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Away with him to prison! Where is the Provost? Away with him to prison! Lay bolts enough upon him. Let him speak no more. Away with these giglots too, and with the other confederate companion (Measure for Measure V.i. 352-6).
South Africa has a long history of social and legal prohibitions against sexual behaviour considered "unnnatural", including relations between people of the same gender or of different racial classifications. Anti-gay laws were inherited from Great Britain in 1910. When the National Party came to power in 1948, they quickly passed legislation prohibiting interracial sex or marriages in their quest for racial purity. These measures served to legitimize government persecution of the small minority who rejected racist sexual mores.
The connection between political and sexual repression was addressed in a 1975 production of Measure for Measure, directed by Mavis Taylor at the Little Theatre for the University of Cape Town Drama Department. The text provides a potent vehicle for such a critique because South Africa's Calvinist rulers, like their Puritan counterparts in the seventeenth century, generally framed sexual transgressions "in public and even cosmic terms" (Dollimore 74), in other words, as components of a web of subversive activities which could herald the end of civilized (that is, white) rule. Johnathan Dollimore describes the construction of "deviancy" in Puritan ideology:
So, for example, diatribes against promiscuity, female self-assertion, cross-dressing and homosexuality construed these behaviours as symptomatic of an impending dissolution of social hierarchy and so, in effect, of civilisation (74).
Mavis Taylor emphasized the political repression of "Viennese" society in her production: "I placed it in the context of a repressive society such as the one we live in," the director told me, "where people live in fear of the Draconian laws" (Taylor interview). Theatre critic W.S. Kaplan corroborated this representation:
When Shakespeare sited Measure for Measure in Vienna, he could as Easily have chosen Pretoria--or any country where officials seem to take a delight in controlling the private lives of citizens by punishment that in severity exceeds the crime. This is the city of bureaucracy, signalling the intervals in the pursuit of justice by the arrival of a tea trolley. It is an area of repression relieved by the comic drollery of the lower classes who are mostly the victims of circumstance by legislation (Argus 6 October 1975).
The production opened on a stage empty except for a large black box. Suddenly a clown popped up from the box and a dance drama began in which characters took masks from the box and enacted the basic themes of repression and greed. Mavis Taylor told me:
What I was saying was that everybody has a face that they show and a face that they don't show. In the dance drama, they put on and took off the masks (which they had made themselves), showing who they were and who they were pretending to be.
All the characters wore clownlike costumes--baggy pants, black waistcoats, white ruffs, and bowler hats, with the oppressive forces wearing one black glove on the right hand. The grotesque make-up emphasized the clownlike air. "This is the circus in which we live," Mavis Taylor told me. The production thus anticipated Dollimore's 1985 reference to
a radical reading of Measure for Measure, one which insists on the oppressiveness of the Viennese State and which interprets low-life transgression as positively anarchic, ludic, carnivalesque--a subversion from below of a repressive official ideology of order (73).
The director further foregrounded a Marxist-oriented critique by utilizing a Brechtian alienation technique for the beginning of scenes in which each character adopted a characteristic posture, creating a frozen tableau, before moving into the action.
The set consisted of black boxes on different levels with bars suggesting prison cells. Square black shapes pressed down from above. W. S. Kaplan called it "a Mondrian-like decor that could be the skyline of a city," but with starkly oppressive overtones. Once Claudio was arrested, for example, he remained on one of the boxes behind bars throughout the play, a visible reminder of the law's restrictions.
The Duke (Etienne Puren) was depicted as a manipulator with an arrogant quality. Escalus (Peter Cartwright), normally represented as the benevolent face of authority, came across in this production as "a weak chap who sees what ought to happen" (Taylor), offering parallels with white liberals in South Africa. In his interrogation of Pompey, who wore a huge red ball and chain, electric wires were attached to Pompey's body for the purposes of torture. "Every time they were questioned, they went into terrible paroxysms and distortions of their bodies," said Mavis Taylor, "to highlight the existence of torture." Pompey (Allan Goldstein) and the other "low" characters were played with "Capey" [Cape Coloured] accents, emphasizing the fact that "non-whites" were usually the victims of the South African apartheid justice system. One character appeared periodically to paste up "Group Areas" posters about the stage.
The character of Isabella has long posed a problem for literary and theatre critics, generating both positive and negative responses. Jacqueline Rose argues:
In ... Measure for Measure, sexuality entails danger and violates propriety, or form ... Isabella's excessive propriety (her refusal to comply with Angelo's sexual demand) produce[s] an image of sexuality as something unmanageable which cannot be held in its place (97).
I asked Mavis Taylor about the interpretation of Isabella, whose refusal to save her brother's life by yielding her virginity has also been attacked as self-righteously prudish. "Virginity is just what she calls it," she replied, "but it is really about aggression towards women, seeing them as objects." Thus Isabella, with a teardrop on her mask, came across as helpless and terrified rather than prudish. This characterization of Isabella as a victim of patriarchal oppression whose refusal to comply is subversive …