I thought I’d offer a personal reflection on a certain strand of research I have been undergoing for our upcoming show, The Bloodline.
The Bloodline is inspired by the dynamics of power within criminal underworlds and their parallels to Shakespeare’s King Lear. We are asking how power is perceived and how power is sought. Do we yearn for hierarchical structure? What happens when this structure is thrown into turmoil?
Criminal underworlds present insular environments where power is intensified, where the threat of violence is immediate and everyone’s morals and motives are questionable. Many of Shakespeare’s texts explore power in different ways. His words and characters carry weight and gravity that provide a timelessness which we feel will provide an access point for an audience to the themes of power we wish to explore.
We have delved into many paths of research on different organised crime gangs around the world and I must admit, the first thing that has struck me is that women are almost never mentioned in these contexts. At first it seemed as if women have never existed within these age old traditions of crime and power.
As a group, we are mostly concerning ourselves with the American Italian mafia and are becoming more and more influenced by the iconic gangster film genre. Its influence seems to be uncontrollably bleeding into our work, which we’re not minding at all at the moment but perhaps that’s for another blog. It is the American Italian mafia and the Italian mafia where I have been able to find an insight into the role of women, and its complicated web of changing traditions have become a real stimulant for me.
There are traditional mafia rules that formally excludes the participation of women in the criminal organisation. Only men of Italian descent are allowed to become members. The traditional role for mafia women are to be mothers and wives of Mafia members. They belong to the Mafia as opposed to being part of it. They are ‘Property of the Mafia’. It seems that Mafia women are expected not to ask questions about Mafia business and are actively kept out of the loop. Some writings tend to root that fact in catholic belief, the mother is Madonna – the pure being. But other reasons are suggested, that women become emotional over the dangers regarding their sons and husbands and that she will lose all objectivity.
It interested me how these traditions effect relationships with their husbands. “Pillow Talk” is regarded as a blatant violation of the code of absolute secrecy. It is believed that the reason mobsters take mistresses is to have a woman they are able to confide in.
We have been looking at these traditions and their parallels and contradictions with Shakespeare stories and it is when we have been looking at King lear that my imagination has gone wild! What happens when women of the mafia somehow are presented with a high position of power and the responsibilities and choices that come with it.
We have been aware that in the last few decades women’s roles in the Mafia have begun to change. Now that Mafia women get educated, they have become more active in the criminal organisation and are let into the secrets. They have become book-keepers and messengers. Karen Hill, a character in Goodfellas is a good example.
There are rare examples of women who have began to take power when their husbands and brothers have been sent to prison or have been forced to go on the run. Many of these women have proved themselves by running a successful and equally brutal regime. However, no female is yet to be appointed by virtue of their own leadership qualities. They have only delegate or substitute power. There has been no official change to the Mafia code in regards to female involvement.
I am wondering whether female liberation is happening in these rare examples of female leadership or whether women are performing an act of further obedience by allowing the Mafia system to continue during the absence of the male family members. These questions are allowing me to view King Lear through a new lense, especially the Goneril and Regan characters and their dynamic with Cordelia. I’m not sure yet how this research might manifest in the final product as we are always shifting ideas and evolving healthily but it’s proving a complex topic for me and I’m really enjoying exploring its possibilities in the rehearsal room.