Monday, October 4, 2010

Merrily Machiavellian


This week I decided to wax a little dramaturgical, for no other reason but that I am a dork and love to trace the common threads between theatrical works we consider modern or contemporary and those of ages past. I find these classic themes fascinating. There is a reason that pieces like "How To Succeed" endure in the popular repertoire; of course Frank Loesser's witty and timeless score has much to do with it, as does Abe Burrows' well crafted book. But additionally, the story of the rise of the young opportunist J. Pierrepont Finch draws on classic themes that are a part of western cultural consciousness and it's fun to draw those connections.

As you probably know, the musical was adapted from a sharp, satiric best seller by Shepherd Mead of the same title, with the subtitle "The Dastard's Guide To Fame and Fortune." The dictionary defines a dastard as a 'mean, sneaking coward.' While we might disagree with this as a description of young Finch, our hero is a manipulator, a sneak, and will do just about anything not only to get ahead, but to save his own skin. Shepherd Mead drew upon his own experiences at an advertising firm, where he rose from mailroom clerk to vice president, and his witty observations of the corporate world were the basis of his comic 'self help' book, but the book itself didn't have a plot line or a main character. It was Abe Burrows and his collaborators on the book who created Finch and his story, drawing, in my view, upon the classic archetype of the Machiavel.

Machiavelli, the Renaissance philosopher who many consider the father of modern political science, laid out in his treatise The Prince, his proposed guidelines for achieving and maintaining power, mainly through cunning and manipulation.
The Prince was a very popular book during the English Renaissance, during which it formed the basis for many of the great villains of the plays of the era: Christopher Marlowe's The Jew of Malta (in which a character called Machiavelli actually delivers the prologue), Shakespeare's Richard III, and Ben Jonson's Volpone (The Fox). Moliere's Tartuffe and Don Juan also share similar characteristics; they are deceivers, chameleons who can put on just the right facade to fool those they wish to gull or manipulate. And they get where they want to be by their talent for playing on the weaknesses and vanity of others--it is in their astute, albeit cynical grasp of human nature that they find their power to get what they want. Finch plays on the weaknesses and foibles of those he meets at Worldwide Wickets-- J.B. Biggley's desire for his extramarital 'bit on the side,' Hedy LaRue; Bud Frump's lack of subtlety and desperate need to get ahead; Mr. Gatch's lecherous tendencies; the chairman of the board, Wally Womper's, disdain for elitist, college educated men. This is part of the reason that audiences love these merry villains; we don't want to identify with the Machiavel's victims, since they are so fatuous and so weak-- we want to align ourselves, perhaps despite our values, with the master manipulator, with an ego that can lead someone to climb the ladder of success without any concern for who he tramples on on the way up those rungs.

These Machiavellian heroes are attractive, charming, with steel trap minds and infinite ways of escaping the consequences of their actions. And often, like Finch, they not only get away with their machinations, but they triumph. There is something simultaneously thrilling and deplorable about such triumphs, but it is part of our human nature that we fantasize about getting everything we want without hindrance from others and without consequences. We often look askance at those who are so self centered and driven but we secretly wish we had the cahones to be that way ourselves. Eve Harrington in "All About Eve" is a great example of a feminine Machiavel. She is a great actress in every day life, playing on the weaknesses of those she encounters in the theatrical world, with a sophisticated strategic game plan for becoming the leading lady she so desperately wants to become. Would she have risen to such a success without all that conniving? Clearly, she's a talented actress, but going the usual route of working the way up the ladder is too slow for a single minded vixen like Eve. Shakespeare's Richard III isn't waiting for dust to settle on him either; he'd rather kill off everyone that stands between him and the English throne.
And he tells us through soliloquy at the very start of the play that that is his intention--and by confiding in the audience, he makes us complicit in his plots--part of the guilty pleasure for the spectator. Finch does the same thing in "How To Succeed" but it is in the form of a mischievous grin directed at us, checking in with us to make sure we are appreciating the master manipulations he is concocting. Funnily enough, I see a lot of similarities between the hunchback king and J. Pierrepont Finch. It is interesting to me that one of the hits from our show, recorded by many of our finest singers over the years, "I Believe in You," is actually a love song sung by Finch to Finch in the washroom mirror. The ultimate narcissist sings a stirring love song--to himself. In one of Richard III's many soliloquies he has a line that keeps coming back to me: "I am myself alone." Ultimately, while Finch ends up with Rosemary (she herself a sort of Machiavellian secretary striving to manipulate Finch into marrying her), he really is in love with only one person--himself. And in spite of ourselves--with perhaps a secret wish that we were as ballsy as Finch is--we love him for it.

As of this posting, it is Columbus Day and another crisp, sun drenched fall day in Connecticut. We have been blessed with several such days here, and I am reveling in the fresh breezes, falling leaves, and nights of starry skies and cold air slightly tinged with the smell of woodsmoke. Truly beautiful. Our show is playing to enthusiastic houses, and I am enjoying the many pleasures of working at Goodspeed, including teaching some outreach classes for area high school students, and activities with my comrades in the show. "How To Succeed" will play through the fall and I hope that many will make East Haddam a destination, enjoy the foliage and the many pleasures of autumnal New England and come have a good laugh with our merry Machiavel, Finch, and the gang at World Wide Wickets!

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