Blackfriars Diary: Day 4

The Panels

I gave my paper today, which I think went very well! I didn’t get too immensely nervous until just before it happened, and I didn’t knock anything over, accidentally swear, or utterly lose my place, so that counts as a win.

I’m proud to have been on a really wonderfully strong panel, with a bunch of fantastic papers, including Paige Reynolds’ captivating discussion of the use and abuse of Desdemona’s body after she is killed, Elizabeth Kolkovitch’s examination of how contemporary productions stage the masque in Timon of Athens (and, basically, their varying degrees of sexism), and Annalisa Castaldo and John Culhane’s investigation of a question that has been troubling me recently– whether or not bed tricks, such as that in Measure for Measure, would have been construed as rape.

Patrick Harris’s paper about the ring exchanges in Merchant of Venice provided another excellent example of the fruitful use of actors, as he played with the various shades of meaning that emerge when the characters in the play give and take Portia’s ring in various ways.

Michael Dobson’s keynote address was very exciting as well, comparing Much Ado About Nothing and Love’s Labour’s Lost through the lens of the various temporal settings the plays are given in contemporary productions, and why Much Ado tends to feel so quaint and distant precisely because it is so rooted in the reality of Shakespeare’s own time, whereas Love’s Labour’s intentionally fantastic and idyllic tone in fact helps it feel more present and real.

The Play: Much Ado About Nothing 

I found myself keenly aware of actor repertory while watching Much Ado About Nothing. Four days in a row of watching the same twelve actors in four separate plays will do that to you, of course. But I was most struck by a specific pair: Lauren Ballard and Benjamin Reed. Ballard played Edward Lancaster, Molly Aster, Maria, and Hero. Reed played Edward York, Peter, Longaville, and Claudio. They were explicitly linked across all four plays, and romantically in three of them.

This had the odd effect– completely coincidental and entirely based on the order in which we happened to see the plays– of easing, somehow, the often troublesome fact of Claudio and Hero’s reunion. This was due partly to their strong performances, of course, but there was also a degree to which I had become accustomed to seeing them together. The fact of their union– feeling, in some ways, like a long-awaited culmination after the two disrupted romances of Peter and the Starcatcher and Love’s Labour’s Lost— seemed inevitable and natural.

Blackfriars Diary: Day Three

The Panels

Today’s theme for me was hearing from some scholars who have really figured out how to usefully leverage contemporary performance in service of historical principles. So often, using a modern-day performance in an attempt to excavate historical ideas can feel like false objectivity: just because something seems obvious to us doesn’t mean it would have been obvious or logical then. Or it can just come off seeming a bit “so what?”– highlighting that an individual performer/production made a given choice can feel more like anecdote than analysis.

The staging session led by Farah Karim-Cooper and Beth Burns of the Hidden Room Theater Company transcended all of these issues with its emphasis on experimentation. Karim-Cooper recently published a book about early modern gesture onstage, and has done work with Burns’ company to illustrate some of her theories and findings in performance. No one claimed to offering truth, only possibilities– and the possibilities they presented were very interesting. Pairing Shakespeare’s heightened language with heightened gesture felt so fitting and natural, a forceful reminder that Shakespeare is not naturalism, and works best when it isn’t trying to be. I was startled when their very sincere rendition of Q1 Hamlet‘s dumb show had much of the room in gales of laughter, as the exaggerated, expressive movements really weren’t funny– they were just unfamiliar. But they were also very evocative and very beautiful, and Karim-Cooper’s connection between the gestures of rejection and capitulation of the Player Queen and her wooer in the Hamlet dumb show and the “perverse wooing scene” between Gloucester and Lady Anne in Richard III was very fascinating, and I think indicates a really important and useful avenue of exploration, one that reminded me of Janette Dillon’s work on scenic “units” in Shakespeare and the Staging of English History. What might be found by attending more closely to gestural echoes across the plays?

Katheryn McPherson’s paper operated similarly, experimenting with space in public vs court performances, letting the actors traverse different ranges of the playing space and to incorporate (or not) the presence of a theoretical monarch.

Richard Priess’s exploration of an apparently impossible stage direction in The Devil is An Ass– one that seems to require an actor to be in two places at once– was so firmly rooted in text and so masterfully argued that his use of actors actually felt more like illustration than exploration. But in that, it provided another useful example of how to take advantage of the performance options this conference offers.

James Keegan brought an actor’s take (though he’s also a professor) to the difficulties of hoisting the dying Antony’s body aloft in 4.15 of Antony and Cleopatra, but applied a sufficiently thoughtful and scholarly lens to take his conclusions beyond mere anecdote.

This is a question I continue to grapple with, especially being partly based at an institution that is rooted in experimenting with reproductions of early modern spaces. It was so useful to see some great examples of how performance as research can feel really effective.

The Play: Love’s Labour’s Lost 

I forget that lots of people aren’t fans of Love’s Labour’s Lost because to me it seems so self-evidently great. As I was saying to someone today, I think that if people could move past their panic about the density of the language, they’d realize that the extremely contemporary-feeling characters and situations would (I think, anyway) prove sufficiently accessible to audiences to make up for the linguistic soup.

This production was delightful, though the day’s panels inspired some interesting thoughts about the play’s much-discussed inconclusive ending. As Burns and Karim-Cooper’s panel in particular remind us, “original practices” is not just an aesthetic– not just a 17th century playhouse and costumes and fast entrances and live music. There is an acting and storytelling style that needs to be retrieved as well, and the ending of Love’s Labour’s Lost is a place where contemporary expectations crash particularly jarringly against what the text suggests.

It was in evidence in this production as well: the Princess of France performed the entire end of the play tearfully– which makes naturalistic sense. She’s just learned of her father’s death, after all. But her actual text bespeaks calm. The language is measured and complex, devoid of exclamations or lamentations. Like the end of so many comedies, the end of LLL lifts above any pretense at naturalism, into the heightened realm where improbable conclusions become possible. Hero is both revealed and reborn. Proteus is forgiven. The Princess is now a Queen (as has often been pointed out, her speech prefix changes instantly) and presents the King with a fairy-tale like quest to restore his wounded honor.

The incorporation of contemporary songs at certain moments in the play suggest they weren’t necessarily seeking to fully achieve an OP aesthetic, and the injection of extra emotion into the ending sequence certainly didn’t disrupt the splendid production– but I admit I was most moved when they finally did eschew naturalism to end the play with a dance.

Blackfriars Diary: Day 2

The Panels 

My definite favorite paper of the day was presented by Lindsey Snyder, a scholar and ASL interpreter who discussed the possibilities contemporary gestural languages like ASL can present for attempting to revive early modern gestural vocabulary. The part of the paper that really blew my mind was her translation of several speeches by Juliet, to illustrate the dramaturgical power of ASL’s embodied notions of time– the way that time, past, and present are located upon and in relation to the speaker’s body. Not only was this a fascinating intellectual point, her translations of Shakespeare (and her wonderful performances of them!) were immensely moving. I have an ongoing fascination with ASL in general, and translations of Shakespeare in particular, and I loved getting to see the topic approached from such a rigorously scholarly point of view.

There is definitely a propensity for highly theatrical papers– not just those that use actors to demonstrate points, but speakers, like Matthew Kozusko’s discussion of the rhetoric of Coriolanus, who structure the papers themselves in a self-aware and performative way.

An exciting paper on a more practical note was Megan Brown’s presentation on the Folger’s new Digital Anthology of Early Modern English Drama, a resource that sounds very exciting and that I hadn’t previously known about.

The Play: Peter and the Starcatcher 

Okay, it’s not Shakespeare. But I absolutely adore this play, and saw it more times than I should probably admit during its Broadway and off-Broadway runs (don’t judge me, it was always for free).

Unsurprisingly, the play’s DIY, Nicholas Nickleby-inspired aesthetic works extremely well with the Blackfriars’ shared lighting and lack of sets. The actors were obviously having a huge amount of fun, and so the audience was, too. It was interesting to see how differently and more flexibly this show used the space. Where The Fall of King Henry only had one entrance from the house, here the actors were all over the place, moving through rows, clambering over audience members, and jumping off the stage. There was more use of the trap door and upper gallery, too.

I felt extremely aware of the elaborate language, and the delight the play takes in its own kind of poetry. There really is something so Shakespearean about such awareness of the musicality of words and taking such pleasure in building delightful sounds out of them. I’m not sure if it was the actors’ Shakespearean training that made them handle the language in a Shakespearean fashion, thus raising my awareness of the dialog’s complexity and pleasingness, or if it was the simple fact of the setting that drew my attention. But in either case, it seemed a highly fitting choice for this company.

Blackfriars Diary: Day 1

I’m in Staunton, Virginia for the American Shakespeare Center’s Blackfriars Conference! Terrifyingly, I’ll be giving a paper on Saturday morning, but before that there’s three days of panels, papers, and performances that I’m going to try to write about.

So, day one…

The Panels 

Blackfriars strictly enforces a quite short paper limit of ten minutes, and perhaps because of this brevity, the most compelling papers for me were ones that took a specific, concrete, and sometimes extremely narrow (like, one word level narrow) focus. Lena Cowen Orwin’s keynote address, while obviously longer than the other panel papers, set the tone in this respect with her investigation of the origins of Shakespeare’s monument in Stratford, and suggesting evidence that Shakespeare himself had likely designed it. She also made the brief but fascinating point that the evidence suggests that, unlike, say, Edward Alleyn who seems to have been colloquially known as Ned, Shakespeare was known to his friends and colleagues (and maybe even his family) as Shakespeare.

Other highlights for me:

  • Tiffany Stern’s exploration of the use of the word “playhouse.” Cuthbert Burbage’s court testimony of the 1630s describes both the Theatre and the Globe as being known as “the House,” and while we have taken that word to be a general term– and it has become one– she queries whether it may not have been specific to those buildings.
  • Paul Menzer’s reflection on his loathing of the word “nuncle” and how Shakespeare has become a lens through which we refract our concepts of good and poor taste.
  • Tim Fitzpatrick’s excellent explanation of the methods by which they derived the measurements for New Zealand’s Pop-Up Globe. His comparisons between Wenceslas Hollar’s sketches for his famous engraving and a very well-explained theory of ex quadrata geometry make a very compelling argument for a second Globe that was distinctly smaller than the dimensions chosen for the Globe reconstruction in London (which was based off its own well-founded theories).
  • James Marino’s study of the effects of revision on cues in the two editions of Doctor Faustus. His originating question was to ask how much revision to cues were actors willing to tolerate. And the answer seems to be “a fair amount.”
  • Claire Bourne’s illumination of the use of  “printer’s lace” divisions as more than just a way to take up space/make up for half of Q1 Romeo and Juliet being printed in the wrong text size, and not just simple scenic divisions (which really didn’t exist as such at that point) but as indicators of thematic divisions.

The necessity of matching form to content– the form in this case mostly being defined by time constraint, but also by the fact hearing a paper is much less kind to wandering or vague connections than reading one is– has been a useful reminder that while conferences are often framed as a “state of the field” check-in, they’re really kindest to very specific kinds of work.

The Play: The Fall of King Henry (3 Henry VI

I’ve never seen any Henry VI play live before, and diving into part three, arguably the strongest one, seemed like a fair enough way to begin. The ASC has been putting together the first tetralogy, retitling the Henry VI plays as The Tragedy of Joan of Arc, The Rise of Queen Margaret, and now The Fall of King Henry. Like my beloved Oregon Shakespeare Festival, such multi-year cycles are enabled by their resident acting company, many of whom (as their bios attest) have been working for the ASC for years.

This was my first show in the Blackfriars, a replica of the indoor playhouse used by the King’s Men. I’ve been in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, the Globe’s version of an indoor, 17th century playhouse, but it’s much smaller than the Blackfriars. I had some hopes that this would ameliorate the major sightline issues that one encounters in the SWP when sitting anywhere along the sides… but it didn’t. The sight-lines are just as bad (and the seats are just as uncomfortable). In the SWP, I happened to see a series of Jacobean tragedies, so I ran into a new problem seeing a sprawling history play:  3 Henry VI introduces a bunch of new characters in the second half, who are naturally doubled by actors whose characters died in the first half. But because I frequently couldn’t see new characters’ faces when their names were first mentioned, for most of the second half, I had no idea who any of the secondary characters were. Unless we assume that the average playgoer was extremely well-versed in heraldry and every character just wore their coat of arms– which I strongly doubt– this seems like a problematic staging issue that must have had a better solution in the 17th century than the directors managed to find here.

There was a detour at one point earlier today into the classic question of whether early modern audiences went to “hear” a play rather than “see” a play, and thus didn’t care about the apparently crappy sight-lines in these indoors spaces. I am unconvinced by this, particularly because we know for certain that companies spent most of their money on costumes. That would certainly be a waste of money if audiences didn’t care about seeing– or couldn’t see.

But the sight-lines aside, this production was a great reminder that the Henry VIs are really much more engaging and performable than they get credit for being. The early (probably collaborative) verse, while sometimes a bit clunky, is also simple and easy to follow. The extremely heightened action is actually really compelling, even if, in this instance, the production couldn’t resist making jokes out of some of the more ridiculous moments. Then again, maybe they were meant to be jokes in the first place.

The Blackfriars’ irreverent spirit is definitely well suited to a messy, extreme show like 3 Henry VI. I’m looking forward to seeing how some straightforward comedies play… and maybe if I’ll be able to get a better view.

Back to the Source

I’ve finally started reading some of the older Elizabethan history plays I probably should have read a long time ago. I’ve read some Holinshed and the other chronicle sources that have been identified as Shakespeare’s source material, but it’s instructive to see that some of his strongest influences were really earlier plays.

The case that has intrigued me most– in large part because it’s one I’ve barely seen discussed– is Shakespeare’s King John and its predecessor/maybe-source, The Troublesome Reign of King John. 

I fully recognize that this has almost certainly been discussed at length in scholarly literature I haven’t yet read, but I’m equally interested in the fact that while Shakespeare’s relationship to predecessor plays like The Famous Victories of Henry V and The True Tragedy of Richard III is common knowledge, this one doesn’t seem to be. Which is particularly interesting because some of the most famous features of the play– ones that Shakespeare gets a lot of credit for– actually derive from this earlier play.

Mostly, I’m talking about the Bastard.

He’s frequently correctly credited as Shakespeare’s only wholly fictional main character, but in such a way that also tends to give Shakespeare credit for making him up. But The Troublesome Reign of King John makes it plain that, fictional or not, he was an established aspect of the King John story that Shakespeare was adapting. So is the prominence of Queen Eleanor and Constance, and their sudden disappearance partway through the play, a structural feature I’ve seen frequently puzzled over.

While it’s not quite an answer just to say “it happens because he was copying his source play,” it does shed some light. We can’t fully understand what Shakespeare is doing in a play if we incorrectly believe he has originated characters and ideas that in fact he has borrowed from others. And it obscures what Shakespeare did innovate– in this case, for example, the deep ambivalence of the Bastard character, or Constance’s effusive mourning. And what he didn’t: the abrupt disappearance of Elinor and Constance.

It highlights the problems with only considering Shakespeare in isolation. Not only can it paint an inaccurate picture of the theatrical scene as a whole, it can create misleading assumptions about the plays themselves.

 

 

Thoughts: King Lear & Much Ado

Over the weekend, over the course of two productions, I had my first chance to see the Globe Theatre’s controversial new lighting rig and sound system, which it has been all but confirmed will be departing the space along with artistic director Emma Rice. The shows were King Lear, directed by Nancy Meckler, and Much Ado About Nothing, directed by Matthew Dunster. Both were matinees, which turned out to be a key element of my experience.

I could tell that both Lear and Much Ado had a lighting design because I could see the bulbs flashing on and off, see them changing colors, but I couldn’t actually see the effects of the lighting onstage. Because of course, in the daytime, the Globe’s only possible lighting plot is… the sun. You can’t see lighting design without darkness to contrast against. Neither show was noticeably harmed by this omission. If there was something important or particularly interesting that I missed because of the daylight, then frankly, that’s bad design. Because nearly half the performances at the Globe are matinees, and if nearly half your performances are missing an essential element, that’s a problem. And on the other hand, if the lighting matters so little that matinees aren’t materially harmed by not having it… then why have it? Why should the full experience of a show only be possible in half the performances?

This is an element of the controversy I haven’t seen discussed, and which hadn’t occurred to me before I experienced it firsthand. But having seen it, it feels essential. In many respects, the Globe is best approached not as a normal theatre, but a site specific performance space. If a show isn’t going to work with the physical conditions that the Globe imposes, then there’s not really any point in performing that show there. Similarly, if a design is just going to attempt to erase or fight against the facts of the space, then it doesn’t belong. A fact of the space is that matinees will take place in natural daylight, mostly during the summer. Yes, it’s England, and I was blessed with two particularly sunny days, but there aren’t that many summer afternoons where it’s going to be as dark as nighttime at 2pm.

Theatre is unpredictable, and every performance is different. But a design that demands such a fundamental difference between daytime and evening shows can’t really be waved off as merely a quirk of live performance. I don’t think any lighting designer would accept an argument that their work matters so little that it’s just fine if a large percentage of audiences just don’t see it. Setting aside questions of authenticity or historical accuracy or popularity, the simplest fact is that the lighting rig at the Globe Theatre, in the very literal sense of functioning correctly in order to perform its intended artistic role in a production, actually doesn’t work.

 

 

Review: Ink

Politics and analytics website FiveThirtyEight recently came out with the conclusion of their series evaluating the role of the media in the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. There have been similar analyses and reckonings regarding the role of the press in the outcome of the Brexit vote, all pointing, like the FiveThirtyEight piece, to one question: how did all of this happen? 

James Graham’s new play Ink, transferred to the West End from the Almeida, proposes that our world today is nothing but the natural culmination of a shift in media culture set into motion a long time ago.

It’s an indirect connection, however. The play doesn’t directly address anything about the present day: it’s all set in 1969 and 1970, and concerns the purchase of failing newspaper The Sun by an Australian upstart named Rupert Murdoch, who woos Larry Lamb, a working-class former reporter with a chip on his shoulder, to be its editor. Murdoch’s goal: to embrace capitalism, not any lofty notions of journalistic responsibility, in order to crush the narrow-minded elites of Fleet Street. Most of all, he wants to surpass the circulation numbers of the most popular newspaper in the world, The Mirror— which just happens to be Lamb’s former paper, where he never received the editorship he felt he deserved.

Though Murdoch is the more internationally famous name, Lamb, played with slouchy Northern charm by Richard Coyle, spends most of the play as the guiltier party in the game of dragging the ideals of journalistic integrity into the populist, lowest-common-denominator mud. Murdoch is the distant, awkward money man, prone to fits of scruples and prudishness; Lamb accepts his mission to give the people what they want, to do whatever it takes to beat the Mirror, and (almost) never wavers from it.

Though his role is the smaller of the two central characters, Bertie Carvel’s Murdoch begins the play, and is magnetically fascinating. Carvel is an improbable chameleon. His voice is incredibly distinctive, his choices in physicality and characterization all similarly strange, and yet every character he plays seems completely different and completely human. He is always himself (or at least whatever version of that appears onstage), but he can always seem to shift that same essence into something different. Murdoch is no exception.

Rupert Goold finds the perfect staging language to complement Graham’s not-quite-naturalistic script. This, along with Graham’s sparkly dialogue, help elevate what is otherwise a fairly standard structure and recognizable Fleet Street Faustian story arc. Clever movement sequences and even a bit of singing create cinematic-feeling montages, most of which are recognizable from any movie about young upstarts: the “getting the gang of misfits together” montage, the “spitballing new ideas” montage, the “look at our successes” montage. Even if they follow a slightly familiar pattern, they are– much like the newspaper this band of outcasts is trying to build– cheeky and fun, and thus mostly avoid cliche. As the play moves into its darker second act, the pace grows even more driving.

The protagonists’ moral downfall (and it’s surely not a spoiler to say that there is one, since both the play’s structure and actual history make this obvious) hinges on two crises, both of which center around women: one murdered, and one naked. The latter subplot introduces a laudable, if not wholly integrated, attempt to include the perspective of a woman of color in this very white, very male world and play. It also somehow comes off as seeming more depraved, more scandalous, and more heartless than the murder. Graham’s script seems generally uncertain about how to draw the moral lines around what Lamb and Murdoch are trying to do, when to suggest they have gone too far. Though it’s clearly intentional that the play lacks a clear right and wrong, the characters lack a clear moral compass, too, which is a detriment when telling the story of men selling their souls for success. Lamb and Murdoch trade off moments of hesitation, only to be seduced once more by their own power and success– but these waverings don’t always come off as totally logical. They seem to swap capitalist ruthlessness for scrupulous reticence as needed to balance the other’s state of mind, not out of their own convictions.

Lamb and Murdoch’s rivals are relentlessly painted as stuffy, snobby, and elitist, with only glimpses of sympathy for their position. Given that all the weight of our present media crises falls firmly on their side of things, perhaps the play can stand to stack its cards– at least at first– in favor of the broad-minded populists. But with hollow protestations of working-class solidarity on the one side and ivory tower elitism on the other, Graham certainly presents two dispiriting poles, with very little hope for what could come in the middle.

But, as Murdoch says in the play, it’s a writer’s job to hold the mirror up to society– it’s not their fault if we don’t like what we see.

 

 

Artemisia Gentileschi and Historical Fictions

One of my pet peeve posts is back in circulation– this tumblr thread, which, despite the correct attribution of date and artist in the original post, excitedly seizes onto the idea that an x-ray scan has revealed that 16th century painter Artemisia Gentileschi ‘originally’ painted a much more anguished and angry portrait of the Biblical Susanna than the one patriarchal forces ultimately permitted her to reveal.

Perhaps this did indeed happen, but that image isn’t proof of it: it’s an original work created in 1998 (by Kathleen Gilje— let’s not erase one female artist in favor of another).

If you don’t feel like reading it, the gist of the thread is that this x-ray is important because of course Gentileschi, a rape survivor, would have wanted to portray a more realistic version of Susanna (who, in the Bible story in question, is harassed and assaulted by two elders, who threaten to falsely accuse her of adultery if she won’t have sex with them). That Gentileschi’s original concept was evidently suppressed and forced to be altered is just another example of the ways in which the patriarchy has suppressed the voices of women– especially rape victims– throughout history.

Now, the latter is certainly true, at least in general. Whether or not it’s true of Gentileschi and this painting is a question we can’t answer.

One of the subsequent posters praises the x-ray version for being “real,” and points out that Gentileschi’s paintings are of particular interest today (particularly from a feminist perspective) for generally portraying less sanitized, idealized versions of Biblical heroines than those that were popular at the time. Just not quite as much so as the x-ray.

Annoyingly, there are several posts floating around that attempt to correct this post and identify the actual artist of the x-ray painting, but they never seem to catch on the way the original, incorrect post has.

Working with Shakespeare– especially Shakespeare in performance– means working in a field where these kinds of historical myths proliferate. I’ve always been fascinated in what causes certain historical fictions to take hold rather than others (or rather than the truth), and as annoyed as this post makes me, it does point to a couple assumptions that I think often apply in these cases.

First, that a historical artist’s idea of “real” would look exactly like ours. The x-ray photo is indeed more realistic than Gentileschi’s painting to a contemporary eye– both in the sense that the figure is less idealized than we are used to seeing in Renaissance art, and that (as the poster reinforces) this is what we imagine a woman being assaulted would or should look like.

Next, that Gentileschi would naturally express her understanding of a woman’s place in the world and a woman’s experience of sexual trauma in ways we find immediately recognizable. It’s related to the first idea– this is how a woman who had experienced trauma would express herself. Because it’s how we’d expect a female painter to do so today.

All of these assumptions stem from an ignorance or rejection of Gentileschi’s historical artistic milieu. We can’t seek to interpret the style and content of her work simply by glancing at a few paintings of the same Biblical scenes and declaring hers more “real.” We have to understand the breadth of the movement she was working within– and understand that the ways bodies, emotions, and trauma were depicted within that style may have looked just as “real” to the people seeing them as film and television look to us, because that was their familiar artistic language.

It’s like the way CGI can look perfectly realistic, or at least acceptable, in the moment– but when you return to that movie five years later, you suddenly can see how distractingly bad it looks. We become accustomed to the tropes and techniques that are presented to us– the development of new fashions or technologies makes the old ways look strange.

This also plays into the idea, so common with Shakespeare too, of the solitary artistic genius, who is not working within or expanding upon, but in constant, active defiance of their surrounding artistic landscape. Such people existed, of course, but not every artist we admire is or has to be one of them. (And again, Gentileschi may secretly have been, but this painting is not proof of that.)

The problem is basically a lack of historical context (though in this specific instance, also a failure to actually read the original poster’s caption). The assumption that artists would work exactly as we do today, in styles and shorthands that are identical to ours– and that we, from our own context, can look at a historical work and read it as clearly and easily as we do contemporary art. The historical myths that catch on seem to be the ones that reinforce these ideas.

The appeal is obvious: it says that your personal response to and understanding of a work is not only valid (which it is) but also objectively true (probably not). I don’t think it’s elitist or gatekeeping to say that all art is borne of its historical moment, and you need to have some understanding of that historical moment to attempt to interpret what a work was trying to do and say in its own time, rather than what it seems to say now.

That’s what makes historical art so fascinating to me: the reminder that, while some things do seem to come down to human nature, so much of what we take as objective truth about humanity and the way we see the world– both good and bad– is really just a product of our time and place. Fundamentally different perspectives have existed, and can and will.

Caroline, or Change & Nice White People

I’ve been wondering for a few months now why Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s amazing musical Caroline, or Change hasn’t been a go-to for theatre companies this season given its intense relevance to some of our most urgent social issues (the recently-discussed subplot involving the defacing of a Confederate statue not least among them).

Because Kushner and Tesori are amazing, the piece resonates on so many levels. One that I think is particularly urgent, and a bit subtler than the Confederate statue subplot, is its treatment of the role of well-intentioned white people in questions of racial equality. In Caroline, or Change, the family the titular Caroline works for are not your average middle-class white Southerners: they’re also Jewish, raising the still-timely question of how white people who have their own claims to oppression can still be complicit in white supremacy.

The achingly awkward Rose, Northern transplant to New Orleans, unhappily married stepmother to a resentful ten-year-old, and Caroline’s boss, clings to an all-too-recognizable attempt at friendliness in order to overcome her discomfort with the power relationship between herself and Caroline. Rose insists that her scheme to give Caroline the unofficial raise they otherwise can’t afford– letting her keep any change her stepson Noah leaves in his pockets when Caroline does the laundry– is her “trying to be friendly… just trying to be a friend.” But she doesn’t see any contradiction between her protestations of friendship and her frantic asides wondering why Caroline isn’t as nice as other people’s maids.

Rose is not one of the virulently racist housewives of something like The Help: after Caroline quits unannounced, her bewilderment seems sincere when she says that, “It’s just no way to treat a friend.”

The recurring word friend becomes a mask behind which white characters hide their discomfort and insincerity. While eulogizing President Kennedy, Rose’s mother and father-in-law describe him as “friend to the colored, friend to the Jew”– while the two black characters who comment are far less sure of that.

“JFK/Swore to help black folks someday/sure he was a little slow/getting round to doing so/but he swore it and I know/he was set to help our cause,” Caroline’s friend Dotty says. But the best she can conclude is: “Our almost-friend has gone away.”

Caroline’s daughter Emmie is blunter: “I ain’t got no tears to shed/for no dead white guy.”

Dotty and Emmie recognize that friendship is an action, not a title; something that is earned through behavior that demonstrates one’s commitment, not just something one can decide to say they are. Rose may claim to be Caroline’s friend, but as long as she’s Caroline’s boss (not to mention so painfully uncomfortable around her), she can’t be.

In a gesture that feels particularly radical these days, Kushner gives no extra credit for good intentions. Rose is held responsible for her ignorant bumbling, even though it’s well-meant, even though she’s far from home and sad and sincerely wishes she could help Caroline more. He holds Noah, her ten-year-old stepson, responsible for his racism, too. The show’s emotional climax is triggered when Caroline decides to keep a $20 bill Noah accidentally leaves in his pocket and Noah, enraged at the ‘theft,’ responds by furiously parroting racist threats he’s obviously overheard, or at least made up based on things he’s heard.

When Caroline does decide to return to work anyway, Noah hides from her. But in one of the play’s dreamy nighttime dialogues that take place between physically distant characters, Caroline reassures him that the rupture is not permanent. Noah asks, “Will we be friends then?”

Caroline’s melody is gentle and her words blunt: “Weren’t never friends.”

It’s the culmination of a recurring thread of her denying their friendship while Noah insists upon it, but it’s also clearer than ever in that moment that it’s true. But it leaves open the possibility that it could become true, if Noah ceases to hide behind that meaningless word and grows up to confront the deep cultural and systemic issues that keep him and Caroline apart.

Caroline’s friend Dotty says near the end of the play, “I know it hurt to change./It actually hurts, learning something new.” Dotty reminds Caroline of what Rose and Noah’s contrasting examples prove: not just that change can hurt, but that it must hurt. That’s the only way it can take place. Caroline has personal change to work through over the course of the play, but the weight of the painful personal changes that can lead to broader social transformation is placed firmly on the backs of the white characters. Politeness and protestations of friendship are meaningless without the courage to confront the prejudices, personal and social, that they’re attempting to paper over.

 

 

Justice for Ellen (and the women of Will)

(this post contains spoilers)

We’re four episodes into TNT’s new Shakespeare drama Will before we learn Ellen Burbage’s first name.

Between the boy players and Shakespeare’s absent wife and, you know, the general sexism of 16th century England, it’s easy to create stories about the early days of English drama that include no women at all. So Will deserves credit for its inclusion of James Burbage’s wife Ellen as a clearly integral part of the day-to-day running of the Theatre. But she’s Mistress Burbage, and Richard and Alice’s mum, and it’s not until four episodes in that anyone actually bothers to identify her by her first name.

It’s a little thing, but emblematic of Will’s not-quite-there treatment of its female characters. The show comes so close to finding a space for women in the tale of the early modern English theatre that it’s all the more frustrating that it falls short. The desire for interesting, important female characters is obvious, but the show stumbles in the execution, falling back on tired and disempowering period drama tropes.

Take Ellen Burbage. One of the best episodes gives her props as the power behind the throne, the real manager of her husband’s playhouse– but we never really see her doing this, and the idea is never quite mentioned again. Her real role is to alternately nag and support her family– and, in classic period drama mama fashion, push her daughter towards a sensible but loveless marriage and become furious when she refuses it.

It’s not nearly as bad as poor Anne Shakespeare, who of course Shakespeare does not love, and spends most of the series cheating on. Her role is only to realize that she is a fool for wishing her husband would be sensible and make money and help their three children, and instead must recognize his genius and– in her own words– “leave [him] free to succeed.” That is literally what she says. Literally. We’ll return to this idea.

Will gets points for including Emilia Bassano (and for casting her with a black actress), and loses them again for how she is used. There are a few striking scenes– and parallel scenes earlier, with Alice– in which Emilia makes key suggestions about the shape of Shakespeare’s works-in-progress. It might be an exciting example of someone finally depicting the collaborative nature of early modern playwriting– but it’s not. Shakespeare happily absorbs Emilia and Alice’s ideas without expectation of credit or acknowledgement on either side. He’s the writer, of course they have no use for their words or ideas (though Emilia’s own poetry is referenced, once) except to give them to him.

Obviously this is a slightly uncharitable reading– any writer knows that friends offer ideas and you duly steal them all the time. But it’s the positioning of both these women, both of whom claim to be artistic and ambitious in their own right, as having no real function except to serve Shakespeare. One suspects the writers think they are paying the women their due by having them make major contributions to famous works like Richard III, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and lines that will eventually go into Romeo and Juliet, but it only highlights their inferior position: they may make contributions, but the plays and the genius are still firmly Shakespeare’s.

Which brings us to Alice Burbage, Richard Burbage’s sister, Shakespeare’s love interest. To define her in any other terms is almost impossible, though there is a funny scene wherein she’s asked what she does at the playhouse, and she replies, “Not much,” before rattling off an endless list of scrivening, prop sorting, prompting, costume mending…

Like Ellen, the show fully accepts Alice’s role in the family business, though unlike Ellen, there are always hints that perhaps it’s inappropriate, perhaps she needs to marry. When Shakespeare firmly rejects her (at Ellen’s command), Alice turns to another idol, represented by another handsome young man: she converts to Catholicism under the guidance of Shakespeare’s cousin, the underground priest Robert Southwell. His luring of Alice smacks of nothing so much as the way cultists prey on the vulnerable, but by the end, the show tries to insist that we view this choice as Alice finally exercising her free will, that it has nothing to do with Shakespeare– though, of course, it has everything to do with him, as every single episode of the show has demonstrated. Even her departure has to do with him: she writes that she cannot be “part of [his] world”– even though it was her world first.

Alice, whose only wish has been to find a place for herself in the playhouse, is forced out to make room for Will, surrendering her piece of the Burbage family legacy in an act the writing attempts to frame as self-actualization, but just reads– ship voyage and all– exactly the same as Viola at the end of Shakespeare in Love, removing herself as a real, full person in order to become something more important: a character of Shakespeare’s, a piece of his mythology. Viola becomes Viola of Twelfth Night; Alice, associated throughout with lines from Romeo and Juliet, signs her final letter as Shakespeare’s “bright angel,” suggesting Shakespeare will use her as inspiration for Juliet. What better fate for a woman, these endings seem to say, than to be subsumed into a man’s legacy as a fictionalized, idealized version of yourself?

Joking discomfort with the fact of boy players means that, as Shakespeare conceives of and we see snippets of the plays performed, female characters are consistently erased or marginalized. The example I continually find most galling is Richard III. Even though Shakespeare and Alice earnestly discussed the character of Queen Margaret in previous episodes, no mention of her is made in that play, nor of the fact that Shakespeare’s only wholly original scenes, with antecedents in none of his sources, are those featuring the female characters.

The other female characters consist of a prostitute older sister who dies trying to flee with her younger brother; Richard’s friend/maybe-love-interest Moll, who gives him shit but ultimately believes in him; a love interest for Richard’s best friend, who is introduced and dies in a single episode; a tavern hostess/landlady; and a host of peripheral wives and children who are often, in traditional period drama fashion, used as the living emblem of the cost of whatever conflict their male relatives have become embroiled in.

The existence of Ellen, Alice, and Emilia alone put Will a step ahead of almost any other Shakespeare-related show or movie I can think of. But though it tries to make room for women, and deserves credit for the effort, it still can’t conceive of them as anything but satellites to men’s stories, defined primarily by their ability to advance or impede a man’s ambitions.