Last night we opened Misalliance. Which is why we’ve been too busy to post about past productions. Anyway I recently realized how many Shaw plays I’ve been in. Interestingly, only one of them, like Misalliance, was set in Shaw’s own time.
The first one was in 1992 and the show was The Apple Cart, which is set in some time in the future. I was Princess Alice.
Then in 2005 I played Joan of Arc in St. Joan.
Then in 2011 I was in The Philanderer, along with Louis Clark and Joe Illingworth who are also in Misalliance.
And most recently I played Cleopatra in Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra, with John Taylor, who also, is in Misalliance.
Shaw liked to call it “Miss Alliance” in his letters. The affectionate nickname tells us something about his feelings for this play. It is the middle play in what has been called his Marriage Trilogy: Getting Married and Heartbreak Houseare the other two and they really are about misalliances. This play, in spite of its title, is the only one of the three that contains within it a really happy marriage and ends with the prospect of another happy marriage.
And that makes Misalliance a kind of rare bird among romantic comedies; indeed among plays of any kind that deal with marriage. Look at the married couples in the dramas and tragedies that we have done in the last couple of seasons: The Flies, Juno and the Paycock, and yes, Blood Wedding. We’ve done comedies in which a romantic couple figured in a sub-plot and were engaged at the end of the play, and we believe that they will live happily ever after, but only because that is a convention of the form. Arsenic and Old Lace and Madwoman of Chaillot are examples that we’ve recently done.
How about plays where the love stories are the center of the action? Twelfth Night ends with three marriages. Toby and Maria will make it; they have known each other for years and we have every reason to believe in them. But the other two couples: Olivia and Sebastian have known each other for about an hour when they marry, and Orsino proposes to Viola, who he thought was a boy, about five minutes after condemning her to death. Good luck.
How about Bus Stop?It is a charming love story, but if you believe that Bo and Cherie will make it to the end of the bus ride you are very sanguine indeed. Bus Stop is almost the prototype for romantic comedy. A couple meet and are attracted to one another. They quarrel and believe all sorts of bad things about each other but finally realize that amor vincit omnia and they get married. But it is the quarreling that provides the jokes and the action of the comedy.
To paraphrase the opening sentence of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: “All happy marriages are alike; every unhappy marriage is unhappy in its own way.” Obviously, unhappy marriages are more interesting.
Is it possible to write a good comedy about a couple who meet, like one another, love one another, never quarrel, and then get married? Where would you find the conflict? Where would you find the jokes?
All of the stuff of romantic comedy is in Misalliance: the quarreling, accusations and actualities of infidelity and adultery, mistaken identities, death threats, secret panels, even—all are in Misalliance. And all of that melodramatic stuff is presented through some of the best and wittiest dialogue Shaw ever wrote. And most of the wit is there by virtue of all the past and potential and failed misalliances of most of the characters in the play. The successful alliance that ends the play is interesting largely because of its contrast to the others.
Getting Married and Heartbreak House, likethis play, show us a number of past and potential misalliances and end with marriages we hope will last. In Getting Married the couple marry only after writing a pre-nuptial contract designed to make divorce easy should they want one. Heartbreak House gives a heroine who is in love with a married man and engaged to a ruthless plutocrat, a heroine of about 20 who ends up married to an 88-year-old man. That marriage will be happy but short.
Shaw had been married for about ten years when he wrote this play. It seems to have been a happy marriage; it lasted another three decades until his wife’s death in 1943, but the marriage was never consummated. (I am not sure how we know this: but we do.) But if Charlotte Shaw remained chaste, her husband almost certainly did not. He had a number of extra-marital affairs, the most notable being with Mrs Patrick Campbell who played Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion and was the model and inspiration for Hesione Hushabye in Heartbreak House and Orinthia in The Apple Cart. She said of this play: “Misalliance is out and out surely the best you have done and that I suppose means the best modern play.”
Katherine Dubois Reed is a founding member of The Upstart Crow. She is also a playwright, actor, and tea enthusiast. Here she talks about one of her original plays The Upstart Crow produced in 1985: York 8 Lancaster 6.
Vain Flourish of my Fortune: Margaret of Anjou was the play that led to the founding of the Upstart Crow (or the re-founding of TUC, depending on how much of a stickler you want to be).
It also led to the writing of my play York 8 Lancaster 6.
I played Lady Anne in Vain Flourish, the woman who lets Richard woo her over the body of her dead father-in-law (from spitting to kissing in a few short minutes). It got me wondering what we know about both Anne and Richard as real people. Book led to book and before long I knew more about the Wars of the Roses than most Americans. Perhaps more than most historians.
I tend to see the comic possibilities in almost any situation. This isn’t always a good thing, but laughing at people who’ve been dead for five hundred years is pretty safe. More than anything, what struck me as comic about the Wars of the Roses was the number of people who changed sides, and the reasons they had for doing it. Another thing that struck me was how much less the common people of England were affected by this war (essentially a family squabble/power struggle in the extended royal family) than by almost any other war you can name.
Over the course of about a year I jotted down notes and ideas, and then one weekend I sat down and wrote the rough draft of York 8 in three days (and this was back in the days when I wrote my rough drafts longhand because it was faster than typing).
The play is a bedroom farce set in a peasant hovel just outside Tewkesbury (the site of the final and definitive battle of the war). The members of the peasant family follow the war the way people today might follow rival football teams. The mom’s a Lancastrian, the dad’s a Yorkist, and the son and daughter keep changing sides. And after a battle, everyone—whether fleeing the country or returning to London in triumph—passes through Tewkesbury (don’t look too closely at a map).
York 8 was premiered in Lexington, Kentucky, in 1984. The Upstart Crow produced it in September 1985. Tim and I were married that summer, so we auditioned before we left on our honeymoon. The night we spent at a bed and breakfast just outside Tewkesbury, I got up early in the morning to call Boulder long-distance—to talk to the folks at the Bells’ house after auditions, and to find out what roles we’d be playing.
Tim, the smartest man I know, played Lord Grey, whose idiocy steals the only scene in which he appears. I played Isabella, the irritable and talkative elder daughter of the Earl of Warwick (Lady Anne’s big sister).
There’s an artistic myth that writers can remember every word they ever wrote. You’ve probably read or seen a novel, movie, or play, where the character who’s an author or poet suddenly, in the middle of a conversation, recites a paragraph or poem he wrote years earlier. This does not happen in real life.
One night, during a performance of York 8, I went up. (That’s actor-speak for forgetting your lines.) My fellow actors greeted me backstage with, “How could you possibly have gone up on that speech? You wrote it!”
Now, I ask you, can you quote, word for word, a conversation you had last week, let alone anything (a letter, perhaps) you wrote three and a half years ago?
It seems strange that we were only at Rawhide Court for four shows, but then a year is a very long time to a child. I have so many memories of that theatre, and yet, very few of them are theatre memories.
I do remember that when I decided to set up a lemonade stand, as any proper American child should, I did it in the box office of the theatre. Since I only had a dozen or so customers (the actors building the set and costumes) I didn’t do very well.
I also remember being in the theatre and trying to write a play about my favorite cartoon Voltron.
But mostly what I remember, is the field outside the theatre where I looked for horny toads, and was terrified when I looked down into a prairie dog’s hole, and saw the prairie dog coming up. I remember that there were birds who built mud nests under the eaves of the theatre, but kept knocking their eggs out of the nests. I would search all over the parking lot, trying to find an unbroken egg. And I remember an August evening when the company got together at the theatre, away from the city lights, and watched the Perseid meteor shower.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream in November, 1984 was our last show at St. John’s. It had been a wonderful relationship; too good to last. Our rental cost was trivial, our attendance was growing; but we were over-filling the space, and we had to strike our sets into closets a couple of times every weekend. But we were flush. And our ticket price—remember, this was 1984, way back in the last millennium—was four dollars. (!) So we thought we needed to move, and, as it turned out we found a building that we could lease by the year. It was an industrial building, a manufacturing plant, at 5853 Rawhide Court, a mile north of Boulder. (That building became, last year, Boulder’s first recreational marijuana dispensary, but that is not to our credit—or blame.)
I no longer remember who found the building, I no longer remember what we paid for it, but I will never forget the work we put into it to make it a theatre. We built a stage, of course, and a grid to hang our lights from. We had to repair broken windows because our first show would be in February and it gets chilly in Boulder in February. We installed two restrooms and built a box office. The walls were concrete and the acoustics were too live. We padded the walls behind the audience to dampen the sound. So we spent two months building a theatre but we ran out of time and supplies to build the first set. Luckily the first show we did at the Upstart Crow Theatre was an adaptation of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milkwood. Luckily, because Under Milkwood is a radio play, and radio plays tend not to require sets. We had a table and a couple of chairs, we built a couple of benches and we played in front of a blank concrete wall. This is what it looked like:
I think I mentioned a couple of blogs ago that we were an ensemble company. See the two women in front? They’re still with us: Joan Kuder Bell is directing our current show, Misalliance, and Katherine Dubois Reed is in it.
And, by the way, Kathy wrote the fourth play we did at the Rawhide Court Theatre, York 8 Lancaster 6, but more of that later. Anyway, the building was ours and we could build our sets right there on the stage, and the next few plays we did there displayed some of the finest sets we have ever had. Here is what our second show, Eugene O’Neill’s A Touch of the Poet looked like:
We were able to augment our income (still $4 a ticket) by renting the space to other companies. I recall a production by the Boulder Civic Opera company and another by an ad hoc group that did a play about basketball players. (I don’t remember their name or the name of the play.) We were like children with a brand new playground of their own.
Yes, we were like children. We knew a lot about playing, but we didn’t know much about playgrounds. The county shut us down after a year. The building had no sprinkler system, and worse; it had no drinking fountain. So, back on the road again.
Anyone who’s been around young children, knows how much they like to watch the same thing over and over. So I was never bored seeing plays over and over again as a young child, and I often knew many of the lines from the plays. I got to see every single play, until The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade by Peter Weiss, or Marat/Sade for short.
You see after The Playboy of The Western World by John Millington Synge, I got up on a pew in church one Sunday, and very loudly proclaimed, “Glory be to God, I’m crazy again!” One of my father’s line’s from that play.
So my parents decided that perhaps Marat/Sade was not a good play for me to see at 6 years old.
My older sister Vivian was in Marat/Sade, and sang several of the songs in the play. She didn’t think twice about practicing her lines and songs around my niece (who is three years younger than me) until one day in the grocery store my niece began to sing, “What’s the use of a revolution without general, general, general copulation.”
Maturity is after all, about knowing what you shouldn’t sing or shout in public.
Right now, as I write this, we are in rehearsal for Shaw’s Misalliance. There is a wonderful little meta-theatrical moment in the play when one of the characters, a well-read philosophical type, who habitually calls upon those he is arguing with to read this or that author. He talks of evolution and says, “Read Darwin.” At one point he talks about The Superman and says “Read”—no, not Nietzsche—. He says “Read What’s-his-name.” What’s-his-name is, of course, Shaw, who wrote Man and Superman about six years before Misalliance. Man and Superman is about a writer, John Tanner, who has written an important essay called “The Revolutionist’s Handbook.” And Shaw wrote just such an essay and it is appended to copies of Man and Superman and it is as good as the play says it is.
Now, that’s unique. I know of no other playwright who has written about a great writer—a fictional great writer—and quoted his work or printed it. You can write about second-raters, and quote their work, but you cannot quote a fictional writer who is a better writer than you are.
The same thing is true about writing about playwrights or actors. As an actor I have played a playwright twice. I played Shaw in Dear Liar, a play about his affair with Mrs. Patrick Campbell, and guess what? The character, Shaw, was as good a playwright as the real Shaw when I spoke his lines. And I have played Peter Quince, a writer, director, and actor in the Pyramus and Thisbe episode in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. And guess what: he was not as good an actor as me. How could he be? If I could portray an actor better than me I would do it all the time.
And that brings us to the most interesting play of our fourth season: Marat/Sade by Peter Weiss. That’s not the real title. The real title is The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade. I played Marat.
Actually, I played an inmate of an asylum who had been cast as Marat in a play that Marquis de Sade had written and directed. The actors playing de Sade and the staff of the asylum were actually playing those roles. The rest of us were playing lunatics who were playing roles. We were actors acting actors acting. In our fifth season we did Dream and again we had actors playing very bad actors. But that was easy; it was all for laughs.
This was different. We were not going for laughs. We were going for pity and terror. And we were trying to evoke pity and terror by doing it inadequately. We couldn’t just over-act, and forget lines and props, and fall on our prats. (There’s a little of that written into the play, but very little.) We had to portray our lunatic actors as realistically and sympathetically as we could. We had to dramatize and make our audience understand the great questions the play deals with, but never resolves: de Sade’s desperate striving for an ascetic self-awareness and self-fulfillment that ultimately led to the sadism named for him; Marat’s desperate striving for liberty, equality, and a just government, a striving that ultimately led to a reign of terror. And we had to play unsympathetic, unattractive, deluded characters accurately, but in a way that made them sympathetic, attractive, and understandable.
There is very little in our training that prepares us for this sort of thing. The long shadows of Constantin Stanislavsky and Lee Strasburg have fallen upon us and every American actor today is, at least partially, a ‘Method’ actor. When we prepare a role we explore the emotional life of the character by summoning up our own emotional life. We teach ourselves to use our sense memory to understand the feelings of the character. We read the lines and ask ourselves: what are they really saying. We read through the text into the ‘sub-text’ and let the secret, unspoken dialogue control how we act and react. We discover the ‘spine,’ the ‘through-line’ of the character. We come as close as we can (we tell ourselves) to becoming the characters, and let what they feel control what we do. And so we create, or try to create, authentic, realistic, consistent characters.
None of that works in this play. The two characters the Marat/Sade actor must play—the historical figure in the French revolution and the mad actor who portrays him—cannot be consistent. They are two different people. The historical figure may have really lived, and therefore is authentic and real, but he exists in the play only as the imaginary creation of a lunatic. The lunatics are purely fictional, but they are the characters the actor must portray truthfully.
But how? The actor cannot trust his sense memory, because he is playing someone whose emotional life does not find a counterpart in the actor. The actor would feel and respond in that way if this happened to him, but the point of the character is that he doesn’t respond that way: he is deranged.
And there is no way we can discover a sub-text because we really have no text. With a few exceptions the characters never speak for themselves; they recite lines they have memorized that de Sade has written for them.
So, a play like Marat/Sade—(Is there another play like Marat/Sade?)—asks a lot of the actor: great challenges and great rewards. The actors found their own ways of meeting the challenge. In some cases the nature of the mental illness that afflicted them is specified by the playwright—Peter Weiss, not de Sade—paranoia, sleeping sickness, melancholia, but in most cases the actors diagnosed themselves and diagnosed the severity of their condition. Some found they could pretend to immerse themselves in the character they played, and use the play as a way of escaping from whatever private horror they had. (Yes, there really are actors who do that—über-method actors—but our actors who made that choice were actually technical actors playing method actors.) Some decided the play was a lark and what they liked best about it was that they could misbehave and annoy their keepers. Some were patients who were unable to participate fully, but who heard the political messages of the play as statements about their own incarceration, and so they repeatedly lost control. Some were not mad at all, but were confined because they were an embarrassment to the state and to their well-placed families who managed to get them committed, rather than jailed. (Historically, this was de Sade’s case.) Each of us made our own choice, and the result, we hoped, would be a coherent production made out of incoherence and a single statement made out of contradiction.
I learned the importance of knowing your cue, at a young age.
The show was Howard Richardson & William Berney’s Dark of the Moon. My mother was the stage manager, and as the show got close to opening, I would watch rehearsals with her every night. At the end of the first half she would call out, “Blackout!” to signal the actors that in a performance the lights would go out. Being a kid, I thought this was great fun, and I started shouting it with her every night.
Opening night I was in the audience, and when the first act ended, I yelled “Blackout!”
Blood Wedding was our last production at the Free School. It was not just the sky-blue walls and the baptismal font on the stage that were hard to work into a set design. (The building had been built as a church.) It was not just the lack of parking at the corner of Broadway and Balsam. It was mostly the fact that the Free School—to its credit—hosted all sorts of community events, all valuable in themselves, but difficult to share the building with. It was hard performing a poetic medieval tragedy with a drum concert in the next room, for instance. The final blow was a cooking demonstration, during a performance of Blood Wedding, in the basement just below our theatre that filled the building with the delectable odor of various kinds of seafood: it was strong.
So, we became a traveling company. We performed wherever we could find space. Caligula was our next production and we did it in Theatre 300 in the University Theatre. It was a wonderful space but, unfortunately, only available to us for two weeks during Christmas vacation. That’s a good time to do The Nutcracker or A Christmas Carol, but Caligula lacks some of the wholesome, sentimental quality of most Christmas plays. It was not our best attended show.
Next was Shaw’s Arms and the Man, and we did that at St. Ambrose Episcopal Church in East Boulder.
Next: The Winter’s Tale and we found a great performance space for that: the Chautauqua Community House. That was our last show of our second season. We loved the space: theatre in the round with great acoustics and a full balcony. We opened season three in the same place with The Imaginary Invalid. We would happily have stayed there forever if we could, except for one small problem: The building was unheated. That was fine for Winter’s Tale performed in May and Invalid performed in September (actually not quite OK: we returned to Chautauqua for Heartbreak House in September of 1984 and once had to rent a propane heater to warm the room up before the performance. It didn’t.)
Next: A special event: We did a single performance of The Monkey’s Paw for a Halloween show at the Boulder Theatre.
Next: Our third church. We did Ibsen’s The Master Builder in the church hall at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Boulder. And our fourth church. We closed the show after three weekends at St. John’s and packed it up and took it to Denver for a weekend at the First Unitarian Church. That makes seven different theatres by the middle of our third season.
Next: The Rivals, and another church: The Unitarian Church in East Boulder.
Next: Back to Denver again. We entered a festival contest and performed a one-act: The Golden Fleece at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. We didn’t win.
Then, back to St. John’s. We finished our third season with two more shows there: Macbett by Ionesco and Dark of the Moon, the American Appalachian classic. St. John’s became our home for the next couple of seasons.
Three seasons: Twenty productions; nine theatres. Some of us were younger then.