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Titus, Broadway, and Disney’s Magic Capitalism; or, the Wonderful World of Julie Taymor

Anderson argues that corporate or media allegory as a hermeneutic practice offers necessary context for understanding creative production and that, in the case of Julie Taymor’s film Titus, it alters how we might view the film’s representation of historical, cultural, and familial relationships. Anderson claims that the film extends Shakespeare’s ambivalence over a Roman cultural and religious inheritance to her own position as an inheritor of two legacies—one, the historical avant-garde and two, the wonderful world of Disney. In making Titus her first film after the considerable success of her Disney collaboration The Lion King, Taymor delegitimizes her corporate partnership by symbolically disowning her Disney past: like young Lucius at the end of the film who walks into pixilated sunrise and away from what has become a Roman mausoleum, the director rejects Disney’s powerful corporate legacy that promises to shape the reception of her avant-garde work.

In the final act of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, Titus kills his daughter Lavinia after engaging in an act of literary interpretation with the Roman emperor Saturninus. To Titus, the reason for his decision to murder his daughter is self-evident, legitimated, indeed even compelled by the requirements of historical and literary precedent. Titus’s lesson in literary and historical analysis begins with a question to Saturninus:

  My Lord the emperor, resolve me this:
  Was it well done of rash Virginius
  To slay his daughter with his own right hand,
  Because she was forced, stained and deflowered?

  It was, Andronicus.

  Your reason, mighty lord?

  Because the girl should not survive shame,
  And by her presence still renew his sorrows.

  A reason mighty, strong, and effectual:
  A pattern, precedent, and lively warrant [End Page 66]
  For me, most wretched, to perform the like.
{Unveils Lavinia}
Die, die, Lavinia . . .


At the core of Titus’s lesson in reading and interpretation is his commitment to history’s galvanizing force in the present—his sense that Roman history actively shapes the way he lives now. For Titus, though, Livy’s account of Virginius and Virginia is more than an interpretative frame that functions as a roadmap that determines his revenge. The story provides him a reason for his action that is both “strong” and “effectual,”2 as if the historical account of a father’s murder of his daughter has a transactional authority beyond its symbolic, instructive dimension. Describing the historical mandate to murder his daughter as a “lively warrant,” Titus’s pedagogical imperative to Saturninus is that Roman history has a performative force that extends into the present.

With its focus on children in Titus Andronicus, Julie Taymor’s 1999 film Titus exposes the faults in Titus’s hermeneutic gesture. Her film foregrounds the contradictory condition of children in the play, as at once legitimate inheritors of classical tradition and symbolic bastards—illegitimate, abandoned, disowned by, and disowning their legacy. I argue that Taymor’s depiction of the play’s familial relationships and the excessive violence that destroys families also provides insight into the director’s relationship with the Disney corporate family. The Walt Disney Company had financed Taymor’s most economically successful artistic business venture to date—the Broadway production of its wildly profitable film The Lion King, which has grossed worldwide to date approximately $783,841,776 in movie box office revenue (Box Office 2010). Because of the financially successful collaboration between Taymor and Disney, corporate executives at Disney established their relationship with the artist as a pattern for future creative projects. By 2001, the new corporate model for major Disney productions involved a “beloved Disney property” shaped by the vision of an “accomplished avant-garde artist,” with the promise of both commercial and critical success (Boehm 2003). Commenting on this type of corporate strategy, Andreas Huyssen has explored the processes by which the avant-garde, characterized by its “embodiment of anti-tradition,” has “itself become tradition, but moreover, . . . its inventions and its imagination have become integral even to Western culture’s most official manifestations” (1986, 161). Equally, David Savran has recently shown how “the increasing exploitation of nonprofit theatres for their artists and product by commercial producers intent on replenishing their stores of cultural and symbolic capital” is one important reason for the impotence of the avant-garde as an artistic, cultural, and political force (2005, 12). Herbert Blau, Taymor’s mentor who introduced her to many of her experimental stage techniques, echoes Huyssen’s and Savran’s pessimistic assessment of the future of the avant-garde. Blau contends that late-twentieth-century audiences “can be pretty much assured, what-ever young artists do, that the cultural apparatus and system of reproduction, controlled by Disney and MCA, with Microsoft moving in, will have saturated [End Page 67] the image repertoire, occupying the unconscious like a kind of second nature, determining the character of what they do” (1983, 174).

Public comments after the huge success of the staged version of The Lion King suggest that Taymor perceived little conflict between Disney’s corporate strategy and her own artistic objectives (Gold 1998). By 2000, however, Taymor hints at her dissatisfaction with aspects of her Disney collaboration. “The reason I went from The Lion King to Titus,” she explains, “was to go as far away from The Lion King in as many ways as possible. I like the message of The Lion King, so I’m not putting it down, but {there isn’t} the depth of what Shakespeare’s written” (Breslauer 2000). In an effort to make sense of the shift in Taymor’s perception of her Broadway production within the context of her position as both a commercial and experimental artist, I will argue that her 1999 film Titus can be viewed as a rejection of the “pattern, precedent, and lively warrant” (5.3.44) inaugurated by her successful collaboration with the Disney family.

In what follows, I hope to show that by drawing her viewers’ attention to children who are simultaneously nurtured by and victims of Roman violence, Taymor’s film version of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus allegorizes the director’s desire to walk away from her Disney legacy. In exploring how both Shakespeare and Taymor make the status of children central to both the play and film,3 I link representations of Aaron and Tamora’s bastard child in the play and the film to issues of cultural inheritance from classical Rome, the English Reformation, and twentieth-century Disney.4 By connecting the way these artists understand how history is embedded in their work, I suggest that both Shakespeare and Taymor are able to allegorize their resistance to the very cultural conditions that give rise to their creative enterprises. More specifically, the film Titus is a powerful expression of the anxiety produced by what had increasingly become an uncomfortable position for Taymor as an inheritor of two legacies—one, the historical avant-garde, and two, the wonderful world of Disney.

The term ‘avant-garde’ describes important aspects of Taymor’s work and follows Disney executives’ own use of the term describing its new pattern for future collaborations with avant-garde artists to wed Disney mass appeal with sophisticated aesthetics. More importantly, however, my use of the term in this essay is associated with a concept of culture informed by Taymor’s strong affiliation with artistic communities that modernist critics such as Clement Greenberg, Peter Büger, and Theodor Adorno might characterize as avant-garde in their relationship to popular or commercial art.5 Taymor herself notes the connection between her mentor Herbert Blau and the avant-garde theater of Jerzy Grotowski and Peter Brook (Schechner 1999, 41). Her own dance troupe Teatr Loh, formed in the early 1970s and based on her experiences traveling in Indonesia, incorporates many aspects identified by Bürger with the historical avant-garde—revolt against the autonomy of the aesthetic, a desacralization of art, and a delight in provoking shock (Savran 2003, 12). In Titus we see the legacy of this experimental background in the film’s use of masks, its immersion in and interrogation of ritual, its highly stylized theatricality and use of montage, and in the way that it makes [End Page 68] fragmentation and disintegration integral to its aesthetic form (Leslie 2002, 122; Ghita 2009, 207–16).

In choosing to make Titus her first film after the considerable success of The Lion King, Taymor effectively ‘bastardizes’ herself. In the representation of her corporate relationship with Disney that I suggest subtends Titus, Taymor’s most dramatic expression of her desire to flee Disney’s legacy occurs in the film’s final scene, in which young Lucius—Titus’s grandson (Osheen Jones)—carries another child, Aaron and Tamora’s bastard son (Bah Souleymane) and “sorrowful issue” (4.2.68), into what appears to be a sunrise. Like young Lucius who walks into the sunrise and away from the “pattern, precedent and lively warrant” (5.3.42) of history responsible for the carnage that transforms the setting of the amphitheater into a Roman mausoleum, the director rejects Disney’s influential corporate legacy that entertains generations of children but in the process risks subsuming Taymor’s avant-garde aesthetic.6 In this reading of the film’s final scene, the sunrise functions as a citation of her Disney past. Specifically, Taymor’s self-referential scene—extended in slow motion for nearly three minutes—recalls the stunning sunrise that opens her 1997 stage production of The Lion King, and I will argue that it transforms the Disney spectacle into an avant-garde event.

Taymor insists that her strategy with her artificial sunrise in The Lion King was to “{c}reate an effigy or image, and a psychic event may take place” (Munro 2005, 505). She calls the aesthetic experience that triggers this type of psychic event an ‘ideograph’—a term explored in more detail later in this essay. The ideograph, for Taymor, is an abstract essence of an emotion, action, or character that evokes a work’s central concept. The psychic event that Taymor describes as her goal in her memorable Disney work echoes what Andreas Huyssen has called the seminal avant-gardist effects of surrealism, which “by focusing on psychic processes, .. . expos{e} the vulnerability of all rationality. . . . and includ{e} the concrete human subject and his/her desires in its artistic practices and in its notion that the reception of art should systematically disrupt perception and senses” (1986, 176).

Creating the surrealist sunrise for the Disney stage production, Taymor made the image out of transparent strips of silk. Taymor describes in interviews how the set designer wanted to use a spot of light for the sun, but she refused, claiming that it “would look too real.” Remarking on the effect of the design decision, she says, “people see simple strips of silk held up on what look like bamboo poles, and they themselves make the imaginative leap to ‘sun.’ Then they think: the power of sun” (Munro 2005, 506). The effect of the image of the sun in The Lion King, according to Taymor, is amplified by its apparently unremarkable formal property and the way that it encourages audience participation in the aesthetic experience: “There is no doubt,” suggests Taymor in an interview on the role of theater in a media-saturated age, “that I could have done a perfect projection of a sunrise in the theatre, but that approach is best suited to film and television. I wanted to do what the theatre does best, which is to put an object in front of you and that you know is insubstantial—just a piece of fabric hanging from a stick—and, as it is raised, you see the sun rise. That is thrilling—the sensation of [End Page 69] life being breathed into an object by the addition of human imagination” (Weber 2006, 44). Taymor goes on to say that the mix of banality in her Broadway musical—what I read as popular Disney spectacle—and the stage production’s avant-garde effect creates a sense of community.7

Taymor elaborated on the sense of community emerging out of her Disney collaboration in an interview with Richard Schechner in 1999:

You know what I love about The Lion King? It’s really theatre operating in its original sense, which is about family and society. It’s doing exactly what theatre was born for—to reaffirm where we are as human beings in our environment. It’s precisely to reestablish your connection with your family, to know what your hierarchy is. And to watch families come and go through that with their children is a very moving experience for me.

Her use of the word “family” to describe the emerging sense of community generated by her Disney work identifies what she feels is the effect of the corporate alliance that links popular theater and the avant-garde’s focus on the psychic process. Taymor’s sanguine assessment of the relationship between Disney spectacle and her own artistic vision notwithstanding, this essay will explore how the final image in Titus registers a rupture of family and in the process serves as a critique of the filmmaker’s own artistic and corporate relationships; despite his legitimacy as the inheritor of Roman tradition in the play, young Lucius, and by extension Taymor herself, identifies in the end with the play’s bastard child.8

Behold the Child

Taymor’s legitimacy as an inheritor of Disney’s corporate and creative legacy provides a critical subtext from which to understand her turn to one of Shakespeare’s bloodiest tragedies after The Lion King. For the director, distancing herself from the Disney corporate family is, not surprisingly, an ambivalent enterprise. In the Global Disney Audiences Project, Janet Wasko and Eileen R. Meehan point out that the 1990s—a ten-year period described as the “Disney Decade” in the company’s promotional material (Wasko 2001, 30, 36)—marked the apex of Disney’s corporate power, which came with a concomitant amount of cultural capital. Their study, along with Mike Budd’s Rethinking Disney: Private Control, Public Dimensions, reassesses Disney’s cultural impact and notes that a majority of people around the world familiar with the Disney brand “not only favo{r} Disney but also often conside{r} as taboo any serious examination—never mind any criticism—of Disney’s meaning and impact” (Budd 2005, 2). Budd summarizes what many critics have stressed with regard to Disney’s appeal:

This power derives in large part from Disney’s close association with and appropriation of childhood innocence as a personal and cultural memory for several generations of parents and children. . . . The intensity of this taboo for many people, the often deeply felt resistance to questioning the assumptions of an intensely pleasurable and reassuring mass cultural experience to which they became uncritically [End Page 70] attached as children, contributes to the Disney aura and suggests denial, even repression.

(Budd 2005, 2)

He points out, however, that by the end of the 1990s public sentiment toward Disney had begun to shift. Wasko describes this challenge to Disney as a “definite backlash” (2001, 208), and Budd concludes that “concerns about commercialization, consumerism, US cultural imperialism, and feminine and romantic stereotypes in Disney products erode the aura for some, and increasingly generate perceptions of corporate hypocrisy when measured against the company’s squeaky-clean image” (3).9 In the wake of the shifting meaning of Disney’s brand and within the context of Taymor’s evolving corporate partnership, Titus attests to her altered relationship with the company that to this point in her career had enabled her most popular and profitable production.

Central to my argument about the film’s depiction of Taymor’s corporate relationship is Peter Donaldson’s term “media allegory.” The term usefully describes how film adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays tend to integrate contemporary media history into their interpretation and representation of the playwright’s original text (2002a, 245). Donaldson includes films such as Baz Luhrmann’s William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet (1996), Laurence Olivier’s Henry V (1944), Richard Loncraine’s Richard III (1995), and Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet (2000) as “media allegories,” and shows how the many meta-theatrical moments in Shakespeare’s plays are precursors to their film versions’ own “cross-media self-consciousness” (2002b, 61). Arguing for a similar form of cinematic self-referentiality, Jerome Christensen (2002) explores the corporate authorship of Hollywood movies and, like Donaldson, claims that movies have the potential to allegorize their own modes of corporate production. Christensen’s assessment of films such as JFK (1991), Batman (1989) and You’ve Got Mail (1998) occurs within the context of multinational corporate decisions and managerial relationships that provide critical subtext to these films.10 While Christensen’s theory advances a concept of corporate authorship that deals a major blow to arguments in support of an auteur theory of filmmaking, I want to reverse his terms that turn corporations into creative agents to suggest that Taymor, the putative auteur of Titus, is also corporate precisely because of her wildly successful collaboration with Disney on The Lion King—a relationship that has been described by observers as “symbiotic” (Spencer 2001).11 Despite the successful business arrangement, Taymor’s turn away from the Disney aura with Titus underscores the degree to which she is part of a double inheritance that puts pressure on her corporate identity. In A Queer Sort of Materialism: Recontextualizing American Theater, David Savran describes the paradox that characterizes Taymor and Disney’s brand of commercial theater. To Savran, theatre is “neither high or low—or rather both high and low at the same time—{and} has consistently evinced those characteristics that have historically been branded as middlebrow: the promiscuous mixture of commerce and art, entertainment and politics, the banal and the auratic, the profane and the sacred, spectacular and personal, erotic and intellectual” (2005, 15; emphasis in original). With The Lion King, Taymor is a corporate director of an enterprise with mass [End Page 71] popular appeal, and simultaneously she is an experimental artist on the vanguard of high theater.

In interviews after her Broadway achievement, the director argues that a false binary exists between her artistic integrity and commercial productions. In 1998, Taymor addressed the remarkable success of her Disney collaboration: “What appeals to me as an artist about commercial producers . . . is that you know they want {a show} to run. Therefore, they’re going to support it to make sure it works, so that it does run—they’re not interested in closing after three weeks or nine weeks” (Gold 1998). Her deconstruction of the binary continues as she insists in the interview that the success of The Lion King would not have been achieved without contributions from not-for-profit theater and the NEA. Taymor concludes by claiming that the “word commercial is such a silly word . . . because it’s all perception” (Gold 1998). Yet despite such comments on the effect of her corporate identity on her own art, her film shows her to be an ambivalent inheritor of this corporate history. As her discussion of the artificial sunrise in The Lion King reveals, she attempts to temper this legacy by incorporating avant-garde elements in her most corporate, popular, and spectacular works. In an interview for the Los Angeles Times in 2000, Taymor offers a defense of her Disney work that highlights her conflicted relationship to the commercial production: “Maybe I’m brainwashed by my own involvement in it, but I don’t agree with {those critics who condemn the popular dimension of the Taymor-Disney work}. I’m not saying it’s Shakespeare {but} Lion King deals with a major theme that all ritual theater deals with forever” (Freudenheim 2000). Taymor’s defensiveness over her Disney collaboration suggests her unease, and the self-deprecating comment that she is not “saying it’s Shakespeare” helps to explain her return to the Bard for her first feature film—more specifically her return to one of Shakespeare’s least Disney-like plays for her debut.

Ironically, of course, one of the legacies of the film The Lion King is that it has become Shakespearean in popular imagination. Just as Disney capitalizes on Taymor’s artistic credibility in the stage production of the film, the company appropriated Shakespeare’s cultural and intellectual capital by weaving what it sees as important, universal themes from Shakespeare’s plays into its movie. “To the Disney Machine,” according to Michael Modenessi’s critique of the corporation’s conservative aesthetic effect, “‘Shakespeare’ means leftovers of bardolatry freely circulating in ready-to-use packages” (2009, 186). Teaching Hamlet to a class of high school or college students after The Lion King means acknowledging to students, perhaps reluctantly, that Hamlet and his father’s relationship indeed resembles Simba and his father’s, or that Scar’s animosity toward his brother mirrors Claudius and Old Hamlet’s fraught fraternal bond. Modenessi concludes his assessment of Disney’s appropriation of Shakespeare by acknowledging that the “facile correlation of The Lion King with Hamlet is now currency, often cited and positively regarded—notoriously even by those who are the objects {or would-be critics} of its prejudiced subtexts” (194). One might even go so far as to speculate that the common perception that Disney had produced a Shakespearean-like [End Page 72] tragedy for twentieth-century children was one of the factors that led Taymor to collaborate with Disney in the first place. By 2000, however, when she says that she’s not “saying it’s Shakespeare,” her sense of the literary significance of her Disney work seems to have shifted. In the same interview in 2000 Taymor defends the collaboration again, saying of The Lion King that although “it’s not done in the deepest, darkest way . . . it has a lot to do with bringing the children into the theater” (Freudenheim 2000). This defense underscores her belief that the Disney family represents and reinforces through popular entertainment a new community for a young generation, one that Titus summarily delegitimizes.

Titus’s opening sequence is set in a modern household kitchen and establishes the issue of generational inheritance as the film’s framing device. An unnamed child, playing with toy soldiers while watching cartoons, is abducted and placed into the play’s Roman narrative. The scene, which Taymor entitles “Childish Things,” opens with a fade into the image of the boy’s eyes peering through torn slots in a paper bag that covers his head. The shot widens to reveal the boy alone at a kitchen table eating and playing with an array of military toys. In the background, the sound of cartoons is audible. As the scene progresses, Taymor establishes a sense of increasing disorder through rapid cuts between scenes of the boy’s frenetic play. The ambient sound of cartoons gradually bleeds into the foreground noise of actual war violence encroaching on the boy’s play space. The scene culminates with a home invasion in which the terrified boy is kidnapped, unmasked, and carried from the kitchen down a dark stairway and into the narrative of the play itself, raised above the head of the Clown/kidnapper (Dario D’Ambrosi) in an empty Colosseum echoing with the noise of cheering, unseen spectators.

Apart from this scene’s suggestion that contemporary culture increasingly blurs the line between adolescent play and adult terror—a suggestion that Taymor herself makes in her stage directions for the screenplay (Taymor and Shakespeare 2000, 19)—the unnamed child, with no parents present in the opening scene, embodies concepts of both familial and cultural bastardy that the play itself explores. The child’s abduction from the kitchen literally transforms the whimsical play of the boy into Shakespeare’s scripted Roman-revenge narrative, and the nameless boy seamlessly assumes his inheritance as young Lucius, Titus’s grandson. Taken from a scene of childish play in the relatively safe space of kitchen and thrust into an amphitheater filled with the noise of raucous spectators, the boy, assuming his new identity as young Lucius, is held aloft for the audience, notably absent from the film’s mise en scène, to behold.

In the media allegory that Taymor creates, the Roman world that cheers the kidnapping of the child in the confines of the Colosseum, and casts him as a commodity in the cultural space of spectacle and performance, is equated with Disney, which inserts its consumers into powerful narratives that continually redefine a child’s identity in order to create markets for its ever-expanding stable of products. Wickstrom’s account of what she terms Disney’s “magic capitalism” helps to explain the rejection early in Taymor’s film of childish things in favor [End Page 73] of the Shakespearean narrative that transforms the unnamed boy into young Lucius. She contends that an integral part of the Disney ‘magic’ is “mimetic absorption” (2005, 103). In her study of the semiotics of Disney stores, Wickstrom observes that through a complex visual apparatus, which displays Disney characters in the act of making movies starring customers as they enter the store, “the ‘magical’ machinery of Disney’s production apparatus transform{s} each shopper into {a} Disney character. It was as if we had been absorbed into the very heart of the Disney brand and welcomed to life inside it” (103). One way to make sense of the enigmatic identity of the boy, who during the film seems to become young Lucius of Shakespeare’s play, is to read his emerging identity in the film in parallel with the mimetic absorption of young consumers by the magical machinery of the Disney apparatus.12 Like these transformed consumers, the boy in Taymor’s film assumes his starring role as a character in the revenge narrative, seamlessly becoming young Lucius without evidence of the suture that links his unsupervised past with his Roman present. Describing an experience inside the Disney store, Wickstrom writes: “It’s an instance of Disney’s manipulation of our perception of the power {that} the brand has to subordinate the human to its own goals, versus our subsequent denial that the brand has any goals at all, or even exists as an entity differentiated from our own ‘selves’” (106). In this condition, the “translated” or transformed boy in Taymor’s film resembles the Disney consumer seamlessly altered by the Disney ‘magic,’ sutured to a new corporate (or Roman) identity.

The film’s depiction of young Lucius’s incorporation into Shakespeare’s Roman play contrasts sharply to the play’s inability to incorporate its actual bastard, Aaron and Tamora’s child, into the revenge narrative. The rhetoric that surrounds the infant serves to reinforce the perceived threat that illegitimate identity poses. In act four, the infant that Tamora’s nurse brings to Aaron is double-cursed: first, because of its illegitimate birth and, second, because of its black complexion. The nurse describes the child as a “devil” (4.2.66), a “joyless, dismal, black, and sorrowful issue” (68), and a loathsome “toad” (69). Chiron offers to kill the “tadpole” (87) because of the shame that the “foul escape” (115) promises to bring on his mother. In act five, Lucius threatens to kill the “fruit of bastardy” (5.1.48), but spares the child in exchange for information about Lavinia’s rape and mutilation; the infant’s body reappears late in act five, as Marcus begins to restore what order can be salvaged in the wake of the bloody banquet that satisfies Titus’s violent revenge plot. Pointing to the baby at the end of the play, Marcus makes the final reference to the infant. His command to “behold the child” (5.3.118) is the last time that we see it.

The bastard child’s fate beyond this internal stage direction poses a problem for performances of the play on stage and screen. Edward Ravenscroft’s version in 1687 had Tamora kill the child while uttering the line, “Dye thou offspring of the Blab-tongu’d Moor.” After she stabs it, Aaron promises to eliminate all remnants of his bastard son: “She has out-done me in my own Art— / Out-done me in Murder—Kill’d her own Child. / Give it me—I’ll eat it” (quoted in Bate [End Page 74] 2006, 50–53). In Deborah Warner’s BBC production (1985), the final scene depicts Marcus holding up a box that contains the dead body of the bastard. And in 2007, Gale Edwards, directing the play for the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., makes the body of the infant central to the production’s final tableau of death. A review of this production describes the scene: “The last image left with the audience was that of a young Lucius holding Aaron’s baby in his lap and raising a knife above his head, while the old emperor’s eyes {painted in black and white and lowered into the production at key points}, once again looming over the scene, dripped in blood” (Montuori 2007).

Measures to eliminate the infant speak, first, to the logistical problem that the body presents to the staging of the final scene, in which the child must be accounted for and removed from the stage. Second, measures to deal with the infant, highlighted by Edwards’s decision to have young Lucius begin to kill the bastard child in his lap, indicate the anxiety that his lingering and ultimately unresolved presence in the play produces. Put otherwise, the bastard haunts the final moments of the play despite the fact that it seems to disappear after Marcus’s ritual injunction to his audience on stage and in the theater to “behold the child” (5.3.118). Especially insightful in relation to the infant’s presence in Titus Andronicus, David Lee Miller observes that many of Shakespeare’s plays explore a Renaissance desire for signs of paternity in their representation of the sacramental Host. Miller contends that the showing of the Host, an action that raising the infant evokes, “performs a cultural function that seems, in Shakespeare’s plays, to be in crisis. . . . It uses the son’s body to display the reality of a fatherhood that remains unknowable” (2000, 128). Killing, consuming, and hiding the infant in a coffin are attempts to manage the disruption that is threatened by the excess that the bastard represents in relation to the sacramental desire most associated with a Roman cultural and religious identity. This is an excess that simultaneously involves unregulated female desire, miscegenation, and cultural and historical amnesia.

Echoing Warner’s production, Taymor’s own 1994 stage adaptation of the play provides no escape from the violent, oppressive force of revenge: in the final scene of her theatrical version, Aaron’s infant son is carried onto the stage in a coffin. But by her 1999 film, the infant is carried in a cage and released by young Lucius, who takes him away from the bloody banquet and out of the Colosseum. I want to suggest that this change is especially significant in light of her relationship with Disney to produce The Lion King during the intervening years. Wickstrom maintains that Taymor’s stage production of The Lion King is successful precisely because it participates in a seductive type of ‘magic’ capitalism: “The child (or adult) who is drawn to the invocation of ‘primitive’ mimesis onstage is drawn to ‘become’ that thing that seems so ‘magical.’” And as Wickstrom points out, the program for the Broadway musical makes clear what otherwise may appear to be academic theoretical speculation. The program reads, “Enjoy your audience with the King {Mufasa}. And remember, even in the jungle, American Express helps you do more” (2005, 111). [End Page 75]

By the time she begins work on Titus, and given the explicit relationship between her art and Disney’s commercial forces that financed and exploited it, her film version of Shakespeare’s play might be considered a vehicle for Taymor to reassert her considerable talents as an avant-garde artist by drawing on elements from her long-standing experimental vision. Specifically, Taymor’s use of masks along with representations of bodily fragmentation in her film reflect her experimental background in theater, and allude to the early decades of the twentieth century, when avant-garde artists endowed performing objects—masks and artificial body parts—with new meaning (Bell 1999, 16). In the experimental theater that informs Taymor’s stage work, the concept of the performing object establishes a connection between European and non-European ritual drama. The performing object was a primary concern of what became known as “machine aesthetics” (Bell 1999, 16), a hybridization of human and machine that challenges the tendency to perceive the human body as sacred and natural. With her repeated depictions of “corporal iconographies” (Ghita 2009, 207), aestheticized images of dismembered body parts, Taymor transforms the machine aesthetic from a particularly modern, industrial phenomenon into one with ritual significance. Specifically, the ubiquitous images of bodily fragmentation in her film reveal the traces of traditional bunraku puppetry and Javanese wood-carving formative to her art. By making performing objects central to Titus, Taymor is able to explore the “interface between bodies and objects” (Ghita 2009, 208), an avant-garde element of her philosophy of art emerging from themes prevalent in ritual theater.

In Titus, for example, Taymor includes a scene in which young Lucius locates replacement hands for Lavinia. Set in a carpenter’s shop filled with artificial limbs and replicas of dismembered torsos, the scene demonstrates the artificiality of bodily integrity.13 Young Lucius gazes at a table filled with replica arms and legs. The scene shows him pick up a miniature hand and stare at it as if contemplating how the prosthetic might replace Lavinia’s severed hands. The relationship between object and subject established as Lavinia replaces her lost hands with the artificial devices is reciprocal in Taymor’s vision: just as the new prosthetic limbs animate a renewed sense of bodily integrity and repaired wholeness for Lavinia, she too animates and completes otherwise fragmented, inanimate objects. This reciprocity between inanimate object and animate subject—what Lucian Ghita aptly describes as a “precarious materiality”—evokes Taymor’s abiding interest in Asian theater practices. Such practices have been understood through the transformed lens of the machine aesthetic of the early twentieth century, and are considered avant-garde in their challenge to the “language-centered protocols of western theater” (Ghita 2009, 207). The film’s Penny Arcade Nightmares, a series of surreal, non-narrative sequences that impressionistically represent various characters’ mental pain and suffering, also establish Taymor’s investment in experimental techniques. The dreamlike episodes depict vulnerable human bodies exposed to threats of violence from man and beast. Suggesting the influence of Joseph Cornell’s avant-garde assemblage art from the mid-twentieth century, Taymor describes the Penny Arcade Nightmares as “terrific images that are a [End Page 76] combination of real things and also computer generated images. But it’s really more about layering images, and creating textures. It’s very not-slick, it’s very hand-made looking, that’s what I wanted” (Eby n.d).14 At the same time that the film establishes Taymor’s affiliation with vanguard art with its surreal, nonlinear episodes and its interrogation of the post-human body, Titus also serves as an expression of her desire to flee from Disney’s magic, a desire allegorized most vividly in her interpretation of the spectacle of the bloody banquet in the play’s final scene.

The banquet sequence that depicts Titus’s revenge involves a time-slice camera system that freezes the film, allows for a rotation of the scene to another angle, and enables movement of localized segments of the scene to advance the narrative. In Taymor’s version of the final scene, Saturninus (Alan Cumming) kills Titus (Anthony Hopkins) by impaling him with a candelabra, and Lucius (Angus Macfadyen) thrusts a spoon down Saturninus’s throat to kill him. Taymor freezes the scene at this point, but Lucius and his son, the kidnapped child from the film’s opening scene, are made to move. Taymor describes the time-slice technique as crucial in telling the play’s other story, or what she describes as its “counter-arc” (2000). Familial revenge is the primary focus of the play and reaches a climax in this key scene. For Taymor, however, the coming of age of the parentless child into young Lucius is the other important story. In her own comments that accompany the DVD version of the film, Taymor describes how important the emerging “consciousness of this child” is to her vision of the play, and her use of the time-slice technique freezes the action and rotates the image in such a way that the audience sees clearly what the child witnesses. Taymor describes the effect of this sequence and the film technique that she employs: “I decided that if I was going to use {this system}, I should do it to highlight the final act {of violence} that the child sees. I think in that regard, it worked as the climax of the film” (quoted in Hatchuel 2004, 63). At the moment of Saturninus’s attack on Titus, the film cuts to a close-up shot of young Lucius, who hurriedly approaches the dining table to witness the bloody events; we next see him running beside his father, who drags Saturninus to a chair at the end of the dining table and stabs him with a spoon. Taymor’s time-slice technique freezes the scene in a tableau of revenge that rotates to show the violent action, still frozen on screen, from the perspective of young Lucius, and then moving to a wide shot of the entire spectacle. At this moment, young Lucius and his father break the cinematic freeze: Lucius shoots a still-frozen Saturninus as his son moves forward to witness the assassination. Through her use of time-slice editing that accentuates young Lucius’s movement and frames, even as it reproduces, his perspective, Taymor decenters the familial revenge plot, shifting the focus to the child’s own perception and understanding of the violent events. This shift in the film away from the narrative of familial revenge (frozen in the cinematic tableau) to the child’s dynamic attempt to come to grips with the brutality that he witnesses anticipates his eventual rejection of the familial and the political violence of Roman culture. [End Page 77]

A Pattern, Precedent and Lively Warrant

The cinematic freeze at this moment in the film exposes the suture that had previously made seamless the transformation of the unnamed boy in the kitchen during the opening sequence into the inheritor of the legacy of revenge that structures Titus Andronicus. Extending the allegorical implication of this scene to include Taymor’s own relationship to the Disney corporation, young Lucius’s emerging consciousness, which results in his turn away from Roman violence, may be read as reflecting the director’s own resistance to Disney’s imposing narrative. As Wickstrom suggests, this narrative has the power to suture identities within the cycle of consumption by transforming shoppers into Disney characters. Young Lucius’s resistance to being “incorporate into Rome” (1.1.467) in the banquet scene—or, for Taymor, to remaining an extension of corporate Disney— is amplified in the film’s final moments, which depict him in slow motion exiting the Colosseum with Aaron’s bastard child in his arms.

This reading of the film, which aligns the director’s frustrations over her relationship to Disney with young Lucius’s emerging resistance to his Roman inheritance, returns us to the question of allegory, specifically Taymor’s own articulation of this concept in relation to the film’s corporate context. Taymor’s allegory, I suggest, endows key moments in her film with a multi-temporal structure evoking what Jonathan Gil Harris has described as an “untimely meditation.”15 Echoing Harris’s claim for the multi-temporality of matter, Thomas Cartelli suggests that polychronic time characterizes Taymor’s own aesthetic vision in Titus, and it is what I suggest enables Taymor’s strategy to transform her film into an allegory about her Disney partnership. Cartelli elaborates on the temporal complexity of the film: “Titus’s responsiveness to the interethnic and anachronistic conjunctions of Moors, Goths, and Romans in Shakespeare’s play also draws it inside the circuit of the ethnic rivalries, religious conflicts, and imperial anxieties that beset both his and our own contemporary political scene” (2005, 164).16 For Taymor, the religious and ethnic cleansing that took place in the Balkans in the 1990s finds its historical analogue in Titus Andronicus, where Titus’s Roman, ritual paganism results in the culture of violence so pronounced throughout the play.17

At the center of the untimely meditation that I argue links Shakespeare’s play, Taymor’s film, and Disney’s Broadway musical through their participation in a form of diachronic exchange are the play’s children and Disney’s paternal legacy.18 In this formulation, the body of the play’s bastard child is “untimely matter” and Shakespeare’s vigil for the return of the lingering ghosts of the Reformation that haunt the margins of the play. The bastard’s body is “untimely matter” (Harris 2009) for Taymor too, and, as I will suggest, enables the film’s critique of her Disney relationship, represented in its closing moments.

The infant, held as a communal wafer for the audience to behold in act five, brings to mind the religious debates that characterized the Reformation a generation before Shakespeare’s play is staged. As David Lee Miller’s claim about the unknowable father in early modern culture shows us, the debate over the [End Page 78] meaning of Catholic sacramental practices was at the core of the Reformation controversy. If the infant “held high aloft,” to use Taymor’s own description of the important scene (Taymor 2000), is to suggest the miracle of transubstantiation and the process of communion, then Aaron’s child symbolizes the martyred body of Christ as a travesty of the ritual that attempts to make visible a form of sacred paternity. Shakespeare’s suggestion fuses literary interpretation with religious symbolism and enjoins a particularly Protestant reading of sacramental practice.19 His representation of Lavinia after she has been raped and disfigured by Chiron and Demetrius likewise enjoins this particular reading strategy, as her interlocutors force her brutalized, silenced body into meaning. Lavinia’s “signs” (2.3.5; 3.1.144; 3.2.12, 36; 4.1.8) and “tokens” (2.3.5) are a constant source of speculation in the play. Marcus’s question—“Who is this—my niece . . . ?” (2.3.11)—immediately before his extended description of the spectacle of her ravaged body captures the epistemological dilemma created by Lavinia’s presence in the play after her rape. Seeing Lavinia with “her hands cut off and her tongue cut out, and ravished,” Marcus attempts to make sense of the traumatic scene:

Speak, gentle niece, what stern ungentle hands
Have lopped and hewed and made thy body bare
Of her two branches, those sweet ornaments,
Whose circling shadows kings have sought to sleep in,
And might not gain so great a happiness
As have thy love. Why dost not speak to me?

{Lavinia opens her mouth}

Alas, a crimson river of warm blood,
Like to a bubbling fountain stirred with wind,
Doth rise and fall between thy rosed lips,
Coming and going with thy honey breath.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
O, had the monster seen those lily hands
Tremble, like aspen leaves upon a lute,
And make the silken strings delight to kiss them,
He would not then have touched them for his life!
Or, had he heard the heavenly harmony
Which that sweet tongue hath made,
He would have dropp’d his knife, and fell asleep,
As Cerberus at the Thracian poet’s feet.


The incommensurability between the gruesome spectacle of Lavinia’s disfigured body and the Ovidian and Petrarchan poetic discourses that Marcus employs to describe what he sees transforms this scene into a lesson in reading. Lavinia’s substance becomes sheer surface, as her uncle and others attempt to read her bleeding body according to their own desires. Katherine Rowe describes Marcus’s initial reaction to Lavinia as a “culmination of a fantasy of his own release into expressive tears and anger,” and she concludes that Lavinia’s family views her “as a mirror and through a mirror. The flood of masculine tears replaces the [End Page 79] flood of Lavinia’s blood, while the objects of their gaze—the bloody stains on her cheeks—become the tearful stains on their own” (1994, 295; emphasis in original). As examples of a method of reading that emphasizes the immediate desires of Lavinia’s interlocutors, these scenes seek to establish her synchronic significance. Lavinia’s presence, however, also has a diachronic, or untimely, effect.

The exchange between Marcus and Titus at the moment that Lavinia returns to her father after her rape and mutilation is also a lesson in how to read Lavinia’s martyred body as untimely matter, a polychronic image that simultaneously licenses Taymor’s allegorical representation of her break from her Disney past. Hearing Marcus’s warning that bearing witness to his disfigured daughter will “bring consuming sorrow to thine age” (3.1.61), Titus responds:

Will it consume me? Let me see it then.
This was thy daughter.
Why, Marcus, so she is.


The shift between past and present in the exchange speaks to Lavinia’s effect both as a consequence of contemporary cultural conditions that make such violence possible, and as an abstraction of the cultural memory of violence meticulously recorded by Protestant propaganda during the early modern period such as in John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments. Specifically, Lavinia’s impenetrability in the play—appearing ironically as a form of legibility—as her family struggles to understand her attempts to communicate, reveals her signification in two temporal spaces at once. In their attempts to make sense of Lavinia’s bloody body, Titus and his family use the word “martyrd” three times (3.1.81, 106; 3.2.36). This language, combined with Marcus’s reaction to Lavinia after her rape, transforms Lavinia into a palimpsest in which the violence recorded in Foxe and etched into cultural memory becomes legible as untimely matter, a process that also makes legible Taymor’s critique of Disney in her adaptation of Shakespeare’s play about England’s Roman and Reformation past.20

The illustration accompanying Foxe’s description of the martyrdom of John Hooper illustrates the degree to which Shakespeare’s representation of Lavinia’s body enacts an “uncanny replacement” or “an ambivalent replaying of previous performers and performances” (Worthen 1998, 1101).21 As an uncanny replacement of the historical event of martyrdom recorded in Foxe, Shakespeare’s iteration reveals the difficulties in working through the lasting cultural effects of historical trauma. Situating Lavinia on a tree stump that resembles the theatrical staging of many of Foxe’s martyrs exemplified in the illustration of Hooper’s torture and execution (fig.1), Taymor’s depiction of the scene in her film recalls the link between Shakespeare and Foxe. The fire that sends Hooper to his painful death is suggested by the burned, apocalyptic landscape in which Marcus finds Lavinia. Taymor’s description of the razed landscape emphasizes its apocalyptic [End Page 80] dimension: “Instead of being elevated on a marble pedestal, as in the play, she stands deserted on a charred tree stump, surrounded by gurgling, muddy waters of a sulfur spring” (Blumethal and Taymor 2007, 236).

Captured from John Foxe, The Unabridged Acts and Monuments Online or TAMO (1583 edition) (HRI Online Publications, Sheffield, 2011). Available from: http//www.johnfoxe.org.
Click for larger view
Figure 1. 

Captured from John Foxe, The Unabridged Acts and Monuments Online or TAMO (1583 edition) (HRI Online Publications, Sheffield, 2011). Available from: http//www.johnfoxe.org.

The effect of Taymor’s representation of Lavinia’s body in this scene is to capture the traces of Shakespeare’s investment in the popular images of martyrdom still compelling at the end of the sixteenth century, and still salient within a late-twentieth-century context of the ethnic and religious strife in the Serbio-Croatian wars. At the same time, the image of Lavinia in Titus tells another story, which like the layered tracings of the palimpsest is also legible, and that I suggest shapes how we are to understand the director’s depiction of the bastard child in the film’s final scene. The force of this scene emerges from Taymor’s understanding of the visual impact of the ideographic moment (Walker 2002, 200) that has defined her avant-garde aesthetic.

Introduced to her during her participation in Kraken, a theater company founded by Herbert Blau in 1972 at Oberlin College, the ideograph is “an immediately apprehensible emblematic stage image, a simple movement or gesture that epitomizes the central concept or emotion of a work” (Lanier 2008, 460). Taymor describes it as “‘an essence, an abstraction’” (460). Her use of the ideograph’s singular effect seems counter to the over-determined nature of the image of Lavinia’s ravaged body. Taymor acknowledges that Lavinia’s image conjures up references to Marilyn Monroe, the Venus de Milo, and Degas’s ballerinas (Taymor and Shakespeare 2000, 184), and the inability of the play’s characters to produce a singular interpretation magnifies this problem and risks negating the impact of the ideographic gesture so important to Taymor’s art. If, however, we conclude that the gesture’s “central concept” is precisely its allegorical register—its simultaneous participation in multiple temporal and hermeneutic regimes—then her representation of Lavinia’s mutilated body is consistent with the concept of the ideograph that defines Taymor’s avant-garde art, by focusing on psychic processes and on the polychronic temporality of the aesthetic experience. Eileen Blumenthal, Taymor’s longtime creative partner, provides precisely this understanding of the ideograph, suggesting that the artistic gesture “facilitate-{s} the layering of counter-pointing subtexts” (Blumenthal and Taymor 2007, 12). As a palimpsest [End Page 81] with a multi-temporal significance, the over-determined ideographic image of Lavinia in act two serves as a lesson in how to read the film’s final ideographic moment, when young Lucius is shown walking with Aaron’s bastard child slowly out of the Colosseum and into a digital sunset. And it is at this moment that Taymor’s film evokes her Disney past only to transform it into an avant-garde expression of pixelated flatness, recalling the historical avant-garde’s “appropriation of technology” (Huyssen 1986, 170) in order to expose the constructed nature of art and by extension the social world that her art depicts.22

I Am Incorporate in Rome

Looking at the film’s final scene through the lens of allegory, which links English Reformation history, Shakespeare’s Roman tradition, and Taymor’s Disney past, we see ambivalence to the intellectual and financial constraints within which it was produced. Taymor expressed her dissatisfaction with her Disney partnership in an interview with the Los Angeles Times in 2000, speculating that her collaboration with Disney shaped how others might view her future work: “Maybe The Lion King backfired on me. Maybe they thought, ‘She got hers.’ It was a draw, and it was a negative, because then people come expecting The Lion King” (Breslauer). The director’s account in 2001 of her reaction to Disney executive Thomas Schumacher’s invitation to direct the Broadway version of The Lion King reveals a predictable skepticism over the prospect of major corporate sponsorship for her experimental art: “I had to make The Lion King my own, otherwise it’s a Disney product and I don’t like the way Disney looks. And they didn’t know what they had with The Lion King, the mythic power of the story, but they were very clear they wanted me to do what I do, and I had no intention of changing my style or way of thinking” (Spencer 2001).23 As Taymor was struggling to find a receptive audience for her post-Lion King work, such as the Broadway production The Green Bird (2000), Disney was enjoying the credibility provided by the avant-garde capital of Taymor’s artistic vision. Disney was inspired to turn to the same creative culture that produced Taymor to hire other avant-garde artists to run its entertainment theme parks; for Taymor, however, her turn to Titus for her next project necessitated a turn away from her Disney corporate family. In an interview with Richard Schechner in 1999 before full production of her film was underway, Taymor’s response to a question about financial backing for the future film project is telling:


Wow. Who’s producing it {Titus}? Disney?


No studio! We’re raising the money independently. If we can do it for 12 or 14 million, it will be a miracle.

Critics of the film have found the final scene to be the most problematic. For Richard Burt, the finale undermines all of the film’s creative accomplishments: [End Page 82] “In toning down the violence and making it a generational issue, Taymor rein-scribes a fascist aesthetic and thus subverts her own critique of fascism and her redemption of the play as a work of art rather than trash” (2002, 305). Burt claims that Taymor creates children in Titus who are “relative innocents who have no legitimate access to violence” (310). I want to offer a different reading of the final scene, one that allegorizes Taymor’s break from her Disney inheritance. The very elements of the scene that give critics such problems—its apparent sentimentality, its “wish-fulfillment” quality (McCandless 2002, 510), its surrender to Hollywood’s demand for a happy ending, and its “schlocky” emotional effect (Burt 2002, 311)—serve to highlight Taymor’s break from Disney. 24 Burt is especially critical of the way Taymor uses children to suggest a rejection of political and cultural fascism. He concludes that “Titus’s antioedipal, antifascist violence only leads to the reinstallation at the end of the film of a fascist romanticism of the child in a closing shot straight out of Stephen Spielberg’s E.T.” (310). Taymor, according to Burt’s scathing critique of her film, “naively misreads Shakespeare’s much darker and more self-conscious allegorization of aesthetic representations via the media of the theater and print culture” (312). Contrary to Burt’s dismissal of Taymor’s film aesthetic, I suggest that the extra-diegetic elements operating within the film’s final minutes invoke iconic Disney imagery from The Lion King in an ideographic gesture that for Taymor redeems the avant-garde elements of her work.

In releasing Aaron’s bastard child from his cage and deliberately walking out of the stadium, young Lucius is transformed back into the nameless character who plays with his toys in the film’s opening segment, before he is called into the play’s narrative: the opening credits marking the formal beginning of the film’s narrative role after he is abducted and carried down the dark stairs by the Clown, into the Colosseum and into Roman history. Young Lucius’s association with Aaron’s illegitimate child in the final scene suggests that he too has been made or remade into a bastard—beyond the familial and cultural forces that determine his desire. In commentary about the scene, Taymor discloses that she had considered rolling credits over Lucius’s three-minute, slow motion exit from the Colosseum; however, she opted against this because it would “release the audience.” Her decision not to roll the credits speaks to the importance of this non-Shakespearean moment in the film. In an interview with Cineaste after the film’s debut, the director describes the impact of this moment in the film:

With Lucius opening that cage and taking the baby . . . this child, now of his own free will, takes the baby and exits out of the Colosseum, this theater of violence, of cruelty, and into this bleak but open landscape that has water, which means there’s possibility for fruition, {for} cleansing, {for} forgiveness. It’s also a movement towards the sunrise, which is the next generation or the next one hundred years or the next millennium. But it freezes on that image, just that slice of the sun coming up. It’s not a full sunrise. It’s about possibility and hope but it’s not about solution.

(De Luca & Lindroth 2000) [End Page 83]

The sunrise in the film’s closing moments hints at the popular and commercial sunrise in Taymor’s Disney production. Explaining that her decision about the ending comes as a result of her own mixed feelings about the play itself, she says, “I love the truth of the play but I can’t stand the reality of the play” (Taymor 2000). By acknowledging her own ambivalence about the play’s brutality, she seems to admit that some viewers may see the focus on hope as a sentimental ending better suited for her Disney collaboration. Her antipathy toward the “reality of the play” also echoes her comments about the intentionally artificial sunrise in The Lion King. Taymor expresses an aesthetic vision that requires a response to truth often at the expense of a naturalistic approach to the stage. In her commentary included on the DVD of Titus (2000), Taymor returns again to this theme that preoccupies her art. She describes the closing sequence of the film this way: “As {the boy} moves, we start to go into dawn. So the child moves into a certain kind of knowledge at this point . . . and then potentially, it’s hard to say it in words, but probably into redemption” (Taymor 2000). Seeming to struggle with the implications of this creative decision to cite her Disney past, the words “potentially” and “probably” indicate her own awareness of the interpretive ambiguity generated in the film’s final moments and that continues to frustrate critics such as Burt. Adding to this uncertainty, Taymor describes the boy walking toward the exit of the stadium as heading “potentially into a sunrise,” and in the “Director’s Notes” to the screenplay of the film, she calls it “the promise of daylight as if redemption were possible” (Taymor and Shakespeare 2000, 185). Her use of the subjunctive mood in her description qualifies the availability of redemption in the film’s final moments and is consistent with Taymor’s claim that she does not “believe in patronizing children. I personally can’t do something that is, quote, ‘for children.’ And the guys at Disney knew this” (Gold 1998).

While its success at representing the redemption of young Lucius and the Roman culture is open to question, the film’s pixelated sunrise, I suggest, redeems the avant-garde Taymor by importing, and then ironizing, The Lion King’s most iconic and commercial moment into the film’s bloody finale. The sunrise is in fact a blue screen placed in the archway of the Colosseum. Only in post-production does she add the image of the sunrise. Taymor calls the sun “completely artificial” (Taymor 2000). With this self-referential citation of the artificial suns of her Disney past, the redemption that is so “hard to say . . . in words” within the context of the reality of the Shakespeare’s bloody script is available extra-diegetically. Burt’s conclusion that the film’s ending reinstalls a “fascist romanticism” (2002, 300) ignores the pixelated image of the sunrise, which introduces the idea of artificiality that unsettles—by acknowledging its own fictionality—the romantic, patronizing sentiment in the film central to Burt’s critique. The digital sunrise is noteworthy not because it expresses a naïve utopic sentiment that attempts to erase the horrific violence of the play and film, but because it exposes the mechanics of cinematic artifice. Compared to her other artistic mediums, the sunrise is the equivalent of Taymor’s experimental puppetry, which allows spectators to watch the puppet and the puppet artist at the same time. “Even though [End Page 84] the mechanics are apparent,” commented Taymor, “the whole effect is more magical” (Schechner 1999, 42)—or as I would like to rephrase it, more surreal. Critics who see the film’s final moments as an aesthetic failure misread the sunrise as a putative expression of the director’s hope for a future removed from the violence of war and racial strife. By exposing the mechanics of cinematic artifice, however, Taymor complicates the image, creating in effect a prosthetic sunrise. Connecting this moment of artificiality to the film’s depiction of Lavinia’s artificial limbs that create the impression of renewed bodily integrity—but which are constant visual reminders of the absence, indeed the impossibility, of that condition—the digital sunrise offers a glimpse of hope for the future that the scene’s formal and technical properties simultaneously negate. Through this act of negation, Taymor’s avant-garde aesthetic supersedes the film’s Disneyland fantasy of redemption. Using language that recalls the concept of the ideograph so important to Taymor’s experimental aesthetic vision, Cartelli and Rowe describe the image of the sunrise as an “artful freeze . . . into the cine-mediated dawn” (2007, 93). No longer young Lucius of the Roman tradition, the boy exiting the Colosseum holding Aaron’s illegitimate baby inhabits a bastard’s persona—illegitimate too, like the child he carries, and embodying a type of identification that reverses the commodity effect of the image of young children inhabiting Disney characters and magically developing new familial, and commercial, ties to the wonderful world of Disney.

Taymor’s ambivalent creative and financial relationship with Disney, allegorized in the final scene of Titus, is also exemplified by the fact that Disney, of course, passed on the chance to finance her Shakespearean adaptation. Taymor passed on Disney too, as her stated objectives in making the movie included “no studio!” (Schechner 1999, 49). In the final scene of the film, as young Lucius removes the infant from his cage and begins his journey out of the Colosseum, “the sound of one baby,” in Taymor’s own words from the “Director’s Commentary” of the DVD of the film, “multiplies into hundreds of thousands of babies” (Taymor 2000). Again, Taymor emphasizes a generation of potentially parentless children in the play that becomes the film’s seminal focus. In 2001, Taymor was publicly talking about her next theatrical project—Pinocchio, a collaboration again with the Disney Corporation. “The show won’t look anything like The Lion King,” said Taymor about the future project. “I’m looking for a whacked-out, commedia dell’arte style, funky, hand-made, nasty-edged theatre, with a rambunctious, wild, edgy quality” (Spencer). In the meantime, however, as I suggested in the opening of this essay, executives at Disney began to see their relationship with Taymor as paradigmatic for future commercial enterprises. Reducing The Lion King to a new model for future Disney theme park ventures, they saw the new pattern this way: “Take a beloved Disney property (The Lion King), turn it over to an accomplished avant-garde stage artist with a distinctive visual flair (director Julie Taymor), and reap critical kudos and huge profits” (Boehm 2003).

In light of what I argue is the redemptive power of bastardy in Titus, how does Taymor feel about being absorbed into Disney’s new “pattern, precedent [End Page 85] and lively warrant” (5.3.43) for the company’s future creative enterprises? The trajectory of her work after Titus suggests no clear answer to this question—and Taymor’s ambivalent relationship to popular theater is only amplified by her firing in 2011 from the 70-million-dollar Broadway production of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. However, the allegory that Titus offers, with an ending that appears to offer a respite from the carnage of Rome and by allegorical extension from the magic of Disney, underscores the uneasy relationship between artist-as-corporation and those companies that are integral to the commercial creative process. The film’s harshest academic critic, Richard Burt, describes what he sees as Taymor’s failure in this way: “If, as Agamben maintains, the camp is the paradigm of modernity, we might fault Taymor only for thinking it possible to exit from it” (2002, 317). To paraphrase Burt, it may be more accurate to say that if Disney, as Baudrillard maintains, is the paradigm of postmodernity, we might fault Taymor only for thinking it possible to escape its influence. Yet even this correction of Burt’s judgment about the film would be unfair, for Taymor seems to understand this all too well herself, as the pixelated, Technicolor blue-screen sunrise, or her future—yet still unfulfilled—collaboration with Disney on Pinocchio, makes clear.25

Thomas P. Anderson  

Thomas P. Anderson is Associate Professor of English at Mississippi State University. His book, Performing Early Modern Trauma from Shakespeare to Milton (Ashgate, 2006), examines expressions of political, social, and personal loss in early modern texts. He is co-editor of Acts of Reading: Interpretation, Reading Practices, and the Idea of the Book in John Foxe’s ′Actes and Monuments” (University of Delaware Press, 2010).


I want to thank Lillian Rogers, my research assistant, for her commitment to helping me complete this essay. Gregg Horowitz, Greg Bentley, Lara Dodds, Greg Semenza, Ellen Levy and my students in the Shackouls Honors College also made the essay stronger.


1.  All quotations from Titus Andronicus are taken from the Arden Shakespeare edition edited by Jonathan Bate (Shakespeare 2006).

2.  According to the Oxford English Dictionary, in the sixteenth century “effectual” denoted a legal condition characterized by a valid, binding covenant or document. With its suggestion of a legal bond that extends its force into the future, this definition is especially interesting in light of Titus’s commitment to historical precedence as a force that shapes his actions. For an account of the play’s use of early modern legal discourse in its critique of Titus’s understanding of the relationship between past and present, see Anderson (2003). Other critics who consider the relationship between language and action in Titus Andronicus include Tricomi (1974), Kendall (1989), and Fawcett (1983).

3.  Critics who have recognized Taymor’s interest in children in the play include Fedderson and Richardson (2009) and Burt (2002). These critics tend to agree that Taymor romanticizes childhood innocence and exaggerates the child’s potential as a redeemer. Burt writes, “Taymor’s Titus also makes a child central, enlarging the minor role of young Lucius into a central role. . . . The result of this focus on the innocent (unless taught to be bad) child and baby survivors . . . is schlock” (299–300). Fedderson and Richardson (2009) challenge Taymor’s lack of respect for “ontological boundaries that separate events and their representations” (71), which accounts for her desire to view violence in the play as therapeutic—purged from young Lucius’s system, “allowing him, and the society in which he will eventually assume a leadership role, to heal” (85). Recent scholarship on children in early modern England includes Lamb, whose conclusion that literary representations of childhood in the Renaissance, especially in children playing [End Page 86] companies, offer “an original and vibrant concept of the child as exposing the processes of development, change and identity formation” (2009, 7) is especially interesting in light of Taymor’s representation of Disney’s role in shaping childhood identity that this essay explores. For related work on children and their participation in Renaissance theatrical production, see Belsey (1999). Recent research on children in Shakespeare includes Rutter (2007) and Chedgzoy, Greenhalgh, & Shaughnessy, eds. (2007); for essays that treat children and Titus Andronicus specifically, see Rutkoski (2006), Blake (1993), Miller (2000), and Herberle (1994).

4.  For a more sustained discussion of the play’s response to its Roman and English historical past, see Anderson (2006, 19–56). For an important analysis of the play’s response to Rome, see James (1997). Disney’s interest in Shakespeare as a source for many of its projects since the 1980s is the subject of Finkelstein’s essay “Disney Cites Shakespeare: The Limits of Appropriation” (1999).

5.  An exploration of the history of the avant-garde in relation to economic forces is unfortunately beyond the scope of this article. For an examination of the history of the avant-garde and the economic and cultural forces that gave rise to its emergence, see Bürger (1984). Greenberg’s important essay, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” articulates the distinction between a substantive experimental art and kitsch that “pretends to demand nothing of its customers except their money” (1961, 10). For the seminal analysis of how the culture industry becomes propaganda that initiates and then integrates the consumer into economic markets, see Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno (1993, 120–67). See also Paul Mann’s pessimistic and polemical account of the current state of avant-garde art, The Theory-Death of the Avant-Garde (1991). Assessing the notion of the persistent hierarchies associated with experimental and popular art, Finkelstein notes that “{w}here Disney is concerned, the academy discerns a clear line between two kinds of culture, similar to, but not exactly synonymous with, the distinction between high and low culture” (1999, 180).

6.  Burt notes that Disney and Miramax passed on financing the film despite the success of The Lion King. Clear Blue Sky Productions finally agreed to make the film for approximately 17 million dollars, and Twentieth Century Fox distributed it and made the DVD (2002, 305).

7.  Taymor’s negotiation of the divide between Disney spectacle and the avant-garde is actually part of a much larger, and more common, negotiation by avant-garde artists for nearly a century. Leslie shows how Disney itself had a history of integrating the avant-garde into its popular commercial ventures. According to Leslie, during the early 1930s, “Disney animators could attend lectures by Jean Charlot on the history of art and ways in which they might appropriate the modern styles of futurism, cubism, surrealism and abstraction” (2002, 147), and “Siegfried Kracauer, Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin sat amongst cartoon audiences and developed their thoughts on representation, utopia and revolution in relation to Disney” (v). Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which premiered in the United States in 1937, represents the end of this creative era for the company that was characterized by the integration of avant-garde aesthetics into Disney mainstream entertainment. By the 1930s, the Disney studio had begun to tame its cartoons, “displacing its original avant-gardish anarchy and formal inconsistency” (147). See also Semenza (2008), who usefully contextualizes animation within both the history of Disney’s avant-garde past and French film theory, and Finkelstein (1999, 179). For recent pointed criticism of the artistic alliance between Taymor and twenty-first century Disney, see Fedderson and Richardson, who claim that “Taymor’s ability to [End Page 87] negotiate the worlds of art, commerce, and war bespeaks a disturbing and dilettantish eclecticism” (2009, 86).

8.  Findlay fully explores early modern understandings of bastardy in Illegitimate Power: Bastards in Renaissance Drama (1994). Findlay’s category of “natural children” to describe one group of bastards represented on stage is especially useful in illustrating the subversive appeal of Aaron and Tamora’s bastard child. The infant, called a “beauteous blossom” (4.2.74), represents a natural child that “is able to confound the boundary lines between nature and culture in ways that problematize many other binary opposites and, in doing so, revel the precarious fragility and the oppressive workings of the dominant order” (Findlay 1994, 136). The presence of illegitimacy, as Findlay notes, “deconstructs a social and political structure based on paternal authority” (2). The ambiguous fate of Aaron and Tamora’s illegitimate child in Shakespeare’s play, along with what Findlay describes as “an ambiguous audience response” to it, attests to the “wider ideological problem of containing the bastard as a useful ‘other’” (35). Findlay notes also that bastards who are not killed as infants in early modern drama go on to have “considerable freedom of movement” (38)—freedom to observe, criticize, rebel, or, in a few cases, to turn virtuous in the face of a corrupt existing social order. Faulconbridge in Shakespeare’s King John, according to Findlay, has attributes of the virtuous bastard, while Edmund in King Lear possesses traits of the more traditional villainous bastard. For further consideration of the early modern bastard in a cultural and literary context, see Neill (1993), Anderson (2004), and Laslett, Oosterveen, and Smith (1980).

9.  Miriam Hansen’s influential account of Adorno’s and Benjamin’s contrasting opinions of Disney’s cultural influence during the 1930s provides historical context to the debate over Disney’s legacy. Hansen analyzes how Benjamin and Adorno account for the role that new technology, in particular Disney animated films, “were playing . . . in the historical demolition and restructuring of subjectivity: whether they were to give rise to new forms of imagination, expression, and collectivity, or rather . . . were merely perfecting techniques of total subjection and domination” (1993, 28). Taymor’s own relationship with Disney, allegorized in Titus, appears to share aspects of both Benjamin’s optimism and Adorno’s skepticism over the Disney effect. Giroux (2001) looks at the pedagogical implications of Disney’s entertainment of generations of children. “Corporate interest in the family,” writes Giroux, “also suggests increasing recognition that youth hold the key to huge markets and profits . . . and that such markets can be harnessed only if the identities and desires of children can be mobilized within the vastly influential educational spheres of both popular culture and public education” (25). Giroux’s interest in animated storytelling as a practice that pedagogically positions children to learn “what subject positions are open to them and what positions are not” (110) underscores the extent of the influence of Disney’s “cultural pedagogy” (111).

10.  See Christensen (2002, 607). For an argument against Christensen’s reading strategy as “allegory by fiat,” see Havholm and Sandifer (2003, 187–97, esp. 189).

11.  Perhaps another sign of Taymor’s secure status as a corporate entity was American Express’s decision to use her as a spokesperson for its credit card. Claiming that the advertisement had the potential to be a “nice little promo” for her and for American Express, which had supported her work in the past, Taymor said that “it was not an uncomfortable commercial to be associated with, and it was a nice little chunk of money” (Gold 1998).

12.  I base my claim that the film depicts the process of suturing Lucius’s identity to the film’s unnamed boy on the fact that his first appearance in the film precedes the revenge [End Page 88] narrative itself, taking place in a sequence before the ascription of identity by the opening credits. The film later depicts the boy’s shift from an unnamed voyeur to a named participant within the play’s action. Taymor also described the process by which young Lucius assumes his identity; after being kidnapped by the Shakespearean clown and carried to the Colosseum, Taymor explains that “the boy takes his part as Young Lucius, Titus’s grandson” (Schechner 1999, 48).

13.  Ghita notes that the camera “takes us behind the scenes into an actual set designer workshop at the Cinecittà studios in Rome” (2009, 214). Consistent with avant-garde techniques that seek to expose the creative process in an effort to upset the relationship between art and life, the scene evokes what Ghita calls the “double event” of Taymor’s creative process: “the conspicuous hand of the master puppeteer animates the puppet and brings theater to life” (214).

14.  My sense of Cornell’s pathos-suffused junk aesthetic derives in part from the writing of Ellen S. Levy, especially Criminal Ingenuity: Moore, Cornell, Ashbery, and the Struggle between the Arts (2011), and from conversations with the author.

15.  Harris’s book Untimely Matter in the Time of Shakespeare explores how matter in the English Renaissance is both polychronic and multitemporal (2009, 3). “In its polychronicity,” according to Harris, “an object can prompt many different understandings and experiences of temporality—that is, of the relations between now and then, old and new, before and after” (4). In this formulation, matter emerges as a “hybrid assemblage rather than a singular identity” (5). Harris’s understanding of the Renaissance object informs my attempts to make sense of the hybrid assemblages—the image of the bastard child, Lavinia’s ravaged body, Taymor’s Disney sunrise—that I see as giving Shakespeare’s play and Taymor’s film the logic of a “temporality that is not one” (13).

16.  In Cartelli’s analysis of the film’s final scene staged in the Croatian amphitheater in which young Lucius and the bastard son are central, a “rapt audience of silent latter-day Croatians” witness an “‘ambivalent replaying’ of fraternal and tribal slaughters in the Balkans, which effectively bridge the distance between year 1 and late 1999” (2005, 164). See Roach (1996, 2–28) for a discussion of the term surrogation as it relates to the way a culture reproduces and recreates itself in new mediums based on changing historical practices that respond to evolving cultural conditions.

17.  Aebischer suggests that Taymor’s exposure to news coverage of “machete-dismemberments, mass rapes and sexual mutilations of the Rwandan Civil War” and the filming of the Colosseum scenes in Puta, Croatia, only two months before a “flaring-up in the Balkans conflict” gave her representation of Lavinia’s rape “a modern context within which it had to be perceived both as a personal, sexual crime and as a political act of expression of power” (2004, 46).

18. Cartelli (2005, 181) directs his readers to the work of W.B. Worthen, who describes performance as an “act of memory and an act of creation . . . recall{ing} and transform{ing} the past in the form of the present” (Worthen 1998, 1101).

19.  In his “Introduction” to The Illustrated Screenplay, Bate comments on the play’s gesture toward a darkly parodic use of the language of the Eucharist in relation to Lavinia’s rape and mutilation (2000, 11–12). On the particular issue of the Protestant nature of the early modern stage, see especially Diehl, who claims that it would “be surprising if the drama were not shaped in part by Reformation controversies—and if it did not participate in shaping its audience’s understanding of religious reform” (1997, 2). In his study of patriarchal images of boys that links Shakespeare’s representations of the elevation of the Host to a cultural desire for a visible sign of paternity, Miller calls the Reformation [End Page 89] an “unspecified historical trauma” (2000, 125). He argues that “the Mass is the preeminent instance in medieval and early modern culture of a symbolic transaction in which the body of a boy is presented to a third party to substantiate the reality of fatherhood. For like paternity in general, the transcendent Father of the New Testament has no body of his own. He achieves immanence only in and as the Son” (125). Miller shows how Shakespeare’s theater documents a shift in the significance of witnessing—transforming the Holy Patriarchal witness of ritual sacrifice into a theatrical witnessing of the social Other. In Shakespeare, according to Miller, we see the “traumatic breakup of Christian sacrificial witness” (133). For a similar view on the impact of the Reformation on Shakespeare, see also Greenblatt (2001).

20.  For a discussion of the palimpsestic quality of Taymor’s film technique, see Heinz (2009, 151, 162–3).

21.  For the most recent assessment of Foxe’s martyrs, including the woodcut illustrations, see Anderson and Netzley (2010). See also Monta (2005), who discusses the way witnesses often misread the experience and how this misreading is reflected in early modern literature.

22.  See Leslie (2002, 122) for a discussion of these elements associated with the emergence of avant-garde art. Huyssen shows how the avant-garde desire to appropriate technology for high art had lost its “shock value” (1986, 170) since the advent of postmodernism’s lack of a “radical vision of social and political transformation that had been so essential to the historical avant-garde” (169).

23.  As a response, perhaps, to reactions to her financially successful Disney collaboration, Taymor’s push back against Disney’s influence may be understandable. As an example of the public comments to which she may have been reacting in her turn away from Disney, experimental puppet artist Theodora Skipitares reflected on the inevitable comparisons with Taymor: “As an artist, I was born an avant-gardist. . . . I just think that Julie Taymor was never as interested in experimental work” (quoted in Stanley 2003, 67–68). She colors the distinction between her experimental work and Taymor’s with the observation that “puppetry has been stimulated in this country because people like Julie Taymor put it on Broadway and knocked everybody’s socks off” (68). Skipitares’s commendation of Taymor’s work in 2000 appears sincere in context; however, the same article that offers her assessment of Taymor’s artistic approach closes with a 1993 comment from New York Times art critic David Richards on Skipitares’s work that, when quoted in Stanley’s 2003 article on Skipitares in the Drama Review, appears as an implicit criticism of the Taymor-Disney partnership. Stanley notes that Richards ended his review of one of Skipitares’s installations with the observation: “If ever the Disney corporation decides to build a theme park for intellectuals, Ms. Skipitares is the obvious choice to preside over the planning committee” (quoted in Stanley 2003, 68).

24.  McCandless and Burt represent the most detailed responses of critics who feel that the film is an aesthetic failure. For the counter-argument that views Taymor’s depiction of violence as an important aesthetic accomplishment, see Starks (2002, 121–42) and Aebischer (2006, 122).

25.  The Pinocchio musical with Disney has yet to be made. In a 2002 New York Times interview, Taymor said that she and Disney had “not completely nailed how we’re going to make it equally wonderful for adults and for children” (Shewey 2002). Since then Taymor has turned to other major projects, including two feature films: one Beatles-inspired musical film, Across the Universe (Revolution Studio, Miramax 2007), and a second of Shakespeare’s plays, The Tempest (Robert Chartoff et al., Columbia Pictures, [End Page 90] 2009, which was released in December 2010). In 2007, Taymor and Marvel Studios began collaborating on the Broadway musical Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. Released in 2011 after numerous delays, the musical is the most expensive Broadway show in history; see Patrick Healy’s “A Rock Impresario Gambles on Spider-Man” (2010) and “Precipitous Fall for Spider-Man Director” (2011).

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  • Taymor, Julie, -- 1952- -- Criticism and interpretation
  • Motion picture industry -- Economic aspects -- United States.
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