Friday, June 22, 2007

RE: Richard II - Fathers and Sons

I agree with Gil that the pageantry in Richard II goes a long way toward making up for what could otherwise seem talky inaction (but it ain’t; the poetry is so wonderful). I do find myself wondering, in I.iii, how Richard moves from what must surely be the upper stage (where he is set to watch and, possibly, judge the duel) to the lower stage, where he (one would assume) holds out his sword for the two contestants to swear upon (I.iii.179)—but that is a small thing.

Actually, I think this play has a terrific beginning. There is none of the lengthy exposition that opens A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example. (Midsummer Night's Dream also starts with people with complaints coming before a ruler to get things straightened out.) In Richard II, wham! and you are in the middle of a fight.

Shakespeare did an impressive job in developing Shylock, but the care he spends on thinking through Richard’s character (and, to some extent, Northumberland’s and Bolingbroke’s) is impressive. They are much more richly developed than any earlier characters I can think of.

The other thing Richard II does brilliantly is to lay open the disconnect between politicians’ words and their actions. Anyone in the contemporary audience would know that Mowbray worked for Richard and helped further the latter’s desires to free himself of his uncles’ control—especially the control of “Woodstock,” the nickname given the Duke of Gloucester (not the well-known little town northwest of Kingston).

Bolingbroke seems calculating from the start. He has pointed out the elephant in the room (or should I use the emperor-has-no clothes metaphor?). The big question is: does Bolingbroke place his challenge because he wants something (Richard’s embarrassment? The Crown?), or is it simply his nature to be prickly-“honest”? (Sometimes it’s good to be a “plain, blunt” fellow (like Kent’s “Gaius” in King Lear.) But more often it’s not—as in some malcontent characters I’ve studied. Betty has a sister who prides herself in her own frankness, worshipping the impractical god of ”practicality,” and hurting/judging people left and right.

I will also note here the uneven nature of parts of the play—most especially the old-style rhymed couplets that appear from time to time,and the miserably corny scene (V.iii) regarding Aumerle’s possible punishment. Some suggest that these show an earlier version of the play,one which Shakespeare wrote or from which he borrowed.

Finally, a brief note on diction: (A) The stately, dark-vowel-rich language that opens the play (Midsummer Night's Dream uses the same device); (B) the magnificent way Gaunt’s “This royal throne of Kings” (II.i.40-67) speech builds to “IS ALL LEASED OUT.” George Bush should have read this long ago.

Some central, if unanswerable questions:

1. With whom are we meant to sympathize—Richard or Bolingbroke.
2. Does Bolingbroke have long-range plans?
3. Is George Bush more the usurper or more the self-dramatist? In short, is this play a reflection of our own political times? Who is today’s Duke of York?
4. Does Richard have any choice but to banish Mowbray (a duke, after all) for life? Is Bolingbroke really (and perhaps ignorantly) in control from the get-go?
5. To what extent can this play be seen as a commentary on the Renaissance’s freeing of humans from the constraints of medieval codes?

Who’s to blame, or are such ripping-aparts of older structures inevitable (or built into 2000-year cycles, as with Yeats)? [Or, in the last century (1937) as von Rauffenstein muses in The Grand Illusion, “UnMarĂ©chal? Un Rosenthal?”]


Thursday, June 21, 2007

Richard II - Fathers and Sons

I want to follow up on what Gilbert was saying about the Bolingbroke banishment. I was struck by the structural parallelism of the father-son interactions involving the sons' alleged treason – Gaunt/Bolingbroke at the beginning and York/Aumerle toward the end. Both involve conflicts between allegiance to family and loyalty to king. Actually, there is no real conflict for York – he's a loyalist all the way (at this point). A bit ironic since he just turned his back on King Richard.

But Gaunt is more openly conflicted. He tells Richard, "You urged me as a judge; but I had rather /You would have bid me argue like a father." He loyally carries out his duty as judge for the king, even though it is against his own son, but it tears him apart emotionally as is clear even from Richard's description of him: "I see thy grieved heart, thy sad aspect…" This is deeper and more interesting psychologically, though not quite to the level of the turmoil of a Hamlet. The overarching formality and decorum that Gilbert mentioned seems to govern the tone even of this emotional conflict.

These both presage the conflict we see just beginning between Bolingbroke, now King Henry IV, and the young Prince Hal, but we'll have plenty of time to dissect that peculiar relationship (though perhaps all father-son relationships are peculiar) in the next play in the sequence.

There are also notable and quotable passages about love of and devotion to land and country, especially Gaunt's "This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England." But what is best for England is not always what is best for its king. Is Shakespeare suggesting a hierarchy of allegiance here? If so, how exactly is it structured? England, then family, then king? That doesn't sound very comforting to his royal sponsors. Does anyone know about the specific political situation at the time of this play's composition?

The psychology of Richard is another thing altogether. In Act II scene 1, York tells him quite clearly that he is thinking of rebellion: "You…prick my tender patience to those thoughts/ Which honor and allegiance cannot think."

But Richard immediately turns to Bushy (what a name!) and declares: "…we create in absence of ourself /Our Uncle York lord governor of England; /For he is just, and always loved us well."

Does anyone remember how this comes off on stage (or film)? It just seems so totally daft of Richard. Does Bushy just stare at him, dumbfounded at his sheer stupidity? I found it hard to imagine that bit being acted in any believable way.

I want to come back later to a deeper consideration of the rich and often self-referential language of the play, but this is enough for now.


Richard II - Dick the Tooth

For God’s sake let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings.

The last, of two, production of Richard II I saw was at Ashland, Oregon, on the Elizabethan Stage which is outdoors, on the site of a quondam Chatauqua Circle. It was a quality production, no gimmicks, an eloquent and poetic Richard, but the most memorable aspects were two. First, the Ashland director was committed to color-blind casting, but the acting was good enough that it only took me five minutes to forget that first cousins Richard and Bolingbroke were played by actors of different races. (The next season Ashland cast a couple of their gifted leading actresses in minor male parts, Peter Quince in Midsummer Night's Dream and Crabtree in School for Scandal and they were awful, so bad they warped the texture of both plays).

Second, it rained throughout the evening so it was played in rehearsal clothes so as not to spoil the costumes, and they cut out some planned acrobatics or dancing, something to do with the luxury of Richard’s court. But most memorable, despite the rain, they still laid Richard’s corpse out on a bier (there’s a word I’ve never had to spell before) in Act, and the actor lay stone still while his eye sockets filled with rainwater. There must be some sort of award for that.

Though Randall has noted how little action we find in The Tragedy of King Richard the Second, only the trial by combat in Act 1 and the fight then murder of Richard in prison in Act 5, he misses one significant action. In Act 3.iii,. “s.d. The trumpets sound. Richard appeareth on the walls” of Flint Castle in Wales, and Bolingbroke exclaims:

"See, see, King Richard doth himself appear,
As doth the blushing discontented sun
From out the fiery portal of the east,
When he perceives the envious clouds are bent
To dim his glory and to stain the track
Of his bright passage to the occident"(3.iii.62-67),

a passage so richly imaged that his uncle York has to translate, “Yet looks he like a king!” Northumberland ascends to the balcony (“on the walls”) as representative of Bolingbroke, returns to the courtyard with the king’s offer to rescind banishment and restore the Lancastrian lands, then again meets Richard on the walls: “My lord, in the base court he [Bolingbroke] doth attend/ To speak with you, may it please you to come down” (3.iii.276-77), which sets off Richard, who has zig-zagged wildly between exultation and despair throughout the scene:

Down, down I come, like glist’ring Phaeton,
Wanting the manage of unruly jades.
In the base court? Base court, where kings grow base,
To come at traitor’s calls and do them grace.
In the base court, come down? Down court! Down king!
For night-owls shriek where mounting larks should sing. [s.d. exeunt above] (3.iii.78-83)

Followed by [s.d. Enter King Richard and his Attendants below].

I realize that, when I promised action, you hoped I’d point out some version of Hamlet in Ophelia’s grave, or maybe the Queen and the Gardener demonstrating a bed of roses could be more than a metaphor, but I offer instead King Richard coming down from the battlements to the base court below as the crucial action in English history. God’s anointed, the highest earthly link in the Great Chain of Being, submits himself to the current of history, submits to power --“Well you deserve; they well deserve to have/ That know the strong’st and surest way to get…/ What you will have, I’ll give, and willing too,/ For do we must what force will have us do.”

There is nonetheless a huge movement. Here we are again astride my hobbyhorse (that’s from cheval to hors, Randall), opening in a culture which seems to adhere to the code of chivalry (medieval, feudal) and which exits with raw power (real politique we called it in Richard III) or what might be called bourgeois capitalism (how often does Bolingbroke refer or defer to “the commons”?). When I saw that wet production at Ashland, I didn’t know the play well (I only taught it once, and that was in my very last semester), and I was impatient to establish contexts, so we could cut to the deposition and get inside for a very dry martini. Instead there is matched accusation of treason between Bolingbroke and Mowbray, all quite formal, then rescheduled for trial by combat in the lists at Coventry. Extremely formal code for introductions and accusations, then “co-fightus interruptus” indeed, the joust stopped, really curious, with the two combatants both sent into exile. I wondered what this was about, and indeed Mowbray never appears again, but dies somewhere in France.

But reading the play now, what strikes me most forcibly is that very formality of the code. Act 1 illustrates perfectly the chivalric code of medieval England, and Richard, as whimsical as he appears on the surface, is the code keeper. So when he “comes down” at Flint Castle this symbolic sun is darkened forever. We will only see it again, and then in romantic self-delusion, when Harry Percy, called Hotspur, will burn, and burn out, across the battlefields at Shrewsbury.


Sunday, June 17, 2007

As You Like It - Performance Log (June 2007)

Ladies and gentlemen,

No, we're not reading a different play. When I was compiling my bio for the William Shakespeare Experience, I noted that I had been to more than 60 stage productions of Shakespeare's plays. What I didn't mention was that many of them have gone dark in my mind. I think when you see a lot of theater, this is the fate of much of it – fleeting shadows that play across the vision and vanish. Dad and I saw two Taming of the Shrew productions in two weeks a few years ago. Reviewing my programs, I found I couldn't remember a single thing from one of them, and it was the more lavish production.

What I do tend to remember is performers, if not performances. I can remember seeing James Earl Jones in Othello. I can remember seeing Claudia Wilkens in House of Bernarda Alba, and I can remember seeing Don Cheadle at the Guthrie, Mark Rylance at the RSC, Marcel Marceau at the Denver Center, and Sigourney Weaver at a Brass Tacks Theatre show. (She wasn't in it; I sat next to her because her husband, Jim Simpson, directed the show.)

But these are not moving images. They are snapshots. And largely of famous people. Can I remember what James Earl Jones did with Othello in, say, his presentation of his courtship of Desdemona before the Venetian court? Or John Gilbert with any of The Imaginary Invalid? Or Ian McKellan with Richard III, other than shrugging that great coat on and off with only one functional arm? Not so much. (I remember pretty clearly what Claudia did with La Poncia, but I saw it twice.)

One can now, thanks to video and DVD, watch movies over and over and on demand. But theater remains an art of the memory. Since my early days as a theater critic, this has bothered me. One reason I loved that job was because it gave the theater I saw permanence. Interesting, though, is that when I reread stuff I wrote in 1986, it is like reading something written by a stranger. Was that my experience?

So I propose the following spin-off for our group: when we see Shakespeare, we might send a brief run down of the production's signature moments, a "performance log" if you will. By signature moments, I mean those instances, maybe three to five, in which the production defines itself or clearly separates itself from other productions of the same play. This is not a review; I am not interested in, and I never was, rating performances or giving a thumbs up/down kind of assessment. I want a record of the interpretive choices that distinguish a production. Please, allow me to demonstrate.

As You Like It
Cromulent Shakespeare Company
directed by Jody Bee
Powderhorn Park
June 15, 2007

1. Touchstone is played by a woman (Lisa Bol) made up in whiteface with dark, runny-mascara eyes and black mouth, sort of the opposite of blackface. Fools may be witty, they may be stupid, but this one is insane. In addition, Cromulent has removed Audrey, Touchstone's girlfriend and future wife, and replaced her with ... a doll's head. It goes like this. Touchstone has a festive staff, a long stick with ribbons and bells. Midway through the production, she comes out with a largish Barbie doll head stuck on top of it. This is "Audrey," and Touchstone speaks her lines in a high voice. Thus, she has long, romantic conversations with herself. And yes, she marries the doll's head at the end, and everyone else seems to go along with this. I guess they know she's crazy to begin with.

2. Jacques (Sheila Regan) is not melancholy. Rather he's kinda grumpy. But he smiles a lot and seems to have a good time in the forest and looks a bit disgruntled when people refer to him as "monsieur melancholy." He does the Seven Ages of Man speech, but skips the long disputation on various forms of melancholy, possibly because he doesn't know what melancholy is.

3. Shakespeare in the park is different from Shakespeare inside auditoriums where people pay actual money. For one, you have to contend constantly with ambient noises – airplanes, chatty Somali women who sit at the picnic table behind the acting area and yell at their kids oblivious of the live performance not 20 feet from them, barking dogs, rude adolescents on miniature bikes who holler at their friends oblivious of the live performance not 50 feet from them, and the constant thud-thumpa-thumpa-thud of passing cars blasting hip hop with their subwoofers set on "shake the 'hood." In addition, you often have inappropriate audiences like one-month-old to eight-year-old kids who aren't sure what to do with two hours of Shakespearean English. What to do?

Well with comedy often you blow off the subtle wit in favor of broader humor. Usually this means farce. For Cromulent it means really, really silly. Charles the wrestler (Paul Brutscher) becomes a growling World Wrestling Federation macho man. Duke Senior (Kiseung Rhee) is a careless, jovial, frequently drunk guy in the forest. Touchstone mugs. And the play's songs are turned into folk songs with accordion accompaniment (nice).

4. The music gets its own silly interlude between Act 4 and 5. Having established all the romantic relationships – Orlando and Rosalind/Ganymede, Celia and Oliver, Phoebe for Ganymede, Silvius for Phoebe, and Touchstone and a decapitated plastic Audrey – the play's producers have deduced that these different love struck individuals might be described by snatches from different popular love songs. Et voila, each sings a snippet from the Beatles or the Carpenters or the like. Touchstone's is "I want you! I want you so baaaad. I want you so bad, it's driving me mad, it's driving me mad!" Unfortunately, no one sings the refrain from Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers' "Why Do Fools Fall In Love." This whole set piece, which takes about five minutes is funny. The crowd laughs. We don't care a bit that it's jarringly out of tune, both with standard intonation and the Shakespeare play that surrounds it.

5. I think every Shakespeare production has at least one great moment, where the director has seen a way to handle one line or situation that is brilliant and wonderful. Cromulent's comes when Orlando's brother Oliver (Reier Erickson) enters the part of the forest where Rosalind (dressed as Ganymede) is living. He bears a bloody handkerchief, the remnant of Orlando's improbable struggle with a lion and which Orlando has sent by Oliver as excuse for his absence at his and Ganymede's wooing sessions. Rosalind (Kristen Springer) swoons. Oliver catches her from behind, accidentally grabbing her breasts. He is surprised, there is some humorous awkwardness, and the rest of their conversation focuses on her claim that she was just "counterfeiting."

Two scenes later (5.2) Orlando (Robin Everson) and Oliver meet Rosalind in the forest. She asks Orlando, "Did your brother tell you how I counterfeited to [swoon] when he showed me your handkerchief?" Orlando replies, "Ay, and greater wonders than that," while Oliver makes the universal "she's-got-really-big-breasts" motion behind her back. The audience cracks up. It's a great reading, and set up, of the line.

It also suggests that they've figure out ahead of time that Ganymede is a girl, something the company tries to play out a bit more in Rosalind's revelation scene, but not much is made of it.

Logged by R. Findlay

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Richard II - Opening Remarks

Most noble lieges,

I'm not sure really where to start with this one. When I was 15, I saw BBC's production on TV, part of its "Complete Works of William Shakespeare" series. It starred Derek Jacobi as Richard, Jon Finch as Bolingbroke, and John Gielgud as John of Gaunt. I remember it being very, very talky.

Reading it, I am impressed with the language, so much of it beautifully crafted, elevated, and carefully distinguishable between characters. Richard's flowery language is not like Bolingbroke's proud metaphor is not like Gaunt's aphoristic wisdom. But it is still talky. Gaunt, for example, seems to repeat everything three times. Hamlet is a long play, full of speeches ("words, words, words"), but you've got sword fights, a guy leaping into a grave to make out with a dead girl, creepy ghosts, manslaughter (oops), a morbid play within a morbid play, insanity, faux insanity, pirates (sort of), and unrequited love. Richard II has two moments of action – the first, a joust-to-the-death between Mowbray and Bolingbroke which Richard halts before it begins (co-fightus interruptus!) and the second, when Richard takes out a couple of assassins before Exton delivers the death blow. Other than that the whole thing is like a rather long cocktail party which, as the participants' tongues become loosened with alcohol, devolves to petty jealousies, malevolent posturing, and increasing flights of verbal fancy. So I wonder what Shakespeare thought would be the attraction of nobles standing around for two and a half hours, talking?

To step back a minute from narrative expectation, I could say that maybe this is a play about language. But I don't think it is. It is a play, mostly, about the deposition of a king, something that is not really achieved through mere talk. Perhaps this is the attraction – in a world where people believe in rule by divine right, deposition is a frightening thing. In this light, we might see Richard II as a kind of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, where the horror is all in the threat and implication and very little in actual violence. Graham Holderness points out that Act 4, the deposition scene, was "apparently censored in its Elizabethan performances and in the earliest printed texts. Evidently the spectacle of a monarch voluntarily resigning the crown was thought to be matter too dangerous to be represented on the Elizabethan stage" (Penguin Critical Studies: Richard II, 11). So Richard's and Gaunt's and Bolingbroke's and York's and the Queen's speeches are all a product of people grappling with what deposition means, its horror.

The Elizabethan audience would have been intimately familiar with its implications: one hundred plus years of political unrest (neatly chronicled by Shakespeare in the two tetralogies). Even in this, the first play of the second group, Shakespeare includes plenty of foreshadowing of the result of Richard's deposition, from the specific (setting the scene for 1 Henry IV):

Northumberland, thou ladder wherewithal
The mounting Bolingbroke ascends my throne,
The time shall not be many hours of age
More than it is, ere foul sin, gathering head,
Shall break into corruption. (5.1.55-59)

to the general (setting the scene for everything through Richard III):

Ah, Richard! With the eyes of heavy mind
I see thy glory like a shooting star
Fall to the base earth from the firmament;
Thy sun sets weeping in the lowly west,
Witnessing storms to come, woe and unrest. (2.4.18-22)

So what do we make of this brilliant language, not yet in the service of strong narrative? (I want to head off the 'well, it's a history play' rejoinder by pointing out that the play is entitled The Tragedy of King Richard the Second, and so I think we are within our rights to expect an engaging structure.) And if you want to dig deeper in the language, there are a lot of couplets here, but they come with the suggestion that such versification is a bit, well, effeminate. I love Mowbray's shot at Bolingbroke: "'Tis not the trial of a woman's war, / The bitter clamor of two eager tongues, / Can arbitrate this cause betwixt us twain" (1.1.48-50). What is Shakespeare's take on language in this play, which seems at once elevated and criticized?

I've also mentioned "tongues" now twice. They seem a persistent image throughout the play. What's with that?

Finally, in teaching a history play (1 Henry IV) this year, I felt myself drawn to the consideration of the play as a metaphor for modern times. Does Richard II offer us any solace, warning, expiation, insight for our own political theater? Does the disturbing deposition of Richard remind us of the sturm und drang of Clinton's impeachment? Does Ross's comment about Richard, "The commons hath he pilled with grievous taxes / And quite lost their hearts. The nobles hath he fined / For ancient quarrels and quite lost their hearts" (2.1.246-248) have any echo in Bush's abysmal approval ratings?

I suppose, it's time to end our repose, and expose our thoughts on what it means to depose. Who knows?