Thursday, December 9, 2010

Shakespeare's Stratford: The Documentary

Shakespeare’s Stratford: An In-Depth Look at the City & its Illustrious Native Son. N.d. Perf. Sue Sutton. 2008. DVD. Artsmagic Ltd., 2008.

While we're on the subject of documentaries, let's look at a more comfortable, homier documentary.

In Shakespeare’s Stratford, Sue Sutton takes us on a very down-to-earth tour of Shakespeare's hometown. She visits all the tourist sites and interviews the workers there, speculates about certain elements that are of interest to her, and asks quirky questions.

The film shows the balance that Shakespeare in London (for which, q.v.) lacks. When there's speculation, it's labeled speculation, and the viewer is free to make a judgement or to investigate further.

In this brief clip, Sutton discusses a notorious story about Shakespeare's death:

The film is quite long (over three hours), but I find the down-home approach invigorating.

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Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Shakespeare in Lo . . .

Shakespeare in London: The Life and Times of the Real William Shakespeare. Dir. Mark Ubsdell. Perf. Chrispin Redman, Paul Piper, Keely Beresford. 1999. DVD. Goldhil Entertainment, 2007.

Here's a quick personality test for you. Should the title above end with ". . . ve" or ". . . ndon"?

I think the makers of the documentary Shakespeare in London want you to equate the two. They attempt to ride on the coattails of the far more popular and (dare I say it?) vastly superior Shakespeare in Love.

Two instances of this stand out in particular. One is the use of Shakespeare's signatures (see the image above). The opening to Shakespeare in Love shows Shakespeare practicing his own signature. That film may have gotten the idea from the novel No Bed for Bacon (for which, q.v.). Shakespeare in London clearly gets its idea directly from Shakespeare in Love.

The second instance is the decision to use the same speech masterfully delivered by Gwyneth Paltrow in Shakespeare in Love as part of Shakespeare in London's story. The speech is placed right after a ridiculous claim about Queen Elizabeth visiting the theatre in disguise. Perhaps the writers of this documentary took Shakespeare in Love as a documentary itself:

The speech is a magnificent one. For those of you keeping score, it's from Two Gentlemen of Verona, III.i.174-82. It shows what early Shakespeare can do. In Shakespeare in Love, it's compared to Marlowe's heavier lines; here, it seems to serve no purpose—except the purpose of reminding its audience about Shakespeare in Love.

The documentary isn't terrible, but it also doesn't go beyond the basics. When it does, it speculates without indicating that it's being speculative. For example, early in the program, we learn that,
For young Shakespeare, life in Stratford has become a life of drugery. He's a poet. He wants to write. Romance beats within his breast. And yet, for him, the marital bed, since the birth of the twins, has become a virtual prison cell. He wonders is this to be his life. And, as far as he can, he wishes to escape. And then, at some time in the mid 1580s, Shakespeare leaves Stratford, abandons his wife, abandons his children, and hits the road for London.
The last five words of that are the only non-speculative part. The rest may or may not be true—and it should be presented in that light.

The film is brief (about fifty minutes), the production values are those of a videocassette that has been digitized and burned to DVD, and the acting falters somewhat. But the thing that troubles me most is the attempted reproducton of scenes from Shakespeare in Love. The authors, directors, and actors of that film did it well; why attempt to replicate what they did? I can only think that the producers of Shakespeare in London were waiting to get the rights to incorporate those scenes in their own documentary; when the rights didn't come through, they though, "Oh, well. We can do it ourselves!"

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Tuesday, December 7, 2010

No Bed for Bacon: Tracing the Origins of Shakespeare in Love

Brahms, Caryl [pseud. of D. C. Abrahams], and S. J. Simon. No Bed for Bacon. London: Michael Joseph, 1941.

Shakespeare in Love. Dir. John Madden. Perf. Gwyneth Paltrow, Joseph Fiennes, Geoffrey Rush and Tom Wilkinson. 1998. DVD. Miramax, 1999.

It's not easy to forget the introduction to William Shakespeare that Shakespeare in Love gives us. The camera shows us a quill in close-up behind the opening title—Shakespeare is hard at work. Then we cut to what he's writing, and it turns out he's practicing his signature, complete with different spellings. In a lovely gesture, he wads up a sheet of signatures (which would be worth a hundred times its weight in gold if Southby's had such a sheet to auction off) and tosses it in a mug marked "A Present from Stratford upon Avon." Here's the scene in question:

It's marvelous, it's humorous, and it's intriguing. But where did that idea come from? Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard are the co-authors of the screenplay. Did they come up with that remarkable moment?

In some work I've been doing on Shakespeare-related fiction, I chanced upon a 1941 novel entitled No Bed for Bacon. There, on page 13, is the idea—though not, certainly, the details carried out in the film:
In a cold dark little room over against the back of the Theatre, Sir Francis Bacon was talking eloquently. Opposite him a melancholy figure sat tracing its signature on a pad.
He always practised tracing his signature when he was bored. He was always hoping that one of these days he would come to a firm decision upon which of them he liked the best. He looked at them. He considered. He shook his head. (13)
Does that count as an allusion? An independent idea developing in two independent locations? Homage to the book? Plagiarism?

I'm not sure I would go as far as the last of those possibilities, but I have checked the credits of Shakespeare in Love, and I find no credit given to the book. And if the writers got the idea there, they should cite the source!

I am aware of a documentary that plays far too much on the popularity of Shakespeare in Love. Next time, Shakespeare in London: The Exact Same Thing as Shakespeare in Love (Except for the Last Four Letters).

Links: The Film at IMDB.

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Monday, November 29, 2010

Shakespeare and Leslie Nielsen

The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!. Dir. David Zucker. Perf. Leslie Nielsen, Priscilla Presley and O.J. Simpson. 1988. DVD. Paramount, 2000

Leslie Nielsen died on November 28, 2010. He's known (in Shakespeare and Film circles) as Commander John J. Adams in the Tempest-related science fiction film Forbidden Planet (for which, q.v.).

He was exceptionally, fantastically, outrageously funny in deadpan roles. He would have been brilliant as Touchstone, Feste, Falstaff, or Lear's Fool. Or Caliban. ["Surely, you don't mean Caliban!" "Yes, I do. And don't call me Shirley."]

There's undoubtedly more Shakespeare than this associated with Leslie Nielson, but the clip below (from The Naked Gun) is at the absolute top of my list.

[Quick Note of Caution: Mild Obscenity Included.]

Mayor: Oh, Drebin . . . I don't want any more trouble like you had last year on the South Side. Understand? That's my policy.

Drebin: Yes, well, when I see five weirdos dressed in togas stabbing a guy in the middle of a park in full view of a hundred people, I shoot the bastards. That's my policy.

Mayor: That was a Shakespeare-in-the-Park production of Julius Caesar, you moron. You killed five actors. Good ones!
It's a bit cliché to say so, but Leslie Neilson's expressions are priceless there. He seems to be weighing what the Mayor is saying—as if this is the first time his mistake has been pointed out to him (which it may very well be). And he seems to be on the verge of defending his actions—perhaps positing that the actors weren't really that good, but he's interrupted.

R.I.P., Leslie Neilson. Neither L.A. nor Altair will be the same without you.

Links: The Film at IMDB.

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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Queen Elizabeth I: 17 November 1558

Hackett, Helen. Shakespeare and Elizabeth: The Meeting of Two Myths. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009.

According to Anne Somerset, “Between eleven o’clock and twelve noon on 17 November 1558, Elizabeth was formally proclaimed Queen outside the Palace of Westminister, and at various other points around the capital” (Somerset 58).

It would not be an understatement to say that that moment changed everything.

But I don't have time for a bulleted list to give you the specifics. Instead, I'll recommend a book that I'd love to read if I had the time: Shakespeare and Elizabeth: The Meeting of Two Myths. I've only glanced through the book, but I can tell that I'd love to curl up with this one for a good while. Hackett examines what has been done with the lives of Elizabeth and Shakespeare, with particular emphasis (at least early on) on how stories about the two of them meeting have evolved over the centuries.

Of course, that fits the world of Shakespeare and film very well. Shakespeare in Love and Doctor Who spring immediately to mind. For the latter of these, take a look at this rare clip from a 1965 episode that shows Elizabeth I and Shakespeare together! That's the sort of thing Hackett examines in this book.

Works Cited

Hackett, Helen. Shakespeare and Elizabeth: The Meeting of Two Myths. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009.

Somerset, Anne. Elizabeth I. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991.

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Thursday, November 11, 2010

Kenneth S. Rothwell (R.I.P.) and the Terminology of Shakespeare and Film

Rothwell, Kenneth S. A History of Shakespeare on Screen: A Century of Film and Television. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

On November 8, 2010, one of the brightest stars in the Shakespeare and Film firmament went out. Kenneth S. Rothwell died.

Rothwell had a long and varied career, but I think his most astonishing contribution to the field was his A History of Shakespeare on Screen (pictured and cited in full above). In addition to being a highly-readable book, full of brilliant ideas, stories, and material for study, the books gives students, scholars, and interested bystanders a fabulous vocabulary for talking about Shakespeare and film.

My students and I find his four degrees of Shakespearean adaptation (delineated throughout the book) and his list of seven kinds of Shakespearean Derivatives (Rothwell 209-10) to be incredibly useful for classifying and talking about the different ways in which Shakespeare manifests himself in film and television. As an homage to Rothwell, here is a taxonomy of Shakespeare and Film (with my own explanations and links added)

Four Degrees of Shakespearean Adaptation:

1. Full-scale, studio, feature-length, [Hollywood] treatments of a Shakespearean text
The word “studio” above limits this to four films and makes the editorial insertion above, as helpful as it may be in clarification, ultimately unnecessary. These are the four full-length Shakespeare films made under the Hollywood Studio system: The Sam Taylor Taming of the Shrew (1929), the Reinhardt / Dieterle Midsummer Night's Dream (1935), the Thalberg / Cukor Romeo and Juliet (1936), and the Mankiewicz / Housman Julius Caesar (1953).
2. Other films released for theatrical viewing
Olivier’s films, Branagh’s films, Welles’ films, et cetera are in this category. This realm contains considerable vastidity.
3. Televisions programs
This classification includes Shakespeare plays first broadcast on television (and, often, later released on videocassette or DVD): the BBC Complete Works broadcasts, some of Trevor Nunn's productions, and the Studio One Julius Caesar, for example.
4. Film versions of stage plays
This category is fairly self-explanatory, though there may be some overlap in films that have their histories in stage plays. The Kline Hamlet, the Casson Macbeth (with Judi Dench and Ian McKellen), et cetera.
In addition to the four degrees of adaptation, Rothwell provides seven types of derivatives:

"Shakespeare Derivatives of Seven Kinds" (Rothwell 208)

1. Recontextualization
Recontextualizations are derivatives that retain most of the plot elements, characters, and / or concerns of Shakespeare's original play, but they generally abandon most of the language. The BBC Shakespeare Retold series, O, She’s the Man, Strange Illusion, and many others fit in this category.
2. Mirror movie
A mirror movie will tell a story about actors putting on a Shakespeare play. The Canadian television show Slings & Arrows would fall into this category, as would A Double Life, Kiss me, Kate (which also overlaps with point 3 below), To Be or Not To Be (either Jack Benny's or Mel Brooks'), The Goodbye Girl, A Midwinter’s Tale, et cetera.
3. Musicals, ballets, and operas
West Side Story, Kiss me, Kate (which also overlaps with point 2 above), Otello, etc.
4. Revues (using biography and other genres)
Al Pacino's Looking for Richard, Vincent Price's Theater of Blood, and other films fit in this classification.
5. Parasitical
This kind of derivative “. . . will exploit Shakespeare for embellishment, and / or graft brief visual or verbal quotations onto an otherwise unrelated scenario” (209). These derivatives “use only fragments of Shakespeare that are not deeply embedded in the film’s main plot” (216). Some Star Trek (both The Original Series and The Next Generation) would fit in this category, as would Renaissance Man, Last Action Hero, et cetera.
6. Animations
The Lion King (which overlaps with either 1, 3, or 5 above, depending on your point of view), Shakespeare: The Animated Tales, and other works fit here.
7. Documentaries and Educational Films
Documentaries and educational films would be classified by Rothwell's seventh kind of derivative.
Rothwell’s degrees of adaptation and kinds of derivatives are extremely useful—and they really become interesting when we consider the ways in which they overlap and combine. For example, Kiss me, Kate fits and does not fit into Derivative Category 3—it’s a musical. But it’s also a mirror movie—a movie in which the characters are putting on a Shakespeare play. It might even count as a recontextualization, too!

Rothwell's contribution to the field cannot be overstated, and scholars the world over are deeply indebted to his work.

Links: An obituary for Kenneth Rothwell.

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Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Shakespeare and Neil Gaiman

Gaiman, Neil. The Absolute Sandman. Illus. Sam Kieth, Mike Dringenberg, Chris Bachalo, Michael Zulli, Kelley Jones, Charles Vess, Colleen Doran, Malcolm Jones, III, and Steve Parkhouse. Vol. 1. New York: DC Comics, 2006.

Bardfilm is occasionally so far behind the times that allusions to Shakespeare in Pop Culture pass into allusions to Shakespeare in Classic Literature.

But today is Neil Gaiman's birthday, so I feel less out-of-date in mentioning allusions to Shakespeare in comic books from the late 1980s.

There are quotations from and allusions to Shakespeare throughout the series (which I have not read in full). Indeed, this post only scratches the surface of Sandman's use of Shakespeare! But one issue receives particular attention because it bears the title of one of Shakespeare's early comedies: A Midsummer Night's Dream.

That issue (from which the images in this post are taken), in addition to being less gory than its predecessors, is intriguing for its integration of the world of the comic with the world of Shakespeare. Morpheus, who met Shakespeare in an earlier issue, meets up with Shakespeare's troop to see a performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream. The audience consists of creatures from the fairy world of the play—including Puck, who, like Shakespeare's character, gets caught up in the action of the play before him.

Gaiman's mixing of imaginary worlds can be seen as a homage to Shakespeare—and to imaginative literature in general.

"Lord, what fools these mortals be": An image from the first issue. Shakespeare in general and A Midsummer Night's Dream in particular were already part of Sandman's world at that point.

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Monday, November 1, 2010

The Classical Actors Ensemble Presents a Tragedy by John Ford

Ford, John. ’Tis Pity She's a Whore. Dir. Joseph Papke. Perf. Peter Aitchison, Andrew Chambers, Brandon Ewald, Koya Frye, Kate Greenwood Gunther, Steven Herzog, Erik Hoover, Ari Hoptman, Jeff Huset, Foster Johns, Leif Jurgensen, Mark Knutson, Zach Morgan, Jonathan Peterson, Jen Rand, Joel Raney, and Sigrid Sutter. Classical Actors Ensemble. Minneapolis. 5 November—20 November 2010.
Another brief break in the grading allows me to squeeze in this announcement. John Ford's Tragedy ’Tis Pity She's a Whore (written c. 1629) will be staged this month in Minneapolis!

Though it may not have the strangest name for a play by a rough contemporary of Shakespeare's (John Heywood's The Play Called the Four PP might claim that distinction), its title is an odd one. Don't let it dissuade you from attending. It's clearly not a play for the faint of heart (it's filled with violence, incest, intrigue, depravity, et cetera), but it is a magnificent one.

I've only seen one production of this play—in St. Louis, some dozen years back. Saying that I enjoyed it wouldn't quite capture the experience. It was good for me. It built character. It enlarged my understanding of the post-Jacobean, pre-Commonwealth drama. And it also gave me a story I've told quite a few times since.

We were all leaving the theatre, somewhat stunned at the tragedy of the tragedy and the disturbing nature of its subject matter, and I heard one lady say to another, "Well, I certainly didn't get any catharsis from that!"

Whether you're looking for catharsis or not, support the production of English Renaissance Drama wherever you find it. Try The Classical Actors Ensemble's production of ’Tis Pity She's a Whore.
Links: Information about the production.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Shooting the Hero: A Shakespeare and Film Novelization

Purser, Philip. Friedrich Harris: Shooting the Hero. London: Quartet Books, 1990.

I read the first sentence, and I was hooked.

Friedrich Harris, the ostensible autobiographical narrator of Philip Purser's novel is a half-Irish / half-German German film industry worker during World War II who is given the task of sabotaging Olivier's Henry V during its filming. The German Ministry of Propaganda has heard of the film and has recognized its value to the Allied forces.

In that fact (and in many other details), the novel maintains a tight connection to history. The film was, in fact, released on 22 November 1944, six months after D-Day. [Note: The Wikipedia entry for the film currently (and inexplicably) lists a date in July for its theatrical release.]

The novel is a spy novel—but with more going for it than just the suspense and adventure typical of the genre. We get down into the nitty-gritty of the film world, seeing the filming of Henry V from the perspective of the extras; the horsemen; and, finally, the Constable of France—whom Henry engages in single combat at the culmination of the Agincourt sequence.

Although aware of the danger that this sample may hook you and force you to track down the novel so that you can read more, I'll provide the opening paragraph (which is also the opening sentence):
When I watched him in one or other of those stupid roles of his old age; when for example he played the Jewish poppa in a vile remake of The Jazz Singer, or on television a Roman elder in some laughable epic continuing over two or four evenings; when he was inveigled on to one of those ceremonies at which today’s film makers “salute” each other, and he would address them in the quavering voice he affected on such occasions; when I saw these things and remembered how once he could strike fire, summon music and bring down thunder with one cry, then I would groan aloud that I had not killed Laurence Olivier when I had the chance. (1)
Once you read the novel, head back to Olivier's Henry V. You'll never see the fighting sequences in the same way. Doubtless, that will be true for the German film that forms a major part of the novel and serves as a foil to Olivier's: Kolberg.

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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Last Season's Macbeth at the Guthrie

Macbeth. Dir. Joe Dowling. Perf. Barbara Bryne, Isabell Monk O’Connor, Suzanne Warmanen, Raye Birk, John Skelley, Benjamin Rosenbaum, J.C. Cutler, Bob Davis, James Noah, Peter Christian Hansen, Tyson Forbes, Erik Heger, Michelle O'Neill, Bill McCallum, Robert O. Berdahl, Sun Mee Chomet, Sam Bardwell, Kris L. Nelson, Nicholas Saxton, Graham Zima, Noah Coon, Charlie Lincoln , Elizabeth McCormick, and Nina Moschkau. Guthrie Theatre Company. Minneapolis. 30 January—3 April 2010.
Photo Credits: Erik Heger (Macbeth) and Michelle O'Neill (Lady Macbeth) in Shakespeare's Macbeth, directed by Joe Dowling with set and costume design by Monica Frawley.

In thinking about the multitude of ways Macbeth has been played throughout the centuries, I'm reminded of the Macbeth that the Guthrie Theatre produced last season. I saw the play twice, took copious notes, gave an address on the play at the Guthrie, and became swamped with grading. Regrettably, that means that I never wrote a post on what was quite a fine production. To start the process of rectification, let me point out some of the truly marvelous features of that staging.

I saw the show twice, and I'm glad I did. The first time I saw it, I thought it was a good, solid production, but it didn't seem to be much more than that. The second time, it was great. I'm not quite sure what accounts for the difference. Was the audience more attuned to the actors? Were the actors more attuned to the audience? Was the first time through—good though it was—an off-night for the Guthrie?

One difference particularly struck me. On the first night, Macduff delivered the line "He has no children" (IV.iii.216) almost with a scream. The second night, it was almost a whisper. The second was much more effective—the audience immediately recoiled in shock, realizing that nothing could quite answer Macbeth's horrific desecration of Macduff's family.

Other points, briefly considered:
  • The production opens with fog; we see the witches enter, and we imagine that we're going to jump right in to "When shall we three meet again" (I.i.1). Instead, the witches are spectators to the rappelling, AK-47-shooting Scottish infantry who enter next. Then they ransack the corpses. This may give them some motivation for causing chaos in the rest of the play.

  • The Bloody Captain is a mover in the plot—Duncan was about to exit before he was pulled back by the Bloody Captain.

  • Macbeth and Banquo laugh (à la Kurosawa) after the witches depart. They're both uneasy about the predictions that have just been made, and they each want the other to see him regarding the predictions as ridiculous.

  • When we first see Lady Macbeth, she's dressed in white. She undergoes several wardrobe changes, ending up in a blood-red dress. She also changes shoes more than any other Lady Macbeth I've ever seen.

  • The children are bought in early. They flounce about and bounce on the couch before exiting. We're being prepared for the dreadful happenings of IV.ii even in the first act.

  • Fleance and Banquo seem to have an uneasy relationship. This is not the easy-going father / son relationship we usually see. Perhaps this motivates Banquo's not telling Fleance about the prediction (though that may not need any other motivation than secrecy).

  • Lady Macbeth is played as stronger than Macbeth throughout. She is far more the motivating force in this production of the plot.

  • The dagger scene was nicely done. Macbeth lies on his back on the stage while a single, focused spot stands in for the imagined dagger.

  • We get to see the coronation of Macbeth in this production. The choice meant that we were able to see just how unfit for kingship Macbeth was—the robes looked ludicrous on him. This Macbeth was much more a soldier than he his a king.

  • In III.iii (when Banquo meets his end), the director decided to give the line telling Fleance to flee to one of the murderers. But that murderer still stabs Banquo; in fact, he is the first to do so. Is this a question of inconsistency? Or is it a desire on that murderer's part to play the game by the rules? Banquo is fair game, but Fleance is too young to be attacked in this way?

  • The Witches are present at the banquet scene; later, they appear wearing the ball gowns they were wearing at the banquet. And they have tiny, fashionable purses out of which they pull their supplies of eye of newt and so on. The Guthrie has an amazing trapdoor that they opened at that point. The fog swirling all over the stage drifted right over the edges of the rectangular trap, making it look very much like a grave. The witches dropped the contents of their purses into the trap, out of which the apparitions later appeared. There must be a connection between these witches in ball gowns and a brief reference made—sarcastically, in that case—to witches in ball gowns in Slings & Arrows! See below for the reference in question.

  • During the sleepwaking scene, Lady Macbeth is barefoot. I can't remember how many shoe changes she went through—five or six, I think—and this is the culmination of the footwear theme.
The last point involves the final image that the production gave us. I had a number of discussions with students about it, and it was one of those extremely divisive issues. More students hated it than liked it, but those who liked it were vocal.

After Macbeth's downfall, he is raised up—a rope is attached to his ankles, and he's hauled upward, dripping blood the while.

My own reading of that decision was that it simultaneously critiqued and embodied one of Malcolm's closing lines: "this dead butcher and his fiend-like queen" (V.ix.35). If that's really all the play was about, why did we see it? Yet Malcolm does get to make this pronouncement—both visual and auditory—on Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. The production shows us a dead butcher while inviting us to consider that such a title is utterly inadequate to describe the soul in anguish, making the wrong decisions, that the play gives us.

The production was quite good; Joe Dowling made his audience think. I can't wait to see what they do with the three Shakespeare plays they're doing this season: A Winter's Tale, Comedy of Errors, and Romeo and Juliet.

Suspected origins of the "Witches in Ball Gowns" Device.

Links: The 2010-2011 Season at the Guthrie Theatre.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Desdemona Under Apartheid

Othello. Dir. Janet Suzman. Perf. John Kani, Joanna Weinberg, Richard Haines, Dorothy Ann Gould, and Stuart Brown. 1988. DVD. Arthaus Theater, 2005.
Janet Suzman's production of Othello admirably focuses our attention on Desdemona. This narrative is the story of the tragedy of Othello—but, in Suzman's production, we cannot forget that it is also the tragedy of Desdemona. Desdemona has rejected the norms society and Brabantio have placed on her—only to find that Brabantio and society have rejected her for so doing. Then the love she felt secure in—the love that made it all worthwhile—starts to reject her, too.

The scene below is something of a companion piece to Othello's defense against witchcraft, and it's tightly woven to that earlier scene by more than the language of magic:

Othello, III.iv.51-99

Othello ostensibly turns from abjuring the use of magic to endowing the handkerchief with magical properties.

But Desdemona's response is even more interesting than that. In I.iii, Othello tells us that Desdemona responded to some of his tales in this way: "She wish'd she had not heard it" (I.iii.161); here, we see the same reaction for ourselves: "Then would to God that I had never seen't!" (III.iv.77).

Joanna Weinberg's performance as Desdemona enlists our sympathies enormously at this point. An interracial marriage in a Shakespeare play or under Apartheid in South Africa isn't easy. In this scene, we see the bewilderment and pain of Desdemona as she tries her innocent best to move forward with Othello.

Links: The Film at IMDB.

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Friday, October 22, 2010

Othello Under Apartheid

Othello. Dir. Janet Suzman. Perf. John Kani, Joanna Weinberg, Richard Haines, Dorothy Ann Gould, and Stuart Brown. 1988. DVD. Arthaus Theater, 2005.

In 1987, seven years before the abolition of Apartheid, Janet Suzman directed a production of Othello for the Johannesburg Market Theatre. Black South Africans and White South Africans watched the performances together—often with considerable tension in the air.

The play was straightforward; it was set in Venice and Cyprus, not in contemporary South Africa. But the venue, the time, the place, and the cast combined to produce a political statement of the clearest kind.

In 1988, the stage play was filmed for television; in 2005, a DVD of that filming was released. In the liner notes for the DVD, Suzman neatly articulates the implications of the production:
The story of a mixed marriage systematically destroyed, when you analyze it, on a mere whim, seemed to embrace the larger context of South Africa just perfectly. (12)

. . . it seemed to me that the play's characters divide pretty neatly into a microcosm of not only South Africa, but perhaps of any society in the West: the out-and-out bigots (Iago, Roderigo—for it is he who dubs Othello "the thick lips"); the armchair liberals (Brabantio, Gratiano); the pragmatists who judge things on their merits (Emila, Lodovico); and those who simply don't see color at all (Desdemona, Cassio). (17)
The production itself goes a long way toward demonstrating the racial tensions of contemporary South Africa—and of other countries today. Here's Othello's defense of himself in the face of Brabantio's accusation that Othello has won Desdemona's love by witchcraft:

Othello, I.iii.28-220

Several things stand out in this scene. Stuart Brown's Brabantio seems to represent—and to embody—Old South Africa. He shies away when Othello places his hand on his shoulder. At the end of the scene, he puts Desdemona's hand in Othello's, but he does so with despairing resignation.

John Kani's Othello does not exactly embody Black South Africa, but he does play with the stereotypes Brabantio attempts to tie him to. On the line "This only is the witchcraft I have us'd" (I.iii.169), he mimes something like throwing bones. In his position, it looks ridiculous, and that undermines the idea; however, the accusation of witchcraft lingers in the air around that gesture.

Joanna Weinberg's Desdemona perfectly demonstrates the strength of her character at this point in the play. She recognizes the duty she owes (or owed) her father, but she is unwilling to disclaim the duty she now owes her husband.

The tragedy—from his point of view—of the loss Brabantio suffers expresses itself in the pause Brown delivers before each instance of the word "heart" in these lines: "I here do give thee that with all my heart / Which but thou hast already, with all my heart / I would keep from thee" (I.iii.193-95).

But the hope Desdemona, Othello, and at least some members of the audience feel is also present in this scene. A drastic change has taken place—and the future, at this point, appears bright.

Suzman writes about the audiences' (yes, that's an apostrophe that intentionally indicates a plural possessive) reactions to the production:
What was so fascinating to me . . . was how divided on some nights the audience was. Factions would start up sometimes; a white hissing "shush" to a noisily participating black. Sometimes the black punters would laugh in the most serious bits, as if the tragedy in their own lives could not be matched by that onstage, or as if laughter were the only way to stave off the tears they had enough of in reality. Who knows why? Sometimes there would be a shout of "look out behind you!" to Emilia as Iago stabs her in the back. Pindrop silence is unfamiliar in Africa in any case. . . .

Sure, a few people walked out in dudgeon when Othello and Desdemona first kiss. Hate mail was duly penned, from the usual fringe of lunatic hard-liners who had never set foot in a theater. But as the run progressed, The Market's normal 10 to 15 percent black audience for a European play jumped to an unprecedented 40, 50, and then 60 percent. Every age and color poured in to see this dreadful tragedy unfold. I suspect that it will not happen again; it was a play that had found its time and place. The readiness was all. (29)
I would I had been there; it would have much amazed me.

Links: The Film at IMDB.

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Thursday, October 21, 2010

Rare Clip of Orson Welles' "Voodoo" Macbeth

Macbeth [a.k.a. The “Voodoo” Macbeth]. Dir. Orson Welles. Perf. Jack Carter, Edna Thomas, Canada Lee, Maurice Ellis. Federal Theatre Project. 1936. We Work Again. Federal Works Agency, 1937. Web. Internet Archive. 24 September 2010.

Because I was running low on time, I had to streamline my presentation on global Shakespeaers. One intensely interesting and rare clip had to fall by the wayside.

In 1936, Orson Welles directed an all-African-American cast in a production of Macbeth funded by the Negro Theatre Unit of the Federal Theatre Project of the Works Progress Administration. In 1937, the Federal Works Agency put together a fifteen-minute documentary about providing work for black artists. That film contains a few brief minutes of Welles' production.

The production received its nickname from its setting. Welles transposed the play from Scotland to Haiti, incorporating voodoo priestesses and a witch doctor (Hecate, played by a male actor), together with African drums.

Allow me a quick tangent: The first performance of a Shakespeare play out of England for which a record is extant took place in 1607 off the coast of Sierra Leone, Africa. The drummers in Orson Welles' "Voodoo" Macbeth were from Sierra Leone (cf. Rippy 84).

The production is fascinating. The only known video clip of it comes from the end of the play:

Welles would use that closing line in his all-white 1948 Macbeth (for which, q.v.). But this production goes even further than that in giving the witches considerable power over the events of the play. They are right there at the end, after all, repugnantly glorying in Macbeth's downfall.

Marguerite Rippy has a magnificent article (in the tremendous volume Weyward Macbeth: Intersections of Race and Performance) on the production in which she examines the questions of race that it opens (for the full citation, see below). Was the production beneficial to and respectful of African-Americans, or was it actually a racist enterprise? Rippy provides a brilliant summary of the ambiguities in the production:
Welles' "Voodoo" Macbeth reflects modernist conceits of "black" primitivism, commingling African, Afro-Carribean, and African-American cultural referents to produce a fantasy of black culture. While his later projects became more self-conscious about deconstructing such fantasies, "Voodoo" Macbeth succeeded precisely because it re-articulated the primitivist aesthetic. Using Shakespeare to legitimize primitivism, Welles created a blend of high art and popular culture that drew in crowds and critics alike. His canny ability to channel racial associations from his surrounding culture bolstered his reputation as a genius, helping to catapult him from Federal Theatre Project director to co-creator and owner of Mercury Productions, which in turn would ultimately lead to his RKO film contract and his ensuing cinematic career. (89)
On the one hand, the production provided much-needed jobs for hundreds of African-American artists. On the other, the production has been criticized for being exploitive. I worry, for example, about the very term used to describe the production: the nickname "Voodoo" could be seen as dismissive rather than descriptive.

Whatever conclusions the production leads us to make, its combination of African, Caribbean, and African-American cultures is extraordinary fascinating.

A note on the film clip: Most of the time, Jack Carter played the lead role in the New York run and in the tour of the production. Most of the time, Maurice Ellis played Macduff.

In the video clip above (and in the image here), Maurice Ellis plays Macbeth instead of Jack Carter. Page 237 of Weyward Macbeth confirms this. The Wikipedia article on the production is correct at this point in time about that point in casting; the IMDB site is incorrect on that point at this point.

Works Cited

Rippy, Marguerite. “Black Cast Conjures White Genius: Unraveling the Mystique of Orson Welles’s “Voodoo” Macbeth.” Weyward Macbeth: Intersections of Race and Performance. Ed. Scott L. Newstok and Ayanna Thompson. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. 83-90.

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Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Tom Bosley as Mr. C.; Henry Winkler as Fonzie; Fonzie as Hamlet

“A Star is Bored.” By Garry Marshall et al. Perf. Ron Howard, Henry Winkler, and Tom Bosley. Dir. Jerry Paris. Happy Days. Season 2, episode 10. ABC. 5 December 1974. DVD. Paramount, 2007.

Tom Bosley died yesterday. Like most of America, I remember him best as Mr. Cunningham on Happy Days. Unlike the majority in America (perhaps), I remember him for the effecting performance he gave as an audience member in a Happy Days version of Hamlet.

In an episode in its second season, the show provides Fonzie the opportunity of playing Hamlet in a church fundraiser. Near the end, the Fonz gets it, drawing on his personal experience to deliver Hamlet's most famous monologue. When he sees the audience (Mr. Cunningham included) dozing off, he interrupts the soliloquy to expand on its importance. Tom Bosley gives a magnificent performance of the thoughtful audience member recognizing unfathomed depths in the Fonz:

His congratulations to Fonzie after the show is subtle and restrained, but there's an indication of much below the surface. When he declares Fonzie's performance to be "Cool," we recognize the inability of vocabulary to communicate the profoundest thoughts of the heart; however, Bosley manages to convey the meaning behind the word admirably. Tom Bosley's Mr. Cunningham is often an iceberg, concealing hidden depths of his own.

R.I.P., Mr. C.

Links: The Episode at IMDB.

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Sunday, October 17, 2010

Global Shakespeare: Playing Shakespeare on the World Stage

Jones, Keith. "Global Shakespeare: Playing Shakespeare on the World Stage." Lecture presented at The MacLaurin Institute: Paideia Forum. 19 October 2010.
Tomorrow night, at seven o'clock, I'll be speaking at The MacLaurin Institute's Paideia Forum.

Their website provides this abstract of the talk:
Shakespeare's plays have been performed in China since 1867, in India since 1775, and in North America since 1750. They were even performed on a ship anchored off Sierra Leone in 1607. Join us as Professor Keith Jones examines the implications of translating and adapting Shakespeare, explores the postmodern tendency toward a radically-destabilized Shakespearean text, and discusses recent cross-cultural productions of Shakespeare.
The MacLaurin Institute serves the University of Minnesota by providing a place for scholarship and theology to meet. And I'm privledged to be a part of that endeavor—and to bring Shakespeare to the conversation.

The theological part of the presentation will address both how a Christian approaches Shakespeare scholarship and the implications of considering sacred texts in light of a radical mistrust of texts in general.

If you're in the Twin Cities, feel free to come along. As long as my own text doesn't become radically-destabalized—or even if it does—the presentation should open some interesting issues.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Evidence for Shakespeare off the Coast of Africa

Chambers, E. K. William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems. 2 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1930.
The debt we owe to E. K. Chambers cannot be calculated. His contribution to the field of Elizabethan Drama is limitless; his work on Shakespeare is matchless.

For my presentation on global Shakespeares, I've been investigating claims about the earliest productions of Shakespeare plays in Africa. A number of internet sites state that the first Shakespeare play performed in Africa occurred in 1607, but none that I saw cite the source material—and many of them are imprecise as to which plays and to the location of their performance (the plays—Hamlet and Richard II, for the record—were performed off the coast of Africa rather than in Africa: a distinction that will prove important).

Chambers gives us not only the fascinating text that reports the performance, he notes the issues surrounding its printing. Thomas Rundall, one of the council members for the Hakluyt Society, collated selections from a large number of naval manuscripts into one convenient volume, which was published in 1849. Rundall, Cambers thinks, may have taken the journal from which this extract comes home with him from one of the Indian offices of the East India Company and failed to return it.

But I told you that to tell you this. On September 6, 1607, Captain William Keeling, in command of the Dragon, invited a Portuguese-speaking interpreter—Chambers tells us that he was an African Christian named Lucas Fernandez, "brother-in-law of the local king Borea" (334)—for dinner and a show. The dinner was aboard the accompanying ship, the Hector; the show was on the Dragon. They performed "the tragedie of Hamlett." The ship was anchored off the coast of Sierra Leone, West Africa.

At the end of the month, Keeling invited Captain Hawkins of the Hector aboard, and his "companions acted Kinge Richard the Second."

Hawkins may have felt left out when he heard what show Lucas Fernandez got to see; on March 31, 1608, he got to see Hamlet when the ship was off the coast of Socotra (Strachan and Penrose 26), which is near the Horn of Africa—on the other side of the African continent.

I cannot fathom the idea that Hamlet was being performed off the east coast and the west coast of Africa while Shakespeare was not only still alive but was probably busy composing Coriolanus, Timon of Athens, Pericles, Cymbeline, and The Winter's Tale.

I also can't quite get my mind around the reasons Keeling gives for the performance. Here's the relevant extract as presented in Chambers:
1607, Sept. 5. I sent the interpreter, according to his desire, abord the Hector whear he brooke faste, and after came abord mee, wher we gaue the tragedie of Hamlett.

30. Captain Hawkins dined with me, wher my companions acted Kinge Richard the Second.

[1608, Mar. 31]. I envited Captain Hawkins to a ffishe dinner, and had Hamlet acted abord me: which I permit to keepe my people from idleness and unlawful games, or sleepe. (334-35)
Shakespeare has probably been put to worse purposes. And it's reassuring to think that Hamlet can be used as a preventative for rather than an incentive to sleep. But shouldn't the reason for a production of a Shakespeare play—particularly under such circumstances—be more than that?

For my presentation, I'll be discussing one part of all this that intrigues me: the inward-looking nature of these performances. The plays were not performed in Africa—just off the coast of Africa. They (apparently) weren't performed—with the exception of the translator—for Africans. And they weren't performed to present or embody or offer "culture" to anybody. They were ostensibly performed to keep the mariners from gambling. And, we presume and hope, for the entertainment and intellectual value the play offer.

Whatever the reasons behind the performances, we have this magnificent record of them: Hamlet off both coasts of Africa by 1608 and Richard II off the east coast of Africa by 1607. Stunning.

[Note: The extract above is also available on page 231 of the Hakluyt Society's original publication (for the citation, see below).]

[Note: I'm skeptical of the Spiritual Last Will and Testament of John Shakespeare (William Shakespeare's father) because the original has vanished since its transcription; to be fair, I should be skeptical of this document for the same reason. But I must admit that I'm less skeptical of this document, perhaps because less is riding on the information it presents. But other extracts from the document were also transcribed by a second independent entity, and that serves to support its validity as well.]

Works Cited

Chambers, E. K. William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems. 2 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1930.

Rundall, Thomas. Narratives of Voyages toward the North-West, in search of a Passage to Cathay and India 1496-1631. New York: Burt Franklin, n.d. Originally published by the Hakluyt Society in 1849.

Strachan, Michael, and Boies Penrose, eds. The East India Company Journals of Captain William Keeling and Master Thomas Bonner, 1615-1617. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1971.

Word and Rite: The Bible and Ceremony in Selected Shakespearean Works

Batson, Beatrice, ed. Word and Rite: The Bible and Ceremony in Selected Shakespearean Works. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2010. Print.

Please forgive a bit of shameless self-promotion. An article I wrote has just been published in a collection of articles that relate in some way to the use of the Bible and / or the use of rites in Shakespeare.

The articles are all revised and expanded versions of those presented in 2008 at the Shakespeare Institute at Wheaton College, and they are all well worth reading. Leland Ryken's "Shakespeare and the Bible," Grace Tiffany's "Being English through Speaking English: Shakespeare and Early Modern Anti-Gallicism," and Jeffry Knapp's "The Authorship of Confession in Shakespeare's Sonnets" (Knapp recently published Shakespeare Only, a stupendous contribution to the field) are only three of the eight great articles in this volume.

One of the blurbs on the back (written by Dennis Taylor, Emeritus Professor of English at Boston College) reads as follows:
A rich collection of essays by influential Shakespeareans, including perceptive discussions on Shakespeare's anti-Gallicism, valorizing of the English language due to the influence of the English Bible, on his use of maimed marriage rites as exploration of the parallel structures of marriage in Measure for Measure, on the use of baptismal and Eucharistic rites in Julius Caesar, on his self-identification as a "Will" in the sonnets, and reflections on the apocalypse in The Tempest. Continual food for thought.
My own contribution is entitled “‘Why, You are Nothing Then: Neither Maid, Widow, nor Wife?’: The Ritual of Comedy and the Rite of Marriage in Measure for Measure.” It attempts to explain English Renaissance marriage rites and the rites of English Renaissance comedies in order to understand Shakespeare’s use of both in Measure for Measure, providing insight into the genre of "problem comedy" as it does so.

The book may be too expensive for most individuals, but it's ideal for both public and research libraries.

Links: The Shakespeare Institute 2008 page at Wheaton College.

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Friday, October 8, 2010

Renaissance Man: Hamlet as Heartwarming?

Renaissance Man. Dir. Penny Marshall. Perf. Danny DeVito and Gregory Hines. 1994. DVD. Walt Disney Video, 2003.

On this Friday, we have an post that is even more informal than the usually-somewhat-infomal posts at Bardfilm. Renaissance Man, staring Danny DeVito, is nearly the opposite of the Almereyda Hamlet or Hamlet Goes Business.

The text of Hamlet is employed as a device in this film; apart from one character whose father has been killed, there's relatively little of the plot of the play in the plot of this film. The movie is one of a number of formulaic "people labeled as misfits find their way into a classroom where a teacher, though hard work, trust, and perseverance, gets through to them" films that are always described as "heartwarming." It's the kind of film that you steel yourself against whenever they try to manipulate you.

And yet it works.

The unemployed advertising executive takes on a job teaching at an Army base. He's assigned the soldiers who are classified as unable to use their brains well. Eventually, Hamlet becomes the means for teaching these soldiers how to think. Here's a scene where the physically-gruling work of basic training is counterpoised by the intellecutally-thrilling work of reading Shakespeare. It concludes with a Hamlet-related cadence call:

The Cadence Call:
Hamlet's momma: she's the queen.
Hamlet's momma: she's the queen.
Buys it in the final scene.
Buys it in the final scene.
Drinks a glass of funky wine.
Drinks a glass of funky wine.
Now she's Satan's valentine.
Now she's Satan's valentine.
Later in the film, the Drill Sergeant (played by Gregory Hines) asks one of the soldiers to come forward and recite some Shakespeare. In the rain and the mud and the night, the soldier gives the St. Crispan's Day speech from Henry V. That may be the high point of the film. The soldier, the Drill Sergeant, and the rest of the troop both get it and are moved by it.

If you're willing to allow yourself to be emotionally manipulated to a certain degree, Renaissance Man can be enjoyable. And Danny DeVito has developed a character who is genuinely passionate about and takes real comfort in the words of Shakespeare.

Links: The Film at IMDB.

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Thursday, October 7, 2010

The End of Almereyda's Hamlet

Hamlet. Dir. Michael Almereyda. Perf. Ethan Hawke, Julia Stiles, Sam Shepard, and Bill Murray. 2000. DVD. Buena Vista Home Entertainment, 2001.

Michael Almereyda's Hamlet has a number of affinities with Aki Kaurismäki's Hamlet Goes Business (for which, q.v.). One similarity is their postmodern approach to the end of the play. Kaurismäki doesn't allow Horatio to "draw [his] sad breath in pain / To tell [Hamlet's] story" (V.ii.348-49). Almereyda has directed a Horatio who doesn't seem capable of telling Hamlet's story.

But Almereyda also has a thrilling moment where the events of the play are noteworthy enough to close (but not to headline?) a serious news broadcast. Robert MacNeil, of The MacNeil / Lehrer NewsHour fame, has the final word on the events of the play.

We're allowed to catch the last part of a story about the rise of Fortinbras to the position of CEO of the Denmark corporation:

The concluding words are the lines given to Fortinbras (and one line given to the English Ambassador) in the play:
This quarry cries on havoc. O proud Death,
What feast is toward in thine eternal cell
That thou so many princes at a shot
So bloodily hast struck?
The sight is dismal. (V.ii.364-68)
At that point, MacNeil pauses reflectively and offers these thoughts:
Our wills and fates do so contrary run
That our devices still are overthrown;
Our thoughts are ours, their ends none of our own. (III.ii.211-13)
The speech is the Player King's. The effect of placing them here is to invite us to ponder whether the film itself—or any of the characters in it—can achieve their purposes. It calls attention to the postmodern aspect of those lines: intentionality cannot be a consideration in interpretation.

The film's opening title card: "The King and C.E.O. of Denmark Corporation is dead."

Links: The Film at IMDB.

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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 2008-2039 (and into perpetuity thereafter) 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