots’ and makes them promise not to give up their practice but to continue it even more, specifically to spread sexual diseases to as many men in Athens as possible.
On a lighter note, once he exiles himself, he resolves to live only on roots. Is Timon the first practitioner of the Paleo diet?
For the play staging itself, it was fine. From a woman’s point of view, this play is problematic because literally the only two women named in the play are the harlots. This staging rectified that by making Timon and Alcibiades women. The first three acts moved along briskly, but as expected, the fourth and fifth acts went sideways at best.
Without actually dramatically changing the play, this was probably the best outcome that could of have been hoped for.