Trauma gravitates towards trauma

This post was originally published in my Secret Diary of PhD Candidate column for The Shakespeare Standard.

My 2012 recreational reading/listening list looks a bit like this:

–       Jane Austen’s Persuasion (audio book read by a wonderful librivox.org volunteer)

–       The Hunger Games (the entire series, twice; first in print and then over audio book)

–       Ernest Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms (also an audio book, extra points because Mad Men’s John Slattery reads it)

–       The Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s Twelfth Night Soundtrack

When I look at the list, I feel the satisfaction of having enjoyed good books and music – a pretty fair way to spend the time that I was recovering from some family trauma of my own.

Today, after a trip to see a previously-recorded version of the Stratford Festival’s 2011 production[1] of Twelfth Night, I realized that now, more than ever before, I had become addicted to trauma narratives. No longer was Twelfth Night the same old story of “girl-dressed-as-boy meets boy, boy loves other girl, but other girl is obsessed with girl-dressed-as-boy.”

Suzy Jane Hunt as Viola (disguised as Cesario) in Stratford's Twelfth Night. Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann.

I mean, think about it this way: Viola of Messaline was on one of those Costa cruise ships with her twin brother, her counterpart, when it hits a storm and the boat capsizes. They each survive, but she lives in grief thinking that Sebastian has been lost to the waves. Viola lands in Illyria, the country against which her country is at war. How convenient – landing in the country of your enemy, a woman, escorted only a moment longer by the captain, who has survived (how are we not surprised?). She begs him to hide her identity so she can live under the protection, and enjoy some of the privileges, of a great house. Smart girl.

But Viola doesn’t pick just anyone to live with – at first she wants to serve Lady Olivia. We can tell by the similarity of names that there will be some similarity of character. Here is what Viola learns about Lady Olivia:

A virtuous maid, the daughter of a count
That died some twelvemonth since, then leaving her
In the protection of his son, her brother,
Who shortly also died: for whose dear love,
They say, she hath abjured the company
And sight of men.

Viola gravitates towards the person who can empathize with her grief – they both carry the burden of fresh wounds, having lost their brothers earlier in the year. Olivia’s father has also recently died and Viola, whose voice is high enough to pass for a eunuch, had experienced the same grief when only a couple of years before, her father had “died that day when Viola from her birth / Had number’d thirteen years.” Trauma on one’s birthday – I’ve been there and don’t recommend it. Before she decides to work as a boy for Orsino, Viola shows how that she had rather be a lady-in-waiting for a woman who “like a cloistress, … will veiled walk / And water once a day her chamber round / With eye-offending brine” – tears.

I could go on. Of course Maria thinks Olivia will order to “hang the fool” – he has abandoned her in her time of grief. Why is this? In this pansexual play, is he, too, grieving over the untimely loss of Olivia’s brother? The Stratford production offers some interesting sexual tension between Olivia and Feste – hath she abjured the sight of this man? She lets Malvolio stick around, and doesn’t even wholeheartedly cast off Sir Andrew. Interesting. Feste proves Olivia the fool by catechizing her into admitting that one mustn’t grieve for those living in luxury in heaven above. Only then can her heart begin to open for a return of our usual programming, throwing herself at the girl Viola, dressed as a boy, Cesario.

Percy Shelley wrote: “If winter comes, can spring be far behind?” and I’d like to think that this production offers that same message of hope.


[1] Hilarious at the Festival itself, the filmed broadcast added dimension to my understanding of Des McAnuff’s production because I got to see the characters’ facial expressions close-up. It was excellent, but the machines playing it kept cutting out. On the bright side we got passes, so I’m going to try to see it in full on the 21st, when it’s playing at 7 pm for an encore presentation.

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