Peter Sellars discusses his production of "The Merchant of Venice"
BROADCAST: Sep. 14, 1994 | DURATION: 00:54:06
Peter Sellars talks about his production of "The Merchant of Venice." Peter Sellars also compares Los Angeles California to the world of "The Merchant of Venice". Sellars also discusses the history of the Jewish people, immigrants, the ghetto, and race relations.
Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.
Studs Terkel We hope so but Peter Sellars and you know of his productions here of the Lyric's "Tannhäuser." It was a smasheroo, wholly different than the traditional one. And I remember way back "The Mikado" and, of course, he he's done Handel oratorios and plays and Shakespeare. And so Shakespeare now at the Goodman Theatre where the cast unlike any other "The Merchant of Venice" is the play and we'll talk about that the nature of what might be called tribal casting.
Studs Terkel Not so much racial as tribal we'll come to that. And stunning obviously, but not that it's just different. It is of this very moment perhaps setting us off. We'll come to how he did it. It's opening at the Goodman Theatre his production. Peter Sellars production of "The Merchant of Venice" on September 30th running through November fifth before taking off for Hamburg and Paris and London with the-
Peter Sellars Absolutely.
Peter Sellars Yes.
Peter Sellars Right.
Studs Terkel -a festival for the Olympics and others the city. Suppose we hear your thoughts about Los Angeles and why it is and leading, of course, to how come "The Merchant of Venice" four years later-
Peter Sellars Marvelous.
Studs Terkel Natural that Peter Sellars think of Los Angeles as the most fascinating city because the the ritualistic approach the tradition is L.A. be equated with Hollywood. Dullness softest custard son [Peter Sellars laughing] forgetting that it is a Hispanic city. It is an Asiatic city.
Peter Sellars What what's interesting there is the patterns of immigration. I mean in the same way New York and, in fact, even Chicago established their cultural hegemony by really being home to Italians, to Germans, to Polish people, to to to to Russians and now, of course, big the big culture in America, you know, is the Metropolitan Opera the Lyric Opera playing Verdi and and the orchestra playing Mahler. The same way here the next generations of immigrants for the next 150 years are coming from Asia are coming from Latin America and the place where those two-
Peter Sellars Oh and well and Africa, although, again we have tremendous population of African Americans here now. And the what's exciting is the place where these all of these points are meeting is Los Angeles where the immigration is coming from from all directions now.
Studs Terkel See you, do you spot something? There's something prescient about Peter Sellars. He sees something in and the something, we think of Europe America and the European culture and New York and the Jewish tradition and culture and the Italian at one and all that is there European and has, in a sense-
Peter Sellars Absolutely.
Peter Sellars Exactly. I think the next the next hundred years in this country the next century not only is Los Angeles going to be the sort of New York of the next century, as it were, the sort of economic capital and so on and then that's already happening already there's more trade that goes out of the Port of Los Angeles than goes out of any port on the East Coast. The question now is: is there a cultural basis for this new Pacific Rim we keep hearing about? Is that a-
Peter Sellars Pacific Rim, is that an economic and political term or is that really cultural? What exists? What ties that together? This new area of the world which has this kind of hegemony and we've spent the last two-
Peter Sellars Well, for me, I think the Rodney King trial and the aftermath of that already established that Los Angeles was at the center of the crisis zone of this country. And and and the truly the issues that are on America's mind are in their fiercest most painful state represented in that city. And and and indeed if this is a country of immigrants indeed if all of us came from somewhere how did we get here and what are we doing here? Those questions really open themselves up in Los Angeles-
Studs Terkel Here as you say this we should point out to the audience this conversation we just heard this passage from took place three, four years ago before the Rodney King case and trial and aftermath-
Peter Sellars Ex-absoultely.
Peter Sellars And
Peter Sellars -to say with our L.A. festival we moved right in our our our festival that we held last fall. We held in Leimert Park where the first fires began that evening after the verdict. We most people said you're crazy you can't hold a festival in that part of the city, no one will go. No one will drive down Crenshaw Boulevard it's dangerous blah blah blah. And of course, for five weeks we held a major international festival there and people came from all over Los Angeles to see the neighborhood they had seen on the evening news. But now can we get people past the evening news? Get people past the fear that's projected by the media? And say no no please go yourself experience your own city in your own lifetime. Throw away the cliches and notice that people are people and people in this neighborhood want the same things for your for their kids that you want for your kids. You know, and can we just now all be together and present and accounted for as human
Peter Sellars Yes.
Peter Sellars Well, that's why we still do theater. I mean what I love about theater. The only reason for silly old theater to be left, you know, is that it's what won't get on television and what you can't see in the movies, you know, its subject matter that the power structure does not want you to engage in for one reason or another of denial. And theater is the last place where grassroots politics can have a presence. Where you can actually discuss the election results. Where you can actually sit and talk face to face with people instead of talking about them on camera is to actually be in the room with the people you're talking about and to talk actually to people and to get the discussion going. Democracy is about a discussion, it's about how high can we keep the level of discussion. Can we have discussion not just the lowest possible level, but can you actually, would you say something to someone's face? And can now, will that suddenly make your conscience more active that you're facing a person and you have to actually choose your words a little more carefully now? Does the rhetoric have to moderate itself? And do we actually have to begin to say something we mean instead of something that we wish we would mean instead of projecting, you know, this this image that we imagine? Do we have to ch-have a little reality check?
Peter Sellars Right.
Peter Sellars If if you're living your life speaking English you can't do better than Shakespeare. Shakespeare is the guy who got this language better than anyone in history. The point, of course, of a classic is: it's a classic exactly because every generation sees themselves in it. It's something, it's the definition of a classic is it outlives its period and its particular circumstances and comes back with greater value as the years go on. And so I think our task, it's like, Studs, I think of a classic like a hammer or a saw or a power drill, you know, you don't put it in a a display case and say power drill 1976. You know, it's meant to build a house with. You know, you're meant to like take it out and use it and make something, you know, and a classic is, you know, to take with your hands, you know, and say how can we use this? It was given to us to use and to use productively.
Studs Terkel Now the question is: which Shakespeare? Which play? Because here the now in the mind of Peter Sellars and in the mind in the consciousness of all of us, millions of Americans, was a trial the centerpiece a certain kind of jury of Simi Valley middle class, which is most of the theater audience, by the way, interesting too and an aftermath of wild fury.
Peter Sellars Well, we turn to "The Merchant of Venice" because it's Shakespeare's play about racism. And amazingly there were no Jews left in England by the time Shakespeare wrote the play so that he would even bring the play, bring the subject up, is extraordinary. And he called his play about racism "The Merchant of Venice" because it's about the economic construction of racism. That racism wasn't just invented cause some people don't like other people. It was invented as a specific tool of exploitation. How can you take economic advantage of a group of people, create a ghetto, and the word still stays valuable today. But it was invented, you know, in Italy in the twelfth century to describe the conditions Jews had to live under where a group of people will never own their houses. The land they're on will never be allowed to have the money that their community is earning is all sent siphoned outside the community to profit other people. They never see the value of their own labor. And meanwhile, in order to keep them in this submissive state, a whole ideology has to be created in which they are inferior. The s-the the exploiting group can feel superior. And this group of people themselves their own self-image is destroyed in such a way that they deeply internally feeling an absence of worth submit every day to a condition of utter denigration.
Studs Terkel [laughing] Of course, the analogy is absolutely stunning as you describe it. Now we come back the Jews during several centuries. Oh it's only only a half a century. Shakespeare wrote only about 50 years after 1492.
Peter Sellars Exactly. And Shakespeare wrote in this amazing moment in which the giant capitalist system of colonial exploitation was invented in his lifetime, the Dutch East India Company, was chartered in 1602. You know, in 1492 from Columbus in that century it was gentlemen explorers going around the world on a casual basis and having horrifying relations with the people they met and cutting off their arms if they didn't give them enough gold. But it wasn't systematic, it was quite random. In Shakespeare's lifetime it became systematic. England it was the, you know, Elizabethan England was the America of its period. That is to say, they had defeated the Spanish and they became the superpower. Their Navy ruled the seas. They were the unquestioned economic power in the world. And then it was organized that foreign policy consisted of sending out the Navy to do what four or five top businessmen wanted you to do. And if we need to open up trade quote-unquote in India in China or in Africa you just sent the Navy out, you arranged a blockade, and you opened up trade on conditions that were, needless to say, rather favorable to yourself and rather unfavorable to the people you happen to encounter.
Studs Terkel You're taking about 1994 a country, a superpower, unrivaled, called the United States of America. You talk of capital-we're starting to see more and more and more properties controlled by fewer and fewer people you said four or five. So that idea capitalism and the burgher spoken about the rich burghers in the opening scene of "Merchant of Venice" Salerio speaks to Antonio about the rich burghers, which is a revelatory phrase
Peter Sellars It's it's not Shylock because it's about what happens when the only value in a society become market values. When when you say: what matters is that we get a profit. Shakespeare says: at what cost are you obtaining your profit? In fact, you think you're getting away with a profit. In fact, this will be charged to your children and their children's account your grandchildren. You know, as the Native Americans say we live our lives not for what we obtained during our lifetimes but so that seven generations from now the seventh generation will be grateful that we did what we did. What does it mean when you insist on getting a profit now in your lifetime in a certain way? Right now in America a lot of bills are coming due. Martin Luther King's expression is 400 years of unpaid wages and in our generation we find them coming due.
Peter Sellars Twice.
Peter Sellars Exactly.
Studs Terkel So
Peter Sellars I just have to Studs, 'you have among you many a purchased slave', this is Shylock's speech, 'which like your asses and your dogs and mules you use in abject and 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.' Now that those words continue to overwhelm us as, you know, my Gap t-shirt made in Singapore by somebody who will never see the value of their labor. Right now in America in order to maintain our standard of living. It's based on people all over the world-
Peter Sellars I consider it subversive not to pay attention to these things. To assume that there is not a ca-a cost associated with it. To assume that everything is just fine and we can continue skating this way. I consider that subversive. The lie is what's subversive. When you actually blow the whistle and try and say for a moment hello everybody. Excuse me. As Shakespeare says in his play 'where does your money come from? Where do-is your comfort level born of? What is it born of? Is your comfort level based on someone else's discomfort and on the narrowing of the life prospects of another human being? If so you can't go on.
Studs Terkel We could. We're talking to Peter Sellars. We can see the plays as a result of his producing them and envisioning them become what was certain Shakespeare may may or may not have had. But we at this moment experience since of this very moment. Now when I said subversive I mean subversive of banality. [Peter Sellars laughing] I mean subversive the very things that subvert the idea of what a democracy might be which is what? Not citizenry thinking-
Peter Sellars Exactly.
Studs Terkel [laughing] You know, talking to Peter Sellars is like Mercury in disguise in the in the in the fable of Philemon and Baucis, the old couple who are poor [Peter Sellars laughing] and Mercury comes an old vagabond and they say 'we have no milk. We're poor.' 'Oh yes you do' and he says and as the jug and the jug is never-ending full of the milk and more and more and more come out because the goodness
Studs Terkel Here it is. So we come to Peter Sellars' "Merchant of Venice." You sense, you have set the circumstances why you chose this play and the time we live in now. And the analogy to then and certain kinds of-
Peter Sellars You see I live in Venice. I live in Venice, California. So I decided to try and make a play about what I'm living with. And so "Merchant of Venice" becomes Venice here in America and Belmont becomes Bel Air where the Reagans and other well-to-do people live. And and we begin to get the tensions within an American city. We begin to get the texture of an American city, of course, as you were mentioning at the beginning of the show. Los Angeles right now has a very intense. It is a Latino city. I mean the irony of passing Spanish as the official language of California laws in a state where all of the street names are in Spanish and where Spanish was, of course, spoken long before English ever showed up. And most of the population speak Spanish. It's not lost on. It's not lost on some of us living there. In any case, the upshot is the Venetians in this play are Latinos. The Portia and her friends are wealthy Asians and and the Jews are played by African Americans. Which begins to create a situation of parallel struggles where you begin to realize the parallel struggles through th-certain centuries that are being engaged in at certain levels. The lines of Shakespeare suddenly come into sharp profile. Suddenly when people say something it has a different kind of explosive edge than people quite imagined. This is a play that couldn't be written today. I mean basically no one would dare be as frank as Shakespeare is. At the same time Shakespeare's genius is that every single person onstage is a human being. Shakespeare's plays can never be reduced to political tracts. Can never be reduced to a simple economic analysis. Shakespeare's point is people are first and foremost people and that means they do things for lots of complicated reasons. And what Shakespeare does is take you inside the life of the person who you saw on the evening news and says 'well wait a minute, are they having trouble with their daughter at home? Wait a minute. Are there a whole set of other factors in their life that begin to explain what's going on?' You know one of the things that I love in this play and one of the reasons I like doing classics is the audience knows how it's gonna turn out. That's not what it's about. You know, most of the news is about somebody, you know, hurt somebody today. That's obvious. The question is why. The question is: what would drive a person to this? That's what never gets answered on the news. That's what never gets involved in our media is: where did we come from to arrive here? What Shakespeare wrote about is how we got there. What Shakespeare wrote about is not that just somebody wants to carve out someone else's heart is what you have to do to human being so they arrive at a point where all they want to do is carve your heart out.
Studs Terkel And just as Peter Sellars is talking, I'm sure many of you were thinking: yeah that's what we do see on TV that superficial shallow violent the blackface very usually black young male face. How this happened. Why? What is the back-
Peter Sellars And what is the structure? I mean again always to just get to the fact that the ghetto is not an accident. It is a structure. There are not, these are not personal problems. These are structural elements of a society that are in place.
Peter Sellars Absolutely.
Studs Terkel Just one one little labor point parenthetical to what you're saying. What is the how did this particular thing we have today come to be? The nature of life in the ghetto? Many and you spoke of capitalism you spoke of of more and more people controlling fewer controlling more and more things multinationalists closing factories. What was the work? Who was the role model of of black kids then under 30? Not they say doctors and lawyers. Doctors and lawyers move out whenever of any whenever this they always move out. The role models were the steelworkers or the packinghouse workers-
Peter Sellars Absolutely.
Peter Sellars -of the image of the children of Israel which is used again and again in the civil rights movement which is used again and again as these struggles come up. Century after century. And to feel those connections is emotionally really quite overwhelming. At the same time, you know, Shakespeare is giving you the inside story. He's saying, you know, these are the external signals, yes. But what do people live through in their lives? In fact, it's not just foreign policy, it's how you treat your wife. Is that, you know, if you can mine the harbors of Nicaragua, well that also has to do with creating a blockade in your own family. That also has to do with who you choose not to talk to. Where what conversations you have sealed off. What people you are no longer counting as your world.
Peter Sellars Exactly.
Peter Sellars And
Peter Sellars Absolutely.
Peter Sellars You
Peter Sellars Everybody's-
Peter Sellars Well, they're upwardly mobile you watch anybody who will do anything for a dollar. And you watch anybody who will do any move if it's gonna get them ahead including pretending they're in love. And maybe people are in love. But, of course, how do you use people? Shakespeare is this whole play is about exploitation. Are you using the person you're sleeping with every night? Or are you actually creating a reciprocal relationship? Is it are you is is somebody exists so that you can get what you want? Or are you beginning to allow somebody to exist because they're who they are? And is your life having to open up and having to change because you're allowing another person to change who you are? Shakespeare's quality of mercy is twice blessed because it blesses him that gives and him that takes. It's about not a one-way relationship and that's in marriages. That's with your boyfriends and girlfriends and that is between countries. That is between racial groups. That is between business and labor. That is twice blessed. What does it mean when the blessing moves in two directions instead of to the advantage of one?
Studs Terkel So it has to be if something national occurs on a multinational scale in a business sense in a commercial sense. It has to come down to the individual. And so today we see perhaps much more domestic violence than we have. Maybe maybe as much but we know more about it. But certainly the relationship of domestic violence and violence of one nation toward
Peter Sellars It's deep in the heart of this play. I mean and of course, the other thing that that Shakespeare is giving you in a way that's just heartbreaking is again and again you watch people know what they should do. And then 20 seconds later not do it.
Studs Terkel Well, listen to this here's Shakespeare. This is also I I I came across this particular por-passage. Now Portia's speech and in which that after her celebration speech from one of Peter Sellars' interviews. You you spotted it for me. We all know that that the quality of mercy not being very strained not strained at all, you know [laughter] in a quality of mercy and every kid knows that how beautiful it is to be merciful. And then what happens few later when finally he pulls a fast one.
Peter Sellars Seconds later she is so vicious with Shylock and she destroys a man. And you watch. There are three or four attempts to save him. Made by everyone else on stage and Portia says no and she grinds her heel into him. The viciousness of the woman who has just given the quality of mercy is heartbreaking. And all night long Shakespeare constantly has somebody say something inspired something visionary. Some insight that is so moving you want to cry. And minutes later they betray their own level of insight. They they're they're dishonest to their own highest impulse. And you watch, of course, it's like all of us. Every one of us knows what we should do. Every one of us should move in and stop certain things. Every one of us should move in and start other things. And yet we kind of don't.
Studs Terkel This is amazing. Here's a beautiful, you know, quality of mercy not being strange speech. And then she says that trick if you shed one piece of blood finally everything goes and then and finally he says I'll I'll I'll just take the interest. No not even. I'll just take the prin[ciple] from the other guy Gratiano and Antonio they say 'let him have it.' No no no. You wanted the laws yet another hold on you. Tarry. She's- law has tarried you. Connected in the laws of Venice proved against an alien an alien that there be direct-
Peter Sellars Right.
Peter Sellars -and you watch people of color before the law and suddenly the way the law gets used, you know. And and and so those issues I mean what's so shocking is that they're all there. But what Shakespeare also shows you is why she does this and why she does this is because she is freaked out that Antonio is Bassanio's homosexual lover. And Bassanio has just showed up and they've agreed to get married. And then suddenly she Bassanio says 'oh by the way I already have someone I'm engaged to and I've got to get out of that relationship first.' So you watch this trial scene in which not just Shylock's on trial, but in fact, Portia herself is on trial. Bassanio is on trial. Antonio is on trial and you watch. Why do people destroy other people? Well usually because they get caught like a like a drive-by gang shooting in the crossfire.
Studs Terkel I'm glad you t-I'm glad you touched on that on the homosexual relationship of Antonio and Bassanio because there's a sense underneath. But the, for one thing, by the way this that that rather feat in this instance. And Bassanio hasn't done much work of worth. Antonio is a merchant. All that goods out there. By the way, one subject, before we take our break. England great country and explorations the explorers and exploitation. Even in Dickens Pip in "Great Expectations" comes back and made a bundle where? Or or or his benefa[ctor] made the bundle in India.
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Peter Sellars -from Morocco, from China. You know, it's very clear it's a third world business that Antonio is engaged in. You know, and again Shakespeare's point is, you know, you you're saying usury is bad. Excuse me where does anybody's money come from? And once you start to examine, you know, where this wealthy capitalist got his money. Or are you morally superior if you inherited money? You know, suddenly you begin to look and you begin to see where everybody's money came from. Nobody's hands are clean. Nobody is morally superior to anybody-
Studs Terkel You know what's what's exciting about this and the word is explosive about this production is indeed all productions of Peter Sellars. This one especially because of the circumstances that led to it, Los Angeles and the outbreaks and everything else. And the world at this moment is that he he looks in deeper deeper into what Shakespeare had in mind. You said at the moment. We'll come to that. And the other productions too. Three four hundred years later of the Oratorios and others 20 years later. You can do things that the original guy couldn't do because it's too dangerous to do. The fact that years later a century two later after a classic is done that is, to some extent, the purpose of which may be hidden by the composer because of pressure-
Peter Sellars They have to cover their tracks and it's perfectly understandable and in fact it already takes a certain amount of, there's needless to say a certain amount of resistance when one finally does take a well-worn play that everybody knows and loves. And you suddenly say well maybe it's not what you learned in high school. Maybe there's other subject matter here. Or maybe there are reasons why this play has always been treated in a certain way because certain subject matter has been systematically denied by the society that's producing it. That is to say, it's very interesting the history of commentary on this play is mostly written by people of enormous privilege, you know, Oxford dons and so on who are living relatively comfortable lives, who don't actually see the world from the point of view of a Shylock. You know, who actually have never in life experience know what it's like to be on the other on the receiving end of what Shylock is experiencing. And and I think one of the most moving things about this beautiful cast that we have at the Goodman, I mean we have a cast of extraordinary artists, is is suddenly, you know, new elements of the play are just open up when the cast life experience presents a different set of situation. When you have somebody who grew up on the streets of Brooklyn, you know, in Bedford-Stuyvesant as Bassanio who knows what that street energy is and who knows how it's necessary to get out of the neighborhood at all costs.
Studs Terkel He's
Peter Sellars Abs-and you will take any train that's going, you know, you suddenly get that upward mobility in a very direct way. You know, that comes out of a very profound life experience. Or, for example, when you have a a a a young actor who's born in the Caribbean saying Shakespeare's lines you suddenly have a new notion of what rhythm might mean in Shakespeare. That these lines come to life in a whole other way. They sound different. You know, it's so interesting that, you know, we assume that the way to speak Shakespeare is the Royal Shakespeare Company, when in fact that has almost nothing to do with Shakespeare's English. Shakespeare was writing English at the time when the language wasn't agreed upon how to spell anything. When in fact, you know, the language was still in formation. And so when you get people who can speak on the street kids on the street right now speaking Shakespeare's lines again. The rhythm the way the language is just being invented by the people who are speaking it. The way the the the the the the slang is moving. The way the way the rhythm is moving. The way right now we have a whole generation of kids who express themselves with poetry in rhythm: rap music. You know, suddenly you bring that energy to bear on these lines. It is a million miles from the Royal Shakespeare Company. You are dealing with a whole other sense of vitality. I think most linguists agree that the sound of Shakespeare's English in his lifetime was much closer to that of a black Appalachian dialect. Was much closer to a kind of southern energy and I I think, of course, of the fantastic living tradition of Elizabethan English in the black gospel church where the King James Bible was given a whole new lease on life by slaves who created a huge rolling powerful rhetor-rhetorical music that opened up Elizabethan English into direct American experience.
Peter Sellars Energy.
Peter Sellars It is about energy and again in theater that's what we're doing. We're are getting everybody into a room to actually sense unmediated what the energy is of other human beings, you know. And of course, on television it gets filtered out. You because you're you're not really getting that energy reading. In the theater you suddenly are aware of what it's like to be someone else, you're in someone else's shoes for three hours, and you begin to get inside their metabolic system. Inside what it's like to have that burning inside
Studs Terkel Now we come to the challenge that's at the cast the nature of the ca[st]. We know through the last several years a great deal of that has been, what you call interracial or the phrase color blind which does not apply to what you're doing. It's not blind at all.
Peter Sellars No.
Peter Sellars Yes.
Peter Sellars What's marvelous about this cast is you you look at the names on the program sheet and it looks like it's been cast, you know, very literally, you know. And yet, of course, once you're on stage for five minutes the combination of Shakespeare and these marvelous artists explode any notion that you can think about people in terms of categories. That you can say 'oh Latinos are like that.' Every Latino actor on that stage is so different from each other. And of course, Shakespeare being Shakespeare all of the characters are so different from each other. So within the tribe what is so marvelous is that you see that, you know, the the the three Asian actresses onstage are so utterly different. You can't begin to generalize about the Asian experience. That that that that that that that-
Peter Sellars Absolutely that the African Americans onstage are so utterly different from each other and have enormous disagreements among themselves that you can hardly begin to say 'oh Blacks are like that' and 'all Blacks think this' and, you know, that you get out of this ridiculous categorical thinking by label. And again that's Shakespeare. Shakespeare shows you that within each tribe within each group even while they're attacking each other there is massive disagreement-
Studs Terkel Between
Peter Sellars -but also enormous potential of tremendous human yearning enormous that that every one of these human beings has dreams not to just be who they are but to be more than the world has allowed them to be. That in fact all of these people are trapped inside some image that other people have of them. But in fact there's this beautiful line Morocco says: 'Pause there Morocco. If-y if thou be beest valued at thine own worth by thine own estimation. You are worthy.' What does it, how do people actually secretly value themselves at their own estimation? And does the rest of the world around them begin to know what the value of a human being is? What gifts lie there? What enormous riches are present within a single human being?
Peter Sellars Right.
Peter Sellars Right. And then the judge, of course, is William Rehnquist because, you know, you can do anything you want at the street level. You can pass any laws you want but finally Bill Rehnquist will be there to turn the clock back. [laughing]
Peter Sellars Yes.
Peter Sellars Yes.
Peter Sellars Yes. And I think the sense of 'sufferance is the badge of all our tribe.' You know, 'you have spied upon me and I have borne it' that that Shylock's direct speeches about slavery. Shylock's direct speeches about, you know, 'haven't you eyes' and so on. You suddenly take that in a very powerful way when an African American is looking at you and saying those words.
Studs Terkel You know, I'm on the train to Washington. It's 1963. You know, the the I have a dream speech of King and the march around the reflecting pool. And this old man is seated next to me, he's old then, that was 1963. His name was Spencer. Old Black man from Louisiana. He says 'I don't figure this out why when. I eats like you eats. I sleeps like you sleep. I I think like you think, you know, I breathe the air that you breathe. And it's have I not eyes?
Peter Sellars Shakespeare.
Peter Sellars Exactly.
Peter Sellars That is one of the beauties of Shakespeare, is that these are words to live by. These are words that you do want to memorize. These are the words that you take into your life. It's not just a nice show. And I think, you know, one of the things that as you know from a number of my productions it's rarely a nice show. The show itself is a difficult mess and the audience is divided in all of
Peter Sellars Exactly.
Peter Sellars It's you take it home with you. It is it is takeout. You know, it is it is you're not consuming it there. You know, and that's why I never worry whether people like the show or not. I never worry because frankly I don't care whether they like it or not. What's more important to me is that when they leave that theater they can't shake it. You know, and I when I when we did "Don Giovanni" in Paris the the Figaro gave us the most vicious. The man was apoplectic. He was so angry this reviewer and he said you know 'this vile disgusting spectacle [Studs Terkel laughing] you know is so horrible that when you get home the stench is still with you. You know, and I love that. That was so touching.
Studs Terkel As you say this, you know, when Shaw was a drama critic and he loved Ibsen, you know, he covered in the Ibsen and he real-he was telling of a certain critic. Well on paper Clement something who was crazy. It's the phrase you just Figaro used against used phrase used against Ibsen.
Peter Sellars Right.
Peter Sellars Exactly.
Peter Sellars Right. And and also, you know, the other thing is you may think the show is boring. Just like frankly if you attend a community meeting there may be some boring parts, but actually, you're learning something. Actually don't be so quick to judge. Don't be so quick to decide what's important and what isn't important because Shakespeare's point is there are no unimportant countries. There are no unimportant people. There are nothing unimportant in this world. Everything is acting upon everything else. And the thing you thought was unimportant actually is extremely important to someone else. So actually, hold off your own judgment for a moment and just listen a little more and look
Peter Sellars 'Judge not that ye be not judged.' And this play is about a trial where the wrong judgment is reached and the fact is can you live with it? Here are a group of people who are very pleased with themselves for having subverted justice, for having denied the claim of a group of people in the courts, and they think now they can go and have their little love affair. And Shakespeare a lot of people have wondered why is act five follow on act four because the big trial is over? Why do we need to have this strange denouement, this strange letdown, where all these people are just kind of standing around talking about their rings. And in fact Shakespeare's point is: you can't live as a nation in the presence of injustice, but also you can't live as lovers in the
Peter Sellars -is built into this play. One of the things that Shakespeare does. I think one of the verses that the whole play is based on is when the the the the the man comes up to Jesus in the Bible, the young man, and says 'What do I have to do to have eternal life?' And Jesus says 'oh follow the commandments, respect your parents, you know, do not steal, do not kill, and love your neighbor as yourself.' And the man is so 'yeah I've done that. No problem. What else?' And Jesus says 'well actually what you have to do is sell everything you have and give it to the poor.' And then there's this marvelous verse in the Bible that says 'well the young man went away sad for he had great possessions. You know, finally the limit is you're not willing to let go of your money. You know, finally that's the limit. Well, Shakespeare when the young man comes up to Jesus he says, you know, 'good master what do I have to do you have eternal life?' Jesus says 'call no man good. Nobody's good but God.' Shakespeare's point is every time the word good is used in the play it's used by somebody who is committing some atrocity. It is used by somebody lying. It is used to somebody who is lying. And Shakespeare shows you th-that the word good is this perversion. That self-righteousness that people who think they're good are already the problem. And that, in fact, he contrasts that with the word honest where honest may not be pretty. Honest may not be nice. Honest may not be what you would like to see, but it's honest, as opposed to again and again good, which is what everyone thinks they want to see but is, in fact, dishonest and corrupt and constantly evil. And so Shakespeare says you know we have to go for things that are at least honest that may not be pleasant. And because the world basically, you know, God created the people you hate. You have to deal with that. God didn't that's why I I said I don't mind if people don't like my show because God didn't create the [Studs Terkel laughing] world based on what you like or don't like. You know, there's a whole set of other things in the world that you don't particularly like, but actually are also created by God. And you have to begin to make a space for that in your-
Studs Terkel Jews and Blacks both were expelled from, you know, the old phrase from Parrington, the American historian, when Columbus 1492, Columbus discovered America and that same year Ferdinand and Isabella discover the Jews.
Peter Sellars Right.
Studs Terkel And
Peter Sellars -Columbus's voyages were paid for by extortionary taxes on the Jewish community. But in any case the the the key is Studs, obviously, we do this not 'cause we're just angry because that's silly. We do this and the reason why Shakespeare wrote a romance is 'cause finally it's all about love. It's all
Peter Sellars -extraordinary as Shylock he's just he is a great he's from Chicago. He's one of the great stars. He's gone on to New York and he comes back in triumph with this role. He's one of the most a man of such deep integrity such deep personal integrity. And what I wanted to get, you know, so so often they cast some exotic, you know, Dustin Hoffman or somebody as Shylock who stands out from the rest of the cast. I wanted Shylock to just be human, to be humane, to not be a star turn, but to be actually a small businessman who's struggling and who is profoundly decent. And what happens when you take a profoundly decent man and push him to the point where he wants to kill you?
Peter Sellars Right.
Studs Terkel After
Studs Terkel But now we have so we have Shylock and Tubal and the other Jews of the play [unintelligible]. A Black actress. Now we come to Portia and her company Nerissa and the others with Portia. They're played by Asians. Perhaps a word about that.
Peter Sellars I think there's a very interesting tension, of course, right now in America as as the Asians are the golden minority, you know, who have now the highest college admissions and who have, you know, and who are about a certain level of success. A certain level of prosperity is being achieved in Asian communities around the country. Now obviously, the the toll of this is unbearable when you know that the first generation of Korean immigrants, you know, parents with three jobs who never saw their children. And a whole generation of Korean kids who've grown up never seeing their parents and resenting that. And who, in fact, don't want to speak Korean at home. They want to speak English. You know, and you're getting, you know, you're getting that classic-
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Peter Sellars -classic pattern, you know, underway now of, you know, where success but at what cost? You know we're missing a life. You know, we have the money but there is no life to go with it. You know, those kind of tensions that are felt so profoundly classically in the second and third-generation immigrants. The kids the rebellion against their parents. The sense of living according to your parents, you know, within the the the the Asian tradition of of filial piety within, you know, the notion of of your father's will, you know, which is so extraordinary when you have a young Asian woman rebelling against her father's will. Now Shakespeare, of course, in this play, since it's primarily a religious play, and every line in the play virtually opens with somebody saying 'I pray you' etc. Shakespeare knew how to write the word please. He didn't. He said 'I pray you' over and over and over again to get us to ring a little bell there and your father's will is actually, of course, you know, thy will not mine be done. You know it's he Shakespeare uses his father's will in a very profound way. At the same time, when you put that within the context of an Asian heritage you get an extraordinary sense of the kind of Confucian weight, you know, of of the respect of th-young people must live according to the will of the elders.
Peter Sellars Well, you watch Portia, you know, in a very sheltered very frightened young woman who's has her money between her and the rest of the world. And it's so interesting that, you know, she she complains, you know, at the beginning of the play that she can't marry anyone she wants. She has to abide by this lottery that her father set up in his will. Well, of course, in fact, if she's really in love with somebody and she wants to marry them she could immediately marry them. All she has to do is walk out the front door and leave her Bel Air home and all the money behind [both men laughing] What she's unwilling to do is leave the money. And that's why she has to obey her father's will. You know, again you always Shakespeare always shows you that people's motives are quite clouded by their financial ambition.
Peter Sellars I should just mention, I should mention one other thing though though just within the context of the Asianness of Portia is Nerissa her her her friend is, I think, a kind of Tibetan I think of as a kind of Tibetan master a spiritual guide who who who Portia's hired to to be there, you know. And I'm sure Portia Portia's home has like rooms with shelves floor to ceiling of self-help books, you know, in every, you know, from every religious, you know, point of view. You know, this is a young woman who opens the play, like Antonio, suicidal. This is somebody who says 'there's something missing in my life and I don't know what. And yet, I'm trapped by my money. I'm unwilling to let go of it.' Just like Antonio. And Shakespeare parallels Antonio and Portia through the entire play as the two lovers of Bassanio as two people who are so obsessed with their money. And where does love come in relation to their money? And so both, you know, Antonio opens up the play with this amazing speech, you know, that is America in the 90s. 'In sooth, I know not why I'm so sad. It wearies me. You say it wearies you, but how I came by it. Caught it I don't know,' You know, in fact, that this money is what's inside this kind of strange, you know, if I may use a word from George Bush malaise this strange un-you know, just disquiet that people feel even in the midst of their success. And Portia has Nerissa there to constantly- Shakespeare gives he puts in Nerissa's mouth these gorgeous religious truths that could come from the Dhammapada or that could could could come from from the the Dao De Ching and and and and you get this this this profound Buddhist presence in in Nerissa. At the same time, you know, on the question of the Antonio
Studs Terkel Latino.
Peter Sellars -you get this this, you know, extraordinary energy. I mean what I'm very thrilled by again this cast is so virtuosic. Gino really the the the man who plays who plays Antonio is is from the southwest and has this fantastic Native American Latino combination of tremendous from the earth at the same time as somebody who is a tool of the system and a real, you know, one of the great Chicana Republicans, you know, who will no doubt become secretary of education or something else that nobody cares that much about. This this sense of somebody who's in some way sold their identity to become something new and what are the costs of that? At the same time, what are the convictions of that? And Shakespeare again you can't judge anyone-
Studs Terkel You know, as you say this, now it makes sense comes up the three different groups plus those two clown figures on the side. Gobbo and the old man. But this is gonna be this is what you call open end. We're gonna end this we're talking now because I know I know perhaps Sydney can arrange it later on after production. We've got to have
Studs Terkel That's-
Peter Sellars -and the beautiful thing is that you get all these people in one room and then you start to watch them interact. And you start to know in Bassanio's incredible words 'so may the outward shows be least themselves.' That who you thought someone was isn't who they are at all. That you can't judge anybody by who they look like. You know, the great line of Morocco 'mislike me not for my complexion.' You know, is from my complexion you don't know one thing about me. Is that every human being is worlds within worlds within worlds and we are seeing the tiniest tip of what those worlds are. And the beauty of Shakespeare is this astounding poetry takes you inside people's dreams, inside people's aspirations, inside people's fear, inside people's self-hatred, inside, you know, the the ways in which, you know, again as Bassanio says 'nothing but that ugly treason of mistrust which makes me fear the enjoyment of my love.' How many of us are living every day with this treason where we are betraying ourselves because we mistrust the thing we love? We feel this urge inside us to love and yet, at the same time, we're nervous we mistrust it. We don't dare go all the way. So instead we kind of botch it. We fumble the ball or we're just kind of passive or we just withdraw we retreat and we let somebody else go forward and do something that, of course, is a disaster. And that ugly treason of mistrust Shakespeare is about our own self-doubt, our own inability to take the voice inside of ourselves that is talking to us and to listen to it. And then as Portia's says good words well-spoken and and Nerissa says immediately to her 'they would be better if well practiced.' What is it like to know everything as we all do? Everybody knows.
Studs Terkel I feel like an intruder coming here [laughing] on Peter Sellars and his reflections. And what is quite obviously an explosive theatrical experience in seeing "The Merchant of Venice" Goodman Theatre October 10th through the end of-
Peter Sellars Right.
Peter Sellars Let's