Tracy Rowan’s new book struck me as a wonderful take on a classic, so I invited her to come chat with us about the story. Starting with the blurb, this is something I want to read.
Mercutio is a funny, moody, complex foil for Romeo in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, but in the four stories presented here, each an independent tale, Mercutio’s love for his friend goes far deeper, always somehow entwined with the fates of Romeo and Juliet.
The first tale sets the trio back in Renaissance Verona, where Mercutio vies for Romeo’s love. Romeo is oblivious, but the love triangle has deadly consequences. Next, we find Romeo and Mercutio in Victorian England. Though Romeo knows Mercutio loves him and returns his passion, he struggles to fit his desires into the strict mores of the day. The third story takes us to post-WWII America, where war-weary Romeo, Juliet, and Mercutio long for the right to love whom they choose. The final story in the collection brings the three characters into contemporary times, a band on a road trip that will change their lives forever.
I’d like to thank P. D. Singer for her very kind invitation to guest blog today. It’s always good to expand your reach a bit and talk to new people. I hope some of you will be intrigued enough to want to read “Call Me But Love.”
I was sixteen when I saw Franco Zefferelli’s Romeo and Juliet. Sixteen is an impressionable age — just ask Romeo. I was familiar with the play, but had never experienced it so viscerally before. It was cut for time and flow and the cast was far more age-appropriate than any production I’d ever seen.
It was no surprise that I came away from it loving Mercutio. English poet John Dryden famously said of the character: “Shakespeare show’d the best of his skill in his Mercutio, and he said himself, that he was forc’d to kill him in the third Act, to prevent being killed by him.” I’ve always presumed that mean that Shakespeare realized that he’d created a character so vivid and exciting that if Mercutio was allowed to survive the carnage, nobody would remember what the play was supposed to have been about. As portrayed by John McEnery (who never had a better film role that I know of) Mercutio is bawdy, brilliant, moody, and definitely mercurial. He caught my attention the moment he appeared on screen, and he held it, brilliantly, until his death, which was the point at which everything in Romeo’s life goes to hell in a handcart. Watch his Queen Mab speech here (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VsRQSazjl4U)
What was a surprise, though, was suddenly seeing the characters of Mercutio and Romeo as something more than friends. Now clearly there’s something about Romeo’s tendency to fall in love at the proverbial drop of the hat that provokes Mercutio to waspishness. Ian McKellen in an excellent essay on Elizabethan playwright Kit Marlowe (the possible inspiration for Mercutio) refers to the character as: “the roistering, iconoclastic Mercutio, who so resents Romeo’s love affairs with women” (http://www.mckellen.com/writings/930523marlowe.htm) But the Zefferelli Mercutio and Romeo relationship was more than just one man’s resentment of his friend’s affairs, and I saw it clearly, even at sixteen when I supposed I ought to have been sighing over the doomed love of Romeo and Juliet.
And this is why:
Our age has a mania for labeling things, particularly people and the way they love. These days we parse gender identity and orientation down to micro levels in an effort to carve out just the right niche for our hearts and hormones. For Romeo and Mercutio, the path was probably less overgrown. There was duty, there was love, there was lust, and there was friendship.
I took the idea that these got mixed up sometimes and ran with it in the first story, “His Timeless End” which is the story closest to Shakespeare’s original. Here there is an understanding of what is expected of Romeo. He will grow up, marry, have children, and become a good citizen of Verona. What has happened, and what might continue to happen between Romeo and Mercutio exists outside of those expectations.
“I am married.” Romeo doesn’t miss the expressions which play across his friend’s angular face, but young as he is, he neither understands nor cares that he doesn’t. “Last night, I beheld my destiny in the form of Capulet’s daughter. We spoke, I won her love and she mine, and we made a pact to meet with Friar Laurence who has joined us in the most holy bonds of marriage. As with us, so too our families. There’s an end to the blood feud, and the start of great joy for a city too long torn apart by this foolish feud. Are you not happy for me? Are you not happy for us all?”
It is a moment before Mercutio replies. “Very,” he says. “May I be the first to congratulate you? But your choice may not be as easy to reconcile as you hope.” In the sun his light green eyes are unnervingly pale, his pupils like pinpoints.
“I’d leave the city with her,” Benvolio suggests. “For a time at least.” Benvolio is the careful one.
Romeo laughs. “There’s no life outside of Verona’s walls,” he insists, and picks up a pebble which he pitches at Benvolio, hitting him in the foot.
“Have it your way; you always do.”
“Hush,” Mercutio admonishes. “The boy is happy.”
At this Benvolio’s eyes open and he gazes at Mercutio with open curiosity. “And you, you’re happy for him.”
Mercutio shrugs. “This is the way of things, Benvolio. You know that as well as I. Now let us put our heads together and find a way to keep this boy’s madness from becoming a terrible mess.”
By the Victorian era, the setting for “Give Me A Case to Put My Visage In,” deception and denial have become the way of things for two men who share this secret. This Romeo, more sophisticated than his Renaissance alter ego, doesn’t just understand duty, he embraces it like the political animal that he is, using the people around him to get what he wants. For him, every interaction is a duel, every expression of love a transaction.
By the end of the second World War and “By Any Other Name” Mercutio, Romeo, and Juliet have grown tired of deception and duty, necessary though they still seem to be in the very conservative post-war era. The three of them long for honest lives, but no one seems to want to allow them to be who they are.
Finally, with “The Children of an Idle Brain,” I’ve played a contemporary riff with a story about Romeo, Mercutio and Juliet, three young people trying to find their way through a maze of love, desire, and rock ‘n’ roll. May Shakespeare forgive me, but I think there just has to be a happy ending in here somewhere.
I hope you’ll enjoy reading “Call Me But Love” as much as I enjoyed writing it.
Call Me But Love, by Tracy Rowan – Available 28 August 2013 from Dreamspinner Press