O if you raise this house against this house… RICHARD II, IV i

Something that’s been discussed as we begin this multi-season Henriad enterprise at Kentucky Shakespeare, with casting and design that carry over from production to production and year to year until we’re done or it kills us (it’s hot out there), is how to…not change anything about the plays themselves, exactly, but how to convince people that they are certainly no harder (and perhaps much easier) to follow than, say, Game of Thrones.

And yet when you mention Shakespeare’s Histories to even a fairly well-read person, there’s that tendency to recoil, as if the word “history” has already made things sound homeworky and antiseptic. Often the person will be able to bob and weave effortlessly through the subtle complexities of House Lannister or the cultural reasons for dwarf/elf antagonism in Middle Earth, but as soon as the names aren’t made up, they go cold as any stone. Never underestimate the educational incentives that are Boobs’n’Dragons, I guess.

I need to be clear here that I’m casting no aspersions – this is more of a marketing perplexity. I’m an avid watcher of Game of Thrones, a still-avid reader of Tolkien (though there is a point at which I don’t need to read every published napkin he scribbled on, Christopher). I’m working my way through Rothfuss, too, though I’m enjoying it enough that I’m intentionally making it last.

That’s a good example, in fact: the Kingkiller Chronicles have a distinctive world with distinctive rules, but they are being told to you as if you already knew those rules, which you then pick up by context and gradual revelation. And people love it because the writing is good. I don’t think I’m being excessive when I say it would be easy to write the same sentence about the Histories.

I wonder if it would help people to know the plays are wildly inaccurate. Maybe not wildly, but certainly…condensed & made more legendary than factual. Partially because you’re on dangerous ground when you start attaching motives to people whose Houses are still walking the streets and patronizing theater companies and beheading people. Partially because speculation is more interesting, even within those boundaries. Partially because of the bit of wisdom from John Ford (the filmmaker, not the Jacobean playwright – though cf. Angela Carter’s “John Ford’s ‘ ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore’” which is a favorite of mine) regarding whether to print truth or legend (I’m betting both Fords would agree the latter).

In fairness, there are people you’re introduced to whose names you barely know and whose backstory you have to imagine, if you even care to; even a historian would have some trouble digging up useful information on some of the all-but-supernumeraries. But if you put this in a modern scenario, these would be the very characters making a living by making appearances at conventions populated by people who learn Klingon (and therefore can totally handle Elizabethan English). Signing autographs and obscure Kenner figures, taking photos with fans astounded to meet “one of the guys who drowns George, Duke of Clarence!!”

I’m trying to avoid bringing the Hollow Crown series into this so as to duck the inevitable flaming that would follow my true opinion, but suffice it to say that it is not the answer I’m looking for.

Anyway. I don’t have a conclusion to this ongoing process. I’m just musing as I type or vice versa. Fortunately, this is only Year One. We just have to convince audiences to see Richard II, which in this political climate should be a cinch.

…exceeds her as much in beauty as the first of May doth the last of December – MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, I i

When I think of the phrase “first of May” I think a little of May Day, the international labor holiday, a little of my college roommate’s birthday, but primarily, for reasons that don’t even make sense to me, of the circus.

When you’re a lover of lost slang, it’s hard not to let it creep into your bones, be it Elizabethan, vaudevillian, or carny-speak. And to those who work in carnivals or the circus, a First of May is what we now a little less poetically call a noob, a greenie; Firsts of May (which I only realized while typing must be the proper plural, if things like that matter to carnys, or carnies, though spelling doesn’t seem to matter to them so surely this doesn’t; I just like the way it sounds) are novice workers starting their first season, which at some point in the pre-air-conditioning, agrarian world of the touring circus was around that date.*

The first of May this year also marks the beginning of summer rehearsals for Kentucky Shakespeare. I’ve been editing scripts since, oh, November**, and the other elements of pre-production have been happening for a while, but tomorrow marks the day the cast, crew and directors all gather in one surprisingly chilly room with gaff tape in strange formations all over the floor to sit around a couple of rectangular tables and read a couple of four-hundred-year-old plays aloud in that weird way of all actors at first read, the initial “let’s just read it and not worry about the acting” phase lasting about fifteen or twenty pages until the acting kicks in regardless, along with weird reading errors and self consciousness masked as total unselfconsciousness and inappropriate laughter and awkwardness where the fights and kisses will come later and all that jazz.

And despite the wide expanse of professional experience, for a while we all feel like Firsts of May who don’t really know how the hell any of this works. No one will be cowardly but we’ll all kill the poor script many times before it tastes valiantly of some well-rehearsed death once we’ve choreographed all the stabbings (though that won’t be for a few rehearsals yet – we’re starting with Much Ado and the stabby plays are later in the summer).

I’ve packed the old valise I found for $15 at a thrift store with the Crystals’ Shakespeare’s Words, Logan & Coye’s (oft-conflicting) books on pronouncing said words, the Ardens and Freeman’s Applause Folios of all three plays, the full scripts I annotated, the sides I printed out for myself so I don’t have to carry the whole schmear around when we start staging, two scribbly, battered notebooks, a couple of green pens and pencils, an old pullover (again, surprisingly chilly room), a twenty-year-old mug for summer tea (Daffy Duck in various stages of being un-beaked), and my official dramaturg hat. Oh, and lunch. I have to remember lunch. Don’t let me leave here without lunch.

You have to watch getting too precious and ritualistic with actors because half will immediately parse for superstitions and the other half will inwardly (at least) mock the preciousness and the ritual, but I love that big, lumpy first read, the optimistic smell of all those sharpened pencils, new photocopies, and coffee. We get to do something honorable for a living** as long as we do it honorably. I’d say “with the very bent of honor”, but that would only remind me that instead of waxing obnoxious here I should be working on my lines for the second half of the show. So I won’t.

 

* This year the sixth of May will be the simultaneous running of the Kentucky Derby and the running of me from the Kentucky Derby. I don’t like crowds, traffic, or price-gouging quite enough to want to do anything but hide in our house here in my lovely-fifty-weeks-of-the-year hometown. I am tempted by another event that day – my last chance ever to see Ringling Bros. circus, six hours away on my last day off for almost three months. The jury is still out.

** The wisest of all theater truisms has long been “NEVER try to figure out what you’re making by the hour; it will only lead to weeping.”

This is my birthday – JULIUS CAESAR, V i

A year ago today I marched in a parade, chilly in the yellow stockings that named this blog,  vitals girded by some sort of lycra and velcro device that allowed my abdominal muscles, almost precisely one month after surgery, some rest for a full day of performing, first at Shakespeare’s New Place (at that point not yet reopened) for the BBC and later at his birthplace, and then walking about and chatting at a shindig here and a fete there. There was a nap scheduled in there somewhere.

It was exhilarating, partially because my health had very recently been such that I didn’t know if I’d be able to make the trip, or do much of anything for some time.

A couple of days before, the whole Kentucky Shakespeare contingent visiting Stratford enjoyed a trip to the vaults, during which time the kind women who mind the delicate antiquities told us to “go ahead and touch” the register of the Church of the Holy Trinity – the animal-skin vellum was going to last another 500 years and our grimy mitts (daintily and tenderly applied, I assure you) weren’t going to do it any particular harm. There was the original registry of Shakespeare’s death, which today seems to be the definite anniversary of.

Earlier (obviously) in the book there was a copy of the registry of his christening, as the whole book had been recopied during Elizabeth’s reign at some time after Shakespeare’s birth.

As is widely known, the whole birthday thing is a guess – it’s very likely that Shakespeare died on his 52nd birthday, which happens to be the saint’s day of George, dragon-slayer and patron of England, but we may have been a day off in one or another direction. But the symmetry is appealing. And easier to remember. And if the ancient honchos of the Catholic Church were willing to just throw Jesus’s birthday at the most convenient and useful spot on the calendar, I suppose the placement of these things aren’t all that important.

I am a fervent resister of any attempts to attach Shakespeare’s work to his biography. If he was Prospero or Hamlet, he was also Iago and Paulina and Lady M. and the guard who tries to speak up for Gloucester in Lear. And we only speculate that the sonnets tell us anything particularly private, or that the wording of his will does so.

But I’m willing to indulge in the fun Time-Life Mysteries of the Unknown fact that in Julius Caesar, Cassius makes note (see title of post) on the eve of battle that it is his birthday and, to paraphrase via Howlin’ Wolf, “I ain’t superstitious but a black cat just crossed my trail”. And the audience doesn’t have to be superstitious to be aware that we’ve just started Act V of a tragedy, so bodies are going to start dropping soon, Cassius’s among them.

Now clearly Shakespeare did not, in a play written seventeen or so years before his death, have foreknowledge that he’d go on his birthday, unless he went out and did something dumb every twenty-third of April to tempt Fate and Fate just didn’t win the hand until 1616. But the symmetry is appealing.

This year I have the good fortune to celebrate Shakespeare Day from the comfort of our home, healthy enough to get out and do some of the yardwork I have so despised since I was about twelve. I’ll work on the lines my aging, lint-filled brain is trying to learn for a show that opens in about five weeks and rehearsals for which start in eight days. I’ll sit down with this novel I’m trying to finish before our summer gets crazy, or with one of the New Yorkers I’m trying to catch up on for the same reason. I might watch some Buster Keaton, who made his film debut on April 23, or listen to some Mingus, another birthday boy.

But nerds though we be in my household, we don’t do much in the way of partying for Shakespeare’s birthday. This date also marks the day my wife lost her father back at the beginning of this century, and while time has gone by, it’s never going to be sunny and springy.

Her father’s name was George and the dragon won that round, and though we haven’t talked about it much in these terms, I don’t know whether it would make it easier or more difficult to spend St. George’s Day contemplating a stack of plays almost all of which are preoccupied with thoughts on the father/daughter relationship or that pain of loss which shadows even the silliest of the comedies.

But the symmetry is appealing.

…And for your love to her lead apes in Hell. – TAMING OF THE SHREW, II i

My wife seems to talk about this on stage a lot, but no one knows what it means.

By “a lot” I mean twice, as she’s played the only two characters who talk about leading apes into Hell in Shakespeare. But that’s 100%, so…

Much like misty origins of the horns of a cuckold, there’s no backstory universally agreed upon with the apes here. Of feminism’s many upsides, the reduction of the stigma of being An Unmarried Woman is but one – yes, there are still pressures and advertisements and tsks from older relatives (who are going to tsk about something anyway) but it’s been a long time since I’ve heard the word “spinster” or “old maid” used without irony and your meddlesome aunt, while perhaps asking you more than you’d like about whether or not there’s some nice boy who’ll keep you from dying alone in your apartment, is at least not going to suggest that your soul is doomed to lead tethered apes into hell for all eternity. Unless she’s a terrifying fundamentalist of some stripe, at most maybe you’ll be saddled with Crazy Cat Lady. Which, sure, is still sexist, but is of much lighter weight than having your soul doomed to lead tethered apes into hell for all eternity.

Many seem to agree that this mythic fate has as much to do with not having had any children as with not having been married. Which, having seen the behavior of young children from a safe distance*, sounds like a balanced exchange. If one goes not forth and multiplies not while on earth, one must agree to do something similar after. Fair enough.

Others insist that the “lead” of “lead apes into hell” is an Elizabethan euphemism for intercourse. Not impossible. And apes have always proverbially sexually uninhibited (everyone insert zoo field trip story here). But. Fun fact: it is possible to find a scholar who will tell you that every last verb/noun (and a few articles) in Shakespeare is an Elizabethan euphemism for intercourse & concomitant body parts. All of them. Which, I mean…he’s incredibly randy, but…this is just one more way the Freudians ruined a lot of adult conversation.

**

There’s a version of the proverb suggesting the “maids about twenty lead apes in hell”, suggesting that it’s less about reaching “old” age unmarried and more about maintaining one’s virginity for too long. And on Shakespeare’s behalf, considering the topic of oodles of sonnets, the whole “go on and reproduce, why doncha?” issue was not gender-specific for him.

The phrase “ape-leader” hung around for a surprisingly long time, but didn’t have the staying power of “spinster” (or the solid playing card marketing of “old maid”). The thing I like about its appearance in Much Ado is the wordplay piled on top of it.

If you know Elizabethan culture, you know that it’s primary feature was being gross. One of the gross things they enjoyed a lot was watching bears fight with dogs in a public arena. I don’t pretend we’re super enlightened, but, come on. And occasionally there were apparently apes thrown into this mix as well, presumably because they had the sort of digits that could handle folding chairs in proper McMahon-approved fashion.

So the Bear-herd (or Bear-ward), the guy in charge of herding (or warding) the bears, also led apes around himself. No word on whether this was a punishment for his likely marital status of Available, what with the inevitable smell. But as we’ve said, the Elizabethans were uniformly gross, so maybe it did him no harm, plus he could make some money on the side whenever a revival of Winter’s Tale came along, I guess. “Bear-herd” is a weird word to say. Try it. A few times. It’s fun. Notice the way the “h” disappears as in “shepherd” and you’ll get why in this scene in the Folio it’s spelled “Berrord”.

Going back a few lines, you’ll hear (if you’re reading aloud as you should) a lot of still fairly clear semi-bawdy chatter about men with/without…Beards. Which in the accent of the day was a similar sounding word – Beard/Berrord – enough to put the other in Beatrice’s mind. And in the full sentence where it appears – “therefore I will even take sixepence in earnest of the Berrord, and leade his Apes into hell” – it springs out of a variation on what was even then the boilerplate financial-contract-ese of “in earnest of the bearer”.

Beatrice’s gleeful improvised version of what will really happen to her once she’s dropped off her requisite apeload makes me very happy. She won’t go all the way into Hell but only

          to the gate, and there will the Devill meete me like an old Cuckold with hornes on his head, and say, “get you to heaven Beatrice, get you to heaven, heere’s no place for you maids”

(the Devil being, of course, puritanical enough to want to protect virgins from such an infernal place – no surprise that Shakespeare casts Satan as a Puritan). In Heaven, St. Peter then shows her

           where the Batchellers sit, and there live wee as merry as the day is long.

In the space of a few lines, she upends a dearly-held sexual double standard without particularly attacking the readily attackable male goons who surround her (they’re hardly worth it at this point, though things get ugly later…Pibling Leonato has more comeuppance coming up than he gets), like a late-sixteenth-century Mrs. Maisel (which you should watch the pilot of on Amazon Prime, because it’s really very good).

She’s a clever Old Maid, Beatrice. I’ve always loved her, and not just because she was attached to Emma Thompson when I first encountered her. There are just character you grok and admire the thought processes of, and she’s high on my list of those.

 

* The Wife and I are an aunt/uncle, or as recent non-gendered coining would have it, Piblings (unlike most such coinings, this one is actually fun to say, so score one for us there) and love our nieces and nephews (Niblings, which, while equally sonorous, has a playfulness that I fear belongs to a more innocent time), but are not cut out for the full-time job of parenting and are happy to be occasional fresh horses in the villages that it takes to raise each of them – specifically the horses that force “cool” movies/music like cultural lima beans down their metaphorical gullets.

** the almost illegible Valentine doggerel reads:

          You would like to wear them dearly,

          And in faith, you mean to try,

          But old girl, I’ll tell you truly,

          Your attempt is ALL MY EYE.

          It will not fit, my downy one,

          So fairly I would tell,

          You had best but take the duty

          of leading APES IN HELL.

Uh…so Be My Valentine, I guess?

& as I am an honest Puck – A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM, V i

This one isn’t even my fault, I swear.

Information you need for this: The Wife and I are playing Beatrice and Benedicke in June; we played Kate and Petruchio together two years ago.

Now, as I’m sure is true of any pair of people who have played those roles, as we prepare there’s great interest on our part in playing up the differences as much as possible. It would be very easy to make each pair more or less fit under the same easy umbrella of Battling-But-Inevitable Lovers and leave it at that. But they’re far more different than they would seem at a casual glance, and one is more than a rough draft of the other, as the oversimplification often goes.

Kate and Petruchio are individually damaged people whose jagged edges, by an accident of fate, fit together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. They have little place in society and don’t seem to be interested in having one at all. Their public behavior is awful and no one really likes them. (Petruchio sort of has a friend in Hortensio, but only so much as they are useful to each other.)

Beatrice and Benedicke, however, are generally well-liked – their “merry war” is only with each other. The rest don’t see themselves as victims of their crimes of snark. The Messina gang seems  entertained.

“So they’re Don Rickles,” said The Wife earlier. “Everyone is thrilled to be insulted by them.”

Rickles has been a topic of conversation around our house since his recent passing (I’m surprised I haven’t made her (re-)watch one of my beloved beach movies this week; they are for reasons Rickles and unRickles vital anthropological documents and I will never forsake them), so it’s no surprise that he came up. But I hadn’t thought of B&B in that way until she said something. We had noticed the theme in all the eulogizing by people both mentored and roasted by Rickles: everyone clearly loved and respected him in a deep and sincere way. At least the community he was a big part of certainly did.

And I think she hit on an important way to highlight the differences between the respective Mature Couples in Shrew and Ado: how they are received. B&B are constantly described as “merry” and no one says particularly unkind things about them on any subject except their mutual disdain for each other. Beatrice and her unstoppable Inner Groucho (a problem we share) don’t care what’s being talked about – wiseassery will be on offer. Benedicke’s modus operandi is Scorcesier…

(though that’s not the Scorcese I mean) …and was outlined by the oaf who wrote that “women can’t possibly understand Goodfellas” article a couple of years ago, to his eternal chagrin, I hope. His take on the movie was that of a person whose opinions are of little value, but he does manage to make one accurate diagnosis: busting each other’s chops is a particular feature of male relationships, in the English-speaking world, anyway. The military dudebros visiting Messina give each other hell constantly but don’t seem to mind and in fact egg each other on, until everything goes south when Don John ruins everything (though if the whole of the society we see wasn’t already solidly built from big dry chunks of misogyny he would have to do more than huff/puff to knock it all down; another post).

It will be on us to remember, therefore, while wiping K&P from our memory, that B&B like to crack wise but don’t really habitually belittle anyone but each other and even that is based in a mutual history, not disagreeableness. No one takes them terribly seriously or fears their wrath; they instead enjoy and encourage their wit. The heavy consequences in this play come from other quarters; these two just happen get wrapped up in them.

So that’s our plan. In the midst of a Regency-set Much Ado, we’re going to play Beatrice and Benedicke as Phyllis Diller and Don Rickles, wardrobe and all.* See you there.

 

* yes, you’re right, she would  have been a great Mistress Quickly, especially with that whole “Master Fang” business in 2 Henry IV.

The rarer action is/In virtue than in vengeance – TEMPEST, V i

This was all going to be a little bit silly, but it’s taken a turn. But let’s begin at the beginning.

A friend was in town a week or so ago for the Humana Festival at Actors Theatre of Louisville and conversation turned to Twelfth Night, a production of which he’s going to be involved in soon. My wife and I hadn’t seen him since the production we were in at the beginning of last year (which inspired the name of this ludicrous little blog), so there was much chatter, eventually turning to the whole “how dark does one play the ending, what with Malvolio being confined and confounded in a little room, do you reckon?” question, about which I have, as is my tendency, Opinions. They were gut opinions, but finally something occurred to me that I think backs them up.

I should first disclose that I am and have, at least since my university years, been sick of the Darkening of the Comedies.. This notion that the Tragedies are the real deal, the Histories are just Tragedies based on true stories (from which most comedy must be tainted/excised) and the Comedies, well, if they are anything but cheap crowd-pleasers, the Christmas Carols* of Shakespeare companies, at least we can overstate their existing darkness whenever possible, and maybe superimpose some extra for good measure, particularly at the very end when we have a chance to leave the audience with a sour stomach for one reason or another. It’ll let people know we’re Serious About All This.

And this was always treated as a profound thought from the Tragedians, worthy of congratulations or at least knowing nods above steepled fingers. “There’s such darkness in the Comedies, you know?” I was, as a lifelong lover of Chaplin’s movies about a starving homeless guy, the Marx Brothers’ insistent, destructive anarchy, the parentless Freudian head cases of Charles M. Schultz, confused. I thought that was the whole deal with comedy, that it Went On Despite, yes? So the battle between “Yes! I too have suffered!” and “Get over yourself; we’ve all suffered!”, between celebrating and mocking our mutual pain, is difficult to take part in when surrounded like the Light (Comedy) Brigade by people who sniff at your “glibness” if you aren’t constantly plunging yourself into the Cimmerian darkness of intangible despair. (That line is for my wife, who will appreciate it.)

But I digress.

We were talking about the end of Twelfth Night and how I fully believe that we aren’t supposed to mind Malvolio’s detention all that much because he is a petty, vindictive martinet with no trace of self-awareness. And I loved playing the guy. That old saw about having to like the character you’re playing in order to get under the skin is the true true; more accurately, you have to acknowledge that in some way you are the character in that in some way you are everybody, so there you are. We are all petty, vindictive martinets with little self-awareness at some time. I’ve been in traffic. And I’m not blind to the paragraphs above that are still unmercifully surly about mere aesthetic differences with people I’ve scarcely seen for twenty years. We’re all a bit Malvolic.

We most of us only suffer it in spells, though, and when Twelfth Night ends we leave Malvolio in the midst of being unmerciful, unforgiving, a crime that Shakespeare never lets slide:

Prospero? Stranded on an island for fifteen years by his brother. What does he do at the play’s end? Forgives him.

Who talks him into it? Ariel…who was enslaved by Prospero (and Sycorax and who knows who else before that). Ariel’s response, by all appearances, when released by Prospero? Forgives him.

Titus Andronicus? Nobody forgives nobody never. And everybody dies HORRIBLY, except the ones left behind to enact more revenge. We just run out of time to watch it all.

Duke Frederick of As You Like It? Random spiritual awakening, and he apologizes for everything – he only sends a note (“My bad; you can have all your stuff back”**), but he does it. No one says, “Not enough! Let’s storm the monastery and stab him!”

Hamlet? So bent on being vengeful that he opts out of killing Claudius in a private room where there’s only the two of them because that just might not condemn his soul to eternal hellfire. And what fun is that? So fifty-three other people have to die and a short-tempered cannon-feeding military dictator comes in to run the show thereafter. Good call.

There are others – Portia does a whole speech about this to Shylock you may have heard of – but that’s plenty.

And Malvolio decides to leave on the note of being “revenged on the whole pack of you”. So he gets what he gets. Which is probably, knowing Olivia, a generous severance package which he’ll still try to sue over because of some bonus he feels he’s owed over and above…somehow the lawyer he hires turns out to be a disguised Feste…it still ends badly. Because he’s a petty, vindictive martinet with no trace of self-awareness.

A detail that kind of slides by people: the whole reason Malvolio is released in Act V is to tell them what happened to the kind sea captain who still has Viola’s clothes; the helpful guy we haven’t seen since the first scene. Seems one of the reasons we haven’t seen him, thrown in as our last reminder of Malvolio’s consistent behavior, is that he was locked up (?!) by Malvolio for some reason no one is even sure of. But yes, let’s get all worried about Mal’s “pain & suffering”.

At any rate, Malvolio and the Maria/Toby/Feste/Fabian contingent are people we’d all rather watch bounce off each other than be around (have I mentioned that this is my favorite of Shakespeare’s plays?), but I can’t pretend any of them are serious offenders even of each other. They’re just childish people, in a turn-of-the-seventeenth-century-Seinfeld sort of way.

Now, how to put these feelings into performance? It isn’t terribly hard to make Malvolio an unrelenting pain in the ass simply by using the text. But some think the last bit of cruel wrongful incarceration on the part of Maria et al. is over the line. (I guess those folks don’t like sea captains.) I figured the best way to keep this in the realm of comedy (bending, not breaking) was to make it about injured pride, not utter madness, so the solution (at which I didn’t arrive until tech, which made me scare the hell out of the stage manager, to whom I apologized profusely) was to exit haughtily after the declaration of vengeance…and step right off the stage, entirely missing the steps into the vom, like an idiot. A couple of characters would snort, I would glare, straighten the skirts of my doublet and re-haughtify myself to exit again. It seemed to work, this gesture stolen directly from Rex Harrison, I later realized.

———

I decided to write all that this morning and had to do other things, but this topic keeps pitbulling the world today and just won’t unlock its jaws.

First we got word from a friend who was some time ago involved in a real, non-fictional tragedy. This friend was rattled after merely using the word “forgiveness” in discussing ways people have dealt with such tragedies in the past resulted in a verbal attack; apparently that vicious suggestion of “forgiveness” disrespects the grief of others…which, knowing this friend (and I’d have the same reaction) will be the cause of a roiling stomach precisely because of the evident pain of the person who decided to lash out at the suggestion of maintaining humanity in the face of tragedy, as if that suggestion was a mere passive/aggressive implication that said lasher-out hadn’t been forgiving enough. But I’m trying to universalize and instead I’m vaguebooking. Sorry.

Also, the verdict on the Charleston white-supremacy terrorist murders came down just a little while ago, which I am neither eloquent nor wise enough to try to summarize the facts of here, much less my own feelings, but there’s a conversation going on within many feeds and timelines and households and newsrooms right now about justice and forgiveness and how those things work.

And that conversation always brings me around to Ariel again, Ariel who (which?) is both non-human and fictional and who suggests that if Prospero were even to look upon the confusion he’s caused his enemies, “your affections/ Would become tender.” Prospero responds, “Dost thou thinke so, Spirit?”

And Ariel says (bearing in mind our distance from Jacobean spelling), “Mine would, Sir, were I humane.”

Usually this is modernized to “human” but it could still be “humane”. And ideally they’d be synonyms anyway.

All this makes Prospero realize that, as stated in this post’s title, “the rarer Action is/ In vertue, than in vengeance,” and it’s worth saying here that “rarer” in that era could be taken to mean not just uncommon, but also good, uncommonly good. Which is even better than humane***.

———

It’s been a long day; it’s been a long post. I am not a fan of his work, so my earlier plan was to quote Don Henley with ironic sarcasm and note that in trying to get down to the heart of the matter, I’ve reached the conclusion that I think it’s about forgiveness. Forgiveness.

But the world has blown my stock of irony today and I’d have to admit that the quotation works better without it and I’d just feel like a jerk. Not a Malvolio-level jerk, but still.

* I freaking love A Christmas Carol, for the record; it’s about generosity of spirit, which will be relevant shortly, if it can ever be said that it’s not relevant.

** paraphrase

*** tonally this is a weird place to note that today, 10 April 2017, is the incept date of replicant Leon Kowalski in Blade Runner. There’s an Ariel/Caliban streak in the replicants, but that’s probably obvious enough not to require a whole post. #MoreHumaneThanHumane

…like an old cuckold with horns on his head… – MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, II i

Mixed feelings is what I’ve got here. One the one hand, I’m always thrilled at the possibility that a word that’s fallen into disuse over the last century or four may make a comeback and as a by-product reduce the conversational obscurity of some Shakespeare here and there. On the other hand, it would have to be “cuckold”, which the lazier misogynists of our century (I should cut them some slack on the laziness, though – they’re getting a lot of heavy misogyny accomplished, if “accomplished” is the word I’m after here) can’t even type out in full but shorten to “cuck”.

It’s also likely that 70-85% of them don’t know what it means exactly but just heard it used as an insult somewhere; sadly for them, they don’t realize they’d have extra characters with which to harass the sensible on Twitter if they knocked it from four letters down to one emoji: horns.

There’s your frowning purple devil, your bull, and your kind-of-Christmassy circular bugle with a ribbon on it that…someone thought we needed an emoji for…I guess. Regardless. They’d just use those three extra characters to misspell something anyway.

The derivation of “cuckold” from “cuckoo” is easy enough, what with the laying of eggs in other birds’ nests and all, but no one is really sure about the whole “a cuckold has horns” derivation, though I’ve heard theories ranging from:

Zeus-and-Europa (which doesn’t really make sense, unless you-the-cuckold are a different, actual bull that was planning to run off with a human woman?) to…

the Minotaur’s parentage (which makes a lot more sense and is high on the list of sensible cuckold origins but still King Minos the cuckold is literally the only being without real or fake horns in the situation) to…

something about Roman soldiers successful in battle being awarded horns (but often returning to a straying wife or a Dear Iohannes scroll) all the way down to…

somehow anti-Semitism (one of, to me, the weirdest translational misunderstandings in the Bible – Et tu, Michelangelo?).

My favorite, and the one that feels both the most proverbial and the most rural, which makes it ring truer, is the simple notion that a Bull Can’t See His Own Horns, nor can a cuckold his own humiliated situation.

No matter the origin, if the word is going to return, I do wish the horn-based implications would return with it. We’re doing Much Ado About Nothing and I feel like half the lines in the play are about horns but The C-Word is spoken only once, so a sense that more of the audience would be able to chuckle mildly at the references without some sort of footnote supertitles would be nice.

One of my favorite of the play’s many, many, I-refuse-to-sit-and-count-them-all-because-there-are-dozens-in-Much-Ado-alone, convoluted ways of expressing the whole idea is Benedicke’s pronouncement that he will not “have a rechate winded in my forehead”. A recheat (modern spelling) is a hunting call to bring the hounds back when they’ve lost track of the game. Short-I “winded” in the sense of “wind blown through”. So he would rather have his own personal cuckold horns hollowed out and blown into while they’re still on his head, with the further implication that doing so would, since he’s the Prey in any marriage scenario, be calling the dogs back to find him. Layers. This is why I’m sad these jokes play only in, what, Anglophile foxhunting communities or in places like Portugal and Italy where people still recognize an age-old language of rude gestures that includes the useful “finger horns at the temples” (cf., this from the BBC).

But we’re in America. There are only maybe five or six good derisive hand gestures, and I’m fairly certain nose-thumbing is the only one we could get by with – it’s a family crowd. Feh – and they call ours a digital age.

…High on a stage to be placed to the view. – HAMLET, V ii

One of the exciting things about this summer in the park with Kentucky Shakespeare is the new stage, which will make its debut during a season that includes Julius Caesar, generally thought to be among the first (if not the first) plays used to open the Globe in the 1590s. As a lover of direct audience address, its opening lines (“Hence: home you idle Creatures, get you home”) entertain me greatly. It’s one thing to speak to the crowd and another to have the confidence to tweak them for playing hooky from work to come to your show at all. which, statistically, a good chunk of them were.

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Now, for proper direct audience address, it’s nice to be able to get as close as possible to people, for which purpose the old stage had a rake. Unfortunately the raked stage facing one way and the raked seating the other meant one could only land about halfway down the rake before starting to disappear from the view of the people at the rear. So on the new stage, the dimensions are the same but the rake is gone; I was bummed about that at first until I realized this meant I could get even closer to the front row than I was able to before and still be seen back at the bar and the food trucks.

Another change is the stage house, which was lovely and modified-Elizabethan and all but was also pushing thirty, has had hours to ripe and ripe outside in the Ohio Valley, and has moved on to the hours where it rots and rots. The noisy planks one waited on to enter above were past Rustic and only pausing at Dispiriting on the hill down towards Decrepit. Now there’s to be an annual temporary set piece to give us the levels we require without allowing them to bake and freeze in alternation.

Back in November, I think it was, the stage house was pulled down – well, some bolts were loosened and then a bunch of us blew on it really hard – in preparation. Some of it was used in our (indoor) Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead in January to make a skewed version of what had been our Hamlet stage a couple of seasons before.

Now, I’ve seen a lot of fine work done on that stage, and I’ve seen some of  the worst (so the exact track record of every stage in history). I’ve done a couple of things I was proud of there, and I’ve chewed mercilessly on that delicately seasoned wood, which tastes more like ham than chicken. But the day of helping to tear it down was less nostalgic than I expected it to be on the whole, probably because it was so clearly a preparation for building it up more sturdily than it had been in a while. [Insert poignant metaphor for the last few seasons at the park here.] Also, as long as we’re facing the right way and we’re high enough to be seen, we have some solid words to bellow out there, so whether the beams are old are new is moot, in my eyes.

Anyway, a new playground is always welcome. And now I have very little idea what the pulpit at Caesar’s funeral (spoiler) will look like or how high up Richard II will be when says “we [royal we] will descend”, which is fun after some time of being able to guess where things would land.

I’ll see a floor plan in a couple of weeks, May 1, when rehearsals begin. You’re welcome to come to the park and watch the new set come together, of course. It’s free, and the weather is lovely this time of year…

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…the infernal Atë in good apparel… – MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, II i

I’m evermore intrigued by the accidental overlaps among these plays that make up our seasons. Any plays, any seasons, any company really. And it isn’t the obvious big “well clearly the girl-in-boy-clothes plot element is worth it again” or “usurpers are doomed from the get-go” overlaps. I like the tiny ones.

Atë, for example.

Atë is the Greek goddess of (depending on your sources) mischief, delusion, ruin, folly, blind folly, infatuation, rash action and reckless impulse. Her m.o.is talking people (and gods) into doing dumb things without thinking about them first, which is clearly how Mischief (not as strong a word to us as it was for Shakespeare, or even Sondheim) and Ruin work.

I’m very fond of Atë’s literal way of achieving this, according to Homer: after she was banished from Olympus for talking Zeus into doing something stupid – because he really needed her help on that front – “her feet are delicate* and they step not on the firm earth, but she walks the air above men’s heads and leads them astray”, addling their brains with her occasional footfalls on their brainpans. For the gods, she has to smooth-talk. For mortals, a noggin jostle is all she needs, though in other non-Homeric versions, there’s always smooth talk.

Atë could for this reason very well be the patron goddess of nearly every worthwhile character in Shakespeare. My constant argument for picking up the pace when acting Shakespeare, besides my trust in the human ear’s ability to get what’s going on when it’s provided with something worth hearing, is that if these people stopped to think about what they were saying/doing, they’d never do it. They spend most of their time dealing with repercussions caused by sudden, thoughtless, impulsive behavior.

The nice thing about this is that it makes them easier to forgive. When dealing with a Lear, a Leontes, several of the historical kings, anyone in a comedy, we have to like them or at least forgive them for their rashness at some point. If they go getting all pause-y and deliberate in the awful stuff they spit out during Act I (and as an actor, it can be very tempting to bite off some of these words with cold-blooded Sam-Jacksonorousness), we don’t care if they’re sad or if they’re dead in Act V. If Leonato or Lord Capulet slow down to make hateful pronouncements about their daughters, we close the iron door on them forever and label them as terrible parents and terrible human beings; if they fly off the handle in a weak moment, well, we, too, have flown off the handle now and then. We’re given some space to empathize with their regret.

The main difference, for a person hearing it all happen, is pacing. Both in the sense of speed, and in the sense of Atë walking back and forth on your head.

I bring her up at all because when preparing the summer editions, I noticed she came up twice: once when Benedicke, as quoted above, says of Beatrice (not present at the time):

          come, talke not of her, you shall find her the infernall Atë in good apparell…

And then up she pops again as Mark Antony predicts to Caesar’s corpse, that bleeding piece of former boss, that:

          Caesar’s Spirit, ranging for Revenge,

          With Atë by his side, come hot from Hell,

          Shall in these Confines, with a Monarke’s voyce,

          Cry ‘Havocke’, and let slip the Dogges of Warre,

          That this foule deede, shall smell above the earth

          With Carrion men, groaning for Buriall.

Tony is a little more vehement about things than Benedicke, which, considering the context, I’ll allow. Though I suppose since our audience this summer will have seen Much Ado a few weeks before Caesar, he could easily complete the transference and say “With Beatrice by his side, come hot from Hell”. Except she doesn’t go to Hell – just stops off there to deliver her apes.

But that’s another footnote.

 

 

*elsewhere Homer says she “is strong and sound on her feet”, which is probably because she’s so delicate with them, not touching the ground and all.

…but not gone – JULIUS CAESAR, III i

I don’t know what kind of self-respecting Shakespeare blog doesn’t manage a post on the Ides of March, but then I don’t know what sensible actor/dramaturg of Shakespeare schedules a minor medical test on the Ides of March either (all is well).

 

In all my excitement about the whole Benedicke thing I get to enjoy this summer, I’ve only begun to get excited about Caska. Also to notice the historical Servilius Caska had a kind of young-Chris Elliott vibe going.

Caska is the cranky-ass conspirator who, by leaping forth with his dagger (“Speak hands for me!”) and getting the ball rolling by getting Caesar in the neck*, enacts the political assassination equivalent of being the online commenter who types “FIRST!!!1!” (He also joined the civil war and is believed to have died in the wave of good ol’ Roman soldier ritual honor suicides that was going around toward the end of that same war. No big scene for Caska, though – it’s the so-called Stoic who gets a big emotional dramatic moment. But no hard feelings.)

With all due apologies and promise of safety to the fellow actor playing Caesar this summer (he’s also Bullingbrooke; perhaps a “you win some, you lose some” tattoo is in order for him), I am really looking forward to taking part in the mild therapy of that moment, in no small part because I, like you, have had my share of terrible bosses.

The one who groused when I asked to leave my mall retail shift early when I got a call asking me to go to my grandmother’s deathbed…and then asked if I had an estimation of when I’d be back.

A couple of college professors who would frankly be lucky to meet with a Pompey’s Porch ending and not the Suddenly, Last Summer situation likely after any reasonable polling of their students.

A director of Shakespeare I may have mentioned in this space before.

The person(s) responsible for the geographic placement of an arena which sits now in one of if not the worst possible site for that purpose here in Louisville.

I’m sure there are more I just can’t think of right now or for legal reasons should not speak of. More or less all the usual suspects as described in The Frantics’ 80’s comedy classic, “Boot to the Head”.

*It is generally believed that “to get it in the neck” didn’t appear until the mid-1800’s as a slang term for being the victim of literal or figurative mayhem, but I like to think it started with Caska. Though it was best framed by one of my personal favorites among the Classical philosophers, Bertram Wilberforce Wooster, ca. 1923:

It seemed to me that everything was absolutely for the best in the best of all possible worlds. But have you ever noticed a rummy thing about life? I mean the way something always comes along to give it to you in the neck at the very moment when you’re feeling the most braced about things in general. No sooner had I dried the old limbs and shoved on the suiting and toddled into the sitting-room than the blow fell.