Thursday, February 21, 2013

As You Like It: Killing Adam

Shakespeare, William. As You Like It. Mr. VVilliam Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies: Published According To The True Originall Copies. London: Printed by Isaac Iaggard and Ed. Blount, 1623. 185-207.

I'd love to start a conversation about a decision that is not uncommon in productions of As You Like It—one that was part of the recent production that The Acting Company put on at the Dowling Studio of the Guthrie Theatre.

In As You Like It, Orlando is accompanied in his flight to the Forest of Arden by Old Adam, a loyal servant of his family's house. When Adam says, "Dear master, I can go no further. O, I die for food! Here lie I down, and measure out my grave. Farewell, kind master" (II.vi.1-3), Orlando first finds shelter for him and then goes to seek food for him. He encounters the banished Duke and his followers, and they hospitably invite him to eat with them. Orlando exits to bring Adam to the meal, Jaques delivers his "All the world's a stage" speech, and Orlando and Adam re-enter. Adam's last speech in the play is "I scarce can speak to thank you for myself" (II.vii.170).

Not long after that point in the production staged at the Guthrie—and in other productions I've heard about—Adam dies.

I'll be frank: I don't like the decision. The death of Adam seems to run contrary to the nature of things in the play. The Forest of Arden has an amazing power to dissipate sorrow and anger. It even converts the evil Duke Frederick. To have Adam die during the feast—in the production at the Guthrie, he died while Amiens was singing "Heigh-ho, the holly! / This life is most jolly" (II.vii.182-83)—places a deep emptiness at the heart of the forest.

But I'll also be frank about this: I understand the decision. Adam has no more lines, no more entrance cues, no more words from the other characters. On a practical level, he can make a final exit at this point. On a philosophical level, his death can embody the unmentioned Eighth Age of Man that hovers in the air just after the conclusion of Jaques' speech:
                                Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness, and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans every thing. (II.vii.163-66)
These words already seem a little tasteless when Adam, who might almost be described by these words, enters immediately afterwards. But, since the character of Adam is literally in his last scene of all (as far as we can credit the stage directions, which isn't really all that far), the decision to have him pass beyond that state into death is comprehensible.

However, I prefer a more optimistic use of Adam. In the 1994 animated version of As You Like It, for example, Adam and the others carry on with their feasting and singing regardless of Jaques' melancholy conclusion (for which, q.v.).

I'd love to know your thoughts—please provide them in the comments below! Should Adam die? Should he live? What difference does it make to the play one way or the other?

4 comments:

Bill said...

I've seen Adam die in production and found it moving. I didn't seem so much a sad moment, but just the natural conclusion to the ages of man. He was eighty, after all.

Still, I preferred the decision from another production I saw much better. Adam simply joins in the group. When Jacques asked "Which is he that killed the deer?", it is Adam who replies "Sir, it was I." He's rejuvenated, back on his feet, and fulfilling the "strong and lusty" promise he made to Orlando earlier in the play.

kj said...

Thanks for the comment, Bill. I'm with you--I really like the idea that Adam (unlike, say, Lear) finds peace in his retirement in the country.

kj

Zounds said...

Hi. I found your blog as I'm doing a doctorate on older people and loneliness and was interested in Jacques' famous speech and what immediately follows it. Why I wanted to include this in my thesis was because my old English teacher over 25 years ago told our class that Adam's entrance immediately after Jaques' speech was to entirely deflate what he has just said. Jaques articulates that old age is useless but what happens next is Orlando brings in a loyal and strong willed old man as a visual prompt that what Jaques is saying is not entirely the full story. Or at least that's what my old English teacher thought. And I think I agree. Just wanted to share.

kj said...

Thanks, Zounds! I agree completely. Adam's old age is not nearly as bleak as Jaques' speech paints old age in general.

And your dissertation sounds very interesting. Any way to work King Lear in?

kj

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