Since its earliest performance, which likely featured an adolescent male actor as Ariel, both male and female actors of all ages, races, and sizes have used their bodies and voices to create, or author, new Ariels. Ariel was a "coveted female role" from the eighteenth century until well into the twentieth century, but has been played primarily by men or sometimes boys, with notable exceptions, since the mid-twentieth century (Dymkowski 34). As W. B. Worthen points out, the bodies of these actors themselves become like a text: "drama, in the theatre, is a means of 'textualizing' the body, making the body and its actions-gesture, movement speech-readable in specific ways" (24). Actors re-author characters every time they perform, and these characters are in turn seen by audiences--audiences that include directors and actors within them--whose understanding of a role like Ariel is rewritten with every new performance. Thus, actors create a genealogy for a role which is inherited by each new actor playing that role. Theatre reviewers and critics help preserve the memories of these actors' bodies in performance, turning the bodies back into texts in their reviews and performance histories.
If an audience member had seen every Royal Shakespeare Company production of The Tempest, she would have seen the fit, hyper-masculine and half naked bodies of Alan Badel (1951) and Duncan Bell (1988). (2) She also would have seen the androgynous, feminized Ariels of Ian Holm (1963), Ben Kingsley (1970), and Mark Rylance (1982). There have been plenty of female Ariels, too, including the sexpot version of Ariel, Margaret Leighton in 1952, whose costuming makes her look like a very naughty fairy indeed, but whose spirited resistance to Prospero, despite her femininity, troubled reviewers (Dymkowski 44). The bodies and costuming of each of these actors suggests an Ariel who is fit, agile, quick; the "traditional sprite" to which Benedict refers is clearly either a female, gossamer fairy or the related male, athletic, and Mercurial messenger. It seems that many recent actors have superimposed notions of fairies--who are like spirits--into their writing of a tradition of Ariel as a sprightly spirit who is light on his or her feet. The nearly-nude bodies of these Ariels seem to read "ayrie spirit" as the human form at its most exposed and vulnerable, as if the best way to represent "spirit" is through exposing the vulnerability of the human flesh, even if Ariel is specifically a non-human spirit trapped in the body of Prospero's servant, or the body of an actor.
Ariel is defined in part by his constant shape-shifting; the role is famously described in stage directions and Prospero's description as a water nymph, as a harpy, and in early modern performance, the actor who played Ariel played the goddess Ceres in the masque? Several productions have underscored the spirit's Protean, slippery nature by casting several actors to play the role. In 1897, William Pod used Mr. H. Herbert to play the "boy" and "Harpy" Ariels, with Miss Dean playing the "sea nymph" (Dymkowski 37). Lee Breuer used eleven actors to play Ariel in a 1981 production for the New York Shakespeare Festival, a woman and two men played the part in a 1989 production in Wagga Wagga Australia directed by Des James, and Ariel was represented by five musicians, two actors, and three mannikens in Silviu Purcarete's 1995 Nottingham Playhouse production. And Peter Greenaway's 1991 film Prospero's Books uses three actors of various ages (a very young boy, an adolescent, and a young man) to play Ariel.
In 1993, the middle-aged, portly Simon Russell Beale took the part of Ariel, playing the character as anything but a nymph or fairy or sexpot, his Mandarin servant's costume foregrounding his status more than his flesh. This Ariel was unsprightly, resentful of Prospero to the point of, famously, spitting in his master's face at the moment he was freed (a detail which was later cut at the behest of angry reviewers and spectators). Beale strolled measuredly across the stage, making audiences wonder why they had always thought Ariel needed to flit and flutter. Beale's Ariel demonstrated the way in which an actor's body can completely rewright the role that generations of actors-influenced by textual and performance traditions--have played with what have become traditional character traits. Simon Russell Beale's surly character was an important moment in the performance history of The Tempest that opened up possibilities for resisting and resiting the traditional spritely Ariel.
Beale's performance also disturbed the traditional hierarchy of actors in The Tempest. Since its earliest performance, the role of Prospero has gone to the company's star actor, and thus productions are frequently remembered according to the Prospero actor (be it, for example, Kean, Kemble, Gielguld, Jacobi, Sim, McKellen). In the fourteen years that have passed since Mendes' Tempest, it has become clear through published reviews and scholarship that the production will be remembered more for Beale's Ariel than for Alec McCowan's all-but-forgotten Prospero. Thus, in Beale's performance, Ariel the servant, Ariel the sidekick, has subverted the Shakespearean text and its performance history, the actor's liberation from submissiveness paralleling the freedom to have autonomous subjectivity, even dominance, that Ariel craves throughout the play. Julian Bleach's 2006-7 Ariel is surely another such moment, as audiences and reviewers frequently have claimed that his performance was more spectacular, more memorable than superstar Patrick Stewart's Prospero. And, as with Beale, Bleach's performance created another character unlike any Ariel previously performed, questioning the agency of the author in creating the roles that actors transform into characters. (4)
Stanton Garner Jr. calls the play script "both a blueprint for performance and a specific discipline of body, stage, and eye" (6). Indeed the text has been traditionally seen as an actor's guide to how to create a role. As one RSC actor, steeped in this tradition, recently quipped, "You can't do anything unless it's in the text. Shakespeare tells us exactly what to do" (Carroll 8 November 2006). But what happens when, as in the case of Ariel, the text is ambiguous, even contradictory? Bert O. States views the "dramatic text," as he calls it, as offering not so much a guide for the actor but "an ideal portrait, an abstraction, that can be made real in a thousand ways" (165). An ideal portrait sounds less disciplining than Garner's blueprint, and yet in the case of an actor playing the "ayrie spirit" Ariel, an actor may wonder if his job is to create a character who is "real," that is, naturalistic, understandable, human, or to create a character who is fundamentally unnatural, incomprehensible, that is, unreal. Ariel is a salient example of an un-real (or A-real) character: actors who play Puck, or one of Macbeth's witches, or even such fantastical but human characters as Tamburlaine or Faustus, face similar challenges.
The First Folio's dramatis personae defines Ariel as an "ayrie sprit" and lists the role not with the men but after Miranda and before the spirit goddesses of the masque. The text gives complete freedom to anyone casting Ariel--the actor may be male or female, young or old, tall or short, beautiful or ugly--it really doesn't say, and performance history attests to this ambiguity. Ariel refers to himself as male in his first entrance, coming to Prospero's "strong bidding task," he offers "Ariel, and all his quality" (emphasis mine), hut this remains the only gendered pronoun used to describe Ariel in the play. Ariel is spirit, not man, and most of his shapes throughout the play are distinctly female, a nymph in 1.2, a harpy in 3.3, and the goddess Ceres in 4.1. As Christine Dymkowksi writes, Ariel's sex is unfixed, making the character a "sexless shape-shifter, an 'it' rather than a 'she' or 'he'" (35). The definition of Ariel as "ayrie spirit," together with the text's frequent insistence on Ariel's non-human state gives the actor his or her first problem: how, with a human body, can an actor signify a non-human? If an actor's first job is to embody the role, to use his or her own body to create a character from the text, how does an actor go about embodying a role that is bodiless? In Shakespeare's last great play, he writes a role whose performance presents an actor with a problem (or another problem) that has been brought up by the increasingly popular staging of masques--that is, Ariel, like the personified virtues and vices in a Jonson masque, is more idea than body.
The ambiguous "spirit" remains the most consistent description of Ariel; Prospero calls him "spirit" thirteen times. The word "spirit" came into the English language in the thirteenth century, taking the Latin spiritus for the Bible's Greek pneuma, and rendering, in Wyclife and later Biblical translations, the word "spirit" (OED). By the early seventeenth century, the word had a variety of related meanings. For Shakespeare, the word frequently means the principle of life, the vital breath, the soul that lives on after death. When the ghost of King Hamlet says to his son, "I am thy father's spirit," he is evoking this sense of the word. For a modern actor, this sense of "spirit" is fairly straightforward; this usage is still in common parlance. For this kind of "spirit," an actor is representing someone who is no longer human, but once was. But in the early seventeenth-century, "spirit" could also mean an immaterial state, as in the earlier Middle English mystical treatise the Cloud of Unknowing, which explains that "the deuil is a spirit & of his owne kynde. He hath no body" (80). Ariel is this kind of spirit; he is, or was once, bodiless. If for King Hamlet "spirit" is a body that is now a ghost, Ariel is a spirit who was once ghostly and is now, on stage, a body.
When the dramatis personae labels Ariel as an ayrie spirit, the adjective "airy" is redundant. (5) The Arabic and Hebrew etymology of the name "Ariel," as "fire-hearth God," a man's name in the Old Testament and an occasional appellation of Jerusalem, are fairly obscure. Clearly, as Coleridge insists, (6) Shakespeare calls his spirit "Ariel," because he is airy; our modern word is "aerial," from the Latin aer. (7) But as with "spirit," the word "ayrie" gives an actor little indication of how to speak or move, as bodies are decidedly not created from air.
Beyond these two words "ayrie" and "spirit," the actor has an entire text which "should" offer a "blueprint," or an "idealized portrait" from which to create the role of Ariel. What does the text of The Tempest tell an actor about Ariel? How is he described by others? What do stage directions, internal and explicit, and Ariel's own words tell us about what he looks like, how he moves, how he acts? Ariel is described most frequently by Prospero, the only character on the stage who ever sees him as Ariel (though Alonso, Sebastian, and Antonio see him disguised as a harpy in 3.3). Prospero calls Ariel "delicate" three times, meaning "delightful, charming." (8) He once calls him "dainty," meaning "valuable, fine," and three times he calls him "fine." He also calls Ariel or his actions "brave," three times, and this word simply means "excellent," more than courageous, as it does for Miranda when she declares she is in a "brave new world" at the end of the play. And he is once called "industrious." All of these adjectives--dainty, delicate, fine, brave, and industrious-merely signal that Ariel is a pleasing servant to his master. "Dainty" and "delicate" have become the most problematic descriptors, as the words' intertwined, more fragile meanings--"dainty" as "of delicate or tender beauty or grace" and "delicate" as "dainty to behold, lovely, graceful, elegant" (OED)--have become, in modern times, the most common definitions of "dainty" and "delicate," though Shakespeare likely was suggesting the words' more neutral meanings. Such misreadings of these descriptors have surely contributed to the "traditional" Ariels, the fairies and sprites of performance history. (9) When he brings up the subject of his liberty to Prospero in 1.2, Ariel is called "moody," and "malignant," negative adjectives suggesting Prospero's displeasure but indicating very little about Ariel himself. He is once called "tricksy," and along with "moody" and "malignant," these words can, but need not, indicate a certain mischievousness; at the very least they indicate that Ariel does have a distinct personality beyond being Prospero's lackey, as George Lamming describes him (101).
Indeed it is telling of the role that Simon Shepherd never mentions Ariel in his chapter on The Tempest in Theatre, Body and Pleasure, where he addresses the way in which, in early modern performance, "The Tempest, in scripting its bodies, speaks its class attitudes without breathing a word" (38). Shepherd's useful suggestion that the text of The Tempest assigns various bodily values to Prospero, Juno, Caliban, Trinculo and Stephano assumes that the text leads the actor and audience to discriminate social strata mirroring Elizabethan ideologies, but excludes mention of Ariel, who perhaps cannot be defined in the terms of the "real" human society of which he is only temporarily a part. Shepherd's notion that class attitudes help an actor define how the body should behave does little for an actor playing Ariel, though later interpretations of Ariel as indentured servant (in Beale's performance, for example) have spoken of class.
Shepherd writes further that the text of a play "organizes what the body does on stage [...] it will always have an effect on the bodies which deliver it" (11). Shepherd's book continually points to the way in which scripts tell an actor how to move, even how to breathe. But for an actor playing Ariel, the relationship between script and body is problematically vague, for the text does not give clear indication of how Ariel moves. Despite frequent depictions of Ariel as a sprightly fairy, this characterization is unfounded in, though not contradicted by, the text. Prospero tells Ariel to "come," to "approach," before Ariel's first entrance, but this tells us nothing about how he comes. When Ariel enters, he reports,
I come to answer thy best pleasure. Be 't to fly, to swim, to dive into the fire, to ride on the curled clouds, to thy strong bidding task Ariel and all his quality (1.2.224-228).
These first words of Ariel's indicate only that he is a versatile mover, and that whatever quality Ariel does possess, he brings it with him wherever he goes. (10) The quick iambic metrics of the line: "to fly, to swim, to dive into the fire" (emphasis mine) are the only indication that Ariel might move with alacrity. In performance, emphasis can change. For example, Julian Bleach subverted the metrics of the line in an almost expressionless monotone that ironically lacked the enthusiasm of a subservient fairy or messenger, demonstrating that poetics need not dictate performance.
An Ariel actor must also sing, and perhaps Ariel's most famous and yet ambiguous trait is his penchant for breaking into song. As with the delivery of Ariel's speeches, a composer and actor's choices for the performance of these songs can subvert or highlight the words of the songs, indicating much about the character's behavior and emotion. The songs vary in form and content, and are in excess of plot, even sometimes contradicting the play's narrative. The songs are more aesthetic than plot-enhancing, pointing to themselves as unstable signifiers which indicate that Ariel's powers to charm and frighten are volatile and untrustworthy. Their function, then, is more charaterological than narratological. His first song, "Come unto these yellow sands," is sung to the recently shipwrecked, isolated Ferdinand who, unable to see Ariel, wonders first, "where should this music be? I'th' air, or th' earth?" (1.2.465). When Ariel goes on to sing that "full fathom five thy father lies," Ferdinand realizes that "this ditty does remember [his] drowned father," adding that the music he hears is "no sound that the earth owes" (1.2.397, 406-8). Not only Ariel's body, but his voice is inhuman, and lying to a frightened boy that his father is at the bottom of the sea can be thought of as "malignant." The music Ariel uses to wake Gonzalo and Alonso, thus saving their lives from Sebastian and Antonio, is described in the stage directions as "solemn," but in this case, the act of singing is rather more benevolent than malignant (2.1.184). While Ariel's first songs are in service of the play, in Ariel's last and most famous song, "Where the bee sucks, there suck I," the nearly-liberated Ariel is finally speaking subjectively of his own desire (5.1.88-94). And yet, the song describes pastoral conventions of lying in a cowslip's bell, living merrily under blossoms. The song is sung in response to Prospero's promise that Ariel "shalt ere long be free" (5.1.87). In this moment of near freedom, Ariel comes close to that which he wants most, and this desire for liberty is that which defines him most. But in this moment, he sings a song filled with vague cliches, implying that he does not understand freedom and must express it in his master's voice.
In the RSC souvenir program for the Rupert Goold production, Jonathan Bate's introductory essay ironically describes Ariel as "the benign spirit," an adjective that the very production for which he produced his piece revised, with critics describing Bleach's Ariel as "vampiric," "reeking of menace," a "mad malevolent goth" (Sam Marlowe 2 March 2007, Nicholas De Jongh March 1, 2007, Christopher Hart August 13, 2006). How did Julian Bleach's performance of Ariel point towards and upset the dialectics of performance suggested by various performance critics, those for example of "body material and representation," "body and Author," or "character and actor," and trouble the notion of character as "textual masque"? (Shepherd 35, Worthen 23, Soule 6). (11)
Although the director often plays a crucial role in helping an actor create a character, in the case of Julian Bleach's Ariel, choices of voicing, movement, and costume were the actor's own. Although director Rupert Goold did encourage Bleach to develop an Ariel who was more resentful than subservient, I will be assuming that Bleach had the most agency in his creation of Ariel. Perhaps Goold influenced his production's Ariel the most by giving Bleach the liberty to create his original character. Goold fittingly gave Bleach free agency for developing the liberty-seeking spirit, but it was Bleach and not Goold who authored and authorized this Tempest, or at least its most memorable parts. Though it will be remembered as "Goold's Tempest" in future performance histories like the Cambridge Shakespeare in Production series, Bleach's refiguring of Ariel is more important to performance history than even Goold's re-setting the play in the Arctic, or Patrick Stewart's triumphant return to the RSC stage in the role of Prospero. With his reluctant walk, a metronomic prowl that dictated the pacing of the production's scene changes, and his resonant yet nasal voice that ranged from shrill falsetto to rough baritone, Bleach fully utilized all the tools of an actor's body: posture, movement, gesture, and voice physicalized this Ariel in profoundly memorable ways. Taking Goold's suggestion of a resistant Ariel as a starting point, Bleach's first task was to define an Ariel who was distinct from Caliban. That is, instead of starting with Ariel's textual and performance history, Bleach chose to define Ariel in terms of what Caliban is not--in the actor's words, then, his Ariel was to be "dark and aggressive without being muscular and earthy, more cerebral than Caliban" (Bleach 11 August, 2007).
The audience got its first glimpse of Bleach's Ariel at the end of the shipwreck, when he was gently holding on to the neck of one of the mariners, as if protecting him while sinking his ship (1.1). But Ariel's first sustained appearance emphasized his non-human form. When Patrick Stewart's Prospero beckoned Ariel to "come," Bleach's white head popped out of an on-stage ash can which had been glowing red, presumably heating Prospero's Arctic cell. (12) The red glow flickered dark as Ariel's head appeared out of the can, as if Ariel had perhaps been the flames. Bleach's body remained in the can for his entire conversation with Prospero, so that when he leaned forward, thrusting his head out of the can to shout to Prospero what he demanded--"my liberty!"--the can's entrapment of the actor emphasized how imprisoned he really is, while also emphasizing the way in which his body could be inhumanly decapitated and pulled apart (1.2.245). If Greenaway's conception of Ariel's inhuman shape-shifting was achieved through multiplicity, Bleach's Ariel began with a magical, Beckettian dismemberment.
The long black robe Bleach wore as Ariel (in every scene except the Harpy scene [3.3]) augmented the strange form of his body, always uncomfortably curved at the shoulders. There are many ways in which Bleach's Ariel, as Charles Spencer claims, is "not even human at all" (2 March 2007). Moreover, Bleach renders the question of gender irrelevant. He did not, like Badel in 1951 or Patrick Stewart's Prospero in this production, put the manliness of his body on the stage. He is clearly a man, but not really a man we have ever seen before. The rough black robe looked like something a monk might wear, in Bleach's words, there was "something impoverished about it," indicating, like Beale's servant costume, Ariel's low status in Prospero's world (11 August 2007). But, as robes are also like dresses, the costume was vaguely feminine and as such de-emphasized the actor's masculinity, hiding the shape of his legs and covering his arms. In sharp contrast to Stewart's muscular body and erect torso, bared for the audience's pleasure, Bleach's lanky form was hunched to the point of deformity (1.2). Reminiscent of Shelley's monster, perhaps, he looked as if he did not quite fit in his own body, as if he was always about to hit his head on some invisible door frame. The black robe--constructed of a material similar to the material used to make the production's curtains--made Ariel seem to be almost a floating head, continuing the startling image from 1.2. (13) As Bleach explains, in contrast to the production's fleshy, half-naked Caliban (and, we might add, many Ariels of performance history and Stewart's Prospero), for this cerebral Ariel, "the less body the better" (Bleach 11 August 2007). Emerging from the black robe, Bleach's paled-up face allowed the actor's striking features--his deep set, glinting eyes, his chiseled cheekbones and prominent forehead-to register the anger, fear, frustration, sympathy, and finally relief at the spirit's liberation (figure 1). This Ariel asks of The Tempest, "What is it to be human, and is being human such a desired state? And to what extent is that vague concept we call 'other' problematically equated with non-humanness in our world?"
Bleach took Ariel's ambiguous songs and, with the help of composer Adam Cork, used his voice to create another site of otherness, a site which worked with his body to create an Ariel whose weirdness was his lure--his songs did indeed "give delight and hurt not" (3.3.134). Bleach's voice ranged from deep, abrasive bass notes to a sharp falsetto in each of his songs, which were delivered with an unabashed-ness that Bleach's Ariel did not have when he was with Prospero, when his voice was restrained, even confined to its lower register. When Bleach sang, one got the sense that she was seeing and hearing what Suzan-Lori Parks might call Ariel in his "pure true simple state." (14) This is particularly the case when Bleach sang "Where the bee sucks" with manic energy and erratic vocal modulations. He sang this final song instead of, not in addition to, fulfilling Prospero's final order to fetch "the hat and rapier in my cell" (5.1.43). In body and voice, Bleach's Ariel is not masculine, not feminine, it is other, inhabiting that category of gender difference with which society is least comfortable.
Bleach's Ariel thus does real work to break down one of the play's central dialectics, that of human versus other. Resolving this dialectic is central to an actor's problem of playing Ariel, that its non-humanness is always embodied in human form. There were moments in Bleach's performance which emphasized the humanity of Ariel, moments in which the humanness the actor, Julian Bleach, pierced through and reminded us that it is Ariel, not Prospero, who has the humanity to be compassionate, even if he is not human. Bleach's eyes were able to express Ariel's very human emotions--his desire for freedom, his frustration, his joy-in a way that reads as these emotions, but yet somehow is rendered as difference. Bleach's Ariel clearly does feel. When he suggested to Stewart's Prospero that if he beheld his hated brother and the other lords in their current state of shipwrecked panic (Ariel emphasizes that they, like himself, are "prisoners"), his "affections would become tender," Stewart's question, "dost thou think so, spirit?," was callously delivered. Bleach's response paused at the appropriate moment: "Mine would, sir, were I ... human," to which Stewart paused for a full six or seven seconds before realizing that his "shall," too: the slave has taught his master something about what and how those who he felt were incapable of feeling do, indeed, feel (5.1.9, 18-20). Bleach's Ariel--monster, death-man, slave, androgyne--is so different it frightens, and the audience senses, or I sense at least, what freedom means to those our society mistakenly thinks of as subhuman.
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Bleach's most memorable and defining movement choice was his calculated and hesitant walk, a walk one might find in a Mnouchkine production. He remained hunched, his white head thrust forward into a different plane from his curved body in the long black robe. The walk was at once graceful and awkward, delicate and gawky. When he descended the set's stage-center glacier, Bleach daintily (in our modern sense of the word) lifted his long cloak with his pale fingers, so as not to trip. When he walked off the stage as if to carry out one of Prospero's many orders, this deliberate but hesitant way of walking suggested that he was reluctant to do the tasks Prospero required of him. Thus in posture and movement, Bleach's body wrote an Ariel who was doubly resentful; he is at once a spirit resentful of being embodied in human form, and also resentful of being forced into servitude.
Instead of taking "ayrie" as a textual clue (or red herring), Bleach developed Ariel's movement by thinking about the slow, deliberate energy of a monk, and perhaps by also recalling the measured steadiness of Max Schreck in Nosferatu. (15) Part of Ariel's originality in Bleach's body can thus be owed to the fact that Bleach turned towards non-Shakespearean source material to create a role that is distinctly other: other in both its non-humanness, and its non-traditional-Shakespearean-ness. Just as Antony Sher found inspiration for his embodiment of Lear's Fool by watching the chimpanzees at London Zoo, Bleach's research for Ariel demonstrates the economy W.B. Worthen describes when an actor contemplates "himself in the other, and the other in himself," finally "exclud[ing] Shakespeare altogether" (24). So Bleach demonstrates that an actor's creation of a role moves beyond the dialectics of character and actor, or of body and author, to include extra-textual authorities for embodiment. The freedom to break such dialectics is, I would argue, particularly encouraged (by Shakespeare?) for an actor creating an Ariel.
Movement and vocal delivery were particularly poignant when Prospero told Ariel to gather the masque players together "with a twink" (the wink of an eye), and Ariel responded that he would do so:
Before you can say 'come' and 'go,' And breathe twice and cry 'so, so,' Each one tripping on his toe, Will be here with mop and mow. Do you love me master? No? (4.1.44-48).
An actor might be tempted to read the short rhyming lines in a quick, joking, lighthearted way, a spirit giddy with excitement about his soon-tobe-had freedom. Bleach's Ariel demonstrated that the sing-song rhymes indicate more impatience than happiness; he is forcing himself to please Prospero. Bleach delivered the lines slowly and deeply, freezing his body into his characteristically stooped form and staring down Prospero in a poignant pause between, "Do you love me master?" and "No?" Ariel, the enslaved, still craves his master's love, even if he knows that any claim Prospero may have to loving him is a narcissistic love for the agent of his desire. Despite of, or perhaps because of, his bondage, there is still desire for approval, for vindication. But this desire is futile, as was shown in Stewart's Prospero's canned, hollow reply to Ariel's question: "dearly, my delicate Ariel" (4.1.49). Bleach slowly slinked off the stage--clearly the competent, still-bound-to-his-master servant had already prepared the masque (an anthropological marriage ritual in this production) and had no need to rush.
This Ariel's reluctance to serve Prospero was also rendered as a reluctance to perform--even, perhaps, to act. Bleach's most terrifying performance moment was surely his harpy, who popped out of the innards--in fact was the innards--of the seal brought on by the goddesses to feed the lords. Bleach over-dramatized the Harpy speech, drawing out his vowels to turn words into screams: "I have made you maaaaad" (3.3.58, emphasis mine). His usually restrained, deep monotone was replaced by a voice that sounded like an actor trying to overact upon demand, but did not seem to come from within his character as his songs did. His over-stated gestures--flailing his bone-wings out to terrify the lords even more--reminded the audience that he is being forced to do this terrifying thing by his master, the great stage director Prospero, who compliments his actor in the proper terms: "bravely the figure of the Harpy has thou performed, my Ariel," he says (3.3.83, emphasis mine).
Thus, with his depiction of enslavement as othered, as resistant, as still craving love, and as a forced performance, Bleach's performance took the breath away from not only the star actor Prospero, but also from John Light's Caliban. Reaching its acmes, perhaps, in Jonathan Miller's 1988 Old Vic Tempest with Trinidadian actor Rudolph Walker playing Caliban, and in Alden and Virginia Mason Vaughan's 1991 monograph Shakespeare's Caliban: A Cultural History, post-colonial readings of Caliban in the Tempest have all but dominated (conquered?) interpretations on stage and in scholarship of the Tempest in the last few decades of the twentieth century. In this production, Bleach's Ariel carries the bulk of the emotional weight of servitude, despite the repeated but hackneyed visual picture of Light's Caliban dragging a sled of wood around the stage. While he was not, like so many of the play's characters, bound up physically in ropes (Caliban, Ferdinand, and Sebastian were all roped up at some point in the production), Bleach's performance reflects, magnifies, and distorts post-colonial understanding of what colonial Prospero does to the natives of his island.
But ultimately, this production was more interested in that crucial relationship between Ariel and Prospero than in comparing Bleach's Ariel with Light's Caliban, and Bleach's performance sheds light on the way in which the relationship between Prospero and Ariel functions within the play, and how this relationship intriguingly parallels the real-life relationship between star actor Prospero and supporting actor Ariel--even, perhaps, the relationship between Shakespeare himself and his characters, and actors.
Liberty, Prospero tells Ariel, is "the air of freedom." And actors, as Prospero foretold, "are all spirits" (4.1.265, 4.1.149). Thus, the very words repeatedly used to describe Ariel are words that the play associates with "free" and "actor." In the sense that some critics see Prospero as a representation of Shakespeare at the end of his theatrical career, we can see that Prospero grants to Ariel a liberty that resembles the liberty that Shakespeare the playwright is giving to the actor playing Ariel. Where critics have often pointed to the idea that Ariel represents imagination, Prospero/Shakespeare's ethereal self set against his earthly, bodily self represented by Caliban, I see Ariel as more specifically representing an actor's imagination, and moreover an actor's liberated imagination, his ability to define a character for him or herself through physical choices.
Bleach's performance of Ariel reminds audiences of the fact that Ariel is an actor who is repeatedly called upon to perform various actions and texts for his director, for prospero. A character who is an actor, Ariel is a crucial meta-theatrical site which breaks down such dialectics. To do so, an Ariel actor need not lust perform the meta-theatrical aspects of his character given in Shakespeare's text. Rather, as Bleach did, an actor playing Ariel perhaps does the most justice to the part when he takes the liberty granted to him by the role's ambiguities and creates a character inspired by images and texts beyond the play and the play's performance history. Most acting theory assumes mimesis-an actor using the text's clues to create a performance that serves the text by coming as close as possible to mimicking that written role with his body--as the primary function of an actor. Bleach's Ariel demonstrates what Soule calls the "basic non-mimetic function of the actor [...] to enact her/his own presence and skills in interplay with the audience" (3). A performance which calls attention to itself as the creation of a skilled actor, inviting audiences and critics to reflect on its constructed-ness and reauthorization, is apt for such a meta-theatrical reverie as The Tempest. Re-viewers are invited to ponder the way a body trumps language to create new meanings which exceed Shakespeare's text without contradicting it.
Fittingly, Shakespeare's text allows an actor playing Ariel to create his moment of liberation himself. When Prospero finally frees him, the text gives Ariel no lines and no stage directions. In the RSC production, everyone had left the stage save Prospero and Ariel, a choice not suggested by the First Folio, and one which highlighted the final confrontation between the enslaver and his slave. Stewart's Prospero sits on a sleigh, down stage left, facing the audience. Bleach's Ariel was upstage of him, standing stone still, stiller than he had ever been, near the ruins of Prospero's cell (figure 2). Prospero was not looking at him; one worried that he would forget to free Ariel this time. Ariel's stillness read like a complete mesmerization, a reminder that Ariel is completely in Prospero's control, and this is the moment he has craved since that control began. Prospero has received what he wants from Ariel, and has no more use for him: the moment feels like final business, delivered as an order: "my Ariel, chick, that is thy charge. Then to the elements be free, and fare thou well" (5.1.317-19). Bleach's face pinched up, his head thrust forward even more, and then he broke the silence after Prospero's line with a sob, that indescribable sob of relief after horrible anxiety which everyone has heard. Ariel stiffened again: "After great pain-a formal feeling comes." (16) And as he walked off the stage towards Prospero's abandoned cell, audiences heard and saw an explosion as the cell seemed to catch on fire, as though to match Ariel's release from the confines of that awkward body Prospero forced him to inhabit.
[FIGURE 2 OMITTED]
And so it was that Bleach owned the play's final moments, the moments usually belonging to the star actor, to Prospero and his final speech, "Now our charms are all o'erthrown" (Epilogue.1). Indeed, Bleach "o'erthrew" Stewart's moment. When Stewart delivered Prospero's final speech, the speech in which he implores the audience for his liberty, he slowed the metrics down, enjambing the lines to the point of distortion. Stewart's Prospero was, it seemed, playing Ariel, or playing Bleach's Ariel at least: the star actor taking cues from his supporting cast member, the commanding director-sorcerer taking cues from his actor-spirit.
Julian Bleach's performance of Ariel is a site for understanding the ways in which this textually ambiguous, wide-open, liberated role pushes hard on questions of who creates meaning in theatre, inviting an actor's body to exceed the disciplines of the text. The role of Ariel is not a special case, of course, as all roles are liberated to some extent, open to each new actor's interpretation. Bleach's particular contribution to an understanding of The Tempest in performance is to call attention to the way in which a body on stage can both suggest the tried and true binaries of male and female, frightening and fearful, black and white, living and dead, enslaved and liberated, and break away from them, embodying the more uncomfortable realm which is none of these things. And, finally, Bleach's Ariel questions, perhaps, the structures of the Royal Shakespeare Company itself, and the relationships it enacts and contains: relationships to and between Shakespeare himself, texts, directors, and actors, relationships defined by varying degrees of bondage and liberty.
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KATHERINE STEELE BROKAW
University of Michigan
(1) Or, as Barbara Hodgdon asks, "how does 'character' get resited in relation to the body of a specific actor, inviting spectators to engage in a negotiation between actor and character?" (207).
(2) Photographs of these productions can be found on the RSC picture archive: http://www.rsc.org.uk/searcharchives/search/text?text=tempest
(3) After the masque, Ariel tells Prospero that he "presented Ceres" (4.1.167). Stephen Orgel and Andrew Gurr have both explained the "sheer theatrical economy" of Shakespeare using his singer/actor Ariel in the masque (Orgel 182).
(4) Despite audiences' and reviewers' potential knowledge of performance history, Julian Bleach was not only unaware of Beale's 1993 Ariel, but also chose to all but ignore performance history in his creation of character (Bleach 13 November 2006).
(5) While the First Folio's dramatis personae has been available to later generations of actors, Jacobean actors, rehearsing only with sides that printed their role's cues and lines, would not have had this piece of evidence for character development.
(6) "Ariel has in every thing the airy tint which gives the name" (97).
(7) The OED cites Shakespeare's Othello as the first recorded use of the word "aerial," to mean, "produced in the air." When Montano describes another tempest-that which destroys a Turkish fleet-he explains that he can no longer distinguish between sea and sky: "even till we make the main and th'aerial blue/an indistinct regard" (2.2.43-44).
(8) These are the definitions that would have been most commonly used in the early seventeenth century, as listed in the OLD.
(9) Indeed fellow actors, thinking that "dainty" and "delicate" mean our more graceful modern definitions, teased Julian Bleach for his un-dainty Ariel, suggesting that he ignored the words in his creation of his heavily menacing character.
(10) In rehearsal, Rupert Goold suggested to Julian Bleach that Ariel's "quality" refers to his minions (in this production, they were called "goddesses" and there were three of them), and that these helper spirits are also referred to in Ariel's harpy speech: "I and my fellows/are ministers of Fate (3.3.78-9, Bleach 11 August 2007).
(11) Lesley Wade Soule writes of the way in which character is a "textual mask," constructed by the ideological authority of language, whereas the actor is a "fluid and charismatic presence" who is acting out "his/her own performative functions with [the audience] through the text, as well as behind and beside it" (6).
(12) The appearance of Ariel out of the ash can was a feature of the Stratford-up-Avon and London productions, but was not staged this way in Ann Arbor, MI, due to a lack of trap doors in the necessary places on the Power Center stage.
(13) In an earlier conception of the production design, the filmed snow that was projected onto the set's curtains at the scene changes was also to be projected onto Ariel's black robe (Bleach 28 July 2007).
(14) A definition of an actor in a "spell." Suzan-Lori Parks, Venus, (ix).
(15) Several (nearly all) critics suggested that Bleach's walk recalled German Expressionist films like Nosferatu and Dr. Caligari. Although Bleach himself denies using these films as a direct source, one might infer that his knowledge of the films informed-unconsciously perhaps--his movement choices.
(16) Words that begin an Emily Dickinson poem.
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|Title Annotation:||fictional character from William Shakespeare's play The Tempest|
|Author:||Brokaw, Katherine Steele|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2008|
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