Friday, September 24, 2010

Myth and the Profane in "Kiss Me Kate"

(This post is a response to THIS prompt from my English professor, Robert Lopez. We were discussing "myth" and ideology in musicals.)

Cole Porter’s 1953 MGM musical “Kiss Me, Kate” is ostensibly a movie about a theater company putting on a play. The movie employs the classic play within a play conceit and features a cast of philandering, vengeful actors and a musical adaption of Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew”. The show is also replete with bright, beautiful, and often quite funny, musical numbers, including one of Bob Fosse’s first efforts as choreographer. Superficially, this musical is about the theater, celebrating and satirizing its people and culture. However, the show is really about relationships, about our culture’s mythology of courtship, perfect love, and marriage.

The main characters of the musical are Lilli Vanessi and her ex husband Frederic Graham, who play Katherine and Petruchio in the play within the play. Graham presents the typical macho, womanizing alpha male, while Lilli is, like Katherine, a bit of a virago. Their characters play on classic tropes, and so their relationship, and its ultimate rekindling into love, is a performance of our cultural myth of passionate, hate-tinged lust/love and jealousy. The secondary romance, between Lois Lane (Bianca) and Bill Calhoun (Lucentio) plays on this same mythology, particularly the passion and jealousy. In both relationships, the respective partners are unfaithful to one another: Lilli is engaged to another man, Graham is courting Lois. Lois is a bit of a floozy, available to the highest bidder, and Bill has a gambling problem, which he tries to conceal from Lois. These relationships normalize jealousy and suspicion within romantic relationships, and are built upon our unquestioning acceptance of this interpersonal mythology. Clearly, in some ways, this musical espouses conventional mythology, but it is also interesting to note the ways in which those myths are challenged. Although the show does adhere, ultimately, to the standard monogamous, happily married myth of heterosexual intercourse, it also challenges this mythology. The musical plays with and picks at the myths of marriage vows and fidelity, in the cheerful, unchecked glee with which Lois, and to some extent, Graham, pursue their flirtations. In fact, two of the cheeriest, bounciest (literally) numbers in the show are “Why Can’t You Behave”, and “Always True to You”, both songs about Lois’ cheating and Bill’s gambling. The lovers lament their infidelities in the songs, but with a kind of winking good humor which renders the very idea of fidelity, and the expectation of that fidelity, ridiculous. In a way, the musical is poking fun at the very myths it ultimately espouses.

Another interesting element of this musical is its treatment of sacred space, the theater and its surrounding culture. This show gleefully violates the sanctity of the stage and dressing room. Lilli’s maid is constantly trying to defend Lilli’s dressing room from the violation of Graham’s presence and activity, trying to preserve the sacred pre-show routine Lilli usually performs in that space. The dressing room is an actor’s personal sacred site in this movie, and the way that sacred space is repeatedly violated, first by Graham, then by mobsters, and then a clueless Texan fiancé, ultimately defiles a space once sacred for Lilli. But the largest violation of theater’s sacred spaces occurs on stage. Conventionally, the theater is a space with much proscribed behavior, both for audience and actors. While silence, stillness, and attention is expected of the audience, in their regimented, dark seats, the actors themselves are no less constrained in their behavior in this space. Although actors are free to speak and move in this space, their every move is choreographed here, blocked and scripted. Their personal lives are expected to remain behind the curtain, only their characters and scripts to be performed on the sacred stage space. This space is violated repeatedly within the musical. Lilli ad-libs, throwing flowers at Graham while onstage, flowers she has mistaken as a love token from him to herself, which in reality were intended for Lois. Her personal rage is exorcised on stage, violating the illusion of the play. Later, mobsters are dragged onstage, disrupting the play yet again, and both Graham and Lilli ad-lib wildly as the play progresses. The stage becomes common, a performance space for personal grievances, rather than narrative. Interestingly, although the stage’s sacredness is violated, the audience is never breached in the movie, so while the performance space is violated, the spectator spaces are not. This seats a certain inviolable power in the audience, wresting power from the actors and the play and resettling it in the audience.

Another interesting violation present in this play is upon the sacredness of Shakespeare. There is a tendency, even today, to treat Shakespeare as sacrosanct, the highest of high drama and literature, a pinnacle of language. In the song “Brush Up Your Shakespeare”, the two mobsters sing of using Shakespeare’s words as pick-ups and put-downs, reducing the bard to something common, and accessible, through their sometimes vulgar use. Shakespeare is not sacred in this play, and there is much fun to be had in violating his cultural weight.

Ultimately, I think this musical could be reproduced today with little change (although it would be a shame to make this movie without Howard Keel’s voice and Fosse’s early choreography). The themes, and the glee with which the show violates conventions and myth, would fit nicely with our modern cynicism, with just a little more winking self-awareness to help us get past the need to suspend our disbelief. There is a certain expectation, in our modern musicals (Chicago, Moulin Rouge) that the musical will be always vaguely satirical, and a little sarcastic, especially in its silliest, most musical moments. We still want to watch the dancing, but we want to be able to sit back feeling smug and superior while we do it.

(seriously, this guy? Rawr)

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