About four years ago, when I was in the rare books library at Mystic Seaport making some notes that eventually turned into At the Bottom of Shakespeare’s Ocean, I wanted to write the entire book on The Tempest. And, really, to be even more extreme, I wanted to write the whole thing about the first scene.
I’ve never seen the storm scene done well on stage (it was the low point of the great Bridge Project Tempest last year at BAM, and also of the engaging RSC production with Patrick Stewart I saw in London a few years ago). As I read it, the scene exposes the chaos and disruption at the play’s core. “We split,” say the wet mariners, and at this moment — before the magus & his emotive daughter & the air spirit & etc arrive to explain & clarify & order everything — disorder rules the stage. In production that have Prospero on the stage in 1.1 — as he was in the Sam Mendes/Bridge version, as in many others — it short-circuits the scene. We shouldn’t have anyone visible to trust.
So many choices — I wrote about the Boatswain’s technical maritime language (“yar!”) in Shakespeare’s Ocean, and I’ve read good explanations of the scene’s anti-monarchism (“What cares these roarers for the name of king?”). Alonso’s plea for theatrical authority (“Where’s the master?”), Antonio’s rough individualism (“Hang, cur, hang”), and Gonzalo’s weepy plea for “long heath, brown furze” all amount to different efforts to wring chaos into order.
But there’s a brief moment here, before Miranda & Prospero come on stage, when it’s not clear that any order is forthcoming. That’s the wrack really does wreck everything. That that play really investigates the meaning of being “lost at sea” (to borrow a phrase). That’s what I don’t think anyone has managed to capture on stage.
I wonder what it would be like to try to stage it underwater.