Chicago Shakespeare Theater: Cymbeline has been categorized in many ways: first as a tragedy by the editors of the first Folio, later as a tragi-comedy, and more recently as a romance. Do you think the play fits into any one of these?
Barbara Gaines: For me, it's a fairy tale and a great big adventure story, with romance, tragedy, comedy, suspense, sex—and a visit from the god Jupiter who descends into the midst of it all. It's full of fantastical events and profound psychological truths, and—like all great fairy tales do—it mirrors our own lives.
CST: What has it been like making the transition from Troilus and Cressida to Cymbeline, two plays that occupy two such very different worlds?
BG: Leaving the world of Troilus and Cressida is a relief. I love that play, but it's very painful to be in that world. It's excruciating to be there. Cymbeline is a story of struggle and hope and grace. There is growth commingled with humility. And evil receives its proper punishment. Within its world, you can believe that the ripple effect of a good deed might spread throughout the land. It's a world where war ends when a leader discovers that peace is the most important gift he can give his people.
CST: Imogen is one of the most admired among Shakespeare's great heroines. Is there any way to compare her to Cressida (as Choan Cross now moves on from Troilus and Cressida to play the female lead in Cymbeline?
BG: They're both very smart, but Cressida has a more splintered personality. By that I mean there's a deep place within her that doesn't trust herself, that doesn't see herself as a worthy person—which is part of the reason that she gets into trouble. Cressid has a deep hole within her soul and she often responds to life with desperation trying to fill it. Imogen's center is much more solid. She's a princess; she has confidence and a can-do attitude that serves her well. But she also has a deep vulnerability, and when she discovers that her lover thinks her unfaithful, the grief she feels is full and desperate. But she recovers and rediscovers her sense of humor and her desire to live, without bitterness. This is part of what makes her a transcendent woman. Cressida might well have been seduced by Iachimo, whereas Imogen has the wisdom to see through Iachimo's malicious intent.
CST: How are you envisioning the physical world of Cymbeline?
BG: I see a dark, grim place, where everybody in the story has much to risk and much at stake. It needs to be a dangerous place. The characters are tested to their limits, but within their struggles they discover depths within themselves that they could not have imagined. When they arrive at the last scene of the play, no one expects the happy ending. Do we expect one in our own lives? One of my favorite lines in all of Shakespeare comes from this play: "For all other doubts, in Time let them be cleared. / Fortune brings in some boats, that are not steer'd."
CST: You've now directed two plays three times, Troilus and Cressida and now Cymbeline. Why did you decide to return to Cymbeline this third time?
BG: Because of the hope that, for me, is embodied within this play. Jupiter reminds the mortals, 'Whom most I love, I cross, To make my gift, the more delay'd, delighted.' These days, with terrorism and war a daily occurrence, I think many people feel like they have no control over their lives. The characters in Cymbeline feel the same way, but most of them figure out a path through their troubles. It's a story that reminds us there's another side of life. Shakespeare enables us to realize that we can all make other choices so that we must never give up hope. Cymbeline thinks that his family has been torn up and destroyed by the roots. When in the last scene his lost sons and daughter are re-discovered his heart is stunned. It's something he never expected and the misery of his life is turned into amazement and wonder. Misery can change within all of our lives. This play is a good reminder of that—and the laughter within the last scene helps to heal broken hearts.
CST: Are there moments in the play that make you just stop in your tracks?
BG: Yes, one of them takes place in the middle of the night, inside of Imogen's bedroom when Iachimo gets out of the trunk half nude and steals Imogen's bracelet. He then peeks under her nightgown! Need I say more?
When Imogen thinks she's going to see Posthumous she goes from sad to overjoyed in seconds and her delirious joy is a miracle to behold. It makes me wish this moment of happiness would touch everyone. Jupiter is one of my favorite moments in all of Shakespeare because all the pain of Posthumus's life and all of the unknown elements come together in one unexpected, shocking moment. Jupiter's appearance is like a miracle in your life—like the birth of a child or finding your soul mate … the missing pieces come together.
And then, there is the extraordinary last scene in the play. This is where Shakespeare's genius shines through. He solves 18 questions and in doing so, brings lost sons and daughters home to their father, reunites husband and wife and ends a war where no one should be dying. Peace and forgiveness live and everyone knows just how fortunate they are, because they have known intense suffering. Cymbeline says, 'Never was a war did cease (ere bloody hands were wash'd) with such a peace.' At the end of Troilus and Cressida there was no peace and no forgiveness. Cymbeline is about both.
CST: And it's an inclusive peace at the end. So frequently the comedies and even the late romances end in resolution, but key characters may be left out—Malvolio in Twelfth Night is an example. But in Cymbeline, the happy ending includes pretty much everyone in the dramatis personae who's still alive!
BG: And people learn. One of my favorite moments in the play is when Iachimo kneels down before Posthumus and apologizes. Posthumus says 'Kneel not to me, the power I have over you is to forgive you, to free you,' Then he says 'Live and deal with others better.' Brilliant! What a phenomenal moment for Posthumus! Live and be better. When you think of all he's suffered at Iachimos's hands and then he can say that. This is the grace within this play. Posthumus requires that Iachimo goes out into the world and become a better person. 'Live and deal with others better.' "Pardon's the word to all."
So here's a thought: Is there anyone we shouldn't forgive? That's a big question. Is there anyone we shouldn't forgive?
CST: As you return to the play now, what is different to you this time around? Are there characters or relationships that look different to you now?
BG: I think the relationship between Imogen and Posthumus interests me more. Before I saw it as purely romantic but there's something about Posthumus. He doesn't like himself very much: he doesn't have money, he was brought up as a ward of the court, and the way he is able to jump so quickly into not trusting her—it seems like a good place to start delving. Also, the question of nature versus nurture regarding Cymbeline's sons, who are brought up in the wilds of Wales. There are sparks of behavior within them that make me wonder about just what's in their DNA and what's in mine? How much does an education affect your life as opposed to what genes you were born with.
The play has very dark psychological aspects. I think it's a more frightening play this time, because there's a lot more to be frightened of in the world now. Joseph Campbell once said, "The world is a mess, the world has always been a mess"—and I can't separate the world we face now and the world of the play. Both worlds have a lot in common and people have more power over their lives than they might think.
CST: In times of trouble, do our myths and stories play a different role in our lives?
BG: I think they do. Art can open us up to new perspectives. Sometimes you can't see your own life very well because you're too involved in it. When you see a play, you're seeing the lives of characters from a distance. For me, that's art. Art organizes the chaos of our lives. It gives us moments when we can say, 'I'm not alone—somebody actually understands how I feel.' That is the brilliance of all the arts.
CST: And so is this fairy tale true to life?
BG: But that's the thing about fairy tales, isn't it? If you get lost in the woods, you might meet a wolf. You can get lost in your own life and meet lots of wolves; the important thing is to know that you can get out of the woods. We can develop the confidence to search for a way out. We can make our own luck.
We haven't even talked about Cloten yet, who in some ways along with his mother seem drawn entirely from fairy tale. And yet the Cloten scenes with his mother, the evil stepmother queen, are true to life. He is so well drawn. He is such a spoiled megalomaniac, someone who feels entitled to everything. The most remarkable thing about the character is that it's a true character, it's not a comic character. He really has great complexity: he's dangerous, he's egocentric, he loves to fight. And he and Posthumus share a couple of traits: they're both hot-headed, very hot-headed. And neither one of them trusts women.
CST: What are the lessons that Cymbeline teaches us?
BG: Cymbeline says that it's never too late to let go of your anger and bitterness, and to have a better life—to replace that anger or sense of loss with positive energy; that it's never too late to have a happy life. It says to me that it's our responsibility to let go of the bitterness. It's our responsibility to let go of the fear—it's nobody else's. If you can find the courage to let go of old pain, you can replenish it with unexpectedly positive moments in your life.
CST: What do you see as the particular challenges of directing this play?
BG: I think it's the same challenge in all of his plays—looking for absolute honesty from your characters. Jupiter is as real to me as Imogen. I don't find any particular greater challenge with this play than with Troilus. The challenge is peeling the onion back; digging deeper and deeper and deeper, that's the challenge. I don't know where it will lead us or where we'll end up. I go into the rehearsals saying I don't know, which is a good place to be. My work has gotten better since I learned how to say I don't know, for that's when the adventure begins.