One of the oldest taboos in history: Interview with Dan Hodge on The Rape of Lucrece

Dan Hodge is a Barrymore-winning actor and the co-founding artistic director of The Philadelphia Artists’ Collective (PAC), which sets out to promote rarely performed classical plays. In November, PAC continues its 2014/15 season with Federico Garcia Lorca’s Blood Wedding. Hodge, who studied classical acting at the Old Globe in San Diego, is directing Hedgerow Theatre’s Hamlet, which opens October 23, 2014.

But Philadelphia audiences are still buzzing about his performance of Shakespeare’s The Rape of Lucrece. PAC’s production received some of the most outstanding reviews of the 2014 Philadelphia Fringe Festival and was voted by The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Toby Zinman as the best performance. The poem is based on the Roman tale of Lucretia (around 508 BCE), a figure most historians believe existed. Lucretia’s rape led to the overthrow of the Roman monarchy and has inspired many writers and artists over the centuries.

Henrik Eger talked to Hodge about his acclaimed production, which he will take on the road, starting with the Bridge Street Theatre in Catskill, NY, November 7-9, 2014;,

The Rape of Lucretia by Hans von Aachen, German 1600.
The Rape of Lucretia by Hans von Aachen, German 1600.

Henrik Eger: Many people today have trouble with Elizabethan English.
Dan Hodge: There is a common misunderstanding that leads the average person to believe that Shakespeare is confusing or impossible to understand, and I find this very unfortunate. The works can be and should be challenging, yes, but with a little effort, they yield immense dividends.

Dan Hodge, Rape of Lucrece, photo by WideEyedStudios.
Dan Hodge, Rape of Lucrece, photo by WideEyedStudios.

A solid chunk of Shakespeare’s writing can be like a multi-course meal. The layers of meaning keep unfolding and one can see how a simple literary allusion can give rise to an immense and complex set of emotional and intellectual possibilities.

The more one speaks the language, the more one learns about how he was trying to communicate. Often, the sound of a word, or a particular grouping of words, can give you an immediate window into the human element.

HE: What did you do to prepare for this role?
DH: During much of the construction of this performance, my wife, Krista, was in preparation for Gina Gionfriddo’s Rapture, Blister, Burn at the Wilma this fall. I don’t know much about the play, but she has been voraciously reading feminist theory, both old and new, as part of her research into her character. We have had numerous conversations about how the societal expectations of women have changed even in the last 20 years, let alone since 1594.

Tarquinius and Lucretia (1610), by Rubens.
Tarquinius and Lucretia (1610), by Rubens.

HE: Did you consult other theater artists?
DH: The PAC’s resident designer Katherine Fritz sent along a great number of links to articles about sexual abuse and rape culture. There were articles about “Men’s Rights” groups, and interviews with survivors of rape. It was a lot of really intense and emotionally exhausting reading.

One of the scenarios that arose repeatedly was a woman having to explain her situation to a room full of men, who may or may not have believed her story, and who were charged with handling the situation. This cracked open the end of the piece as I found Lucrece in exactly the same situation. A crowd of men accompany her husband home, and she relates the events of her assault and calls for action.

Dan Hodge by Kevin Monko
Dan Hodge by Kevin Monko

HE: How did your preparations influence your performance?
DH: Whenever I work on a speech within a classical play, I ask myself the question, why is this a speech? What is the thing you need from the listener that you are not getting? Lucrece covers the details of the event itself pretty succinctly but goes on for several more stanzas trying to justify herself in this circumstance.

Suddenly, I saw her as someone who had survived this horrible event standing in a room of men who were not immediately convinced. In that moment, there was a crystallization of victim-blaming, and it was horrifying.

HE: How are you drawing a modern American audience into this highly complex poem, based on an incident that took place 2,500 years ago?
DH: While The Rape of Lucrece was not necessarily written to be spoken publicly, the hallmarks of Shakespeare’s meticulous aural construction are readily evident. The trick is taking something that would likely intimidate the average person sitting in a theatre and guide them through it in a way that is clear and engaging. Teach an audience how to hear what you want to say, and often they will come for the ride.

Dan Hodge, Rape of Lucrece 2 by Kate Raines
Dan Hodge, Rape of Lucrece by Kate Raines

HE: Unfortunately, sexual violence occurs around the world on a daily basis throughout history—not only during wars. Your performance was very physical and showed us both the act of rape and the victim’s experience. How did you prepare for these wide-ranging actions?
DH: I knew I wanted the act itself to take place in darkness, as suggested by the poem. The question was how to impress upon an audience how violent and desperate the physicality leading up to [the rape] was to serve as the proper springboard for the audience’s imagination.

Tarquin’s language is so direct and violent that I felt it was important to find incredibly specific and dynamic moments to communicate the immediacy of his intention. The language afforded to Lucrece is far more fraught and shifts tactics several times. We watch her grasping for anything she can find to forestall the inevitable.

HE: Your performance was so intense that you perspired profusely.
DH: It certainly wasn’t helped by the heat wave we got on our opening weekend! It’s been remarkably pleasant all summer, and then we get 90 degree temperatures for the first few performances in a space devoid of air conditioning. That was a real bummer.

But I find there are certain parts of this piece that always get my heat up. Once Tarquin enters Lucrece’s bedchamber, I could perform in a meat locker and still work up a sweat. Sweat is also very human. It ended up becoming part of the construction of the evening. At the beginning of the performance, I am very put together—but by the end, I am rumpled and drenched in sweat with my wild hair. In this way, you not only see the toll that the events take within the story, but the cost of being the one who tells it.

Tarquin and Lucretia by Titian, 1571.
Tarquin and Lucretia by Titian, 1571.

HE: As recently as this month, Emma Sulkowicz, a Columbia student, was sexually assaulted in her dorm room. Partially in protest of the university’s dismissal of her case, and partially as performance art, she carries a mattress around campus at all times. This is part of her senior thesis, titled Carry the Weight. I was disturbed by this scenario and devastated by Tarquin’s verdict “the fault is thine”—an ancient form of victim-blaming. How do you connect to this student and her piece?
DH: There is also mention of the rapist in Macbeth of “Tarquin’s ravishing strides.” I read about her just as we were getting ready to open, and my heart went out to her. Again, we have a woman who is seeking for someone to believe her, and more than that, to act in her defense. The defense may be belated, but there is this sense that something should be done, and yet nothing has. The lack of agency these [victims] are left with is astounding.

I recently read that there were a number of other students who have joined this young woman [to help her] carry the mattress in a show of solidarity. While it cheers me to know that she is not wholly alone, I wonder what weight it carries with the administration and whether it will give rise to substantial action.

I thought about this particular news story every night when I reached the end of the play. What should the punishment be? That is the question I try to leave the audience with at the end of each performance.

HE: The overview of the PAC mission states, “We do not go to a Shakespeare play to learn about Shakespeare. We go to learn about ourselves.” The same applies to The Rape of Lucrece. I left the theatre thrilled by your performance, but also deep in thought about the darker side of man. Thank you, Dan Hodge.

Dan Hodge, Rape of Lucrece poster

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