Tuesday, April 14, 2015

“Shakespeare was a Black Woman”: Maya Angelou's Statement in Context

Angelou, Maya. "The Role of Art in Life." [Transcript of address given to the National Assembly of Local Arts Agencies Convention in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, 12 June 1985.] Connections Quarterly September 1985: 14+.

On multiple occasions, I've read that Maya Angelou said, “Shakespeare was a Black Woman,” but I was never able to track down the full context of that statement.

Let's hear it for Reference Librarians again! Although this was a bit of a knotty problem to unravel, a reference librarian at my institution was able to find the address in which she made that statement (or at least the largest extraction from that address I've seen).

The context it provides is very interesting. Maya Angelou voluntarily refrained from speaking from age seven to age twelve. A woman of the town took it on herself to read to Angelou:
She knew I loved poetry. I had James Weldon Johnson, County Cullen, Langston Hughes, and Paul Lawrence Dunbar at the tip of my tongue. I loved Shakespeare—I didn't understand that much, I but I loved it. I would record whole scenes and plays, and all the sonnets I could just choke down. (14)
This woman encouraged Angelou to speak by telling her that she would never truly love poetry unless she could speak it out loud. Eventually, Angelou determined to do a "rendition" at a church meeting:
. . . at twelve-and-a-half, I had my voice back, and I decided I would render a rendition. In the CME Church in Stamps, Arkansas, I decided that I would render Portia's speech from The Merchant of Venice. That | would get them. That would knock them right off their pews—I could see myself doing it: "The quality of mercy" (pause) "is not strained. It droppeth" (long pause) "As a gentle rain—" I had it choreographed; it was going to be fantastic. But then, mama asked me, "Sister, what are you planning to render?" So I told her, "A piece from Shakespeare, Mama." Mama asked, "Now sister, who is this very Shakespeare?" I had to tell her that Shakespeare was white. And Mama felt the less we said about whites, the better, and if we didn't mention them at all, maybe they'd just get up and leave. I couldn't lie to her, so I told her, "Mama, it's a piece written by William Shakespeare who is white, but he's dead. And has been dead for centuries." Now, I thought then she would forgive him that little indiosyncracy [sic]. Mama said, "Sister, you will render a piece of Mister Langston Hughes, Mister County Cullen, Mister James Weldon Johnson, or Mister Paul Lawrence Dunbar. Yes ma'am, little mistress, you will."

Well, I did. But years later, when I physically and psychologically left that country, that condition, which is Stamps, Arkansas, a condition I warrant, regrettably, that a number of people in this very room abide today, I found myself, and still find myself, whenever I like stepping back into Shakespeare. Whenever I like, I pull to me. He wrote it for me. "When in disgrace with fortune in [sic] men's eyes / I all alone beweep my outcast state / and trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries / and look upon myself and curse my fate / wishing me like to one more rich in hope / featured like him, like him with friends possessed / desiring this man's art and that man's scope / with what I most enjoy contented least. . . ." Of course he wrote it for me; that is a condition of the black woman. Of course, he was a black woman. I understand that. Nobody else understands it, but I know that William Shakespeare was a black woman. (28)
It's fascinating to hear Angelou's account of her engagement with Shakespeare—and I dearly wish she had given the Portia speech. Angelou was able to find in Shakespeare her own voice: The voice of a black woman.

I'm including images of the entire article below so that you all can enjoy the full context of Angelou's words. Click on the images to enlarge them.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

The Play Shakespeare in Harlem—Based on Poems by Langston Hughes

Glenn, Robert. Shakespeare in Harlem. Adapted from poems by Langston Hughes. N.p.: N.p., n.d.

In a recent post on a poem entitled "Shakespeare in Harlem" in a volume entitled Shakespeare in Harlem (for which, q.v.), I pondered the question of a play entitled Shakespeare in Harlem.

Let me preface the rest of the post with this statement: Librarians are Amazing.

A careful reader of Bardfilm asked me about a statement in James Shapiro's volume Shakespeare in America (for which, q.v.). The introduction to the poem "Shakespeare in Harlem" concludes by saying,
A short, lyrical play by Hughes, also called "Shakespeare in Harlem," and which also riffs on As You Like It (taking as its frame the famous speech about the Seven Ages of Man but turning it into "a man's blues have seven ages") was staged in New York in 1960. (450)
Having run into dead ends in my own research (which wasn't actually all that shabby), I turned the question over to a reference librarian at my institution. She was able to find out the following information:

Shakespeare in Harlem was a play composed by a white playwright named Robert Glenn. According to Gospel Plays, Operas, and Later Dramatic Works, volume six of The Collected Works of Langston Hughes,
Hughes wrote Mister Jazz as an opener for the Broadway production of Shakespeare in Harlem, a one-act play derived from his poetry by a young white playwright, Robert Glenn. So successful was the August 1959 production of Shakespeare in Harlem in Lucille Lortel's White Barn Theater in Westport, Connecticut, that she brought it to her Theatre de Lys in Greenwich village for one night, October 27, 1959, pairing it with Hughes's Soul Gone Home. The Broadway production, at the 41st Street Theater, was paired with a dramatic rendition of James Weldon Johnson's God's Trombones. It lasted only thirty-two performances despite good reviews. It seems that Mister Jazz has never been performed, Alvin Hayley expressed interest in it as a ballet libretto. (246)
The reference book Off Broadway Musicals, 1910-2007: Casts, Credits, Songs, Critical Reception and Performance Data of More Than 1,800 Shows provides a cast list:

Jay Riley (Narrator), John McCurry (Blues Man, Preacher), Alma Hubbard (Alberta K. Johnson), Ted Butler (Old Man), Calden Marsh (Young Man), Frank Glass (Cat, Killer Boy), Richard Ward (Sick Man, Bartender), Isabel Sanford (Girl in Bar), Royce Wallace (Chippie). (401)

It also interestingly notes that, "On February 3, 1977, the AMAS Repertory Theatre presented the Off Off Broadway production Come Laugh and Cry with Langston Hughes, a new version of Shakespeare in Harlem which was adapted by Rosetta LeNoire and Clyde Williams" (401).

The 13 February 1960 edition of the Daytona Beach Morning Journal has this review:

Interestingly, the "Cat, Killer Boy" of the cast list has become "the cat killer boy of modern juvenile gangs" in the review.

There's a longer review by Brooks Atkinson in the New York Times from 10 February 1960. It includes these paragraphs:
An old man, sitting on a curbstone, ponders the problem of migration to Harlem from the South and the West Indies. A jovial madam recalls the series of worldly misfortunes that have driven her out of respectable businesses. A college student wonders if he can communicate his private hopes and thoughts to a white instructor. A Harlem man whose girlfriend has left him tries to convince himself that he is happier alone.

There are four or five other vignettes in rhyme--all of them small, none of them dazzling. Mr. Hughes seems to be sitting alone, reflecting on the heedless life that pours through the streets, bars and tenements around him. If he were a bitter man, the reflections would be full of passion.
A more detailed account of the play's origin can be found in Lucille Lortel: The Queen of Off-Broadway (New York, Limelight Editions, 2004):
In Dallas [Glenn] had directed the Little Theatre, one of the first African-American theatre groups there. "I couldn't find scripts for them," he recounted, "so I put some of Langston Hughes' poetry, some music and called it Shakespeare in Harlem," a title borrowed from one of Hughes' books of poetry. (156)
The description continues on page 157:

From this we learn that the play was made up of more than poems from Hughes' 1942 volume Shakespeare in Harlem. It contains "Theme from English B," which appeared in the 1951 volume Montage of a Dream Deferred. It also contains (as is stated outright) an ending from that volume. The ending comes from the poem "Good Morning" (pages 426-27 of The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes):

All of that is completely fascinating. But where's the script?

The answer is . . . I don't know—yet.

The New York Public Library wrote back to say that
. . . folder 17, in box 26 does contain an excerpt which was performed at the 20th Anniversary Gala, ANTA Matinee Series, Theatre de Lys (New York, N.Y.) [held on 1 December 1975]. The format appears to be poetry set to characters in play form. Although we have programs and clippings from productions of the piece, that is the only script to be found.
From here, it's a matter of going to the NYPL and asking for Box 26, Folder 17 of the Lortel Papers in the Billy Rose Theatre Division. A list of its contents can be found right here. If any enterprising reader in the New York City area is up to the investigation, I'd welcome a report! Otherwise, it looks like I could obtain a copy of the material for $25 to $35—but I'm out of funds for the year. When the new fiscal year starts (on August 1), I will be able to resume the search and find out, as best I can, the specific contents of Langston Hughes' poetry as adapted by Robert Glenn into Shakespeare in Harlem.

Thanks very much to the Berntsen Library at the University of Northwestern—St. Paul and to one reference librarian in particular. If it weren't for her good, hard work, I wouldn't know any of this.

Update: The Library also has a budget for inter-library loan items like this one! Thanks again, Berntsen Library! Readers, I'll keep you informed about the research progress.

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Wednesday, April 1, 2015

More Fools of April in the Renaissance: What do “Bunny Ears” Mean?

Shakespeare, William. As You Like It. [Arden Shakespeare, Second Series.] Ed. Agnes Latham. London: Routledge, 1975.

In Act IV, scene i of As You Like It, Rosalind (disguised as a man going under the name of Ganymede, but pretending to be Rosalind—long story) and Orlando share the following exchange:
Rosalind: Nay, and you be so tardy, come no more in my sight: I had as lief be wooed of a snail.

Orlando: Of a snail?

Rosalind: Ay, of a snail; for though he comes slowly, he carries his house on his head; a better jointure, I think, than you make a woman: besides he brings his destiny with him.

Orlando: What's that?

Rosalind: Why, horns, which such as you are fain to be beholding to your wives for: but he comes armed in his fortune and prevents the slander of his wife.

Orlando: Virtue is no horn-maker; and my Rosalind is virtuous. (IV.i.49-61)
This demonstrates one example (of a hundred thousand) of the "horns of the cuckold" joke. The English Renaissance Stage could not get enough jokes about cuckolds. The idea is that a cuckold (a husband whose wife has been unfaithful to him) had invisible horns. Hilarious.

The following image shows George Lucas giving "bunny ears" to Steven Spielberg:

What's the connection? Well (without intending to cast any aspersions on either the former or the current Mrs. Spielberg), the gesture indicates that he has the horns of a cuckold.

I don't suppose that most people realize they're issuing a pretty severe insult whenever they make "bunny ears" in a photo. And, on April First, I don't suppose you really believe that there's a connection between the two.

Perhaps two paintings (one of which seems to be a reimagining of the former) will serve to convince you. Here, a particular character in the Commedia Dell'Arte is given the horns of the cuckold in a manner very similar to the way Lucas is giving them to Spielberg:

A Scene from the Commedia Dell'Arte, c. 1580

François Bunel,  Actors of the Commedia Dell'Arte (c. 1590s)—Detail

The gesture has remained, though its meaning has largely been lost to the mists of obscurity. But remember it the next time you're tempted to give someone "bunny ears" in a photograph—it has a long and dignified history.  Well, it has a long history, at least.

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Renaissance April Fools: The Good Old "We Three" Joke

Shakespeare, William. Twelfth Night, or What you Will. [Arden Shakespeare, Third Series.] Ed. Keir Elam. Lodon: Centage Learning, 2008.

When Sir Toby Belch, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and Feste (the jester) meet up in Act II of Twelfth Night, we get this exchange:
Sir Andrew: Here comes the fool, i'faith.

Feste: How now, my hearts? Did you never see the picture of "we three"?

Sir Toby: Welcome, ass. (II.iii.14-17)
The footnote to the Arden Shakespeare (Third Series) explains this in this way:
. . . alludes to a painting or inn sign representing two asses or loggerheads; the caption "we three" implicated the spectator—here presumably Feste himself—as the third ass or loggerhead (i.e., fool) . . . (212)
The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust has just such an image, dated from 1600-1625:

One fool looks at another fool who, in turn, looks out on the third fool: you, the viewer! April Fool!

The audience participation part of the joke is the best part. The observer needs to be present for the "We Three" to be fulfilled.

There are a number of other related images, including these two signs from a pub in Mold, Whales:

Some images seem to have been created by someone who didn't get the joke and included all three figures in the image itself, leaving out the audience participation:

But additionally interesting is the plethora of postcards around the year 1900 that have combined this Shakespeare-era joke with a Shakespeare quote. They're most often (as in the image that heads this post) an image of two donkeys with the caption "When shall we three meet again?"

Yes, as I said, a plethora. At least one plethora. Perhaps even a multitude of plethora. Again, I like the audience participation aspect of this. The card with two donkeys and the query "When shall we three meet again?" is sent to a person who is absent. At first glance, it seems like the message being conveyed is on the order of "Wish you were here," but the two donkeys turn it into a clever insult—the recipient is the third ass of three.

And remember, if you ever look at an image like this, it means that someone is calling you a donkey: you become the third ass of three.  This April Fools' Day, don't let anyone fool you with a similar joke. 

Oh, wait—I just did. A plethora of times.  April Fool!

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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