A copy of Leonardo’s “Battle of Anghieri” adorns the wall, its howling tangle of warriors and horses breaking the calm of the sparely appointed office where two men in suits will meet—a reunion, after many years, between student and teacher.
Student and teacher: the now newly invested Duke of Florence welcoming his old master, an intellectual and diplomat, back from exile on his nearby farm—Lorenzo II, grandson of Il Magnifico, and Niccolo Machiavelli.
The play by Central Works cofounder Gary Graves has an intriguing premise: What if Machiavelli had been able to present his little book, The Prince, to Lorenzo, to whom it’s dedicated, as he intended? In the drawing room of the Berkeley City Club, the chamber theater where Central Works is in residence, Machiavelli makes his pitch, putting before his old student the political ideas he’s come up with in his years of forced contemplation, after his time as public official in Florence.
The relationship between the two is established, in and out of the other topics discussed, by reminiscence, mutual sympathy (Macchiavelli describes his torture at the hands of the Medici’s prison warders in the aftermath of an assassination attempt; Lorenzo’s concern is palpable), a shared concern over the decline of Florence, the city-state both love, and overtures each begins to make to the other—thoughts about working together, constantly deferred.
They also describe to each other the changes in thought, even in character, each has undergone through hard experience: Machiavelli, former secretary of the Florentine Republic (one of the “sensitive issues” the new Duke has to bring—and clear—up), has realized in his thinking what sounds like what will later be called “Realpolitik;” Lorenzo, the good soldier, has grown disgusted with slaughter, with bloodlust, and wishes to embrace the good, the reasonable, and to become a man of peace.
(This last theme alone has led, fleshed out, to great plays, including those about warriors in Japan’s Noh Theater.)
The two clash over their new, if hard-won, realizations of how the world should be, how men of state should operate, each surprised and disappointed by the other.
They each make it abundantly clear, in monologues that bring out the actors’ finer features, what brought them to where they stand: Lorenzo, the glimpse of carnage in a church after the sack of a town; Machiavelli, the frustrations of republican rule that broke down over the bickering self-interest of merchants, a tragic love for an Italy torn apart by invading armies, years at loose ends in banishment, reading, thinking, writing ...
Richard Frederick, who sparkled as a Freud-inspired character in Central Works’ recent production of Christopher Chen’s The Window Age, plays another intellectual here, Machiavelli the doting teacher, the humble petitioner, dying to be back in the corridors of power. And Michael Navarra is at his best here, of the three roles he’s essayed so far with Central Works, as the genteel, sensitive yet forceful Lorenzo.
The little touches by the production team that add up to the full picture have the excellent taste we’ve come to expect from Central Works: Greg Scharpen’s sound design, gilding voice and movement with strings and distant echoes; Tammy Berlin’s effective costuming, that naturalizes the anachronism; Gary Graves’ sensitive lighting, as well as little moments accented by his direction.
The play itself, though constantly bringing up theatrically interesting, if unplayed-out, motifs and motives, tends to slide into a contemporary version of the old Anglo-Saxon depiction of Machiavelli the cynical sidekick of despots, the “Machiavel” who introduces Marlowe’s remarkable, rarely staged, Jew of Malta, the boogeyman of moral relativity, predecessor to Talleyrand, Metternich, a kind of proto-Kissinger.
A populist intellectual transformed into a wannabe “Kissing-Bundy” (as Jules Feiffer dubbed a humorous Frankenstein made up of the parts of ravening, hawkish executive advisors), lecturing on ruthlessness to a fearless commander changed into a pious CEO promises good theater; the display of Machiavelli’s exhortations to Lorenzo to be the strongman that will save the Italy both love (a Caesarian tradition from Dante’s Il Veltro—The Greyhound—to Mussolini as Il Duce) stirs things up—but the dust settles back into what’s too schematic, like a screen or teleplay.
This is particularly apparent when Lorenzo, alone after spurning his old teacher, sneaks a peek at the school theme book containing Machiavelli’s masterpiece. A genuinely humorous touch, showing the opposite of the speeches that proceed it, this gesture becomes confused with a kind of complacency, a smile of complicity on the audience’s part: “It always ends up like that!”
Machiavelli himself was a great playwright of comedies. If the reversals in character were played up a little more for laughs, the real ironies of action, the intellect and “public service” might emerge more when all’s said and done.
The contradictions and virtues of Machiavelli run deep, as modern philosophers and politicos have discovered. Antonio Gramsci wrote a political classic, “The Modern Prince,” in his notebooks in Mussolini’s prisons, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty began his essay in Signs: “How could he have been understood? He writes against good feelings in politics, but he is also against violence. Since he has the nerve to speak of virtue at the very moment he is sorely wounding ordinary morality, he disconcerts the believers in Law as he does those who believe that the State is the Law. For he describes that knot of collective life in which pure morality can be cruel and pure politics requires something like a morality. We would put up with a cynic who denies values or an innocent who sacrifices action. We do not like this difficult thinker without idols.”
Machiavelli, above all against the solipsism of the compulsively moral, developed his thought—finally, the same train of thought, meditating on reality and its possibilities—in the Discourses on Livy, dealing with republics, and in The Prince, addressing executive authority.
These and closely related themes lie barely below the surface in the public ferment—and governmental torpor—at the end of the Obama administration’s first summer.
Theater used to be the mirror for the issues, the staging of the terms of public debate. Central Works, with the clean lines of its intimate productions, its collaborative method of fashioning a new play, and its low prices (including a sliding scale and pay-what-you-can evenings), provides a perfect forum to provoke such discussions, more than many bigger institutions among our local theaters.
There’s much of importance that’s raised in the dialogue and speeches of Macchiavelli’s The Prince. It could provide the springboard to really start talking about realities—Macchiavelli’s legacy—rather than mouth old cliches, as in the poor spectacles we follow in the media.
MACHIAVELLI’S THE PRINCE
Presented by Central Works presents at 8 p.m. Thursday–Saturday and 5 p.m. Sunday through Sept. 19 at the Berkeley City Club, 2315 durant Ave. $14-$25. 558-1381. www. centralworks.com.