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You, Nero

NOV 25, 2011 – JAN 1, 2012

Out of Time

By Ben Verschoor

“Posterity’s overrated.” Shag, Equivocation

They say historical accuracy is vitally important when it comes to drama set in the past. Or is it? Consider Bill Cain’s Equivocation and Amy Freed’s You, Nero, both set centuries ago. The former imagines William “Shag” Shakespeare being commissioned to write a play that will become the official version of the Gunpowder Plot. The latter shows forgotten Roman dramatist Scribonius attempting to influence Emperor Nero through a commissioned play. For their similarities and concern with the past, however, the two plays could not be more divergent in their approach to anachronisms that can puncture their illusions. They demonstrate how our sense of history can be used to tell a story in different ways, to wildly different ends.

By definition, anachronism is the use, in fiction or historical documentation, of words, objects, and concepts that do not exist in a given time. The most common examples involve stories set in a specific moment in the past that include elements invented in a later period of history. Sometimes these can be small and barely noticeable, such as when the 1960s-styled dialogue of AMC’s series Mad Men occasionally lets slip an expression or slang word that would not be coined for a few years more. Other anachronisms can be more jarring, such as the republican Rome of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar including a striking clock, a device invented several centuries later.

The use of anachronisms dates to the beginnings of the Western canon. Greek tragedians of the fifth century B.C. included in their portrayals of the earlier Heroic Age such innovations as writing, coinage, and voting. Nearly 2,000 years later a painting could feature without comment ancient figures surrounded by Renaissance décor. But as the practice of history became more scientific and naturalism came to dominate literature and drama, critics in later centuries came to scorn anachronisms. A certain amount of ahistoricism was acceptable, though, mostly pertaining to characters’ speech and manners, for the author to be able to communicate the past to a contemporary audience.

Postmodernism, which encourages eclecticism in art and literature and has no requirements for realism of content, has since opened the door for deliberate and undisguised anachronism as a storytelling device. Perhaps the best example of this in theater is the widespread practice of setting Shakespeare’s plays in wildly different periods. Mashing up elements of the past and the present, rather than blurring history, could bring the further serve the stated purpose of helping a modern audience connect the two.

“A fell music — from some unknown and awful corner of the universe. Not of our time, not of ROME — an ill whiff of some fallen world — a world … yet to come.” – Scribonius, You, Nero

It is to this more recent line of thinking that You, Nero subscribes, for everything about its conception is devoted to collapsing distinctions between ancient and modern times. Even the play’s title is an inversion: it is a play on the title of the Robert Graves novel I, Claudius, which is styled as an autobiography. The story reveals that its narrator, Claudius, instead of being the imbecile he has always been considered, actually used that reputation to survive the debauched and murderous intrigues of imperial Rome. You, Nero turns the idea inside out, by depicting the writing of a biography that attempts to dissuade its debauched and murderous subject from becoming the monster known to us today.

The referential title is an apt introduction to the play, which cheerfully violates historical accuracy in more ways than even Nero could conceive. The speech of its characters is screamingly contemporary, with modern slang and syntax (“cry me a river,” “break a leg”) and anachronistic punning like “Emperor-sario” and “The Battle of Thermopoly recreated in Amphi-Senssuround.” The world of the play includes Jehovah’s Witnesses and bowler hats, and Nero becomes a rock star of sorts. Though the setting is ancient, its characters are very much of our time.

Notably, Nero’s most infamous misdeed is presented with historical accuracy. Popular understanding says Nero fiddled as Rome burned, but fiddles did not exist until the Middle Ages. Rather, Nero is rumored to have sung “The Capture of Troy” while decked in his lyre-player’s garb. So it goes in the play, though “Diddle dee dee” were probably not among the Trojan ballad’s lyrics!

One might say this is the exception that proves the ruler. The ludicrous anachronisms are, after all, in service of the play’s subject, connecting the depravities of Nero and his society’s entertainment, to our own. Among other unnatural deeds Nero was guilty of castration, incest, and matricide. As his rule went on, he abandoned statecraft for stagecraft, entering lyre competitions and riding chariots in public.

Such wickedness and frivolity made a mockery of Nero’s office, and accordingly the style of You, Nero works to burlesque the stateliness and dignity we associate with ancient Rome. This is done by mashing it up with the supposedly debased customs and content of today. Elevated speech is cast aside in favor of obscenity and slang. Every person in Nero’s inner circle, even the Stoic Seneca, seeks to use Scribonius’ play to have another person assassinated. The Roman citizens, like our own, are hungry not for enriching drama but coarse and vulgar spectacle. The juxtaposition of the old and new therefore suggests that the struggle between virtue and venality is itself a story oft retold.

Equivocation takes a more traditional approach, with far fewer anachronisms and a more seemingly realistic treatment of the time period it depicts. Its goals are very different from those of You, Nero. One is a plot-driven historical thriller; the other a comic Saturnalian riff on its title character’s excesses. The difference in method can be seen in the two plays’ approach to language. Equivocation playwright Bill Cain, like Amy Freed, opts for modern diction and syntax, since an effort to accurately recreate Jacobean speech would have distracted author and audience alike from the play’s story. Yet while characters use terms like “propaganda” and “playwright” that post-date the events of the play by decades and centuries, they do not draw attention to their modernity as You, Nero does with its pun-achronisms. Instead, many of the play’s jokes and dramatic beats rely on a 21st century audience’s knowledge of subsequent history, whether of Shakespeare and his literary reputation, or America’s and England’s use of torture in the ostensible defense of civilization.

Equivocation is traditional in its approach to portraying history, with its comparatively few anachronisms being minute enough that only someone familiar with the Jacobean period would notice. These exist to make the setting more easily understandable to the uninitiated. Shag and his actors, for example, are seen rehearsing King Lear and the new play over several weeks, using full scripts, much like actors do today. In Shakespeare’s time, however, due to the high cost and labor involved in printing, actors may have performed as many as six different plays a week and received handwritten scripts on rolled up paper on which only their characters’ lines and cues were written. Showing this on the stage, already a nonrealistic vehicle for storytelling, may have only confused matters for a 21st century audience. Like the contemporary language, the visual shorthand makes the goings-on intelligible for a lay audience.

Time itself is altered for the sake of economical storytelling. The events of the play take place over a two- or three-week span; in reality, they occurred over several months. Yet time is expanded as well; Sir Robert Cecil lists Thomas Kyd, who was 12 years dead by 1606, among the dramatists he doesn’t want to commission to write about the Gunpowder Plot. Likewise, there is a reference to Shakespeare’s sonnets, which were not published until 1609. This kind of anachronism has great precedent in Shakespeare’s works. For example, Richard III compresses 14 years into its five acts and includes Margaret of Anjou in a scene that takes place a year after her death in 1482. Equivocation sets the play not in any specific date but rather in the Jacobean period as a whole, the better to employ its rich and various elements.

Perhaps the most unusual anachronism in Equivocation is the observation that Thomas Wintour misspelled his name on the signature to his confession. Spelling in Shakespeare’s time had not yet been fully standardized and was famously promiscuous — none of Shakespeare’s extant signatures is alike, nor do any of them follow the spelling in use today. The multiplicity of Shaksperes, Shaxpers, and Shagsperes, then, is in fact the source of the name of the character, Shag, who complains of Wintour’s misspelled signature! Perhaps intended as something of an inside joke, in the context of the scene it works, as it should, to add some dramatic flair. As true with any of the play’s other temporal misdemeanors, it’s in service of the larger purpose. Equivocation is, after all, a historical thriller, not a thrilling history.

Anachronism, long an unremarked feature in art, over time came to suffer critical disparagement but is now recognized as a legitimate artistic and narrative device. You, Nero makes liberal use of it to make the old seem new and vice versa, while Equivocation uses it sparingly, to take the edges off some of the Jacobean period’s messy particulars. Both plays, though varying greatly in their treatment of time and the times, nonetheless share the goal of bringing history to life. When exploring the past, it is at times necessary to reach back to the future.


Ben VershoorBen Vershoor is a graduate from College of Idaho. Since graduation, he worked with Seven Devils Playwrights Conference. Ben has been a literary volunteer for Arena Stage since fall 2010.

Extras & Insights is funded, in part, by a grant from the National Endowment of the Humanities.