I, Caliban: some notes from the playwright
This was the first of the FairyMonsterGhost plays I wrote – in 2003. I was asked by the Brighton Festival to do something with Shakespeare for young people. Whatever it was could be up to me – only, they didn’t have much money, so I couldn’t write a big play with lots of actors.
I played Antonio in a production of The Tempest at the Bristol Old Vic – a long time ago! I was also lucky enough to play the part of Prospero more recently - in a theatre in New York. The Tempest is a fantastic and magical play.
I also do a lot of teaching with young people. I knew that many have problems getting past Shakespeare’s language and into the story. So I thought it would be good to tell the story of the play in a way which everyone could understand.
Caliban has always been one of my favourite characters in Shakespeare’s plays. He’s funny and angry and ugly and naughty and rude and sad. He says some dirty things and he also says some beautiful things. He’s had a hard life. He gets things wrong. He doesn’t think! He gets carried away. And he’s treated really badly. I love him, and I feel sorry for him. There’s a bit of all of us in Caliban!
Caliban wants to be free. But when freedom is offered him he does the wrong thing with it! D’oh!
He’s not a Duke or a Prince. He’s the son of an ugly old witch – but he loves his mum. And when his mum dies he’s discovered by Prospero who tries to turn him into something that he’s not. Prospero tries to ‘civilise’ Caliban – to make Caliban into someone like a Duke or a gentleman. To make him think, rather than feel. And when Caliban is unable to become something different, then Prospero really punishes him. That’s what makes Caliban grumpy.
One of my favourite moments in I, Caliban is when I cover my face in rubber bands and ask the audience to agree that I’m ugly. I then tell them that they’d be ugly if they’d had a life like mine. I get the audience to laugh at me; then I immediately get them to feel bad about laughing at me, and to understand why I am the way I am.
Lots of other characters in The Tempest describe Caliban as a monster. But I don’t think he’s a monster like the Abominable Snowman or Frankenstein’s monster. I just think he’s different from everyone else – and people who are different are often thought of as freaks. That’s why there’s no real costume for Caliban – he wears my everyday clothes, but with a pair of ‘monstrous’ feet! The feet are really funny and also quite sad.
Prospero teaches Caliban how to speak. In I, Caliban I assume that Prospero has also taught Caliban about music – ‘civilised’ music! Prospero magics a ‘Masque’ for the wedding of his daughter, which would have been very musical. Music is something that you ‘feel’ – and Caliban is a very feeling person. I’ve made the decision that this love of music is one thing that stays with Caliban when Prospero leaves him. Caliban throws away Prospero’s books, but he keeps his music. This gave me the image of a sort of Desert Island Discs – Caliban, alone, with his tape machine, playing pieces of music that he loves. Music that accompanies the story that he tells.