Beethoven wrote nine symphonies, but you can go years without hearing No. 8 on a concert program. Emily Bronte wrote "Wuthering Heights," a staple of every romantic-literature course, but her poetry is known (and loved) only by hard-core fans. And Shakespeare wrote more than three dozen plays, but it has taken the Shakespeare Theatre 17 years to get around to staging "Pericles, Prince of Tyre."
Some geniuses produce a consistent stream of flawless works, but most have a few runts among the litter. "Pericles" is Shakespeare's runt.
It is an unsummarizable, five-act string of implausibilities, about a man wandering through the vicissitudes of life: shipwrecks and riddles, maidens in distress, death and resurrection. There's incest and prostitution, tyranny and treachery, and a happy ending tacked on at the end. Shakespeare, apparently, didn't even write the first two acts, and it shows. The poetic gems of the late romances, such as "The Tempest," are absent for long stretches of "Pericles." The condition of the text is so bad in places that generations of editors have never developed a clue about what certain lines mean. And at least one scene is so muddled that the title character's advisers wish him bon voyage before he's even hatched a plan to set sail. (He makes no less than eight journeys in this very scattered play.)
By every standard that makes, say, a Beethoven string quartet great, "Pericles" is a failure. It is not integrated or polished, or the work of a singular imagination. You cannot find the whole reflected in the part, nor any ineffable and satisfying balance among its various pieces. It is, like that old quip about history, just one damn thing after another.
Naturally, it has a long history of detractors. Ben Jonson called its basic story line "mouldy," but perhaps that was sour grapes from a competitor. Samuel Johnson refused to include it among the certifiable Shakespeare canon. Victorian taste found the play's sexual matter offensive. The literary critic Northrop Frye called Pericles "psychologically primitive," and Harold Bloom almost concurs, noting that neither the title character nor his daughter, who are at the center of the action, really have personalities of any sort.
Yet people keep coming back to it. When Jonson called it "mouldy," he was right, and perhaps in a good way. "Pericles" may not loom large among the canonical works of Shakespeare, but it has excellent narrative DNA. The basic plot, about a decent prince who guesses a terrible secret and is hounded for it, goes back to a Latin text: the story of Apollonius, King of Tyre, which was itself based on an even older, Greek text, now lost.
The bones of the story were so popular that they circulated in multiple forms throughout the medieval world. Shakespeare borrows heavily from a 14th-century version by John Gower, who appears in the play as a one-man "chorus" introducing each act like an old-fashioned storyteller.
"There is an embedded theatricality in those texts, and they are meant for performance," says Mary Zimmerman, who is directing the Shakespeare Theatre production that opens on Tuesday. "They have this giant scope, and the reason they've survived all of these years is because they remain vivid and immediate and alive."
"Pericles" is ready-made for the ministrations of a director like Zimmerman, who has made a specialty of big, loose-limbed, sprawling texts. She has adapted "The Arabian Nights," "The Odyssey" and even scenes from Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past." Her haunting version of Ovid's "Metamorphoses" earned her a Tony Award for best director in 2002. Like "Pericles," her version of Ovid is both infantile and adult in its obsessions. Both plays, for instance, deal with incest and death, and both live in a world of very primitive right and wrong, with viscerally satisfying rewards and punishments in the end.
Zimmerman finds in it "the sophistication of the child aesthetic," the basic human craving for incident and adventure. "There's a kind of imaginative invitation in the play that one needs to be open to," she says, acknowledging that while the language of "Pericles" is not as memorable as that of the great tragedies, the play has everything else -- action, character, emotion -- in abundance. "You have to join hands across the footlights and allow the play its own reality."
Loving the lesser work of a canonical figure involves its own kind of aesthetic, the peculiar pleasure people take in difficult children and strange-looking pets. Loving "Hamlet" is easy, but also feels a bit dutiful. One must love "Hamlet." One is under no obligation to love, say, "Titus Andronicus" or "Pericles," which makes devotion to them feel more spontaneous, and private.
It's no surprise that innovative directors are often drawn to works that languish on the margins. One of the most compelling versions of Shakespeare ever captured on film is Julie Taymor's 1999 version of "Titus Andronicus," a work that was wide open for reevaluation and almost single-handedly rescued by her commitment and insight.
When Zimmerman describes her plans for "Pericles," there's a sense that she's attracted by the freshness that comes from its being a lesser-trod work.
"I'm not a big observer of other people's productions," she says. Instead, she listens to the play's own cues. Her description of how she works sounds less like a curator who refreshes and touches up a familiar artifact than a builder who starts with a basic set of plans and then follows her own instincts, with music, color and design playing integral roles.
"I like theater that has a sign system that's more extensive than the words being spoken," she says.
There's an echo in that of another basic strategy of loving the lesser work of genius. Truly great works stand before us like monuments ready for inspection, inviting us to find all their nuance and complexity. Lesser works allow us, in some way, to complete them, to finish the job by filling in imaginatively what the composer, or playwright, did more brilliantly in the canonical pieces. Sometimes we do this with a measure of "what if?" regret. What if Verdi's "Il Trovatore" had a decent libretto, like "La Traviata"? With "Pericles," it's not that Shakespeare got something just plain wrong but that he himself was groping toward something new. Loving "Pericles" is all about intuiting greatness where greatness is only implied. In the final three acts, you hear not so much a flawed version of "The Tempest" or "The Winter's Tale" but a way station toward them.
There's danger in all of this, of course. Some critics are disposed to locate genius where no one else can find it -- Harold Bloom has this predilection -- precisely to prove their own deeper understanding. And some people will embrace anything if it has the right brand on it. The reason we have a critical faculty -- and, if they're any good, critics -- is to sort through a busy world and make distinctions. In a world where everyone loved "Pericles" as much as "Hamlet," there'd be a raft of lesser figures vying for limited time on the Shakespeare Theatre's stage.
And loving in peculiar ways, if taken to extremes, is the very definition of perversity -- which sets one apart from the mass of mankind. This can be very comforting, from time to time. When Virginia Woolf set out to defend the merits of the poet and critic Joseph Addison ("the fate of the lesser shades is always a little precarious," she wrote), she imagined Addison-lovers as a breed apart.
"If Addison lives at all," she wrote, "it is not in the public libraries. It is in libraries that are markedly private, secluded, shaded by lilac trees and brown folios, that he still draws his faint, regular breath."
A taste for a little Addison, if balanced by a big appetite for Shakespeare, is a healthy thing. But if someone really believes that Beethoven's "Wellington's Victory" -- a ghastly concoction -- is the equivalent of the Ninth Symphony, you can be sure of one thing: He cares more for his own independence of judgment than for Beethoven's basic claim on our attention. And he's probably going to be a dreadful bore after 10 minutes.
It's all a matter of the one thing that eludes poor Pericles through most of five acts: a little balance in life. As for the play that bears his name, once every 17 years may be just about right.