Monday, December 29, 2008
Just for pleasure, here's the New Yorker's recent "Talk of the Town" piece on the recent Cardozo School of Law appeals case involving Shylock:
"Retrial" by Lizzie Widdicome
Notable passage: "Portia, admired by many readers for her 'quality if mercy' speech, was reprimanded by the judges for impersonating a doctor of law. 'The trial was a travesty,' Abrams said, of Shakespeare's litigation scene. 'Beautiful sometimes, funny sometimes, and ugly sometimes, but that judgment is not something that we sitting here today can enforce.'"
Saturday, September 27, 2008
Friday, September 26, 2008
Gil replied: Railing Captains indeed people the city comedies of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, and continued unabated [sic] into the Eighteenth Century: Behn’s Willmore, Congreve’s Petulant; Garrick’s Fribble in Miss in Her Teens, and most gloriosus of all, all ten acts of Almanzor in Dryden’s Conquest of Grenada. Ancient Pistol is one of four candidates I have for who might replace Hotspur in 2 Henry IV (the others are Prince John, Lady Percy, and Francis Feeble, of whom more later). Pistol is indeed a braggart soldier, a miles gloriosus, a stock type I may have applied to Falstaff in 1 Henry IV, but Pistol better conforms to the narrower dimension of this humour character.
Doll Tearsheet offers the grace note to Pistol before his entrance (Act II scene 4) as a ‘swaggering rascal, the foulmouth’d’st rogue in England,’ and Mistress Quickly expands: “If he swagger, let him not come here … I’ll no swaggerers … Shut the door, there comes no swaggerers here … I have not liv’d all this while to have swaggering now.” [Do you remember the Beyond the Fringe skit, “I’d Rather Be a Judge than a Miner,” in which the miner says it is boring down the mine, boring is the word that comes to mind, when he thinks of conversation down the mine, it is boring, etc.?] And when we meet him, he is part of the flurry of those sallies which make Eric Partridge, Shakespeare’s Bawdy, blush: “I will discharge upon her, Sir John, with two bullets" [he’s Pistol, get it, and goes off half-cocked], and “I know you, Mistress Dorothy,” until Sir John says “No more, Pistol, I would not have you go off here. Discharge yourself of our company, Pistol.”
But the characteristic of Pistol that caught my ear is how he laces his bombast with garbled allusions to heroic drama. My notes identify George Peele, Turkish Mohomet and The Battle of Alcazar, but best is:
And hollow pamper’d jades of Asia,
Which cannot go but thirty mile a day,
Compare with Caesars, and with cannibals,
And Troiant Greeks? (II.iv.163-67)
which mangles “Holla, ye pamper’d jades of Asia” from Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, Part II in which Tamberlaine has harnessed Asian kings to his chariot. I don’t even want to think of Hannibal the Cannibal. Anyway, Tamberlaine is the most monumentally heroic figure in Elizabethan drama, and I am impressed that Shakespeare could tweak his rival Marlowe and send up his own chivalric hero Hotspur with the swaggering—did you note that he swaggers?—Pistol. Thus, the concept of honor, catechized by Falstaff at the end of 1 Henry IV, is here degraded, not to survive the cold-hearted Prince John in Part 2.
Back in the beginning, at my prep school in the North of England, we performed Henry V, and I still remember my classmate Johnny Edwards (the boy) greeting Pistol’s entrance with “Mine host Pistol” with his inflection revealing “hoss piss.” How could I not love Shakespeare’s language ever after? And we still have ahead of us Cressida's entrance: “Hark. The Troyan’s trumpet,” don’t we?
Tuesday, September 23, 2008
1. Shakespeare was regarded by many as the best dramatist going by the time of this play. His Falstaff is famous, but practically inimitable (except by Shakespeare himself), but Pistol, the “railing captain” was quickly picked up by Marston, Jonson and others who used Railing Captains for satirical purpose in their satires and “humors” plays.
2. Rumor, “painted full of tongues,” is, perhaps, something out of folk drama that Shakespeare may well have encountered in his youth. He reminds me of the so-called “wild men” covered with leaves who appeared in comedies and shows in the sixties and seventies—especially in the smaller, away-from-London parts of England. Shakespeare makes brilliant use of him with splendid gossip-like language: the metaphors of Rumor as the sun, the earth as a rotund woman impregnated by him, Rumor as a pipe, the mob as a Blatant Beast (a many-headed monster out of Arthurian times), the mob as a musical instrument Rumor plays upon; and the wonderful assonance-and-consonance-rich imagery of “And this worm-eaten hole of ragged stone/Where Hotspur’s father, old Northumberland, lies crafty-sick.” (Notice the o’s and r’s in this speech and how they lead to the two s’s and k’s in the final words.)
Indeed, Rumor serves as a kind of Fate to which we are privy, but Northumberland’s court is not aware of Fate, which provokes some real dramatic tension where a lesser dramatist would simply have told the story in straight narrative. This exposition is a long way from “Stand forth, Lysander.”
This leads me to further appreciate the general density of language in this nonetheless easy-to-understand play. There is more stuff happening in the lines than (at least) begin to here with a casual reading.
3. In Scene i. we meet the first of the play’s old men, Northumberland—the David to his Absolom, the Judas to Christ, the George Bush to the Army and Marines, Henry’s disenchanted co-conspiritor and thug (in Richard II), a kind of gutless nihilist. He knows there is no honesty in politics; he believes in no God. Northumberland has nothing to hold him together except the energy of his anger at the world; one feels he would be dissatisfied even had his son become king. He is surrounded by rumors and courtiers bringing rumors and, like some of the glass-half-empty people I know, he is supremely interested in rumors because they, taken together, reinforce his scorn for life and his inability to practice or understand any practice of or capacity for Grace. His relationship to Heaven stands in sharp contrast to Hal’s (II.ii.141-3).
So Northumberland is subconsciously expecting bad news regarding his son. And, when it comes, he falls into a brilliant rising speech which, on one hand, is a splendid apostrophe to anarchism (I.i 154 [“Let order die!”] – 150 [“And darkness be the burier of the dead!”]) and, on the other hand, the words of a very shallow, but dangerous, man. (And what contemporary politician would you compare HIM to? None speak sufficiently well.) Northumberland is so shallow that, immediately after this speech, he is totally under the sway of the conspirators around him who are themselves fools for not recognizing that he will desert them much as he did his son.
4. The richness of language I mention above continues in the wonderful comic scenes that follow—all surrounding the second of the play’s “old men,” Falstaff, whose venality is as nothing next to Northumberland’s. Falstaff is perhaps the most famous version of the Braggadocio, or “braggart soldier,” of which Pistol (pronounced “pizzle” for obvious comic reasons) is a different kind of derivative. This relates him, as Wayne Burns wrote in his “Panzaic Principle,” to comic side-kicks like Leporello, Sancho Panza, (Walter Brennan?), which archetype-plus pulls the Bacchus-like notion of Pan into the archetype. Of Shakespeare’s characters, Sir Toby Belch may be the clearest example—a person in a work of literature who is set in contrast to an idealistic hero (Giovanni, Quixote, Hal).
But what most impressed me about Falstaff listening to my CD of the play was the sheer density of his comic material. In his first speech (1.2) note:
5. (Page’s response) Good diseased water;
6. “gird” means both make fun of and reflects on trying to put a belt around Falstaff’s fat belly;
7. “compounded clay” refers both to some sort of poppet or doll and also to humankind’s own creation, with a foreshadowing of Falstaff’s coming battle with his own mortality and enlarges to tiny page to encompass all humanity;
11. “the cause” is, perhaps, a side view of Falstaff as dramatist;
13. “set me off”—Falstaff=jewel (red complexion);
15. “Mandrake” is, in addition to being a man-shaped root, a penis inasmuch as it is a method for getting impregnated;
18-19: the Falstaff=jewel is reversed, now the page+jewel;
19. “vile apparel”—jewel’s setting=clothes;
20. “jewel” leads to “juvenile” leads to Prince Hal;
21. “fledge” picks up earlier feather and suggests the “fledgling” Falstaff pretends that Hal is.
Etc., etc. This is indeed dense joking and wordplay, spinning on in ways that would make my father’s college friend, Jim Agee, who—in an important essay talking about how the great silent comedians [Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd] were able to “top” their jokes, spinning on from what a normal comedian would use as a conclusion to a new joke)—jump with joy in whatever afterworld he now inhabits.
Equally delightful is the wonderful run of dirty jokes in Mistress Quickly’s beginning of 2.1: “enter the action,” “stand to it,” “stabbed me in my own house,” “most beastly,” “his weapon be out,” “foin” (see Dekker’s The Shoemakers Holiday and its comic character Firk (whose name means essentially the same thing as “foin,” a play much influenced by these tavern scenes), “undone,” “comes continually,” “Pie Corner,” etc., etc., etc. I have been told that “quickly” is also a pun—especially in Elizabethan pronunciation—but I’m not sure I get it, unless “quakely” suggests orgasms. Hmmm.Ernst
Sunday, September 7, 2008
I have just re-read the terrific introduction by Norman N. Holland to my dog-eared Signet edition of 2 Henry IV. It is worth reading, but I do not want to lay too much of it on you because going at this play fresh and without undue critical influence is probably a good thing. I would, however, like to mention some of Holland's thematic concerns and other potentially helpful insights.
Holland lays great stress on how radically different 2 Henry IV is from Part 1―especially in tone and in how the characters are used and relate themselves to a larger vision of "how the world goes." Those who do this right end up the winners; those who do not have little more to look forward to than a gaping grave.
Holland also sets forth "betrayal," or, more correctly, "expectation mocked" as a central theme, introduced by Rumor's words and repeated again and again throughout the play. Even Falstaff's cannon-fodder recruits show this in that their satiric names are often the opposite of their natures. (It is, he notes, one of the few plays in which Shakespeare uses a whole bunch of names that are related to people's occupations or social positions.) It can also be seen in the double-sided nature of the Page's answer to Falstaff's "Sirrah … what says the doctor to my water": "He said, sir, the water itself was a good healthy water; but, for the party that [owned] it, he might have [more] diseases than he knew…."
He also raises the question of how, indeed, does one grasp fortune by the forelock and shape it to one's will, suggesting that both Francis Feeble (and a number of the more successful characters) are actually quite stoical in their responses to Fate:
"A man can die but once. We owe God a death. I'll ne'er bare a base mind. And't be my destiny, so. And't be not, so. No man's too good to serve's Prince. And let it go which way it will, he that dies this year is quit for the next." (See this quote used in Howard Hawks' Only Angels Have Wings.)
It is a dark play, says Holland, foreshadowing the tragedies and the sometimes curative suffering so many of Shakespeare's tragic heroes have to endure. There is a keen awareness of humans' relationship to the "gods" or fates King Lear's characters mention again and again, I think. In Holland's view, the play may be a bit more optimistic/presciptive than King Lear, but not terribly. To quote Holland: To raise oneself to the superior perspective, one must gain "… the ability to give up one's own desires, to trust, even to merge and identify with the 'necessity' represented by others, even, in a sense, to tolerate being engulfed by or devoured by it (as King Henry's crown, emblem of the larger order, has eaten its bearer up), than enables us to reemerge, as we did in earliest infancy, into a new sense of identity, a new role. In a paradox almost biblical, we must lose ourselves to find ourselves."
"Enough, or too much."
Saturday, September 6, 2008
With incomplete returns, my impression that 2 Henry IV is relatively unfamiliar ground for us is born out. With the exception of Ernst, most of us are tabulae rasae (forgive my pig-Latin): 3 have read, only one has taught, two have seen, at least in the Chimes at Midnight film, and only two, Ernst and Cindy, have seen it staged (Seattle Shakespeare Company will do a “brilliant distillation” of Parts 1 and 2 in late October which I hope to report on). Ernst notes 2 Henry IV is one of his favorite plays, but I think the rest of us might just say ‘Lord, Lord, here is something we might talk about,” and I’ll try to keep it oiled enough so we can chat without any need to find conclusions.
I am among the initiates. My only reading was in grad school, and my marginal notes are now too small to read without a magnifying glass. Since, through general reference, I am familiar with IV.v, Hal trying on his sleeping father’s crown, and V.v, the turning away of Falstaff. I remember the Lord Chief Justice and justice Shallow, but somehow I conflated them into the same person, which makes no sense.
I have no 2 Henry IV t-shirt, but I do have a few lines: “Is it not strange that desire should so many years outlive performance,” “They were his fancies or his good-nights” (John Collier has a book so named), “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown,” “Thy wish was father, Harry, to that thought,” and, alas, “I know thee not old man.” Before we finish our discussion, I want to talk about “he that dies this year is quit for the next.”
I don’t want my opening remarks to direct your thoughts, but here are a few of the ways my mind is tumbling. “Part 2” telegraphs “sequel,” and, except for fanatics of super-hero genres, this promises a negative experience. Northumberland is still rebelling, Falstaff is still drinking, Hal and Poins are still playing at disguise, poor Frances is still drawing bumpers of sack, King Henry, as though the triumph at Shrewsbury never took place, is still disillusioned with his eldest son. Hotspur and Glendower are gone. Yes, but … what do we get, beyond a chronological transition from Prince Hal to King Henry V? Doll Tearsheet? The Justices, chief and least? Ernst has stimulated me to think about “its study of three old men living out the consequences of their lives.” That’s a play I want to read.
Hal: 1 Henry IV began with “I know you all” (1 Henry IV, I.ii.195). Stu was troubled that if this was a premeditated scheme, the character would be less sympathetic, and he wanted his actor to speak fresh—“as if hatching his plan in the current moment, and justifying his past behavior in the context of the new plan.” But now we have “I know you not, old man” (2 Henry IV, V.v.47). Anyone troubled by this? Still, here I begin to apply Ernst’s “three old men”—Northumberland, King Henry, Falstaff—and begin to see a great play. Maybe in the second phase of our discussion, instead of “digits,” each of us could write a paragraph on “I know you not.”
Falstaff is an extraordinary character. Is there another character in all English literature that has similarly burst out of his play or novel? We have not much talked about him yet. I’m wondering about Falstaff, Part 2. I think he alludes more to age than fat this time, but what else?
A generic sidebar: 1 Henry IV might be subtitled “The Tragedy of Harry Hotspur” (Mike, I owe you a response to you last posting on Hotspur and Hamlet. I think I may be working on the Meaning of Everything.). Can we here think of “The Tragedy of Northumberland”? For that, the scene I most respond to is II.iii, Northumberland, Lady N. and Lady Percy, Hotspur’s widow. What has happened to honor in this play? Time to think of the cold-hearted Prince John of Lancaster? Or, without Hotspur, who do we have new: the Chief Justice, Shallow, Pistol (who has read Marlowe), Doll Tearsheet?
(When I found my magnifying glass, I was able to read a marginal note from thirty years ago, at the end of II.iv, the Boar’s Head, with Pistol swaggering, Falstaff and Mistress Quickly bantering, Doll Tearsheet waxing sentimental, and Eric Partridge, author of Shakespeare’s Bawdy, hysterically disapproving. My note says “Bill Matchett calls this one of the sweetest, saddest, funniest scenes I know.” Bill Matchett is a friend and mentor to both Ernst and me.)
Last, the text. Ernst has noted “some magnificent dramatic poetry” in 2 Henry IV. Yes. In small, I noted two “tide” images that took me all the way back to Mike’s consideration of water and oceans in Comedy of Errors. This play begins with Northumberland, contrasted to 1 Henry IV starting with what I called King Henry’s public or political rhetoric (“No more…”). The father/ son exchange when Henry is dying, wonderfully rolls. I feel the verse is still closer to, maybe (a stretch), Romeo, than to Coriolanus. Yet 2 Henry IV is 52% prose (1 Henry IV is 45%, Richard III is 1.5%, and Richard II is 0%, none, nada, as Rudy Giuliani might say—percentages from Marvin Spivack, Concordance).
OK? Enough? Just jump in for a moment, the beat of a sparrow’s wing. No essays. But here’s a threat. If no one bites, I will construct a statement about “public” and “personal” in 2 Henry IV and the Republican Convention.
Friday, September 5, 2008
Out of the Depths . . .
2 Henry IV is one of my favorite plays. It has some magnificent dramatic poetry in it, and I love its study of three old men living out the consequences of their lives. I think I got a bit bored with Part 1; it was all very neat and clever and funny, but the laughter had an echo that was grim, I was too aware that Falstaff was being played for a sucker, and larger issues were not really played out. This is superficial, I realize, but that's the way it was.
I think I managed to squeeze 2 Henry IV into some of my earlier Shakespeare classes, where I always bit off too many plays to teach, but I don't remember exactly how that went, so much water has flowed under the bridge since. What I ended up doing in later years was using David Bevington's The Necessary Shakespeare (I like Bevington generally―especially his sense of the larger dramatic/historical contexts of Shakespeare's times), assigning 1 Henry IV (in Bevington), and then copying and assigning sections of 2 Henry IV (not in Bevington), and a few bits from Henry V (in Bevington), as well as some chunks from the Olivier film).
The Part 2 portions I asked my students to read include:
(I also made tapes/CDs for my students to buy at $1 apiece--an offer that was never as broadly taken up as I would have liked.)
As I recall, there is a good bit from 2 Henry IV in Chimes at Midnight (including that phrase), which I haven't seen recently. Betty and I also sat through an afternoon/evening presentation of 1 Henry IV and 2 Henry IV at the Barbicon in London (it must have been the Royal Shakespeare Company), but it didn't work very well and, as I recall, got pretty mediocre ratings in the reviews. It was flat, a bit boring even, with no stand-out actors and (as I also recall) a Prince Hal with whom it was difficult to get involved.
Thursday, September 4, 2008
Wednesday, September 3, 2008
Though it may just be my personal impression, I think 2 Henry IV may be among Shakespeare’s lesser known plays, despite being crucial to the greatest English epic “the Henriad.” Experiences vary, of course. I have seen, by dint of mere proximity, Pericles four times, but before we tackled them in the Will Shakespeare Experience, I didn’t know any of the Henry VI’s at all, except for my “kill all the lawyers” t-shirt, and the Coriolanus I saw this summer in Ashland was my first exposure to it.
I’ll delay until a couple of years from now trying to explain how I found myself teaching fifth-graders Cymbeline (uncut). Anyway, I seem to be host for 2 Henry IV, of which I am ignorant. I don’t mind. I thought we had a great time with Comedy of Errors and Henry VI, but couldn’t find much to converse about with Midsummer Night’s Dream, possibly because we all know it so well. Thus, to give me a start would each of you inventory your exposure to Henry IV, Part 2.
Approximates are fine. Just send a single line, cataloguing how often you have 1) read before this month, 2) taught, 3) seen a performance, 4) seen a film, and 5) acted, directed, or "dramaturged" (strike this ‘verb’ from your memory). If you have anything under #5, you need not include all the nights of the run under #3. Except for BBC, I’m not sure there are films, except The War of the Roses and Welles’s Chimes at Midnight (Cindy, did you see it on stage? If so could we have a performance log?). For instance, my line looks like this:
Gil: 1) 1; 2) 0; 3) 0; 4) 0; 5) 0.
Please do this soon. While I wait, I think I will read Hemingway’s “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.”
Wednesday, August 27, 2008
Directed by Amelia Meckler
Lincoln Park, Seattle, WA
August 3, 2008
Gil: Twelfth Night is my favorite comedy; it is with Congreve’s The Way of the World, arguably the best dramatic comedy of all time.
Randall: Wow, a strong recommendation. I'd have to throw a Moliere in there, but I'd agree about Twelfth Night. I think you said something similar when you opened our first discussion on Comedy of Errors, that Shakespeare "wrote comedies until he wrote a perfect Twelfth Night, then stopped." It certainly was a pleasure to see it performed by GreenStage.
Gil: I liked director Amelia Meckler's limiting the "set" to just two benches, unless one includes the ‘prison’ Malvolio is locked in, an ingenious barred cell-as-mask clamped on his head as he is tormented by Feste/Sir Topaz. So except for characterization-by-costume, the play is the (only) thing.
Randall: That reminds me of something you once noted about the productions of Pericles you've seen, that in general they're pretty good because the play is flawed and that every interesting or above average production results from director and designers working harder to come up with a unifying vision. Here, with Twelfth Night, such an effort really isn't necessary. In a way, less is more. That's one thing I was getting at in the log on GreenStage’s Hamlet, that the minimalism common to Shakespeare performed in a park is akin to the nearly bare stages on which these plays were originally performed.
Gil: Right. Wondrous sets can interpret and delight as in the Twelfth Night I reported on at the Seattle Rep last fall or the hugely inventive set for A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Ashland this summer. But the history of Shakespeare performance shows how often productions were overwhelmed by sets, costumes, music, and technological innovation, especially in the Nineteenth Century.
Randall: I think that's still true today, especially given many of the Guthrie productions I've seen, and not just of Shakespeare, over the years. However, a director willing to minimize many of the production accoutrements must have the courage to let the actors carry the play. The Love's Labor's Lost that I saw recently, which had no set, ebbed and flowed depending on each actor's ability.
Gil: In Twelfth Night, a director must face her first challenge when she opens the text and discovers there is a character named “Sir Toby Belch.” And then she finds Sebastian reporting that he and his sister were both born in an hour, and Twelfth Night will expand on the possibilities of mistaken identity of twins in The Comedy of Errors, but this time the separated twins are “identical” fraternal twins.
Randall: I have to say, I've always wanted to see Viola and Sebastian played by the same person, with different clothes, as opposed to two different people wearing (how did that happen?) the same clothes. To pull this off, you might need some fancy production design involving mirrors for the last scene, or more likely a double for the final scene would work. Once the audience has gotten used to the same person, creating the "identical" fraternal image, it would be easier to engage willing suspension of disbelief to work the double scene. But I'd like to try this because I always catch myself groaning a bit when Sebastian shows up in Act 2 and he's a foot taller than the actress playing Viola. I think 'yeah, like Olivia is going to overlook that!' Meckler found two similar looking actors (played by Nicole Vernon and Banton Foster), but I didn't really get why they would be wearing the same outfit.
Gil: I’ve seen the twins in Errors double cast, a perfect solution. On the other hand, I’ve seen a Twelfth Night in Boulder, Colorado, in which Viola was Korean, Sebastian was Filipino, and the audience was invited to remember that all Asians look alike, don’t they? At GreenStage, it was credibly solved by similar facial structure and identical male costumes, reasonable in that Viola chooses male clothing for her Cesario disguise from her sense of her twin brother’s wardrobe.
Randall: Oh, right.
Gil: The Belch question is more crucial. Broad farce can really trample on subtle romantic plots, not just the Orsino/Viola-Cesario/Olivia triangle but also the counterpoint Olivia/Malvolio/Sir Andrew admittedly raucous subplot. This Sir Toby (Mathew Ahrens) was a roaring drunk and therefore loomed larger in both roistering and fighting than I was prepared to accept.
Randall: I've seen a number of mean-drunk Tobys – it is a little disconcerting – but I think Meckler really tried to smooth the wrinkles out a bit by incorporating Toby's love for Maria more substantially into the play. Shakespeare tells us, off hand, that the two have married at the end of the play. But at GreenStage we see them at a number of unspoken moments come close to kissing or clearly drawn to one another. At those times, Ahrens seems to recede from the roistering somewhat. The result, for me, was a production that explores the foolishness of all lovers, and here all the principal characters, including Toby, are lovers.
You use the phrase "subtle romantic plots." I don't think there's much subtle about Meckler's approach. Take Malvolio (Orion Protonentis). We're used to the foolishness of his love; it is above his state. Meckler discards the concept of "state" (although the line remains), and makes his inappropriateness more a matter of character which Protonentis plays with more physicality than I'm used to.
Gil: I thought Protonentis's stentorian declarative style was disdainful, yes, but more Addams Family than Jeeves, hardly a steward appropriate to the household for Olivia’s seven years of grief.
Randall: Sure, but Nicole Fierstein's Olivia is hardly a paragon of asceticism or reserve. The approach to Malvolio may fit the more cartoonish characterizations. So again, not so subtle.
Gil: Yes, Olivia was a bit hard to credit. After she is smitten with Orsino’s messenger, her costume goes from black to scarlet, but her character also shifts from grave to adolescent groupie. Fierstein does everything but pant, so Cesario’s recognition that Olivia loves her/him is crushed into panic. I'd add that Fierstein’s voice, shrill and loud enough so no one in Lincoln Park, not just GreenStage’s audience, could miss a line, also bent her character to extremes.
Randall: I found that as fascinating as it was hard to listen to, sort of like the moment that Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor expose Jean Hagen's true singing voice in Singin' in the Rain. But the fascinating part was how much it wrecked my concept of Olivia; she can't be shrill. Listen when she says:
"Oh world, how apt the poor are to be proud.
If one should be a prey, how much the better
To fall before the lion than the wolf!
The clock upbraids me with the waste of time.
Be not afraid, good youth, I will not have you,
And yet, when wit and youth is come to harvest,
Your wife is like to reap a proper man.
There lies your way, due west." (3.1.129-136)
Set aside the very Victorian, proper face-shaping p's here. The sentiments alone struggle with propriety, communicate a wistful yearning in the face of obligation. Voice is so important. Fierstein's conjured a more broadly comic Olivia than I was comfortable with.
Gil: Meckler's production gave me a new insight into and affection for Sir Andrew Aguecheek. Instead of merely being a dim-witted foil for Sir Toby’s venal roistering, Thomas Maier was naïve, yes, but shy, awed, funny, and capable of delight. Maier has a wonderful face, infinitely expressive, never frozen in expressions of ‘I’m acting’ that mar so many publicity still photographs. This meant Aguecheek is an outsider, not just someone Toby has brought in to gull for a season’s entertainment, but a normative counterpoint to the brittle social milieu of Orsino, Olivia, and Feste. This was the best Aguecheek I have ever seen, and I will treasure this Twelfth Night because of him.
Randall: I liked Maier a lot, as well, although I'd put him behind Max Wright's portrayal in the 1998 Nicholas Hytner production at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre (it was later televised) with Helen Hunt as Viola, Paul Rudd as Orsino, and Kyra Sedgwick as Olivia. Wright, you may have forgotten, played Willie on the TV sit-com ALF. As Aguecheek, his deadpan acceptance of perpetual loserdom was hysterical.
Gil: Well, if you're going to namedrop, the first time I saw Twelfth Night was at the Old Vic, with Leo McKern (Rumpole himself) as Feste, not-yet-Dame Peggy Ashcroft as Viola, and as a mere page, Dorothy Tutin. That, as much as anything, was the beginning of my addiction to Shakespeare.
Logged by Gil and Randall Findlay
Photo: Orion Protonensis as Malvolio and Sam Hagen as Feste in GreenStage's Twelfth Night. Photo by Ken Holmes.
Wednesday, August 20, 2008
A thought flitted through my mind after reading Gil's post. It was only a single thought, about the size of a sparrow:
Does anyone see a shadow cast forward from this play to Hamlet, or maybe a backward echo?
Given what Gil was saying about Hal as "the instrument of restored harmony (who) represents the cycle of an ascendant younger generation," I thought of the sweet prince. This is the very role I yearn for Hamlet to step into, yet he is unable. Anddespite his youth, the ascendancy of Fortinbras in the closing moments feels like the resoration of an older order, backward looking and militaristic, as well as little chivalric – thus Hotspur comes to mind.
Don't have time for the implications right now, but there it is.
Sunday, August 17, 2008
As Stu considers thoughts on producing 1 Henry IV, he thinks of youth comparing one’s place among peers, such as who is on the honor role, and notes Hal is compared, by the king, his father, to the valiant Hotspur. Indeed Shakespeare contemplates "honor" in this play, which Stu has the optimism to consider still relevant to our world, though my associations of honor with relationships (John Edwards high moral condemnation of Bill Clinton’s fitness to govern), military (Pat Tillman or Jessica Lynch reconfigured as America’s valiant warriors), or personal integrity (jeez!) provide a pretty bleak landscape for the relevance of honor in our cynical world.
Nonetheless, I have always found Hotspur a hugely compelling figure in this play. Yes, Falstaff is the Comic Hero (for a purist, an impossible term, in that “hero” is confined to tragedy), and I am encouraged by Stu’s distinction of “funny” (farcical) from witty and darkly humorous (comic). And, yes, Hal is the prodigal son or the pragmatic apprentice or, even, the Machiavel, and One Henry is his story.
But the Honorable Hotspur emerges for me from three passages. First, we are given a grace note to him before he is ever before us. King Henry receives dispatches from Wales where wild Glendower has captured Mortimer, and Welsh women have performed bestial deeds on the slain English soldiers (Holinshed says the bodies were castrated, but there is no report that nuns were raped or babies were thrown out of incubators in the twentieth century mode of demonizing the enemy). There is also news from the contentious north where gallant Hotspur has defeated the “ever-valiant and approved” Douglas (I am puzzled as to why the Douglas gets such good press throughout the play, even when he runs away from battle at Shrewsbury, but as a Scottish-surnamed American, who am I to complain?). In a personal moment apart from his public persona, Henry reveals his envy of Hotspur’s father, Northumberland:
Yea…thou…mak’st me sin
In envy that my Lord Northumberland
Should be the father to so blest a son—
A son who is the theme of honor’s tongue,
Amongst a grove the very straightest plant,
Who is sweet Fortune’s minion and her pride,
Whilst I, by looking on the praise of him,
See riot and dishonor stain the brow
Of my young Harry. O that it could be prov’d
That some night-tripping fairy had exchang’d
In cradle-clothes our children where they lay,
And call’d mine Percy, his Plantagenet!
Then would I have his Harry and he mine. (I.i.77-90; my italics)
Holy thesis sentence! There is the whole play—the King’s distress with his son, Hotspur’s honor, Falstaff (riot), and Hal’s “stain.” Hotspur is “sweet Fortune’s minion,” indeed. This orients “honor” to chivalric romance, as opposed to Fate, wyrd, that governs honor for the tragic hero Beowulf, but Hotspur still has a tragic flaw (pace, A. C. Bradley) as Henry asks “What think you, coz,/ Of this young Percy’s pride?”
Skip over for the moment the marvelously funny account of Hotspur refusing his prisoners to the “popinjay” courtier, and look at his credo itself:
By heaven, methinks it were an easy leap,
To pluck bright honor from the pale-fac’d moon,
Or dive into the bottom of the deep,
Where fadom-line could never touch the ground,
And pluck up drowned honor by the locks,
So he that doth redeem her thence might wear
Without corrival all her dignities,
But out upon this half-fac’d fellowship! (I.iii.201-08)
The truth is Hotspur is swept away by his chivalric posture. His poetic imagery is overwhelming, but it simplifies the world in Hotspur’s imagination. His father Northumberland and his uncle Worcester discuss that Mortimer has a legitimate claim to Richard II’s throne, and Hotspur is surprised. He hasn’t bothered reading his history, but suddenly he convinces himself to rebel in Richard’s name, a convenient “honorable” cause (though in Richard II, Hotspur was on the other side). Thus, we see Hotspur’s weakness. The chivalric ideal is nostalgic. England has ceased to be a single kind of place. Depose Richard and the result is not just a conscience-troubled Henry or quarrelsome Northumberland who remembers Carlisle’s analysis of the consequences of a precedent-setting rebellion, but a cold, glittering, practical Hal, genuinely aware of the new conditions and a master parodist Falstaff, exposing the way the great have now become the vulnerable and pretentious. Hotspur is a brilliant fool, romantically anachronistic in Hal’s England, lit by nostalgia for chivalric contests and an enthusiasm that is mostly quixotic.
And at Shrewsbury, this comes home. The rebel forces have mostly chickened out; even Hotspur’s father has contracted the “blue flu” so he is not in the field. The Douglas says “Talk not of dying, I am out of fear of death or death’s hand,” choosing common sense (or in Honor’s terminology “cowardice”), but Hotspur shouts Honor’s war cry: “Doomsday is near, die all, die merrily.” This is the occasion to apply Hal’s “I do, I will” to Hotspur’s impetuousness.
As the battle approaches, Hotspur has been tricked by Hal’s wanton image to underestimate him:
“Never did I hear
Of any prince so wild a liberty.
But be he as he will, yet once ere night
I will embrace him with a soldier’s arm
That he shall shrink under my courtesy” (V.ii.70-4),
and finally another war cry (slogan or slogorne from slaugh-ghairm, which poor Browning thought was an instrument called the slug-horn that we blue-painted Scots blew before battle):
“Now Esperance! Percy! And set on.
Sound all the lofty instruments of war,
And by that music let us all embrace,
For, heaven to earth, some of us never shall
A second time do such courtesy” (V.ii.96-100).
Courtesy, the code of chivalric honor, is nearly Hotspur’s last word. Falstaff, seeing the slain nobleman Sir Walter Blunt who sacrificed himself as a decoy for his sovereign, offers an epitaph: “Sir Walter Blunt! There’s honor for you!...I like not such grinning honor as Sir Walter hath. Give me life, which if I can save, so; if not, honor comes unlook’d for, and there’s an end” (V.iii.32-3, 58-61). At last (literally), Hotspur confronts Harry Monmouth, still having faith in the finite determinism of honor, a conception that rival achievement of honor is mutually exclusive. Hotspur’s utters a last assertion of ego: “would to God/ Thy name in arms were now as great as mine!” and falls.
At the end, Hotspur is a pathetic hero—and I use my terms carefully: “pathetic” rather than tragic because there is a pathos in the self-sacrifice of one whose time has passed, yet “hero” because he has challenged the pure laws of the universe, Hal’s multifaceted political realism, without recognizing his is an anachronistic code. Most sadly, Hotspur at last recognizes he is not of this post-Richard II world:
"O Harry, thou hast robb’d me of my youth!
I better brook the loss of brittle life
Than those proud titles thou hast won of me.
They wound my thoughts worse than thy sword my flesh.
But thoughts, the slaves of life, and life, time’s fool,
And time, that takes survey of all the world,
Must have a stop." (V.iv.77-83)
Even in death, “I better brook the loss of brittle life,” Hotspur is the alliterating chivalric poet before he is the warrior. Fool means “victim” here, as Romeo’s “I am fortune’s fool.” Derek Traversi notes that Hotspur’s conception of honor is tragically affirmed by death. My conclusion is here we see the defeat of illusion, Hotspur’s wonderfully rich self-deceptions, by realism, and his final clear vision echoes Mercutio’s “Tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church-door, but ‘tis enough, ‘twill serve. Ask for me to-morrow, and you shall find me a grave man.”
Another romantic hero, John Dryden’s Antony in All for Love: or, the World Well Lost, similarly recognizes the passing of the Romantic world to the crass, mercantile realism of Octavius Caesar:
“’Tis time the world
Should have a lord, and know whom to obey.
We two have kept its homage in suspense,
And bent the globe, on whose each side we trod,
Till it was dinted inwards. Let him walk
Alone upon’t; I’m weary of my part.” (All for Love, V.i.280-85)
What is the mode of this play? It is, of course, grouped among the “history plays” in the Folio, but this tells us nothing other than Shakespeare is chronicling the birth of a nation, and “history play” is an envelope in which we find different modes—comedy, tragedy, a little satire, part of the Henriad epic—arranged. Hotspur, with romantic rather than political character, denies realism and believes Northumberland’s absence will lend “a larger dare to our great enterprise” (IV.i.78), “to push against a kingdom, with his help/ We shall o’erturn it topsy-turvy down” (IV.i.81-2). Though Falstaff challenges stolid civil order, Hotspur’s very different challenge to political authority would be suggestive of a mode of comedy. Henry is senex; Falstaff is a tricky servant; but Hal, not Hotspur, is more the instrument of restored harmony and represents the cycle of ascendant younger generation that traditionally concludes comedy. Or Falstaff is miles gloriosis, is Lord of Misrule, is Vice, is disruption (though I want Stu’s “dark” moments, too). Thus, Hotspur, really, belongs in another play, and so he dies, and the golden romantic, chivalric code dies with him.
Friday, August 15, 2008
There’s a great deal to recommend 1 Henry IV for production: multiple interlocking subplots, vivid characters, and an underdog protagonist in Hal. In a day and age when we are desperately trying to keep Shakespeare relevant, this play seems particularly suited to engage a younger audience.
The coming-of-age story and the parable of the prodigal son are as relevant now as in the first or sixteenth centuries. I myself recall first seeing a production when I was a junior in high school. As both a spoiled preppie and rebel without a cause/underachiever, it was easy to cast myself in Hal’s place.
My reformation, glittering o'er my fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.
I'll so offend, to make offence a skill;
Redeeming time when men think least I will. (I.ii)
And so I thought; perhaps my day was coming. As youths, striving to find a place in the world, we are often compared to our peers and siblings—who’s on honor role, who’s on the football team, or who can hold their liquor best? This even persists into adulthood—my mother, well into her seventies, still tells me about how so-and-so’s son is now a partner at a law firm, or so-and-so’s daughter is now a surgeon. So any of us can relate to Hal’s dilemma when comparisons are made to the valiant Hotspur. Not only is the sons’ role in the world contrasted, we are presented with multiple father figures including a contemplative Henry IV, a madcap Falstaff, and a prideful Northumberland.
Much has been said and written of Shakespeare’s contemplation of honor in this play and throughout the “Henriad.” Suffice it now to say that the nature of honor, in the sense of personal integrity, interpersonal relationships, and military endeavors is still relevant to our world and to our modern audiences. Given the relevance of this play to modern times, one is tempted to try a production in modern dress to make this more explicit. I wouldn’t (the Guthrie tried several years ago with mixed results). I have always felt that the commonality of the times is best demonstrated using a different time and place than current, not by forcing a modern setting on a Shakespeare play, which only seems to point up the differences.
The challenges of mounting a production of 1 Henry IV are not limited to finding someone who can speak Welsh. Falstaff looms large in our common literary consciousness, and it can be a daunting task to attempt the role. Part of the problem may be that people assume that Falstaff is going to be “funny.” And when I says “funny” I mean farcically funny, not witty funny or darkly humorous funny. In some cases, audience members may have seen a production of Merry Wives of Windsor, or have a recollection of Falstaff as a largely comic character. But Falstaff is so much more than a funny fat man. Going for the laughs may gloss over the deep pain and resentment that fuel his wit. A lifetime of failures, alcoholism, and social isolation lie beneath the jolly exterior. Choosing a darker take on Falstaff my not meet audience expectations, but as a director, I would certainly look for opportunities to let Falstaff’s merry mask slip and reveal the troubled soul underneath.
Whose play is this anyway? One challenge is not losing Hal’s story, which I consider the core of the play, to the various subplots. Both the characters of Falstaff and Percy are boldly drawn and make a major impression on the audience. How do we keep these two from stealing Hal’s show? As a director, I might use a few tricks to place additional focus on Hal, such as dropping him downstage (closer to the audience) in scenes with Falstaff, and playing some of Percy’s scenes isolated on one side of the stage rather than center.
The script is fairly tight as it stands. Reading through, I found few obvious cuts. Act II, scene i, with the ostler and carrier seems unnecessary, and serves little purpose forwarding the plot or theme. Likewise, the portion of Act II, scene iv, with the server Francis, only interjects another unnecessary character into an already crowded play. I would even argue that the robbery scene (Act II, scene ii), can be largely cut, since we later get a description of the events from the principals in scene iv. We might even get a better payoff on Falstaff’s outrageous exaggerations by not knowing all of the details of the robbery beforehand.
One exchange from Act I, scene iv, particularly stuck in my mind as a major touchstone for the tone of the production:
… No, my good lord; banish Peto,
banish Bardolph, banish Poins: but for sweet Jack
Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack Falstaff,
valiant Jack Falstaff, and therefore more valiant,
being, as he is, old Jack Falstaff, banish not him
thy Harry's company, banish not him thy Harry's
company: banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.
I do, I will.
In these four words, Prince Henry begins the process by which he will ultimately deny Falstaff and break with his followers. I see Hal looking Falstaff directly in the eye, and speaking with all of the weight of a king; we are left to wonder if Hal is speaking in the character of the king or as himself. Perhaps Hal then turns away, and we see Falstaff’s reaction. But there are other ways one could put this together. Falstaff could be distracted as he finishes and never hear the Prince, who speaks sotto voce to himself or as an aside to the audience; this might be more in keeping with Hal’s “I know you all” speech from Act I, but would make him seem even more schemer who is unwilling to show his hand. Hal might also say his line laughingly as if to lessen the impact, but would it?
Another key speech is the end of Act I, scene ii, the whole “I know you all.” My concern is that this makes Hal sound so much like a schemer. My hope is that the audience will like Hal and relate to him. Shakespeare makes his reformation sound premeditated. It would be a challenge to an actor to make the speech fresh—as if he is hatching his plan in the current moment, and justifying his past behavior in the context of his new plan.
It’s a wonderful play, and one that stands up well as a single work.Stu
Tuesday, August 5, 2008
Directed by Susanna Wilson
Lincoln Park, Seattle, WA
August 2, 2008
1. Throw to earth this unprevailing woe. GreenStage's "Elsinore" is three connected Medieval stone arches, with purple curtains, in front of and through which the action takes place. And action is the key word here because Susanna Wilson's Hamlet is an active event. Everyone and everything is constantly in motion (including the text, which moves along briskly to its conclusion in roughly two and a quarter hours). Hamlet, played by Shawn Law, jigs, lunges, paces, and storms his way through, a passionate young man tormented by the nightmarish intrigue and corruption of his family's politics and his assigned vengeful role. Even moments one expects to be more measured, like when Hamlet admits he is not insane and knows a "hawk from a handsaw," are played in antic vein; Law delivers this line humping another character's leg. Most indicative of his frustration (or "woe" as Claudius calls it), he's constantly throwing things—books, and daggers, and grass, and wadded up letters, and his cloak, and clover, and pages torn from books, and musical instruments, and sticks, and his mother's necklace, and clothing, and Yorick's skull. (Okay, he just tosses this last one.) If Doubleday had invented baseball in the 13th century, this Hamlet would have been a hell of a pitcher. It's not just his noble mind that's "o'erthrown."
I go to productions of Hamlet in part because I'm curious. How does a director, or more specifically an actor, handle one of the most famous, most difficult, and most produced plays of all time? At some point I'm going to read English critic J. C. Trewin's Five & Eighty Hamlets, wherein he describes some of the most memorable performances he saw, just to get a sense of the range actors have brought to the role in the 20th century alone. But for an actor this must be terribly intimidating: the weight of history, the fame of the role, the number of lines, Laurence Olivier's ghost looking over your shoulder—holy onus! So Law's approach to Hamlet works first because all his effort seems effortless and is consistent with the text and second because the energy and physicality he brings to the role focuses it in a way consistent with Wilson's production. This Hamlet throws things. He emphasizes his youth. He suggests an untempered passion, a pent-up violence, a certain rashness (although Law makes it clear that Hamlet can think rings around his opponents). He brings energy to the role and to the audience, sitting without an intermission on the grass of Lincoln park.
I find I like a passionate Hamlet. It makes the human detritus of the final scene plausible, clearly the product of human passions rather than Fate or ineffable tragic flaws.
2. I wuz framed! For me, the most interesting aspect of this production is the way Wilson chooses to open and close it. The play begins not with scared soldiers on a castle battlement, but with Hamlet and the one of the players from the troupe that will later perform at Elisnore, play fighting and going over, together, "Aeneas' tale to Dido" about "Priam's slaughter" (from Act 2, scene 2). I think you can take this one of two ways. I saw it as Hamlet at Wittenberg, hanging with actors, an innocent before he's called home (which he is, as Wilson stages it, by a messenger at the end of the scene). The playfulness establishes an interesting benchmark for Hamlet's character later, specifically his knowledge of and interest in acting and plays. (In fact, Hamlet's instructions to the actors—"speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue"—comes off better than I've ever seen it before, in part because we've been prepared for his understanding of theater in advance.) But it also cleverly highlights the play's classical analogy—Hamlet is like Pyrrhus, who kills Troy's king Priam as vengeance for the death of his father, Achilles. And although the phrase comes from a different Pyrrhus, the speech that Hamlet and his actor friend practice serves to remind us, in advance, that Hamlet's coming vengeance will be itself a pyrrhic victory. Buried in the play, this analogy still stands, but coming first, it sets the tragic scene and tone.
Dad thought the opening scene might, perhaps, be something like the Christopher Sly scene at the beginning of Taming of the Shrew. In which case, Hamlet becomes a play within a play itself (making the "mousetrap" production a play within a play within a play). But I don't see this. It would work if Wilson continued to use Act 2, scene 2, having the rest of the players begin to perform and segue into Hamlet's opening scene. But instead, a messenger shows up, hands Hamlet a letter that clearly disturbs him, and he dashes off, leaving the Player looking perplexed.
3. There's a divinity that shapes our ends. Wilson ends the play with another interesting twist. She's removed Fortinbras, so there's no one to march onto the stage, observe the carnage, and bid the guns to shoot, bringing political closure to the fatal Danes. Instead, after Hamlet tells us "the rest is silence," three actors step forward, drop their characters and speak the following lines (cadged from Fortinbras and Horatio): "Where is this sight?"; "What is it ye would see?"; "Cease your search." Now, these lines go directly to the audience, calling our attention to the play's central action and asking us to consider why we go to Hamlet (again and again, even). Taken together with the opening, the chorus-like conclusion closes Wilson's frame, emphasizing the tragic scope of the play by beginning with a story of Greek vengeance and making us, in the end, responsible for realizing that scope. That frees the internal play, from frightened sentinels to "the rest is silence," to pursue more directly the simple story of a passionate young man overwhelmed by his uncle's fratricide and his own attempt at vengeance.
It is a story well told.
Logged by Randall
Photo: Shawn Law as Hamlet and Carolyn Marie Monroe as Ophelia in GreenStage's Hamlet. Photo by Ken Holmes.
Monday, August 4, 2008
I often teased my sorority-girl students about their reverence for personality, pointing out that that the term comes from Latin: persona, meaning “mask,” so a sister with an outstanding personality was the one who constructed the most perfect masks with which to interface—no, intermask—with all social situations, the perfect fake, and as she matured the masks become permanent disguises for face. It seems that I believe that somewhere in there, back there, there must be an essential identity.
As a reader of autobiography, I’ve long worried the mystery of identity. Who is Hal, asks Randall. Despite the indelibly vivid population of Shakespeare’s characters, does the concept of an identity not emerge until the 19th century, with autobiography constructed from individual experiences filtered through personal memory or with the ego-centric and introspective Romantic poets—some sort of essential self or kernel identity, an undiscovered country that even the voyages of “Lemuel” Freud can not discover? At what point in literature is “soul” replaced by “self”?
That Hal is confident of his masked identity is declared early, in his “imitate the sun” (I.ii.199-221) soliloquy (remember we trust soliloquies because they are unalloyed with all the conditions influencing dialogues). At the Boar’s Head tavern, exit Falstaff, then exit Poins, then the Prince looks at the space recently filled with our gang, and says “I know you all, and will awhile uphold/ The unyok’d humor of your idleness.” Because this is still our introduction to Hal, we can only see the dramatic irony of the subsequent robbery of the robbers; the straight man for Falstaff’s 13-men-in-buckram show; the king and prince role playing; the unexpected and on its surface incredible promise to his father, “I shall hereafter, my thrice-gracious lord,/ Be more myself”; and even, on the battlefield at Shrewsbury, his epitaph of the apparently slain Falstaff, “I could have better spared a better man.” All these demonstrate to me that this core self is intentionally masked from accurate recognition by others, though it has been there from the beginning.
When Falstaff-as-King-Henry says “but for sweet Jack Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack Falstaff, valiant Jack Falstaff, and therefore more valiant being, as he is, old Jack Falstaff, banish not him thy Harry’s company, banish not him thy Harry’s company, banish plump Jack, and banish all the world!” Prince Harry-as-future-King-Henry replies “I do, I will” (II.iv.475-481). Is there a more brilliant use of rhythm in Shakespeare, Falstaff’s 41-word oration eviscerated by the Prince’s four? The crescendo will come in 2 Henry IV when newly-crowned Henry V rejects Falstaff, or even more chilling, in Henry V, King Harry hangs his old Boar’s Head crony Bardolph for stealing a pax from a church: “we would have all such offenders so cut off.”
Yet I do not see, despite how just and benevolent King Henry V’s rule is dramatized, that Prince Hal is an Erasmusonian "humanist." He is too cunning, too duplicitous. He is amoral. Even though his kingship will be “just” (think Bardolph), his ascension to universal English support is based on manipulations justified by plotting for power.
Hal is the supreme Machiavel, described in Henry V as “none more loved and feared.” One definition of a Machiavel is a villainous but humorous character type in Elizabethan Drama, a sly cynic who loves evil for its own sake, the delight in evil making other motivation unnecessary, Iago being the prominent example. However, I’ve always thought of basic Machiavellianism as the advice to Il Principio, “the end justifies the means,” [though now I find in my Oxford Dictionary of Quotations that is attributed to Hermann Busenbaum (1600-1668) who, you all already knew, wrote in his Medulla Theologiae Moralis (1650), “cum finis est licitus, etiam media sunt licita”].
I am thinking that if Hal’s vision of the “end” is his glorious triumph displayed in Henry V, then the means he uses are the cunning manipulations of public perception, calculating how to seduce friends and enemies, nobility and commoners into undervaluing him until his “true self” bursts forth. He is amoral if morality is the time tested principle of truth and the best way to live one’s life. One challenge one must consider in 1 Henry IV is how the Prince, who has spent far more time lifting tankards of sack than flourishing broadswords, is able to defeat sweet fortune’s minion and her pride, Harry Hotspur, on the killing fields of Shrewsbury. My answer must be Hal is genetically a warrior. One may surmise, though there is no textual exposition, he has still submitted to some education commensurate with his class. But the advantage he has over Hotspur, as we know from the latter’s disparaging remarks, is that young Percy completely undervalues the Prince. The Machiavellian ruse proves more effective than “God for Harry, England and St. George.”
Randall wonders if we can see the shift from Henry IV to Hal as the shift, metaphorically, from medieval value to Renaissance humanism. I think first I would like to recapitulate the shift from Hotspur’s chivalric, romance values to a version of modernism represented by Falstaff—but I must leave this for a future post.
Thursday, July 31, 2008
This Romeo and Juliet, produced by Seattle Shakespeare Company's Wooden O Productions, had all the aspects of such a summer show. It was outside, the audience of about 200 seated on blankets on a grass berm semi-circling a paved area fronting a two-story building in the Seattle Center. One hopes for fair weather, and though darkly overcast and a bit chilly, the evening was dry. “Curtain” time was 6 p.m., so the production did not have to race against the dark, though cuts and lack of an intermission reduced playing time to a little over two hours. On a summer Sunday, seaplanes flew off Lake Union for a tourist view of the city, and of course the Seattle Center, Space Needle and all, is a necessary point of interest (observe the people in the Needle observing the people in the float plane), so I lost about thirty lines to engine noise. Less obtrusive, but more distracting, were the seagulls which flew low over the set, one of which perched on a nearby sign and commented for about five minutes (critics, critics everywhere). I was especially interested in a crow onstage chez Capulet, remembering that when I posted the history of A Midsummer Night’s Dream productions, I mentioned the nineteenth century had reached for natural authenticity in the forest scenes by loosing 50 live rabbits on stage, so I wondered if the director introduced the crow as an omen of tragedy, but he (the crow) flew away before the scene ended.
As the audience gathered, some with picnics, we could contemplate the set. Shakespeare in the park must have minimal sets, suitable to be loaded in a van and carted to another park in the next county by the next afternoon. The Romeo set was scruffy, an ill-fitted two-story façade stage right with a couple of doors or windows with torn curtains. There was a substantial balcony. Stage left was another façade fronted by what appeared to be a pile of garbage, and the gap between the facades had a traffic control gate in blue and white attached to a control box with a UN emblem. Behind was a large white tent. Both sets were dirty streaked yellow with bullet holes. “This set is crappy,” I thought.
[Contextual aside: I know Romeo and Juliet really well, having taught it and recently been immersed in it by The Will Shakespeare Experience. Also in the previous two weeks, at Ashland, Oregon, I had seen nine plays, four of them Shakespeare, by a company with 63 Equity actors and an operating budget of $24 million, including some lavish dressing of sets and costumes.]
The play opened with soldiers clad in camouflage, bearing rifles and side arms, a recording of jets muffling the prologue, running through the audience to hassle two guys I assumed were Sampson and Gregory dressed in arabic tunics. I’m afraid my knowledge of the play tuned my ear to listen for cuts, so all the risqué jokes and the exposition about the feud from these swanking servants was lost. There was some physical fighting, Tybalt’s brief challenge to an armed Benvolio (or Benvolia, given the part went to an actress), until Prince Escalus, in military uniform, declares “If ever you disturb our streets again/ Your lives shall pay the forfeit of the peace.” But soon he worried about his son Romeo. And thus the play unfolded, with Prince Montague, with all Capulet’s lines rolled into Lady Capulet’s, and later Friar John and his donkey gone entirely.
But I began to have affection this production. The Nurse (Julie Jamieson) had a light touch, a sweet smile, and her advice to Juliet to go ahead and marry Paris was offered with an emotional concern as the only possible solution for Juliet’s tragic dilemma, so when Juliet curses her, “Ancient damnation! O most wicked fiend!” I felt compassion rather than my usual smug satisfaction that the Nurse got what she deserved.
Friar Lawrence (John Farrage), in what appeared to be a Greek Orthodox robe, was perfectly orchestrated as mature, often bemused, perspective on young love. Mercutio (Taylor Maxwell) was hugely energetic, loud, arrogant, swigging from a flask, everything one might expect/scorn of a young soldier in a combat zone. Romeo (Michael Place) had good growth and modulation, even if his Petrarchan introduction and almost all mention of Rosaline were cut. Juliet was a little light and inexperienced, and given the limits of community theatre I can overlook the County Paris (Trick Danneker) somehow reminding me of a cross between Archie and Jughead, until he had a choreographed fight, fists and knives, with Romeo in the Capulet tomb. It wasn’t Ashland, but I have seen worse (a Macbeth in Harrogate, England, that provoked laughter), and I shifted from wondering if we had outgrown Shakespeare on the grass to a fair appreciation of the company.
Did I call Mercutio “a young soldier in a combat zone”? After the show, the actors pass among the audience with hats, and Randall asked Lady Capulet where they had set the play—Iraq? Bosnia? Israel?—and she said they had tried to keep it ambiguous so it would not be reduced to a narrow political statement. I was—English schoolboyism alert—gobsmacked. I had sat for 2 ¼ hours, leaning into the characters, the lines, the acting, and the penny never dropped that there really were no Capulets and Monagues, but a resentful native population and an arrogant occupying military force, a UN force at that. And suddenly it all made sense; how could I have been so dumb? This clears up the murkiness of “ancient grudge.” It even adds a suggestion of miscegenation to Romeo and Juliet. The visual information and text cuts did not guide me, because my mind insisted I was looking at Montagues and Capulets, and I was prepared to attribute my confusion to inadequacies of an unAshland company.
But this vision of an occupying military force is interesting. I’m not going to try to catch another performance now I “get it,” and I’m not sure it would really lead me into new understanding of Shakespeare’s play, yet I think the star of this production is director George Mount who showed the audience—except for too dense Gil—a different way of looking at Romeo and Juliet.
Logged by Gil
Wednesday, July 30, 2008
Directed by George Mount
Seattle Shakespeare Company's Wooden O Productions
Fisher Pavilion, Seattle Center
July 27, 2008
1. Feud shortage in war-torn Verona. When it comes to re-imagining Romeo and Juliet, it seems like you can't do the feud thing. Does anyone have feuds anymore? Either way, people thinking of Appalachian hillbillies arguing over inter-family marriage or ownership of a pig or whatever hardly provides logical entry into Shakespeare's tragedy; it's a bit silly. We want a more realistic conflict, something that would really drive the two sides, the Montagues and the Capulets, apart. Racial bigotry; that's been done. Religious animosity; done. So, with a nod to modernization and realistic enmity, the Seattle Shakespeare Company's Wooden O Productions (an unwieldy company name that had to result from a merger) production of Romeo and Juliet gives us war – in an unnamed war-torn country (think Iraq or the Balkans), the Capulets are the civilian population at odds with an occupying military force (Montagues), in this case a squadron of U.N. peacekeepers.
The set design establishes the vision: entrances to two ravaged buildings are separated by a blue and white U.N. checkpoint barrier. Both buildings look burned out and pockmarked by shrapnel or bullets, rubble strewn in front of them. Costume design follows suit – the Montague side dresses in camouflage and olive drab with blue U.N. berets; the Capulets in civilian clothes reminiscent of some middle-eastern or Aegean culture. (I had a brief discussion with Amy Fleetwood, who played Lady Capulet, about where Wooden O was setting the production. "We're not sure," she said. Nor is it clear what religion the civilians are practicing. Fleetwood indicated that the ambiguity was intentional.)
This setting demands a very interesting character/casting approach. The ostensible authority in Romeo and Juliet is Prince Escalus, but he's neutral. If you have a military unit trying to maintain control over a local citizenry rife with insurgent opposition, the Prince, as a local, would naturally be in the Capulet camp, probably opposed to the military. That doesn't really fit his lines. Or the situation. So director George Mount combines the Montague/Prince characters, making them one. Now "Prince" Montague (played by David Quicksall) is in charge but attached to the military side, and in the opening scene when two Capulet servants get in a tiff with armed peacekeeping soldiers and the imbroglio is escalated by Tybalt, it makes perfect sense when a general shows up to demand that everyone stand down. There are creaks – Escalus's line about "neighbor-stained steel" fails to reflect a battle between locals and outsiders, but what the heck. It's tougher at the end, when the Prince shows up to castigate both the Montagues and the Capulets ("all are punished!"), then makes an awkward transition that reminds us that he IS a Montague and father of Romeo.
2. All the world's a stage. I felt a deeper consequence to the production vision, though, than this particular melding of characters. In the play, the feud between Capulets and Montagues is personal, an "ancient grudge" (a line edited out of Wooden O's brief prologue) between two families. Mount's choice makes the conflict more impersonal, more intransigent. In this case there is no ancient grudge, only an imposed will on one side and a legitimate fury on the other. Shakespeare's play suggests love, or the tragic aftermath of Romeo and Juliet's, can heal the festering wounds of a private feud. Wooden O suggests this love can heal the wounds of savage international politics. Really? Perhaps what we need in Iraq is a swinging singles Saturday, when the daughters of Muqtada al-Sadr's followers can date American servicemen. Surely love will follow, then intense anger, and no doubt peace will reign. (Let's call General Petraeus and set this up.)
Hey, it's just a story.
I've alluded to real-world parallels to Mount's vision for Romeo and Juliet a number of times now. Curiously, they all occurred to me after the fact, not during the production. Mount's is a production content to make its points subtlely; it is neither polemic nor propaganda, a result in part of the ambiguous setting. There are moments during which the production is uneven, when moments are rushed through without fully realizing their own implications, when actors don't quite raise themselves up to the production's bar, when design choices are interfered with by Shakespeare's text. But in the end, this Romeo and Juliet is one I'll probably remember because it attempted, often successfully, to place the story on a world stage.
Logged by Randall
Picture: Hana Lass as Juliet, John Farage as Friar Laurence, Michael Place as Romeo in Romeo and Juliet.
Sunday, July 27, 2008
If I read Gil right, the identity of the self is an elusive quality in 1 Henry IV. Henry's self is buried in his public "office of authority." The line I pointed to, in which the King suggests he will reveal his true self, is in Gil's reading simply a moment when Henry unveils a different public face, one that is "mighty and to be feared" instead of the one he describes as "smooth as oil, soft as young down." No wonder kings adopt the royal "we"; they are a variety of personae, depending on the dictates of the moment.
So I agree with Gil, but it begs an interesting question. Henry's lines create a clear parallel with Hal's "I will be myself" moment. Is Hal's revealed persona, then, not his true self? Does he have one? Perhaps what he's referring to when he compares himself to the sun, covered for a moment by "base contagious clouds" only to reveal himself when they pass, is also an adopted persona. This would certainly be borne out by one reading of the line "I will imitate the sun" (my italics). So, who is Hal?
I begin to wonder if the "self" exercise has meaning, or if, as my car of criticism careens off the road, I'm just stepping on the gas? So let me put the question in context a bit. Lately, I've been reading a little late Tudor drama, specifically Udall's Roister Doister and somebody's Gammer Gurton's Needle. Editors for both indicate that the plays "illustrate the increasing influence of humanism." On the one hand, humanism refers to a return to the study of Latin and Greek texts, and more specifically the adoption of classical style and structure in drama. In addition, though, comes emphases on the arts, human experience, and the innate dignity of the self or individual. So, as we move through the 1590s and Shakespeare's history plays, where is this humanist self in chronicle drama?
Or more specifically, what is self? For Shakespeare? The suggestion here is that, pre-humanism, the self is subordinated to such things as predestination, codes of conduct like chivalry and honor, and what else? Well, the most interesting implication in Gil's argument is "Poetry."
"'Anti-poet' Hotspur," he writes, "is the most poetic, and yet is farthest from Randall's call for exploration of the nature of identity." Are poetry and individual self, then, opposed? If so, why?
It would seem to me that a humanist view implies that there is something beneath the faces that we wear, whether poetry obscures it or not. I am reminded of the mime Marcel Marceau's famous exercise, "The Mask Maker," in which his character tries on a variety of faces before a mirror (or more metaphorically before a series of audiences), only to find at the end that he cannot remove the final mask. Marceau's sketch is pretty modernist; it assumes the self, but suggests we can be caught, finally, by our falsenesses and lose connection to who we really are. Clearly, neither Hal nor Henry (nor Falstaff, Hotspur) could even conceive of this sort of danger, as close as they are to medieval characters defined by deeds as opposed to values or any inner landscape. Rather, I wonder if they are Marceau's sketch in reverse, removing various "faces" from situation to situation until a nature is revealed.
One further note on Renaissance humanism. The Dutch humanist Erasmus (1466-1536) and Italian philosopher Machiavelli (1469-1527) both wrote pamphlets for princes, The Education of a Christian Prince and The Prince, respectively. Wikipedia compares the two, suggesting "Machiavelli stated that, to maintain control by political force, it is safer for a prince to be feared than loved; Erasmus, on the other hand, preferred for the prince to be loved and suggested that the prince needed a well-rounded education in order to govern justly and benevolently and avoid becoming a source of oppression." I find it interesting that in this summation of Machiavelli, we hear King Henry's lines ("I will from henceforth rather be myself/ Mighty and to be feared") and in the gloss on Erasmus, we see the definition of Hal ("a well-rounded education" toward just and benevolent rule). So, can we see the shift from Henry IV to Hal as the shift, metaphorically, from medieval value to Renaissance humanism?
Thursday, July 24, 2008
What happens in a play which begins “no more”? (Please don’t evoke the “no way/ way” joke.) Well, of course … more! King Henry, our Bolingbroke, has ascended to Richard II’s throne (and the guilt of usurpation will follow until his son, King Henry V, attests “Five hundred poor I have in yearly pay,/ Who twice a day their withered hands hold up/ Toward heaven, to pardon blood” [Henry V, IV.i. 303-50]), after Northumberland, his son Harry Percy and others have supported an insurrection against Richard and his party, York, Carlisle, Scroop, etc.
Henry addresses his council with a state of the realm declaration: the antidote to such civil unrest is, of course, foreign war (“I am the war king, and I get to decide”).
"So shaken as we are, so wan with care,
Find we a time for frighted peace to pant
And breathe short-winded accents of new broils
To be commenc’d in strands afar remote.
No more the thirsty entrance of this soil
Shall daub her lips with her own children’s blood,
No more shall trenching war channel her fields,
Nor bruise her flow’rets with the armed hoofs
Of hostile paces. Those opposed eyes,
Which, like the meteors of a troubled heaven,
All of one nature, of one substance bred,
Did lately meet in intestine shock
And furious close of civil butchery,
Shall now, in mutual well-beseeming ranks,
March all one way and be no more oppos’d
Against acquaintance, kindred, and allies." (I.i.1-16)
Listen to this blank verse with formal tropes. Though eight of the sixteen lines run on, the constructions are formal, carefully constructed, the syntax is thrice inversed in the opening period, the opening lines have alliterations, then assonance. The coda, “no more,” is thrice repeated. The figure of civil war—earth extended to lips daubing blood, hoofs trenching channels and bruising flower’ets—are metaphors that are grotesque in their extremity, and they coalesce in “civil butchery” evoking Montagues and Capulets. This is public speech, Henry being kingly, employing such rhetoric that will later empower his son to declaim “Once more into the breech, dear friends, once more;/ Or close the wall up with our English dead!” (Henry V, III.i.1-2). The speech is so political, so rhetorically composed that today we would automatically assume a committee of speech writers has generated it. There is no opportunity here to infer Henry’s identity. He is the office-of-king, using the royal “we” six times in the opening address. As public speech, it is so finished, so definitive, yet so ponderous. The irony, of course, is that “no more” lasts only 48 lines, when news of troubles in the North reverses public policy: “It seems then that the tidings of this broil/ Brake off our business for the Holy Land” (I.i.47-8).
Contrast this to Prince Hal’s soliloquy after some Boar’s Head chatter about sack, highway robbery, and the moon’s men, larded with fat jokes.
"I know you all, and will awhile uphold
The unyoked humor of your idleness.
Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That, when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wond’red at
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapors that did seem to strangle him." (I.ii.199-207)
This is “personal” speech. Hal is talking to himself about himself, declaring not the state of the union, but describing his private, Machiavellian strategy. Not only does it begin with ‘I” rather than a royal “we,” it builds the extended simile, starting with a sun/son pun, and then explaining how and why the comparison will work. Still blank verse, four of the nine lines run on, but that is necessary to build the logic of the comparison. The last half of the whole soliloquy unpacks the trope, connecting point-by-point the beclouded sun to the loose-behaving son, until he “pay the debt I never promised.”
To me the contrast of public to personal is striking. I hope we will return to Hal in our discussion, but this soliloquy fires the first round of individualism, ironic because Hal is confessing that he is playing a role, though that role beclouds some hidden self, as yet unrevealed. Soliloquy is a convention that suggests the audience can accept as truth what is said uninfluenced by the tactics of conversation, but I hope we can also test whether Hal’s asserted self itself can be trusted.
Preceding the “I know you all” declaration, Hal has been exchanging insults and all-boys-together badinage with (Sir) Jack Falstaff, who riffs on his vocation of highway robbery:
“Marry, then, sweet wag, when thou art king, let not us that are squires of the night’s body be called thieves of the day’s beauty. Let us be Diana’s foresters, gentlemen of the shade, minions of the moon, and let men say we be men of good government, being govern’d, as the sea is, by our noble and chaste mistress the moon, under whose countenance we steal” (I.ii.22-9).
This is, I say with trepidation, prose. Trepidation, alas, because as a teacher if I would point this out to a class, I would always have a dozen students who would thereafter insist that any one who spoke prose was eo ipso lower class (and it didn’t help to tell them that John Stuart Mill was shocked to discover he had been speaking in prose all his life). Forty-five percent of 1 Henry IV is in prose. Falstaff’s utterance is filled with similes, word play, puns, repetition and variation, and sheer joy in talk. It is not just prose that separates Falstaff from King Henry. Though a denizen of taverns he is still a knight of the realm, and he will be selected to captain a company of foot soldiers in the Battle of Shrewsbury. But what separates much of Falstaff from Henry’s ponderous conceit about the blood-soaked earth is exuberance, joix de vivre. Identity? Yes, I think so.
But Falstaff is always putting on a show. When he is claiming he was attacked by two, no four, no seven men in buckram (after Hal has reminded him he had first said “two”), he is performing to amuse the audience. Even when he stabs Percy’s corpse and claims his own valor, it’s just a little show for Hal’s sake. He has been, after all, lying on the ground within ear-, and eye-, shot of Hal’s victory in combat and the epitaph Hal bestows on the fallen Hotspur. And when Falstaff rises and stabs Hotspur, he intentionally does it in the groin, not something I like to think about, but clearly not a mortal wound. Thus, he knows Hal knows he is just having a little fun, a Hawkeye Pierce offering a comic interlude at the peak of the horror of war. We must return to Falstaff’s catechism on honor before we finish our discussion, but I think Falstaff may be “himself” if we allow that he is always at play, and such play may allow him to avoid facing the truth about himself.
Lastly, Hotspur. Nothing fancy for him:
"I had rather hear a brazen canstick turn’d,
Or a dry wheel grate on the axle-tree,
And that would set my teeth nothing an edge,
Nothing so much as mincing poetry," (III.i.129-132)
a surprising declaration for Hotspur who belongs in the tradition of chivalric Romance. It recalls Theseus’s Platonic theory:
"And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name." (Midsummer Night's Dream, V.i.14-17)
Theseus also dismisses lovers and fairies, but soon greets midnight with “Lovers, to bed; ‘tis almost fairy time." Similarly, Hotspur dismisses his ally Owen Glendower:
"O, he is as tedious
As a tired horse, a railing wife;
Worse than a smoky house. I had rather live
With cheese and garlic in a windmill far
Than feed on cates and have him talk to me
In any summer house in Christendom." (III.i.158-163)
I could choose almost anything Hotspur says and it would illustrate how he summons up marvelous terse similes in order to make his case both precisely and tediously, given he almost always makes his point four or five times. Think of his unstoppable account of the “popinjay” sent from court to (legitimately) claim Hotspur’s prisoners in the name of the king—40 lines without a breath—or his own dying words:
"But thoughts, the slaves of life, and life, time’s fool,
And time, that takes survey of all the world,
Must have a stop. " (V.iv.81-3)
(Frye notes the Folio reading of 81 is “But thought’s the slave of life, and life time’s fool,” closer to the heart of tragic vision.)
One of us must address his “By heaven, methinks it were an easy leap,/ To pluck bright honor from the pale-fac’d moon.” But my point is that, of these four, “anti-poet” Hotspur is the most poetic, and yet he is farthest from Randall’s call for exploration of the nature of identity. King Henry is public, the expression of the office of authority. Prince Harry claims a disguised self, apparently fully-formed but unrevealed. Falstaff, the comic hero, may have an identity, but because he is always performing, we must look, perhaps, to his catechism against honor to discover that his core identity is consistent with his repudiation of all values hostile to life. And the most vivid character, Hotspur, impetuous, passionate, “heroic” could be the most attractive, yet he has least identity, made up as he is of the now-lost values of chivalric Romance, devoted to “honor,” which is a value in service of death. His true epitaph is spoken by his uncle Worcester:
“[My nephew’s trespass] hath the excuse of youth and heat of blood,
And an adopted name of privilege—
A hare-brained Hotspur, governed by a spleen." (V.ii.17-19)
See? I have called monsters from the vasty deep,