Monday, May 30, 2011

The Henry Explications - Part I

The following is one in a series of mini-articles resulting from an exercise I had my St. Paul Academy 2011 Shakespeare students complete. The articles focus on selected speeches spanning Shakespeare’s Richard II, 1 Henry IV, 2 Henry IV, and Henry V.

This new and gorgeous garment, majesty,
Sits not so easily on me as you think.
Brothers, you [mix] your sadness with some fear:
This is the English, not the Turkish court;
Not Amurath an Amurath succeeds,
But Harry Harry. Yet be sad, good brothers,
For by my faith it very well becomes you.
Sorrow so royally in you appears
that I will deeply put the fashion on
And wear it in my heart. Why then be sad,
But entertain no more of it, good brothers,
Than a joint burden laid upon us all.
For me, by heaven (I bid you be assur'd),
I'll be your father and your brother too.
Let me but bear your love, I'll bear your cares.
Yet weep that Harry's dead, and so will I,
But Harry lives, that shall convert those tears
By number into hours of happiness.
(2 Henry IV 5.2.44-61)

Through the new king Henry V's speech to his brothers (John of Lancaster, Thomas of Clarence, and Humphrey of Gloucester) after their father's death, Shakespeare deals with the realities of succession that difficult negotiation between governmental stability and chaotic power struggle and the death of a king while keeping his character true to his personality. This speech touches on everything from propriety and external perception, to the fear that naturally comes in a shift of power, to different kinds of mourning.

Mourning, whether for a king or commoner, can also be a difficult balancing act. Tradition requires particular rituals and outward displays, while the loss itself exacts things, even less predictably. Hal, newly King Henry V, must take his place as king and reassure everyone of the continuing stability of the regency, demonstrate a proper degree of public mourning as both a subject of and the son of the former king, and deal with his own grief. Thus, when he says "this new and gorgeous garment, majesty, sits not so easily on me as you think," he is not merely trying to dispel any jealousy or thought of opposition amongst his brothers, but telling the absolute truth.

As he does with the epitaphs of both Hotspur and Falstaff in the previous play, Hal continues to use honesty in order to lend a more genuine tone to his otherwise fairly ceremonial words. He reassures them of his intention to support them by bluntly telling them that he knows they fear what he may do (implying even that they might fear for their own lives), but that it "is the English, not the Turkish court, not Amurath an Amurath succeeds, but Harry Harry." He introduces and dispels comparison between himself and a ruler who literally strangled his brothers, thus addressing the most extreme of possibilities quickly.

By the end, he assures them that not only will he not harm them, he will protect them and do well by them: "I'll be your father and your brother too. Let me but bear your love; I'll bear your cares." In that, he furthermore introduces the potentially uncomfortable issue of personal relationships. Once their brother, he is now also their king; once his brothers, they are now his subjects. He works with this beautifully, referring to their mourning and sadness for the death of their father as "a joint burden laid upon [them] all" before he moves on to the things he himself promises, thus connecting himself with them in one way even as he has to separate himself from them in another.

Gavi Levy Haskell (SPA '11)

Sunday, May 29, 2011

All's Well That Ends Well - Opening Thoughts


I mentioned earlier that I’ve had the chance to see All’s Well That Ends Well twice in the last year, the only times I’ve seen the play produced in 34 years of Shakespeare-going. Having now read the play, I don’t understand why it’s not produced more frequently. The characters are distinctly drawn, the play has a clever fairy tale-like quality, the plot addresses a moral question seriously, the humor is accessible to a modern audience, and our heroine, I think, holds her own against Rosaline and Viola. She’s resourceful, intelligent, devout, and interestingly the only one of the three who need not disguise herself as a guy to successfully complete her quest. Sure, Bertram is a scoundrel. And his lying to the King at the end of the play is cowardly, but it’s not really the problem that critics who label All’s Well a “problem play” make it out to be, depending on how you set up the characters and themes in production.

So that’s my first question. And I address it to Stu and Doug, particularly – Why isn’t All’s Well That Ends Well a more regular part of the Shakespeare comedy rotation? Last year, Stu’s company performed A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the sixth time in its 35-year history. But in all that time Shakespeare and Company has staged All’s Well only once. Doug’s company, Great River Shakespeare Festival, still in its first decade, has not yet produced it. So, theater people, when you’re selecting plays for the upcoming season and someone says “How about All’s Well,” what tends to be the response? And what are the real criteria for any decision?

Second, for those of you interested in structure and genre, a question about what this play is. Despite its perfection, Twelfth Night is not the last comedy Shakespeare writes (probably). Does a play like All’s Well represent a further development in his concept of comedy, or is it (and the other “problem comedies”) something altogether different?

Third, I’m just now wrapping up a semester of Shakespeare (Romeo and Juliet, 1 Henry IV, Othello, Twelfth Night, and Measure for Measure), pretty happy with the selection of plays and their success with students. For you high school teachers – Cindy and Mike – if you taught All’s Well what aspect of the play do you think would resonate with your students the most?

Fourth, has anyone seen a production of this play? What was most memorable about it?

Fifth, actress Ellen Terry is supposed to have called Helen a “doormat.” Is she?

And finally, Ernst, here’s one for you: You noted a while back that Elizabethan youth found it hip to be melancholy, to dress all in black and mope around, probably to tick off their parents, and we see this culture reflected in Hamlet. I’m wondering if characters like Lucio in Measure for Measure, who is listed as a “fantastique,” and Parolles in All’s Well, with his gaudy and unapologetic clothing, are also a “type”? Are these satirical characters? Or just fops?

All’s well that starts well,

Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Henry Explications - Part H

The following is one in a series of mini-articles resulting from an exercise I had my St. Paul Academy 2011 Shakespeare students complete. The articles focus on selected speeches spanning Shakespeare’s Richard II, 1 Henry IV, 2 Henry IV, and Henry V.

(Hal has tried on his dying father's crown when his dad comes to and scolds him.)

I never thought to hear you speak again.
Thy wish was father, Harry, to that thought:
I stayed too long by thee, I weary thee.
Dost thou so hunger for mine empty chair
That thou wilt needs invest thee with my honors
Before thy hour be ripe? O foolish youth,
Thou seek'st the greatness that will overwhelm thee.
(2 Henry IV 4.5.91-97)

Hal's action, trying on his father's crown, tells us he is impulsive, anxious to become king. and without the respect or sense of propriety that he claims to possess. Hal seemingly cannot wait for his father to die to put on the crown, although his father's catching him would result in shame and hurt feelings, and clearly treasures the crown as a sign of kingdom, although it is only a symbol.

While his desire to take on the power that he rejected throughout 1 Henry IV shows that he has changed and grown into his title of prince, his actions are still juvenile, like those of any son trying on his father's clothes in an attempt to be more like him. Hal shows some kingly feelings, but lacks the sense of what is socially acceptable and what is honorable that his father so desires to see in him.

The king, when he wakes and sees his crown on Hal's head, is disappointed and angry. Hal does not acknowledge that he has committed a transgression and instead attempts to calm the situation by saying "I never thought to hear you speak again," an ambiguous sentence that could show his caring for the king and his gladness at his father's recovery, but one that could also simply mean that Hal thought his father unable to recover, certifying his ascension into the role of king.

His father takes the latter view of this statement, despite Hal's previously voiced good intentions, and accuses him of wishing for his death: "Thy wish was father, Harry, to thy thought." Not only does this accusation communicate his belief in Hal's ambition, it also puns on the word "father." As Hal would prematurely step into his father's role, so are his wishes usurpatious. And those wishes, in turn, sire rebellious thoughts, much as Henry fears he has sired a rebellious son.

Despite his harsh attitude toward Hal's indiscretion, the king also still cares for him. While he speaks of the king's role as something that Hal cannot fill, he does this seemingly out of fear for Hal's happiness and health, saying that Hal is looking to take it on "before [his] hour be ripe" and that Hal will inevitably become overwhelmed by the duties involved.

The passage as a whole highlights the reemergence of the differences in outlook between the king and Hal that seemed to be resolved in 1 Henry IV. The king's language indicates a reverence for kingship; he speaks of kinghood as something honorable, majestic, and incredibly powerful, in an almost spiritual way. Hal, by his previous actions and current action, does not seem to feel this same reverence. Instead, as we see in his reaction to King Henry's "recovery," he is unrepentant and does not acknowledge that he has done anything wrong, yet another sign that he does not yet possess the necessary maturity and consideration that his father expects. And King Henry's disappointment in Hal is amplified by his realization that he is entirely powerless to change him.

Hannah Lutz (SPA '11)

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Henry Explications - Part G

The following is one in a series of mini-articles resulted from an exercise I had my St. Paul Academy 2011 Shakespeare students complete. The articles focus on selected speeches spanning Shakespeare’s Richard II, 1 Henry IV, 2 Henry IV, and Henry V.

What, old acquaintance, could not all this flesh
Keep in a little life? Poor Jack, farewell.
I could have better spared a better man.
O, I should have a heavy miss of thee
If I were much in love with vanity.
Death hath not struck so fat a deer today,
Though many dearer in this bloody fray.
Emboweled will I see thee by and by;
Till then in blood by noble Percy lie.
(1 Henry IV 5.4.104-112)

Since Prince Hal believes that he is completely alone with the body of an old acquaintance, Falstaff, his small monologue is almost a soliloquy. It is addressed to Falstaff, but since Falstaff is “dead,” it’s much more for the benefit of the audience/himself in intention.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the passage is the dramatic irony. In some ways, Hal is forgiving Falstaff for all of his cowardice by confessing that he cares for him and will mourn his passing. It’s an interesting commentary on how much more fondly we remember the dead than we appreciate the living. But it’s not just because he’s dead. Falstaff becomes more worthy of Hal’s forgiveness because Hal assumes that Falstaff has done the honorable thing and died defending the monarchy. But the audience knows that Falstaff is just pretending to be dead to save his own hide, an act of cowardice so complete that (the new) Hal would probably never forgive him for it. It completely tints the audience’s perception of Hal’s speech.

At the same time, Hal isn’t forgiving all of Falstaff’s faults, even if he does think he’s dead. In fact, he seems to switch back and forth between insulting and complimenting Falstaff, revealing that Prince Hal really does have one foot on the throne and the other on the table of a bar. He begins by calling Falstaff an acquaintance. Not a love, not a friend, but an acquaintance. His next sentence is a fat joke, as usual. But after that, the tone get’s a bit more serious. “Poor Jack, farewell,” says Hal, “I could have better spared a better man.” This is the most important line. In this line, Hal comes to realize (or has he realized it all along? It’s hard to tell with him) that he knows there are many men better, more honorable, more true than Falstaff. And yet he wishes that one of them could have died, that Falstaff could have lived. This suggests that there is something lasting and loving about Hals feelings for Falstaff.

His next line basically expresses the amount he would have missed Falstaff (heavy; another fat joke) if Hal were still the man he used to be (a man of frivolity). He then compares Falstaff to a Deer (an animal? A fat animal? A dumb animal? A sweet and defenseless animal? I’m still not sure) and again states that many who were more valuable than Falstaff died today. But he’s talking to Falstaff’s body, not to those other bodies. He knows, intellectually, that Falstaff’s life is not as valuable as others, but emotionally, Falstaff’s death hits him hard.

In his final line, Hal lays the body (drags the body? Doesn’t move it at all?) near Percy and says “Till then [your funeral], in blood by noble Percy lie.” The added bit about “in blood” implies that Falstaff wouldn’t be good enough to lie next to Percy in, say, honor, but he is good enough to lie next to him in blood. Or maybe it’s just an appropriate expression considering that there’s probably blood everywhere.

Nadja Milena (SPA '11)

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Henry Explications - Part F

The following is one in a series of mini-articles resulting from an exercise I had my St. Paul Academy 2011 Shakespeare students complete. The articles focus on selected speeches spanning Shakespeare’s Richard II, 1 Henry IV, 2 Henry IV, and Henry V.

Thou has redeemed thy lost opinion
And showed thou mak'st some tender of my life
In this fair rescue thou has brought to me.
(1 Henry IV 5.4.48-50)

Redemption emerges as a prominent theme in 1 Henry IV. In these student explication passages alone we've seen it three times -- when Hal says "I'll so offend to make offense a skill,/ Redeeming time when men think least I will"; when he says "God forgive them that so much have swayed/ Your Majesty's good thoughts away from me./ I will redeem all this on Percy's head"; and in the passage above, where King Henry brings closure to the promise Hal makes in the first citation. In addition Hotspur uses the image twice, both times in reference to honor regained.

In fact, one could read all six of the play's redemption metaphors fairly secularly. People redeem, in the sense that they recover something or fulfill some obligation, time and honor and lost reputation, and we can leave it at that. But redemption is a big word, and we must ask: what religious implications are present?

So, because I'm pretty uninformed when it comes to religious imagery, I sent my friend Jim Bofenkamp (who teaches a Shakespeare and the Bible class) a note, asking for a quick run down on redemption in the Bible. His rejoinder was that it would take most of a lifetime to answer the question. The Bible, he wrote, from Genesis to Revelations "covers the story of our redemption by the second Adam (Jesus Christ) because of what the first Adam did at the very beginning." This is significant because some clear parallels suggest that we can read Richard, King Henry, and Hal allegorically.

In fact, a number of critics, including Steven Marx and Marjorie Garber, have already done so. Garber, in Shakespeare After All, spreads the net wide. "Much of the imagery in Richard II," she writes, "was concerned with England as a little Eden, a 'demi-paradise,' and with Richard as a kind of Adam and a kind of Christ, suffering what his queen called 'a second fall of cursed man.' By the beginning of 1 Henry IV the tide of public opinion has already reversed itself. Richard's loss is mourned, and Bolingbroke, now King Henry IV, is the villain. Even Hotspur, who with his father Northumberland, swore allegiance to Bolingbroke's cause, now expresses fury at the fact that the usurpers chose to 'put down Richard, that sweet lovely rose, / And plant this thorn, this canker, Bolingbroke.' This is post-fall language ... Yet like most falls in English literature, this will turn out to be a fortunate fall, because after the fall of Adam, as Shakespeare's Christian audience would have believed, came the redemption through Christ, and after the fall of Richard will come the redemption of Prince Hal" (314-315).

Marx too, in his Shakespeare and the Bible, sees broader implications in the play's redemption imagery, citing "the perennial tendency of the British to identify themselves with the Israelites" and noting that "Shakespeare's sources, Holinshed and Halle, modelled English history on the Bible's providential pattern" (41).

In the passage above then, we can prepare to look beyond the mere redemption of Hal's reputation in King Henry's eyes and read it as the conclusion to Hal's own goal, stated in the first act, to redeem "time" (1.2.224). The Folger edition of the play indicates that this line alludes to Ephesians 5:15-16, Paul's admonition to "Take heed therefore that ye walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise, redeeming the time, for the days are evil" (Geneva Bible). (A note: I almost missed this by checking first in my Revised Standard Version Bible, which does not have the "redeeming the time" phrase; let's hear it for contemporary sources!)

Hal, then, is promising to make amends for his bad behavior, later. King Henry's comment tells us he has. But, to my mind, nowhere do I find Hal portrayed as a Christ figure in this play. Yes, one may argue that the fall of man is reflected in the Richard/Bolingbroke story, and that the civil wars Henry laments at the beginning of the play reveal mankind in a state of sin, and that Henry himself uses language that suggests he will receive God's vengeance, personified by Hal:

He'll breed revengement and a scourge for me.
But thou dost in thy passages of life
Make me believe that thou art only marked
For the hot vengeance and the rod of heaven
To punish my mistreadings. (3.2.8-12)

But Hal's redemption is particularly personal, reinforced by King Henry's use of the pronoun "thy." And if we take the Ephesians allusion at face value, then Hal parallels the object of Paul's letter, not Christ but the followers of Christ, those who would walk a more righteous path. In Garber's summary, the pronouns expose the distinction: it's "redemption through Christ," but "redemption of Hal" (emphasis mine).

The text is clearly available to scriptural interpretation -- one might look at the fact that Hal has "rescued," or saved, his sinning father -- and so the conversation is opened here for a discussion of the Biblical reading of Shakespeare's tetralogy (that's an invitation). A reading of these three lines, however, on their own or even extended to include the other redemption images, does not, I think, bring us all the way to Hal as Christ figure.


Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Henry Explications - Part E

The following is one in a series of mini-articles resulted from an exercise I had my St. Paul Academy 2011 Shakespeare students complete. The articles focus on selected speeches spanning Shakespeare’s Richard II, 1 Henry IV, 2 Henry IV, and Henry V.

Do not think so. You shall not find it so.
And God forgive them that so much have sway'd
Your majesty's good thoughts away from me.
I will redeem all this on Percy's head,
And, in the closing of some glorious day,
Be bold to tell you that I am your son.
(1 Henry IV 3.2.134-139

This passage is an example of the changing relationship between Hal and his father. Hal is motivated by lies that have been told to the king in order to attempt to change his view of his son. He tries, in this passage, to adjust the king's opinion and express his anger about the lies that have been told. The language of Hal’s speech is generally forceful, the boldest parts being: “all this on Percy’s head” and “Be bold to tell you that I am your son.”

This language reveals an aspect of Hal’s character we have seen little of in the first few acts or the play (or in the latter act of Richard II). Up to this point, we've seen Hal in a bar with Falstaff slacking off and avoiding responsibilities; however here Shakespeare reveals Hal's inner strength that one would not necessarily guess was there. Hal seems on the verge of making his "I know you all" speech a reality. In addition, Hal's request that "God forgive" those who have lied about him suggests a certain piousness we haven't seen in the Boar's Head scenes, a devout aspect to his identity not unlike King Henry's.

Ben Palmer (SPA '12)

Friday, May 20, 2011

The Henry Explications - Part D

The following is one in a series of mini-articles resulted from an exercise I had my St. Paul Academy 2011 Shakespeare students complete. The articles focus on selected speeches spanning Shakespeare’s Richard II, 1 Henry IV, 2 Henry IV, and Henry V.

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 wonder'd at,
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapors that did seem to strangle him ...
So, when this loose behavior I throw off
And pay the debt I never promised,
By how much better than my word I am,
By so much shall I falsify men's hopes;
And, like bright metal on a sullen ground,
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 offense a skill,
Redeeming time when men think least I will.
(1 Henry IV 1.2.202-210, 215-224)

I am surprised at my students' general animosity toward Hal in this speech. They find him dishonest and manipulative and vain, and ignore the irony of disregarding Hal's more lofty goals because he's not being straightforward with his loutish pub friends. They expect honor, as it were, among thieves. How dare he refer to the guys he hangs out with as "base contagious clouds"!

I wonder, how can they not recognize the favorite children's allegory of "the ugly duckling" in Hal's statement that those clouds "smother up his beauty from the world" and that he will break "through the foul and ugly mists/ Of vapors that did seem to strangle him"? Isn't that the dream of every adolescent? How do they not hear echoes of the Bush administration's frequent attempt to lower our expectations before major announcements? Isn't that a wise tactic for managing people's unrealistic expectations? Or if that seems too politically manipulative, how can they not recognize the standard rubric of successful businesses: "underpromise/overproduce"?

Hal is real world, pragmatic and clever. Even without the foreknowledge of what use he will make of his "wilder days," we must be impressed by his plan to capture people's imagination and turn it in his favor; it is masterful.

But no; they label him "Machiavellian." And I think the problem centers on his admitting that he will "falsify men's hopes." That just sounds ugly. Hope is a powerful force in our lives. (Questioning it, poet Kay Ryan refers to it as "the always tabled/ righting of the present.") And young people are full of optimistic hope. Having that challenged, along with their sense of loyalty to one's comrades, however unacceptable they may be to one's father, makes accepting Hal's careful character-building less palatable.

Posted by Randall

Thursday, May 19, 2011

RE: Performance Log - All's Well That Ends Well (May 2011)

Stu writes:

For the most part, when performing indoors, in theater lighting, you can barely see the audience. Even when facing out towards the audience, you are generally looking over the heads of the people in the first few rows. I don't want to say that one is not aware of the audience, because you can also hear them and sense them in other ways, but it is much easier to focus on the actors on stage and, to some degree, disregard the audience. Indoor performance and lighting are the principal elements that create the "fourth wall" separating audience and actors.

Working outdoors, you are constantly aware of the audience right in front of you. When you look out, you are looking into people's faces! When I started working in outdoor theater, I found it intimidating that you could see people and their expressions. Initially I had to be careful not to focus on any individual. Now that I am more used to it, I don't hesitate to speak directly to the audience or even individual in it.

Personally, I enjoy doing outdoors because it allows you to connect with the audience. When I'm talking about children, or pretty girls, or bald men, I can take gesture or take the line to a child, a pretty girl, or a bald guy. There's a big difference when doing something like Shakespeare, which was written to be performed outdoors. Indoors, I see many actors doing soliloquies as thinking out loud to oneself. Outdoors, I encourage actors to take soliloquies or asides direct to members of the audience.

Doing something like Moliere allows you to break the fourth wall and involve members of the audience. One of my favorite memories was playing Harpagon in The Miser. As Jacques described what my neighbors thought of me, he pointed to a member of the audience as the source; it was hilarious: "One says that you have special almanacks printed, where you double the ember days and vigils, so that you may profit by the fasts to which you bind all your house; another, that you always have a ready-made quarrel for your servants at Christmas time or when they leave you, so that you may give them nothing. One tells a story how not long since you prosecuted a neighbour's cat because it had eaten up the remainder of a leg of mutton; another says that one night you were caught stealing your horses' oats..." Ultimately Jacques had to drag me back onstage to keep me from strangling one of the audience members.

-- Stu

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Henry Explications - Part C

The following is one in a series of mini-articles resulted from an exercise I had my St. Paul Academy 2011 Shakespeare students complete. The articles focus on selected speeches spanning Shakespeare’s Richard II, 1 Henry IV, 2 Henry IV, and Henry V.

Thou art so fat-witted, with drinking of old sack and unbuttoning thee after supper and sleeping upon benches after noon, that thou hast forgotten to demand that truly which thou wouldst truly know. What a devil hast thou to do with the time of the day? Unless hours were cups of sack and minutes capons and clocks the tongues of bawds and dials the signs of leaping-houses and the blessed sun himself a fair hot wench in flame-colored taffeta, I see no reason why thou shouldst be so superfluous to demand the time of the day.
(1 Henry IV 1.2.2-13)

During Hal's descriptive insult to Falstaff, the audience learns more about the prince than the pub-crawler. Hal scolds his friend Falstaff for his lethargic and irresponsible behavior, a speech he is motivated to deliver due to his irritation with his companion. Deeper within the relationship, though, one may see that his irritation might not just be with Falstaff, but also with himself. Hal has been ignoring his princely duties and spending time in the dirty parts of London with Falstaff, actions of drunkenness and lack of accountability he may not believe in.

Further, Hal's insults represent the strain on his friendship with Falstaff. He knows that if Falstaff does not adapt to the man Hal truly is, a prince with responsibility, he can no longer be Hal's companion. Hal's inner mental struggle foreshadows his upcoming declaration of maturity and reform to his father. By speaking out against Falstaff's immature and unruly behavior, he is criticizing his own indolence and implying that he does believe in his royal duties and does want to embrace them.

Malika Dale (SPA '12)

Performance Log - All's Well That Ends Well (May 2011)

All’s Well That Ends Well
Directed by Joseph Papke
Classical Actors Ensemble
Minneapolis, MN
May 6, 2011

Last summer I saw the American Shakespeare Center’s production of Othello at Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, Virginia. Prior to the play, Benjamin Curns (who played Iago) explained for audience members unfamiliar with the company’s approach that they would be performing in conditions similar to those of Shakespeare’s day, specifically with stage and house under the same lights, a relatively naked stage, and a lot of interplay between actors and audience members, some of whom would even be sitting on the stage. I’ll tell you; it really increases the suspense when you find yourself weighing the chances that a paying customer will end up skewered by rapier during a fight scene. Although there were no fatalities, except those planned by Shakespeare, I found it a very refreshing approach to indoor staging, and I especially enjoyed how the opportunity for audience/character interaction allowed Curns to play up Iago’s villainy.

Fast forward to May 2011. The Classical Actors Ensemble, a relatively young company in Minneapolis, is performing All’s Well That Ends Well at the Walker Community Church under similar conditions, “a simple platform stage with few scenic elements surrounded on three sides by the audience, universal lighting …, and music performed between acts” (by the actors, still in costume), director Joseph Papke writes in the program. Now, how much one enjoys a show (as I did this one) may be independent of whether they leave the lights on, but I’m intrigued: what’s the difference, for the performers, between a play performed in the dark and one performed with the audience in full view?

Obviously, to those of us who regularly attend Shakespeare performances in the park, an illuminated audience is nothing new. But I’d never considered that the different “feel” of Shakespeare in the park is due to more than just its being outdoors until I began to think about the similar feeling one gets indoors when the lights are on. “Actors are usually very aware of the audience,” Papke wrote me in an e-mail, “whether they can see them or not (dark theaters mean we usually pick up on them aurally). With being able to see them clearly, instead of becoming hyper-aware of the audience, I find that some of the performance-related pressure is alleviated—there is no 'fourth wall,' no pretence of verisimilitude; the white elephant of ‘we’re other human beings pretending in front of you’ is gone. The audience is no longer a potential critical void that the actor must pour himself into; instead, a beneficial and necessary communication is heightened between actors and audience, and a truer communal experience can be reached.”

I like what Papke says about the elephant. I often find myself during a performance waiting for the theatrical experience to take over and for my sense of the affectation of theater to dissipate. I think the dark enhances that sense of affectation. From the actor’s point of view it’s just a fourth wall, but from ours it makes us voyeurs, sitting in the dark, disconnected from the stage action, looking in on the characters’ lives. I think that works against the theatrical. Turn the lights on and we’re involved in the performance, easy co-conspirators, available for asides and spur-of-the-moment magic, and less likely to fall asleep. It’s this communal experience that accounts for a lot of the charm of Classical Actors Ensemble’s All’s Well That Ends Well. For one it really frees up the comic characters, in this case Levatch (played by Papke) and Parolles (Christopher Kehoe) who are able to use the audience more naturally for comic effect.

I remember a similar feeling a couple years ago, in Stu Naber’s production of Much Ado About Nothing for Shakespeare and Company, outdoors in White Bear Lake. Benedick, played by Tim Perfect, hid in the audience during the garden scene where Claudio and Don Pedro trick him into believing that Beatrice is in love with him. The great humor of it wasn’t that Benedick was among us, ridiculously crawling around on his hand and knees, audaciously dipping into patrons' picnic dinners (well, that was pretty funny), but that he was in plain sight of everyone. That’s what I mean by co-conspirators. It’s the difference between being told a joke and being in on it.

Papke’s tone in All’s Well That Ends Well is relatively and successfully light (I saw a darker, literally and figuratively, version last summer at American Players Theatre) even though key characters are not likeable people – Bertram (David Darrow) who heartlessly rejects the devoted love of a talented woman; Parolles the blowhard braggart, liar, coward, and traitor. I found myself both believing in Bertram’s final acceptance of Helena (Danielle Silver) and even, at one point, feeling sorry for Parolles. Perhaps this mitigation of their dislikability is because, with the lights on, we see them more clearly both as comic figures and as characters. Or perhaps it’s because we learn, between acts, that Bertram also blows a mean trumpet and Parolles is capable of a show-stopping deadpan spoken version of ZZ Top’s “Sharp Dressed Man.”

This whole universal lighting question is just that, a question. I’m not sure it would be effective to suggest that all theatrical productions turn on the house lights. And lights or no lights, what really matters is the talent on the stage. But theater involves live actors plying their trade in front of a live audience. Why remove one of those from the equation, especially when it can have a positive effect for the other party? Let film-goers, communing with two-dimensional celluloid versions of human beings, sit in the dark. For me, I’ll agree with King Claudius: “Give me some light!”

Logged by Randall

Photo credit: David Darrow and Danielle Silver in All's Well That Ends Well. Photo by Zach Curtis, courtesy Classical Actors Ensemble.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Henry Explications - Part B

The following is one in a series of mini-articles resulted from an exercise I had my St. Paul Academy 2011 Shakespeare students complete. The articles focus on selected speeches spanning Shakespeare’s Richard II, 1 Henry IV, 2 Henry IV, and Henry V.

Yea, there thou mak'st me sad and 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 proved
That some night-tripping fairy had exchanged
In cradle-clothes our children where they lay,
And call'd mine "Percy," his "Plantagenet"!
Then would I have his Harry, and he mine.
(1 Henry IV 1.1.78-90)

King Henry, throughout 1 Henry IV, is revealed to be a very religious person, and it is no surprise that religious imagery turns up in this speech ("mak'st me sin in envy") where it provides a snapshot of the king's concerns. Here is a man who relies on religion and God as a pillar of strength in his reign, and who clearly feels that he is the "good guy" in this situation, but it is necessary to remember how he came to power.

I think it is possible that deep down the king recognizes his own guilty hand in the dethroning and indirect execution of Richard II, and therefore he may think that God could seek to punish him for his actions. So he acknowledges the possibility that he is committing a deadly sin (envy) for the otherwise forgivable frustration he feels about Hal. In this he overexerts himself in his religious efforts in order to mollify the God who could be angry with him, an early indication in the play that he is in constant search for forgiveness from the heavens for his actions.

Nathan Rice (SPA '11)

Sunday, May 15, 2011

RE: The Henry Explications - Part A

I did not see the clear subtextual connections between "unrestrained loose companions" and "dissolute" (indifferent to moral restraints) and "wanton" (dissolute or unrestrained) in this speech. Now that King Henry's concern about restraint emerges more clearly, we can look also at that first line: "Can no man tell me of my unthrifty son?" Signet (Kenneth Muir) defines "unthrifty" here as "prodigal," fitting with King Henry's growing spiritual observances. However, the more common definition of frugality suggest yet another form of restraint, extending Henry's expectation of it to social, moral, and economic.

What is the king's attitude about restraint? Is it a particularly Medieval concept? Is it particular to his character? Is it also couched in religious observance? Do we see it equally in 1 Henry IVand 2 Henry IV? Is it, as Paul suggests, wrapped up in Henry's attitudes about class, a euphemism for sticking with your own kind? Thoughts?


Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Henry Explications - Part A

The following is one in a series of mini-articles resulted from an exercise I had my St. Paul Academy 2011 Shakespeare students complete. The articles focus on selected speeches spanning Shakespeare’s Richard II, 1 Henry IV, 2 Henry IV, and Henry V.

Can no man tell me of my unthrifty son?
'Tis full three months since I did see him last.
If any plague hang over us, 'tis he.
I would to God, my lords, he might be found.
Inquire at London, 'mongst the taverns there,
For there, they say, he daily doth frequent,
With unrestrained loose companions,
Even such, they say, as stand in narrow lanes
And beat our watch and rob our passengers,
Which he, young wanton and effeminate boy,
Takes on the point of honor to support
So dissolute a crew.
(Richard II 5.3.1-12)

King Henry IV's speech to the court in Richard II, Act 5, scene 3, reveals his strong disappointment in his son, the prince. He criticizes Hal's carelessness, criminal behavior, femininity, and overall poor demeanor. Motivated by this overwhelming disappointment and embarrassment, the king angrily vilifies Hal's life, citing both his poor behavior and his decision to associate with socially inferior friends, a lifestyle not befitting royalty.

Stating that Hal "takes on the point of honor to support so dissolute a crew," the king's belief that his son wastes honor by associating with criminal, roguish commoners, such as Falstaff and Poins, reveals several character traits, including social classism and anger. Labeling such fellows as "unrestrained loose companions" and "a dissolute crew," Henry makes it clear that appropriate behavior involves restraint, both moral and social. Given Henry's own actions, including deposing a king, one might consider his complaints a bit ironic. Or it may be that Henry simply would rather his son associate with others of higher social stature.

The king's concern about restraint is also evident in his attack on Hal's masculinity. When criticizing Hal for his conduct and lifestyle, King Henry IV describes him as "wanton" and "effeminate." Yet Henry offers no support for this effeminacy. It seems enough that Hal is not involved in activities similar to Hotspur's, activities steeped in leadership and testosterone and honor, and instead involves himself in "wanton" activities, robbing and drinking and rebelling against his father's wishes. To Henry this is womanish because it fails to follow his concept of order, and that which defies order (unrestrained) is automatically unmanly.

Paul Micevych (SPA '12)

Friday, May 13, 2011

RE: Merry Wives of Windsor - Musings

Randall writes:

And so we learn that Derek Traversi (and Gil, too) was right, and Merry Wives of Windsor is not dealt with at much length at all, despite the best of intentions. But the William Shakespeare Experience does go on. Here's what's in store.

1) The Shakespeare-in-the-Park season is gearing up even in the midst of ongoing indoor productions. I just saw a wonderful All's Well That Ends Well performed by the Classical Actors Ensemble (a relatively new company). If you have a mind to post a performance log or review of something you see, please do.

2) My Shakespeare class has started its fifth and final play, Measure for Measure. A while back, we read 1 Henry IV and I asked the students to write brief explications of speeches from the entire second tetralogy. I'll be posting those at intervals over the next few weeks.

3) It's time to start a new play. Which will be All's Well That Ends Well. And then Hamlet. And perhaps we'll return to Merry Wives at a later date.