Tag Archives: John Millington Synge

Season Seventeen – Costuming Through the Ages

We opened our seventeenth season, 1996-97, with David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross. We followed with Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Shaw’s Candida, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and finally Synge’s Playboy of the Western World. The questions of how to mount, how to costume, were easy. Glengarry was written in 1983 and whatever changes may have occurred in men’s fashions over the last thirteen years seemed too trivial to bother with. The actors wore their own suits.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1996)
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1996)

But Cat was written and takes place in the ’50s in a plantation home in Mississippi. The play is largely about sexual tensions: Brick, the male lead, is gay and closeted (not that anyone used that word in the 50s) but his wife Maggie is straight and unsatisfied. She is the cat on a hot tin roof. But the way people talked about sex, especially gay sex (if ever they did), was quite different between the ’50s and the ’90s. In the first act Maggie wears only a slip. That makes sense for a hot summer day in Mississippi in the ’50s, but I doubt any of our actresses even owned a slip in the ’90s. So we had to evoke the period.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1996)
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1996)

Candida and Playboy both take place at the turn of the twentieth century; the Shaw in London, the Synge in western Ireland. Both are romantic comedies and the sexual language and tensions of the Vicwardian time, in London and in County Mayo are, of course, even more different than they would be at the turn of the 21st century. Obviously we had to recreate the setting and the costumes of the time and place.

Candida (1996)
Candida (1996)
Playboy of the Western World (1997)
Playboy of the Western World (1997)

The point is that the choice of setting and period for these plays was easy and automatic. But we also did Hamlet in that season and with that play, as always with Shakespeare, the choice is not easy. When does a Shakespearean play—any Shakespearean play—take place? Hamlet is based on a Scandinavian legend that Shakespeare read in a 13th century version written by the Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus. That places it in Viking times and that sorts with the politics in the play. England owes fealty to Denmark, and the Danish king can give orders to the English king. But Hamlet, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern were recent students at the University of Wittenberg, which was founded in 1502. And when Hamlet and Laertes duel in the last scene of the play their weapons are specified: rapier and dagger. The rapier was invented in the early sixteenth century. And rapiers are mentioned and worn and used not only in plays that can be thought to take place in Shakespeare’s time, but also in the King Henry plays and even in Timon of Athens and Two Noble Kinsmen, plays that presumably take place in classical or mythical Athens.

Hamlet (1997)
Hamlet (1997)

The ruler of Athens in Kinsmen and in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is Theseus, the Duke of Athens, which is of course a great anachronism. Well, yes, there were dukes of Athens, but that was during the Crusades when a duchy of Athens existed for a while during the 13th and early 14th centuries. That is not what Shakespeare had in mind. In Antony and Cleopatra, Antony refers to a personal servant, basically a valet, of Caesar’s as “one who cuts his points.” Points were ties, ribbons, that attached a gentleman’s hose, his tights, to his doublet. And Cleopatra wears lace, which did not exist till some time in the middle ages. So we have a fair idea of how Shakespeare dressed his actors in that play.

unnamedIn 1594 or ’95, a schoolmaster named Henry Peacham made the drawing reproduced above, and, under it, transcribed some forty lines from Titus Andronicus. The sketch illustrates the moment in the first scene of the play when Tamora, Queen of the Goths, kneels before Titus, her conqueror, pleading for the lives of her sons. It is pretty clearly a drawing made either during or shortly after an actual performance of the play.

Hamlet (1997)
Hamlet (1997)

Titus, the two male (kneeling) Goths and Aaron the Moor are wearing Roman armor. Titus’ Roman soldiers however, are in Elizabethan doublet and hose. Tamara is dressed like a fashionable Elizabethan lady. Under their Roman armor the Goths and Titus wear hose: that is, tights. The anachronism in the weapons is just as striking. The Romans carry medieval ceremonial halberds. One sports a scimitar, an unlikely weapon for either a classical Roman or an Elizabethan English soldier. His companion and Aaron have medieval long swords. But twice in the play swords are called rapiers.

Finally, to complete the list of anachronisms, while the left-most soldier wears a contemporary armor, his companion has on a breastplate of a Saxon style that passed out of use a hundred years before the play was performed. This is one of the best evidences that the drawing is the record of an actual performance. It would be difficult to understand why the artist, simply illustrating a scene from a play he was reading, would draw an armor he would never see in use. But it is easy to understand why an actor might be wearing such an armor: the theatre owned it precisely because it was no longer serviceable for combat.

Hamlet (1997)
Hamlet (1997)

So, there is no default proper period for any Shakespearean play, and that is probably one reason producers today seem to delight in finding strange settings and periods for the plays. But it seems certain Shakespeare did not place any of his plays in his own time. So we costumed Hamlet in the Viking period with rapiers and a university in Wittenberg. The religion in the play is Catholicism; Hamlet’s father’s ghost resides in Purgatory and Laertes says his dead sister will be a ministering angel when the priest at her funeral will “lie howling.” Claudius’s prayer in Act III is certainly a Christian prayer. But Hamlet’s absolute need to avenge his father is not a Christian notion. But it is a Viking’s duty, and mixing the Christian prohibition with the pagan, Viking duty helps to define the great conflict in the character of Hamlet.

Season Seven: A Learning Curve

We survived King Lear: both The Upstart Crow and me. And we went on to finish our sixth season with three one-acts by John Millington Synge: The Tinker’s Wedding, In the Shadow of the Glen, Riders to the Sea. It was not the best choice we could have made. They’re all wonderful plays and I think we gave each a really strong production, but they didn’t go well together. Tinker’s Wedding is a farce, a wildly funny play.

Characters in Tinker's Wedding (1986)
Characters in Tinker’s Wedding (1986)

Shadow is—well—a melodrama, and the earlier farce tended to set the audience up to laugh at the characters in the second play.

Characters in In the Shadow of the Glen (1986)
Characters in In the Shadow of the Glen (1986)

Riders to the Sea is a tragedy, a profound and beautiful little play but the two plays that preceded it, so different in tone, did not help its reception by the audience. We had thought that since the same playwright had written all three, that would unite them. But Synge’s range is great; we had three directors and three different casts. It was just not a unified coherent evening.

Characters (Joan Kuder Bell and other) in Riders to the Sea (1986)
Characters (Joan Kuder Bell, other) in Riders to the Sea (1986)
We didn’t learn; we did it again. The second show of our seventh season was The Oresteia by Æschylus. The Oresteia is not a play; it is three plays, the only extant Greek trilogy we have. Agamemnon is about the Greek commander’s return to Argos after his victory in the Trojan War and his murder by his queen, Clytemnestra. The Libation Bearers is about the murder of Clytemnestra and her lover Ægisthus by her son Orestes. The Eumenides is about the punishment leveled on him by the Furies and their transformation into Eumenides: “All-seeing, Kindly Ones.” We did have a single director and a single cast, but we divided the trilogy, and three of us took one play each and edited it down to less than hour each so we could get all three done in an evening. So there were three voices. And we cut the choral odes drastically. That was a mistake. Two of the plays are named for their choruses. We should have known better. Each of the three plays was done well, I think, but they did not combine into a good, coherent, single production. You will recall, if you have read the first couple of blogs in this series, that The Upstart Crow started with a cutting of four Shakespearean histories into one play about Queen Margaret of Anjou; Vain Flourish of My Fortune. And that didn’t work either.

Characters in The Oresteia (1986)
Characters in The Oresteia (1986)
(Twenty nine years later we got it right: The show we did last spring, The Flies by Jean-Paul Sartre is his version of the same story, of Libation Bearers and Eumenides, in a modern existentialist version. And we didn’t cut anything.)

Crowd (Matthew Gary, Nicole DeNardo, Casey Lloyd, Matthew W. King, Alexis Bell, Christopher Shelton, John Taylor, Debra Conley) in The Flies (2015)
Agamemnon (Scott Cuzac Tuffield), Crowd (Deanna Young, Matthew Gary, Nicole DeNardo, Casey Lloyd, Alexis Bell, Debra Conley), Zeus (Matthew W. King), Orestes (Christopher Shelton), Tutor (John Taylor) in The Flies (2015)
In between the Synge one-acts and The Oresteia we did Shaw’s The Man of Destiny. It was, as I remember it, an excellent production, and it certainly was a unified, coherent event; it’s a short play, only about an hour long, and that’s the problem. It didn’t really amount to a full evening’s entertainment. Our audience base is a lot larger than just the city and county of Boulder, and there were certainly people who spent more time getting to the theatre and then getting home than they spent at the play.

Characters (Joan Kuder Bell, other) in Man of Destiny (1986)
Characters (Joan Kuder Bell, other) in Man of Destiny (1986)
Here’s what we were missing: We thought we were selling you a ticket to see three plays by Synge or by Æschylus, or one play by Shaw. Actually, we were selling you a ticket to attend a single artistic event whose center was the three plays or one play. But, of course, you cannot have three centers.

 

  Every good play has a shape, a rhythm. The Greeks named the parts: prologue, strophe, antistrophe, episode; and again strophe, antistrophe, episode, till the conclusion. Almost every good play can be analyzed as exposition, complication, climax, denouement. You can think of these as analogous to movements in a symphony. Small, intimate scenes will alternate with crowd scenes and soliloquies. Shouting and whispering take their turns. Shakespeare was the best of all at this. Look at how often, just as the tensions in a tragedy were reaching a climax, he would introduce a comic—even a farce—scene; not because the plot demanded it, but for the sake of the shape, the rhythm.

 

The three Synge one-acts are very good plays and I think we did them well. And each has the kind of rhythmic structure a good play needs. But they did not resonate with each other. We kept saying, “Forget what you just saw. It was good but it’s over. Start again.” We invited you to a banquet. We gave you a pot-luck.

A Child of the Theatre Part III: For Mature Audiences Only

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.

Characters in Playboy of the Western World(1983)

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.”

Characters (Dan McNellan, Vivian Bell Sutherland, John Stadler and others) in Marat/Sade(1984)

Maturity is after all, about knowing what you shouldn’t sing or shout in public.