Thursday, July 31, 2008

RE: Romeo and Juliet - Performance Log (July 2008)

This is the fifth summer Randall and I have worked up a tour de Shakespeare-in-the-parks, starting when he lived in the Bay Area, where we could choose from five or six festivals within driving distance of Berkeley (try a Merchant of Venice in a Napa Valley winery, the vineyards stretching out behind the set, a bottle of the sponsoring wine helping get through casting that may include the vintner’s daughter) and more recently here in Puget Sound where two companies tour Seattle and neighboring counties.

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

Romeo and Juliet - Performance Log (July 2008)

Romeo and Juliet
Directed by George Mount
Seattle Shakespeare Company's Wooden O Productions
Fisher Pavilion, Seattle Center
Seattle, WA
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.

3. This man's army. I loved Mercutio (Taylor Maxwell) as a grunt. The swagger, the self-confidence, the sardonic humor in the face of death; there's a lot of Mercutio that matches up well with our image of the soldier. Mount casts Kate Parker as Benvolio, and she's good, easy with the language, earnest in the right spots. This casting calls attention to the modern co-ed army and adds a layer to the difference between Romeo, Benvolio, and Mercutio. (Benvolio translates as "well-wisher" or "peacemaker," not only a good description of Benvolio's frequent position in the play, but one that fits nicely with the nurturing role we associate with women.) I think it might have emphasized the intensity of the conflict, though, if all the U.N. (Montague) forces had been played by males. Still, the discomfort of having a soldier secretly dating a 13-year-old townie is already in place, especially in light of the indictment of PFC Steven Green for the 2006 rape of a 14-year-old Iraqi girl, for which federal prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.

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

RE: 1 Henry IV - Identities

Self-ish philosophers,

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

1 Henry IV - Identities

Welcome to the Henriad, part two,

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,

Sunday, July 20, 2008

1 Henry IV - Opening Remarks


Ernst opened our Midsummer Night's Dream conversation by suggesting that Shakespeare might have reached some sort of maturity in that play. Certainly the same can be said of 1 Henry IV. As in Midsummer Night's Dream, in 1 Henry IV we have three distinct character types ― Henry's court, Hotspur's rebels, and the rabble at the Inn. Within each of these groups are individuals so deftly drawn, both in terms of language and character, each could probably support a spin-off play of his own. (Oh, that's right, two of them do, but I wish Shakespeare had gotten around to The Tragedy of Young Harry Percy or a heroic Rebel Without a Pause: Tales of Owen Glendower or a sit-com simply called Poins!)

The plot is remarkable, not only because Shakespeare so easily endows historical event with narrative momentum here, but also because he's built a structure in which each scene seems to echo or create intriguing juxtapositions with the ones that precede and follow it. We find Henry in Act I, scene 1, preparing a battle overseas; in scene 2, we find Hal preparing for a different "battle," the robbery of wealthy travelers. Act 2, scenes 2-4 juxtapose Hal and Hotspur. And so on, creating a complex system of foils against which characters are shaped and judged.

In addition, 1 Henry IV is a play in which Shakespeare is making forceful statements, about governance, about heroism, about war. I hope we can discuss these and others that you have noticed in the coming weeks. To get us off to a decent start (I hope), I offer the following questions:

1. What do the words tell us? We secondary school English teachers like to focus on motif. We hand out Macbeth and mention that Shakespeare uses the words "blood" and "bloody" 35 times and the word "night" 22 times in the play. "What might that suggest?" we coyly ask. Mount Ararat High School takes it one step further; students have prepared "word frequency lists" for many of the plays. Here we are at 1 Henry IV, and I notice that the words "honor" and "honorable" combined occur 27 times, and the words "shame" and "ashamed" 14 times. ( You can use Shakespeare Searched to find out who says what and when.) Checking my observational sense of emerging motif against Mount Ararat's lists, I find our old pals "blood" and "night" occur 23 and 18 times, respectively. And just for good measure, there's some talk of "peace." Fifteen times.

This is a close reading approach to asking what themes emerge for you. But I'd like to take that further. Shakespeare has a lot to say about honor as well as, less directly, chivalry and valor. Given the nature of his hero, the hero's foils, the motifs and subsequent themes, and implications of the play, what can an audience be expected to take away from 1 Henry IV about honor, chivalry, valor, shame, and heroism. Those are my words. Give me your words.

2. Should George Bush read 1 Henry IV? With every history play we've read so far, I've had a moment of historical conjunction, during which the play seemed to comment on or reflect something in current or recent politics. I'm a little stunned that the tales of medieval kings can be so applicable to our modern world. Take, for example, Worcester's comment:

"We of the off'ring side
Must keep aloof from strict arbitrament,
And stop all sight-holes, every loop from whence
The eye of reason may pry in upon us." (4.1.72-75)

In the margin of my Folger Shakespeare Library edition of the play, I have written that because they have started the war ("the off'ring side"), Worcester and his cohorts are concerned about how their action, which may be neither just nor lawful, must be politically controlled so that it cannot be questioned. Specifically, I have noted: "Iraq?" What moments in the play, for you, have most directly informed or spoken to or brought illumination to our own political times?

3. Is Shakespeare a misogynist? That should set some of your teeth on edge. 1 Henry IV is a guys' play. Women don't appear until Act 2, scene 3 and they're out of the play by the end of Act 3. But when women are mentioned, it seems that the gender is insulted as often as a specific individual. Hotspur tells his wife, "constant you are,/ But yet a woman," explaining why he won't let her in on his plans (2.3.114-115). And he makes a back-handed stab later when he describes his own inability to hold his tongue as "a woman's fault" (3.1.249). We have Glendower's general impression that women are emotional basket-cases prone to insanity. And Falstaff's all-encompassing insult: "Go to, you are a woman" (3.3.65). So, is this just Shakespeare capturing the attitude of accurately drawn military males? Or do we perceive some dissonance here given the more lively, self-determined women of previous plays? Can these characters' slurs be extended to Shakespeare, or chalked up to Elizabethan (wait a minute …) attitudes?

4. Can I see some I.D., please? One of my favorite echoes in the play is Hal's comment (my italics):

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 wondered at." (1.2.204-208)

This is followed in Act 1, scene 3 by King Henry's declaration, "But be sure/ I will from henceforth rather be myself,/ Mighty and to be feared" (1.3.4-6).

So here we have two guys, a father and son, both feeling like they are or have been playing a role from which each, a "self," will soon emerge. What then is the nature of identity in this play? How do we feel about Hal's argument that his deliberate mucking about with his reputation will allow him to be greater because of his greater ascension? And, given that we've grown up in a 20th- and 21st-century America where consumerism (consumer as valid identity), cultural narcissism and self-infatuation are a way of life, how do we differentiate between our own mythic value of individualism and what Shakespeare might have thought of the concept of self?

5. Long live/down with the king? In the Thomas of Woodstock conversation, Ernst made the comment that "Shakespeare isn't in the habit of attacking either the British polity or the reigning royals." I'm wondering about the level of royal nervousness here. While this may have been a hotter question with Richard II ― reigning foolish king vs. popular usurper ― what would have been the contemporary view of these kings and their challengers? Is Shakespeare taking risks here by portraying them one way or another? Does the hagiography of Hal/Henry V distract us (or them) from a depiction that might ruffle royal feathers? Would their feathers have been ruffled by this play?

6. Will you be my Naber? You're thinking about directing this play. Soon. Where do you start? Are you worried about its being a history play? What specific difficulties might that entail? In what ways might you cut it? In what ways might you contemporize it, to give it modern resonance? How might your experience of recently read/performed/directed Shakespeare history plays inform your choices?

That's enough. Just for fun here are my two favorite words from the play: tradefallen (4.2.30) and enfeoffed (3.2.171). Methinks many Americans, in these difficult economic times, are tradefallen. Yet, now that President Bush has enfeoffed them with 600 dollars, everything will be fine.


Saturday, July 19, 2008

Midsummer Night's Dream - Performance Log (July 2008)

A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Directed by Mark Rucker (though rumor says he left town before he blocked and Festival Artistic Director Bill Rauch stepped in)
Angus Bowmer Theatre, Oregon Shakespeare Festival
Ashland Oregon
July 10, 2008

This is my third Midsummer Night's Dream at Ashland. In 1961 we saw it directed by B. Iden Payne. He had been central in Shakespeare production since 1913, the director of Stratford’s Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, head of theatre at Carnegie Tech and University of Texas, etc. We remember a delightful comedy in Elizabethan costume, probably a descendant of Granville-Barker without Mendelssohn, with the whole text. I’ve previously mentioned the lisping Helena (‘Demetweeus’) and the animated ass’s head, Disneyesque, with long coy eyelashes.

Then, in 1998, we saw another, directed by Penny Metropulos, which may have been a faithful reproduction of Peter Brook’s white “handball court” show. The Ashland set was light blue, though a huge orange moon was projected at night. As in Brook, Titania’s bower was a bed raised on cables to the second doors-to-empty-space level. After the first act the fairies were ever-present, blue-gowned with red fright-wigs, version of Chinese property men, invisibly handing props to the mortals, etc. Thus, I have seen the two major strings of Twentieth Century Dreams.

This Ashland production is over the top, no holds barred, full of energy and color and surprise, unlike any Midsummer Night's Dream I’ve ever seen film or stage. Everything in it was new (or novel) except the lines. I noticed no cuts or additions, except some lines were sung, notably the last 67, from Puck’s “Now the hungry lion roars,” through Oberon’s fertility blessing, and finally, though obscured by rhythmic clapping for extended curtain call, Puck’s “If we shadows have offended.”

The (indoor) thrust stage opened with two halves of 30-foot arches with dozens of ceramic circles on them, arcing over two white vinyl overstuffed armchairs, the backs rising at least eight feet. Theseus, in a double-breasted ice-cream suit and shades, sat rigidly in one, Hippolyta in silky silver lamé in the other. His “Now fair Hippolyta, our nuptial hour” was evenly delivered, even calculating. Ernst would have been disappointed in the dry rendition of the poetry. Hippolyta’s “Four nights will quickly dream away the time” was sensuous, squirming in her huge chair. Then off to the Egeus and Hermia business, now with perfect rhythms. I took several Will Shakespeare Experience questions to Ashland, one being my own attention to Hippolyta’s response to Theseus siding with Egeus against his “chattel” daughter. Theseus then concludes “Come my Hippolyta?” but Hippolyta had crisply stood and exited behind the chairs, leaving Theseus, to pause, then address the empty chair: “What cheer, my love?” I couldn’t have asked for better.

After the court scene (exeunt chairs) those ceramic circles lit up with multicolored neon and onto the (big) stage drove a … Merry Prankster VW micro bus, headlights shining, and out tumbled the rude Mechanicals, tall and short, eclectic costume, Francis Flute played by a little middle-aged woman, leading to audience delight on her “Nay, faith, let not me play a woman. I have a beard coming.” We were in Oregon, but I suspect the resemblance of Ray Porter, as Bottom, to Ken Kesey was no accident. After the VW backed off stage, doing no set damage, the arches twisted into towers, neon starbursts filled the sky, and on came a … chorus line from Les Ballets Trokadero de Monte Carlo—flaming fairy fairies—in tutus and multicolored hair, and awaaay we go.

Both the passages Randall finds crucial to Titania’s strength were fine, uncut. Her “These are the forgeries of jealousy” was delivered with anger until she softened at “the moon, the governess of floods,” and Oberon was moved away from his harsh “Ill met by moonlight, proud Titania” greeting. Her “fairy land buys not the child of me” was lushly poetic, transported, tender. Despite the prancing fairies, none of this descended into farce. Bottom was not an oaf; he was sweet, naïve, enthusiastic.

The key question, what did I learn from a new production of a familiar play, probably came from the mortal lovers, scorned for 250 years. These four actors were sexual, hands-on, jealous, lustful, threatened, confused, sincere, passionate. The course of true love never did run less smooth. The “Athenian garb” Puck is sent to search for was white, white dusters over white blouses and shirts and trousers and skirts and lace stockings. During the mistakes of the night, more and more garments are discarded or ripped off until the boys were down to boxer shorts and the girls in pastel teddies. In some struggle poor Helena lost a strap and had a scene clad an unplanned Wonder Bra and a stocking around one ankle, though her garter belt tabs dangled interestingly around her thighs. No matter. The physicality merely punctuated the lines.

The only part that did not enhance my understanding—and pleasure—in this production was Puck, taller but really just another in the fairy chorus line. But then you remember that I own the part of Puck because once upon a time I won the part from Richard Chamberlain. Oh, well.

Then, being in Ashland, we were off to Coriolanus and Othello and an adaptation of The Comedy of Errors set somewhere west of the Pecos….

“No more,” quoth King Henry, and Gil, too.

photo: (above) Jeffrey King, Josiah Phillips, Ray Porter and U. Jonathan Toppo in "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Photo by David Cooper.

Midsummer Night's Dream - Production History Review

Greeting, Dreamers,

OK. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is Shakespeare’s last play, or at least the play most recently “discovered.” But before you write in defense of Henry VIII or The Tempest, let me chat a while.
As with most of Shakespeare’s plays there is hardly a surviving record or comment on contemporary productions: there is only Dudley Carleton’s reference to seeing “a play of Robin goode-fellow” at court in 1604, a reference in Edward Sharpham’s play, The Fleire (1607): “Faith like Thisbe in the play a [sic] has almost killed himself with the scabbard,” and the differences between the quartos and the Folio. Jay Halio asserts “we can infer that it was revived fairly often and therefore quite popular,” citing a Folio stage direction at V.i.125, ‘Tawyer with a Trumpet before them,’ referring to an actor who was not in the King’s Men until after the first quarto of 1600. But after the restoration of the closed theatres in 1660, Midsummer Night’s Dream is virtually absent. I have just read Jay Halio, A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Shakespeare in Performance, Manchester, 1994, and Trevor R. Griffiths, “Introduction” to Shakespeare in Performance: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Cambridge, 1996, and I’ll cherry pick some highlights without citation.

Midsummer Night's Dream, perhaps more than any other play, strayed or was detached from what we might consider the text as originally staged in 1595 or 1596 and more fully printed in the First Folio. There followed more than three hundred years of cutting, adaptation, editing, addition, bowdlerization (in Garrick and JC Smith’s opera, The Fairies in 1755, Puck gets Ariel’s line “Where the bee sucks, there lurk [sic] I” (what a relief for your students not to contemplate “suck” twice in one sentence, especially if they are aware of the printed long ‘s’ which sure looks like ‘f’), transformation into masques, opera and ballet (Mendelssohn’s overture was first used in 1833), much of it emphasizing spectacle (“a Chinese man and woman sing, six monkeys come from between the trees and dance, and two sopranos sing in parts a song summoning Hymen” in Elkanah Settle’s opera, The Fairy Queen, with music by Henry Purcell, 1692) or, in the 19th century, realism (worry about live rabbits in the woods for a moment). For most of these centuries, the fairies were played by children, with wings (I have an edition illustrated by Arthur Rackham (Grammercy Books, 1990) whose fairies have always formed my ‘default’ image). By Italian contralto Lucia Elizabeth Vestres’s production (1840), the fairies were winged, flying fairies and Madame Vestris played (sang?) the part of Oberon.

I see four obstacles evolving to prevent the realization of our wonderful play. Diffuse plotting with three or even four separate plots only partially intertwined created difficulties with dramatic coherence. Even a shadow of neoclassical Unities was threatened, and many of the Restoration and Eighteenth Century travesties reduced the play to The Fairy Queen (1692), A Fairy Tale (1763) or masques or afterpieces called Pyramus and Thisbe (1716, 1745). Our discussion of Puck showed that Shakespeare drew the fairies themselves from four different traditions.

Second, to oversimplify, after the Restoration we have the Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, and there was “a growing skepticism in the late 17th century about the intervention of supernatural beings in everyday life” (Griffiths), and a shift toward realism made representation of the supernatural somehow outside the scope of production. Thus, opera and later ballet offered unrealistic conventions which could accommodate the supernatural. Consider this a play about fairies or, Harley Granville-Barker asks “is it not all meant to appear only as the fierce vexation of a dream?" But a decline in belief in magic, a growth of skepticism and empirical science are factors which contributed to a hostile intellectual climate. How can one represent fairies (or dreams or spirits or magical projections of human nature, especially adolescent behavior) with real actors on a stage, especially as theatre size, ingenious machinery, scenery, costuming, and eventually lighting evolved. Anti-supernatural critics also scorn ghosts in Hamlet or Macbeth.

Then, in the Nineteenth Century, again to oversimplify, Romanticism pervades. There is Romantic anti-theatrical prejudice. Ever seem a Wordsworth or Byron play? I have, I’m sorry to say. “Poetry and the stage do not agree together,” dictated Hazlett. The gothic and fantastic reappear. Author originality—inspiration—regain credit. But this atmosphere also invited realism. When the scene shifts to night in the woods, productions gave us romantically realistic scenery or wild landscapes. Shakespeare’s lines call for fairies who can sleep in an acorn cap. So the fairies were cast smaller and smaller. I’m relieved Samuel Phelps, 1853-61, and Charles Kean, 1856-59, didn’t think of Munchkins. And in mid-century there was a demand for authenticity. Madam Vestris not only had a master machinist with experience of flying fairies, she had an antiquary, JR Planche, as advisor. Midsummer Night's Dream starts with Theseus, Duke of Athens. Swell, but Charles Kean’s archeological exactitude necessitated changes because Periclean Athens was not a duchy, so Theseus is referred to as ‘Prince,’ the painted scenery began to include the Parthenon, and costumes were Athenian rather than whatever. All productions between 1840 and 1926, with the exception of eclectic costuming for Granville-Barker in 1914, were Athenian.

The production history of A Midsummer Night’s Dream may at least trace evolving perceptions. Vestres played Oberon and a girl played Puck, a tradition that continued throughout the nineteenth century. London’s huge Covent Garden required spectacle, and scene painters provided a long perspective of temples with the Acropolis towering in the distance, and forest scenes where all is sylvan and visionary. For Puck’s first appearance he/she rises up from the center stage trap riding on a mushroom. In Charles Kean’s 1856 production, eight-year-old Ellen Terry, perhaps the preeminent actress of the nineteenth century, played Puck, though for Kean the rest of the fairies were full-grown adults, with a final spectacle of "some ninety fairies tripping up and down the stairs of Theseus’s palace, waving bell-like lanterns while the fairy chorus sang Mendelssohn’s 'Through this house give glimmering light’.” By Augustin Daly’s 1888 production, Isadora Duncan in paper-maché wings was one of the dancing fairies, and in a review of a 1895 Daly production Bernard Shaw was especially harsh on Lillian Swain as Puck and criticized Daly for his persistent illusionism, which destroys rather than complements the effect of Shakespeare’s verse.

Lastly, both the Eighteenth century and the Nineteenth were crabbed by decorum, propriety, concerns with “warm ideas.” For 150 years, Lysander’s suggestion of a little pre-marital coziness with Hermia, II.ii.47.-70, “One heart, one bed, two bosoms, and one troth,” was edited or cut on grounds of ‘delicacy’ from Francis Gentleman [sic—ironically], 1764, until restored by Harley Granville-Barker, who, at last, in 1914, restored the full text. Notice: 1914! “The time was ripe, if not overripe, for reaction,” says Jay Halio.

The Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries seem unable to trust the chorus of Henry V when he demands:

“let us…on your imaginary forces work…
Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them
Printing their proud hoofs i’ th’ receiving earth;
For ‘tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,” (1.1.18, 19, 27-29)

as their productions embraced realism and spectacle. But the rebuttal to this is in our play. The Mechanicals gather in the wood to assign parts for “Pyramus and Thisbe,” and Quince notes that it will be hard to bring the moonlight into a chamber when Pyramus and Thisbe meet by moonlight. They immediately consult a calendar, an almanac, and find that indeed the moon shines the night of their performance, so they may leave a casement of the great chamber window open and the actual moon may shine in. But to assure the theatrical representation of moonshine, Robin Starveling, the Tailor, is assigned to come in with a thorn bush, a lantern, and a dog, to represent the man in the moon with his bush, dog, etc. And, of course, when “Pyramus and Thisby” is underway before the Athenian spectators and, ta da!, the theatre audience, too, Prologue says “By moonshine did these lovers think no scorn/ To meet at Ninus’ tomb, there, there to woo.” So how many moons are on the stage during the enactment of this little play? Give up? Three: the actual, literal, material moon shining in; the representational theatrical moon presented by the actor with his lantern, bush, and dog; and the metaphoric or archetypal moon evoked in the imagination of the audience. Archetypal? Everyone in the audience has myriad exposures to moonlight, and the language accesses this experience. The last is the most credible.

In Shakespeare the language evokes the images, until realistic scenes or costumes or, later, with film, the settings and scenes make the language redundant (the lush landscape in Zefferelli’s Romeo and Juliet filmed in Tuscany forces cuts in all those rich poetic descriptions of the scenes). So, if the Enlightenment actualists and the Romantic realists had just let themselves see the language, there would not have been a 300 year gap before A Midsummer Night’s Dream could emerge—revert?—to the wonderful balance among its three plots keeping dramatic tension between the rational and the irrational, the natural and the supernatural, time and timelessness, reality and illusion, the conscious and the dream, the forms of fairies and the nature of theatre.

In the Twentieth Century directors continued to use or be condemned for not using Mendelssohn and Athens or Elizabethan and folk, eclectic and new composition. In 1914 Granville-Barker directed the complete text (though he still had ballet); Bridges Adams mounted Midsummer Night's Dream eight times at Stratford and on tour between 1919 and 1934; Max Reinhardt made a glorious film (Mendelssohn, Jimmy Cagney as Bottom, Mickey Rooney screeching away as Puck, Victor Jory lurking disguised as a tree as Oberon); Tyrone Guthrie, a full-text, though Victorian, production at the Old Vic in 1937 (Ralph Richardson as Bottom); Peter Hall, in 1959, 62-63, staged in an Elizabethan great hall — all I suppose, evolving from Victorian, until Peter Brook blew it all open at Stratford, staging the play in a white box, with doors opening into space at the second level and musicians and fairies observing from a cat-walk at the top of the box. I have read detailed descriptions of the Brook, and it appears to be seminal, revolutionizing all subsequent Shakespeare production, creating "a blank page upon which imagination can play its tricks,” “allowing a concentration on the possibilities of the text where other more traditional stagings had been more limiting” (Griffiths, 69).


Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Introduction to Stu

Sadly, I haven't read Orson Welles' cut of the Henry IV plays. I did perform in a 1996 production entitled Henry IV: The History Plays, which, I have no doubt, borrowed heavily on previous sources, including Welles. Clearly, you lose something in the cutting, but there are benefits to putting the two together. The role of Northumberland, for example, is certainly enhanced by putting the two parts together―we see both the run up to his son's death and the aftermath.

I read Randall's post regarding Thomas of Woodstock with interest, since I am currently playing Mowbray in Richard II, which would make me "Sir Not Appearing in This Play" in Woodstock. Odd to think that if Shakespeare had actually had a hand in Woodstock, the movers and shakers in the first act of Richard II, Bolingbrook and Mowbray, would be absent. Looking forward to hearing from you all. You'll have to excuse me if, new to your group, I lurk for a while. I doubt that, with two jobs for the summer, I will be as prolific as Randall.


Also, check out my theater company: Shakespeare and Company

RE5: Thomas of Woodstock - Oh No He Di'n't

Plus, Shakespeare isn't in the habit of attacking either the British polity and/or the reigning royals.


Tuesday, July 15, 2008

RE4: Thomas of Woodstock - Oh No He Di'n't

Essex is an interesting comparison, but that's 1599 or 1600. Most scholars ― Malone Society, Corbin and Sedge, Eagan according to Wikipedia ― date the play prior to 1595, even if the manuscript doesn't come until later. And if the play has anything to do with Shakespeare, it can't possibly come after more competent plays like Richard III or Richard II.


RE3: Thomas of Woodstock - Oh No He Di'n't

As I thought more about this, I thought about Essex's rebellion and its supporters, whose vision of Elizabeth may have been something akin to the play's attitudes. And Catholicism? Dunno. I still can't find the date, but I have something that will give me a pretty good idea at home. In terms of politics, I do know that several plays praising (the late) Elizabeth appeared about eight years or so after her death.


Monday, July 14, 2008

RE2: Thomas of Woodstock - Oh No He Di'n't


Absolutely. Woodstock comes off as champion of the oppressed, clear-headed patriot, and saintly. I was being sarcastic about his being "boorish." (I included a lot of sarcasm in the synopsis.) In that scene, Richard's concerns are so far from anything kingly, Woodstock's rebukes seem almost school-marmish. You raise an interesting point about contemporary attitudes toward historical characters. Where does one pick up that kind of info? How did the Elizabethan audience feel about Bolingbroke, for example, usurper of a rightful, but foolish king?


RE: Thomas of Woodstock - Oh No He Di'n't

Yep, I read that one years ago, but have pretty much forgotten it ― except that it cast Woodstock in a very positive light, as I recall. For example, Woodstock may be boorish in I.iii, but you can be pretty sure most theatre-goers agreed with him. I got the sense he was a very popular figure in Tudor days. (An acceptable Puritan?)

IV.i: the disguised masquers is the same trick used in a number of plays, most especially The Malcontent and its parodic/comic successor, The Revenger's Tragedy. I forget when Woodstock was written.

V.i. Many things come in pairs in The Revenger's Tragedy also. And, it is refreshing to read something in which a Cheney is a good guy.


Thomas of Woodstock - Oh No He Di'n't

Once more into the interim, dear friends!

A wonderful perk of summer and its generous grant of a free hour here and there is the ability to read peripherally. I don't know if this happens to you, but reading one book usually inspires me to pursue others, and I end up keeping a book list cataloging the inspirations, most of which I never expect to get to. For example, I'm currently reading James Salter's novel A Sport and a Pastime, in which I came across this line:

“Henri is forty, perhaps. Juliette about twenty-nine. But Dean has read Radiguet. Twenty-nine isn’t old.”

That’s it. A one word allusion to a French writer who died young, having written only two novels. I’ve read Radiguet’s curious and spare Count D’Orgel’s Ball, but what Salter is probably evoking here is his other, The Devil in the Flesh, a love story set in France, as is Salter’s book, that Radiguet wrote when he was 17. I put it on my list.

Sometimes the peripheral connection is more oblique, a barely visible path of implications and associations, blazable only with the luxury of time. I followed such a path as I was re-reading The Tragedy of King Richard the Second and Bolingbroke’s accusation against Thomas Mowbray:

“Further, I say and further will maintain
Upon his bad life to make all this good,
That he did plot the Duke of Gloucester's death,
Suggest his soon-believing adversaries,
And, consequently, like a traitor coward,
Sluiced out his innocent soul through streams of blood."

Prodded by my Signet Classic's tiny superscript degree symbol indicating a footnote next to "Duke of Gloucester," I glanced down to read the agate type: "Gloucester Thomas of Woodstock, who had been murdered at Richard's orders." Now during the school year, this results in a brief “isn’t that interesting,” but during the summer, I’m off to Google to see what other information I might turn up about Thomas of Woodstock.

The Google search turns up two Wikipedia entries, the first biographical, the second an odd reference to Richard II, Part 1, "an untitled, anonymous, and incomplete Elizabethan play." Hmmm. Amazon reveals a copy of the play, also titled Thomas of Woodstock because the script that was discovered lacked a title page as well as the final pages of the text, edited by Peter Corbin and Douglas Sedge, and priced at $75, too rich for my blood. Back to Google.

I love the Internet. The Hampshire Shakespeare Company (Amherst, Massachusetts) staged the American debut of Thomas of Woodstock in 1999, and because the play is incomplete they had a contest challenging people to write a conclusion. They posted the play online and the winning text, by a musician and supermarket porter named Frederick Carrigg.

As one begins to dig up commentary on the anonymous play, one finds a frequent provocative suggestion that Shakespeare had something to do with it. The play may never have been published and even its initial performance date is hazy, but some scholars place it circa 1592. That, combined with its topical relation to Shakespeare’s Richard II, begs the question: could Shakespeare have had a hand in writing it?

Well, before we get to that, let me fill you in on the play, believed to be, by some, Richard the Second, Part One.

1.1 – We begin in medias res as Sir Thomas Cheyney has alerted Richard’s uncles, the Dukes of Lancaster and York, to a plot by Richard’s flatterers – Bagot and Greene – and a lawyer named Tresilian, to poison them. They avoid the wine. Thomas of Woodstock, the Duke of Gloucester, arrives and they discuss what Thomas should wear to Richard’s wedding. “Country habit” is passé.

1.2 – Tresilian, Bagot, and Greene moan about the failure of their plan. Tresilian tries on the title he expects to get from Richard – Lord Chief Justice of England – and trades insults with his henchman, Nimble.

1.3 – Woodstock has shown up at Richard’s wedding dressed in pounds’ worth of clothes, not measured in money, but weight. Despite this, celebrants make fun of his usual “tother hose,” an antiquated and common fashion. Woodstock boorishly politicizes the conversation by suggesting that haute couture leads to overtaxation of the poor. A verbal scuffle ensues and the king’s uncles try to warn him about the evil designs of his flatterers. Thumbing his nose at his elders, Richard bestows titles on Bagot, Greene, and Tresilian. There is word of rebellion in the land.

2.1 – The king’s flatterers give Richard a history lesson. They do not say “Edward the third had seven sons.” But they do point out that Richard is older than he thought, 22, and old enough not to be bossed around by grumpy uncles. York arrives to invite Richard to parliament.

2.2 – At the parliament, York and Lancaster are discussing how much they like Richard, when he shows up, pissily points out that he’s a full king, watches Woodstock, York, and Lancaster hand over their various symbolic implements of protectorship, and dismisses both them and their parliament. After they are gone, Richard, Bagot, Greene, and Scroope discuss their budget. Scroope says “we must have money to buy new suits.”

2.3 – The Queen, Anne of Bohemia (referred to consistently as “Anne-a-Beame”) and the Duchess of Gloucester discuss the Queen’s practice of selling her valuables to provide money for England’s poor (“The wealth I have shall be the poor’s revenue.”) so that they will not rebel against Richard. Woodstock’s right-hand man, Cheyney, arrives to tell the Duchess they’re going home (Plashey) since they are no longer needed/wanted at court, where Richard and his cohorts “sit in council to devise strange fashions … such as this Kingdom never yet beheld: French hose, Italian cloaks, and Spanish hats, Polonian shoes with peaks a handful long, tied to their knees with chains of pearl and gold.”

3.1 – Tresilian arrives at court with an ingenious plan to fleece the English people. Sheriffs and officials all over the land shall be enjoined to have landed men put their names on blank charters, “documents with blank sections (for the insertion of names and amounts of money) for the collection of loans by … ‘executores’” (Dickinson, 377), an exotic loan method the lawyer believes will bring the king “cartloads of money.” Tresilian also intends to have the same sheriffs take down the names of anyone who grumbles about it, an early form of warrantless eavesdropping, and they shall be accused of being “privy whisperers” and have their goods and lands confiscated. Think of that the next time you mutter to yourself while you’re in the bathroom.

3.2 – At Plashey, Woodstock, Lancaster, and York do not go gently into retirement. Cheyney shows up with a blank charter, says the woods is full of them causing the people much distress. The Dukes magnanimously head off to tame rebellious thoughts among the people. A courtier shows up with a message for Woodstock, but mistakes him for a groom because of his plain attire. Once identities are cleared up, the two discuss, at length, what the king is wearing these days, then the courtier tells Woodstock his presence is requested at court.

3.3 – Cue the clowns. Nimble is out with blank charters, getting illiterate people to put their names on them. He is assisted by the Bailey (bailiff) of Dunstable, one Master Ignorance, whose favorite word is “pestiferous.” He says it every time he speaks.

4.1 – Back at the castle, the king is dismayed to learn that Woodstock has refused to visit. Simply forcing him to come won’t work because it will arouse rebellious thoughts in the people. Tresilian proposes that they disguise themselves as masquers, go to Plashey, catch Woodstock unawares, bop him on the head, dress him up as a masquer so he can’t be identified when they kidnap him, and drag him off to court. Richard says “I like it well.” The difficult business dealt with, Richard and the flatterers agree to divide up the kingdom with Bagot, Bushy, Greene, and Scroope as renters and Richard as their landlord.

4.2 – At Plashey, the masquers, including Richard, arrive and kidnap Woodstock, accusing him for good measure of treason. They plan to deliver him to Lapoole in Calais, far from any English people who might be inspired to rebellious thoughts, where he can be killed.

4.3 – The king’s policemen hear complaints from local sheriffs, who point out that blank charters are not in keeping with a) ancient liberties from William the Conqueror sparing the men of Kent from any fines or taxation and b) the rights of “free-born” men. These arguments, for some reason, are ignored and they go to jail. Word comes that the queen is sick. Oh, she’s dead. Richard arrives, very sad, and repents his harsh sentence on Woodstock. “Send post to Calais and bid Lapoole forbear/ On pain of life, to act our sad decree,” he says. Uh oh.

5.1 – Best scene in the play. At Calais, Lapoole wants Woodstock’s murder to look “a common natural death.” It’s a busy night in Woodstock’s cell, as he is visited by the ghost of Edward the Black Prince, the ghost of Edward III, Lapoole who suggests he write some letters to Richard airing his grievances, and finally two murderers who strangle him with a towel then smother him with a mattress. Everything seems to come in pairs in this scene.

5.2 – Tresilian and Nimble review the lack of success at pressing commoners into service in the coming war between Richard and the Dukes. They argue about which of them will run away the fastest.

5.3 – On the field before battle, the Dukes meet with Richard. Lancaster reveals Richard’s greatest crime – he’s not a king, but a landlord. Both sides call each other “traitors.”

5.4 – In battle, Cheyney and Arundel fight with and kill Greene. There’s no word of what he was wearing when he died. Richard finds Greene’s body and speaks words that might be misconstrued by future Queer Theory critics.

5.5 – Nimble and Tresilian in full flight consider their plight. Nimble realizes that he can escape punishment (and even earn a thousand marks) if he “captures” Tresilian and turns him over to the authorities. So much for honor among thieves.

5.6 – Richard’s flatterers are routed. Nimble arrives and turns Tresilian over to Lancaster.

Scholars may argue over authorship for centuries, but clearly Thomas of Woodstock is a play written by a tailor.

I have left off a summary of the final scene written by Mr. Carrigg as not relevant here. I am fascinated instead by the argument that one finds Shakespearean fingerprints on this play. In the journal Early Modern Literary Studies (Sept. 2003), for example, Michael Eagan writes, “It is impossible to come away from the text without an overwhelming sense of Shakespeare's presence – one way or another. Either he wrote it or knew it extraordinarily well, stealing scenes, characters and lines with ruthless abandon.” It turns out Mr. Eagan is fairly convinced Shakespeare actually wrote the play. He has recently published a four-volume, 2100-page argument supporting his claim. One reviewer, Ramon Jimenez, finds the argument convincing.

I haven’t read Eagan. But I have to say, I put down Thomas of Woodstock and my first thought was “no way Shakespeare wrote this.” And the only argument I have on my side is Malcolm Gladwell. Not too long ago New Yorker writer Gladwell wrote a book called Blink in which he argues that “decisions made very quickly can be every bit as good as decisions made cautiously and deliberately” (11-12), like in a 2100-page essay. This process, if one can call a two-second impression a “process,” is called the “adaptive unconscious,” and with it Gladwell raises one’s intuitive decisions to the same level as our conscious ones, then supports his conclusion with a pile of entertaining anecdotes.

Now I’m a Shakespeare amateur, so my decision that Shakespeare had nothing to do with this play is surely suspect. I strongly encourage anyone with brains, evidence, and more than two seconds to spend on this to write and point out my varying levels of idiocy here. Please.

That said, the William Shakespeare Experience has just spent that last two and a half years reading all of Shakespeare’s early work, and the would-be Richard II, Part 1 is unlike anything we’ve read in a number of significant ways.

For one, I’m suspicious about the poetry. The text I read, and lord knows where the Hampshire Shakespeare people got their version, made it difficult to distinguish iambic pentameter from prose because even though different characters clearly speak in one or the other, all the lines are broken as if they are poetry. So I did a lot syllable counting, out of curiosity. And I found, in passages that tend toward iambic pentameter, consistent over-syllablizing of lines. Yes, a lot of them were 11 syllables, and Eagan argues that this is typical of Shakespeare’s early use of feminine verse endings. Thinking back to Titus Andronicus and Love’s Labor’s Lost and the Henry VI plays, I don’t remember the lines, even if they included a lot of feminine endings, feeling like this. Instead I came away with a clear impression of a playwright struggling to maintain poetic form. (Again, I admit the difference between impression and scientific method here.)

And that’s interesting because one thing I remember clearly about Love’s Labor’s Lost is the show-offiness of the language. (I checked three speeches at random – King, Princess, and Berowne – and found few feminine rhymes.) Perhaps a better comparison is one of the Henry VI plays. But rather than embark on an odyssey myself (what page am I on already?), I’ll throw it out as a question: aside from the evolving tone, temperament, and maturity, have you felt in reading the first 13 plays, that Shakespeare has moved from rough poet to polished? Is there even a way to distinguish between these characteristics?

And when you have blinked and decided, take at look at or scan this Thomas of Woodstock speech of Richard’s, again chosen at random:

“Methinks it is strange, my good and reverent uncle,
You and the rest should thus malign against us,
And every hour with rude and bitter taunts
Abuse King Richard and his harmless friends.
We had a father, that once called ye brother:
A grandsire too, that titled you his son;
But could they see how you have wronged King Richard
Their ghosts would haunt ye; and in dead of night
Fright all your quiet sleeps with horrid fears.
I pray, stand up; we honour reverend years
In meaner subjects. Good uncle, rise and tell us:
What further mischiefs are there now devised
To torture and afflict your sovereign with?” (Woodstock 2.1)

Second, if Shakespeare did write this play as Richard II, Part 1, then I am suspicious about the continuity. The playwright of Thomas of Woodstock records events that make no sense in relation to Shakespeare’s Richard II. For example, Greene dies, slain on the filed of battle in the first play. Then, oddly he’s resurrected in the second play, until Bolingbroke captures him and has him beheaded.

Similarly, I found myself disoriented by the chronology of the two plays taken together. Thomas of Woodstock concludes with a bellicose confrontation between Richard and the Dukes, a battle the Dukes appear to win. Yet at the beginning of Richard II, we seem to have not only reconciled but turned the table of power to Richard’s side, restoring Bagot, Bushy, and Greene to their lofty perch as flattering “favorites.” I looked to Antonia Fraser’s The Lives of the Kings and Queens of England to see if historically they reached some sort of truce between the events of the two plays, but I found myself even more confused. Gloucester (Woodstock) dies in 1397, but there’s no battle afterwards. There is a battle earlier in 1387 when Gloucester, Arundel, and Warwick “forced Richard to agree to the trial of five of his friends” (Fraser 113). The friends flee but they are caught by the Dukes’ army, which incidentally now includes Mowbray and Bolingbroke, two characters who do not appear in Thomas of Woodstock. The result of this skirmish is the “Merciless Parliament” of 1388.

Where this particular parliament falls in either play, I’m not sure. But that’s how disorienting the timeline is between the two. I don’t remember the three parts of Henry VI having the same disorientation. But I may be mistaken. Surely Shakespeare is effective at collapsing and rearranging history to suit his narrative purposes. Still, as we moved from 1 Henry VI to Richard III and as we go from Richard II to 1 Henry IV, Shakespeare did not provide and is not providing us with a comparable continuity paradox.

Finally, I am suspicious about a thematic element. One of the dominant motifs in Richard II, indeed an idea that unifies Richard’s character throughout, is the idea of his divine right to rule. Each of Richard’s modes – Machiavel, Greedy Opportunist, Coward, and Poet – I described in the “Faces of Richard” section of the Shakespeare and Company review can be connected by Richard’s sense that he is god’s “deputy.” Reading the play, I felt it is Shakespeare’s least secular play, so fundamental is Richard’s connection to God. When Northumberland and Bolingbroke show up at Castle Flint, for example, to ask Richard to submit, the king responds:

“We are amazed, and thus long have we stood
To watch the fearful bending of thy knee,
Because we thought ourself thy lawful king:

If we be not, show us the hand of God
That hath dismissed us from our stewardship” (3.3.71-73,76-77)

And he returns to this conviction throughout. (With his dying breath, he tells Exton: “That hand shall burn in never-quenching fire/ That staggers thus my person.”) And it is a conviction completely absent from Thomas of Woodstock. “God” is mentioned 14 times in Act I of Woodstock, but 12 of them are by Woodstock, the most devout character in the play. This ratio continues in the subsequent acts. In fact, Richard, in the entire play only mentions God once. When he does, though, it is fascinating, because the speech is so unlike anything he has said previously:

“Although we could have easily surprised,
dispersed and overthrown your rebel troops
that draw your swords against our sacred person,
the highest god's anointed deputy,
breaking your holy oaths to heaven and us:
yet of our mild and princely clemency
we have forborne; that by this parliament
we might be made partaker of the cause
that moved ye rise in this rebellious sort.” (5.3)

In this we find Eagan’s Shakespearean hint, for Richard’s words echo those Gaunt will speak in Richard II:

“God’s is the quarrel; for God’s substitute,
His deputy anointed in His sight,
Hath caused his death, the which if wrongfully,
Let heaven revenge, for I may never lift
An angry arm against His minister.” (1.2.37-41)

I wouldn’t be surprised if Shakespeare used Thomas of Woodstock as a source. So many of his plays make use of antecedent texts. But I remain unconvinced that Shakespeare collaborated on or wrote much of this play. Maybe next summer, with a few more hours to spare, I’ll dig into Eagan’s argument and learn just how wrong I am.

Wow, all that and not a single joke about rock and roll or Max Yasgur’s dairy farm!


Sunday, July 13, 2008

RE: Richard II - Performance Log (July 2008)


Actually, believe it or not, Colorado Shakespeare Festival is doing Henry VIII this year. I guess I should go see it considering it only comes around every 30 years or so.

I saw their Love's Labour's Lost last week. Not so great, and yet, not sure why I didn't enjoy it like I have in the past. Still thinking on that one.

Apparently CSF's really strong show is a musical tribute to Woody Guthrie. Ooh! Now, that's a must see for me. :-)

A former student told me of a production of a play that he is rehearsing:

"Have you ever heard of Chimes at Midnight? Apparently it's a film Orson Welles made that condensed Henry IV parts 1 and 2 into a single show. The play for which I am rehearsing is Chimes at Midnight and I have to admit, I'm impressed with it. At first I was skeptical … but the director really seems to know what he's doing and I think he has developed a fantastic show. I'm playing the role of Prince John (Hal's younger brother) though I am the understudy to Prince Hal. I'm having a blast! I directed Part 1 at the seminary last year (not a bad production) so I'm quite familiar with the text and the characters of this show. And I'm delighted to be a part of this tiny little theatre company that performs Shakespeare outdoors!"

Have you ever heard of this one? Sounds interesting.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Richard II - Performance Log (July 2008)

Sometimes the stars align; I was able to see a performance of Richard II just as we begin reading 1 Henry IV. For me, Richard II is a lifer, meaning it’s a play I’ve never seen on stage before. (I have about 10 to go, including most of the usual suspects – Timon, Coriolanus, Cymbelline, Troilus, Henry VIII. Does anyone ever do Henry VIII?)

Richard II
Shakespeare & Company
Directed by George M. Roesler
Century College Outdoor Theatre Complex
White Bear Lake, MN
July 5, 2008

1. The Faces of Richard: When we read Richard II last year, I came away with the impression that Richard is all of a piece – a poet king, lyrical but milquetoasty. Perhaps my reading was colored by remembrance of Derek Jacobi’s solid performance for the televised BBC series (1978), which gave the character some consistency that, as I reviewed the text prior to seeing Shakespeare & Company's production, is not so obvious in the text. Or perhaps I just didn't read the play very well.

Upon rereading, I believe we find a more chameleonic Richard in Shakespeare's account. Certainly, a historical figure is more difficult to reconcile in a narrative than a fictional one, human nature being erratic. To the fictional, authors can apply coherence where necessary, and we are about to discuss some history plays in which I think Shakespeare succeeds in doing the same with the historical Henry IV and Hal. In Richard II, however, Shakespeare seems disinterested in establishing a connection between or glossing over the king’s different facets.

We get a Machiavellian Richard, the plotter of the assassination of Gloucester. Richard never admits this in the play, but Gaunt fingers him, rebuffing his wife’s desire for vengeance against the assassin by saying:

“God’s is the quarrel; for God’s substitute,
His deputy anointed in His sight,
Hath caused his death, the which if wrongfully,
Let heaven revenge, for I may never lift
An angry arm against His minister.” (1.2.37-41)

Why Richard has had Gloucester rubbed out isn’t discussed, but the opening scene of Richard II, in which Bolingbroke accuses Mowbray (“he did plot the Duke of Gloucester’s death”) becomes politically intriguing when a scene later we learn that Richard, who was adjudicating in scene 1, must have known who was lying and who was truthful, and banished both men anyway. Certainly, he has chosen a politically expedient path, and the “appeals” of both men against the other are something of a sham. Do we see this shrewd political animal again in the play? Not really.

Rather, we get a more obtuse, avaricious Richard. In Act 1, scene 4, upon hearing of Gaunt’s illness, Richard responds:

“Now put it, God, in the physician’s mind
To help him to his grave immediately!
The lining of his coffers shall make coats
To deck our soldiers for these Irish wars.
Come, gentlemen, let’s all go visit him:
Pray God we may make haste, and come too late!” (1.4.59-64)

Okay. It at least appears pragmatic, even if it’s a tad crass to desire the immediate death of one’s uncle in order to pay for war in a time of growing deficit. But it doesn’t take the Duke of York long to point out the illogic of the plan, when Gaunt subsequently dies. After Richard seizes Gaunt’s property, York prophetically warns him “You pluck a thousand dangers on your head,/ You lose a thousand well-disposèd hearts” (2.1.206-207). So, what happened to the king who neatly eliminated risks to his power by trapping them into exile? Well, he foolishly just gave one of them reason to come back and challenge him.

And when Bolingbroke does return, we get the ineffectual, coward Richard. One of the most shocking moments in the play, for me, is in Act 3, scene 3. Bolingbroke sends Northumberland to Richard, holed up in Flint Castle, to tell him:

“Henry Bolingbroke
On both his knees doth kiss King Richard’s hand,
And sends allegiance and true faith of heart
To his most royal person; hither come
Even at his feet to lay my arms and power,
Provided that my banishment repealed,
And lands restored again be freely granted.” (3.3.34-40)

Richard’s response is abdication, essentially: “Stop kissing the ground; here take my crown.” Weird. Yes, it’s historical. Bolingbroke does usurp the throne. But Shakespeare shows us little of his ambition in the earlier scenes; he sounds sincere about supporting Richard as long as his rights are restored. Gil made a very eloquent argument when we covered the play that Northumberland’s request (“May it please you to come down”) amounts to what Gil calls “a huge movement” and can be metaphorically seen as the deposition. Sure. And Ernst pointed out the play’s ability “to lay open the disconnect between politicians’ words and their actions.” But in both cases we get words first, then radical (historical, but narratively unexpected) actions follow. And the disconnect isn’t explored.

So, I think it’s easy to chalk all this up to some gutlessness on Richard’s part, a characteristic we see earlier when he quails upon hearing of Bolingbroke’s growing strength and the deaths of Bushy, Bagot, and the Earl of Wiltshire. Bolingbroke arrives, and Richard coughs up the crown at the sight of him, ostensibly unasked.

Finally, we get the poetic Richard, the speaker of:

“Then crushing penury
Persuades me I was better when a king.
Then I am kinged again and, by and by,
Think that I am unkinged by Bolingbroke,
And straight am nothing. But whate’er I be,
Nor I, nor any man that but man is,
With nothing shall be pleased, till he be eased
With being nothing.” (5.5.34-41)

Existential, philosophical, introspective, articulate – all qualities he lacks in his avaricious mode and which he buries in petulance in his coward mode. In the end I have a new appreciation for this character, Richard, but I yearn for a director and an actor who can pull these disparate qualities together and make sense of them, one who can find a line to connect their far-flung dots.

2. Portrait of the King as a Young Man: How does an actor handle a difficult and complex role of this nature? In George Roesler's production for Shakespeare & Company, Lucas Gerstner as Richard hops from one to the other without much transition. But there’s an element of the callow to him throughout the production. He can sit on the steps with his flatterers and diss Gaunt with a smile, a sort of brash disrespect for one’s elders. He can crumble in the face of ill news and Bolingbroke’s approaching power, a dissipation of courage originally based not on prowess but rash overconfidence. He can wax poetic about the loss of his crown, dashing a looking glass to the floor and trading melancholy bon mots (“Say that again. ‘The shadow of my sorrow’?”) with Henry IV, a newly minted wisdom born of recent loss.

So Gerstner’s Richard is a youthful one, belying a bit the historical scope of the play, kind of a Plantagenet That Was the Week That Was. I wished for a bit more maturity in the role and depth to the character; but for an audience unfamiliar with British monarchical history and probably Shakespeare’s Richard II as well, the adolescent vibe is engaging.

3. Death Speaks. A nice touch in this production is Roesler’s adding both a prologue and an epilogue to the play as a way of helping the audience a bit with its sense of history. The prologue seemed to be cadged together from the prologue for Henry V (“O, for a muse of fire”) and 2 Henry VI (“Edward the Black Prince died before his father,/ And left behind him Richard, his only son”). I’ve seen this technique used before, and I think it works especially well with the sequential history plays and an American audience’s understandable ignorance.

Jordan Klitzke delivers the prologue, but independent of any particular role in the play. He doesn’t get up there as, say, Gaunt. The epilogue, on the other hand, is delivered by Death. Death, a tall figure swathed in a black robe, appears throughout the play as a physical portrayal of the doom that hangs over Richard’s reign. And Roesler avoids easy metaphor, putting him into an unexpected scene here and there, which encourages the audience to connect the moment with the larger course of history. Why, for example, would Death be strolling through the Queen Isabel and the gardeners scene? Either he’s calling attention to the Gardener’s not so veiled allegory (“I will go root away/ The noisome weeds which without profit suck/ The soil’s fertility from wholesome flowers”) or the topiary’s time is up.

So, Death arrives, after Richard’s murder and Bolingbroke’s speech lamenting his death, and taking lines largely (I may have missed a source) from 1 Henry IV, brings an ironic closure to the play:

“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.”

This is ironic for two reasons. First, the lines are Henry’s and they turn out to be overly optimistic, not only within the action of 1 Henry IV but with the War of the Roses on the horizon far beyond as well. Second, the epilogue is spoken by Death! It’s a bit weird to have the prophecy of lasting peace spoken by a character who benefits from, and throughout the play has been a specter of, the fruits of war and civil unrest.

4. Who Killed Richard? Death’s appearance as epilogue is not the only time in the play Roesler makes an interesting casting choice. With a small cast, it’s difficult to fill every character’s role in the play. Hence we have Bushy and Green but not Bagot, and the poor Gardener has only one apprentice, and there’s no Exton. This last may seem inconsequential, but it is Exton (“I am the King’s friend, and will rid his foe”) who does in Richard. In his place, Roesler taps … Hotspur (Jordan Klitzke). He even changes Henry’s lines in Act 5, scene 6 (from “Exton, I thank thee not” to “Harry, I thank thee not”) to call attention to the change.

Let’s consider for a moment what this change implies. In the next play Hotspur will be Hal’s foil, all honor, chivalry, and, as Gil has said, “romantic self-delusion.” Can such a character speak these lines?

“As full of valor as of royal blood!
Both have I now spilled. O, would the deed were good!
For now the devil that told me I did well
Says that this deed is chronicled in hell.” (5.5.113-116)

These lack a sense of honor and temperament that will be consistent in Hotspur in the next play. And there’s a certain toadiness to Exton’s initial interpretation of Henry’s words that Hotspur also lacks. Now on their own Richard II and the switch of characters withstand such criticism. If you’re headed home to American Idol after Death speaks the epilogue and unlikely to take in 1 Henry IV any time soon, who cares if Hotspur plays social-climbing assassin here? And Henry’s rebuke of him could certainly play into Hotspur’s realigning himself in the next play. But for those who consider this play as part of Shakespeare’s second history tetrology, it brings up an interesting continuity question.

A question, I might add, we could ask a guy who told me other day that he’s considering directing 1 Henry IV for Shakespeare & Company next year: Stu Naber. If you scroll back up to the top of this entry and look at the attached picture, Stu is the guy on the right playing Thomas Mowbray. He’s also a fellow Carleton grad. And he’s also the newest member of the William Shakespeare Experience. I welcome Stu now and hope, as we head into 1 Henry IV soon, that he can help us with those interesting questions that arise in the territory between play and production, and whatever else piques his fancy.

Logged by Randall

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Merry Wives of Windsor - Performance Log (June 2008)


Summer Shakespeare performance choices conform, it seems, to the same sort of trendiness we find in other industries. One can go years without seeing one of the rarer plays, then abruptly it's all King John all the time. So it was this year, when I got to see a production of Merry Wives of Windsor for the second time in two years.

The Merry Wives of Windsor
The Chameleon Theatre Circle
Directed by Carin Bratlie
Logan Park, Minneapolis, MN
June 28, 2008

1. An Objective Production: "In this ensemble-created version of The Merry Wives of Windsor, we have embraced the whimsy of Shakespeare's most prose heavy play (75 percent) and created a world inhabited by inanimate objects." ― Carin Bratlie, director.

Wait a minute! We're going to take a linguistically less lively play and enliven it with lifeless characters? How's that work?

Well, as the actors emerge (this is in a park, so entrances are made by simply strolling down "stage" from the picnic table where the props are kept) each is carrying an object ― a shoe, a fan, a broom, a lantern, a bellows, a marshmallow ― and sometimes more than one because the cast of seven is required to perform multiple roles. So, as Act I opens here come Shallow (Anna Sundberg), Slender (Andrew Troth) and Sir Hugh Evans, the parson (Anna Sundberg). Troth is holding a broom, upside down, out in front of him, and Sundberg has a sock pulled over one hand, sock puppet style, and a mop in the other. They shake the objects slightly to emphasize when they are speaking. It takes a few minutes to get used to.

If Bratlie is looking for whimsy she gets it. The audience spends a few minutes, each time a new character enters, bemusedly trying to make some connection between the role and the object chosen to represent it. Some connections are easier than others: Mistress Quickly is a corset; the host of the Garter Inn a beer stein; Master Ford a bellows; Fenton, Anne Page's wimpy suitor, a bouquet of plastic flowers. And some are a bit more mystifying. Why is Dr. Caius, the French physician, a shoe? Why is the parson a sock? Why is Simple an umbrella?

I kept wishing the company had gone further with the puppets, perhaps constructions of found objects rather than just single objects, the variety giving them both more versatility and more opportunity for metaphorical representation. Or that they had chosen objects that all had some way to be "articulate," like the beer stein with its top that snapped open and closed, or the bellows.

2. Is He a … Staff? You're wondering about Falstaff. He's a group of, well four, large balloons. This leads to a couple nice moments. In one, the balloons are punctured, a representation of the "deflation" of Falstaff's hopes, each time he fails to win his mistress. And I suppose you could also make a joke about Falstaff being a big bag of wind. (Although Falstaff would disagree with you, claiming he is short of wind: "Well, if my wind were but long enough to say my prayers, I would repent" [4.5.99-101].) In addition, Bardolph, Pistol, and Nim (all played by Tamara Philbrick) are each represented by single balloons, the long kind clowns use to make balloon animals out of, and each has been shaped into an initial: "B" for Bardolph, etc. And this affinity or continuity between character design is satisfying.

3. Not So Deep As a Well: The question is how long the whimsy lasts. I'd give it about 10 minutes, then you start to look for something deeper, something like character. And not all of the "puppets" can achieve character, regardless of what movement or voicing the actor brings to the object. When one does work, it's a lot of fun. Master Ford (held by Megan Engeseth), the bellows, seems to huff and puff and is capable of emitting deep sighs. And I especially liked Mistress Page represented by a hand-held folding fan, giving the actor, Anissa Brazill, the opportunity to snap her open or closed to punctuate moments with a kind of hauteur. Would that Mistress Quickly (the corset), Mistress Ford (a lantern), or Dr. Caius (the shoe) could achieve such transcendent, if minimalist, moments.

4. The Actor Prepares: This Merry Wives of Windsor comes off as more of an actor's exercise ― how to animate an inanimate object ― than a comprehensive production with puppets. Falstaff never quite works. His balloons are pretty big, the only puppet that obscures the actor (Andrew Troth) playing it. Bratlie writes in her program note that "the actors learned … how to physically create one stage picture with their bodies while creating a different one with their puppets." With Falstaff, one of those pictures is obscured, dampening the effect of the character.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the play's three most farcical moments when Falstaff is turned from wooing wolf to butt of joke. Mistresses Page and Ford plot to turn the tables on Falstaff each time he attempts to cuckold Master Page, one time dumping him in a dirty clothes hamper (and then in a river off stage), the next time dressing him up in drag, and finally convincing him to dress as a deer then beating him.

Farce works best when it highlights transgressive behavior; we laugh at human impropriety. The use of inanimate objects in The Chameleon Theatre Circle's production removes the sharpness of the transgression. With Falstaff translated to a bunch of balloons, these moments of farcical comeuppance are also translated ― the laundry basket incident becomes balloons stuffed in a cloth bag, dressing Falstaff as a woman becomes draping a lace cloth over the balloons, and Falstaff's buck disguise becomes tying balloon "antlers" around the balloons; not quite the same effect.

I thought, in the end, that the weirdness of using inanimate objects as characters in Merry Wives of Windsor would have one especially compelling result ― it would entertain the children in the audience. (We accounted, through relation and friends, for six.) Despite the kooky antics of shoes and socks, and bouquets and balloons, and handkerchiefs, six-year-old critic Annika Findlay delivered a double blow to the concept. She proclaimed it "too chatterboxy" and took Act V off to go play in the park.

Logged by Randall

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Midsummer Night's Dream - Fairyland


Just before we wrap up the fairy world, I remember a student writing about “…Puck, or Robin Bottom…” which opens up a never-before explored dimension of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Could it be that Puck disguises himself as Bottom in order to have sex with Titania? Or that Bottom and Puck are the same “person,” a sort of Jekyll and Hyde, the stolidly literal and the ephemeral imaginitive? Or maybe it is a double-casting trick I hadn’t thought of (put an ass’s head on Egeus, and Puck and “Bottom” can be on stage at the same time)? I know that Hugh Richmond’s Shakespeare’s Sexual Comedy has a “Bottom as Romeo” chapter: “the treatment of sex in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is an explicit confirmation of Shakespeare’s verdict on the sexual conduct of Romeo” (105). So why not Robin Bottom? I missed this on Wikipedia.

Randall has probed the shift in Oberon’s language over the course of the play, after a stiff and stately introduction (“Ill met by moonlight, proud Titania” is not unlike Theseus’s introductory “Now, fair Hippolyta…four happy days bring in another moon”) to a more poetic voice, and he also glories in Titania’s eloquence. I believe the two are of a texture. The wrangle between Oberon and Titania has reversed Nature itself. Each accuses the other of a sort of infidelity in devotion to a mortal, Oberon to Hippolyta and Titania to Theseus. Titania refutes the accusation with detailed argument:

These are the forgeries of jealousy:
And never, since the middle summer’s spring,
Met we on hill, in dale, forest, or mead,
By paved fountain or by rushy brook,
Or in the beached margent of the sea,
To dance our ringlets to the whistling wind,
But with thy brawls thou hast disturbed our sport. (II.i.81-87)

What starts as an answer to Oberon’s accusation swells to a lyrical passage, enlarging on all the variety of nature. The complaint is sufficient with “forgeries of jealousy,” yet the pentameter sings, compounds, pauses and rushes, catalogues and contrasts to the crescendo of “to dance our ringlets to the whistling wind,” and what began as an argument swells to a celebration of nature. Only at the end of the digression can we conclude that because the fairies have not danced their dance, nature is disordered.

Meanwhile Oberon is furious with his Queen over the Indian changling boy and in his anger he plots to humiliate Titania into submission. He charges Puck to fetch the love-in-idleness flower for a love potion.

Enter Puck
Oberon. Hast thou the flower there? Welcome wanderer.
Puck. Ay, there it is.
Oberon. I pray thee, give it me. (II.i.247-48)

There you go: prosaic stage business as the plot requires. But:

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses, and with eglantine.
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lull’d in these flowers with dances and delight;
And there the snake throws her enamell’d skin,
Weed wide enough to wrap a fairy in;
And with the juiced of this I’ll streak her eyes,
And make her full of hateful fantasies. (II.i.249-258)

His instruction to Puck starts with all the businesslike authority which Randall notes, but Oberon, like Titania, gets lost or distracted and digresses into a poetic celebration of nature. Wild thyme and nodding violets? Musk roses and eglantine? This is no GPS: you will find her a couple dozen yards to the left of the old oak tree. Both digress into fairyworld. Neither is limited by time or reason. The prosody is blank verse, but the texture is not governed by logic. The two passages have a single end stop, after “eglantine,” and that is really only to take a breath. Oberon’s semi-colons flow directly into “and’s.” It is lyrical. In the fairy realm, neither Titania nor Oberon can keep up the anger as they are distracted into the music of nature. What an effort Oberon must make to reverse from “weed wide enough to wrap a fairy in” to “make her full of hateful fantasies,” and even with the shift in subject, he still carries over the alliterative music.

Between “to dance our ringlets to the whistling wind” and “I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,” Athenian youth has trespassed into the wood:

Demetrius. I love thee not; therefore pursue me not.
Where is Lysander and fair Hermia?
The one I’ll slay; the other slayeth me.
Thou toldst me they were stol’n unto this wood;
And here am I, and wode within this wood,
Because I cannot meet my Hermia.
Hence, get thee gone, and follow me no more. (II.i.188-194)

Listen to the three passages. All three are blank verse, but the fairies’ lines all flow through commas to continuities embellishing the natural pictures, while the mortal’s lines are all end-stopped increments of complaint. There is some syntactic parallel (slay/slayeth) and a little word play (wode/ wood), but though he is in the wood, he is impervious to nature. As he abuses Helena he is probably stomping on wild thyme and nodding violets. It might as well be prose. And Demetrius has only a single matter in mind—I, me, I, me, me, here I am, etc.—himself, his ego.

Randall noted that audience reacts to character more than language. I agree. Yet as these passages show, the language itself creates a realm beyond dimension of space and time, that the poor Athenians, leaders and youth alike, can only stumble in.


When I return from Ashland, I’ll report on the Dream I will see there, and even if the discussion of the play has closed, I’ll try to sneak in the comment on the effect of double-casting Hippolyta and Titania which I have hinted at. Hint about the hint: as all gather for “Pyramus and Thisby,” Hippolita makes eye contact with Bottom—and winks.

Gentles, do not reprehend,