Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Let's Barley-Break!

Fletcher, John, and William Shakespeare. The Two Noble Kinsmen. Ed. Lois Potter. Walton-on-Thames: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1997.  

Midleton, Thomas, and William Rowley. The Changeling. Ed. Joost Daalder. A & C Black: London, 1990.
Sidney, Sir Philip. The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia. Ed. Maurice Evans. New York: Penguin, 1977.

The cultural artifact of barley-break doesn't come up very often—particularly as I'm not habitually reading The Two Noble Kinsmen or The Changeling. I'm not even sure if we should say "Let's barley-break" or "Let's play barley-break." But back in my graduate school days, study of things like barley-break, bear baiting, face painting, seeling doves, and processions was all the rage.

I did more work with bear-baiting and seeling doves than with barley-brake, but I did enough to make the diagram above and to work with a section of Sir Philip Sidney's Arcadia (the so-called New Arcadia, a.k.a. The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia) that features the game.

What is barley-break, then (I hear you cry)? You say it's a game, and you invite us to play it . . . but how do we play?

Well, let's start with what the OED says:

There you go, then. It's pretty much like Prisoner's Bars.

Not enough, eh? Well, let's see what the Oxford Reference has to say:

I trust that helps. In case it doesn't, here's what Christia Hole says in her English Sports and Pastimes (Freeport: Books for Libraries Press, 1968):

Barley-Break, or Last Couple in Hell, is supposed to have acquired the first name because it was played among the barley stacks in the farm-yard. A piece of ground was divided into three parts, the middle portion being called Hell. In this a man and a woman stood, hand in hand, and tried to catch the other players as they advanced, also in couples, from the outer sections. Those who were caught had to take their stand in Hell, and the object of the game was to avoid being the last couple left in that undesirable locality.  (36)

I suppose it's something like Red Rover but, when played by adults, having the additional frisson of couples (who may start in love groupings) changing partners.

The longest literary account of a round of the game is Sir Philip Sidney's. The section (from a generic subset of the larger work called the eclogues) is entitled "Lamon's Tale," and you can find the whole thing here. The key element is that the couples who are not in the area called "hell" do not have to hold hands while they try to cross to the other side of the field. On that point, Hole is either mistaken or misleading.

The game makes its way in a minor section of The Two Noble Kinsmen. The jailer's daughter, who has gone insane (cf. Ophelia), rambles on while a doctor listens (cf. Lady Macbeth). Here's part of what she says: "Faith, I'll tell you, sometime we go to barley-break, we of the blessed. Alas, 'tis a sore life they have it's' other place—such burning, frying, boiling, hissing, howling, chattering, cursing: oh, they have shrewd measure; take heed!" (IV.iii.30-34). The image below gives a fuller context (as well as the Arden edition's note on barley-break—which also misleadingly assumes that all the couples had to hold hands during each round of the game):

Finally, barley-break makes its way into The Changeling, a play filled with murder and scheming and adultery. You can read a full synopsis of the play here, but the key elements involved here are the changing of couples and the line from De Flores that connects the game of barley-break with the events of the play:  ". . . the while I coupled with your mate / At barley-break. Now we are left in hell" (V.iii.162-63). The image below gives you the context (and the footnotes that the New Mermaids edition provides):

When the weather gets warmer, let's gather to have a round or two of barley-break. After all, it need not actually end in insanity or murder, and it sounds like a fun way to exercise away a spring afternoon. 

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Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Book Note: Ozymandias and Other Stories

Palmer, Jim. "In Fair Verona." Ozymandias and Other Stories. St. Louis: Power Publishing, 2004. 29-65.

I got this collection for one reason: The short story "In Fair Verona" and its probable Shakespeare connections. Actually, I got it for two reasons: It's set in St. Louis, one of the greatest cities in the world! Well, all right—I got this book for three reasons. I'm a friend of the author and he gave me a copy.

But we can ignore that third reason as irrelevant because "In Fair Verona" is a very good short story.

The plot (as you might imagine) has some connection to Romeo and Juliet. But the plot, although interesting, isn't where the interest in the story lies.

The interest is in the vividly-painted immigrant communities (and the individuals that make them up) that Palmer provides us. In "In Fair Verona," we might expect a Romeo-and-Julietesque plot where a man and a woman from two different immigrant communities fall in love despite the disapproval of each community for the other. And the story starts us off with that possibility.

There are Bosnians. There are the Italians down on The Hill (an area of St. Louis still largely populated by the Italian community—where you will find Viviano's, the single best Italian grocery store in the world—well, in North America at any rate . . . I admit that there may be good Italian groceries in Italy). There are Georgians (not the Jimmy Carter kind; the David Dephy Gogibedashvili kind). And there are many others.

Including the Grussetians.

And that's where the genius of this book makes itself felt most keenly.

The immigrant group called the Grussetians, with Grussetia, the Old Country, and Galaktraish, its capital city, is the center of this collection of stories. And I spent considerable time and energy trying to figure out who, exactly, they were. Alas, when I read beyond the Shakespeare-related short story, this is what I learned: "But nobody knew nothing about us Grussetians" (2).

Still, this immigrant group was so vividly portrayed that I couldn't imagine that it was fictional. I Googled. I asked colleagues. I even sent an e-mail to the author! And I read on in the collection:

We all lived off of where Pestalozzi Street meandered down into the state streets in an area that the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, in a piece on St. Louis's old ethnic neighborhoods, described as "a pocket of recent arrivals from the remote region of the Caucasus mountains called Grussetia."  We thought it sounded complimentary, and ever since the article appeared, we had referred to our neighborhood as The Pocket.  A lot of homes in The Pocket still had this moldering yellowed newspaper article tacked to the wall years after the Globe-Democrat had shut down and ceased to exist. (2)

I've finally reached the conclusion that the Grussetians are a fictional group. But it's a tribute to the author and the collection that they're painted so remarkably convincingly that they seem utterly real in every detail.

But I now realize that I've been digressing. But it's been worthwhile. This collection is really astonishing. It's something between Stand by Me, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, the stories of Edgar Allan Poe, and (remarkably enough) the Great Brain series.

We would expect a Romeo and Juliet story set in such a community to be a cross-immigrant love story. Instead, it's an intra-immigrant love story (if it even amounts to that).

Within this immigrant community, there are two families (both alike in lack of dignity): The Pantashkivalis and the Oreschtovilis. And in the story "In Fair Verona," a male Pantashkivali impregnated a female Oreschtovili. And the rest of the story addresses the fallout of that. It's not really a question of romance or undying love or whether there's a chemical that will make it appear that you're dead when you're not really dead. It's (first of all) an issue of acknowledging the pregnancy. Here's a quick sample of that part of the story:

Uncle Ingaz is the one person in the community whose word is law. He is, therefore, the one to turn to to settle such complications.

Once I started reading the other stories in the collection, I couldn't stop. Give it a try—it will reward reading. And, actually, you can read the whole "In Fair Verona" here (courtesy of Google Books)!

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Monday, March 28, 2022

Der Yidisher Kenig Lir (The Jewish King Lear)

Kaplan, Beth. Finding the Jewish Shakespeare: The Life and Legacy of Jacob Gordin. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2012.  

A clue on Jeopardy! led me on a research path to find Der Yidisher Kenig Lir.

And I found a wonderful account of it in Beth Kaplan's Finding the Jewish Shakespeare. In a chapter entitled "A Russian Jew in America," she details the story. 

Jacob Gordin is our Jewish Shakespeare, a masterful playwright working in America at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth center. He interacts with Jacob Pavlovich Adler, one of the greats of the Yiddish theatre in New York around that time. The play was first produced in 1882, and it created quite a stir.

And I can't do better than provide you with a sample from that chapter (pages 57 to 60). [Warning: It's very moving. You may cry. I did.]

What a fantastic story! I only wish (as Bardfilm often does) that a version of a performance could have been filmed.

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Bonus image: A Playbill from an 1898 production of the play:

Friday, March 25, 2022

Book Note: A Bright Ray of Darkness

Hawke, Ethan. A Bright Ray of Darkness. New York: Knopf, 2021.
Here's another novel that involves a select group of people engaging with Shakespeare. This time, it's a troupe of professional actors.

William Harding, our protagonist and narrator, is a famous movie star whose life is falling apart. He has been unfaithful to his rock-star wife, and all the tabloids (and others) are shouting about it. All that when he's on the verge of his Broadway premiere in Shakespeare's 1 Henry IV

Ethan Hawke is a famous movie star. Remember his Hamlet (for which, q.v.)? I don't know anything about his private life, but he does have considerable insight into how an actor does the job of acting, which is the part of the novel I found most interesting.

In that light, let me give you a sample—it's opening night of the play, and Harding is giving the role of Hotspur everything he's got.  [As a quick note, this novel is heavily on the R-rated side in general.]

I find that quite insightful.

The connections to the other actors are also developed convincingly—as is the way the director is portrayed.

Finally, I appreciated the choice of play—it wasn't one of the biggies we often find in Shakespeare-related novels. I'm not particularly drawn to the Henry IV plays, but this helped me gain one insider's perspective.

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Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Book Note: If We Were Villains

Rio, M. L. If We Were Villains. New York: Flatiron Bookx, 2017.

I'm playing a bit of catch-up with my reading—and even more with my posting on that reading.

Here, then, is a novel that's loaded with Shakespeare. It's set in an exclusive college for artists of all kinds (think Juilliard). We spend most of our time with the actors—and all they do is Shakespeare. Really, they eat, breathe, and act Shakespeare.

And it's also a murder mystery. Our narrator is getting out of prison having served ten years for a murder he claims not to have committed (though he confessed to the murder ten years earlier).

Since I found the novel compelling, I don't want to give any spoilers beyond that. But, as is my habit, I'd like to provide a sample for you, my dedicated readers.

Here, then, is part of a scene where the students enact scenes from Macbeth. The school has a tradition where a select group of students is tapped to perform scenes from a particular play. Each student is meant to keep his or her role confidential until the performance.

Let's sample some of their performance:

The students are, as one would expect if one really put one's thoughts to it, pretentious, but the plot is interesting, and the students quote from Shakespeare at the drop of a hat, which keeps things sharp.

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Monday, March 21, 2022

Book Note: The African Company Presents Richard III

Brown, Carlyle. The African Company Presents Richard III. Dramatists Play Service, 1994.

I cannot now recall where I heard of this play, but I know that I immediately wanted to track it down and find out what it's all about.

It's all about two productions of Richard III in 1821 in New York City.  One is by a black company, but it's attended by both black and white audiences (though the audiences are segregated). Interestingly (and crucially to the development of the plot), the white audience has to stand in the back in a roped-off section.

That gives the second production—a white production bringing a famous actor over from England (Junius Brutus Booth, as it happens) to play their Richard—to manipulate the law to get the black production shut down. Fire codes, you know, and excessive noisemaking, et cetera.

The play itself was first performed here in Minneapolis in 1988.  It "premiered at Penumbra Theatre, Minnesota’s only Black Professional Theatre Company, in February 1988, during the same time that The Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis was presenting Shakespeare’s Richard III" (from Red Bull Theater).

I'd like to give you two samples from this brief play.  The first is Act One, scene four, a monologue by Papa Shakespeare:

The other is Act Two, scene five, in which the performance of Richard III by the black company—now moved to a playing area directly across the street from the white production—is shut down by the authorities (pages 50-52, here made into a two-page spread):

There you have it. It's very interesting, and I'd like to see it in performance.

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You can also purchase it from the Dramatists Play Service.
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