Within Princeton’s theatergoing circles, the end of summer heralds a new work by Princeton playwright Marvin Cheiten staged at the Hamilton Murray Dodge Theater on the Princeton University campus. It’s practically a tradition. This year audiences will see an entirely new staging of a work that Cheiten first unveiled as a staged reading in 2004 and then a full scale production in 2005.
In an August 10, 2005, story in U.S. 1, LucyAnn Dunlap wrote that “Zenobia” is about a world super power invading a small country. “But this is not about the current war but rather is set in the third century. Zenobia was a seductive ‘warrior’ queen of the small country of Palmyra [located where central Syria is today], who, by her own devising, incurred the wrath of the super power the Roman Empire.”
Cheiten wrote the play before the United States invaded Iraq. “The parallel is scary,” he says. “The underlying message of my play is how dreadful war is. War destroys virtually everyone on both sides.”
A friend introduced Cheiten to this historical character with the lure, “I think you’ll like her.” He began researching and finding out everything he could about the exotic queen. “This woman lived within me for eight years,” Cheiten says. When he finally set down to write the script, it only took him three months. “It went very easily when I got to the writing because I knew her so well and the people around her.”
Zenobia, the daughter of a tradesman, married the king of Palmyra, who died under mysterious circumstances. Did she give him a little push to the hereafter? No one knows. But she ascended the throne and with the aid of the greatest general of the country began a series of adventures. Because she perceived the Roman Empire as being in disarray, she decided to encroach into Roman territory on the eastern fringes of the empire.
As envisioned by Cheiten, she was an impressive leader, managing to manipulate her general — who also became her lover — to do her bidding against his better judgment. “He feared that if they took enough of the Roman Empire, it would counterattack, which they most assuredly did,” Cheiten says.
The play covers what he describes as Zenobia’s “golden age,” when she was advancing, and her not-so-golden age, when she was retreating. Not just an historical epic, the play concerns her inner journey as well. Her downfall politically set in motion events that forced her to grow as a person. “To my mind, she is a great hero,” says Cheiten. “Hers is a story of fall and redemption.”
Los Angeles-based director Dan Berkowitz, whom Cheiten met years ago when they were college interns at McCarter Theater, directed the staged reading, the 2005 production, and will again direct this new revival, which opens Friday, August 19, and runs through Sunday, August 28.
In a recent phone interview Cheiten says that audience members who saw the 2005 production will see several changes in this new production. The entire cast is new, including Caroline Vasco, a rising junior at Princeton, in the title role. Cheiten describes Vasco as “a very beautiful woman who looks like an empress, which is what Zenobia is determined to become.” He says the costuming too will be much more elaborate, and there will be musical interludes between scenes.
One of the characters in the play is the spirit of Cleopatra, to whom Zenobia has often been compared. In the first production, says Cheiten, Cleopatra appeared to Zenobia as a kind of confidant and alter ego for Zenobia. She has no lines — “because this is just Zenobia’s vision of Cleopatra,” says Cheiten. He adds that Berkowitz has made a change in the script, with Cleopatra now being represented by a “strange and almost eerie light” that appears on different parts of the stage, accompanied by original music.
Cheiten’s work is remarkable for its form. In true epic style, the play is written in iambic pentameter, which consists of five “feet,” each of which contains a short, unstressed syllable followed by a long, stressed, syllable. Cheiten calls the work “a neo-Elizabethan blank-verse tragedy.” The fact that Cheiten finds it easier writing in iambic pentameter than in contemporary English is very telling about Cheiten himself. A poet and playwright, he likes the constraints of these forms as well as the added discipline iambic pentameter demands.
Cheiten has written two other plays in this verse form: “Queen Jane,” produced in 1976 at Forbes College, Princeton; and a work with a contemporary setting, “The Vault,” produced in 1980 at the Theater Center in Philadelphia.
What Cheiten finds “heartwarming” about blank verse is that “there is a clear constraint about what you can do and what you can’t do. The lines have to be in iambic pentameter, sometimes rhymed. You can’t go too far afield from what you’re saying because of the nature of the line. I find that very appealing. Certainly this is easier than contemporary English, which I don’t completely understand. Blank verse flows so beautifully. I know exactly what I have to do.”
Cheiten says that as he has been watching rehearsals for the new production, he has made refinements to the script. “The script is not dramatically different but I have been able to tighten and make more intense certain passages. I will add or subtract. In a real sense, it is a somewhat heightened version (of the original), precisely because we know, Dan and I, what the play is. Therefore, it is possible to concentrate on fine tuning.” For example, Zenobia is now portrayed as being even happier at the beginning, which makes the end even sadder.
But Cheiten is quick to counter that this transition is actually crafted to be uplifting for audiences. He explains: “During the first production we saw that many audience members found the play to be poignant to the point of making them cry. The objective is to make it as tragic as possible. Zenobia is a tragic heroine but in the end, when everything is taken away from her, she then becomes the better human being. She really settles scores, in a sense saying, ‘for once in my life I’m going to do exactly what I want.’ It’s like the less she is politically and militarily, the more she is morally and on a human level. That’s why, even though it’s a tragedy, I have always felt people leaving the theater will see her moral triumph.
“One of the great cliches of theater,” he continues, “is that on some level tragedy is more uplifting than comedy because comedy mocks the follies of people and in that sense puts people down. Tragedy show the disaster people go through but also the glory with which they transcend that disaster. In the end the character does the right thing. Zenobia triumphs after all — despite everything.”
“Doing the right thing” has long been a quest for Cheiten. “I have always been fascinated by the concept of the righteous Gentiles (in World War II), including those who sheltered Anne Frank. I think, what were these people thinking? If they had been discovered they would have been put in a concentration camp. In the midst of this darkest moment, a group of people decided, ‘this is what we have to do.’ That is the spirit of tragedy. You get that type of transcendence. They did the right thing. And Zenobia does too.”
Cheiten has long been a supporter of Princeton Summer Theater and the Princeton Symphony Orchestra. “Because I don’t have a wife and children,” he says he focuses on “adopting” organizations that he finds “artistically meritorious.”
Cheiten was raised in Highland Park. His father, Samuel Cheiten, was for many years the president of the Water Master Company, a hardware manufacturing company founded by his father. The company has always been a part of Cheiten’s professional life but he says that through all these years, “my love has been the writing that I have done since I was in the Lower School at Rutgers Prep.”
Both Cheiten’s father and mother, a former actress, were involved in the arts. He was taken to concerts and plays from an early age. When he was five, he went to the Metropolitan Opera for “The Magic Flute,” “which I totally didn’t understand but I knew it was so wonderful.” He says that though his father certainly had many business commitments, he always found time to talk to his son about what they had seen or what a film meant. “He was always there to discuss literary things.” Regarding both parents, Cheiten says: “I always knew where their hearts were. I don’t think it would have been possible to have two better parents. They made it very easy to grow up.”
Cheiten ended up at Princeton University to earn a PhD in French literature in 1971. Looking back on his writing career, he admits that he thinks that “Zenobia” is “certainly one of the more important pieces of writing I’ve done. I think it’s a very serious statement.”
“One of the reasons I write the number of things, and in the way I have, is because I take the time. I tend to be very sedentary. To my mind, if I lived my entire life in Princeton and died here, I don’t know that I would consider that a tragedy. A part of me is fascinated by the rest of the human race, but I am very, very sedentary. I’ve lived in a very small radius of this town.”
“Zenobia,” Princeton Summer Theater, Hamilton Murray Theater, Princeton University. Friday, August 19, through Sunday, August 28. Allied Playwrights presents a drama written by Marvin Harold Cheiten of Princeton. Directed by Dan Berkowitz. $25. 877-238-5596. www.smarttix.com.