Monday, April 23, 2012

Happy Birthday to a Man of Qualitie

I’ve loved Shakespeare since high school, but not because I was taught him.  As somebody once said, one of the reasons Shakespeare is a great writer is because he’s survived centuries of mandated classroom instruction. (Not bad for a glover’s son with an equivalent high school education, huh?) 

The play I lost my Shakespearean virginity to was The Tempest.  When I was 16, I picked up a Dover Furness Variorum Edition of it for the incredibly expensive price of $2.25, and because I was a cocky son of a bitch when I was 16, I got it into my head that I should direct the play, in the round, as part of the senior year Dramatic Society schedule. Which I actually did, with a lot of uncredited but much-appreciated  help from various teachers during rehearsals.

I listened to this ENDLESSLY.

The only Shakespeare part I’ve ever played on a stage is Benedick.  For one night only.  My old all-male high school was performing Much Ado About Nothing for the all-girl high school we got our actresses from, and the kid playing Benedick refused to do it, so I forget who called me, it might have been my cousin John, but he said, “Listen, we’re doing Much Ado next Friday and we need a Benedick, want to do it?”  And I said sure.  So I learned the part in a week, rehearsed it twice, redirected a couple of scenes because I was a cocky son of a bitch when I was 18, and in the end only blew one speech, ninety seconds before the play ended, where I got all mixed up, and everybody knew I was all mixed up.  It was this one:

I'll tell thee what, Prince; a college of wit-crackers cannot flout me out of my humour. Dost thou think I care for a satire or an epigram? No: if a man will be beaten with brains, a' shall wear nothing handsome about him. In brief, since I do purpose to marry, I will think nothing to any purpose that the world can say against it; and therefore never flout at me for what I have said against it--

 To this day I don’t know what I said after “I’ll tell thee what, Prince,” it was absolute gibberish, but I said it with such total conviction that my friends in the audience were cracking up, and then the rest of the audience cracked up as well, because the next line in the speech is this, and I nailed it:

-- for man is a giddy thing, and this is my conclusion. 

Which makes this speech the perfect one to corpse on.  He said, with his limitless experience of portraying Shakespeare in front of a live audience.  ;-)

For the record, when I say “Shakespeare,” I don’t mean DeVere or Bacon or Marlowe, I mean (a) a guy with three kids and a wife in Stratford who was (b) a better-than-average actor with (c) a magpie mind that made him (d) listen more than he talked.  A man of quality, which is a pun that is lost on today's audience, because in Elizabethan England the word "qualitie" had a specific theatrical connotation.  When Ariel says in The Tempest, "Task Ariel, and all his qualitie," it doesn't refer to Ariel's characteristics--it refers to his troupe of actors.  (I’ll spare you my “Shakespeare was an actor first and a playwright second” rant, but I will point out that once you remove the man’s works from the stage and place them in the study, it’s only a small step to assigning them to some noble who is more worthy of scholarly attention than a provincial who had to purchase his own coat of arms.)  

Who do I picture when I think of Shakespeare?  This guy: 

This is the Chandos portrait, which is on display in Room 4 of the National Gallery in London.  (It was one of the two portraits I hunted down when I was there; the other was this portrait of Sir Richard Francis Burton.)  Why is it my favorite Shakespeare image?  The earring.  If you want to know why I have my left ear pierced, this portrait is the answer.  To me it looks like a guy I could have beers and shoot the breeze with.  Although since we're both by nature listeners, we'd definitely need a third party to do all the talking.  But I'm sure Will would take it a compliment--if there's one thing that many of his plays have in common, it's the fact that his men always seem to congregate in packs of three.  When they're not traveling by shipwreck.

What would I say to the man if I bought him a drink on his birthday?  (After asking him if today was indeed his birthday?)  I would certainly make some bad pun, which he would top.  I would definitely express my condolences at the death of his son.  I would surely toast him for writing the greatest bad-actor-proof scene in history--the Pyramus and Thisbe play-within-a-play from Midsummer Night's Dream.  I would probably hand him a copy of this sonnet, as a meager offering at his secular altar.  And I would profusely thank him for being born when and where he was, and for creating three dozen complicated verbal machines which can, even still, grind their way into our hearts and heads to confound the ignorant, and amaze indeed the very faculties of eyes and ears.

Happy Birthday Will.

This post is part of today's Happy Birthday Shakespeare Project.  Click on the link and keep the celebration going.

Monday, April 16, 2012

There's no such thing as "then"

There’s no such thing as then.  Everything’s now.
  Regrets?  Plans?  Failures?  Hopes?  Scars?  All straw men.
No maybe, no perhaps, no was, no how--
  Just one brief answer to the question, “When?”
Yesterday is a ghost that lives to haunt us;
  Before and Once are the dead hands of Time
That hold us back from where our best dreams want us
  To stand--to be--on this rough peak we climb.
Now we lose purchase, now the heights we gain.
  Now we’re our mother’s children, now the dirt’s.
Now we feel pleasure, now the world is pain.
  Life is so present simple that it hurts:
      And now the moon and stars, and now the sun;
      And now this line is born; and now it’s done.

Copyright 2012 Matthew J Wells

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Thought for the day

"Patriarchy is not men. Patriarchy is a system in which both women and men participate. It privileges, inter alia, the interests of boys and men over the bodily integrity, autonomy, and dignity of girls and women. It is subtle, insidious, and never more dangerous than when women passionately deny that they themselves are engaging in it."
 -- Ashley Judd, 4/9/12

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The male dream of a do-what-you're-told woman

What is it about men wanting tame women? Can it be genetic? Can it be cultural? And can it be any clearer over the last couple of months that, to some men, it's a rhetorical question?

Rhetorical or not, the question itself seems to be everywhere, from cromagnon commentators who are so dumb they confuse sluts (who do it for free) with prostitutes (who do it for money), to the bi-coastal trend-frenzy around the women of Mad Men (which, for those of you who do not live in New York or Los Angeles, is the current title holder of The Greatest Must-Watch Show On Television That Is Not Game Of Thrones, True Blood, Or Dexter When That Starts Again).

It's also the question close to the heart of Shakespeare's Taming Of The Shrew, which is currently getting a lively and hilarious production at Theatre for a New Audience. (I say "close to the heart" because, as with everything in Shakespeare--even early Shakespeare--the heart of a play is not in its argument, but in its arguers.) This particular production is set in frontier America at the end of the 19th Century, as if it were being done by a traveling troupe of players at some place like the Number Ten Saloon in Deadwood, or the saloon on that muddy main street in Shane. And oddly enough, the very American setting turns it into a very American play-- Andy Grotelueschen's Petruchio is like a three-way bank shot between a mountain man, a Civil War veteran, and Melville's Confidence Man, while Maggie Siff's Kate has all the justified resentment of a woman who faced and stared down hardship after hardship while crossing the country in a covered wagon, only to be relegated to sewing bees. (Potential thesis topic: women with sharp tongues are like gunslingers--if you can't domesticate 'em, then you have to ostracize 'em.)  

The play is also done with the Christopher Sly Induction, and imports a couple or three asides from the earlier Taming Of A Shrew where Sly, watching the performance as one of the audience, comments on and gets caught up in the action.  Again, this not only works perfectly in the frontier setting, but it works for the play as well.  There's something about this distancing--the assumed premise that this is a "performance"--that makes Petruchio's bullying farcical, instead of a plea for mandated marital restraining orders or Social Services intervention.

Whether that's a good thing or not is something which is not directly addressed in this particular production, unlike the 2007 all-male Propeller Company Shrew that played at BAM, aka "The Three Stooges Do Stockholm Syndrome," where by the end Kate had all the fire literally beaten out of her.  In the TNA production, Kate's fire gets channeled and focused, so that what begins as a roaring blaze ends as a white-hot flame.  

In the play’s preoccupation with money, it’s as close to a Jonson play as Shakespeare ever wrote, long before he met Jonson. But because he’s Shakespeare, the money stuff disappears the moment the wedding is finalized (because if it doesn’t, then you get the second half of The Quiet Man, which is all about dowries and obligations).  (Potential Thesis topic: The Quiet Man as an answer play to Taming Of The Shrew.)   Once all the talk of money and dowries disappears, you get something Jonson probably laughed at, and not in a good way: an equation between taming your wife and taming a falcon, right down to the details of rewarding good behavior, punishing bad behavior, and starving the bird into submission. The fact that this type of training is specialized knowledge now, which it wasn't in the 1590's, puts a modern audience at a real disadvantage in understanding that falcons aren't actually neutered or domesticated by their "taming"--on the contrary, they totally retain their falcon qualities, but their falcon nature is directed towards a purpose.  Just like Kate, in the end, is directed to speak out to her sister and the widow about what rights and duties a woman owes her husband.

Ah, that final monologue.  It's a killer, isn't it?  Depending on how you play it, it can be anything from a scathing indictment of male supremacy to a Stockholm Syndrome embrace of it. Personally I think the truth is somewhere in the middle--that this is the speech that shames and tames Petruchio.  The most devastating version I've ever seen was by Josie Lawrence in the '95 RSC Shrew that played at Stratford.  (She won the Peggy Ashcroft Award for her Kate, and deservedly so; not only was she fantastic, but that Shrew was one of the top five productions of anything Shakespeare that I've ever seen.) Siff's version in this production is alive in the best sense--you can see her thinking about what she's going to say, and what points she wants to make, and in the end, when she offers her hand to Petruchio, it's actually poignant.  Which is not very easy to pull off.

Overall, the show is fun, it's funny, and it works--which is also not very easy to pull off when you do this particular play.  Will you come out of it with a piercing insight into why some men would prefer all women everywhere to be silent and docile?  Nope.  This production keeps the arguers in front of the argument.  So don't go expecting to get pissed off--go expecting to be entertained, and you'll have a good time*.

*(But if you do want to get pissed off, give me a call, and we can talk about what DC Comics is doing to Wonder Woman.)