The musical “Camelot” has returned to Broadway along with enchanting memories of Medieval times, knights in shining armor, Merlin, the magician, and a young boy named Arthur, who becomes a king by pulling a sword from a stone. This latest revival, written by Aaron Sorkin and directed by Bartlett Sher, is now playing at the Lincoln Center Theater.
Most theater-goers already know the score by Lerner and Loewe with songs like “Camelot” and “If Ever I Would Leave You.” The first time “Camelot” came to Broadway, Richard Harris played King Arthur, Robert Goulet was Lancelot and Vanessa Redgrave was Guinevere. Now that’s a tough act to follow.
Bartlett Sher and Alan Sorkin decided to strip the play of its magical elements and make it more about politics and practicality. As an example, Sorkin handled the mythic moment when young Arthur pulled the sword Excalibur from the stone by having Guinevere turn it into a joke. When King Arthur boasted that he was the guy who pulled the sword from the stone, Guinevere countered with: “Yes, but that was after 9,999 others loosened it up for you.” I was surprised that this line got such a big laugh, which suggested to me that the audience was very much aware of the myth and stunned to have the heroic feat demystified and deflated.
Going with jokes rather than magic is a tough decision when you’re dealing with legendary tales. In the Lincoln Center Theater Review, Sorkin candidly admitted to the problematic nature of creating magic on stage and opted for a more practical, humorous and ironic approach to the play.
One of the primary subplots of the play concerned marriage and the problem of fidelity. Guinevere never truly falls in love with King Arthur but instead is smitten by Lancelot. The king comes to understand this and struggles with it. Lancelot also struggles with his own sexual impulses throughout the play and though he was attracted to Guinevere, he maintained his code of allegiance to the king until he finally gives in and takes Guinevere to bed.
The problem of fidelity in marriage is one of society’s great challenges. In Sigmund Freud’s final book entitled “Civilization and its Discontents”, he concluded that the way that society is set up virtually guarantees either infidelity or depression, you choose.
Many great works of literature have addressed the same thing. Thomas Hardy’s “Far From the Madding Crowd” demonstrated the way Bathesheba Everdene had a hard time with fidelity. “Anna Karinana” by Tolstoy is about a woman who did not love her husband but instead lusted after a handsome soldier. “Madame Bovary” by Gustave Flaubert is about a married woman whose sexual needs eventually destroyed her.
“Camelot“ attempts to address this same issue and it arrives at the conclusion that love of a spouse is secondary to one’s true calling, which is to improve the world and make it a better place for our children.
In this play the moral of the story is to rise above one’s base instincts and do some good. Mankind’s needs remain attuned to instinct and temptation and this is our dilemma. Playwrights and authors will continue to seek out answers to life’s questions. John Guare’s “Nantucket Sleighride,” which played in this same theater a few years ago, was about the playwright’s endless quest to find the ultimate answer. “Faust,” “Moby Dick,” “The Search For the Holy Grail” all had odd heroes driven mad by this search for meaning.
Aaron Sorkin, T.H. White, Cervantes, John Guare and every audience member are seeking an answer to the big question: how to live an honorable life and find some happiness along the way. Authors and playwrights engage in this quest by writing and audiences attend theater seeking the answer.
We all have undying hope that an answer to how to live a life does exist. If we are lucky enough or if the play is good enough we can find this answer in a playhouse.
This revival of Camelot” at the Lincoln Center Theater is beautifully sung, well-acted, and supported with great orchestration so get yourself into New York and see what Aaron Sorkin and his crew have attempted to conjure up in the way of 21st century magic.