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Sunday: November 13, 2011

How Do You Make Hamlet Even More Tragic?

Filed under: — site admin @ 11:38 PM UTC

Do what the grad students in Shakespeare Studies at Mary Baldwin did in the performance I saw tonight (directed by Zach Brown):

1. Leave out Fortinbras entirely.

2. Have Horatio ignore Hamlet’s plea at the end of the play, drink the poison, and die. His last words were, of course, “The rest is silence”.

The result: I believe Osric is the only member of the upper classes left alive to inherit the throne. The accession of King Osric I would be a truly tragic outcome.

If any of my readers are in the Shenandoah Valley, there is a second performance tomorrow night at 7:30. The theater’s website is here.

Sunday: October 30, 2011

The Totalitarian Temptation for Grade-Schoolers

Filed under: — site admin @ 8:13 PM UTC

In a post on Matthew Yglesias’ idiotic proposal to allow children to vote, Ann Althouse reveals that she would have voted for Nixon when she was 9, for Eldridge Cleaver when she was 17.

That reminded me of Shakespeare. His three Henry VI plays are early works, not much read and not often performed. Of all Shakespearean quotations, “First, let’s kill all the lawyers!”, from Henry VI Part II, has probably been the most quoted while least read or seen. I mean that the ratio of the number of people who have quoted it on-line and elsewhere, relative to the number who have actually read the entire play or seen it performed, is probably higher than for any other line of Shakespeare. (Alternative candidates may be posted in the comments.)

As it happens, I have seen the play, in the January-March 2010 season at the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, VA. One of my fondest memories of that production was seeing the reaction of some small children to the revolutionaries’ tirades in Act IV. The ten-year-old loved Jack Cade and Dick the Butcher, the eight-year-old loved them even more, and the six-year-old was jumping up and down with delight and almost climbing onto the stage whenever they were on.

What particularly pleased the children? It wasn’t so much Dick the Butcher’s line about killing lawyers, or the marching around waving flags and weapons of various kinds (Dick, played by Tyler Moss, had a bloody cleaver and bloodier apron). Most of all it was the Jack Cade’s political promises, or perhaps the voice in which he (played by Daniel Kennedy) made them:

There shall be in England seven halfpenny loaves sold for a penny: the three-hooped pot shall have ten hoops and I will make it felony to drink small beer: all the realm shall be in common; and in Cheapside shall my palfrey go to grass: and when I am king, as king I will be,– (All: God save your majesty!) I thank you, good people: there shall be no money; all shall eat and drink on my score; and I will apparel them all in one livery, that they may agree like brothers and worship me their lord.

He also orders a clerk to be hanged for being able to write his name and not signing with a mark, “like an honest plain-dealing man”, and says of Lord Say that “he can speak French; and therefore he is a traitor”. After he captures London:

I charge and command that, of the city’s cost, the pissing-conduit run nothing but claret wine this first year of our reign.

(No mention of scrubbing it thoroughly first.) He also gives orders to burn London Bridge and the Tower, and pull down the Savoy and the Inns of Court. After he captures Lord Say he tells him (among other things):

Thou hast most traitorously corrupted the youth of the realm in erecting a grammar school; and whereas, before, our forefathers had no other books but the score and the tally, thou hast caused printing to be used, and, contrary to the king, his crown and dignity, thou hast built a paper-mill. It will be proved to thy face that thou hast men about thee that usually talk of a noun and a verb, and such abominable words as no Christian ear can endure to hear.

A bit later:

The proudest peer in the realm shall not wear a head on his shoulders, unless he pay me tribute; there shall not a maid be married, but she shall pay to me her maidenhead ere they have it: men shall hold of me in capite; and we charge and command that their wives be as free as heart can wish or tongue can tell.

I trust that last part went over the heads of the grade-schoolers in the audience.

In sum, Shakespeare seems to have anticipated most of the nastier parts of modern totalitarianism. The fact that the children were so enthusiastic about Cade’s program is just one reason why children in general should not be allowed to vote. If anyone cares to object that the ones I observed were 6, 8, and 10 and that Matthew Yglesias is probably talking about 15- and 17-year-olds, please note my first sentence above: Ann Althouse’s political judgment certainly did not improve between 9 and 17.

Thursday: September 29, 2011

Best Unintentional Pun Ever?

Filed under: — site admin @ 11:04 PM UTC

Volume II of The Dramatic Works of Thomas Dekker, edited by Fredson Bowers (Cambridge, 1955), contains these five titles:

  • The Honest Whore, Parts I and II
  • The Magnificent Entertainment
  • Westward Ho
  • Northward Ho
  • The Whore of Babylon

Four out of five is not bad, though it would be better if the second title were omitted.

Saturday: September 24, 2011

Blackfriars Quiz

Filed under: — site admin @ 10:51 PM UTC

The following eight foodstuffs represent eight different plays presented at the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, Virginia in the last three years. Can you identify them all? These are not verbal jokes, and the quantities (such as the three apples in #4) are not significant. (The eyes in 4 are also not significant: it was the only picture I could find.) Answers may be posted in the comments or mailed to me.

1:

2:

3:

4:

5:

6:

7:

8:

To cut down on the possibilities slightly, the plays put on at the Blackfriars in the last three years are:

Shakespeare: As You Like It, The Comedy of Errors, 1-2 Henry IV, Henry V, 1-3 Henry VI, King Lear, Macbeth, Measure for Measure, The Merry Wives of Windsor, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, Othello, Richard III, Romeo and Juliet, The Taming of the Shrew, The Tempest, Titus Andronicus, Twelfth Night, The Winter’s Tale; Marlowe: Dr. Faustus and Tamburlaine (Part I); Chapman: The Blind Beggar of Alexandria; Jonson: The Alchemist; Middleton: The Revengers’ Tragedy, The Changeling, A Trick to Catch the Old One; Massinger: The Roman Actor; Ford: ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore; Wilde: The Importance of Being Ernest; Stoppard: Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.

There were one or two more, but they are not correct answers for this quiz.

All images are from the web, except #7, which was part of my lunch today.

Saturday: October 2, 2010

Nomen Omen? Apparently Not

Filed under: — site admin @ 11:21 PM UTC

Last week I drove down I-97 from Baltimore to Annapolis and found that part of it is named “Senator John A. Cade Memorial Highway” after a long-time state legislator. Having seen and enjoyed Henry VI, Part 2 at the Blackfriars Playhouse last spring, I wondered whether his friends called him ‘Jack’. Google suggests that they did (examples here and here [PDF]). Of course, Shakespeare’s Jack Cade was not a Republican, or not a Republican in the contemporary American sense, so the coincidence of names is not as appropriate as it might have been.

Monday: September 6, 2010

Shakespearean Riddle

Filed under: — site admin @ 10:36 PM UTC

A very easy one, I’m afraid. Which play did I see at the Blackfriars Playhouse tonight? One that reminded me of something I hadn’t thought of in many years. Back in 1985 or so, I was working for a ‘beltway bandit’ at Tysons Corner, and one of the other companies in the same mid-rise office building had an executive who always parked her car diagonally in the far corner of the parking lot so she could take up two spaces and avoid ‘dings’ without offense (though not without envy). After all these years, I don’t recall whether it was a Porsche or an MG or what, but it was a very shiny and very expensive-looking red convertible with vanity plates. What message best befits an executive on her way to the top, already far along but with quite some distance left to go, and willing to do almost anything to get there? Select the parentheses to see the answer, which will also tell you the play I saw tonight: (CAWDOR). It’s been a quarter of a century, and I never met the owner of the car, so my analysis of her reasons is pure speculation, but it seems plausible. What else could such a license plate reasonably imply?

Wednesday: February 10, 2010

BBC Shakespeare On Sale

Filed under: — site admin @ 11:42 PM UTC

Since I wrote about the BBC Shakespeare DVDs two and a half years ago, prices have dropped on both sides of the Atlantic. You can now get the American discs for $99.99 per set, down from $149.99, but that still means paying $389.96 for only 20 plays at Amazon, which comes to roughly $19.50 per play. (One of them is 10% off right now.) The UK box, containing all 37 plays, lists for £199,99, but is on sale right now at Amazon UK for only £81,97, or roughly $128 (US), which works out to less than $3.50 per play. Of course, you will need an all-region DVD player to view them in the U.S., but those are not expensive, and are useful for watching other films not available in Region 1 coding.

The icing on the cake: Amazon UK usually subtracts 15% when shipping expensive items to U.S. addresses, since Americans, not being eligible for the National Health, aren’t expected to pay the VAT tax that finances it. That would bring the price down to less than $3.00 per play, plus shipping, which was fast and reasonably-priced when I bought the set a few years ago.

It’s nice to have all the plays, since the ones not available in the U.S. box sets are precisely the ones you are least likely to see in a theater.

Wednesday: January 13, 2010

Anticipatory Tenterhooks (Is That a Googlewhack?)

Filed under: — site admin @ 11:16 PM UTC

What’s the best thing about the American Shakespeare Center’s production of Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus, opening tomorrow night? There’s no way to tell, but the best thing I know before seeing it is that the same actor (John Harrell) is playing Lucifer and the Pope — not to mention the Holy Roman Emperor and the Duke of Vanholt. Whether the implicit parallel owes more to Marlowe or the ASC, and what (if anything) they will do with it, I do not know. I’m looking forward to this play more than most. Dr. Faustus is one of the two books I loved in high school and still love. (The other is Borges’ prose.) I don’t really ‘get’ most of Shakespeare’s plays (especially the comedies) from reading them, but Dr. Faustus has a simple — or at least linear — and powerful plot.

As for my title question, yes: there is one previous use of the phrase. Of course, this will make two.

Saturday: September 19, 2009

A Missed Opportunity for Aesthetic Synergy

Filed under: — site admin @ 11:22 AM UTC

The American Shakespeare Center is currently doing four plays in rotation at the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton: I Henry IV, Merry Wives of Windsor, Much Ado About Nothing, and Titus Andronicus. All are delightful in their different ways. Unfortunately, Titus is not the Saturday matinee either today or a week from today. If it were, theatergoers could see Titus Andronicus at the Blackfriars at 2:00, take a break for dinner, then drive up to Verona (6-7 miles north) for the 8:00 show of Sweeney Todd at Shenanarts. I’ve only seen one of their shows, That Scoundrel Scapino, adapted from Molière, but it was very well done by a cast of high school students, with grade-schoolers for the chorus of ‘Zanni’.

I don’t know whether any of the local restaurants serve beef and kidney pie, but that would be the perfect culinary accompaniment to my hypothetical Saturday outing. Oh, well, there will probably never be another opportunity for this particular multi-sensual aesthetic adventure. There is at least one other play I know that features a cannibal feast (Seneca’s Thyestes), but it is rarely performed today, and the dinner in it is apparently some kind of stew or casserole, not a meat pie.

Tuesday: August 25, 2009

Ahem . . . .

Filed under: — site admin @ 8:06 PM UTC

When you have an event scheduled for August 24th, you should probably not have it listed under August 25th on your website:

Clicking the date on the calendar takes one to another page that lists the date as August 25th twice more. It’s a good thing I live a block from the theater, so I didn’t waste much time getting there and back and wondering why the theater was dark and no one was inside. On the other hand, a friend and I did go to the theater twice, returning home in between to check the website and see if I’d read the date wrong, or if the show had been moved or canceled at the last minute. No one was outside, either, the first time, and only two others the second time, so apparently most Blackfriars theatergoers get their news some other way.

Of course, I’m more disappointed by missing the show than annoyed by the relatively minor inconvenience: I’ve never seen Cymbeline. The Texas group’s Antony and Cleopatra last year was quite good. Hmmm . . . was that the problem? Yes, a quick check of my records shows that last year’s show was on August 25th, a Monday. Apparently someone copied last year’s record and failed to adjust the date. I’ll be sure to demand double my money back next time I speak to someone in the ASC management.

Oh, well. Now I can do a better job on the on-line Education courses I’m taking, which have a midnight deadline for submission of three essays. I sent one in last night, but the other two need quite a bit of work, and I can now give them my full attention for an uninterrupted four-hour stretch. I probably shouldn’t say this where one of my instructors might see it, but I’d still rather have seen Cymbeline.

Sunday: August 16, 2009

The Merry Wives of Windsor (ASC vs BBC) I

Filed under: — site admin @ 11:32 PM UTC

Like everything else they’ve done, I’ve immensely enjoyed the American Shakespeare Center‘s production of The Merry Wives of Windsor, playing through the end of November, along with Much Ado About Nothing and Titus Andronicus (more about them later). 1 Henry IV will be added to the rotation in early September, George Villier’s The Rehearsal (apparently a cruel parody of Dryden’s tragedies) in October.

I don’t really ‘get’ plays without seeing them more than once, and I’ve seen the ASC Merry Wives four times so far. However, before writing about the production, I thought I’d better look for something to compare it with — something besides their productions of other plays, I mean. I had never seen or read the play before seeing it here, and still haven’t read any scholarship or general essays on it — didn’t want to prejudice my reaction. I have now read it in the Arden edition with most of the notes, watched the 1982 BBC version (the only one available on DVD), and also watched one of the operatic versions, Salieri’s Falstaff (1799), which I had previously seen at Wolftrap and once on DVD, though not recently. (I’ve also seen Verdi’s Falstaff at the Met and on DVD, though not recently, and won’t have much to say about it here.)

Here are my thought so far, for what they are worth:

Text: Both versions had a few cuts. The ASC omits the subplot about the three German horse-thieves (IV.3 and IV.5), along with some of the scholastic humor, though they include the “Castalian king urinal” (II.3), whatever that means (according to Arden, no one knows). The only cuts I noticed in the BBC version were a couple of jokes in the Latin lesson (IV.1) including (oddly) the one that comes across most clearly to a Latinless audience, the one about “the focative case”, which anyone can hear is a dirty joke even if they’ve never heard of the vocative case in Latin or the anatomical meaning of ‘case’ in Elizabethan English.

Humor: In general, the ASC missed fewer opportunities for jokes. There were 3-4 jokes in the BBC version that I hadn’t caught at ASC, mostly in Dr. Caius’ French accent: he calls Anne Page ‘On Podge’and his rival in love ‘Sir Huge’ and when he calls his servant ‘that knave Rog-by’ he pronounces the second word kuh-nave. I assume it is intentional that his repeated “by gar” sounds almost like ‘bugger’. He also asks for his “green pox” (i.e. box), which is more a Welsh than a French accent, though there are other instances of that in the play.

On the other hand, the BBC production missed at least a dozen opportunities that ASC seized. I don’t want to give too many examples, since I hope some of my readers will come to see the play and be as surprised and delighted by them as I was the first time around, but here are two:

  • The look on the face of Mistress Ford (Sarah Fallon) when she reads in Falstaff’s letter (II.1) “You are not young, no more am I” and again when she overhears her husband’s reaction to the news that Falstaff is wooing his wife, saying to Pistol “Why sir, my wife is not young”.
  • When Ford (John Harrell) says “Buck? I would I could wash myself of the buck! Buck, buck, buck! Ay, buck! I warrant you, buck –” (III.1), he kicks the basket hard on each repetition of “buck”. (I hope they arranged some sort of padding for that side of the basket, since Falstaff is in it and barely fits. Perhaps Ford is actually kicking the frame. I’ll have to try sitting on that side of the stage next time I go.)

Sets and Props: The BBC set was of course far fancier, particularly the indoor scenes. I liked the huge timber that bisected Falstaff’s room at waist-height and forced visitors to duck under it. His buck basket was nicer, too, though the clothes in it were far too generic: the ASC’s clothes included a fair percentage of underwear. And Falstaff’s hornèd hat was not obviously made from a football helmet, as at the ASC. On the other hand, Falstaff’s gingham dress was better at the ASC. Of course, these are far from the most important features of a production.

Words: I had trouble hearing all the words in the BBC version. If this were a stage play recorded live, I could blame the technicians, but it was made for TV, so there’s really no excuse. Not that the diction was terrible, but to take one tiny example, I wouldn’t have comprehended Falstaff’s comparison of Pistol and Nym to a “gemini of baboons” (II.2) if I hadn’t already heard the phrase clearly at ASC. When I’m at the Blackfriars, I don’t even notice the actors’ competence in pronouncing and projecting their lines, and reinforcing them with gestures. I just take all that for granted until I see a non-ASC play.

Characters: I’m still gathering my thoughts about the various Pages and Fords. In the mean time, here are some notes on the other characters:

Falstaff: Richard Griffiths (BBC) was a disappointment: too short, too thin, too soft — almost effeminate, and way too young. He looked 25, and I was surprised to learn from IMDB that he was 35 when the film was made. Nolan Carey (ASC’s Nym) played Falstaff in the MFA production of 2 Henry IV earlier this year, and also looked too young, but there’s only so much you can do with makeup, and youthful looks are to be expected in a student production. He was tall enough and fat enough for the part, though his fat suit got a little carried away in the (how shall I put this?) man-boobs area. James Keegan’s ASC Falstaff is, or appears to be, taller, fatter, older, and at the same time more vigorous than Griffiths, and he wears his fat suit very naturally. He is, in short, imposing. I’ve only dipped into my two recordings of Verdi’s opera lately (Haitink at the Royal Opera House in 1999, with Bryn Terfel in the title role, and Muti at La Scala in 2001), but all three of the operatic Falstaffs I’ve seen have the appropriate height, heft, and general vigor and dominance. Muti’s Falstaff, Ambrogio Maestri, ruins this with a hair style blatantly lifted from Krusty the Clown, but that’s another story.

Bardolph, Pistol, Nym, and Mine Host of the Garter: With no doubling of roles and (presumably) a much larger budget, the BBC does a good job with these four. I found it hard to understand the stylistic jokes in both versions (Pistol’s Marlovian boasting, Nym’s “humors”) and had to read about them in the Arden edition, but I suppose that is inevitable.

Shallow: Alan Bennett (BBC) is a harmless and very decrepit old man, while René Thornton, Jr. (ASC) is a hilariously dirty old perv, though he is too big and healthy to look quite as decrepit as he ought.

Slender: Richard O’Callaghan (BBC) is depicted as a fop, in fact looks a bit like some depictions of Shakespeare, and his “I am not altogether an ass” is fairly convincing. The ASC Slender (Chris Johnston) is altogether an ass and then some, and comes across as very young and a total dork — hilariously awful.

Fenton: Not much to say except that Tobias Shaw (ASC) is younger and much handsomer than his BBC counterpart.

Sir Hugh Evans: The BBC Sir Hugh’s Welsh accent, though presumably authentic, was nearly undetectable, at least to my untutored ears. Apparently the BBC thought putting a real Welshman in the part (Tenniel Evans) would suffice, but his failure to audibly mix up his Bs and Ps and so on ruined many of the jokes. Perhaps they were afraid of offending the Welsh, but a fake Welshman with a comically-exaggerated accent, like Chris Seiler at the ASC, would have been funnier. (Cf. Henry James, “The Real Thing”.)

Dr Caius: Daniel Rigney (ASC) looks much younger than Michael Bryant (BBC) and also (therefore?) less threatening, both to his servants and to Sir Hugh. I’m not sure whether that’s a plus or a minus or just a difference. I’m also not sure whether making Dr Caius and Slender look twice the age of Anne Page is a good thing in so far as May-December matches are both historically plausible and creepy, or whether that distracts from the main lines of the plot. Still thinking about this.

Mistress Quickly: Without giving away too many details for those who haven’t seen the play, Alison Glenzer (ASC) makes very effective use of her skirt and cleavage for comic purposes. The BBC Quickly was rather dull, at least by comparison.

Bit Parts: I don’t have much to say about the servants except that I couldn’t tell whether Ron Cook’s Peter Simple (BBC) was supposed to be 15 or 40 — he always seemed to be one or the other, nothing in between, which was a bit disturbing, and his simpleness looked like cliché mental retardation, while Erin Baird (ASC) comes across as none too swift but mostly naïve and very young.

The BBC postmaster’s boy and the other male ‘bride’ at the end were played by actual boys who could plausibly pass for girls. At least I’m assuming they were boys: it wasn’t easy to tell, which I suppose was the point. More farcically, the ASC uses the two biggest available men in the cast, René Thornton, Jr. and Nolan Carey. In this case, as in most cases, I prefer farce to verisimilitude.

How to sum up? If you’re anywhere near Staunton, Virginia, come see the play.

Shakespeare at the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton

Filed under: — site admin @ 11:04 PM UTC

I moved to Staunton, Virginia a year ago last week for a number of reasons, but primarily so I could go to plays at the Blackfriars Playhouse. I’d been driving 4 1/2 hours each way from Raleigh every few months to see three shows in a weekend, so when a good Latin-teaching job in a neighboring county was advertised, I jumped at the chance to live a block and a half from the theater and go whenever I like. In my first year in town, I saw 105 performances of 17 different plays, or roughly two per week, not counting unstaged readings and MFA productions. (The Master of Fine Arts in Shakespeare Studies program at Mary Baldwin College is closely associated with the American Shakespeare Center, and the MFA students put on several shows per year at the Blackfriars. I went to all four shows of their As You Like It: it was that good.) It’s time I started posting about what I have seen.

My qualifications for theatrical reviewing are questionable: over the years I’ve read a lot of plays, mostly ancient, seen only a few until I moved here, and acted in none. I’ve also read very little, theoretical or practical, about post-classical drama. However, I won’t let that stop me. First up: Merry Wives of Windsor, later today.

Please note: If you are only interested in reading my reviews of Blackfriars productions, use this link. If you are interested in reading all of my theater reviews, use this link.