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Wednesday, January 31, 2007

To Dream Upon the Crown

Another treasure from YouTube: John Barrymore as Richard Gloucester in Henry VI, Part Three. Barrymore was a triumph on stage in Richard III, but these passages from the earlier play provide the only glimpse on film of his approach to the character.

The sequence opens with lines from the beginning of the play, with Richard proudly showing his father, the Duke of York, the severed head of the Duke of Somerset, an enemy who had allied himself with the Lancastrians in the Wars of the Roses. Left to himself, Richard contemplates the Yorkists' eventual victory over King Henry VI and in soliloquy shares with us his plans to displace his own brothers and seize the crown for himself (the speech concludes Act 3, Scene 2).


Barrymore plays Richard as a charismatic monster, with the famous profile radically changed through makeup and sinister lighting. The voice, too, is deliberately altered, but Barrymore is still able to make thrilling music with Shakespeare's language. It's all deliciously, gloriously overdone.

The clip is taken from The Show of Shows, a revue directed by John G. Adolfi and produced by the Warner Brothers studio in 1929 to demonstrate the full potential of talking motion pictures -- musical numbers dominate the film. Barrymore himself introduces the scene, not in character, by suggesting parallels between Richard and 1920s mobsters like Al Capone (pronounced Capo-ne, by Barrymore).


Decades later, Al Pacino would play Richard on stage -- and later in his film Looking for Richard (1996) -- with obvious gangland resonances.

Plans for a full-length film production of Richard III starring Barrymore were never fulfilled. Instead, Warner Brothers made the first complete sound-film version of Shakespeare in 1935 with A Midsummer Night's Dream. The following year, Barrymore moved over to MGM to appear as Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Recommended Reading

Just about anyone interested in Shakespeare will find much of value in Ron Rosenbaum's recent book, The Shakespeare Wars: Clashing Scholars, Public Fiascoes, Palace Coups (Random House, 2006). The author's basic point is simple: if we care about Shakespeare, then we should care about the people who bring Shakespeare to us. Since Rosenbaum himself cares passionately about Shakespeare, he can readily present himself as a model aficionado -- keeping just this side of Bardolatry.

The people who bring us Shakespeare include --

Textual experts, who work with the earliest published versions and edit the plays (and footnote or endnote or sidenote them) either so they're more readable for us or so their complexities are more obvious to us;

Attribution scholars, who try to determine which plays and poems (and how much of them) were actually written by Shakespeare;

Directors and their associates, who train actors in bringing the plays (and especially their language) to life and who train audiences to see the plays in sometimes startling ways;

Academics, another set of go-betweens who can bring people closer to Shakespeare or who can get in the way (whether in the classroom, the textbook, or the best-seller).

Rosenbaum pays apt tribute to director Peter Brook, whose 1970 Royal Shakespeare Company production of A Midsummer Night's Dream transformed Shakespearean stage practice -- and transformed the lives of many audience members, including Rosenbaum, who saw it in Stratford-upon-Avon, and yours truly, who saw it during its U. S. tour.

He justly criticizes Stephen Greenblatt for his biographical liberties and Harold Bloom for what has to be termed autobiographical liberties (actually, both Will in the World and Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human are examples of a Portrait of the Artist as the Biographer / Critic).

He justly praises literary scholar Stephen Booth for astonishing alertness to the ways in which Shakespeare's language works and somewhat excessively piles on now-discredited attribution expert Donald Foster (the man who claimed "A Funeral Elegy" was the Bard's work).

At times, Rosenbaum seems to try overly hard to assert his credentials as a critic of Shakespeare: he reminds us repeatedly of his training as a graduate student of English at Yale and he closes several chapters with a designated expert's approval of one of Rosenbaum's insights or ideas.

And while he admires "close reading" -- the careful analysis of language and its production of meaning -- he doesn't always do it particularly well. For example, he seizes on a phrase in Lady Capulet's praise of Paris to Juliet: Count Paris is a book "That in gold clasps locks in the golden story." For Rosenbaum, the passage confirms Peter Brook's idea that within each Shakespeare play is a "secret play." Perhaps so, but emphasizing such an interpretation overlooks the more mercenary undertones of Lady Capulet's advice, as underscored by the very next lines: "So shall you share all that he doth possess, / By having him, making yourself no less."

But much can be forgiven someone so utterly smitten with Shakespeare. Ultimately, this is rather a sweet book -- because it makes clear both his affectionate regard for (most) others who care about Shakespeare and also his gratitude to those who make Shakespeare available to us.

[The book jacket illustration shows the Third Folio edition of Shakespeare's plays, published in 1664. A closer look at its title page appears above: the edition proudly announces that it adds "seven Playes, never before Printed in Folio." Unfortunately, only one of the seven -- Pericles -- is now thought to have been written (at least primarily) by Shakespeare. Attribution and editors are as important as Rosenbaum says.]

Sunday, January 14, 2007

And Now for Something Completely . . .

Our friend and publicist Liz Banset recommends the following clips from YouTube --

The Beatles performing Pyramus and Thisbe from A Midsummer Night's Dream:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=psATF1mUpUU or

Peter Sellers as Laurence Olivier as Richard III reciting the lyrics for "A Hard Day's Night":

In the first, Paul McCartney plays Pyramus; John Lennon is Thisbe; George Harrison is Moonshine; and Ringo Starr is the Lion. Instead of aristocratic lovers hurling abuse at the performers, fashionable Carnaby Street types demand that the boys "Go back to Liverpool." Delightful . . . I mean, fab and other pimply hyperboles.

In the second, Sellers is absolutely perfect in sending up -- and paying tribute to -- Olivier's deliciously villainous turn in his own film version of Richard III. You'll never see that film or hear that song in quite the same way again.

Now, has anyone run across the MTV parody of Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet? That's the one with Mike Myers in full Austin Powers mode romancing Jenny McCarthy. Flaming youth, indeed.