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Traitor or Hero? Wallenstein and Coriolanus

By Friedrich Schiller, translated and adapted by Robert Pinsky
Shakespeare Theatre Company
, Harman Hall, Washington, D.C.
Wednesday, April 24, 2013, D–120&-121 (front middle stalls)
Directed by Michael Kahn

If you aren't familiar with a classic from another time and place (and language), it's hard to tell where the original leaves off and the translator/adapter takes over. Friedrich Schiller's Wallenstein, running in repertory with William Shakespeare's Coriolanus at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, seems quite the contemporary play, but how much of that is Schiller's ideas or the sentiments of Robert Pinsky, who translated and "freely adapted" (his words) the original, is uncertain.

Wallenstein in renaissance armor, red and black cape and red sash facing the audience with ghostly images in the background.
Dead Wallenstein (Steve Pickering) addresses the audience in Wallenstein. Photo by Scott Suchman, Shakespeare Theatre Company.

What is certain is that if you let the Michael Kahn–directed Wallenstein wash over you, this stirring production will penetrate your ideological core. As with its fellow production in the Washington theater's Hero/Traitor Repertory, the David Muse–directed Coriolanus, Wallenstein makes you figuratively look up and down the street at the big domed building in one direction and the famous white-painted house in the other. These two plays demonstrate that not much has changed in the arts of war and politics from the 400 B.C. Roman Republic of Coriolanus to the 17th century A.D. Europe of Wallenstein to the Washington, D.C., of 2013.

This Wallenstein stands on its own as a worthy evening of good theater. For the Shakespearean, the bonus is how Kahn's pairing this play with Coriolanus highlights some of the ideological questions burning under the surface of Shakespeare's play, questions that Schiller-cum-Pinsky debate openly in Wallenstein. It's easy to regard Coriolanus as simply a play about a stubborn man too heroic for his own good set against a fickle body politic. If that's all you see in Coriolanus you are glancing past the more troubling questions of loyalty and duty touched on in the play. Both the tribunes and Aufidius accuse Coriolanus of treason, and it's easy to believe they do so out of their own self-interests. However, when you see Coriolanus again after watching Wallenstein, you begin to see merit in their charges. At the least, you are forced to ask the question of Coriolanus that is at the center of Wallenstein: Is there a line between the ideals of service and duty and their counterparts, ambition and treason?

In addition to sharing some cast members, the productions use the same Blythe R.D. Quinlan set, the same costume designer, Murell Horton, who brings her talent for exquisite detail to the 17th century army uniforms in this play, and the same lighting designer, Mark McCullough, who paints the stage with lighting reminiscent of a Rembrandt. Even so, the most obvious commonality between these two productions is the performances of the two actors who portray their play's titular characters, both ferocious warriors, incomparable commanders, and egomaniacs who dictate the action of their plays by sheer force of personality. Just as Patrick Page gives us a lightning rod of a performance as Coriolanus, Steve Pickering is downright cosmic in his playing of Albrecht Wallenstein, Duke of Bohemia, serving as supreme commanding general of the Holy Roman Empire's army.

Whether he's barking orders to his generals, debating war policy with the emperor's envoy from Vienna, or narrating his story in addresses directly to the audience (a dramatic device Pinsky added to the original), Pickering's Wallenstein is a lovable Rottweiler. He can seem cuddly and cute when he's with his loyal followers and family, but when he attacks, he goes for the throat and doesn't let go. When the question arises that he might be angling to make himself king of an independent Bohemian state or even emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Wallenstein has a retort that seems entirely logical emanating from Pickering's portrayal: "It is a greater thing to be Wallenstein." This Wallenstein even makes a dig at his repertory counterpoint as the dead Wallenstein boasts of his abilities as an army commander and says, "Put it this way: Is there a board game called Coriolanus?"

In both plays, these superior soldiers lose their footing when they turn to politics. "In battle, enemy courage inspires my courage, but in this coward-battle of policy, fear always hides from fear," Wallenstein says. But it's more than the lack of adaptability of a born soldier becoming a practiced politician. When Coriolanus tries to become consul of Rome, his arrogance and an absolute regard for honor pounded into him by his mother undo him. When Wallenstein, at the halfway point of the Thirty Years' War, tries to gain security for Bohemia and forge a peace for the whole continent, his arrogance and devotion to astrology is his undoing. Like Wallenstein, Coriolanus decides to become a peacemaker, a decision that leads directly to his death when a trusted fellow general has him assassinated.

There's a contemporary concept: using warriors and war to establish peace. In fact, the politics of war as played out in this production of Wallenstein echo through the broadcasts, broadsheets, and blogs of our own time: allies whose fealty to a cause is not uniform; the class gap between those who start wars and those who do the actual fighting; the economics of war—who profits, who pays. Modern politicians sitting in the audience will shift between agitated and pleased as Wallenstein advocates taxing the rich to pay for the army he needs, exposes the disconnect between the central government in Vienna and the subsidiary governments in the provinces, and points to the wearying wear on a population's psyche that comes with 15 years of war (and, as Wallenstein points out, only half way through; in our own war we are more than 10 years in with how much longer to go?). Whether that's Schiller peering into a crystal ball or Pinsky's modern applications of Schiller's themes, I'm not certain.

Wallenstein's juggling take on duty, though, is universal, especially as it pertains to soldiers; only the contexts change. "Does saying 'our sacred loyalty to the emperor' seem weird to you? Antiquated?" he asks the audience. "Maybe when we say 'Emperor' you should substitute your 'Constitution.' Ooh! mustn't lightly betray that, eh?" Marine Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, with his explicit involvement in the Iran–Contra scheme under President Reagan, violated his oath—taken by all U.S. servicemen and women—to uphold the U.S. Constitution, which includes provisions for congressional oversight of military order and budgets. Yet, North was regarded by many as a hero—a patriot, even. Members of Congress swear a similar oath, but many times we see them set aside their allegience to the nation to score points for their political party or get money for their own re-election.

What, then, is treason? And who draws the line between hero and traitor? Wallenstein tackles these questions with portrayals of its various characters that end up proving the answers are forever abstract. The generals and a whole platoon of grenadiers grapple with the question of whether they owe their loyalty to their general who leads them in combat or to the emperor to whom they've sworn an oath. Those who stick with Wallenstein generally believe fully in their general's plans and have faith in his record of success. Those who side with the emperor do so for a variety of reasons, from sniffing out the best course of survival to a simple sense of honor (thus it is with the platoon of grenadiers—God bless the common foot soldier).

Wallenstein's best friend, Octavio Palladini (played with steady bearing and calm demeanor by Robert Sicular) takes note of Wallenstein's poorly executed schemes to undermine the emperor's hold on his army and fears the general is only pursuing his personal ambition. Palladini not only sides with the emperor, he replaces Wallenstein as the army's supreme commander and prepares to defeat Wallenstein. So, who is the ambitious one in this turn of events? Nothing in Sicular's performance gives you any reason to view Palladini with anything other than utmost respect, but he does enjoy personal gain from his decision and uses his own sly tactics—more subtly played—to take down Wallenstein. Greed not only comes in degrees but in variety, too: for wealth, for security, for power, for love, for fame, for legacy, for self-esteem, and for honor (all varieties we see in Coriolanus, too). Wallenstein built his power through identifying the specific greed that drives each of his subordinates; Palladini brings down Wallenstein with the same strategy.

Wallenstein in the center talks with fully armored Renaissance foot soldiers, each with pikes, surronding him.
God bless the common foot soldiers; a platoon of grenadiers seek assurances from their trusted general, Wallenstein (Steve Pickering, center), that he is not contemplating treason in the Shakespeare Theatre Company's production of Wallenstein. Photo by Scott Suchman, Shakespeare Theatre Company.

Caught between these two is Palladini's son, Max, who is a surrogate son to Wallenstein and in love with Wallenstein's only daughter, Thekla, played with a combination of sweetness and inner courage by Aaryn Kopp. Nick Dillenburg plays the honor-hearted young Max with stout vigor and unflagging valor as he first refuses to believe his father's accusations about Wallenstein and then learns the truth directly from Wallenstein himself. Max—who sees ambition in his father and treason in Wallenstein—decides to revolt against both and forge his own path of untainted honor. But honor without taint is action without purpose, and in a bravado display of vapid heroism he destroys himself and, ultimately, Thekla. Unfortunately, both Max and Thekla are little more than cardboard characters, victim of Pinsky's need to condense Schiller's nine-hour, three-part play into a single production that clocks in at 2:10. Nevertheless, the two actors, Dillenburg and Kopp, create an interesting and oh-so-subtle link between the two plays as Dillenburg plays Titus Lartius, Coriolanus's most loyal lieutenant who can only watch in frustration as his commander self-destructs, and Kopp plays Virgilia, Coriolanus's wife suffering the consequences of her husband's adherence to his own stringent code of honor.

Honor is an abstract that projects the self onto society; duty is the opposite, an abstract that society dictates to the self. That duty is a dual-headed ideal plays out most tragically in the character of Bailey (Chris Hietikko in an intense, internal-burning performance). A one-time stable boy, he rises to the rank of colonel, based on his skill alone. Bailey's loyalty to Wallenstein is bound in part to the general's recognition of his skills but also to his own anger at the emperor who denied him a petition for a title. When Bailey sees evidence that Wallenstein was actually behind the emperor's snub, the colonel not only chooses to side with Palladini, he takes on the task of assassinating Wallenstein. He can work from inside Wallenstein's camp because the general believes him true. So we ask again, what constitutes loyalty? a question that boomerangs on Bailey when he finally reveals his intents to Wallenstein. "Honest stable boy, you've done me dirt?" the astonished Wallenstein asks. "Well, so I did to you. I did you dirt to bind you closer to me." Hietikko's Bailey pauses at this, a sudden realization that Wallenstein's duplicity was borne out of his loyalty toward the colonel, self-serving though it may have been. I've witnessed this firsthand, a commander undercutting a deputy's opportunity for a career-advancing assignment in order to keep the loyal deputy at his side: loyalty is a double-edged sword.

Wallenstein seems sincere in his desire to achieve peace. In one of his dead Wallenstein speeches, Pickering introduces us to "a representative of the victims of the Thirty Years' War," a little boy whose throat was slit for that ever-applicable reason of "who knows?" However, Wallenstein sets a course of peace by not only secretly negotiating with the Saxons to Bohemia's north but by capitulating with the Swedes, the empire's primary enemy, even agreeing to turn over towns as part of the deal. This, surely, is treason by any definition—except, maybe, to the war-weary people of Bohemia and that little boy.

Eric Minton
May 4, 2013

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