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Monday, January 30, 2017

Resisting Inhumanity

The headline for this "The Two-Way" report last spring from National Public Radio's Bob Mondello  sums it up well: "Only Script in Shakespeare's Hand Urges Compassion for Migrants." 


Recent events have made the manuscript even more timely.

William Shakespeare, possibly when he was already in semi-retirement, was apparently called in as a script doctor for a play. Started in the 1590s, primarily written by Anthony Munday and Henry Chettle, the script was never staged during the Tudor and Stuart reigns, because it was about Thomas More: the statesman, Catholic apologist, and creative philosopher (as in his Utopia) who refused to give his approval to the divorce of Henry VIII from Catherine of Aragon and the marriage of the king to Anne Boleyn – the mother of Queen Elizabeth I. Sensitive subject matter to be sure, calling for care in development and wisdom in choosing to stage or not. As the NPR article notes, one set of speeches is recognized as Shakespeare's handiwork – in fact, the few manuscript pages containing those speeches constitute the one partial script we have by Shakespeare that seems to have been written in his own hand.

The play Sir Thomas More includes a scene depicting the May Day riots of 1517, when a number of London citizens were incited to protest violently the presence of foreigners doing business, especially on Lombard Street. The historical More attempted to quell the unrest, in his capacity as under-sheriff of London, but any success was limited and short-lived. In the play, however, More decisively calms the crowd – and his skill in dealing with the situation attracts the attention of political patrons who would assist More's eventual advancement to the office of Lord Chancellor. Shakespeare's longtime theatrical company, the King's Men, understandably sought out the playwright who time and again had scripted convincing scenes showing the power of rhetoric to shape response. This situation presents a dire theatrical and psychological challenge, since suspicion and hatred toward the foreigner – the stranger, in Early Modern terminology – are among the strongest of our worst instincts as a species. What might persuade rioters to resist those instincts?

Addressing the crowd, Shakespeare's More invites the citizens to imagine that London has been purged of the immigrants, as they claim to wish:

Grant them removed, and grant that this your noise
Hath chid down all the majesty of England;
Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,
Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage,
Plodding to the ports and coasts for transportation,
And that you sit as kings in your desires,
Authority quite silent by your brawl,
And you in ruff of your opinions clothed;
What had you got? I’ll tell you: you had taught
How insolence and strong hand should prevail,
How order should be quelled; and by this pattern
Not one of you should live an ag
éd man,
For other ruffians, as their fancies wrought,
With self same hand, self reasons, and self right,
Would shark on you, and men like ravenous fishes
Would feed on one another . . .

What a wonderfully Shakespearean move – to transform the word shark from a noun to a verb. More's listeners begin to be persuaded, even as he suggests that their defiance of the king's leniency toward the refugees constitutes not only treason but sin against the Divine Will that put the king in command over them. But perhaps the king would grant them exile, rather than the death sentence that traitors deserve by law:

                                            Say now the king
Should so much come too short of your great trespass
As but to banish you, whither would you go?
What country, by the nature of your error,
Should give you harbor? Go you to France or Flanders,
To any German province, to Spain or Portugal,
Nay, any where that not adheres to England,
Why, you must needs be strangers: would you be pleased
To find a nation of such barbarous temper,
That, breaking out in hideous violence,
Would not afford you an abode on earth,
Whet their detested knives against your throats,
Spurn you like dogs, and like as if that God
Owed not nor made not you . . . what would you think
To be thus used? this is the stranger's case;
And this your mountainish inhumanity.

And another richly Shakespearean word, mountainish: meaning barbarous, uncivil, and uncivilized, but also suggesting huge, massive, and monstrous.

As noted in the NPR report, Sir Ian McKellen – who performed as Sir Thomas in this play for its first ever production back in the 1960s – has recently seen its applicability to the condition of refugees everywhere. People fleeing war, terror, oppression, and deprivation have often been met with resentment, suspicion, indifference at best and violence at worst. McKellen has turned to this speech and in a series of public appearances takes the time to deploy the eloquence of Shakespeare's More in the service of compassionate reaction and action. His hope is that Shakespeare's language can work its effects beyond the realm of the stage, beyond the imagined or reimagined worlds of the play – as he utters again these words in order to promote more humane responses to the plight of other human beings. This hope is all the more important when unjust leaders seek to stoke and even profit from hatred, rather than quell it.  

Friday, January 13, 2017

Glenda Jackson's Lear

Many readers might not know of Glenda Jackson's extraordinary work as a stage and screen actor before spending 23 years as a Member of the British Parliament. Along with her prior work in the great films mentioned below (and Sunday Bloody Sunday should be included), she needs to be recognized for her skill in comedy. This is perhaps best seen in House Calls, a charming bit of Southern Californian fluff from 1978 that successfully invokes Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn's romantic comedies, with Walter Matthau in the Tracy role. (Of course, Hepburn and Tracy themselves follow in the footsteps of Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing.)

So how does a great actor, with this kind of range, return to the stage after two decades and more? As King Lear. Here are excerpts from an insightful and appreciative review. (By the way, the photo also shows Rhys Ifans – best known in this country as Mycroft Holmes on Elementary – as the Fool.)

Glenda Jackson’s Great Lear – Fintan O'Toole
New York Review of Books; December 22, 2016
King Lear by William Shakespeare, directed by Deborah Warner
The Old Vic, London, October 25 – December 3, 2016

Jackson is a thrilling surfer of Shakespeare’s blank verse, able to stay on her feet while cresting its high waves and plunging down its slopes.

[ . . . ]

The obvious questions about Jackson’s choice of this particular role for her return to the stage are: Why a male character at all and why Lear in particular? There are sufficiently good answers in her previous career to make the choice logical and purposeful. In the first place, Jackson is at her best when she is acting at one remove. Because of her two Oscars (for Women in Love in 1969 and A Touch of Class in 1973) and her period as a Hollywood star, it is easy to forget that Jackson is a creature of the early 1960s theatrical avant-garde. She was a member of Charles Marowitz and Peter Brook’s famous Theatre of Cruelty experimental company in 1964, which itself belonged to a wider revolt against dominant notions of realism in the theater. While American actors were steeped in the Method, with its emphasis on the need for the performer to become fully immersed in the character, Brook in particular was interested in ideas of alienation, which is really just another word for distance: “Alienation [Brook writes] is the art of placing an action at a distance so that it can be judged objectively and so that it can be seen in relation to the world.”

Glenda Jackson is the great actor of distance, the one who brought alienation to the masses. The reason she often seems so exotic in Hollywood movies is that while her fellow actors are burying themselves deep in their characters, she is at a slight, almost imperceptible angle to hers. There is a gap in which Jackson’s own presence – sardonic, knowing, mysterious, and impossibly sexy – hovers like a kind of force field around the character.

That distance is more obvious when there is some clear barrier between the actor and the role, as there is when a woman plays the king. Two particular examples seem to have a special meaning for Jackson’s Lear. One is her breakthrough performance in 1964 in the production that crowned the Theatre of Cruelty season, Brook’s staging of Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade. Jackson played the assassin Charlotte Corday in a mesmerizing performance happily preserved in Brook’s subsequent film of the show. The distance is built into the role – Jackson plays a patient at the Charenton asylum who is in turn playing Corday in a production directed by another inmate, the Marquis de Sade. She is a narcoleptic, falling in and out of consciousness, moving like a sleepwalker, at once barely present and utterly unstoppable. One of the joys of Jackson’s Lear is that it circles back to this first great performance, returning to another character who moves in and out of rational consciousness, who is reduced to nothing, and who yet commands our utmost attention. It reconnects two ends of a life in the theater.

The other role that chimes with Jackson’s Lear is her Elizabeth I in the six-part BBC television costume drama Elizabeth R in 1971. Jackson is suitably commanding throughout, but she is at her most astonishing toward the very end of the series, when she is playing, at the age of thirty-five, an ancient, decrepit, half-demented monarch whose kingdom is slipping from her grasp. As if her own young age did not create enough of a distance, her Elizabeth is at this stage a grotesque, highly theatrical figure, her face a mask of white makeup, daubed with rouge and crookedly painted eyebrows, her high forehead and sharp nose making her sexless to the point of androgyny. There is a scene in which she stands silently for what we understand to be a very long time with her finger in her mouth, oblivious to the business around her, as much a somnambulist in her way as Charlotte Corday or, in his madness, Lear.

Jackson’s Lear can be seen in some respects as a revisiting – even a fusion – of these performances. It would be misleading to describe Deborah Warner’s vibrant and fluent production as an homage to the Theatre of Cruelty, but it revels openly in the tradition of Peter Brook. Brook’s longtime collaborator Jean Kalman is codesigner with Warner, and the open white stage, white light, movable white panels, and self-evident effects (the scenes numbered for us in projections onto the stage, actors carrying chairs on and off, visual effects that display their own mechanics, the trappings of a rough rehearsal with which we begin, a playing up of Grand Guignol grotesqueries, as when Gloucester’s plucked-out eye is thrown into the audience) are all in the same alienating terrain as the Marat/Sade, as if Jackson were being consciously welcomed back to where she began.

The parallels with the declining Elizabeth, meanwhile, are obvious enough to be taken for granted. In a sense, Lear carries less distance for Jackson simply because both of them are “fourscore and upward.” Jackson is now acting her age, a rare enough feat with such a prodigious part. But a woman playing a man (without ever stooping to male impersonation) is itself enough to hold us slightly at bay and force us to be aware all the time of the performance as a performance.

Yet there is also a more specific logic behind the choice of Lear. If you think of words that attach themselves to Jackson’s acting, the one that comes first to mind is authority. And King Lear is all about authority. It moves from the ultimate display of royal power, Lear’s capricious parceling out of his kingdom as if were a personal possession, to the most scathing burlesque of authority in all literature, the mad Lear’s evocation of a beggar running from a farmer’s dog: “there thou mightst behold the great image of authority. A dog’s obeyed in office.” Hence the paradox of playing Lear: the greater the sense of authority the actor can convey, the more absurd it becomes when it empties out before our eyes and the more poignant seems its hollow wreckage. Jackson, elevated, commanding, distant, is as lofty a creature as we could imagine on stage, a mistress of the universe – and therefore wonderfully absurd and heartbreakingly poignant.

Jackson establishes her authority almost immediately in her opening scene with two gestures, one physical and one verbal. For much of her opening dialogue, she sits with her back to the audience. Alienation doesn’t come much more direct than that – we are rudely dismissed as people of no account. She is so wrapped up in the egotistical game of dividing up her kingdom and listening to the fulsome tributes of Regan and Goneril that she does not deign to speak in our direction. And in her first speech, Jackson takes a phrase of Lear’s that seems a matter of mere resignation – “while we/Unburdened crawl toward death” – and twists and elongates it into a jovial, sarcastic playfulness. Its meaning is reversed: this old man has no intention of crawling to, or before, anyone, even death itself. Already we are off on a roller-coaster ride. Over the following minutes, Jackson’s Lear is monstrously savage in banishing Cordelia, then blithely cheery in issuing decrees about the honors he will retain, then terrifying in his rage at the protesting Kent, then calmly indifferent again.

What is unfolding here is Jackson’s deeply intelligent reading of the dynamics of the play. The obvious way to think of Lear’s journey is along a line from control (at the beginning) to folly (giving up the kingship) to madness (on the heath). But Jackson gives us the sense of a Lear who is, in truth, already mad. She does not so much transform herself over the course of the play as transform herself moment to moment within it. She is magnificently unstable, switching and spinning in emotional pirouettes. And what she seems unhinged by is not the giving up of power but the experience of power itself.

In this play, power makes everybody crazy (Regan and Goneril, for example, suddenly go sex-mad), and Lear has had it for a long lifetime. The Lear she gives us from the start is someone whose mental, emotional, and ethical compass has been driven haywire by fawning and obedience. In this, the thought inevitably occurs that Jackson’s twenty-three years in politics, some of it on the fringes of the court of Tony Blair, have not been, from an artistic point of view, a total waste.

It is one thing to read the play like this but quite another to embody that reading without making the whole thing incoherent and hollow. For if Lear changes from moment to moment, it can only be because there is nothing there to begin with, no fixed core of character to be revealed. This, precisely, is where the courage of Jackson’s performance lies. She is willing to risk a Lear who does not have a character but who must, rather, discover one. Instead of Cortázar’s “absolute presence” of the divine Glenda, she begins almost with an absolute absence. Her performance is a kind of double exposure: she exposes Lear’s emptiness and then exposes him to the suffering that will fill it. She gives us, against the grain of Lear’s claim that “nothing will come of nothing,” a nobody who becomes a somebody, albeit through the weight of his pain.

Jackson can do this because, uniquely, she is the mistress of each of the two traditions that were so much at odds when she began her career: the avant-garde and the classical. The avant-garde is against the imposition of too much coherence and in favor of a notion of theater as a sequence of separate moments, often in tension with each other. It was Brook, in his introduction to Marat/Sade, who described a play as “a series of impressions; little dabs, one after another, fragments of information or feeling . . . often several at a time, often crowding, jostling, overlapping one another.”

In this, Jackson’s Lear, emotionally fragmentary and crowded with constantly shifting moods, is perfectly Brookian. It is held together by oppositions that she keeps in the air simultaneously. One is between authority and insignificance, her extraordinary ability to retain the habit of commanding the space she occupies even as her place within it is shrinking to nothing. The other, closely related, is the opposition between her voice and her body. What we see and what we hear are very different, and it is this difference that opens up the gap through which, for all her rebarbative distance, sympathy enters in.

[ . . . ]

But just as this voice creates the strangeness of the avant-garde, it is also supremely classical. Jackson is a thrilling surfer of Shakespeare’s blank verse, able to stay on her feet while cresting its high waves and plunging down its slopes. And in the Old Vic, which was the theater of John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, and Laurence Olivier, one cannot avoid the thought that she is also their truest successor as a master of Shakespeare’s music.

There is an irony here: Jackson’s early place was with those like Brook who broke the old star system of Shakespeare productions dominated by a great man. Now she has managed simultaneously to reconnect us to the energies that broke that system and to give it one last glorious revival. Perhaps it is only a great woman who could dare to restore the lost theater of the great men.

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Shakespeare & Love!

A guest post from Kelly Medwick, FSC Board Member
(originally posted on Firespring's culture blog, 12/20/2016) http://culture.firespring.com/blog/post/shakespeare-love

Every love story has a history—some richer than others. We met in a bar, or online, or during a teeth cleaning or after a steel cage match.

For me and my husband Mike, our history began in the late 16th Century. If it wasn’t for Shakespeare and our college English professor’s Shakespeare theatre company, we would have never met. And the same goes for about a dozen couples and families we know and love.

So, Doc (Dr. Erath to hoi polloi) at the College of New Jersey was a founding director of a nonprofit repertory theatre originally called Shakespeare ‘69. It incorporated the following year and changed its name to the more PG-rated Shakespeare ‘70. It’s still rockin’ today.

It was a invitation-only company, and as fortune would have it, I got invited. 

During an Early Modern Drama class, Doc asked me to live read a passage from an 18th Century satirical play called She Stoops to Conquer. Turns out, I was (and am) pretty good at both stooping and conquering, and became the show’s intern – an esteemed position with the title “head peon.” I bonded with the cast and crew, and as that show was wrapping up, I was feeling blue that I’d be going back to spending my free time doing things like personal grooming and laundry. 

The company was abuzz about the summer outdoor performance of Much Ado About Nothing. I wasn’t expecting to be asked to play a role. I was just a peon, after all.

But then Doc asked me to play Hero. The ingenue. I was so shocked, I thought he was joking. Then his wife Gail, our costumer, pulled me aside and started wrapping measuring tape around the parts that matter to dressmakers, and I knew this was going down for real. 

I’d already gotten to know Mike from She Stoops. He was given a part plus stage management duties for Much Ado. He had come up through the head peon ranks as well. Several of us former peons, as well as the local pros, hung out quite a bit. We had a gift for cracking each other up. Practicing witty banter has its social benefits.

About 10 years later, both Mike and I had moved on. Work, studies, and personal life took us away from the stage. But then we both found ourselves in Nebraska. He was in grad school, I had moved for work and a reboot on life. We went on a date to see Henry V at UNL. Then we both performed with a newly formed group called Flatwater Shakespeare Company in As You Like It. We were married a few years later. He proposed back home at the Open Air Theatre in Jersey. And we honeymooned in London, of course.

To our policymakers who feel the arts should be eliminated or defunded, I say, a plague on both your houses. Shakespeare, and his patrons and devotees, are economic drivers. His works have produced laughter, tears, joy, heartbreak, love – not to mention couples, families and children . . . households. As Benedick wisely declares in Much Ado: the world must be peopled. We enthusiastically responded.

Doc was our best man at our wedding, not only because he was the matchmaker, but because we knew that the play was the thing, and that must be honored. It was the thing for so many of us. I now serve on the Flatwater Shakespeare board, and Mike and my son are steady volunteers. We support this because Shakespeare has a way of connecting people, and in this day and age, we can’t imagine a better thing to support.

Kelly Medwick is a member of the Flatwater Shakespeare Company Board of Directors and Vice President of Business Development for Firespring, which provides a range of integrated print, creative, website, and IT services for non-profits, small-to-moderate businesses, and large enterprises.