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Caius Marcius Berkoff

an essay and a one-act play on Berkoff´s Coriolanus

Copyright © 2002 Ken Lauter



Theatre is memory... a memory indelibly printed in the mind as something precious, since it cannot be re-examined like a film... [A stage actor’s] shared moments in theatre [are] the most valued, since we have shared it with him or her on that night. The night we saw Baryshnikov, Brando, Olivier, Jose Ferrer, Henry Fonda, Orson Welles, etc. etc.

Steven Berkoff

Free Association, An Autobiography

In 1996, my wife and I went to England for the first time in our lives, expecting to find the best Shakespeare in the world done by the Royal Shakespeare Company; but most of the RSC productions of the Bard we saw were moribund? stiff, passionless, and at times just plain stupid. We were appalled. We’d seen better, much better? even in America.

One non-RSC production redeemed everything, however. It was the first play we saw? and the last before getting on the plane for home. In between, we saw it twice more. On our first night in London, we came up from Blackfriars Station, crossed Puddle Dock Road, with the Thames sliding by in the dusk a block away, walked out of the sweltering London heat into the Mermaid Theatre, and were introduced to a Roman General named Caius Marcius Coriolanus? played by an actor we had never even heard of.

Coriolanus at The Mermaid

Ken Lauter about to meet Caius Marcius Coriolanus ? London, 1996

Berkoff’s “beloved Coriolanus,” as he calls the play, was a volcanic tour de force? so dynamic, so real, it seemed as if the Bard himself had strolled into the Mermaid and whispered the secret of the play to Berkoff sotto voce. In the lead role, Berkoff was magnificent? in the way that only a stage actor can be? and the production as a whole was electric, moving, and above all, overwhelmingly alive.

So we were astounded (and heartbroken) by the weakness of the ovation and the few bravos. “What’s wrong with these Brits, ” I wondered, “don’t they know what they’ve got here?” On closing night, I asked Berkoff for an autograph. Hampered by a broken arm that I’d lugged around England for weeks, I felt awkward and (as a wannabe playwright) pretty intimated. When I told him this was the absolutely the greatest Shakespeare I’d ever seen, he said: “Tell the newspapers!” “Which ones?” I asked. He cocked an eye at me and growled: “All of ‘em!”

I sent letters to several London dailies, arguing that it was time for Steven to join the ranks of Sir Larry, Sir Ralph, Sir John, and Sir Ian in knighthood. Not one paper printed my paean; but those four performances of Coriolanus in London almost seven years ago now were a revelation to me and have become an indelible memory. Theatre is memory. The night we saw Keane, or Irving, or Olivier. The night we saw Berkoff!

KL - Nacogdoches, Texas - 2002


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The essay: Like a Warrior--
Laughter, Gender, and Death in Steven Berkoff’s Coriolanus
click to go to the playclick to go to the play The play: Knowing Their Names


About the Author

Ken has published two books of poetry (The Other Side and Before the Light) and written five plays, as well as a number of critical essays, on such subjects as politics, the intellectual history of Marilyn Monroe, and the theatre of Steven Berkoff. He currently lives with his wife Judy, a neuroscientist at Stephen F. Austin State University, in Nacogdoches, Texas, in the Piney Woods of “Deep East.”

Born in Kansas City Missouri in 1943, he attended the United States Naval Academy (resigning after his second year) and the University of Missouri at Kansas City, where he received a B.A. in English. In 1966 he received an M.A. in English from the University of Michigan, where he won a Hopwood Award for Poetry. He has also done additional graduate work at the University of Denver and Washington University at St. Louis, where he held a Shubert Playwriting Fellowship and completed an A.B.D. in 19th Century British Literature in 1978.

He has taught at four universities, served as an Administrative Assistant to the Mayor of St. Louis, and as Assistant Dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Arizona in Tucson. While there, he led a six-year environmental campaign to prevent urban development near the Saguaro National Monument.


Copyright © 2002 Ken Lauter
Included on the site with the kind permission of Ken Lauter.



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