Tag Archives: The Upstart Crow

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.

Fakespeare – The Second Maiden’s Tragedy

Remember the Hitler Diaries? In 1983 the West German Magazine Stern purchased for 9.3 million Deutsche Marks six volumes of diaries purportedly written by Hitler, and began publishing them. It turns out they were fake and the handwriting expert who proved them to be fake was an American writer  and autograph collector named Charles Hamilton.

 

He earned a lot of fame for his exposure of the fraud, but he was not done. In 1994 he outdid himself when he discovered and published a lost play by Shakespeare entitled Cardenio.

 

Now there really was a play called Cardenio. In 1613 it was performed twice at King James’ court by Shakespeare’s company. And in 1653 a Cardenio by Shakespeare and John Fletcher was entered in The Stationer’s Register—copyrighted, in effect—but there is no evidence it was actually printed. The work registered in 1653 may or may not be the same play as the one performed in 1613. No copy has come down to us.

 

But there is a play that has come down to us: one copy of a handwritten manuscript with no title or author’s name. On the last page, dated October 31, 1611, is a notation that says, “This Second Maydens tragedy (for it hath no name inscribed) may wth the reformations be acted publickly.” That note gives us the title by which the play has come to be known and a last possible date for its composition.

 

On the first page, in a hand dating from much later in the century a title was added:
The Second Maydens Tragedy
October 31st
1611
By Thomas Goff
A Tragedy indeed.
A later hand crossed out Thomas Goff and wrote in ‘George Chapman.’ A still later hand, probably dating from the 18th century crossed out Chapman’s name and wrote ‘Will Shakspear.’

 

Hamilton claimed that this play is really Shakespeare’s Cardenio. We decided we would be among the first to produce this lost work.

 

The name, Cardenio, comes from Cervantes’ Don Quixote. Don Cardenio was betrothed to Luscinda. His friend Don Fernando, who had seduced and abandoned Dorothea, fell in love with Luscinda and tried to force her into marriage. She fell unconscious from helpless rage. Cardenio went mad and fled to the mountains where Don Quixote found him leaping about. Dorothea, in grief, also fled to the mountains where Don Quixote found her disguised as a boy. Fernando kidnapped Luscinda and traveled to the mountains where Don Quixote found them in an inn. There the four lovers got themselves properly redistributed and in a room at the inn they discovered the manuscript of a novel. That novel is quoted in full and it is indeed the source of the subplot of The Second Maiden’ s Tragedy

 

So, there is certainly a connection between The Second Maiden’s Tragedy and the story of Cardenio, but it needs a very rich imagination to find much similarity between the main plot of the play and Cardenio’s own story. The names are different, the story is different, the outcome is different, the tone is different. The only similarity is that in both stories one man loves and attempts to force his attentions upon a woman who is loved by and loves another man. How many thousands of stories can be so described? Among Shakespeare’s works, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Troilus and Cressida, Romeo and Juliet, and Measure for Measure all fit that form better than The Second Maiden’s Tragedy.

 

Hamilton claimed that Shakespeare and Fletcher made minor changes in the story of Cardenio. The character corresponding to Fernando (‘The Tyrant’) does not kidnap Luscinda (‘The Lady’); he tries to rape her. She kills herself and he preserves her dead body and makes love to it till it becomes a little unsavory. He hires an artist to freshen up the body and the character coresponding to Cardenio (‘Govianus’) disguises himself as an artist, cleans up the body and applies poison to its lips. The Tyrant kisses the corpse and dies. Minor changes.

 

He offered examples of stylistic similarities between “Cardenio” and other plays by Shakespeare: “your discretion sucked” (Cardenio)–“When Hector’s grandsire sucked” (Troilus and Cressida) and “unfashionable for pleasure” (Cardenio)–“lamely and unfashionable” (Richard III) as evidence. Shakespeare and the Cardenio writer both find that blushes can indicate guilt. And so forth. Most of his comparisons are a little better than these, but only a little.

 

So, who wrote The Second Maiden’s Tragedy? Almost certainly Thomas Middleton. Long-time Upstart Crow patrons may remember Middleton’s The Changeling which we produced earlier that year (1995) and a comparison of the two plays is instructive. Both are made of two self-contained plots that connect in only the most tenuous fashion except in terms of theme. In both plays the subplot is thematically and morally a kind of mirror image of the other. (Shakespeare’s subplots are tightly interwoven with the main plots and are thematically supportive, not contradictory.) The Second Maiden and Changeling are about sex—obsessive, compulsive sex—and in both plays the lady in one plot gives in to the compulsion while the lady in the other resists it. This structure is unknown in Shakespeare. Leonella in The Second Maiden’s Tragedy and The Changeling’s Diaphanta are practically the same person: they even have the same mild curse, “Cud’s me,” an expression that occurs nowhere in Shakespeare. Sophonirus in Second Maiden is a ‘wittol cuckold,’ a man who knows his wife is unfaithful to him and doesn’t mind. There is no such character in all of Shakespeare, but he is a staple of Middleton’s ‘city comedies’ like A Mad World, My Masters, and A Chaste Maid in Cheapside.

 

Anyway, it’s a very good play and we’re glad to have been among the first in the modern theatre to do this splendid, non-Shakespearean tragedy.

The Trojan Women – Lost in Translation

We opened our fifteenth season with The Trojan Women by Euripides. I had done the play before. It is, I think, the greatest anti-war play ever written and I don’t think it can be done too often. In fact The Upstart Crow did it again in 2004. The first thing I did, of course, as we do whenever we do a play written in another language, was to find the best translation of the play. I was not looking for the most accurate translation. (I can’t read Greek, so how would I know?) Nor was I looking for the best translation for a reader of the play. I was looking for a translation that best fitted the language the actors would speak from the stage..
1
The Trojan Women (1994)
The more I read, the more I loved the play, and the more I became frustrated in my search. Good translations for readers existed, of course, or I could never have fallen in love with the play. But I could find no translation that I thought an actor could speak from the stage without sounding foolish, insincere, stilted.

 

For instance: The play is about the suffering of the women of Troy after it has fallen, and they express that suffering through a fair amount of audible grieving. Virtually all translations express the grief through vocalizations like “woe is me,” “alas,” and “ah, me.” These things will do for a kind of literary stage-direction in a text for the reader, an indication that the speaker is grieving, but they will never do as the actual utterances of people in real grief. I have never heard “ah, me” in real life except as a deliberate jest, an attempt to denigrate or parody grief, and I would never ask an actor to use that expression unless I wanted it to sound like denigration or parody. I do not know exactly what Euripides wrote in these places, but I doubt very much that it was a vowel followed by the first person singular accusative pronoun.
2
The Trojan Women (1994)
The chorus describes the moment just before the Greek soldiers came out of the Trojan horse and began slaughtering the men of Troy. The most esteemed modern translation, that of Richmond Lattimore, renders it thus:
 …and girls’
light feet pulsing the air
in the kind dance measures;
indoors, lights everywhere,
torchflares on black
to forbid sleep’s onset.
This is pretty good, but torchflare is a very literary word, and the last phrase is simply not real human speech. If you ask me about last night I might say something like “Well, I couldn’t sleep,” but I would never say anything remotely like “Something forbade sleep’s onset.” Also I think if dancing feet can pulse the air they must be pretty heavy feet.
3
The Trojan Women (1994)
Edith Hamilton’s translation is better—
…girls with feet as light as air
dancing, sang happy songs.
The houses blazed with light
through the dark splendor,
and sleep was not.
—until that last phrase.
4
The Trojan Women (1994)
Isabelle and Anthony Raubitschek give us:
the maidens
lifted their feet and beat the ground,
and sang their tuneful airs.
But in the homes, the shining gleam
of fire put to sleep
the darkened light of day.
This is more deliberately ‘poetic’ than the others and suffers from the flabbiness that accompanies that sort of thing. Why are we told of a “shining” gleam when there is, really, no other kind of gleam? And isn’t “tuneful airs” a rather roundabout way of saying “songs”? And why “maidens”? Were only virgins permitted to dance? The last phrase here seems to contradict the other translations; where they express a general absence of sleep, this one tells us the night was sleeping (if that’s what “darkened light of day” means).
5
The Trojan Women (1994)
E.P. Coleridge is more poetic yet, although in prose:
…maidens beat the ground with airy foot, uplifting their gladsome song; and in the halls a blaze of torchlight shed its flickering shadows on sleeping eyes.
Maidens again. “Uplifting their gladsome song” really is, in more senses than one,  unspeakable. I suppose I might lift up a song, but I cannot imagine saying: “I uplifted a song.” That sounds like pirating from iTunes.
6
The Trojan Women (1994)
Philip Vellacott is perhaps the most prosaic, al-though it is printed as verse:
…music of dancing feet;
Until through the darkened palace
One flare still left alight
flickered on sleeping faces its dim gleam of fire.
This is a translation I might have used, but it is only nominally verse. It would not lend itself to music, and the choruses were sung, and ought to be sung in modern productions.
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The Trojan Women (1994)
So I gave up and made my own. My claims for it are modest. It is certainly not the most accurate, faithful version, for I am not competent to do that. It is certainly not a brilliant modern recreation, for I tried to stick as close to the original as I could, trying to discern the original as best I could through the works of others. All I claim for it is that every line is speakable; that was my guide. I used English verse forms and rhetorical forms, and devices such as rhyme as freely as I used English words and English syntax. Since this is an English version it would seem pointless to render it into non-English hexameters in quantitative verse.

 

It would be unfair not to quote my versions of the passage I have quoted above. Here it is:
Over the stones the dancers swept,
Girls with feet as light as air.
Torchlight danced from every door
And nobody slept.

Man and Superman: A Triumph

We opened our fourteenth season with Man and Superman by George Bernard Shaw. It was our most ambitious production ever, and, according to Jack Crouch, the erstwhile chairman of CU’s theatre department, it was “a triumph.” Here’s why:

The Upstart Crow prides itself on its policy of never cutting or rewriting plays. When we did The Importance of Being Earnest we took the trouble to find Oscar Wilde’s manuscripts and we restored the play to the version he had originally written: a four act play that I think almost nobody but The Upstart Crow has ever done in its entirety. When we did Caligula we found that the only available English translation omitted a scene that we thought was essential to the play. We translated that scene (well, Kathy Reed translated it) and we added it to our production. When we did Molière’s Imaginary Invalid (we’ve done it three times) we actually performed the three inter-act interludes Moliere included in his production, and I think hardly any other production since his time has done that. (Actually, to be honest, not quite: The second interlude includes a dance by monkeys and no monkeys have ever shown up at our auditions, so we had a dance, but it was a monkey-free dance.)Man and Superman is loosely based on the story of Don Juan, a successful libertine that has been figured in works by Byron, Moliere, Mozart and others. In most of the stories Don Juan seduces Doña Ana, kills her father, and invites a statue of her father to the wedding. And the statue comes to life and drags Don Juan to Hell.

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Man and Superman (1993)

Shaw reverses the story. It is Doña Ana (Ann Whitefield in Shaw’s play) who proposes and pursues Don Juan (John Tanner) across Europe to seduce and marry him. Tanner escapes in his motor car and drives through Spain. In the Pyrenees he is captured by a band of Spanish bandits who hold him for ransom. It’s night, they all fall asleep and John Tanner and the bandit chief have a dream, the same dream evidently. The dream is Act III, scene ii of Man and Superman. They dream of Don Juan, Doña Ana, the statue, and the bandit chief in Hell. Juan is played by Tanner; Ana by Ann; the statue by Roebuck Ramsden, Ann’s guardian; and Lucifer by Mendoza, the bandit chief. It is virtually a complete play in its own right. It has often been played as a complete play under the title, Don Juan in Hell, but it is almost always cut from productions of Man and Superman.

Man and Superman (1993)
Man and Superman (1993)

I have searched the Internet for every mention I could find of performances of the play, and virtually all of them indicate that the third act was not included in the production. I did find one that said the first production that included the dream was in 1915. (The play was written in 1900.)

Man and Superman (1993)
Man and Superman (1993)

The reason of course is length. Don Juan in Hell is about an hour and a half long, and the rest of the play is something over two and a half hours. That would make a very long evening. And the dream contributes nothing to the plot of Man and Superman. It really is easy to pull it out.

Man and Superman (1993)
Man and Superman (1993)

But Shaw called Man and Superman “a comedy and a philosophy,” and most of the philosophy is in the dream scene. And watching Tanner and Ann play their legendary prototypes is enormously enriching.

Man and Superman (1993)
Man and Superman (1993)

So, being what we are, we did the whole play. We cast the four Don Juan characters in early summer, shortly after closing the previous season, and rehearsed that part of the play for about a month. Then, we cast the rest of the roles and rehearsed the framing play four nights a week, rehearsing Don Juan every Friday evening to keep it ready. After more than two months of rehearsal we opened on a Friday evening with Man and Superman without Don Juan. On Saturday we did Don Juan. Then, on Sunday we did a matinee performance at 3:30 of Man and Superman up through Act III, scene i. Then a break for supper, and at 7:00 the audience returned to see Act III, scene ii, and Act IV. For the rest of the run we kept up the same schedule: alternating the framing play and the dream play each Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, and doing the whole show in a matinee and evening production on Sunday.

Cast of Man and Superman (1993)
Cast of Man and Superman (1993)

As far as I can tell, we are the only company in America that has ever done the entire play.

Season Thirteen – John Webster and Tragedy

John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi was my favorite play of our thirteenth season. Webster had a profound tragic sense that only his older contemporary, Shakespeare, could match. This is from the program notes for our production.

“It seems an unaccountable pleasure which the spectators of a well-written tragedy receive from sorrow, terror, anxiety, and other passions that are in themselves disagreeable and uneasy. The more they are touched and affected, the more are they delighted with the spectacle; and as soon as the uneasy passions cease to operate, the piece is at an end. . . .The whole art of the poet is employed in rousing and supporting the compassion and indignation, the anxiety and resentment, of his audience. They are pleased in proportion as they are afflicted, and never are so happy as when they employ tears, sobs, and cries, to give vent to their sorrow, and relieve their heart, swollen with the tenderest sympathy and compassion”

–David Hume, “On Tragedy”  (1757)

The Duchess of Malfi (1992)
The Duchess of Malfi (1992)

Hume is one of the very few writers to discuss the question: Why is tragedy enjoyable? There is certainly no shortage of studies of tragedy itself; of its structure, its form, and its history; no shortage of  discussions of the beauties of its principal instances. Philosophers, æstheticians and critics from Aristotle on have tried to tell us what tragedy is, how it is made, how it works, how it affects us. But scarcely anyone deals with what ought to be the central question: Why do we enjoy it: Why are certain spectacles of death and suffering fun?

The Duchess of Malfi (1992)
The Duchess of Malfi (1992)

And why are they fun of a particular kind? The appreciation of tragedy is not simply a grisly delight in watching others squirm, or the repellent fascination that may hold us when we witness the suffering of strangers. Horror films and monster films, movies that distribute death and dismemberment benefits to nubile adolescents may be enjoyable, but the enjoyment is clearly of a different kind. Janet Leigh’s death in a shower in Psycho (and the myriad imitations of it) may be powerful and moving, but simply not in the same way as the deaths of Cordelia, Desdemona, or Ophelia. Certainly the final stake through the heart (or whatever death is meted out to the monster) affords a satisfaction to the audience, but not the same satisfaction as the sight of Macbeth’s head. It is not that the movies go too far in their grisly displays or that the gore seems gratuitous.

The Duchess of Malfi (1992)
The Duchess of Malfi (1992)

Indeed, the complaint that in popular screen melodramas scenes of sex and violence are gratuitous, is mistaken in a very significant way. They are not gratuitous at all: they are the point of the whole work. It is the rest of a melodramatic or pornographic work—the plot, the characterization, the dialogue—which is gra-tuitous. These elements are, after all, merely framing devices or contexts or moral justifications for the important stuff: the spectacle of human bodies torn apart or brought together.

The Duchess of Malfi (1992)
The Duchess of Malfi (1992)

In tragedy violence really is gratuitous. In tragedy death is the context, the frame, for the important stuff: the spectacle of human minds and hearts and souls torn apart or brought together. Greek tragedy did without the gratuities entirely.  The death always took place off-stage. Even in Renaissance tragedy, even in the Jacobean “tragedy of blood” (which includes The Duchess of Malfi ) the deaths are really quite bloodless, or ought to be. The leading cause of death for Shakespearean characters is a stab wound in some vital organ located eight inches upstage of the chest.

The Duchess of Malfi (1992)

That is why the joking complaint that tragic (or operatic) heroes cannot die without first making a long speech (or singing an aria) misses the point. The speech is fundamental, the death is only the occasion for it.

Duchess of Malfi (1992)

Tragedy shows us characters who confront the most difficult and inevitable moments of life, usually the last moments, and deal with their terrors gracefully, heroically, beautifully. The pleasure of tragedy consists in watching that grace, that heroism, that beauty. It is not the final plunge into the grave that we want to watch, it is the posture and the dance at its edge. Tragedy is fun because the dance looks like a triumph.

The Duchess of Malfi (1992)

Comedy is about failure, and a comparison with that form is instructive. What death is to tragedy, sex is to comedy. It is not the sex act itself that is important; that is as gratuitous in comedy as the death act is in tragedy. Comedy is about all the activity that leads to and follows from sex and procreation. Comedy is about courtship, and nesting, and territorial marking, and dominance, and plumage and all the other Darwinian business that happens at the foot of the bed. The strategy of comedy is to show us these things done, not triumphantly, but foolishly and ineptly,  and to provoke our laughter.

The Duchess of Malfi (1992)

It is worth noting that there is a genre of drama that shows us the same things done successfully. It is called romance, and romances are thought of as a kind of comedy when the focus is on the love story (The Tempest, for instance) or as a kind of tragedy when the focus is on the difficult triumph (The Winter’s Tale, for instance.) There must also be a fourth genre, if we think of the drama in this way, but there is no accepted name for it. It is the kind of play that deals with foolish or inept dying. Here the dance at the edge of the grave is not a triumph but a burgomask; a fish-slapping dance. Shakespeare’s most puzzling plays, Timon of Athens and Troilus and Cressida seem to fit here.

The Duchess of Malfi (1992)
The Duchess of Malfi (1992)
But from time to time the theatre seems to concentrate on one form more or less unalloyed. In Athens under Pericles, in London under Elizabeth and James, playwrights sustained a tragic sensibility of uncommon purity. It is at the end of that latter period, during the reign of James, the tragic vision seemed to reach its greatest clarity. Shakespeare’s darkest plays, Macbeth and Lear, belong to this period. And Shakespeare’s greatest disciple, John Webster, flourished then. But Webster’s unflinching gaze at human terror is never merely grisly, and never depressing. His beautiful doomed characters, brilliant as meteorites, thrill us with that ineffable tragic feeling. Webster himself best described that feeling in his other masterpiece, The White Devil. Flamineo, the hero-villian of that play, looking at his own handiwork, observes;

 

I have a strange thing in me, to the which
I cannot give a name, without it be
Compassion.

Season Twelve – Setting the Bar High

We opened our twelfth season with A Penny for a Song by John Whiting and closed it with Reigen by Arthur Schnitzler. In between were Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice and T.S. Eliot’s The Coctkail Party. Those two, the Shakespeare and the Eliot, were technically unremarkable. Both were played against a black-curtain cyc with a platform and a throne for Merchant; two sets of furniture for Cocktail Party.

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The Merchant of Venice (1992)

But the other two, the Whiting and the Schnitzler, required sets that taxed our tech skills and resources at least as much as the ones I wrote about for our eleventh season. Penny for a Song takes place in 1804, in the garden of an English landowner, Timothy Bellboys, who has somehow convinced himself that Napoleon is about to invade England. He has stationed one of his servants on a platform in a tree so that he can spot the invading French army.

The Cocktail Party (1991)
The Cocktail Party (1991)

So we had to build the tree. (The actor spent the entire show in the tree.) He has sent to London for a Napoleon costume, so that when the French invade he will drop among them pretending to be the emperor and order them to “Mettez bas vos armes!” and to return to France. He will literally drop among them; he has purchased a balloon.

A Penny for a Song (1991)
A Penny for a Song (1991)

But the local militia is holding an exercise in the area and when the young man in the tree sees them he sounds the alarm and Bellboys descends, in costume, in his balloon—into a well. The militia take him to be Napoleon, and arrest him. So, in addition to the tree we had to build the well and the gondola and rigging of the balloon. Also, there was a gazebo on the set and the facade of the Bellboys’ mansion.

A Penny for a Song (1991)
A Penny for a Song (1991)

And there were necessary special effects: fireworks and a cannon ball that had reached the very end of its range and needed to roll onto the stage and stop just at an actor’s feet.

A Penny for a Song (1991)
A Penny for a Song (1991)

Der Reigen (It’s an Austrian play, but for some reason, perhaps because of a French movie based on it, it is usually known by the French translation of its title; La Ronde) presented a different kind of problem. It is a play in ten scenes and each scene takes place either just after a sexual encounter or it leads up to one with a different couple in each scene.  Thus:

A Whore and a Soldier
The Soldier and a Parlor Maid
The Parlor Maid and a Young Gentleman
The Young Gentleman and a Young Wife
The Young Wife and her Husband
The Husband and a Little Miss
The Little Miss and a Poet
The Poet and an Actress
The Actress and a Count
The Count and the Whore of scene one.

Reigen (1992)
Reigen (1992)

Well, that’s ten different sets; each scene takes place in a different place. So we built two revolving platforms, two turntables, each about 16 feet in diameter with a black curtained semi-circle that would hide the platform when it was turned one way and would reveal a set when it was rotated the other way. At each scene change we rotated both turntables to show a new set in one while hiding the set on the other. While it was hidden we would change all the furniture in it for the scene that would follow whatever was being played on the other, the exposed turntable.

Reigen (1992)
Reigen (1992)

It was not a beautiful show but it worked.

Season Eleven – Design Factor

We closed our tenth season with Ugo Betti’s Crime on Goat Island and opened our eleventh with All My Sons by Arthur Miller. As I think back on those plays what I most vividly remember is the sets we were able to build for both of them. Look back at the photos we posted for Tobacco Road and Macbeth, and at the photos here for All My Sons and Goat Island. And look at Thieves’ Carnival.

All My Sons (1990)
We don’t build sets like those any more. It’s not that we’ve lost the talent or the skills to design and build sets like that; it’s that we’ve lost the time and the space.

Crime on Goat Island (1990)
We were leasing space in a warehouse building at 4840 Sterling Drive in Boulder. We got it at a price we could afford partly, I think, because the company that owned the building was glad to able to rent it at all. The rest of the building was industrial warehousing, and we often heard heavy equipment working in the rest of the building, but only during normal work hours, never during the evening and weekend times when we performed.

Thieves’ Carnival (1991)
But then one morning, in our third season there, Joan Bell and I went to the theatre for some reason I can no longer remember and found, taped to the door, a notice that the city was shutting off the water to the building because the water bill had not been paid for some months. We had a show (The Importance of Being Earnest) playing that night. So, of course, we drove right downtown and paid the water bill. It was not too bad. Nobody but us had been using water, or, for that matter electricity or gas, for some time, so we were really only paying for what we had used. It turned out we were the only tenants.

All My Sons (1990)
We continued to pay rent for our part of the building for some time after that but, crooks and thieves that we were, we found ourselves in a huge empty warehouse and we were paying rent for only a small portion of it. We used the whole building: we now had rehearsal space and shop space, not somewhere across town, but in the same building, a few feet away from the theatre we were performing in. And it was not just The Upstart Crow; all the theatre companies renting from the Guild had the same opportunities and could rehearse and build there.

Crime on Goat Island (1990)
That’s how we were able to build some of those sets.

And one of our actors actually lived in the building for a while.

Worst of all, the city thought the building was unoccupied. That had worked to our advantage for some time, but one day we learned that the police were planning a swat team exercise in the building and would come in and shoot the place up some. We managed to talk them out of it. We were performing that day.

Thieves’ Carnival (1991)
Finally, McGuckin Hardware bought the building and that kept us out of all that free rehearsal and shop space we had enjoyed, but we could not have asked for a better landlord. They kept our rent at the same level. They placed their small engine repair facility in that building, but they made sure no one would be repairing a lawn mower engine during a performance. And, when our lease with McGuckin ran out, they let us stay a couple more years till we could move in to the Dairy Center.

McGuckin Hardware

Best of all, they gave me a job. I’ve just retired from 21 years in the bolt aisle at McGuckin’s.

Curses: The Scottish Tragedy

In our tenth season we committed an act of incredible courage, or incredible folly. We did a production of Macbeth. The thing about Macbeth (Dare I type the word?) is that it enjoys—well, suffers—an odd distinction: The play has a curse on it—actually three curses.
Macbeth (1989)
Macbeth (1989)
First, one must never speak the word “Macbeth” in a theatre; not on stage, not in the dressing room, not in the shop. That is certain to bring disaster upon whatever play is in production at the time. The curse can be lifted if the speaker of the dread word leaves the theatre, spins around three times uttering obscenities while spinning, spits over his shoulder, and then begs re-admission and quotes from Hamlet: “Angels and ministers of Grace, defend us.”  When the play must be mentioned backstage or onstage, it should be referred to by a euphemism. The usual one is “The Scottish Tragedy.” (I prefer “Brigadoon.”) I have heard of productions of the play that never spoke the name in rehearsals (But “Macbeth” occurs more than forty times in the dialogue of the play. I suppose they said something like “MacDuck”in rehearsal, but I don’t know.) The fact is I have been castigated more than once for saying “Macbeth” backstage. No, I never went outside and spun and cursed and spit. I always said “You don’t really believe in that curse, do you?” And I was usually answered with something like, “Why take the chance?”
Macbeth (1989)
Macbeth (1989)
Second, not only is Macbeth a tragedy, but producing it invites tragedy. The anecdotal record of productions of the play from its first performance in 1607 to the present reveals numerous cases of serious—even fatal—illnesses and accidents befalling the casts and crews who recklessly ventured to do the play. The first Lady Macbeth died just before the first performance. Lincoln read the play the night before he was assassinated. A falling sandbag nearly hit Sir Lawrence Olivier during a rehearsal. There was a riot outside a theatre doing the play in the 19th century, and more than a hundred people were killed. Several actors have been wounded during the combat in the play. And on and on. An internet search shows nearly a hundred documented—well, alleged—cases of disaster striking performances of Macbeth. Some of these cases actually occurred! Do you dare do the show? Do you dare attend?
Macbeth (1989)
Macbeth (1989)
Well, let’s see. Macbeth has been around for over 400 years. Assume something like 50 performances a year around the world. Fewer, I’m sure, in the 17th century: far, far more in the 20th. (I, myself, have acted in about 20 performances of three different productions of the play.) That would make perhaps a hundred or so dreadful events out of  20,000 performances. I think we’re safe. Brigadoon, however…
Macbeth (1989)
Macbeth (1989)
But there is a third curse, and it may be real. In the 19th century (before the superstitions had taken hold) the play was often produced by companies about to go under. It is the shortest of Shakespeare’s tragedies, it has a great plot with great roles and there’s lots of witches and sword-fighting and spectacle. It was thought to be a real crowd pleaser (it is) and was often the last production of failing companies trying to stay alive by doing a sure-fire hit. Since they were failing companies, these were not likely to be particularly good productions. Macbeth began to regarded as a play that could not be done well, and as a play that destroyed theatre companies. It has been speculated that this is the origin of the superstition. I am not convinced.
Macbeth (1989)
Macbeth (1989)
Anyway, directors and actors began to be afraid of the show. Enough of them are superstitious enough to believe the goofy curses and they approach the play with such trepidation that they cause the curses to fulfill themselves. Nobody dies, but there is enough alarm and nervousness to destroy the necessary energy that makes for a good production. But they know its a wonderful play. And they know they are about to fail. So they try to fix the problem by attacking the play with all the weapons at their disposal. Sex is one: naked witches and naked thanes. Maybe the witches are the problem: get rid of them. Maybe the witches are the solution: get more. (One of the productions I was in [not at The Upstart Crow] had six witches. I will not tell you about the costumes.) If Macbeth were dressed as a modern CEO, or a gangster…
Macbeth (1989)
Macbeth (1989)
Macbeth is probably more often conceptualized, decon-structed, post-modernized, and just plain made over than any other Shakespearean play. And yet, in spite of (or because of) the very best efforts to fix it, it fails. The curse must be real.
Macbeth (1989)
Macbeth (1989)
Here was our solution: We just did the play. All of it. No cuts, no improvements, no concepts. Just the play Shakespeare wrote, set in the time of the real King Macbeth. It’s the way we always do Shakespeare’s plays and it worked. We did Macbeth again in 2005 and it worked again and we’re still around.

A Child of the Theatre Part IX: Comedy is Hard

There’s a old adage in the theatre: Dying is easy, comedy is hard. That’s probably why I remember so clearly my first comic bit. It was in The Imaginary Invalid. I played Louison the youngest daughter of Argan the invalid.

Characters (Alexis Bell, Other) in The Imaginary Invalid (1988)
Argan (David Brigham), Louison (Alexis Bell) in The Imaginary Invalid (1988)

My one scene was rather simple. Argan wants to find out from Louison about the man her older sister is in love with. When Louison won’t tell him, he tries to beat it out of her, but she outsmarts him, by instantly playing dead, until he repents having killed his daughter.

We played this scene by having me run behind a large wooden chair. David Brigham, the actor playing Argan, would strike the back of the chair with his stick well above my head, and then I made a comic scream and played dead.

One day in rehearsal I had an idea, and I shyly approached the director and asked if when David hit the chair, I could throw the small stuffed clown I was carrying up into the air. The director approved, and so night after night I would run behind the chair and when David struck it, the clown would go sailing comically high into the air, and the audience would laugh.

Nine years old and I was already a comedic genius.

Imaginary Invalid – Season Eight

A couple of lessons well learned from our seventh season: Don’t cut; don’t mix genres, styles, or voices in a single evening’s production. The first lesson proved its value in our opening show: The Importance of Being Earnest. We did not do the standard received version of the play which is Wilde’s cutting of his original four-act play. We did our reconstruction of his original version from a compilation of drafts and hand-written and typed fragments preserved in a limited edition of the play we found in the rare-books room in Norlin Library. As far as we know we are the only company ever, in the English-speaking world to have produced that play. (There is some evidence Wilde’s original was sent off to a German translator, for there is a record of a German version, Ernst Sein!, with “major additions of unknown authorship.”) Anyway, more about that another time.

The Importance of Being Earnest (1987)
The Importance of Being Earnest (1987)
But we closed our eighth season with Molière’s The Imaginary Invalid and there is perhaps no play that violates our second rule more thoroughly. It’s Molière’s last play and it is—mostly—a conventional seventeenth century French farce. Argan, a hypochondriac, tired of paying physicians to cure his imaginary illnesses decides to marry his daughter to a physician so he can get free health care. There is a sub-plot in which his wife, Béline, tries to get him to change his will to give everything to her. The first act ends with these two plots established. Angélique, his daughter, asks Toinette, her maid, to contact Cléante, her lover and enlist his aid. Toinette says:

 

“There’s no one I can get to do it except the old loan shark Pulchinello, my admirer; and it’ll cost me a couple of sweet words, but I can spare them for you.”

 

Richard Bell in The Imaginary Invalid (1988)
Richard Bell in The Imaginary Invalid (1988)
Then there is an interlude. Pulchinello enters. Pulchinello! He is a continuing character in Italian commedia del’arte, the source of our Punch. He enters and sings a comic love song in Italian to an old woman, not Toinette, who rejects him. Then he is accosted by a dozen or so “archers” armed with slap-sticks who beat him until he gives them money. There really is such a thing as a slap-stick. It looks something like a cricket bat, but it is split down the middle so when you hit something with it the two halves, momentarily separated by the swing, hit each other with a loud clap. We built a dozen of them. The interlude has nothing whatever to do with the play; it does not advance the plot, it’s style is totally different, and every translation of the play into English I could find on the internet simply ignores it. They all simply say “First interlude” and go on to Act II.

 

The Imaginary Invalid (1988)
The Imaginary Invalid (1988)
Act II continues the plot. There are scenes between Argan and various doctors, love scenes between Angélique and Cléante, and then the second interlude: A musical number by a half-dozen Moorish women, followed by a ballet done by them and some unspecified number of monkeys. Yes, monkeys. We could have done the Moors; the women in the show could easily have put on some sort of robe to suggest Moorishness and danced, but not a single monkey showed up for auditions so we did the best we could: we staged a comic ballet.

 

Characters (Joan Kuder Bell, Katherine Dubois Reed) in The Imaginary Invalid (1988)
Characters (Joan Kuder Bell, Katherine Dubois Reed) in The Imaginary Invalid (1988)
Then Act III. Argan’s brother, Béralde shows up and persuades Argan that even better than having a doctor as his son-in-law is becoming a doctor himself. And all he needs to become a doctor is to learn a little Latin. (This may be pretty close to actual seventeenth century medical science.) Here’s how Act III ends:

 

Toinette: What’s your plan?
Béralde: To have a little fun this evening. The actors have prepared a little interlude about the investiture of a doctor, with music and dance; I want us to all take part in the entertainment, and I want my brother to play the leading role. We can each take a character, and perform the interlude for ourselves. After all, this is only a play.

 

Characters (Katherine Dubois Reed, Others) in The Imaginary Invalid (1988)
Characters (Katherine Dubois Reed, Others) in The Imaginary Invalid (1988)
“After all this is only a play.” Could you end a play like Hamlet or Lear or Death of a Salesman with a line like that? So I think what I said about consistency of tone and style is only true of serious drama. Shakespeare could violate this rule; there are comic scenes at critical moments in many of his tragedies, but just because he could manage it doesn’t mean it’s easy to do. Don’t try it.

 

The Imaginary Invalid (1988)
The Imaginary Invalid (1988)
Think of the great variety shows of twentieth century television. They were all comic. They could move between comic skits, musical or dance numbers, and stand-up routines. But I do not remember a single tragic episode in the Carol Burnett Show or Saturday Night Live. Comedy is a special form. It breaks all the rules.