Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Twelfth Night - Performance Log (August 2008)

Twelfth Night

Directed by Amelia Meckler


Lincoln Park, Seattle, WA

August 3, 2008

Gil: Twelfth Night is my favorite comedy; it is with Congreve’s The Way of the World, arguably the best dramatic comedy of all time.

Randall: Wow, a strong recommendation. I'd have to throw a Moliere in there, but I'd agree about Twelfth Night. I think you said something similar when you opened our first discussion on Comedy of Errors, that Shakespeare "wrote comedies until he wrote a perfect Twelfth Night, then stopped." It certainly was a pleasure to see it performed by GreenStage.

Gil: I liked director Amelia Meckler's limiting the "set" to just two benches, unless one includes the ‘prison’ Malvolio is locked in, an ingenious barred cell-as-mask clamped on his head as he is tormented by Feste/Sir Topaz. So except for characterization-by-costume, the play is the (only) thing.

Randall: That reminds me of something you once noted about the productions of Pericles you've seen, that in general they're pretty good because the play is flawed and that every interesting or above average production results from director and designers working harder to come up with a unifying vision. Here, with Twelfth Night, such an effort really isn't necessary. In a way, less is more. That's one thing I was getting at in the log on GreenStage’s Hamlet, that the minimalism common to Shakespeare performed in a park is akin to the nearly bare stages on which these plays were originally performed.

Gil: Right. Wondrous sets can interpret and delight as in the Twelfth Night I reported on at the Seattle Rep last fall or the hugely inventive set for A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Ashland this summer. But the history of Shakespeare performance shows how often productions were overwhelmed by sets, costumes, music, and technological innovation, especially in the Nineteenth Century.

Randall: I think that's still true today, especially given many of the Guthrie productions I've seen, and not just of Shakespeare, over the years. However, a director willing to minimize many of the production accoutrements must have the courage to let the actors carry the play. The Love's Labor's Lost that I saw recently, which had no set, ebbed and flowed depending on each actor's ability.

Gil: In Twelfth Night, a director must face her first challenge when she opens the text and discovers there is a character named “Sir Toby Belch.” And then she finds Sebastian reporting that he and his sister were both born in an hour, and Twelfth Night will expand on the possibilities of mistaken identity of twins in The Comedy of Errors, but this time the separated twins are “identical” fraternal twins.

Randall: I have to say, I've always wanted to see Viola and Sebastian played by the same person, with different clothes, as opposed to two different people wearing (how did that happen?) the same clothes. To pull this off, you might need some fancy production design involving mirrors for the last scene, or more likely a double for the final scene would work. Once the audience has gotten used to the same person, creating the "identical" fraternal image, it would be easier to engage willing suspension of disbelief to work the double scene. But I'd like to try this because I always catch myself groaning a bit when Sebastian shows up in Act 2 and he's a foot taller than the actress playing Viola. I think 'yeah, like Olivia is going to overlook that!' Meckler found two similar looking actors (played by Nicole Vernon and Banton Foster), but I didn't really get why they would be wearing the same outfit.

Gil: I’ve seen the twins in Errors double cast, a perfect solution. On the other hand, I’ve seen a Twelfth Night in Boulder, Colorado, in which Viola was Korean, Sebastian was Filipino, and the audience was invited to remember that all Asians look alike, don’t they? At GreenStage, it was credibly solved by similar facial structure and identical male costumes, reasonable in that Viola chooses male clothing for her Cesario disguise from her sense of her twin brother’s wardrobe.

Randall: Oh, right.

Gil: The Belch question is more crucial. Broad farce can really trample on subtle romantic plots, not just the Orsino/Viola-Cesario/Olivia triangle but also the counterpoint Olivia/Malvolio/Sir Andrew admittedly raucous subplot. This Sir Toby (Mathew Ahrens) was a roaring drunk and therefore loomed larger in both roistering and fighting than I was prepared to accept.

Randall: I've seen a number of mean-drunk Tobys it is a little disconcerting but I think Meckler really tried to smooth the wrinkles out a bit by incorporating Toby's love for Maria more substantially into the play. Shakespeare tells us, off hand, that the two have married at the end of the play. But at GreenStage we see them at a number of unspoken moments come close to kissing or clearly drawn to one another. At those times, Ahrens seems to recede from the roistering somewhat. The result, for me, was a production that explores the foolishness of all lovers, and here all the principal characters, including Toby, are lovers.

You use the phrase "subtle romantic plots." I don't think there's much subtle about Meckler's approach. Take Malvolio (Orion Protonentis). We're used to the foolishness of his love; it is above his state. Meckler discards the concept of "state" (although the line remains), and makes his inappropriateness more a matter of character which Protonentis plays with more physicality than I'm used to.

Gil: I thought Protonentis's stentorian declarative style was disdainful, yes, but more Addams Family than Jeeves, hardly a steward appropriate to the household for Olivia’s seven years of grief.

Randall: Sure, but Nicole Fierstein's Olivia is hardly a paragon of asceticism or reserve. The approach to Malvolio may fit the more cartoonish characterizations. So again, not so subtle.

Gil: Yes, Olivia was a bit hard to credit. After she is smitten with Orsino’s messenger, her costume goes from black to scarlet, but her character also shifts from grave to adolescent groupie. Fierstein does everything but pant, so Cesario’s recognition that Olivia loves her/him is crushed into panic. I'd add that Fierstein’s voice, shrill and loud enough so no one in Lincoln Park, not just GreenStage’s audience, could miss a line, also bent her character to extremes.

Randall: I found that as fascinating as it was hard to listen to, sort of like the moment that Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor expose Jean Hagen's true singing voice in Singin' in the Rain. But the fascinating part was how much it wrecked my concept of Olivia; she can't be shrill. Listen when she says:

"Oh world, how apt the poor are to be proud.

If one should be a prey, how much the better

To fall before the lion than the wolf!

The clock upbraids me with the waste of time.

Be not afraid, good youth, I will not have you,

And yet, when wit and youth is come to harvest,

Your wife is like to reap a proper man.

There lies your way, due west." (3.1.129-136)

Set aside the very Victorian, proper face-shaping p's here. The sentiments alone struggle with propriety, communicate a wistful yearning in the face of obligation. Voice is so important. Fierstein's conjured a more broadly comic Olivia than I was comfortable with.

Gil: Meckler's production gave me a new insight into and affection for Sir Andrew Aguecheek. Instead of merely being a dim-witted foil for Sir Toby’s venal roistering, Thomas Maier was naïve, yes, but shy, awed, funny, and capable of delight. Maier has a wonderful face, infinitely expressive, never frozen in expressions of ‘I’m acting’ that mar so many publicity still photographs. This meant Aguecheek is an outsider, not just someone Toby has brought in to gull for a season’s entertainment, but a normative counterpoint to the brittle social milieu of Orsino, Olivia, and Feste. This was the best Aguecheek I have ever seen, and I will treasure this Twelfth Night because of him.

Randall: I liked Maier a lot, as well, although I'd put him behind Max Wright's portrayal in the 1998 Nicholas Hytner production at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre (it was later televised) with Helen Hunt as Viola, Paul Rudd as Orsino, and Kyra Sedgwick as Olivia. Wright, you may have forgotten, played Willie on the TV sit-com ALF. As Aguecheek, his deadpan acceptance of perpetual loserdom was hysterical.

Gil: Well, if you're going to namedrop, the first time I saw Twelfth Night was at the Old Vic, with Leo McKern (Rumpole himself) as Feste, not-yet-Dame Peggy Ashcroft as Viola, and as a mere page, Dorothy Tutin. That, as much as anything, was the beginning of my addiction to Shakespeare.

Logged by Gil and Randall Findlay

Photo: Orion Protonensis as Malvolio and Sam Hagen as Feste in GreenStage's Twelfth Night. Photo by Ken Holmes.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

RE: 1 Henry IV - Hotspur and Honor

Hello all,

A thought flitted through my mind after reading Gil's post. It was only a single thought, about the size of a sparrow:

Does anyone see a shadow cast forward from this play to Hamlet, or maybe a backward echo?

Given what Gil was saying about Hal as "the instrument of restored harmony (who) represents the cycle of an ascendant younger generation," I thought of the sweet prince. This is the very role I yearn for Hamlet to step into, yet he is unable. Anddespite his youth, the ascendancy of Fortinbras in the closing moments feels like the resoration of an older order, backward looking and militaristic, as well as little chivalric – thus Hotspur comes to mind.

Don't have time for the implications right now, but there it is.


Sunday, August 17, 2008

1 Henry IV - Hotspur and Honor

Honorable peers,

As Stu considers thoughts on producing 1 Henry IV, he thinks of youth comparing one’s place among peers, such as who is on the honor role, and notes Hal is compared, by the king, his father, to the valiant Hotspur. Indeed Shakespeare contemplates "honor" in this play, which Stu has the optimism to consider still relevant to our world, though my associations of honor with relationships (John Edwards high moral condemnation of Bill Clinton’s fitness to govern), military (Pat Tillman or Jessica Lynch reconfigured as America’s valiant warriors), or personal integrity (jeez!) provide a pretty bleak landscape for the relevance of honor in our cynical world.

Nonetheless, I have always found Hotspur a hugely compelling figure in this play. Yes, Falstaff is the Comic Hero (for a purist, an impossible term, in that “hero” is confined to tragedy), and I am encouraged by Stu’s distinction of “funny” (farcical) from witty and darkly humorous (comic). And, yes, Hal is the prodigal son or the pragmatic apprentice or, even, the Machiavel, and One Henry is his story.

But the Honorable Hotspur emerges for me from three passages. First, we are given a grace note to him before he is ever before us. King Henry receives dispatches from Wales where wild Glendower has captured Mortimer, and Welsh women have performed bestial deeds on the slain English soldiers (Holinshed says the bodies were castrated, but there is no report that nuns were raped or babies were thrown out of incubators in the twentieth century mode of demonizing the enemy). There is also news from the contentious north where gallant Hotspur has defeated the “ever-valiant and approved” Douglas (I am puzzled as to why the Douglas gets such good press throughout the play, even when he runs away from battle at Shrewsbury, but as a Scottish-surnamed American, who am I to complain?). In a personal moment apart from his public persona, Henry reveals his envy of Hotspur’s father, Northumberland:

Yea…thou…mak’st me sin
In envy that my Lord Northumberland
Should be the father to so blest a son—
A son who is the theme of honor’s tongue,
Amongst a grove the very straightest plant,
Who is sweet Fortune’s minion and her pride,
Whilst I, by looking on the praise of him,
See riot and dishonor stain the brow
Of my young Harry. O that it could be prov’d
That some night-tripping fairy had exchang’d
In cradle-clothes our children where they lay,
And call’d mine Percy, his Plantagenet!
Then would I have his Harry and he mine. (I.i.77-90; my italics)

Holy thesis sentence! There is the whole play—the King’s distress with his son, Hotspur’s honor, Falstaff (riot), and Hal’s “stain.” Hotspur is “sweet Fortune’s minion,” indeed. This orients “honor” to chivalric romance, as opposed to Fate, wyrd, that governs honor for the tragic hero Beowulf, but Hotspur still has a tragic flaw (pace, A. C. Bradley) as Henry asks “What think you, coz,/ Of this young Percy’s pride?”

Skip over for the moment the marvelously funny account of Hotspur refusing his prisoners to the “popinjay” courtier, and look at his credo itself:

By heaven, methinks it were an easy leap,
To pluck bright honor from the pale-fac’d moon,
Or dive into the bottom of the deep,
Where fadom-line could never touch the ground,
And pluck up drowned honor by the locks,
So he that doth redeem her thence might wear
Without corrival all her dignities,
But out upon this half-fac’d fellowship! (I.iii.201-08)

The truth is Hotspur is swept away by his chivalric posture. His poetic imagery is overwhelming, but it simplifies the world in Hotspur’s imagination. His father Northumberland and his uncle Worcester discuss that Mortimer has a legitimate claim to Richard II’s throne, and Hotspur is surprised. He hasn’t bothered reading his history, but suddenly he convinces himself to rebel in Richard’s name, a convenient “honorable” cause (though in Richard II, Hotspur was on the other side). Thus, we see Hotspur’s weakness. The chivalric ideal is nostalgic. England has ceased to be a single kind of place. Depose Richard and the result is not just a conscience-troubled Henry or quarrelsome Northumberland who remembers Carlisle’s analysis of the consequences of a precedent-setting rebellion, but a cold, glittering, practical Hal, genuinely aware of the new conditions and a master parodist Falstaff, exposing the way the great have now become the vulnerable and pretentious. Hotspur is a brilliant fool, romantically anachronistic in Hal’s England, lit by nostalgia for chivalric contests and an enthusiasm that is mostly quixotic.

And at Shrewsbury, this comes home. The rebel forces have mostly chickened out; even Hotspur’s father has contracted the “blue flu” so he is not in the field. The Douglas says “Talk not of dying, I am out of fear of death or death’s hand,” choosing common sense (or in Honor’s terminology “cowardice”), but Hotspur shouts Honor’s war cry: “Doomsday is near, die all, die merrily.” This is the occasion to apply Hal’s “I do, I will” to Hotspur’s impetuousness.

As the battle approaches, Hotspur has been tricked by Hal’s wanton image to underestimate him:

“Never did I hear
Of any prince so wild a liberty.
But be he as he will, yet once ere night
I will embrace him with a soldier’s arm
That he shall shrink under my courtesy” (V.ii.70-4),

and finally another war cry (slogan or slogorne from slaugh-ghairm, which poor Browning thought was an instrument called the slug-horn that we blue-painted Scots blew before battle):

“Now Esperance! Percy! And set on.
Sound all the lofty instruments of war,
And by that music let us all embrace,
For, heaven to earth, some of us never shall
A second time do such courtesy” (V.ii.96-100).

Courtesy, the code of chivalric honor, is nearly Hotspur’s last word. Falstaff, seeing the slain nobleman Sir Walter Blunt who sacrificed himself as a decoy for his sovereign, offers an epitaph: “Sir Walter Blunt! There’s honor for you!...I like not such grinning honor as Sir Walter hath. Give me life, which if I can save, so; if not, honor comes unlook’d for, and there’s an end” (V.iii.32-3, 58-61). At last (literally), Hotspur confronts Harry Monmouth, still having faith in the finite determinism of honor, a conception that rival achievement of honor is mutually exclusive. Hotspur’s utters a last assertion of ego: “would to God/ Thy name in arms were now as great as mine!” and falls.

At the end, Hotspur is a pathetic hero—and I use my terms carefully: “pathetic” rather than tragic because there is a pathos in the self-sacrifice of one whose time has passed, yet “hero” because he has challenged the pure laws of the universe, Hal’s multifaceted political realism, without recognizing his is an anachronistic code. Most sadly, Hotspur at last recognizes he is not of this post-Richard II world:

"O Harry, thou hast robb’d me of my youth!
I better brook the loss of brittle life
Than those proud titles thou hast won of me.
They wound my thoughts worse than thy sword my flesh.
But thoughts, the slaves of life, and life, time’s fool,
And time, that takes survey of all the world,
Must have a stop." (V.iv.77-83)

Even in death, “I better brook the loss of brittle life,” Hotspur is the alliterating chivalric poet before he is the warrior. Fool means “victim” here, as Romeo’s “I am fortune’s fool.” Derek Traversi notes that Hotspur’s conception of honor is tragically affirmed by death. My conclusion is here we see the defeat of illusion, Hotspur’s wonderfully rich self-deceptions, by realism, and his final clear vision echoes Mercutio’s “Tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church-door, but ‘tis enough, ‘twill serve. Ask for me to-morrow, and you shall find me a grave man.”

Another romantic hero, John Dryden’s Antony in All for Love: or, the World Well Lost, similarly recognizes the passing of the Romantic world to the crass, mercantile realism of Octavius Caesar:

“’Tis time the world
Should have a lord, and know whom to obey.
We two have kept its homage in suspense,
And bent the globe, on whose each side we trod,
Till it was dinted inwards. Let him walk
Alone upon’t; I’m weary of my part.” (All for Love, V.i.280-85)

What is the mode of this play? It is, of course, grouped among the “history plays” in the Folio, but this tells us nothing other than Shakespeare is chronicling the birth of a nation, and “history play” is an envelope in which we find different modes—comedy, tragedy, a little satire, part of the Henriad epic—arranged. Hotspur, with romantic rather than political character, denies realism and believes Northumberland’s absence will lend “a larger dare to our great enterprise” (IV.i.78), “to push against a kingdom, with his help/ We shall o’erturn it topsy-turvy down” (IV.i.81-2). Though Falstaff challenges stolid civil order, Hotspur’s very different challenge to political authority would be suggestive of a mode of comedy. Henry is senex; Falstaff is a tricky servant; but Hal, not Hotspur, is more the instrument of restored harmony and represents the cycle of ascendant younger generation that traditionally concludes comedy. Or Falstaff is miles gloriosis, is Lord of Misrule, is Vice, is disruption (though I want Stu’s “dark” moments, too). Thus, Hotspur, really, belongs in another play, and so he dies, and the golden romantic, chivalric code dies with him.



Friday, August 15, 2008

1 Henry IV - Thoughts on Producing the Play

There’s a great deal to recommend 1 Henry IV for production: multiple interlocking subplots, vivid characters, and an underdog protagonist in Hal. In a day and age when we are desperately trying to keep Shakespeare relevant, this play seems particularly suited to engage a younger audience.

The coming-of-age story and the parable of the prodigal son are as relevant now as in the first or sixteenth centuries. I myself recall first seeing a production when I was a junior in high school. As both a spoiled preppie and rebel without a cause/underachiever, it was easy to cast myself in Hal’s place.

My reformation, glittering o'er my fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.
I'll so offend, to make offence a skill;
Redeeming time when men think least I will. (I.ii)

And so I thought; perhaps my day was coming. As youths, striving to find a place in the world, we are often compared to our peers and siblings—who’s on honor role, who’s on the football team, or who can hold their liquor best? This even persists into adulthood—my mother, well into her seventies, still tells me about how so-and-so’s son is now a partner at a law firm, or so-and-so’s daughter is now a surgeon. So any of us can relate to Hal’s dilemma when comparisons are made to the valiant Hotspur. Not only is the sons’ role in the world contrasted, we are presented with multiple father figures including a contemplative Henry IV, a madcap Falstaff, and a prideful Northumberland.

Much has been said and written of Shakespeare’s contemplation of honor in this play and throughout the “Henriad.” Suffice it now to say that the nature of honor, in the sense of personal integrity, interpersonal relationships, and military endeavors is still relevant to our world and to our modern audiences. Given the relevance of this play to modern times, one is tempted to try a production in modern dress to make this more explicit. I wouldn’t (the Guthrie tried several years ago with mixed results). I have always felt that the commonality of the times is best demonstrated using a different time and place than current, not by forcing a modern setting on a Shakespeare play, which only seems to point up the differences.

The challenges of mounting a production of 1 Henry IV are not limited to finding someone who can speak Welsh. Falstaff looms large in our common literary consciousness, and it can be a daunting task to attempt the role. Part of the problem may be that people assume that Falstaff is going to be “funny.” And when I says “funny” I mean farcically funny, not witty funny or darkly humorous funny. In some cases, audience members may have seen a production of Merry Wives of Windsor, or have a recollection of Falstaff as a largely comic character. But Falstaff is so much more than a funny fat man. Going for the laughs may gloss over the deep pain and resentment that fuel his wit. A lifetime of failures, alcoholism, and social isolation lie beneath the jolly exterior. Choosing a darker take on Falstaff my not meet audience expectations, but as a director, I would certainly look for opportunities to let Falstaff’s merry mask slip and reveal the troubled soul underneath.

Whose play is this anyway? One challenge is not losing Hal’s story, which I consider the core of the play, to the various subplots. Both the characters of Falstaff and Percy are boldly drawn and make a major impression on the audience. How do we keep these two from stealing Hal’s show? As a director, I might use a few tricks to place additional focus on Hal, such as dropping him downstage (closer to the audience) in scenes with Falstaff, and playing some of Percy’s scenes isolated on one side of the stage rather than center.

The script is fairly tight as it stands. Reading through, I found few obvious cuts. Act II, scene i, with the ostler and carrier seems unnecessary, and serves little purpose forwarding the plot or theme. Likewise, the portion of Act II, scene iv, with the server Francis, only interjects another unnecessary character into an already crowded play. I would even argue that the robbery scene (Act II, scene ii), can be largely cut, since we later get a description of the events from the principals in scene iv. We might even get a better payoff on Falstaff’s outrageous exaggerations by not knowing all of the details of the robbery beforehand.

One exchange from Act I, scene iv, particularly stuck in my mind as a major touchstone for the tone of the production:

… No, my good lord; banish Peto,
banish Bardolph, banish Poins: but for sweet Jack
Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack Falstaff,
valiant Jack Falstaff, and therefore more valiant,
being, as he is, old Jack Falstaff, banish not him
thy Harry's company, banish not him thy Harry's
company: banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.

I do, I will.

In these four words, Prince Henry begins the process by which he will ultimately deny Falstaff and break with his followers. I see Hal looking Falstaff directly in the eye, and speaking with all of the weight of a king; we are left to wonder if Hal is speaking in the character of the king or as himself. Perhaps Hal then turns away, and we see Falstaff’s reaction. But there are other ways one could put this together. Falstaff could be distracted as he finishes and never hear the Prince, who speaks sotto voce to himself or as an aside to the audience; this might be more in keeping with Hal’s “I know you all” speech from Act I, but would make him seem even more schemer who is unwilling to show his hand. Hal might also say his line laughingly as if to lessen the impact, but would it?

Another key speech is the end of Act I, scene ii, the whole “I know you all.” My concern is that this makes Hal sound so much like a schemer. My hope is that the audience will like Hal and relate to him. Shakespeare makes his reformation sound premeditated. It would be a challenge to an actor to make the speech fresh—as if he is hatching his plan in the current moment, and justifying his past behavior in the context of his new plan.

It’s a wonderful play, and one that stands up well as a single work.


Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Hamlet - Performance Log (August 2008)

After seeing the Guthrie's lavish and exuberantly designed, appointed, and produced Midsummer Night's Dream last May, summer Shakespeare in the park has offered a striking counter-point. I saw, for example, a Love's Labor's Lost in a Minneapolis park this summer which had no set at all and maybe four props, and while the actors certainly wore costumes, they weren't far from what you could probably dig out of a trunk in your attic (the costumes, not the actors). I wonder if the minimalism of Shakespeare performed in the park, which as Gil noted must be "suitable to be loaded in a van and carted to another park in the next county by the next afternoon," is more akin to Shakespeare's simple stage than the elaborate productions we tend to find at places like the Guthrie, the Berkeley Rep, and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. With that in mind, I headed off to Hamlet in the park with my dad.

Directed by Susanna Wilson
Lincoln Park, Seattle, WA
August 2, 2008

1. Throw to earth this unprevailing woe. GreenStage's "Elsinore" is three connected Medieval stone arches, with purple curtains, in front of and through which the action takes place. And action is the key word here because Susanna Wilson's Hamlet is an active event. Everyone and everything is constantly in motion (including the text, which moves along briskly to its conclusion in roughly two and a quarter hours). Hamlet, played by Shawn Law, jigs, lunges, paces, and storms his way through, a passionate young man tormented by the nightmarish intrigue and corruption of his family's politics and his assigned vengeful role. Even moments one expects to be more measured, like when Hamlet admits he is not insane and knows a "hawk from a handsaw," are played in antic vein; Law delivers this line humping another character's leg. Most indicative of his frustration (or "woe" as Claudius calls it), he's constantly throwing things—books, and daggers, and grass, and wadded up letters, and his cloak, and clover, and pages torn from books, and musical instruments, and sticks, and his mother's necklace, and clothing, and Yorick's skull. (Okay, he just tosses this last one.) If Doubleday had invented baseball in the 13th century, this Hamlet would have been a hell of a pitcher. It's not just his noble mind that's "o'erthrown."

I go to productions of Hamlet in part because I'm curious. How does a director, or more specifically an actor, handle one of the most famous, most difficult, and most produced plays of all time? At some point I'm going to read English critic J. C. Trewin's Five & Eighty Hamlets, wherein he describes some of the most memorable performances he saw, just to get a sense of the range actors have brought to the role in the 20th century alone. But for an actor this must be terribly intimidating: the weight of history, the fame of the role, the number of lines, Laurence Olivier's ghost looking over your shoulder—holy onus! So Law's approach to Hamlet works first because all his effort seems effortless and is consistent with the text and second because the energy and physicality he brings to the role focuses it in a way consistent with Wilson's production. This Hamlet throws things. He emphasizes his youth. He suggests an untempered passion, a pent-up violence, a certain rashness (although Law makes it clear that Hamlet can think rings around his opponents). He brings energy to the role and to the audience, sitting without an intermission on the grass of Lincoln park.

I find I like a passionate Hamlet. It makes the human detritus of the final scene plausible, clearly the product of human passions rather than Fate or ineffable tragic flaws.

2. I wuz framed! For me, the most interesting aspect of this production is the way Wilson chooses to open and close it. The play begins not with scared soldiers on a castle battlement, but with Hamlet and the one of the players from the troupe that will later perform at Elisnore, play fighting and going over, together, "Aeneas' tale to Dido" about "Priam's slaughter" (from Act 2, scene 2). I think you can take this one of two ways. I saw it as Hamlet at Wittenberg, hanging with actors, an innocent before he's called home (which he is, as Wilson stages it, by a messenger at the end of the scene). The playfulness establishes an interesting benchmark for Hamlet's character later, specifically his knowledge of and interest in acting and plays. (In fact, Hamlet's instructions to the actors—"speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue"—comes off better than I've ever seen it before, in part because we've been prepared for his understanding of theater in advance.) But it also cleverly highlights the play's classical analogy—Hamlet is like Pyrrhus, who kills Troy's king Priam as vengeance for the death of his father, Achilles. And although the phrase comes from a different Pyrrhus, the speech that Hamlet and his actor friend practice serves to remind us, in advance, that Hamlet's coming vengeance will be itself a pyrrhic victory. Buried in the play, this analogy still stands, but coming first, it sets the tragic scene and tone.

Dad thought the opening scene might, perhaps, be something like the Christopher Sly scene at the beginning of Taming of the Shrew. In which case, Hamlet becomes a play within a play itself (making the "mousetrap" production a play within a play within a play). But I don't see this. It would work if Wilson continued to use Act 2, scene 2, having the rest of the players begin to perform and segue into Hamlet's opening scene. But instead, a messenger shows up, hands Hamlet a letter that clearly disturbs him, and he dashes off, leaving the Player looking perplexed.

3. There's a divinity that shapes our ends. Wilson ends the play with another interesting twist. She's removed Fortinbras, so there's no one to march onto the stage, observe the carnage, and bid the guns to shoot, bringing political closure to the fatal Danes. Instead, after Hamlet tells us "the rest is silence," three actors step forward, drop their characters and speak the following lines (cadged from Fortinbras and Horatio): "Where is this sight?"; "What is it ye would see?"; "Cease your search." Now, these lines go directly to the audience, calling our attention to the play's central action and asking us to consider why we go to Hamlet (again and again, even). Taken together with the opening, the chorus-like conclusion closes Wilson's frame, emphasizing the tragic scope of the play by beginning with a story of Greek vengeance and making us, in the end, responsible for realizing that scope. That frees the internal play, from frightened sentinels to "the rest is silence," to pursue more directly the simple story of a passionate young man overwhelmed by his uncle's fratricide and his own attempt at vengeance.

It is a story well told.

Logged by Randall

Photo: Shawn Law as Hamlet and Carolyn Marie Monroe as Ophelia in GreenStage's Hamlet. Photo by Ken Holmes.

Monday, August 4, 2008

RE2: 1 Henry IV - Identities


I often teased my sorority-girl students about their reverence for personality, pointing out that that the term comes from Latin: persona, meaning “mask,” so a sister with an outstanding personality was the one who constructed the most perfect masks with which to interface—no, intermask—with all social situations, the perfect fake, and as she matured the masks become permanent disguises for face. It seems that I believe that somewhere in there, back there, there must be an essential identity.

As a reader of autobiography, I’ve long worried the mystery of identity. Who is Hal, asks Randall. Despite the indelibly vivid population of Shakespeare’s characters, does the concept of an identity not emerge until the 19th century, with autobiography constructed from individual experiences filtered through personal memory or with the ego-centric and introspective Romantic poets—some sort of essential self or kernel identity, an undiscovered country that even the voyages of “Lemuel” Freud can not discover? At what point in literature is “soul” replaced by “self”?

That Hal is confident of his masked identity is declared early, in his “imitate the sun” (I.ii.199-221) soliloquy (remember we trust soliloquies because they are unalloyed with all the conditions influencing dialogues). At the Boar’s Head tavern, exit Falstaff, then exit Poins, then the Prince looks at the space recently filled with our gang, and says “I know you all, and will awhile uphold/ The unyok’d humor of your idleness.” Because this is still our introduction to Hal, we can only see the dramatic irony of the subsequent robbery of the robbers; the straight man for Falstaff’s 13-men-in-buckram show; the king and prince role playing; the unexpected and on its surface incredible promise to his father, “I shall hereafter, my thrice-gracious lord,/ Be more myself”; and even, on the battlefield at Shrewsbury, his epitaph of the apparently slain Falstaff, “I could have better spared a better man.” All these demonstrate to me that this core self is intentionally masked from accurate recognition by others, though it has been there from the beginning.

When Falstaff-as-King-Henry says “but for sweet Jack Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack Falstaff, valiant Jack Falstaff, and therefore more valiant being, as he is, old Jack Falstaff, banish not him thy Harry’s company, banish not him thy Harry’s company, banish plump Jack, and banish all the world!” Prince Harry-as-future-King-Henry replies “I do, I will” (II.iv.475-481). Is there a more brilliant use of rhythm in Shakespeare, Falstaff’s 41-word oration eviscerated by the Prince’s four? The crescendo will come in 2 Henry IV when newly-crowned Henry V rejects Falstaff, or even more chilling, in Henry V, King Harry hangs his old Boar’s Head crony Bardolph for stealing a pax from a church: “we would have all such offenders so cut off.”

Yet I do not see, despite how just and benevolent King Henry V’s rule is dramatized, that Prince Hal is an Erasmusonian "humanist." He is too cunning, too duplicitous. He is amoral. Even though his kingship will be “just” (think Bardolph), his ascension to universal English support is based on manipulations justified by plotting for power.

Hal is the supreme Machiavel, described in Henry V as “none more loved and feared.” One definition of a Machiavel is a villainous but humorous character type in Elizabethan Drama, a sly cynic who loves evil for its own sake, the delight in evil making other motivation unnecessary, Iago being the prominent example. However, I’ve always thought of basic Machiavellianism as the advice to Il Principio, “the end justifies the means,” [though now I find in my Oxford Dictionary of Quotations that is attributed to Hermann Busenbaum (1600-1668) who, you all already knew, wrote in his Medulla Theologiae Moralis (1650), “cum finis est licitus, etiam media sunt licita”].

I am thinking that if Hal’s vision of the “end” is his glorious triumph displayed in Henry V, then the means he uses are the cunning manipulations of public perception, calculating how to seduce friends and enemies, nobility and commoners into undervaluing him until his “true self” bursts forth. He is amoral if morality is the time tested principle of truth and the best way to live one’s life. One challenge one must consider in 1 Henry IV is how the Prince, who has spent far more time lifting tankards of sack than flourishing broadswords, is able to defeat sweet fortune’s minion and her pride, Harry Hotspur, on the killing fields of Shrewsbury. My answer must be Hal is genetically a warrior. One may surmise, though there is no textual exposition, he has still submitted to some education commensurate with his class. But the advantage he has over Hotspur, as we know from the latter’s disparaging remarks, is that young Percy completely undervalues the Prince. The Machiavellian ruse proves more effective than “God for Harry, England and St. George.”

Randall wonders if we can see the shift from Henry IV to Hal as the shift, metaphorically, from medieval value to Renaissance humanism. I think first I would like to recapitulate the shift from Hotspur’s chivalric, romance values to a version of modernism represented by Falstaff—but I must leave this for a future post.