WAS THE CHOICE FOR ENGLISH LITERATURE BETWEEN SHAKESPEARE AND BEN JONSON? Vidal views Romulus as a “classic” play—a European play rather than an American play. Vidal argues that the turning point in the history of English and American theater has been the choice of whether to follow Shakespeare or Ben Jonson. He quotes approvingly a British critic who wrote that: “…with the death of [Ben] Jonson the intellectuals abandoned the English theatre and never returned.”
Vidal also argues that because of Shakespeare, English theater treats characters differently than French classic theater does. For Vidal, Duerrenmatt is in the classic tradition. “He does not give us characters as we are used to them….He gives us…humors….” This created a problem for an American audience: “…for our theatre I would have to drive the narrative harder and make characters”. Duerrenmatt’s play “lacked characters and it needed at least two”: Romulus and his Gothic adversary. Shakespeare had changed what we expect of characters: “Shakespeare and Dickens have permanently influenced their descendants in English. We demand full human creations in our literature.”
All I remember of Romulus is that I found it to be static and uninteresting. Vidal’s essay persuades me that my experience was not just a matter of one evening’s bad luck, but reflected some major issues in the theater.