This Shakespeare Reconstruction Sets 'Merchant' In Post-Civil War D.C.

Jun 30, 2016
Originally published on June 30, 2016 5:34 pm

Imagine William Shakespeare's play The Merchant of Venice set in post-Civil War Washington, D.C.; and now make half of the characters former slaves. Suddenly, it's a completely new play; but it still looks at some of the same themes, including how your actions reflect your beliefs. That new play is Aaron Posner's District Merchants, currently on stage at Washington's Folger Theatre. (This fall, it will also be produced by South Coast Repertory outside of Los Angeles.)

The process of reimagining Shakespeare can be summed up in one monologue. You might call it the play's "should I stay or should I go" speech: In The Merchant of Venice, servant Launcelot grapples with whether or not to quit his job because his boss, the lender Shylock, is Jewish. Here's an excerpt:

My conscience says, "Launcelot, budge not." "Budge!" says the fiend. "Budge not," says my conscience. "Conscience," say I, "you counsel well." "Fiend," say I, "you counsel well." To be ruled by my conscience I should stay with the Jew my master, who, God bless the mark, is a kind of devil. And to run away from the Jew I should be ruled by the fiend, who, saving your reverence, is the devil himself. Certainly the Jew is the very devil incarnation.

You get why The Merchant of Venice has been called anti-Semitic. On top of that, Launcelot is the play's clown and the monologue is meant to make people laugh. Hilarious, right? That speech just makes Aaron Posner shake his head.

Posner has directed a dozen Shakespeare plays, many of them more than once. But he was never interested in The Merchant of Venice. "Too problematic," he says. He was, however, interested in the issues the play raises, like power, greed and moral ambiguity.

In District Merchants, Posner's Shylock is still Jewish, but half of the other characters are freed slaves, including Shylock's servant, Lance. Like Launcelot, Lance is also having a crisis of conscience — his "should I stay or should I go" speech is driven by the knowledge that Shylock may have been involved in the slave trade:

To leave or not to leave? That is the question. I hate to say it, but the dilemma goes deep. So the question on which I am ruminating and cogitating at present is as follows: Does good service done for a bad master still count as good service? Or if I do good work for a bad master might I actually be doing bad in the world? And conversely-wise, if I do bad work for a bad master does that somehow make it good? And trickier still, how do I really know if he's really "bad" or "good"? Deep down.

For actor Akeem Davis, who plays Lance, Posner has taken a mildly amusing Shakespearean monologue and turned it into something deeper and more relatable. "There's somebody quitting their corporate job right now because they feel like they're doing too good a job at ruining somebody's mortgage, you know" Davis says. "We can trick ourselves into thinking that our professional self is divorced from the personal self, but they are always one in the same."

Posner got the idea for District Merchants from a passing reference to slavery in Shakespeare's original text. In The Merchant of Venice's trial scene, Shylock makes the case for why he deserves a borrower's "pound of flesh," a deal the borrower himself agreed to if he couldn't pay back his loan. Shylock tells the court:

You have among you many a purchased slave,
Which — like your asses and your dogs and mules --
You use in abject and in slavish parts
Because you bought them. Shall I say to you
"Let them be free! Marry them to your heirs!
Why sweat they under burdens? Let their beds
Be made as soft as yours, and let their palates
Be seasoned with such viands"? You will answer
"The slaves are ours."

"It's a stark passage," Posner says. "He's really just saying, 'We own what we own.' " But Posner says that one little reference "just kicked something off in my brain." He wondered how the story would function in post-Civil War America. When he first started writing the script, he made Lance Jewish; then he realized it would be more interesting to make him a former slave.

Posner says, "In a play in which I was asking questions about the relationships between blacks and Jews as these two underclasses in Washington at this time, it suddenly seemed more interesting, more dynamic, more fraught to have that be an African-American character. And then once he was African-American serving this Jewish master, it just sort of unwound itself from there."

In rehearsals, the monologue also got Akeem Davis thinking. "What if the idea in that monologue dawns on Lance that he can quit?" Davis says. "This is a new thing. There had to be an adjustment period for when the Civil War was over and you just had to get use to the idea that, Well, I'm 5/5 now. Things are a little different now. How do I use this status for myself even in the face of opposition?"

"It's part of what makes the Reconstruction setting so potent," Posner says. "It was such an opportunity — this amazing moment of possibility that went so disastrously wrong."

District Merchants is part of a long list of Shakespeare adaptations, and yet, Davis says, there are still people who think the Bard's language shouldn't be tinkered with. He, of course, isn't one of them.

"There are examples of what European artists have done with this text that can stand as the end-all be-all, sure," he says. "But I'm not interested in doing what Laurence Olivier did. I'm a kid from Miami: My Romeo is going to be different; my Launcelot's going to be different. The play has to resonate from your belly. You can't be trying to speak in 2016 like you think they would've spoken 400 years ago."

And Posner says that's exactly what Shakespeare was doing: "Taking history, taking other people's plays, and coming up with a response."

District Merchants is Posner's response to The Merchant of Venice. It's also an adaptation — and an entirely new play.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

What if you take one of Shakespeare's most problematic plays and change it? Move "Merchant Of Venice" to post-Civil War Washington, D.C. Make half of the characters African-American. Well, suddenly it's a completely new play but one that still deals with many of the same themes, including how your actions reflect your beliefs.

"District Merchants" is onstage at the Folger Theater in Washington, D.C., right now. And to understand the process of adapting Shakespeare, NPR's Elizabeth Blair looks at one monologue and how it changed for this production.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: You might call it a should I stay, or should I go speech, the angel and the devil on my shoulder speech. Here's the original Shakespeare.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Launcelot) My conscience says, Launcelot, budge not. Budge, says the fiend. But not, says my conscience. Conscience, say I, you counsel well. Fiend, say I, you counsel well.

BLAIR: In Shakespeare's "Merchant Of Venice," Launcelot is the main character, Shylock's, servant. He's thinking about quitting his job because Shylock is Jewish.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Launcelot) To be ruled by my conscience, I should stay with the Jew, my master who, God bless the mark, is a kind of devil. And to run away from the Jew, I should be ruled by the fiend who, saving your reverence, is the devil himself. Certainly the Jew is the very devil incarnation.

BLAIR: You get why "Merchant Of Venice" has been called anti-Semitic. Aaron Posner has a lot of experience directing and adapting Shakespeare, but he was never interested in "Merchant Of Venice" - too problematic, he says. But he was interested in the issues it raises like power and greed.

In this new American setting, Shylock is still Jewish, but half of the other characters are African-Americans - freed slaves, including Shylock's servant.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "DISTRICT MERCHANTS")

AKEEM DAVIS: (As Lance) To leave or not to leave - that is the question.

BLAIR: Like the original, Lance in "District Merchants" is having a crisis of conscience, but in Posner's play, it's because Shylock may have been involved in the slave trade.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "DISTRICT MERCHANTS")

DAVIS: (As Lance) I hate to say it, but the dilemma goes deep. So the question on which I am ruminating and cogitating at present is as follows. Does good service done for a bad master still count as good service? Or if I do good work for a bad master, might I actually be doing bad in the world.

And commercially wise, if I do bad work for a bad master, does that somehow make it good and trickier still? How do I really know if he's really bad or good deep down?

BLAIR: For actor Akeem Davis, Posner has taken a mildly amusing Shakespearean monologue and turned it into something deeper and relatable.

DAVIS: There's somebody quitting their corporate job right now because they feel...

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIS: ...They feel like they're doing too good a job at ruining somebody's mortgage, you know? We can trick ourselves into thinking that our professional self is divorced from our person self, but they are always one in the same.

AARON POSNER: I wrote the character originally to be Shylock the Jew's Jewish young servant.

BLAIR: Aaron Posner...

POSNER: But in a play in which I was asking questions about the relationships between blacks and Jews as these two underclasses in Washington at this time, it suddenly seemed more interesting, more dynamic, more fraught to have that be an African-American character. And then once he was African-American serving this Jewish master, it just sort of unwound itself from there.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "DISTRICT MERCHANTS")

DAVIS: For me, the real question is, why have I chosen to work for him of all people? I wonder. Is it some bizarre form of self-loathing? What? Did my old master not beat me enough, and this is some perverse form of wish fulfilment?

BLAIR: "District Merchant" joins a long list of different kinds of adaptations of Shakespeare. And yet Akeem Davis says there are still people who think his language shouldn't be tinkered with. He's not one of them.

DAVIS: There are examples of what European artists have done with this text that can stand as the end all, be all - sure. But I'm not interested in doing what Laurence Olivier did. I'm a kid from Miami. My Romeo's going to be different. My Launcelot is going to be different. The play has to resonate from your belly. You can't be trying to speak in 2016 like you think they would have spoken in, you know - 400 years ago.

POSNER: Not to be too pretentious about it is exactly what Shakespeare was doing.

BLAIR: Taking history, taking other people's plays, says Posner, and responding to them in his own work. Posner says his "District Merchants" is both a response to the original "Merchant Of Venice," an adaptation of it and an entirely new play. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.