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Rosaline and Benvolio (2002)

Jerry Prager
Jerry Prager

Jerry Prager

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Rosaline and Benvolio tells the love story of Romeo's cousin Benvolio and Juliet's cousin Rosaline. Unlike Shakespeare's play, Rosaline and Benvolio's love story unfolds gradually with tempered passion. Firmly grounded in the historical context of the feud between the Ghibellines and the Guelphs, Prager's script explores the animosity between the Montague and Capulet families. Prager makes careful study of Shakespeare's characters, context, and outcome––adding depth to, and commentary on, Romeo and Juliet via his own adaptive work. Ultimately, Rosaline and Benvolio presents an alternative to Shakespeare's tragedy, offering broader historical context, more fully developed characters, and a positive resolution.

Prager describes himself as an historian (Prager Telephone interview), and the attention to historical detail is perhaps his most valuable comment on/adaptation of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. The detailed background notes at the beginning of the script provide the reader with added context for the action of the play. Unlike Shakespeare, however, Prager brings these historical details onto the stage in order to share with the audience the context for the Montague/Capulet feud.

By broadening the scope beyond Verona, Prager dramatizes the political climate of Germany, France, and Italy during the 13th and 14th centuries. One way that he does this is to introduce Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), the author of the epic Divinia Commedia and a politically active literary figure, as a character. Rescued from exile in Italy, Dante is brought to Verona by Mercutio as a guest of Prince Bartolommeo della Scala, Lord of Verona. Dante's story, as told by Prager, explains the larger political unrest, and also introduces an outsider to the story who often provides perspective for the people of Verona. One instance of this is when Romeo meets Dante. Romeo spews praise and offers of service on the poet, to which Dante replies: "[...] never yet having met a man who introduced himself as willing to be worthy of worth I shall strive to make myself fit for you, however ungloved you may have become in the cause of love" (2.7). Through the character of Dante, then, Prager gently comments on Romeo's impulsive nature.

Perhaps the most significant adaptation that Prager makes to Shakespeare's model is the quality of love that he champions. As his dedication states, Prager writes for "all who survive love's harrowing." Unlike Romeo and Juliet , Rosaline and Benvolio outlive the conflicts of the play. In the end, Rosaline reflects (to Benvolio) on the death of their cousins: "They are better dead for such were the entanglements that bound them to one another that they would have drowned if they ever attempted to swim the life they'd chosen" (4.5). Rosaline thus highlights that it was the choices made by Romeo and Juliet that led to their death, rather than a star crossed, ill fated love. In making this distinction, Prager suggests an alternative emotional logic to tragic love. He notes that his characters, “not unlike the river, respond as near as possible to historical events, which is to say their characters flow out of their responses to genuine landscapes and socio-political realities” (Prager “RE: Rosalind and Benvolio). In this way, Prager has created characters “whose personalities flow out of their responses to the choices they made as a consequence of the sequencing of their ideas, so that each have varying degrees of emotional intelligence” (ibid.).

Map of Verona from The Story of Verona by Alethea Jane Lawley Wiel.
Prager's adaptation of Romeo and Juliet resurrects much of the historical basis of Shakespeare's story. As he does with the historical feud between the Ghibellines and the Guelphs and the story of Dante, Prager also grounds his story in the geography of Verona. The river was a central image for Prager in conceiving Rosaline and Benvolio.

As much as Prager presents an alternate model for love and romance, the script respects Shakespeare's text. Prager has stated that he aims to produce an autonomous poetic voice without necessarily trying to replicate Shakespeare (Prager Telephone interview). As his dedication avers, the inspiration for writing Rosaline and Benvolio was the question of how best to teach Romeo and Juliet. Instead of overwriting Shakespeare's story or simplifying it, Prager shifts the focus, creating a companion piece.

When asked, Prager is hesitant to position himself in relation to the development of a Canadian theatrical tradition. He does, however, point to his involvement in the Toronto theatre scene, beginning in 1979, as a formative time in the development of his theatrical ideology. Arriving back from Huntsville (where he was involved in a series of Rotary Club musicals), Prager worked with, and was variously influenced by, Toronto Workshop Productions, NDWT, Toronto Free Theatre, and Theatre Passe Muraille.   He cites productions by James Reaney, Michel Tremblay, Jerry Franken, and Susie Turnbull as significant factors in his shifting theatrical awareness. Commenting on this shift, Prager has this to say about his emerging theatrical style: “within that first year in Toronto, my theatrical sense went from Rotary Club musicals exploding outward into political, poetic, and deeply Canadian theatre” (Prager “RE: Rosalind and Benvolio”). Inspired by these experiences, he began to write immediately, mounting A Satirical Revue of Huntsville in 1980, which was directed by Susie Turnbull. Citing these Toronto experiences as the “core” of his theatrical tradition, Prager soon began to distance himself from the “new urban world view” developing in Toronto (ibid.). He found an alternative in the Community Play Project in 1990, through which his play The Wake of the Asia was developed (see Prager’s comments on Community Play Projects in Robyn-Marie Butt’s article “Back to the Source: Community Play Projects.” Theatrum Magazine 40 (Sept./Oct. 1994): 13-18.). However, Prager remarks that “In the end, Reaney's Toy Box theories are probably the single most influential aspect on my work (I did a workshop dance piece at Pavlychenko studios in Toronto in 1985 called The Toy Box Rehearsal for the Garden of Light)   and even most recently the anti-Bush League play I did here in Guelph Secret Weapon, was toy box theatre” (Prager “RE: Rosalind and Benvolio.”).

Reaney's influence on Prager may carry with it some considerable Shakespearean freight: Reaney, in addition to doing his doctoral dissertation on Shakespeare and Yeats, cites Shakespearean influences on his work at some length, influences that necessarily involved the adaptive cultural contexts of Shakespeare produced in Canada. Reaney comments, for instance, that being "up at Stratford" conjures up adaptive productions in which the clowns in the Comedy of Errors "were dressed up as cowboys, English ones, and Eric Donkin did the Learned Doctor as a New Mexico conjure man" ( 14 Barrels From Sea to Sea 20). Further, Reaney, in his comments on Canadian Shakespeare, notes how "Eternal Actors–– Moth, Ophelia, Miranda––are part of one's mental equipment for life. I can't stress enough the division there used to be in Canada between reading the Shakespearean canon and seeing it. Quite often primitive productions force the audience to work out richness in the way that a 'properly' designed and 'competently' acted version miserably does not" (Stage Voices 145-46). CASP approached Prager for comment on Reaney’s influence in his work.

Prager was an actor when he met Reaney, and was later encouraged by him to write (“he encourages everyone to write” remarks Prager). However, while Prager knew Reaney was a poetic dramatist, “it was the fact that he was a student of Northrop Frye’s that affected me most.” When asked if Reaney’s Shakespearean background had any effect on his own experimentation with Shakespeare, Prager responded: “In fact, it was Frye that Reaney inspired me to read, not Shakespeare” (Prager “RE: Rosalind and Benvolio.”). Prager goes on to situate his relationship to Reaney, Frye and his own developed style:

Reaney and I both use extensive historical research to shape the flow of our action, but for myself I see that in the way that T.S. Eliot suggests in The Waste Land: "these fragments I have shored against my ruins." I find that Reaney's dazzling display of imagery is always grounded in deeply real moments, that are then swept up into the great maelstrom of his imagination before touching down in human territory somewhere else with equally devastating effect.

Not being the mythopoetic poet that Reaney is, perhaps, but belonging (as Frye might say) to a descriptive age, my historical-journalistic fragments are less concerned with Reaney's deeply structured but radiantly chaotic word play and more concerned with finding the border that Frye, in his theory on modes of languages implies exists, namely the place where the descriptive and the mystic meet, in which case my poetic drama is of necessity rooted in a more contiguous sense of time and place and [...] character. (see William Lyon MacKenzie's Catechism of Education circa 1830's, in which he states that “a mind of character is developed by the sequence of its ideas.” An analogic point of view to be sure, but one I use, alongside a maxim I created that states that 'a soul of personality is created by the sequence of its feelings.' What is now being called emotional intelligence. Rosaline and Benvolio are more emotionally intelligent than Romeo and Juliet. It is the heart's path from the world of everyday to the mystical. As far as I'm concerned any underlying mysticism in Romeo and Juliet is of the reaping and sowing variety, in which the feuding families are eventually stripped by the consequences of their own anti-spiritual delusions, and left to suffer accordingly.)

Read (and one would hope one day performed) together, Prager's and Shakespeare's works provide inter-related insights on the historical, political, and human stories behind Romeo and Juliet. One of the ways that Prager follows Shakespeare's tradition is by using humour throughout the play. For instance, Francesco, whom Dante nicknames Can Grande (Big Dog), says this of Lady Capulet: "If I am a large dog, she is a female one, and bites with rabid intensity. But divided houses fall and she has sundered her own: it will one day collapse on her and Lady Capulet shall perish in a yelp and whimper" (2.2). Francesco's prophetic words hint at the resolution of Rosaline and Benvolio and add a new closural spin to Romeo and Juliet. These links and adaptive resonances, and the balance struck between historical accuracy and authorial invention, contribute to what makes Prager's work compelling.

Mat Buntin

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CASP gratefully acknowledges Jerry Prager's permission to publish this play to its website.


Sources:

Anthony, Geraldine, ed. Stage Voices: Twelve Canadian Playwrights Talk About Their Lives and Work. "James Reaney." Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 1978: 139-64.

Prager, Jerry. “RE: Rosalind and Benvolio.” E-mail to Mat Buntin. 4 May 2004.

Prager, Jerry. Telephone interview with Mat Buntin. 27 Jan. 2004.

Reaney, James. 14 Barrels from Sea to Sea. Erin: Press Porcepic, 1977.

Weil, Alethea Jane Lawley. The Story of Verona. London: Dent, 1902.

Recommended Reading:

*“Arthur Brooke.” Chatham Online Information Network. 28 Jan. 2004.
http://www.chatham-nj.org/coin/English9/Patel/Arthur%20Brooke%20web.htm

*Butt, Robyn-Marie. “Back to the Source: Community Play Projects.” Theatrum Magazine 40 (Sept./Oct. 1994): 13-18.

*”Dante's Life.” Dante Online. 28 Jan. 2004.
http://www.danteonline.it/english/vita_indice.htm.

*Felfoldi, David. “Guelfs vs. Ghibellines.” 16 July 1998. University of Georgia. 28 Jan. 2004.
http://www.arches.uga.edu/~redman/guelphs.html.

*"Guelf and Ghibelline." 2002. Gregory Brown, Department of Philosophy, University of Houston. 28 Jan. 2000.
http://www.hfac.uh.edu/gbrown/philosophers/leibniz/BritannicaPages/GuelfGhibelline/GuelfGhibelline.html.

*“Matteo Bandello.” Chatham Online Information Network. 28 Jan. 2004.
http://www.chatham-nj.org/coin/English9/Patel/Matteo%20Bandello%20web.htm.

*“SMT Study Guide to Romeo and Juliet.” 2004. Seaside Music Theatre. 28 Jan. 2004.
http://www.seasidemusictheater.org/guides/romeo.htm

*“Reaney, James.” 28 Jan. 2003. Canadian Theatre Encyclopedia. 31 Jan. 2004.
http://www.canadiantheatre.com/dict.pl?term=Reaney%2C%20James.

*“Toronto Free Theatre.” 28 Jan. 2003. Canadian Theatre Encyclopedia. 31 Jan. 2004.
http://www.canadiantheatre.com/dict.pl?term=Toronto%20Free%20Theatre

*Weiss, Suzanne. "Stuttgart Ballet: Romeo and Juliet." 28 Mar. 2003. Culturevulture.net. 3 May 2004.
http://www.culturevulture.net/Dance2/StuttgartRomeo.htm.

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