Austin Tichenor is the co-Artistic Director of the Reduced Shakespeare Company, an accomplished actor and director, and the author of the book, Pop Up Shakespeare
Mr. Tichenor's a busy man but was generous enough to allow me to interview him about his thoughts on violence in Shakespeare, the relationship between horror and comedy, and more.
I’m wondering if you have any ideas about the continued popularity of his bloodiest works. Certainly, Hamlet and Othello are popular for other reasons as well, but there seem to be an inordinate number of Macbeths and Titus Andronicuses (Andronici?) these days. Has anything changed in the last 400+ years, and, if not, why not?
I may be the wrong guy to ask about this as a little gore goes a long way for me. But I think it all goes back to that old saying — I think Shakespeare said it first, in fact — “if it bleeds, it leads.” In that sense, I’m not sure much has changed in 400 years.
I just saw Hereditary the other night, and it was full of gore (in its late stages). Why do I feel as if I needed that to be part of the story? Should I seek immediate help, or am I normal?
I can’t help you with your need for gore.
I’m sure you’ve heard that Game of Thrones is loosely based on The War of the Roses (Lancaster/Lannister – York/Stark). What’s your take on that? Does Martin succeed, does he transcend his source material (blasphemy!), or does he miss the mark in some way?
One of many reasons I love Game of Thrones is that yes, it was partly inspired by Shakespeare’s history plays, but its success inspired the producers of The Hollow Crown to think that filmed versions of Shakespeare's Henriad and the Wars of the Roses would be popular and successful. And they were right — Richard II in particular is definitive, and the Henry VI plays are greatly (ahem) reduced but they’re a great introduction to the little-produced plays (and fantastic back story to Richard III).
Does violence in Shakespeare and/or Martin somehow enhance the story, or does it get in the way? Could you even do Macbeth or Game of Thrones without the bloodletting?
I’ve never seen Titus onstage (except for our reduced version), but I think the appeal of that play is absolutely about the blood/gore/violence — that’s its point. Macbeth, as you point out, has more going on: I just the saw the Chicago Shakespeare production (co-directed by Penn Jillette’s partner Teller) and it was relatively blood-free, except during Lady M’s mad scene (“out, out, damned spot”) when, in her delirium, the more she rubbed her hands the bloodier she got. It was a fantastic effect (and the actress was terrific: I interviewed her here).
I have my own answer to this, but who do you think is more evil, Iago or Richard III?
Isn’t evil like the word unique in that it can’t be modified? Not sure who’s more or less evil — what I find powerful about them is their seductive and witty charm. Iago seduces Othello but I don’t think we really root for him; on the other hand, we do root for Richard, because his great soliloquies get us on his side. Maybe that makes Richard more evil — he enlists the audience as his allies.
I actually think a) there is such a thing as more evil – compare the man who murders his wife to the man who commits genocide, for example – and b) Iago is “more evil” simply because his motives are less clear, and it’s entirely possible he does what he does for the hell of it. Richard, at least, is playing for the crown, however ruthlessly he does so. (Allan's note: Austin didn't get a chance to respond to this comment -- just me being sneaky.)
So, is this current craving for violence cyclical? Will we eventually swing away from it and into some bizarre neo-Restoration Comedy?
I would love it if we cycled back to Comedy, neo-Restoration or otherwise. It always boggles my mind that comedy isn’t more widely regarded as artful. And whenever we perform our show The Bible: The Complete Word of God (abridged), there are always a few nutters who complain that God shouldn’t be mocked but have zero problems with Mel Gibson’s torture porn in The Passion of the Christ. It’s okay to celebrate the story of Jesus through violence but not laughter? That’s insane.
Here’s something I’m SURE you know about: comedy. Why is comedy in the midst of horror so effective? Think the Porter in Macbeth, or, say, all of Evil Dead II. The last Equity production of Titus Andronicus I saw was very campy and definitely played for laughs in its most gruesome moments. Why does comedy make it better?
You're right! I do have thoughts about this. Horror and comedy are incredibly similar. They both rely on the creation of tension, then the release — whether it’s a laugh or a scream. In horror, the scream is usually followed by a laugh, because we’re acknowledging that we knew it was coming and we fell for it again.
Can anything horrible be made funny? I did stand up for nine years, and I never heard one joke about abortion. And yet I have this feeling we’re going to get there eventually. Is anything too taboo to be joked about?
I don’t think there’s anything you can’t joke about, but, that said, if you’re making jokes about sensitive topics, they better be pretty damn good jokes. When people complain about jokes being made about a recent tragedy, my response is that the joke is not the problem — the problem is the problem. Sometimes a joke gives us power when we feel powerless. (Second City once did a sketch about a creepy guy trying to pick up women at an abortion clinic. Very disturbing, but very funny.)
My favorite combination of comedy and horror is Shaun of the Dead. Perfect combination of comedy, horror, and heart (and yes, also guts and spleen).
Why do I get the feeling that if executions were public, people would still show up to watch, even in 2018?
I think you’re right about executions, but fortunately I don’t think the public would stand for them now. That’s one difference between now and 400 years ago. Though with Trump in office, who the hell knows what’s going to happen.
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