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.

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.

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.

Links: Information about the production at Wikipedia. The complete video of We Work Again at the Internet Archive.

The complete video of We Work Again embedded below:

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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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