Sunday, August 23, 2009

RE: Julius Caesar - Is Poetry Fatal?

Mike writes:

Rereading Caesar's "I could be well moved, if I were as you" speech now, it sounds a lot like he's "the decider" ― i.e. constancy is held as a virtue in and of itself, even should the metaphor point toward massive narcissism: how many Caesars does it take to screw in a light bulb?


The world revolves around him.

And as it turns out (et tu, Brute?), he was right. He had "no fellow." The end result of egotism is isolation.

Brutus, on the other hand, in his "our cause is ripe" speech, sees the world as a place of interconnected flux, where forces move that are much bigger than us, and we must catch the tide accordingly. He's the liberal, maybe, to Caesar's W. Or at least the Colin Powell. He reflects the world around him, and is perhaps ultimately presented as too reflective in a number of senses. When Cassius offers to be his "glass" and reminds Brutus that "the eye sees not itself/but by some other thing," he is tapping into Brutus as a creature of context. What Brutus perhaps forgets is the paradox embedded in the metaphor: on the one hand, the mirror never lies, while on the other, that's all it can do ― offering a two-dimensional world of complete reversals where left is right, and right is wrong.

I'd be tempted to put the two side-by-side for my students and consider how they intereact in terms of nautical navigation. The constellations and Caesar's Pole star constancy would be necessary to find one's way, yet knowledge of the currents and tides would be equally beneficial, perhaps.


Friday, August 21, 2009

Julius Caesar - Do the Tides of History Flow or Ebb?


I pose two queries, but you may only respond to one:

Between about 1596 and 1599, Shakespeare wrote four English history plays: King John and the last three in the Henriad, and then, in 1599, he wrote Julius Caesar, his last play before Hamlet. Absent a possible The Long, Boring Reign of King Henry III, he had mostly exhausted the history of English monarchs, at least until he discovered a couple of lines in Holinshed recalling Cymbeline. Luckily, North published a new edition of his translation of Plutarch's Lives in 1595, including lives of Caesar, Brutus, and Antony. Eureka! More history. Superficially, Julius Caesar looks like another chronicle play; there are 39+ named characters (the three Henry VI's average 40) and it records historical time, March 44 BC to November, 42 BC, Caesar's assassination to the second Battle of Philippi.

1) But The Tragedy of Julius Caesar veers away from dramatized history into a character study of moral ambiguity in a political setting, which precipitates personal tragedy. The play's title names the tragedy of Caesar, yet he is dead by the middle of the play. Which is the most tragic among ambitious Caesar, ethical Brutus, or aristocratic Cassius? [If you are desperate for time, you can parody this question by choosing Cinna the poet―The Tragedy of Bad Verse.]

[If it is useful, Northrop Frye, Fools of Time, describes three categories of tragedy: tragedy of order (e.g., Julius Caesar), tragedy of passion (e.g., Antony and Cleopatra), and tragedy of isolation (e.g., Othello), and in each, the tragic action is played out through an order figure (here Julius Caesar), a rebel figure (Brutus), and a nemesis or avenger figure (Mark Antony).]

2) Often Shakespeare traces an evolution from "things-known-for-sure" to a complex multifaceted response to "a world-out-of-joint." Hotspur's chivalric honor to Hal's imitation of the action of the sun; Richard II's romantic delusion to Bolingbrook's political pragmatism; Claudius's decisive order to Hamlet's world out of joint. In Julius Caesar, Brutus is an anachronism, locked in a golden dream of principle while history inexorably moves forward to the passions of Antony or the rational calculations of Octavius. Brutus, responding to his understanding of Caesar's threat to the Republic, asserts the only solution, "It must be his death; and for my part,/ I know no personal cause to spurn at him,/ But for the general." (II.i.10-12). Contrast Mark Antony's funeral oration (III.ii.73-252), a marvelously orchestrated persuasive speech, with the repeated coda "For Brutus is an honorable man." But Antony, solus, prefaces this with "O pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth,/ That I am meek and gentle with these butchers!" (III.i.254-5), and after the oration, after the Plebeians swarm away shouting "Revenge! Seek! Burn! Fire! No socialist health care! Kill! Slay!," Antony, left alone, concludes "Now let it work, Mischief, thou art afoot,/ Take thou which course thou wilt!" (III.ii.260-61).

Do you find Antony morally pragmatic, passionate, or ruthless? Yet when we first meet young Octavius, he joins with Antony in a cool and detached meeting to generate a proscription list, death by committee discussion, and at Philippi Octavius is colder than Antony: "I do not cross you; but I will do so" (V.i.20). So who best represents the mirror to the society in which we are reading this play? Or, alas, who in this tragedy is the villain (nemesis)―the passionate Antony or the calculating Octavius?


RE2: Julius Caesar - A Woman's Place

Randall writes:

I think Cindy's right on about Portia and Calpurnia (I've been spelling the latter with an 'h' because my Folger does). And I had not noticed the degree to which Shakespeare compels us to compare the two women (they both kneel in back-to-back scenes) or their two situations.

I have two thoughts I'd like to add to Cindy's response. First, in my Folger there is a stage direction after Caesar responds to Calpurnia with "Mark Antony shall say I am not well,/ And for thy humor I will stay at home": He lifts her up. Around this stage direction are the little superior half-brackets indicating that the editors have intervened, adding something not found in the first folio. The Bevington edition of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare does the same: He raises her, in brackets. Neither my Signet (Rosen) nor the Penguin (Sanders) do this. What gives?

One might argue that Caesar's response, an acquiescence to her concern, does spiritually or emotionally lift Calpurnia up, and therefore the emendation is metaphorically appropriate. But I really like Cindy's suggestion that Caesar leaves her on the ground as Decius enters, marking a clear distinction between him and Brutus. My guess is that the interventionist editors look at the next 40 lines of text, at which point Caesar asks Calpurnia to get his robe, and wonder if it's practical to leave her on her knees for that long. And directors, wary of angry actors with bruised knees, are probably glad to have the added cue.

Second, Cindy reminds me that I am sad that Portia disappears after only two scenes. Unlike Calpurnia's, Portia's presentation to her husband strikes me as laying the foundation for a rich, interesting character. She defines the bounds and expectations of marriage skillfully, personally, and she extends the possibilities of a woman's domestic role by defining "wife" as more than furniture (meal-time companion, bed-mate, occasional conversationalist). She argues that she is his unlimited self, what we might call today his better half. She perceptive and persuasive. And in her language there is an efficient lawyerliness that makes me feel she has some connection to that other Portia.

Given this as a set-up, it's disappointing when Shakespeare dismisses Portia two scenes later with "Ay me, how weak a thing/ The heart of woman is!" After her earlier discussion with Caesar, I think she's really made of sterner stuff, but because the play moves on to the Capitol (men only) and then the battlefield (men only), she's left like Hotspur's Kate forgotten on the sidelines.


Wednesday, August 19, 2009

RE: Julius Caesar - A Woman's Place

Greetings, comrades,

The female characters in Julius Caesar, unfortunately do NOT save this play from being a "boy play." I see Portia and Calpurnia as mere devices against which to reveal the characteristics of their husbands. For example, Shakespeare gives Portia stage directions:

… No, my Brutus,
You have some sick offence within your mind,
Which by the right and virtue of my place
I ought to know of: and, upon my knees,
I charm you, by my once commended beauty,
By all your vows of love and that great vow
Which did incorporate and make us one,
That you unfold to me, yourself, your half,
Why you are heavy… (II.i.267-275)

Brutus, similarly has a pseudo-stage direction in telling his wife to rise:

Kneel not, gentle Portia. (II.i.278)

I can see Brutus extend his hand to help her rise. Portia seems, to me, very sincere in caring for Brutus, and wanting to understand what troubles him. Portia's efforts to get information out of her husband are not unlike any wife's attempts to get her spousal unit to talk about feelings, right gentlemen? She uses several tactics here, from reminding him of his marriage vows to perhaps dealing him the "guilt" card by suggesting she is nothing more than his harlot. (hee hee) Has she used these tactics before? hmmmm… I personally like his response to her:

You are my true and honorable wife,
As dear to me as are the ruddy drops
That visit my sad heart. (II.i.288-290)

My female students like that one too (sappy girls, we'll fall for anything!). But at least the kindness of his words, as well as his actions, show his care for his wife, making Brutus look pretty good, right? She should not be supplicating herself to him; in raising her, he acknowledges her as his partner, and indeed the other half of him. He tells her that he will tell all:

Portia, go in a while
And by and by thy bosom shall partake
The secrets of my heart.
All my engagements I will construe to thee
All the charactery of my sad brows. (II.i.304-308)

Now, Gil asserts that Brutus never gets around to telling Portia the truth. I'm not so sure. It's not necessary for Shakespeare to depict this conversation; we already know why Brutus is so troubled. Brutus might very well reveal his dilemma to his wife in the "white spaces" that we don't see. Regardless, the purpose of the scene is to peel back another layer of Brutus' character.

In contrast, we have Caesar and Calpurnia. Calpurnia beseeches her husband not to go to the capital; all the signs of impending doom are present: Calpurnia's dream in which all of nature is awry (connect to Macbeth!), the soothsayer's warning, the priests' reading of the sacrifice. Caesar's line tells us that Calpurnia, too, supplicates herself to her husband:

And these does she apply for warnings and portents
And evils imminent, and on her knee
Hath begg'd that I will stay at home to-day. (II.ii.80-82)

Unlike Brutus, Caesar leaves her on her knees (according to Shakespeare's copious stage directions―just kidding), and goes on to the capital thus swayed by the weak rhetoric and flattery of Decius (sappy Caesar, he'll fall for anything). Hence we see Calpurnia as the undeveloped female character, like Portia, serving only to reveal characteristics of her husband. These are not Shakespeare's deliciously strong or richly developed women like we see elsewhere. I'm skipping the auditions.


Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Julius Caesar - Is Ambition Bad?


Brutus, in explaining his decision to put Caesar to death, uses "ambition" as a dirty word: "As he was ambitious, I slew him" (3.2.28). Antony seizes on this and uses it in his famous oration (3.2.83ff), juxtaposing the claim of Caesar's ambition with Brutus' honor. I'm wondering, do we find negative connotation in the etymology of "ambition"? Or does it come from elsewhere, somewhere cultural?

And, in a play where we are asked to mistrust a primary conspirator, Cassius, because "he thinks too much," where do Elizabethan values seem to lie? In thoughts or deeds?


(Quotes from Folger edition)

Julius Caesar - Does Intuition Matter?


When Caesar sees Cassius, he tells Antony, "Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look./ He thinks too much. Such men are dangerous" (1.2.204-205). And Antony replies: "Fear him not."

As John McLaughlin might say – Wrong!

When Cassius and Brutus are plotting against Caesar, Cassius argues that, "I think it not meet/ Mark Antony, so well beloved of Caesar,/ Should outlive Caesar. … / Let Antony and Caesar fall together" (2.1.168-170, 174). And Brutus replies, "for Mark Antony, think not of him,/ For he can do no more than Caesar's arm/ When Caesar's head is off."


And poor Calphurnia has had a dream in which Caesar is murdered and the Capitol and a statue of Caesar run red with blood that bathes the hands of smiling Romans. She recommends to Caesar that "You shall not stir out of your house today" (2.2.9). Caesar, after Decius suggests this is his only chance to earn a crown from the senate, says "How foolish your fears seem now, Calphurnia!/ I am ashamed I did yield to them./ Give me my robe, for I will go."


In all three cases, good advice is overlooked. What does this say about the characters of those who fail to heed such words of wisdom? And is it a function of tragedy that they do so? In Romeo and Juliet, such moments suggested the intercession of Fortune, Fate, or mere coincidence, but in Julius Caesar, the events that lead characters to their doom are significantly human. Has Shakespeare freed himself from concerns about Fate?


(Quotes from Folger edition)

Monday, August 17, 2009

Julius Caesar - Is Poetry Fatal?


Perhaps Caesar's most arresting speech is his response to Cassius' pleas for Publius Cimber.

I could be well moved, if I were as you;
If I could pray to move, prayers would move me;
But I am constant as the Northern Star,
Of whose true-fixed and resting quality
There is no fellow in the firmament.
The skies are painted with unnumb'red sparks,
They are all fire and every one doth shine;
But there's but one in all doth hold his place.
So in the world; 'tis furnished well with men,
And men are flesh and blood, and apprehensive;
Yet in the number I do know but one
That unassailable holds on his rank,
Unshaked of motion; and that I am he. (3.1.58-70)

Quite the extended metaphor, no? What, in your opinion, does it reveal about Caesar? Is he a poet?

Here is another metaphor from nature, as Brutus discusses battle tactics with Cassius before Phillippi:

Our legions are brimful, our cause is ripe.
The enemy increaseth every day;
We, at the height, are ready to decline.
There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures. (4.3.214-223)

And what, in your opinion, does this tell us about Brutus, how he thinks? What differences do these "arguments" establish between Caesar and Brutus? How would you ask your students to unpack the poetry of these two passages?


(Quotes from Signet edition)

Julius Caesar - Toga, or Not Toga?


I once saw a production of Julius Caesar that emphasized its Orwellian undertones. (In Act 3, scene 1, Brutus follows the murder of Caesar with statements like "death is a benefit," and "we are Caesar's friends," and "let us bathe our hands in Caesar's blood … And, waving our red weapons o'er our heads,/ Let's all cry 'Peace' …".) So the production updated the costumes (Faux Fascism), displayed a big head of Caesar looking over the stage, and kept the lights low to create a moody and oppressive feel.

Have you ever done a production of Julius Caesar? If so, how did you approach the play's setting – traditional or adapted? Or more specifically, what are your thoughts on staging Caesar? Would you do it with togas? What effect does the Roman look have on the audience's reception of the play?


Julius Caesar - Is the Play the Thing?


Can I use the term "metatheater" in the William Shakespeare Experience? We readers should nod when Caesar condemns Cassius:

I do not know the man I should avoid
So soon as that spare Cassius. He reads much,
He is a great observer, and he looks
Quite through the deeds of men. [But] He loves no plays,
As thou dost, Antony; he hears no music. (1.2.200-204)

And Brutus admonishes the conspirators with:

Let not our looks put on our purposes,
But bear it as our Roman actors do,
With untired spirits and formal constancy. (2.1.226-228)

Then, as Casca describes Caesar among the people as a performance – thrice refusing the crown, fainting, offering his throat for cutting, wringing "Alas, good soul" from several wenches – he concludes: "If the tag-rag people did not clasp him and hiss him, according as he pleased and displeased them, as they use to do the players in the theater, I am no true man" (1.2.258-261).

With these early references to theater, are you set up as a director to impose an overt theatrical style on the whole play or, for instance, Antony's funeral oration? Setting aside for a moment the fact that all performed plays are "theatrical," does Julius Caesar call especial attention to the theatricality of its characters' public relations?


(Quotes from Signet edition)

Julius Caesar - Whose Tragedy Is It Anyway?


It says right on the cover of my Folger edition, The Tragedy of Julius Caesar. But what kind of tragedy kills off its titular tragic figure in the first lines of the third act?

You may argue that it's really Brutus' tragedy, that the title should be The Tragedy of Marcus Junius Brutus. If so, where does Brutus fall in the spectrum of tragic figures, Shakespearean or otherwise? Does he conform to the oft over-used Aristotelian definition, or Northrop Frye's sense that Shakespeare presents tragedies of character, or something else?

Is the play even a tragedy? Or a history play masquerading as tragic?


Julius Caesar - A Woman's Place?


Not to pigeon-hole you to distaff comments, but what is your reaction to Portia's concern about Brutus' failure to share his concerns with her (2.1.234-309)?

Within the bonds of marriage, tell me, Brutus,
Is it excepted I should know no secrets
That appertain to you? Am I your self
But, as it were, in sort or limitation,
To keep with you at meals, comfort your bed,
And talk to you sometimes? Well I but in the suburbs
Of your good pleasure? If it be no more,
Portia is Brutus' harlot, not his wife. (2.1.280-287)

Is communication what distinguishes a wife from a harlot? And how does Portia stand up to characters like Constance (Geoffrey's wife and Arthur's mother), Kate (Hotspur's wife), Portia (Bassanio's fiancée in Merchant) or Titania (Oberon's wife)? Does Portia redeem Julius Caesar from being a boy-play if you're trying to teach it?

Nota bene: If you haven't finished Julius Caesar yet, Brutus never gets around to revealing "the secrets of my heart" to Portia (2.1.306) and, alas, by 4.3.146, she is tired of waiting.


(Quotes from Signet edition)

Julius Caesar - Brutus as Malcontent?


You've pointed out how Jacques, Don John, and Hamlet, with his arms "encumbered," represent versions of the "Malcontent" character. In reading Julius Caesar, I came across the following passage:

Y'have ungently, Brutus,
Stole from my bed. And yesternight at supper
You suddenly arose and walked about,
Musing and sighing, with your arms across,
And when I asked you what the matter was,
You stared upon me with ungentle looks.
I urged you further; then you scratched your head
And too impatiently stamped with you foot.
Yet I insisted; yet you answered not,
But with an angry wafture of your hand
Gave sign for me to leave you. (2.1.257-267)

My italics ("with yours arms across"). My question: Does Brutus fit into your thesis on the development of the stage malcontent? If so, how does this stock character evolve our understanding of him? And how does he relate to others like Hamlet (tragedy) and Jacques (comedy)? If not, what accounts for this odd behavior that Portia describes, since it seems so out of character with the rest of the passages by which we come to know Brutus?


(Quote from Folger edition)

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

King John - Performance Log (August 2009)

King John
directed by Teresa Thuman
Warren G. Magnuson Park
Seattle, Washington
August 6, 2009

Gil: Performances of King John are indeed rare, but it showed up on one of the Seattle’s summer companies’, GreenStage’s, schedules. Randall and I were the first to arrive while the actors were gathered on one of the terraces surrounding the playing area, and an actress teased, “we’re only here to rehearse; the play is tomorrow.” Randall lamented he had come from Minnesota just to see King John, so she said they would give in and put the production on anyway.

Randall: That’s one of the things about going to Shakespeare-in-the-park that I enjoy most – the frequent interaction one has with the actors and production, prior to the play, after it, and even during it. In general, with Shakespeare-in-the-park, the world beyond the “stage” is much more likely to become part of the stage. At The Strange Capers’ production of As You Like It in Minneapolis this summer, a group of bicyclists rode past the performance meadow as Rosalind was attempting to teach Orlando to woo, and one of the actors turned and waved as they went by, essentially making the bikers part of the production (no doubt casting them in La Tour de la Foret d’Arden). This gave the cyclists the license to shout out comments, and each of them did.

Gilbert: In Wooden O’s Taming of the Shrew, the starving Kate begged cookies off a group in the audience, stuffing them into her mouth even as Petruchio was denying her other food – a great laugh-inducing moment that required the audience and the character’s interaction with it. You have to wonder what happens on the afternoons when Kate can’t find anything edible in the audience.

Randall: And at Shakespeare and Company’s production of Much Ado About Nothing, Benedict hid in the audience (as did Beatrice later), crawling around on the grass and crouching behind lawn chairs, while Claudio and Don Pedro pretended he wasn’t there. The audience laughed more because of where he was than what he was doing.

I think Shakespeare-in-the-park falls into a spectrum of Shakespeare performance styles differentiated by the level of audience involvement: proscenium (which emphasizes the fourth wall), arena stage (more intimate), theater in the round (which requires characters to enter and exit through the audience), Shakespeare-in-the-park (which is clearly enhanced or improved when the audience becomes part of the action), and promenade-style (where the audience is on stage with the action). This spectrum gives us a rich set of options that allow directors to control the effect the performance has. I wonder if one is preferable to some directors, or if each is determined by the space available for the performance?

Gilbert: This really highlights the idea that Shakespeare-in-the-park is a sub-genre, and the sub-genre has some constant parameters, like an increased audience engagement. No production, for example, is more than two hours, and this King John, sub-generically without intermission, came in exactly in that time. No scenes were cut, though many of the longer speeches were streamlined, reducing what Herschel Baker has called “tumid rhetoric.” All the characters were there except James Gurney, servant to Lady Faulconbridge; we even saw the Count Melun, who makes a very late Act V appearance, takes a message to the rebellious English nobles, learns they are twice-turned turncoats, and dies.

Randall: I think the cutting a director has to do for Shakespeare-in-the-park requires real skill. I can’t count the number of times over the last few years that I’ve walked away from a park production and thought not only that the director did an excellent job reducing a text by 30 percent but that I didn’t miss the redacted lines. Stu Naber’s Much Ado for Shakespeare and Company, particularly, left me feeling this way, but I think if I knew the King John text better – I’ve only read it once – I’d feel the same way about Thuman’s cut which didn’t seem to lose anything significant but still only ran the length of a typical film.

Gilbert: Another Shakespeare-in-the-park generic difference worth considering is that summer acting companies are small, so there is more frequent cross-gender casting and double casting, Your typical Guthrie or Seattle Rep production rarely works with the same company size or its effects.

Randall: Right. And I think nothing is done in a theatrical production without an interpretive consequence. The stage manager for The Acting Company’s Henry V (directed by Davis McCallum) explained to my class before we saw the play that the double casting was done very carefully, so that more than just one actor doubling roles, there was some connection between the roles created by having the same actor play them. In that production, after Henry V exposes the plot of Scroop, Cambridge, and Grey who would have betrayed Henry to the French, the same actors turn up two scenes later as members of the French court.

Gilbert: The cross-gender casting evokes the same thought-provoking connections. In Wooden O’s Taming of the Shrew, Lucentio’s servant Tranio was female, allowing for a piquant twist of jealousy when Lucentio is smitten with Bianca.

Randall: I had to think hard about that one. What benefit to the production is there to having a love-lorn Tranio, whose yearnings for Lucentio will go unrequited? It occurred to me later that my discomfort came from Taming of the Shrew’s being a comedy, used to uniting lovers rather than holding them at arm’s length. Only Malvolio seems to walk away, his love for Olivia mocked and unacknowledged. Giving Tranio this dead-end love does what? Her character doesn’t even get the explicit resolution that Malvolio does, exiting with the line “I’ll be reveng’d on the whole pack of you.”

Gilbert: In King John, GreenStage’s youngest-looking actor, Anthony Duckett, played Arthur, whom Shakespeare has ahistorically insisted is a boy, then, after Arthur’s death, Duckett reappeared as the very young King Henry III, making for an interesting parallel of two aspirants to the throne or—possibly—for real audience confusion in that Arthur has just fallen to his death and there is no foreshadowing that a Prince Henry will be introduced as an Act V surprise.

Randall: When we saw Ken Holmes’s production of Henry VI, parts 1, 2, and 3, condensed by GreenStage into a single play, the double casting worked both to allow the company to perform dozens of characters and to unite generations of the same family by having fathers and sons played by the same actor. It was a little confusing, but we were led to expect the generational shift by the scope of the production.

Gilbert: Of course, the sine qua non of this subgenre is the park itself—al fresco, audience on the grass, many with picnics; passers-by, often with dogs, curious about why these standing people are shouting at those sitting people (“Look, Luke, they have swords; they must be jousting with The Society for Creative Anachronism”). This is maybe the only time of all the Shakespeare performance formats that acoustics become a major part of the production experience. The night of our King John was overcast so the flight pattern of passenger jets approaching SeaTac airport circled under the clouds and obliterated about 50 lines. We have been on lawns within five feet of the “stage” at Twelfth Night or Henry VI, 1, 2, 3, but at Magnuson Park there is an amphitheatre of terraces, stone backs for wide grass rings. Occasionally, there will be a backstage of trees, or, more crass, one will be on a baseball field and hope that Little League didn’t schedule a game for the evening. Whatever arrangement, the actors must project—no whispered dying words or subrosa asides.

Randall: I am usually against mic’ing actors, but I think it works really well for Shakespeare in the park, although a little wind across the microphones can create its own acoustical nightmare.

Gilbert: Another side effect of the park subgenre is the audience. It’s free. It’s a neighborhood activity. It’s informal. It can be family time. At our production there were two boys, about eight, who were not interested from the beginning, and they talked, with great animation, nonstop, through the first third. A mother put her figure to her lips. Audience turned and stared. One audience member shushed the boys more than once. The boys put a blanket over their heads and thus invisible went right on with their conversation. With no intermission, the house manager could not come up and duct-tape their mouths shut. So I’m afraid I missed the Bastard’s ‘commodity” speech and much else had to be sort of pieced together. It wasn’t GreenStage’s fault, but it left Randall and me to spend half our post-production discussion on parental responsibility rather than the Bastard’s comic relief, baiting Austria about wearing a calf-skin instead of a lion’s pelt.

Randall: All these things not only affect the audience, they become part of the performance, and that’s largely unique to Shakespeare-in-the-park. The kids wouldn’t have been such an issue if King John were not such a rare play to see performed. If it’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, you know the plot, characters, and maybe even the lines, by heart. A little interruption, be it airplanes or uninterested children, isn’t going to disorient you. But I came within a hair’s breadth of getting up and asking that mother to remove her children from the area because I needed to concentrate on what was being said; I was unfamiliar with the play. Maybe that’s one reason so much summer Shakespeare in the park tends to be of commonly produced plays.

Gilbert: It was wonderful to see a rare performance of this chronicle play. Unlike the Henriad, King John is not obviously unified thematically or dramatically. The Will Shakespeare Experience explored mothers and sons, history, the power of possession and right, politics, and moral dilemmas. In that many characters have a moment of reversal or change, there is the possibility of character exploration. But this production, directed by Teresa Thuman, chose, or was obligated, to play in declamatory style, with special attention to scene-ending couplets. The lines were shouted, clearly and confidently (no Leo DiCaprio speaking lines he didn’t understand), with an obvious awareness that every line was iambic pentameter (uncut, John is 2,570 lines long, all verse, not a single line of prose). This style tended to homogenize all the speaking parts, Louis the Dolphin sounding much like the Earl of Salisbury.

Randall: The speaking parts may have been homogenized, but I thought the declamatory style de-emphasized character in favor of speech. Many of the speeches stood out as well done, and the production seemed to move from speech to speech. But I had a harder time differentiating characters other than King John and Pandulph (who was the only character dressed in red silk and so he stood out). Is that an effect of declamatory style? Can you create three-dimensional characters with complex motivation if you are faced with a play dominated by lengthy speeches that you need to give emotional shape to so that the audience doesn’t get bogged down? Where do you turn when the emphasis is so much on long oratory?

Gilbert: The chronicle was underscored with plenty of choreographed battle, similar to GreenStage’s Henry VI three years ago. In King John most of the characters make some shift: John (played by Corey McDaniel) is warlike, then pusillanimous; Hubert (Drew Dyson Hobson) is dutifully committed as King John’s assassin-designate, then heart-achingly compassionate in sparing Arthur; Blanche (Ashley Flannegan) is a mousy cipher in her betrothal to the Dolphin, then warlike in her resistance to French reneging of a peace treaty; Constance (Erin Day) is fierce in the interest of her son, Arthur, then deeply sunk into grief; only the Bastard (Daniel Stoltenberg) is really multi-faceted—a witty satirist, a mocking warrior, a loyal viceroy for the collapsing kingship. Yet in Thuman’s production, these shifts do not seem to illustrate the evolution of character. Instead, the production is marked by the occasional emergence of a passage of deeply-displayed feeling, breaking the steady flow of rather muddled chronology.

Randall: I wonder if this is another effect of Shakespeare-in-the-park, where frequently you have fewer of the tools available on stage – set design, music, elaborate costuming – that lend support to character interpretation or thematic perspective? I did think that many of the speeches came off really well, in fact giving character where I had lacked it when I read the play.

Gilbert: Yes. When Cindy Calder first read King John, she was thrilled with the women, especially Constance, but I dismissed Constance’s “Death, death. O amiable lovely death!” as mere madness, agreeing with French King Philip, that she is more fond of grief than of her child, yet Erin Day’s moving, beautifully orchestrated interpretation directed me to reexamine emotion, and therefore character, in the whole play. Cindy is right. Constance is a great part.

Randall: And I found Hubert’s sympathetic reaction to Arthur’s pleas not to put out his eyes very moving because of the way that Hobson handled Hubert’s breaking down and shift of allegiance. It’s great to get the opportunity to discuss the play this way. I wish more Shakespeare-in-the-park performances would feature the more rarely produced plays. I get the opportunity each year, between Seattle and the Twin Cities, to see maybe 10 different Shakespeare plays in the park, but without GreenStage and its devotion to the chronicle plays, I would have no “first time” Shakespeare productions to reflect on. That’s worth traveling some distance for.

Gilbert: Which is why it was funny when it was over that an alms-collecting actress approached us and said “all the way from Minnesota just for us?’ Yes, indeed.

Logged by Gil and Randall
Photo credit: Pandulph (Andrew Perez) lectures King John (Corey McDaniel) in GreenStage's King John. Photo courtesy of GreenStage.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Taming of the Shrew - Performance Log (June/August 2009)

The Taming of the Shrew
directed by Mishia Edwards
Chameleon Theatre Circle
Logan Park, Minneapolis, MN
June 27, 2009

The Taming of the Shrew
directed by Aimee Bruneau
Seattle Shakespeare Company/Wooden O Productions
Allen York Park, Bonnie Lake, WA
Aug. 2, 2009

1) Country and Western Shakespeare:

Imagine for just a minute that you are from Lubbock, Texas. Born and raised. You have the accent. Say the following:

"What? Will you not suffer me? Nay, now I see – she is your treasure, she must have a husband; I must dance barefoot on her wedding day, and, for your love to her, lead apes in hell. Talk not to me; I will go sit and weep 'til I can find occasion of revenge."

Rolls nicely off the tongue, doesn't it, the western lilt giving a clear rhythm (though not necessarily iambic) to the language. In fact, pull any speech out of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew and see if this accent not only succeeds in negotiating the Shakespearean verse but also lends the speech a certain understandability that recovers both arcane vocabulary and syntax.

This linguistic shift is at the heart of two productions of Taming of the Shrew I saw in parks 2000 miles apart this summer. Mishia Edwards' production in Minnesota sets the play smack dab in the mythical landscape of the American west – cowboy hats and boots, thumbs in jeans pockets, plaid shirts, and even a lariat to capture a wayward filly. But it's not the accoutrements of the western genre that catch one's attention, it's the language. Specifically the marriage of the western twang and Shakespeare's poetry.

The same is true of Aimee Bruneau's Taming of the Shrew in Washington, set in a modern trailer park replete with all the class stereotypes that brings to mind: a barefoot-and-pregnant woman opening the play, staring off to the horizon; a worn Airstream trailer parked to the side, the residence of "wealthy" Mama Baptista and her two daughters; tractor hats and t-shirts advertising "Hooters" and bars; Grumio sporting the camo pants and mesh shirt of a backwoods militia wannabe; Bianca returning home with tiara and sash after winning the "Miss Padua" beauty pageant; Hortensio taking on the mannerisms of an Elvis impersonator to teach Bianca music; and everyone traipsing through their lines with a country accent.

If I enjoyed anything about either of these productions, it was listening to the language. I won't turn this into a treatise on how dialects close to our southern speech have more affinity for British English than the northern ones, nor do I feel up to a meticulous scansion of western and country argots for comparison to Shakespeare's blank verse, although one could certainly look at the lyrical qualities of those dialects. But I sat in these two performances and was struck in both how these dialects drew attention to the language. Each, for example, places a heightened emphasis on certain syllables and words in a way that homogenized mainstream English has forgone. When I teach Shakespeare, I spend very little time on iambic pentameter because I don't want students saying "but SOFT what LIGHT through YONder WINdow BREAKS!" I want them to find the natural meaning in a speech, not get caught up in its rhythmic artifice, as delightful and impressive as it may be.

But with both our stereotypical country and western dialects, one can have the attention to meaning as well as a heightened sense of rhythmic quality. When Petruchio says to Baptista "I am a gentleman of Verona, sir," the standard reading has to work with what to do with the extra syllable, the line's hiccup. But in western dialect, the "of" gets swallowed into the unstressed final syllables of "gentleman" and the lilt pounds out the stressed syllables in VeRONa and SIR: "Ah am a gen'lemenuh Verona, suh." What's also emphasized is the fun, language reshaped to create ambiance, in this case a twang or backwoods articulation that lifts us away from our preconceptions of Shakespeare and recasts setting and character through aural modes without changing much of the text. There were a number of moments in Bruneau's production specifically when I thought, counter-intuitively, "this is the way Shakespeare ought to sound."

2) The Irony of Pop Culture Shakespeare:

Taken further, though, there is a dissonance here, away from the logic of dialect. Americans have a very specific relationship with both the western narrative genre and the trailer trash stereotype. Both representations are examples of low culture, at the opposite end of the spectrum on which we might also locate Shakespeare. The western may be one of the deepest of American mythologies, but it is also the stuff of countless early TV programs, radio shows, comic books, b-movies, and serials, and pulp literary ventures. Most westerns are not so much explorations of who we are, but escapist fantasies reflecting who we want to be – outlaws, noble gunmen, rugged individualists. Edwards' mashing this genre up with Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew makes the same kind of sense that we find in Stanley Donen's Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (the lineage of which can be traced back to the classical story of the rape of the Sabine women). Both rely on comic structure, characteristics, and expectations to bridge the gap between their high art source and popular form by connecting the remarkable with the mundane. Watch, in Donen's film, how common frontier labor becomes beautiful choreography while the ageless story of love, courtship, and marriage is lampooned as bride-stealing and shotgun marriages.

So Donen goes both ways on the bridge, one elevating and the other ironizing; Edwards, meanwhile, sticks mostly with the irony. Watching her production, I kept thinking, "does Shakespeare work as a western?" "What do we find in the western genre that elevates our understanding of Shakespeare or Shrew?" In the end I felt the west was just an unusual place for Edwards to locate her Padua, and that the play would have clicked more forcefully embracing the irony. I wanted Hortensio (played by Trish Fike), teaching Bianca music after she's clearly been making eyes at Lucentio, to belt out "Your Cheatin' Heart." I wanted Grumio (James Reijo), placed in the sidekick role here, to milk every Gabby Hayes/Pancho/Tonto stereotype available, and I wanted a Petruchio (Adam Scarpello) cut more from the John Wayne mold, someone whose rough-cut manliness is both repulsive and finally irresistible to his woman. That would explain Kate's arc. That would say that Shakespeare is in control of American archetypes as much as Elizabethan ones.

Bruneau's trailer park Shrew does fully embrace its irony because the white trash/trailer park setting is more derogatory stereotype than pop culture genre, so there's no disguising the fact that we've come a very long way from the Globe Theater. Shakespeare's language tends to lend his characters, no matter how foolish, a sort of nobility. In this Shrew, though, the dialect, as well as the Pabst Blue Ribbon, Hooters t-shirts, and possibility of a Spam dinner for Kate, does the opposite. The effect, at least initially, is sort of like Andy Fickman's She's the Man which resets Twelfth Night in a boy's boarding school and turns its chiaroscuro comedy into mere farce. I worried that Bruneau's embracing of such two-dimensional and negative stereotypes would rob Taming of the Shrew of its opportunity for wit and for our ability to care for characters rather than just laugh at them. Would I be made simply to feel superior to this Shrew's world?

In short, no. Bruneau's directorial choices and some excellent acting on the part of David Quicksall (Petruchio) and Kelly Kitchens (Kate) expose the dishonesty of all stereotypes, that they are a shortcut which impede our ability to see people as they really are – complex, heroic, vulnerable, foolish, disappointed, resilient, etc. This production points out that the idea of a shrew itself is a derogatory stereotype, and beneath it (and the jokes that go with it) is a Kate caught in a disappointing and unfair world with no seeming prospect of escape. Kitchens gives her anger, a sharp tongue, violence, rebelliousness, all as attempts to escape the trailer park vortex. She slams doors. She throws things. She flips the bird. But underneath is someone who wants to be loved, who wants her qualities recognized, who wants happiness.

Similarly, Petruchio's "do what I say woman" attitude is softened as the play progresses. Quicksall's Petruchio wants more than just "to wive it wealthily in Padua," and he seems genuinely frustrated and disappointed by Kate's contrariness. As a result, his actions against Kate that seem so harsh in other productions, become a kind of common-ground seeking, and I had a lot more sympathy for him than I have had before. In addition, Bruneau's deft management of these two complex characters results in the impression, at the end of the play, that they really do love each other. The irony of the setting (can one wive wealthily in this trailer park?) and characters embraced, her production escapes it, escapes farce too, and reminds us of what is best about Shakespeare.

3) When a Man Loves a Woman:

Beyond the irony, one advantage of both the western genre and the trailer park stereotype is that they provide a convenient approach to a significant difficulty one faces guiding Taming of the Shrew through the 21st-century landscape of gender politics. Regardless of how it's handled, I always find myself nervous at the image of Petruchio deprogramming Kate (deprivation of food and sleep used as behavior modification techniques) and downright scared by the impending ugliness of Kate's hand-under-the-boot speech at the end of the play. Placing these two productions in communities that conform to male-superior visions of America smoothes over these rough waters because we accept the gender roles more readily, our modern attitudes defused a bit by generic willing suspension of disbelief. In addition, as a character Kate works to undermine the masculine status quo. Whether we see her rebellion as a failure (Edwards) or not (Bruneau), the outcome in both these shows relies on our acceptance of the narrative in which the productions are framed.

And because these framing narratives, the western and the trailer park, are more intimately familiar to us than some remote Padua and appropriate to the comic dynamics of the play, both Edwards and Bruneau have created productions that promote Shakespeare's comedy into our own culture. I think Bruneau does this more successfully but both shows created an opportunity to rethink Shakespeare in a satisfactory way.

Logged by Randall

Photo credit: David Quicksall as Petruchio and Kelly Kitchens as Kate in Seattle Shakespeare Company/Wooden O Productions' The Taming of the Shrew. Photo by Erik Stuhaug.