True Love, True Friendship, and Being True to Oneself

By Heather Helinsky,

Two gentleman, two servants, two cities, and two lovely ladies provide unparalleled comic possibilities in this play written by the twenty-something William Shakespeare. Yet, audiences should not expect apprentice work. The rawness and openness of this play excites veteran Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival director Matt Pfeiffer. “The play contains some of Shakespeare’s best ideas. He really starts to find his voice with this play. The play is about the loss of innocence as Valentine and Proteus grow up and discover that they didn’t know anything about life. Emotionally, it explores how a young person feels when they leave home and become part of a more sophisticated world.”

Under Pfeiffer’s direction, audiences will enter the theatre with a live band already on stage to give the sense of celebration and summer revels. The musical style will be developed with the cast and PSF sound designer Matt Given.

The music both unites and underscores the relationship between Valentine and Proteus. “These two guys know each other better than they know themselves. However, they’re at a critical point where they both want different things: one guy wants love, the other wants education,” says Pfeiffer. “It’s dramatically exciting to see how much they change over the course of the play as they begin to question the value of friendship. And yet, when the truth is on the line, they are able to look deep and recognize each other. It’s an unspoken connection, it’s something spiritual, like music can be.”

Shakespeare immediately creates a symmetrical relationship in Valentine and Proteus, introducing them in a pair of speeches of almost exactly the same number of lines, playfully sparring in a witty exchange. Yet this perfect friendship is disrupted by the need for the friends to part. Valentine plans “to see the wonders of the world abroad” and travel by ship to the Duke of Milan’s court, while Proteus is going to stay at home and woo his beloved Julia. But Proteus’ father sends his lovelorn son to Milan as well, where Proteus promptly falls in love with the object of Valentine’s desire: the Duke of Milan’s daughter Silvia. Proteus then decides to follow his changeable heart.

In Elizabethan times, the idea of male friendship was a higher state of unity than even our contemporary understanding of brotherhood. Young Elizabethan schoolboys like Shakespeare were well versed in Cicero’s Di Amicita which stated the ideal friend was an “alter ego” or “another I or self”. The French Renaissance essayist Michel de Montaigne, whose essay “Of Friendship” was well known by Englishman in the 1580s, builds on Cicero with his assertion:

“For the rest, what we commonly call friends and friendships, are nothing but acquaintances and familiarities….by means of which there happens some little intercourse betwixt our souls. But in the friendship I speak of, they mix and work themselves into one piece, with so universal a mixture, that there is no more sign of the seam by which they were first conjoined. If a man should importune me to give a reason why I loved him, I find it could no otherwise be expressed, than by making answer: because it was he, because it was I.”

For the Renaissance audience, the friendship of Valentine and Proteus exemplified the classical deep friendships of Orestes and Pylades, Theseus and Pirithous, Achilles and Patroclus. The male friendship bond was higher than marriage, as women were seen as inferior beings and therefore not capable of the kind of friendship men had. In later plays, however, Shakespeare gives similar weight to female friendships, such as the bond between Helena and Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Celia’s declaration about her cousin Rosalind in As You Like It: “If she be a traitor,/Why, so am I….And wheresoe’er we went, like Juno’s swans/Still we went coupled and inseparable.”

Director Pfeiffer sees Proteus’ dilemma around betraying his best friend in pursuit of Sylvia as “one of the play’s best features, the fact that your lead romantic character is both Orlando from As You Like It and Iago from Othello all wrapped up in one. My goal is the audience both loathes him and loves him, but that in the ultimate climax of the play, they have an understanding that Proteus recognizes his own folly and will change for the better. The journey of the character matches Shakespeare’s own journey as a young writer. He hasn’t quite mastered his craft. He’s impulsive and the play is messy at times. But in the end, like Proteus, he discovers truth in a way that resonates with me and I hope the audience.”

Male friendship at a dramatically explosive crossroads is familiar terrain for Pfeiffer as a director. From his recent Theatre Exile production of Sam Shepard’s True West to Annie Baker’s new play The Aliens, Pfeiffer says he “gravitates towards these stories because I value the vulnerability of growing up. Friends are the family you make for yourself and come to appreciate through adulthood. Men fundamentally push against vulnerability, so I’m always interested in stories that address this and feature characters compelled to find the courage to deal with oneself. At the end of the play, the characters know who they are as adults–which can be a scary thing. But we all have to go through it.”

With such themes, perhaps it’s not surprising that some of the most popular productions of The Two Gentleman of Verona include adaptations into musicals. In 1821, an operatic version with a libretto by Frederick Reynolds and music by Henry Bishop opened at Covent Garden. Popularity followed thanks to the featured song “Who is Sylvia?,” an overture, and eleven elaborately arranged vocal pieces—solos, duets, glees, choruses, and a grand finale. The words for the music were derived mostly from Shakespeare’s sonnets and passages from other plays. The 1971 Broadway musical The Two Gentleman of Verona was adapted into a rock opera for the New York Shakespeare Festival’s Shakespeare in the Park by John Guare and Mel Shapiro with music by Galt MacDermot. As playwright John Guare remarked, “The play itself was freewheeling enough that it didn’t have the sacred textual holiness of Lear or Hamlet. It’s shot through with beautiful poetry, and it’s a good, funny little story.”

PSF director Matt Pfeiffer will neither turn his production into a musical, nor update it to a contemporary time period. Pfeiffer’s instincts are to use the same kind of scenic architecture that Shakespeare would have used. Since the play jumps back and forth between a rural area, a city, and a forest, the play will not be set in a specific time period or place, but evoke an environment that is at once progressive and country to celebrate the follies of young love.

Part of the play’s charm is the confusion created by letters that get destroyed, misdelivered, or misread. “We’re trying to evoke a fable that’s not our world,” states Pfeiffer. “The space between our time and these characters gives the audience some distance to enjoy the comic misunderstandings. Words and communication are not simple things. The stakes are higher when communication happens through letters delivered by people rather than text messages conveyed instantly. Besides, if these characters had cellphones, half the plot would disintegrate!”

While all Shakespeare’s comedies are a mixture of darkness and light, The Two Gentleman of Verona is rich with laughter and merriment as passionate, impulsive teenagers experience the transformative power of love through the double funhouse mirror of comedy.

Heather Helinsky is a freelance dramaturg with an MFA from A.R.T./Moscow Art Theatre Institute for Advanced Theatre Training at Harvard and is a 2001 alumna of DeSales University Theatre.