Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Swan Theatre, The Isle of Dogs, and The Interview

Jonson, Ben, and Thomas Nashe. The Isle of Dogs. N.p.: N.p., 1597.

In the summer of 1597, Ben Johnson, Thomas Nashe, and a number of players got in very hot water indeed. They had just performed The Isle of Dogs, and such was the furor over it that the Swan Theatre, where it was preformed, was closed—permanently.

No one is quite sure what specifically gave so much offense, but it is clear that it deeply offended the government in general and Queen Elizabeth I in particular—indeed, it may have made fun of the King of Poland (and / or his ambassador) and Queen Elizabeth herself. The Lost Play Database has complied a number of important documents relevant to the case, and they give the feeling that people are even afraid to talk about the play, much less provide specifics about the outrage it spawned.

As my grandmother used to say, I told you that to tell you this.

In the winter of 2014, a film called The Interview was cancelled by Sony Pictures. About that film, we know a great deal. Its plot involves coercing talk show hosts who have landed an interview with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un into attempting to assassinate him in some way during the interview.

What's fascinating is that the film would probably not have caused such a ruckus if its subject had been a non-contemporary world leader. What if the show were set in the 1940s and the interviewers were asked to assassinate Hitler? How about setting the play in the future and having a more generalized world leader as its subject? What about making the conspirators Elizabethan Catholic plotters interviewing Queen Elizabeth I as a pretext for an assassination attempt on her?

The contemporaneity of the two works caused the trouble. Shakespeare occasionally got himself into warm if not hot water (cf. the "I am Richard—know ye not that" episode), he largely avoided it by what we Shakespeare scholars like to call "The Thin Veil." By thinly veiling contemporary issues, Shakespeare was able to address them without causing such turmoil. After all, Shakespeare himself wrote a play about the assassination of a world leader whose succession was in question, yet 1599 (the year in which it was written and first performed) did not see the closing of the Globe Theatre; instead, it was one of Shakespeare most successful years.

Links: The Play at The Lost Plays Database.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Banquo's Chair: A Play in One Act

Croft-Cooke, Rupert. Banquo's Chair: A Play in One Act. London: H.F.W. Deane & Sons, 1930.

You may recall the episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents that dealt—not altogether obliquely—with Banquo's ghost (for which, q.v.).

With the help of an excellent librarian, I was able to track down the source material. It turned out to be a one-act play with the same title. The story is roughly the same, including the same cleverly twisting ending—but the ending works itself out slightly differently in the play.

I'm attaching images (click on them to enlarge them) of the last four pages of the play so that you can see the difference for yourself. And if you happen to direct any amateur dramatic societies, you might consider putting on this play—I think it is quite likely to please an audience!

Thursday, November 20, 2014

More Shakespearean Monkeys—Baboons, to be Precise

The Okavango Macbeth: A Chamber Opera. Libretto by Alexander McCall Smith. Comp. Tom Cunningham. Dir. Nicholas Ellenbogen. Perf. Mr. McFall's Chamber Orchestra and Edinburgh Studio Opera Chorus. 22-23 April 2011. Delphian, 2011. CD.

No, I'm not on about the infinite monkeys alluded to in Douglas Adams (for which, q.v.). Nor do I refer to the Monkeys that did Romeo and Juliet (for which, q.v.). No, I'm talking about The Okavango Macbeth.

"What's The Okavango Macbeth?" I hear you asking. Ah, well, there's the rub. I chanced upon our library's holdings of an audio recording of this opera (for it is an opera) while teaching the English majors at my institution the finer points of research. Why I was trying the search term "baboon" (for it is about baboons) escapes me for a moment, but it may have had something to do with Romeo and Juliet: A Monkey's Tale, about which we had just been talking. How Macbeth got in there (for it is about Macbeth) is also something of a mystery, but I had Macbeth on my mind and was showing the class how to use some of the Boolean operators to reduce a result list of thousands down to a manageable few dozen.

In any case, we chanced upon a title that seemed to have to do with Macbeth even though the Library of Congress subject heading was "Baboons -- Songs and Music." My jaw dropped as I realized that I had once heard of this show and that I could (if I wished) listen to it right then and there with my entire class.

I didn't, of course, but I did manage to put in on later. In fact, it’s quite good—both the libretto and the music are fairly deep and haunting. The author of the Libretto is Alexander McCall Smith—he of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. The work is set in Botswana—that of the Okavango River Delta and the Moremi Game Reserve.

Here are the program notes' summary of the first three acts (there are four in all):
Act One
The animals recall the time when all lived together in peace but then came drought and famine—greed was born.  The animals blame the baboons.
Act Two
The primatologists set up camp in the delta and agree that they will watch the baboons but never interfere.  The baboons then emerge and observe the humans–such strange, unfinished creatures–and agree that they will watch but never interfere.  Two of them, Lady Macbeth and her friend, complain about the males and start scheming.  When Macbeth arrives, she flatters him, but he reminds her she must marry Duncan according to Baboon Law.  She urges Macbeth to kill Duncan.
Act Three
As evening approaches, the primatologist reflect on the nature of animal behavior.  Lady Macbeth consoles Duncan whose kingly responsibilities fall on his weary shoulders.  She lulls him to sleep.  With some difficulty, she encourages Macbeth to kill him.  The following morning, the primatologists come across the body of Duncan and discern evil in nature’s paradise.
There are a few scattered videos of pieces of performances available on YouTube. Here's one of an Act Four song entitled "Grubs First, then Ethics."


"Grubs First, then Ethics"

Affairs of state
And love and hate,
That keep the great
Awake at night,
Are from our sight
Grubs first, then ethics.
Beneath the ground

All fat and round
The grubs are found;
Prepare to eat
This lucious treat
Grubs first, then ethics.
The primate way
Can give no sway
To those who say
A leader strong
Will last for long
Grubs first, then ethics.
That's great, and it gives a good sense of the production. There's quite a bit of good humor there—and some particularly good voices.

A more serious scene (and one for which I can't find a video counterpart) involves an exchange between Lady Macbeth and Macbeth.
Macbeth arrives.  Lady Macbeth’s friend withdraws discreetly.
Lady Macbeth:
My lord Macbeth is come,
The one who is all glorious,
In my eyes, O georgeous one,
My lover bright, in courage spun;
Who sends the leopard to his cave;
And in whose presence weak are brave,
Who takes the sun from out the sky,
And plucks the eagles as they fly
With talons drawn, and dashes them,
And dashes them, and dashes them.
Is that me whom you describe?
Am I so brave who once was . . .
Lady Macbeth:
Brave, and always was.
A man may think he’s
Something other
In the generous praise
Of a lover.
Lady Macbeth:
A woman sees the best in men,
A woman finds those depths often
Unseen by man himself.
Still, I am only . . .
Lady Macbeth:
Only one; you are the one and
Only one I think of
When I’m lonely.
I cannot be your suitor,
No matter how much
I love you;
No matter how much
I want you.
You cannot bear my children
Against baboon law.
Lady Macbeth:
Baboon law?  What is the law
But the way people have done things
They could have done
Otherwise if they had thought?
It is the law;
there is no more
to be said about it.
We cannot break
Nor lightly take it
Another way.
It is the law.
And the law says
Duncan, it is Duncan
Who will be your mate;
Duncan, the powerful,
Duncan, your destined
Lady Macbeth:
But I want you.
Me will kill a rival:
Do not ask me
To put my head upon a block.
Lady Macbeth:
Then kill him first, my lovely,
He will kill me.
Lady Macbeth:
Then kill him now, my honey,
I cannot do it.
Lady Macbeth:
Then kill him now, my darling.
He will kill me.
Lady Macbeth:
But he must sleep, all creatures sleep,
The mighty lion must also sleep
The leopards may by moonlight creep,
But they, too, sleep; but they, too, sleep.
And in this sleep where is his strength,
If in his sleep through night-time’s length,
He cannot see, he cannot hear?
And one who strikes need never fear
The strength of one who isn’t there.
I am not sure.
Lady Macbeth:
But I am sure, and you are strong;
This thing is not the act of one,
But that of two, of me, and you.
(Repeat as a duet)but he must sleep, etc.
and he must sleep, and they must sleep, and we must sleep.
I would really like to see a production in its entirety. And, with my preoccupation with Shakespeare in Africa, I'd like to explore any particularly African resonance that might be there (if any). In the meantime, it's astonishing to know that this exists and that, for at least some university libraries, a recording of the entire opera is only a click away. 

Click below to purchase the CD from
(and to support Bardfilm as you do so).

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Book Note: Y is for Yorick

Adams, Jennifer. Y is for Yorick: A Slightly Irreverent Shakespearean ABC Book for Grown-Ups. Layton, Utah: Gibbs Smith, 2011.

I want to take a little time out from grading papers to call attention to a little volume I just obtained. I saw this in a used bookstore, and I just couldn't resist.

Y is for Yorick is a deliciously tongue-in-cheek Shakespearean alphabet book. Indeed, I think Yorick himself, known to be a fellow of infinite jest, would have been set on a roar by some of the pages—such as the image to the right. Any guesses as to who is illustrated there?

The book runs through the entire alphabet, repeating irresistible letters like O (Ophelia and Othello) and H (Hamlet, Henry V, and Henry VIII).  Even though it takes a few easy outs with Q (why Queen rather that Quickly, Quintus, or Quince?), X, and Z (ah, that whoreson Zed—that unnecessary letter!), it's quite enjoyable.

To give you a feel for the book, I'm providing the pages for B, I, and J.

There you have it—except to add that there are holidays coming up . . . and there are Shakespeare lovers out there . . . and people have a lot of wallets and purses . . . and they gotta buy something.

Click below to purchase the book from
(and to support Bardfilm as you do so).

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Hamlet and Macbeth meet in Alfred Hitchcock Presents

"Banquo's Chair." By Francis M. Cockrell. Perf. Alfred Hitchcock, John Williams, Hilda Plowright, Max Adrian, George Dillon, Tom Dillon, Reginald Gardiner, Kenneth Haigh, and George Pelling. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Alfred Hitchcock Presents . Season 4, episode 29. NBC. 3 May 1959. DVD. Universal Studios, 2009.

Occasionally, I reward myself for finishing a particularly difficult bit of writing or a peculiarly large stack of grading by posting to Bardfilm. As you may be able to tell from the length between this post and the last one, I've had a fair bit of both kinds of work, and that's kept me from posting.

And that's unfortunate because, some time ago, I happened upon a marvelous episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents that employs a trope from Macbeth for Hamletesque results, and I've desired to post about it ever since.  In this episode, a retired detective wants to crack a two-year-old unsolved case, and he resolves to go about it with—perhaps consciously, perhaps unconsciously—Hamlet’s idea in mind:
                                I have heard
That guilty creatures sitting at a play
Have by the very cunning of the scene
Been struck so to the soul that presently
They have proclaim'd their malefactions.  (II.ii.588-93)
Most interestingly, he decides to use a device from Macbeth—the appearance of the ghost of Banquo—to trap the man he suspects of murdering his aunt. He invites the suspect to the aunt's old home, convinces the house's new owner to host a dinner party to which he brings a Shakespearean actor (which allows for some of the dinner conversation to turn, notably, to Hamlet) and the murder suspect. He also hires an actress to impersonate the suspect's aunt.

I've reduced the show to its absolute essentials in the clip below—minus any sort of thrilling twist that Hitchcock may or may not have provided at the show's end (no spoilers).  Enjoy!


Now that you've seen that, you may be wondering what happens next. The following clip is most certainly a spoiler, so do not watch it if you want to watch the entire episode yourself at some point. Additionally, see if you can anticipate any sort of Hitchcockian twist that might be coming.


Links: The Episode at the Alfred Hitchcock Wiki.

Click below to purchase the film from
(and to support Bardfilm as you do so).

Bardfilm is normally written as one word, though it can also be found under a search for "Bard Film Blog." Bardfilm is a Shakespeare blog (admittedly, one of many Shakespeare blogs), and it is dedicated to commentary on films (Shakespeare movies, The Shakespeare Movie, Shakespeare on television, Shakespeare at the cinema), plays, and other matter related to Shakespeare (allusions to Shakespeare in pop culture, quotes from Shakespeare in popular culture, quotations that come from Shakespeare, et cetera).

Unless otherwise indicated, quotations from Shakespeare's works are from the following edition:
Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare. 2nd ed. Gen. ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
All material original to this blog is copyrighted: Copyright 2008-2012 by Keith Jones.

The very instant that I saw you did / My heart fly to your service; there resides, / To make me slave to it; and, for your sake, / Am I this patient [b]log-man.

—The Tempest