While we were workshopping The Ballad of Dido, the American Shakespeare Center was performing Marlowe’s Dido, Queen of Carthage, one of our writer and director Tony Tambasco’s source materials. Being exposed to Marlowe’s play was a treat, and I found it fascinating to learn which elements Tony was specifically deviating from and which he was borrowing.
Tony and Marlowe’s treatment of gods is markedly different. Having seen Marlowe’s play, I found myself appreciating more how Tony was using gods and mortals in his story-telling. In Marlowe’s play, the gods control the story. Jupiter, Venus, Juno, Cupid, and Mercury appear and re-appear throughout the play. Dido, and her love, are clearly under the control of Cupid. The power of the gods is undeniable.
In The Ballad of Dido, the mortal characters are given greater agency: though many gods are talked about frequently, Mercury is the only divine figure that appears. The manner in which he does so further places the burden of their own actions on the humans. Mercury appears to Aeneas in a dream. Aeneas clearly believes the visitation is a true one, but Dido argues that “dreams are false shades of the gods’ will.” The script doesn’t give any other reasons to doubt Mercury’s appearance, but it also doesn’t present the visit as concrete reality.
We were able to find further opportunities to confuse the matter, due to the fact that I, a short redheaded female, was playing Lord Mercury. One day in rehearsal I said, “I’m going to try something crazy with this scene,” and proceeded to play Lord Mercury as though he were a twelve-year-old girl.
I can’t fully describe where this idea came from. Partially it was because the text made me think that Mercury was akin to Sportin’ Life and I thought it was a bad idea for me to attempt to play that. Thus I needed to find a different way into the role that would contain no flavor of that. Partially it was due to the fact that I was playing three male roles and was looking for a way to keep them separate and interesting.
Tony approved the choice, feeling that it worked because Mercury was the only god and would therefore be the most successful by existing as far outside the time and place of the story as possible. After playing the scene I could clearly see in my mind what Mercury’s costume should be. Tony saw the same image.
I think there is something to be said about the fact that misogynistic lines such as “varium et mutabile semper femina” (a woman is always a variable and changeable thing - thanks Vergil) were being delivered by a character embodying a sexual trope - the older female dressed as a Catholic school girl. Because our society fetishizes the Catholic school girl, Mercury’s characterization enters of the world of fantasy. The two main results are that the audience is then able to question the reality of the scene, and the responsibility for Aeneas’ actions rests solely with Aeneas.
Is it Mercury or is it Aeneas’ subconscious that appears in the dream? I’ll never tell.