Tag Archives: William Shakespeare

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.

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.

King Lear – The Show Must Go On

We settled into the Guild Theatre in the second half of our sixth season. Now we were preparing ourselves for a series of artistic triumphs. We had a company of actors who had in fact triumphed over any number of difficulties of scheduling, of performance (and rehearsal) space, of storage of set pieces, props, and costumes, and on and on. All our troubles were over.

 

If you’ve been following these blogs, you will have noticed we tend to brag a little; we have been writing about our successes, about what we have done well. Why wouldn’t we? As we prepared for our first show in our new theatre we had everything going for us. There was another theatre company that had fallen dormant; they hoped to revive, but until they did they asked us if we would mind storing a number of platforms they owned but had no place to store. You betcha, we said, and turned them into audience risers in the Guild. (That company never revived.) Then it got even better.

 

The facilities manager of Mackey Auditorium called us. Mackey was going to be remodeled and would have all new seats. Would we like some of the old seats? Guess what we answered.

 

So, we opened King Lear in a brand new theatre financed in part by a $20,000 line-item grant from the city; The audience sat in upholstered seats on risers that permitted excellent sight-lines. And it got even better still. One of our actors had just bought a number of lighting instruments dirt cheap from another company; they were selling them because it was impossible to focus them. We bought them from him—cheap. It turned out they could not be focused because they all had the wrong bulbs in them. So we bought the right bulbs (They cost more than the instruments).

Lear (Richard Bell) in King Lear (1986)
Lear (Richard Bell) in King Lear (1986)
What could possibly go wrong? Well, I was playing Lear. I did two performances, Friday and Saturday, of our opening weekend. And then I had a heart attack. That sort of limited my ability to continue in the role. So, what to do? We could have simply decided that our run was over. Yes, we would have lost the expected income from some half-dozen scheduled performances, but there were no future costs. The Guild would not have charged us for the scheduled nights we would skip. We could have survived to do our next show. Perhaps.

 

Lear (Richard Bell) and others in King Lear (1986)
Lear (Richard Bell) and others in King Lear (1986)
But: “The show must go on.” That’s not just a slogan. For us it is pretty nearly a religious commandment. So, the director, Joan Kuder Bell, found someone to replace me. She called Jack Crouch, who had been the chair of the department of speech and drama at CU and the founder of the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, and asked him if he would take on the part. His response was something like: “How do you say no to a request like that?” He carried a script, he wore a black suit, and he did the role. Whatever he lacked in preparation and rehearsal he made up in his really impressive stage presence and his understanding of the role and the play.

 

“How do you say no to a request like that?” In the 35 year history of The Upstart Crow we have had a half-dozen such occasions; times when an actor simply couldn’t do the role they were cast in. In every case we have asked someone else to take over the role, either just for tonight or for the rest of the run. No one has ever said no. We really are something like a cult.

 

I never saw Jack as Lear. I wasn’t out of bed till after the show closed but it must have worked: audiences were good, people liked the show. That was April. That summer the Shakespeare Festival did Lear with Dudley Knight, a famed Shakespearean actor, in the title role. And there was a party that summer that Knight, and Crouch, and I attended. Three actors who had played Lear within the last few months. Guess what we talked about. Has that ever happened before or since?