This is an extension of a hand written letter I sent Michael Kahn on the eve of his final production as artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre Company. You might call this an ode to my love of storytelling on the stage, or more specifically a personal reflection on the importance of having access to theatre as a young adult.
Dear Michael Kahn,
I would like to start this message simply by saying thank you. For over a decade my experience with the Shakespeare Theatre Company (STC) included joy, wonder, terror, and awe — mostly in part due to your deft handling of the company’s artistic vision.
When I first decided to write you a letter, I figured I would craft it in your favorite meter. After all, if you are writing a love letter to William Shakespeare, iambic pentameter feels like the right choice to make.
But here’s a reality check: I am terrible at it, though I will admit I really like saying the phrase because it sounds like something out of the Jabberwocky — familiar, yet completely made up.
(Jabberwocky is an amazing poem, the things you miss when you die in 1616.)
Happy birthday (a day late)! For being just over 450 years old you’re still breaking hearts, causing drama, and encouraging laughter around the world. As we wrap up marking the 400th year of your death (sorry!) I wanted to tell you how I felt.
A storytelling mechanism that I love is one that uses altered realities to push characters toward an unintended and unexpected destination.For some, these altered realities are remembered as if in a dream, while for others it is a rift in time that only comes once a year.
How does a play that rhymes Keep us all in line Is it the lovely dresses? Or simply all the messes
The scrapes and schemes With portents and themes Bringing out death and love Or all of the above
But in all the wonder of the stage We are released from the worldly cage To watch in awesome delight As the story tries to set things right
In the last month I’ve had the opportunity to attend four different plays. The first I’ve reviewed before: a tale of witches, assumptions, and finding the truth. Wicked with a first time watcher is always great, and this time I could geek out and sing along.
The other three plays were part of my usual love of Shakespeare. With the start of the 2011-2012 season I experienced my usual double header with Free For All and a newly translated French play that was all in rhyme (much better than my attempt above). However, before we talk about those shows I thought we could talk about another version of the Bard work that I saw in Staunton, VA.
Stripped Down Hamlet
A group of girlfriends and I spent the weekend in a main street town two hours west of DC. Staunton is one of those small towns that have eateries that embrace the local food movement, shops that are all about supporting local merchants, rehabbed local movie house, and a historic hotel. It also has one other thing: a recreation of the London Blackfriars Playhouse.
Blackfriars is the name of two different theatres that existed in London. The first was a children’s theatre replaced by an Elizabethan playhouse that became home to Shakespeare’s company. Both theatres were built on the grounds of Blackfriars monastery. In building this re-creation, The American Shakespeare Center (ASC) intended to mimic Shakespeare’s “original staging conditions.”
I’ve been a season ticket holder of the Shakespeare Theatre in DC for three years now. With each show they put on I am amazed by what a theatre with a strong budget can do with creative staging. Seeing a show at Blackfriars is a completely different experience.
To Thine own Self be True. On this particular trip, we attended a production of Hamlet. In contrast to what I’ve usually seen, ASC presented the show with lights fully on, audience members on the stage, and intermission music that pulled from modern day tunes with the mood of the sixteenth century play. For Example: Letters to Cleo’s Cruel to be Kind, Simon and Garfunkle’s Sound of Silence.
Devoid of the trappings of set the show forced the audience to pay attention to the dialogue, and the language of Shakespeare. The lack of set also pushed the actors and through their delivery turned Hamlet’s insanity and subsequent tragedy into a comedy filled with dark black humor.
One last comment on the lighting: Usually when sitting in a darkened theatre the viewer feels disconnected from the story before them. Part of the reason that this version of Hamlet worked so well is that we became a part of the conversation. With the ability to make direct eye contact during the show, I felt as if the story was being told to us, as active agents in Hamlet’s demise, rather than merely a passive presentation.
You can see Hamlet at the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, VA through November 2011.
Et Tu Brute: Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar
The third show I saw last month was the first show of the 2011-2012 Shakespeare Theatre Company (STC) season, which was also a part of Free For All. This year’s free show was Julius Caesar, which while far from perfect (my group wasn’t a big fan of the actor playing Mark Antony), didn’t disappoint.
Presented with as much historical accuracy as possible (at one point Caesar is groomed using these scythe like scrapers called a strigil), the show evoked all the drama surrounding Caesar’s demise with gusto.
With some entertaining hand-to-hand combat and on stage blood, you really felt sucked into the fatal events on the Ides of March.
I walked away from the show wanting a refresher on the way historians describe Caeser’s death, since much of the popular depictions of his death are often drawn from Shakespeare’s play. So much so that you expect familiar lines in other unrelated representations of the rise and fall of Gaius Julius Caeser. I remember when watching the HBO show Rome (which tried to be gritty and realistic) that I expected “E Tu Brute” (click for an interesting conversation about the source of the quotation) to be uttered when Ciarán Hinds (Ceaser) met his end on the senate chamber floor.
There are many different ancient historians of Julius Caeser, and the two I am familiar with are Suetonius and Plutarch. While Suetonius is know for writing his histories by theme, Plutarch wrote about history in a more chronological fashion. I thought I would pull the section in Plutarch’s Lives of Caesar that describes how Caesar died.
Well, then, Antony, who was a friend of Caesar’s and a robust man, was detained outside by Brutus Albinus, who purposely engaged him in a lengthy conversation; but Caesar went in, and the senate rose in his honour. Some of the partisans of Brutus took their places round the back of Caesar’s chair, while others went to meet him, as though they would support the petition which Tullius Cimber presented to Caesar in behalf of his exiled brother, and they joined their entreaties to his and accompanied Caesar up to his chair. But when, after taking his seat, Caesar continued to repulse their petitions, and, as they pressed upon him with greater importunity, began to show anger towards one and another of them, Tullius seized his toga with both hands and pulled it down from his neck. This was the signal for the assault. It was Casca who gave him the first blow with his dagger, in the neck, not a mortal wound, nor even a deep one, for which he was too much confused, as was natural at the beginning of a deed of great daring; so that Caesar turned about, grasped the knife, and held it fast. At almost the same instant both cried out, the smitten man in Latin: “Accursed Casca, what does thou?” and the smiter, in Greek, to his brother: “Brother, help!”
So the affair began, and those who were not privy to the plot were filled with consternation and horror at what was going on; they dared not fly, nor go to Caesar’s help, nay, nor even utter a word. But those who had prepared themselves for the murder bared each of them his dagger, and Caesar, hemmed in on all sides, whichever way he turned confronting blows of weapons aimed at his face and eyes, driven hither and thither like a wild beast, was entangled in the hands of all; for all had to take part in the sacrifice and taste of the slaughter. Therefore Brutus also gave him one blow in the groin. And it is said by some writers that although Caesar defended himself against the rest and darted this way and that and cried aloud, when he saw that Brutus had drawn his dagger, he pulled his toga down over his head and sank, either by chance or because pushed there by his murderers, against the pedestal on which the statue of Pompey stood. And the pedestal was drenched with his blood, so that one might have thought that Pompey himself was presiding over this vengeance upon his enemy, who now lay prostrate at his feet, quivering from a multitude of wounds. For it is said that he received twenty-three; and many of the conspirators were wounded by one another, as they struggled to plant all those blows in one body.
As I’ve talked about before, representations of history are often just as useful as historical truth. They reveal subtle cues regarding the time in which it was written, while also providing a glimpse into the lasting legacy of a particular piece of history.
Just four days after seeing Julius Caesar I saw a new staging by the STC called The Heir Apparent, written by Jean-François Regnard in 1708. For the first time in a long time I walked into the show not knowing what to expect, and about two hours later I walked out smiling. Presented entirely in rhyme, this translation by David Ives (who also did The Liara few years back) was engaging and light-hearted. By no means a serious play, it follows a young man Eraste who wants to marry, but can’t until his miserly uncle names him the heir apparent. Hijinks ensue, including some cross dressing and a surprise guest that even now we can’t stop talking about.
Ives even inserts, in that clever way that translators do, some more modern allusions bridging the gap between 18th century France and 21st century Washington, D.C. Sometimes this bothers me, but in this case not so much. Probably, in the end, because the jokes flowed seamlessly into the rhyme scheme and were so enigmatically delivered by the players on the stage.
Even the reviewers got into the fun, with Peter Marks of the Washington Post presenting his opinion the same rhyme scheme as the show.
I thought I needed a post that sort of cleaned out the attic. Something that talked about all the little random things that I’ve been thinking about in the last two weeks, but don’t really fit into a larger post.
All’s Well That Ends…..
Meh. Well, that’s not being entirely fair. As usual the Shakespeare Theatre Company did not disappoint. Beautiful set, great acting, however I do think I may have found a Shakespeare play I didn’t love. At first glance the show seems to turn the usual Shakespeare woman on her head–Helena is forward, a little bit manipulative-while Bertram is weak and less…realistic (as loosely as the term may be applied). An argument can be made that my dislike is grounded in the fact that this is one tale of the Bard’s that I have never read, but there was something about the way Bertram had to be tricked into loving Helena that just seemed wrong.
But I guess I’m looking at it from a “today” perspective–but apparently in Shakespeare’s own lifetime it was not well received due to the break from the expected “role” of a woman of Helena’s class–and maybe that is what makes this typical Shakespeare. Changing role’s, identity switches, all a commentary on established norms of the time. Maybe, but I don’t buy Bertram’s one line switch from hate to adoration for his wife–just because she managed to fulfill the two impossible conditions he had put before her (get his family ring, and have his child).
On a random note I was listening to this episode of Radio Laband was surprised to find out how many words and phrases that are now part of day-to-day speech that are all a part of Shakespearean Lexicon. Cool.
So my dad taped two segments of the CBS show 60 Minutes for me from this past week. The first was on the archaeological dig at what is believed to be the City of David in Jerusalem. In short, the story was about the meaning of the City of David to the Jews in the city, and how the current political situation and peace talks will effect the dig. The story also emphasized the difficulty and the role of the past in the identities of the Jewish and Arab people in that region–along with the volatility of the conflict between settlers and the Palestinians. As I’ve said over, and over, that the connection of people to history is alive and well–and you could see the passion for that history in the eyes of both sides in the dispute.
The second story was a detective story surrounding an 11 minute reel of film that depicts the trolly ride down Market Street in San Francisco. What’s remarkable about the story, aside from seeing all the pieces come together, was just how a film historian pinpointed the date of the film by looking at the water on the ground, the construction levels of the building–the license plates on the cars in each frame to narrow the time frame of the film down to early April 1906. Having just been to San Francisco I knew the meaning of this date before the story actually told us–that just days after this film was shot the city, this street, was destroyed by the earthquake and subsequent fire. What this segment really illustrated for me was just how a piece of the past, an object or a filmstrip can evoke wonder and awe–especially when that last connection is made, that glimpse pack to a past on the brink of catastrophe, a world that would no longer exist in the same way again.
Then there was this week’s episode of How I Met Your Mother entitled “Architect of Destruction.” The episode as a whole was hilarious, as usual, but the storyline that dealt with the destruction of a New York City landmark hotel (that had fallen to hard times) with a new construction (though well designed) bank building. I hated how the one who wanted to protect the building was depicted as a crazy activist loon, and that the idea of incorporating the existing structure into the design was merely a ploy for Ted to get the girl…and when he couldn’t he didn’t consider it worth his time. I know, I know its a sitcom and shouldn’t be taken seriously, but really?
Not to mention that during the whole episode no one used the words historic preservation even once. Food for thought.
NaNoWriMo: The Future of History
So this year I am participating in National Novel Writing Month for the second time. Unlike last year where I jumped into the process on November 1 with no planning, I’ve been thinking about what I want this year’s project to be about. It’s a bit complex (translation–not completely formed) so I won’t bore you with details, but I am aiming to mix my two loves science-fiction/fantasy and history and am looking for ideas for what futuristic historical tools might look like. One of my characters is a sort of an archaeological detective, and is trying to suss out the past using updated digital versions of what we use in the historical trade. For example–archaeologists look at stratigraphy as one way of dating the objects they find in the ground–would a future version of dating a midden, or a series of objects be as simple as a fast, instant scan? Is it going to be about getting information faster, or would it be a flashier version of ground penetrating radar–just dressed up differently? Anyway–just looking for some ideas from fellow historians to kick off the brainstorming.
Note: In the next week I’ll be at the National Preservation Conference in Austin, Texas. Check out the virtual attendee page to keep track of what’s going on, and check back on the blog to see what I’m up to!