Detective Fiction: The Rules of the Game

Hello again! Sales have begun for the second episodes in our highly popular and well-regarded Detective Audio series, featuring the cunning Sherlock Holmes and the irrepressible Loveday Brooke, and you all know what that means! It means I’m back to talk some more about whatever fool idea comes into my head, to pique your interest in those same audio plays and to hopefully encourage you to purchase them [they make great holiday presents! Just ask my entire family at the end of the month -KH] [But don’t tell them -KH] This time that topic will be a continuation of my series on detective stories. Last time we talked about their pedigree, where they came from and who begat whom, as well as a quick gloss on the variant forms they can come in. Today we will discuss what makes a detective story tick; the rules, both unwritten and thoroughly codified, that people have imposed on the genre. What’s more, last time we spoke I made you all a promise, if you’ll recall. Now a promise made is a debt unpaid, as I learned from my grandfather from his recitations of The Cremation of Sam McGee at family reunions, and I promised last time I would more thoroughly unpack the wide variety of subgenres and offshoots that can trace their origins back to the Detective story.

As I mentioned last time we spoke, our heroes, Sherlock Holmes and Loveday Brooke, are early figures in the history of the genre. Though not the first, Holmes is unquestionably the most famous detective in literature and laid much of the groundwork for future stories. Loveday Brooke is a contemporary of his, and while being both a woman and a working-class detective are noticeable departures from the norm, neither of those facets noticeably impact her sleuthing or the kinds of mysteries she is called upon to solve. Neither of our characters deviate from the classic Detective in the classic Detective story, in any of the myriad ways we will soon explore that a story can. In fact they are in many ways what their descendants are reacting to and turning away from, in their feverish propagation of new kinds of mysteries and new ways to solve them.

But before we delve into THAT topic we have to determine what makes a Detective story. Unlike pornography, which can only be identified on a case-by-case basis, there are rules that a story must follow to fit into the genre. Obviously there must be a detective character of some sort.  Equally obviously there must be a crime or mystery for them to solve, otherwise it is just a boring naturalist story about a detective buying groceries or whatever. The detective must have some sort of assistant or sidekick audience-surrogate figure to bounce ideas off of [N.B. this character can but does not HAVE to be the same person each time; Holmes has Dr. Watson but Hercule Poirot gets dealt a random police lieutenant or family friend or former associate for every mystery -ed.] And not strictly mandatory but ubiquitous enough to bear mention is an upper/upper-middle class backdrop to the story, an environment of money and Society which explains not only why all of the suspects have time to answer questions from a nosy detective for several days, but also how they can afford to retain a consulting detective and why they would like to keep the incipient scandal under wraps, and the pots of money floating around keeps the “stands to inherit/debts to cover” motive in play. There is a reason that the traditional setting for a murder mystery is a party at a manor house.

From Paramount Picture’s 1985 Clue. Left-Right: Tim Curry as Mr. Boddy, Lesley Ann Warren as Miss Scarlett, Madeline Kahn as Mrs. White, Christopher Lloyd as Professor Plum, Martin Mull as Colonel Mustard, Michael McKeen as Mr. Green, and Eileen Brennan as Mrs. Peacock

As the years passed, and the detective story became more and more popular, this bare set of rules was deemed insufficient and more stringent qualifications were proposed, ostensibly to maintain the high quality of story that the reading public demanded but serving mainly (in the nature of gatekeeping requirements everywhere) to limit the playing field to the “appropriate” kinds of stories and writers. In the 1920s and 1930s, the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, a number of authors wrote guides attempting to codify the tenets of a proper Detective story. Two of those authors, S.S. Van Dine and Ronald Knox, went so far as to create enumerated lists to be followed, Van Dine’s Credo of 20 rules and Knox’s Decalogue (or the Ten Commandments of Detective Fiction). Some of these rules seem reasonable for making the stories “fair” (that is, solvable) for the audience; rules like No Twins, No Hunches, Only One Secret Passage, The Killer Has To Be Introduced Early, and The Killer Can’t Be The Detective. Others were more of a stylistic preference, like No Romance, The Crime Must Be Murder, No Supernatural Elements, No Conspiracies, The Sidekick Has To Be A Little Dumber Than The Audience, and No Literary Pretensions Distracting From The Mystery. And then some were just downright offensive: The Killer Must Be A Person Of Quality, Not A Servant or No Chinamen [in fairness to Ronald Knox, his complaint was a reaction to the use of Yellow Peril stereotypes in the stories of his contemporaries, not a personal antipathy. But still, not the most sensitive of rules -KH] Regardless of their intentions these rules, if assiduously followed, would have an enormously chilling effect on the form; a seasoned reader may note that many of these requirements would disqualify a number of Sherlock Holmes stories and, if practiced in toto, would reduce the burgeoning detective genre to little more than a category of especially prolix logic puzzles.

File:039.Moses Comes Down from Mount Sinai.jpg
Moses Comes Down From Mt. Sinai, by Gustave Dore, 1866.

But more germane to my current thesis: you don’t ban something unless there is a reason to do so. These rules came into being as a reaction to the sorts of stories being written. And the writers of those stories, unsurprisingly, felt no particular need to obey these commandments, but rather continued to tell the stories THEY were interested in telling. Many of these stories have, justly or wrongly, disappeared from the public consciousness [or at least from MY sphere of awareness and light research for the purposes of writing this post -KH] but the influence they must have had is as clear as day in the existence of their descendants, clearly utilizing some of the structure of the detective genre while embellishing in some way to create their own form.

One of the earlier offshoots, occupying a unique position, is the rise of child and Young Adult detectives. If you’ll remember from my discussion of Treasure Island, YA fiction (in my calculus) is not quite its own form but a subgenre of the corresponding adult fiction genre, with some changes meant to aim the stories at children. Take for example Leroy “Encyclopedia” Brown, the power behind the throne of the Idaville police department. Encyclopedia Brown doesn’t follow hunches that happen to be correct. He doesn’t conceal his thinking from the audience or his Watson, bodyguard Sally Kimball. His nemesis Bugs Meany may be the leader of a gang, the Tigers, but it isn’t a hidden secret society, and never do his solutions hinge on hidden doors or body doubles. No doubt S. S. Van Dine would approve, if only Idaville had been filled with the tiny broken bodies of murdered children for Brown to investigate, instead of missing baseball cards or rotting pumpkins.

Brown was just one of a host of child detectives, all solving age-appropriate mysteries with more or less of the appropriate rigor for our Arbiters of Quality Messrs Knox and Van Dine in their investigations. Some of the older children, such as the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew, experience rather more adventure in their adventures; seldom does a Nancy Drew book go by without a chapter titled “Kidnapped!”, and Frank and Joe brawled with more than their share of smugglers while unravelling the mystery of Pirate’s Cove. But one set of detectives stands out in the catalogue of child detectives for more than just toeing the line between mystery and adventure story.

The Mystery Machine cartoon van
The Mystery Machine, from Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! 1969-1970

Setting aside their talking dog for a moment, Fred Jones, Jr., Daphne Blake, Velma Dinkley, and Norville “Shaggy” Rogers almost exclusively solved mysteries of a supernatural nature; ghosts and Bigfoots and haunted robots who were trying to steal from museums or defraud amusement parks or smuggle gold. While the true culprit was always some elderly malcontent in a rubber fright store mask, the story was always oriented around unravelling the meaning of the supernatural doings plaguing the town. Nor were they the only child sleuths with a mystical facet to their stories. Ghost Writer, of the eponymous show, was a ghost under a curious curse that only allowed them to interact with the material plane to highlight and interact with words and letters, and who (naturally) used these powers to aid a multicultural group of Brooklyn teens in solving mysteries, perhaps in hope of accruing enough good deeds to be freed from their eternal torment and allowed to rest.

While our Mystery Authorities, Knox and Van Dine, would surely choke on their pipe smoke at the spooky silliness and lack of solvability of all these stories, they certainly hold to at least the spirit of a detective story, which cannot truly be said for my next topic: NON-child-oriented supernatural mysteries. Or perhaps I should just directly say Adult Supernatural Mysteries, because these stories seem, for whatever reason, to veer quickly and heavily into Supernatural Romance. Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse novels, the basis of True Blood, are officially titled the Southern Vampire Mysteries, but a more accurate description for them would be Vampire Action Erotica. Also fitting into this category would be the Anita Blake books by Laurell K. Hamilton, about the Federal Vampire Executioner of Saint Louis and her dangerously inaccurate experiences with the Monster BDSM community. Lip service is paid to the idea of a mystery to solve, but the main focus of these stories is less meticulously investigating, collecting, and evaluating clues, and more putting the main characters in mystical peril and finding them ever-more-beautiful men to sleep with. Though in fairness, any story involving vampires has to work pretty hard to not become a SEXY story involving vampires, as I have addressed in the past.

Angel from Buffy
David Boreanaz as Angel, from Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Angel. Still the sexiest of all vampires.

Anita Blake at least does have SOME structural bones in common with yet another subgenre of detective fiction that has blossomed into its own form; the Police Procedural. The Police Procedural, which you will probably most recognize from your sick days when you’re bored at home and turn on TNT and watch ten straight hours of NCIS, asks a novel question of the audience: What if there WASN’T a preternaturally clever Consulting Detective available to leisurely crack the case, and instead it was just Lestrade and his companions on the police force, doing their level best to solve it with their regular human brains, collaboration, and a lot of legwork. The focus, as you may have guessed from the name of the genre, is on observing the day-to-day procedures of a police department as they go about their investigation, conducting forensic studies on the crime scene, following up on leads, conducting interviews and interrogations, sometimes all the way up to testifying in the trial. These stories are not generally about proving the cleverness of the detectives and by extension the audience for cracking a difficult case, but rather showing a still heightened but more realistic depiction of the process by which actual criminal investigations take place. Knox and Van Dine would surely have barely considered these stories as worthy of the name detective fiction, being so concerned with the crass and contemptible world of the lower and middle classes.

Law & Order - Wikipedia
DUN DUN

Harry Dresden of the Dresden Files, despite being Chicago’s Only Wizard P.I., also managed to dodge being tarred with the same Vampire Action Erotica brush as Ms. Stackhouse and Ms. Blake. His series is, first of all, less sexy than those books, which is pretty remarkable for a series in which a prominent recurring character is an incubus. And second, Dresden may be a wizard, but he is also a hard-boiled detective, and hard-boiled detectives are SUPPOSED to get into fistfights and have guns pulled on them. Hard-boiled detective stories approach their mysteries the same way that police procedurals do, with legwork. The only difference is that hard-boiled detectives don’t have the institutional resources of a police department. Hard-boiled detectives solve crimes with brute force, both the mathematical concept and the literal use of physical strength. Philip Marlowe, Jack Reacher, Jake Gittes, and the nameless Continental Op aren’t smarter than the reader, as many literary detectives are. They’re just more cynical, having earned their mistrust the hard way with years of witnessing the worst humanity has to offer in their dogged pursuit of the truth, both on the dusty streets of Poisonville and in the seamy underbelly of high society. Their (oft-broken) nose for clues and savviness about the hunt would surely entertain our pals Knox and Van Dine; Philip Marlowe carries around exotic grass seeds, foreign cigarette butts, and matchbooks from bars he’s never been to, to sprinkle around crime scenes and baffle forensic examiners. But the detectives’ insistence upon falling in love with every pair of legs that walked through their glass door is a clear violation of their No Romance rule.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Brick
From Focus Features’ 2005 Brick. Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Brendan Frye. My favorite movie of all time.

And finally here we come to the final mystery subgenre with which I am enough acquainted to discuss, the Cozy Mystery. If we were to recategorize the stories from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, this is where they would most closely fit. Cozy Mysteries are stories about isolated, unexpected crimes visited upon small, quiet communities, either where the detective lives or happens to be visiting. The detectives may be a retired or independent sleuth themselves, like Poirot and Ms. Marple, who conveniently happens to be in the neighborhood, or they may be simply talented amateurs, such as novelist Jessica Fletcher of Murder, She Wrote or Father Brown. While the crimes in question are often murder [meeting with the approval of our Review Board –KH], they are only ever discovered, never witnessed by the audience, and are none too gory, gruesome, or shocking. There is seldom any romance to speak of, and any that occurs is typically on the chaste-r side. The world and characters tend to be soft and a little quirky, without being out-and-out wacky or bizarre. The stories engender a calm, safe, warm, comforting…frankly, Cozy feeling when read or watched. They play fairly closely to the rules of the Game as set out in the Golden Age, with the exception that the aim is less to challenge the reader to compete with the detective (and through them the author) and instead to relaxingly follow along with the detective as they piece the puzzle together.

But our detective stories don’t fit into any of these categories. Sherlock Holmes and Loveday Brooke predate even the Golden Age writers, and are not bound by their rules. Certainly they, like many of their colleagues and descendants in the pure detective line, fall closest to the Cozy Mystery as well, but their world is too broad and their dangers too real to exactly fit the bill. Their adventures transcend subcategorization, and must be experienced to be truly appreciated and understood. Fortunately for you there is still time for you (and your loved ones!) to appreciate these before the holidays! All four of our packages, both current and previous adventures for Sherlock and Loveday, are available now! The sooner you order them the sooner we send them, and the better your chances are of them arriving for Christmas!

Detective Audio Plays, Season 2: A (Belated) Introduction

Hello again everybody! Long time no see! It is I, your dutiful, loyal, and long-suffering Literary Director, Box Office Manager, and Blogslave, returning from my interminable absence to enlighten my adoring audience about our recently-announced and highly-anticipated follow-ups to our Audio-Mysteries [oops. Strike this hyphen. Got a little dash-happy there -ed.]

Ordinarily I write these blogs in conjunction with the release of our shows, nominally as a part of our marketing campaign but mostly because I, along with the rest of the company, am hip-deep in the text we are working on and have many thoughts and interpretations, which everybody else gets to share viscerally on stage or in audio, but which I am forced by my lack of acting ability or design sensibilities to express via the hallowed medium of the Blog Post. But for our initial Mystery run, thanks to an extremely positive article in the Washington Post, we had no need for my far inferior writing to advertise the show. Moreover, a myriad of real-life personal issues, including but not limited to a literal broken leg (irony of ironies), prevented me from composing one at a reasonable time. So instead I am sharing with you some thoughts about mysteries, their origins, and our intrepid detectives now, to correspond with some details about our upcoming Episodes 2! A plus of this weird, late blog entry is that I don’t have to be cagey or cryptic about our previous stories, always a tricky line to walk when discussing mysteries and detective fiction. Instead I will be cagey and cryptic about our UPCOMING stories, to build suspense.

From Fox Picture’s 1975 Rocky Horror Picture Show. Tim Curry as Frank N. Furter, Susan Sarandon as Janet

But I am putting Descartes before the whores, as the madam said when she took up philosophy. First we need to talk about mysteries. But really, what we need to talk about is detectives. You can’t solve a mystery without a detective! And if you know me at all, you know that I’m going to start at the very beginning. It is, after all, a very good place to start. [I learned that from a disgraced former nun who fled Austria in the early days of the Second World War -KH]

Edgar Allan Poe, unlike the horror genre with which he is mainly associated, and the science fiction genre which only officious pedants associate him with, does have a legitimate and widely-recognized claim to the invention of the detective story. His creation C. Auguste Dupin, the protagonist of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”, “The Mystery of Marie Roget”, and “The Purloined Letter”, is commonly seen as the first Literary Detective. The Mystery Writers of America’s annual award, the Edgar, is named in honor of We Happy Few’s second-favorite depressive alcoholic. [behind yours truly -KH] This is not to say that Poe single-handedly invented the idea of solving a mystery out of whole cloth. There are examples of mysteries to be solved, and characters solving them, in the German Gothic and French Enlightenment traditions, as well as stories with what we would recognize as mystery elements in 1001 Arabian Nights and Shakespeare, to say nothing of the Chinese gong’an, or Crime Case, genre (of which the Circle of Chalk is a well-known example). Poe’s innovation was to make the story center around the detective, hide the resolution from the reader until the end, and have the detective character explain the solution for the benefit of the audience.

In any case Mssr. Dupin, Chevalier de la Legion D’honneur, opened the floodgates for all sorts of cunning, clever detectives to follow in his footsteps. Obviously the most famous was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, but there also followed Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey and Montague Egg, Seishi Yokomizo’s Kosuke Kindaichi, Ngaio Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn, Georges Simenon’s Jules Maigret, and scores of their peers, all private detectives solving cases the police could not, often making them look like fools in the process. From the ever flowing stream of the detective genre branched subgenres of all stripes, including (but not limited to!) the gentler Cozy Mysteries such as Christie’s Miss Marple or my mother’s favorite, Rita Mae and Sneaky Pie Brown’s Mrs. Murphy, plucky and precocious Child detectives like Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, Encyclopedia Brown, and the Scooby Gang, and the gin-swilling, gun-toting, cigarette-chomping Hardboiled detectives favored in America, such as Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe and (my personal favorite) Dashiell Hammett’s nameless Continental Op. To say nothing of supernatural mysteries or police procedurals, both in their turn spawning, hydra-like, a host of related sub-subgenres.

The hotly-anticipated 30th adventure of Mrs. Murphy and her menagerie of helpful animals. Expected out October 12th, 2021.

I will come back to these in another blog. I don’t have time to explore in depth the innumerable subdivisions of detective stories, nor the rules, both unofficial and codified, for what makes a story both True Detective Fiction and fair to the audience. Not when I have our two detectives to, at long last, introduce! And especially not when they are both orthodox detectives, having arrived on the scene long before the genre began to Balkanize. I am speaking, of course, of Mister Sherlock Holmes and Miss Loveday Brooke, two private detectives working in the greater London area in the waning years of Queen Victoria’s reign.

Holmes, of course, needs no introduction, being one of the most iconic characters in literary history. Created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the 1880s, he has the honor of being the second most-portrayed literary character in the history of film, behind only fellow We Happy Few alumnus Dracula, and that is without counting his knockoffs like Basil of Baker Street, the Great Mouse Detective. Sherlock Holmes, with his deerstalker cap and faithful companion Dr. Watson in tow, is almost certainly the first image conjured to mind when the subject of detectives comes up. His idiosyncrasies, his aloof, even cold manner to his clients, his craving for intellectual stimulation, his fondness for disguise, and especially his habit of making tremendously accurate logical leaps from scant evidence, all make him the Very Model of a Modern Consulting Detective, the gold standard by which all others are judged. Small wonder that when we conceived of the Detective Audio Play series, we knew that Sherlock Holmes would make an appearance.

Basil of Baker Street. From Disney’s 1986 The Great Mouse Detective

And yet you will observe that we did NOT begin the project with the Detective of Baker Street. Our first (and much more successful) story in the series featured the talents of Miss Loveday Brooke, of the Lynch Court Detective Agency, created by Catherine Louisa Pirkis in the 1890s. By contrast to Mr. Holmes and many other literary detectives she is NOT of nebulous but independent means, and must use her remarkable talents of deduction and observation for a paycheck, instead of merely for her own amusement. She is also, notably, a Lady Detective, another rarity in this era. But unlike many of her female colleagues she does not solve Cozy Mysteries at manor house garden parties or in sleepy seaside villages with the help of her cat. Brooke is in a class all by herself, twice over: a working-class detective in an era dominated by gentlemen of leisure taking jobs to while away the hours, and a tough and smart woman proving herself more than a match for the bumbling police or her well-meaning but blustering employers. She is exactly We Happy Few’s favorite kind of character, and we are thrilled beyond measure to be able to resurrect her for a new audience.

We are delighted to bring both of these detectives back to you in our second installment of our Detective Audio Plays. Mr. Holmes plays with fire while solving the Adventure of the Norwood Builder, while Ms. Brooke puts her life on the line to uncover the Murder at Troyte’s Hill. In just a few short months, you will have the opportunity to solve the mysteries right alongside our detectives, even down to looking at the same clues, when you receive our Audience Experience package. Keep your eyes peeled in November, when both of these packages will go on sale. And if you missed out on the first mysteries, they are still available HERE as well!

Count of Monte Cristo History Lesson: The Long 19th Century in France, Part 1

Hello again everybody! I am tremendously pleased to announce that we have finally made it through February, the worst month of the year, and it is now March, when good things start happening again. Good things like March Madness, the High Holy Days of the basketball calendar. Good things like DC’s cherry blossoms starting to bloom. Good things like the Landmark Theaters’ Studio Ghibli Festival (though I haven’t seen any announcements about that yet, which is bumming me out a little). Good things like spring, and sun, and warm weather. And, of course, the goodest thing of all; shows from everyone’s favorite independent theatre company We Happy Few! Our first show of 2020 will be another of our fan favorite Classics-in-Action, an in-house adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’ revenge adventure The Count of Monte Cristo.

As is my wont, I…will not be telling you much about the show itself or the particulars of our adaptation yet, to not spoil anything about the story or bias you with my own interpretation (and also I haven’t been to any rehearsals yet so I don’t have any valuable insights on this production). Instead I am pleased to offer you another entry in my History Lesson series, the only time in my life I get to make use of my Bachelor’s Degree in History. Fortunately for you all, my specialization was the 1800s, because I was so interested in the massive social, political, economic, cultural, technological, and demographic changes that occurred in the century. And one of the first things I learned about it was that you couldn’t discuss any of those changes without addressing the French Revolution, which began a little over a decade before the 19th century, in 1789. Historians also couldn’t wrap up the themes of the century neatly at 1900; the logical endpoint, and beginning of a new era in world history, was the First World War in 1914. This period, from the French Revolution to the outbreak of World War I, is referred to historiographically as the Long 19th Century. And I think it is important for us to discuss the first third of it, specifically in France, to get some context for our story. Let’s get learning!

It is difficult to imagine a nation that underwent more changes of government, in less time, than France did between 1789 and 1815. In that 26 years France was an Absolute Monarchy, a Republic, a Dictatorship, an Empire, briefly a Constitutional Monarchy, even more briefly an Empire again, and then stabilized as a Constitutional Monarchy. This arrangement wobbled in 1830 during a second revolution (you may have heard about it in Les Miserables), which maintained a Constitutional Monarchy of the Bourbons but moved the crown to another branch of the family, but then stabilized for about 30 years, until the revolution of 1848 established another Republic, which would be suborned into another Empire three years later. But since The Count of Monte Cristo was finished in 1846 we don’t have to worry about that part.

…yet.

Map France 1789

France Pre-Revolution.

Briefly: At the end of the 18th century the Kingdom of France was ruled by the Bourbon family, who held the throne and maintained their authority by Divine Right. However, due to, among other things, an inability to effectively levy taxes, particularly on the nobility, the cost of maintaining rivalries with Great Britain, Spain, and Austria, a handful of poor harvests, and the cartoonish extravagance of the Sun King Louis XIV a few generations before [cf. The end of the Spanish Golden Age -ed.], the kingdom was all but bankrupt. So in 1789, the first time in almost 200 years, the Estates General were invoked to find a way to make France solvent. The Estates General was an advisory body to the monarchy composed of three groups: the First Estate, the clergy, the Second Estate, the nobility, and the Third Estate, the “commoners”, although part of the requirement to participate in the Estate was a minimum tax payment. The vast majority of the Third Estate’s representation was actually drawn from the bourgeoisie, what we would call the upper middle class; lawyers, merchants, and non-noble landlords. With the aid of much of the First Estate and a few of the more liberal-minded of the Second, [most notably to my biased mind Hero of the American War of Independence and professional Revolutionary Gilbert du Motier, the Marquis de La Fayette -KH] the Third voted to rename the convocation the General Assembly and established its intention to create a Constitution for the nation which eliminated the feudal privileges of the nobility, dispossessed the Church of its holdings and wealth, and established a meritocratic and above all equal society. When the King attempted to dissolve the Assembly by dismissing its head, the Swiss financial expert Necker, and locking the representatives of the Third Estate out of their meeting hall, the people reacted…poorly. On July 14th partisan street fighters stormed prison/armory/Bourbon stronghold the Bastille, and we were off to the races. King Louis XVI lost his head to Madame La Guillotine a few years later and after some uncertainty France was officially a Republic in 1792.

Guillotine

“Une Exécution capitale, place de la Révolution”, by Pierre-Anton Demachy, 1793.

This Republic didn’t last long. Internal factionalism, paranoia, and radicalism from the sans-culottes [literally ‘without pants’, confusingly referring to the fact that laborers wore trousers instead of the knee-length breeches of the nobles -ed.], lower class laborers and peasantry, led to a series of massacres, show trials, and public executions initially targeting the nobility and clergy, and then spreading to moderates and critics of the sans-culottes in what is alarmingly but accurately referred to as the Terror. Under the influence of Maximilien Robespierre the radically leftist (even for revolutionaries) Committee of Public Safety oversaw the execution of almost twenty thousand and the arrest of over a quarter million more; the victims ranging from dispossessed nobles and noble sympathizers to political and personal enemies of the Committee. The Terror ended in 1794 in what is known as the Thermidorian Reaction; so named for the Revolutionary Month of Thermidor, mid-July to mid-August, when it took place. A coup by more moderate elements of the Revolution captured and executed Robespierre and a score of his allies, establishing in its place the Directory, a less radical but equally unpopular ruling council that was in its turn overthrown by Napoleon in 1799.

While this was happening in Paris the armies of the Revolution were fighting wars on just about all their borders. Austria, concerned by the precedent set by commoners guillotining their king and outraged by the execution of French queen and Austrian princess Marie Antoinette, declares war on Revolutionary France in 1792 and is joined by Prussia. [France actually preemptively declared war on THEM, presumably in order to have the initiative in the upcoming conflict, but since Austria was obviously preparing for war I am comfortable muddying the waters a little. This is why I don’t use my history degree that much; because I’m bad at it -KH] Spain, Portugal and Great Britain join the coalition the following year, and France suffers serious defeats in the Netherlands and the south of France. In 1794 the French armies, having instituted a universal draft and employing the unheard-of policy of promoting by merit instead of selling commissions, turned it around. By 1798 the French have established puppet client republics in the Netherlands, Belgium and Northern Italy, reached the gates of the Austrian capital of Vienna, and beaten the British so thoroughly at sea that Napoleon was free to invade British holdings in Egypt.

Napoleon

“Napoleon Crossing the Alps”, by Jacques-Louis David, 1801. I have a copy of this painting above my couch.

Since I’ve now mentioned him twice and he’s a fairly important figure in both the history of France and specifically in our story I should probably discuss him. Napoleon Bonaparte, a young Corsican artillerist who capitalized on the army’s new willingness to promote for merit, risen rapidly through the ranks, and been tremendously successful leading the Republican Army in Italy, seized the position of Consul in 1799 from the unpopular Directory. A few years later, like Caesar before him, he believed he should be Emperor instead. Unlike poor Caesar, however, the Senate of France agreed, and Napoleon was crowned Emperor of France in 1804. He promptly went back to war, that being what he was best at. He changed the policy of Revolutionary France’s warmaking from securing borders and supporting the causes of/establishing republics to the more Imperial goal of conquest. He conquered most of Western, Southern, and Central Europe until he found himself stymied in Spain by Arthur Wellesley and humiliated in Russia by General Winter. Napoleon was driven into exile on the Isle of Elba when the Allies (Great Britain, Spain, Russia…the rest of Europe) captured Paris in 1814, and Louis XVIII, the younger brother of the executed Louis XVI, was placed on the throne. But Napoleon, who had been tremendously popular as Emperor, not least for maintaining the Republican ideals of equality and meritocracy, escaped from exile less than a year later. He rallied his army for another try at conquering the world in the Hundred Days, only to be defeated again by Wellesley, now Duke Wellington, at Waterloo. With his defeat and second exile, this time to St. Helena in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, the Bourbon Restoration finally took and France was left to the (relative) stability of a constitutional monarchy under Louis XVIII. In 1815 the old order has been re-established, the nobility and the Church are returned to their previous positions of power, and all traces of Napoleonic or Revolutionary sentiment are ordered purged. A brief interruption in 1830 shifted the crown from one branch of the Bourbon family to another, but after that the body politic remained stable for almost twenty years.

This period of upheaval is the immediate backdrop to The Count of Monte Cristo, which begins literally days before Napoleon returns from Elba in 1815 and ends in 1839. France’s entire power structure has been inverted, twice, and it has conquered and subsequently lost most of Europe. It has shown the common people of France (and, indeed, the rest of Europe) that power is available for seizure, and that it could be maintained, even if all the world stood against them. It has taught the nobility that THEIR power is not as unassailable as they may have imagined. It has expelled religion entirely from the public sphere. And it has put the theories of the previous century’s Enlightenment into practice, radically leveling the field and explicitly enforcing the notion that all men are equal. That many of these changes were reversed by the Bourbon Restoration doesn’t mean they hadn’t happened, however much the King and his courtiers may wish it was so. Also worth noting is that the experience turned France into a Nation, with a coherent national identity beyond “the holdings of nobles owing allegiance to a king”. It maintains this identity even after the monarchy has been restored, with the new Bourbons referring to themselves as “King of the French” instead of “King of France”. This nascent proto-nationalism is the first whisper of the political movement that would define the Long 19th Century, and while it isn’t ESPECIALLY relevant to Monte Cristo it is still worth knowing.

I hope this helps to give you all some context for what is happening in and to France in the period immediately before our story starts. If this laughably incomplete history of France isn’t enough foreknowledge for you and you think it would help you understand the story if you’ve read it first, I would strongly encourage you to start right now, as the unabridged Count of Monte Cristo is about 1300 pages long. If you don’t want to read half a million words and you’re comfortable with trusting us to tell you the story, and you should be, the tickets are available now!

Treasure Island: What Shall We Do With A Drunken Sailor?

Hi again, loyal viewers! Blogslave, Dramaturge, Box Office Manager, and Pirate/Drinking Enthusiast Keith Hock here [I gotta trim down my titles, this business card is out of control -KH], to wax rhapsodic about our Critically Acclaimed Treasure Island some more, and to encourage you all to join us for our upcoming shows at our new friends Republic Restoratives! I anticipate a long and fruitful relationship with Republic Restoratives, who were not only kind enough to host our next four performances, but were also savvy enough to create and sell liquor, which I, the rest of the company, most of you out there, and most especially (to at last reveal the topic of today’s blog) pirates and sailors of all stripes, have long been a fan of! Come with me on a brief history of alcohol and the high seas.

As I have mentioned before, sailing was hard and dangerous work, but what may have been even more terrible than working your watch would have been the downtime. Being stuck on a 100-foot-long wooden ship for months on end with a couple dozen other people, minimal opportunities for hygiene, and nothing to do must have been both boring and miserable. It is hardly surprising that sailors would turn to the comforting embrace of the bottle, nor that their captains (and, indeed, the Admiralty) would approve and facilitate this pacifying measure, issuing enough daily hooch to get a sailor good and relaxed but not so much that they could become a liability, either that night or the following morning. Their rationing also gave Management a carrot (otherwise in vanishingly short supply in their motivational toolbox) and an additional stick in their dealings with the crew, in the shape of withholding or offering additional rations. In Treasure Island, Jim mentions that “[d]ouble grog was going on the least excuse” as evidence of how spoiled the crew was, suggesting either that Livesey and (the mysteriously vanished in our version) Squire Trelawney took it upon themselves to keep the crew happy or that Captain Smollett’s hard-edged humorlessness was perhaps more bark than bite.

Celebratory Pirates.jpg

Illustration by Louis Rhead. Image found on Project Gutenberg

Speaking of grog, let’s get an idea of what sailors were actually drinking. A merchant ship’s complement of alcohol would have varied from ship to ship and voyage to voyage, depending on availability, cost, storage, voyage length, and captain’s/purser’s/owner’s preference. But it would usually consist of either rum, arrack (another distillation of sugarcane, more often to be found in the Indian Ocean than the Caribbean) or brandy for the crew, and wine or more brandy for the officers. [To my dismay, beer would be unlikely, being bulkier and more likely to spoil than more thoroughly distilled spirits -KH] Rum gets all the publicity because of how heavily associated it is with both the Caribbean and of the Royal Navy, though sailors and especially pirates would gladly drink anything they could get their hands on (you’ll recall that unfettered access to the liquor stores was a key inducement to many pirates). Brandy in particular I find to be underrepresented in pirate media; it is Israel Hands’ beverage of choice in our story, and as one of the easier and earlier spirits to manufacture it was a common drink to find shipside. I imagine its modern reputation for fanciness, associations with snifters and Couvoisier and velvet smoking jackets, have impugned the reputation of the hard-working, versatile and ubiquitous brandy. But oh boy did I ever get sidetracked just there, and I was supposed to be discussing grog. Grog is a dilution of the daily rum ration, to keep sailors from getting too drunk on duty and to serve its true function of hydration, and consisted of rum, water, sugar and limes. The seasoned drinkers in my audience may notice that those are the exact same ingredients as in a daiquiri, although I imagine the proportions are somewhat different.

The lime is actually the most interesting ingredient on this list, and it is no accident that they feature prominently in the recipe for so many maritime cocktails like grog, Company Punch, and my personal favorite the Gin and Tonic. In addition to being a magic “make booze taste better” fruit, limes, as a citrus, are crammed with Vitamin C and therefore help fight scurvy, which was otherwise rampant on long voyages. While it was not clear exactly WHY limes and other citrus fruit kept sailors from dying by the dozens on long cruises until the end of the 18th century, it was clear that they did, and so its unintentional inoculation became an established sailing practice. The Gin and Tonic is in some ways a medicinal upgrade from simple grog; in an effort to make the antimalarial quinine in tonic water palatable, some of the more industrious alcoholics in the East India Trading Company mixed it with gin and lime juice (see “magic” above), making it a prophylactic to both malaria and scurvy, as well as the myriad horrors of sobriety. As a direct counter to two different ailments I therefore believe that a G&T is the healthiest beverage in existence and that everyone should drink half a gallon of them a day, instead of water. [My doctor, unfortunately, does not agree with my findings -KH]

Roy Pool Stephen Hopkins.jpg

“It’s a medicinal fact that rum gets a man’s heart started in the morning. I’m surprised you didn’t know that.” Roy Poole as Stephen Hopkins, 1776 (1969)

In addition to fighting scurvy, malaria, and its overall comfortable numbing, let us not forget that the most important reason for drinking all this watered-down alcohol on ships all day long is to stay at least sort of hydrated. It has been alarmingly difficult to keep fresh water fresh for the majority of humanity’s existence. There is a reason that society originally coalesced around rivers, lakes, and springs; because that’s where the fresh water is, which we need to drink every day lest our blood turns to jelly in our veins and we dessicate into mummies. But water left standing for any great length of time without refrigeration, circulation, or airtight seals will almost inevitably become fouled with algae, bacteria, insect eggs…whatever you got. Alcohol is very good at killing bacteria and other microorganisms, being basically a fun and delicious poison. So any amount of alcohol in your water made it a little less dangerous, a little less likely to go bad. And the more alcohol there was in the water, the more bacteria it killed. But it also meant the less water there was in your water. Booze will keep the bacteria out of your water but it will not hydrate you. Which is why grog was watered down and why wine-drunk Israel Hands was at such a disadvantage in his fight aboard the Hispaniola.

It is my sincere hope that reading this blog got you all excited about the idea of coming to Republic Restoratives this weekend, seeing Treasure Island, and sampling their wonderful spirits. Tickets are available online HERE or will be sold at the door, and they come with a complementary cocktail devised by director/devisor/mixologist Kerry McGee and prepared by the wonderful staff over at RR. I’d love to see you all there, with a drink in hand.

Treasure Island: DER BILDUNGSROMAN

Happy May, everyone! I have a special treat for you all today! It’s another blog, about the intended audience and literary structure of Treasure Island. [wait come back -KH] Ordinarily I would sit on this blog post until Opening Night, but since we are opening Treasure Island on a Saturday, and people spend less of their time on Saturdays goofing off on the internet, I thought I would run it out a little early, as a reward for you all for being such a loyal audience. And also for our adoring audience members who may have, through no fault of their own, neglected to purchase their tickets for Treasure Island so far, it may serve as a passive-aggressive friendly reminder to do so!

Originally serialized in the 1880s in a magazine named [with traditional 19th century brevity -ed.] “Young Folks: A Boys’ and Girls’ Paper of Instructive and Entertaining Literature”, Treasure Island is clearly marketed towards, and written with an eye for the interests of, children, in a way that many books that had come before were not. Treasure Island is what I would describe as a second-generation Young Adult novel, an at-the-time comparatively recent innovation in literature of a story aimed specifically at children. Following in the footsteps of Carroll, Dickens, Alcott, and Twain, Stevenson had learned the primary lesson to engaging young readers: make the protagonist a child.

Treasure Island Norman Price

From Treasure Island, 1947. Illustration by Norman Price.

 

This is the closest to a unifying feature that YA stories get, and even it is not universal. Young Adult novels, in an uncomfortable parallel to pornography, defy definition but can easily be identified. It is tempting to think of it as a genre unto itself, and many of the books share enough difficult-to-define similarities to justify such a grouping, such as length, simplicity of language, or occasional tension-breaking silliness. But [if you’ll pardon me putting on my Librarian Hat for a second -KH] it is in my opinion more helpful and accurate to make it an overarching category, one that any sort of book can belong to and still fall into other, more specialized categories. This way you retain the helpful audience label of YA but you don’t sacrifice the association with their stylistic genre. Compare, for example, the Hardy Boys to a James Bond story, and then to The Outsiders. Or for a more extreme comparison, read The Hunger Games, and tell me if it has more in common with 1984 or Great Expectations. Their audience may always be children or teens, but just like with adults, different children have different interests and what appeals to one may not appeal to another, so I think a more reasonable cataloging style would be, for example, YA Fantasy, or YA Mystery, or YA Historical Fiction. By this metric Treasure Island would fall into the wide category of Young Adult Adventure Fiction, among such rarefied company as Tom Sawyer, The Book of Three, Hatchet, and The Golden Compass.

Tom Sawyer Bats

“Tom and Becky Lost in the Caves”, from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, 1876. Illustration by True Williams.

I won’t bore you overmuch right now with further discussions of the adventure genre, which I have already covered in detail here. But Treasure Island ALSO happens to be a Bildungsroman, as YA Adventures reasonably tend to be, and I would be happy to bore you with discussions of that!

And the best way to bore someone is to lecture them about the terms you will be using, terms with which they may well already be familiar. The Bildungsroman, literally “novel of education”, is also referred to as a “coming of age” story, so you can see why it might be so heavily associated with the Young Adult genre. Though not universally a story about or for children (the “age” to which one might “come” can be metaphorical, and refers to any sort of maturing and coming into one’s own) it often tracks the growth of a young person as they discover that there is more to the world, both for good and for bad, than they had initially understood, and of them consequently understanding their place in it. It has a very straightforward and approachable story design, generally adhering closely to the Hero’s Journey that I described for you oh those many moons ago for our selected readings from Ian Doescher’s William Shakespeare’s Star Wars. This is unsurprising because Star Wars is also about as Bildungsroman as you can get, what with the young man leaving his home, meeting a mentor, learning about the world outside of his small experience, and discovering the person he was truly meant to be. These traits are clearly mirrored in Treasure Island as well. When our story begins Jim Hawkins has probably never been more than 5 miles away from the Admiral Benbow in his life, but by the end he has learned about sailing, loyalty, and greed, and has made his family more money they could possibly spend.

Treasure Island Mervyn Peake Gold

From Treasure Island, 1949. Illustration by Mervyn Peake.

You may have noticed that I haven’t mentioned a whole lot of plays, or anything about theatrical theory and history, as regards Treasure Island or any of these other YA Bildungsroman adventure stories. That is by design. Barring Peter Pan [another stellar Bildungsroman also regularly on my pitch list at season development time -KH], adventure stories are seldom produced on stage, and when they are it is usually in the context of children’s theatre, like our colleagues at the aptly-named Adventure Theatre. Even Billy Shakes’ much-beloved Pericles is rarely seen performed. Adventures are often dependent on large-scale dynamic scenes with a lot of moving parts; what are often confusingly referred to as set pieces in the movie world. Battles, or heists, or explosions, or chases, or whatever sort of heart-pounding action and excitement the setting will afford. They are action-oriented, and the stage is not an ideal medium for action-heavy performances.  Depending on how forgiving your audience is, or how audacious your company is, you can get away with a little more, but a stage can only be so big and even the biggest companies cannot match up to a film studio or the power of the human imagination. The entire prologue of Henry V is an apology for theatre’s inability to truly capture the excitement of war.

But as I’ve said before the Prologue to Henry V is also a thrown gauntlet to prove it wrong, and we here at We Happy Few like a challenge. Whether that challenge is creating an exciting pirate adventure with four actors and as much set and props as we can fit in the trunk of a car, or taking a story written for 19th-century tweens and making it interesting, accessible, and exciting for a 21st-century audience of all ages [we’ve got a secret weapon in our signature cocktails for that second part -KH]. If you want to go on a pirate adventure with us, and maybe discover something more about yourself and the world around you while you do it, please join us for Treasure Island! Tickets are available now!

Treasure Island: Pirate History Lesson!

Truly there is no rest for the wicked. Macbeth just closed a few weeks ago and we’re already only another few weeks away from opening our third and final show of the season. Which means it’s about time for me to lecture you all at length about the history or cultural significance of whatever project we’re working on. I always look forward to doing this, because there is little that nerds love more than getting to show off how much more they know than other people. But I’m even more excited about this one than I usually am, because we’re putting on an adaptation of Treasure Island and that means that the topic of my lecture today is pirates!

I should clarify that I am specifically talking about Caribbean pirates during the Golden Age of Piracy, between the 1680s and 1720s. Pirates have always existed, wherever people have transported goods on the water and other people have stolen them, but the image you have in your head, with the cutlass and the Jolly Roger and the ruffled shirt and the bottle of rum, come to us directly, and surprisingly accurately, from the Caribbean. [Treasure Island is actually responsible for one of the only falsehoods we generally believe about pirates; that they buried their treasure, when instead, of course, they spent it. -ed.] Allow me to elaborate for 1500 words.

Capture of Blackbeard

“The Capture of the Pirate, Blackbeard, 1718”. By Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, 1920.

The reason that our image of pirates hews so closely to reality is due in large part to the fact that pirates were consciously cultivating and trading on their reputation and image. They actively sought to create an aura of menace to cow their victims with the terror of a pirate attack, so they took every available opportunity to make themselves look fearsome and desperate. The Jolly Roger flags they flew were adorned with totenkopfs, bleeding hearts, daggers, skellingtons…all manner of sinister imagery to terrify their victims. Blackbeard grew out his beard and hair and stuffed burning fuses in them so he would look like a demon during raids. This curated savage appearance made them intimidating and marked them as outsiders with dangerous and antisocial ideas. They wanted to distinguish themselves from the society from which they had been voluntarily exiled. Being a pirate was about freedom, and they wanted to celebrate that freedom. Outlaw bikers and punks dress and act in a very similar style for more or less the same reason; to shock the normals and consciously make a distinction between themselves and society. 

Our stereotype about pirates’ drunkenness is also borne out by the historical record. But all sailors were drunk; the difficulty of keeping fresh water fresh on a ship travelling across the ocean meant that the only drinkable fluids had to have alcohol in them. Plus sailing was hard, dangerous, boring work, and getting drunk every day was one of the few sources of reliable entertainment and escape available. English sailors had a daily ration of booze, usually somewhere in the neighborhood of a gallon of beer, 8 ounces of rum or brandy, or a bottle of wine. Pirates were simply less constrained in their consumption than ordinary sailors, being governed democratically [more on this in a second -KH] instead by of a top-down bureaucracy. Many of the extant pirate contracts and accords set it in stone that there is to be no rationing of alcohol or food consumption on the ship, unless there was danger of running out. This meant that securing sources of alcohol was often the highest priority. There are multiple accounts of pirates seizing a ship and only taking their wine, or of expeditions turning around because their supply of rum had run out or been destroyed.

Rum Bottles

There’s a reason rum brands are so thoroughly associated with sailors and the ocean. Photo by Tim Nusog.

As I mentioned above pirate ships were governed democratically; every crew member got a vote on the ship’s council, and the whole crew got a roughly equal share of any treasure. Rules were agreed upon and a contract signed before the ship sailed, and any disputes while on the journey would be decided by the ship’s council. The captain was in command during battle only, and for the responsibility received only a double share. The captaincy was also democratically elected and could be (and frequently were) deposed at more or less any time. This is in marked contrast to most navy and civilian ships at the time, which paid a fortune to their captains and a pittance, when it paid at all, to their crews, and were run like dictatorships. Floggings, beatings, and other, more arcane corporal punishments like the keel-haul or the gauntlet were common. The English navy in particular also had a nasty habit of “pressing” sailors, abducting them from merchant ships or literally kidnapping them off the street and forcing them into service It should not be surprising that most pirates started out as ordinary sailors who either deserted (often when they were boarded by pirates themselves) or mutinied.

There were also both unofficial pirate havens and settlements that were inhabited and run solely BY pirates. There was minimal presence in the area from colonial governments and pirates would routinely outnumber and outgun any garrisons. The heaps of treasure pirates had at their disposal made it extremely easy for them to dole out bribes, and their intimidating reputation made taking those bribes an easy choice for most mayors and colonial governors. Tortuga and Port Royal (until its destruction in an earthquake) were major hubs of pirate activity. In addition to these unofficial havens were settlements and ports actively and entirely under the control of pirates, in a conscious effort to recreate a similar pirate society on the island of Madagascar. Nassau in particular became the ‘capital’, if such a thing could exist, of the Republic of Pirates in the Bahamas.

Pirate Haven

From Sid Meier’s Pirates!, 2004.

Demographically pirates were more diverse than ordinary European or Caribbean society. The majority were English, and then a melting pot of Northern European nations, including French, Irish, Scottish (including many partisans of the exiled Stuart dynasty), Dutch, Danish, and Swedish, with a handful of Native American, mestizo, and African sailors as well. Having African sailors as crew members instead of as slaves seems to have been a ship-to-ship, and even person-to-person, decision; there were free black pirates on ships that re-sold slaves from captured slaver ships. There are also on record two female pirates at the time (and on the same ship under Calico Jack Rackham), Anne Bonny and Mary Read. And were I a gambling man I would wager there were many more who we don’t know about; existing as it did on the fringes of society, piracy would be likely to attract all manner of misfits and outcasts, including women seeking agency in their own lives.

Anne Bonny Mary Read

L-R: Anne Bonny and Mary Read. Illustration from Charles Johnson’s A General History of the Pyrates, 1724.

Contemporary accounts usually painted pirates as treacherous, greedy, cowardly, and vicious, because the contemporary accounts were written by authorities who had a vested interest in making piracy seem as hideous as possible. Elements of this reputation were in many ways welcomed and encouraged by the pirates themselves, because it made it much easier to intimidate civilian crews into surrendering (and because it suited their self-identity as outsiders). While it is certainly true that there were some pirates who tortured or executed prisoners it was very uncommon and frowned upon; Charles Vane was famous for his cruelty, but was also stripped of his captaincy and marooned by his crew for it. For all his fearsome reputation and appearance Blackbeard was never once known to execute anyone.

The historiography on piracy has undergone a recent shift to more accurately and sympathetically examine pirates, and the historical record is now much kinder to them. Pirates are now seen as more akin to the Luddite machine-breakers; disruptors, anarchists, and proto-socialists who scorned the society that would rather see them dead than equitably treated, or to frontiersmen who found autonomy in the absence of laws. This is not to say that pirates were maligned and persecuted heroes of yesteryear; they still made their living by theft and terror and by preying on the defenseless, and although they were mostly not sadists they were also certainly not opposed to killing. But the romantic, swashbuckling, devil-may-care reputation that they now enjoy is certainly how they saw themselves.

Will Turner

I swear I tried to avoid using pictures from these movies. Orlando Bloom as Will Turner, from Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.

 

A reputation that they currently enjoy in large part due to books like Treasure Island! Despite being written under the older historiographical model, in which pirates were villainous scum, this story and others like it were key to romanticizing the lifestyle and keeping them in the public eye. All media that depicts pirates, even the stories like this one or Peter Pan where they are the villains, inescapably serve to romanticize them. Just like, as Truffaut says, it is impossible to make a truly anti-war film, you cannot include pirates in a story without making them seem cool. Everyone wants to be a pirate, because pirates are the coolest.

If YOU want to be a pirate, or at least see us pretend to be pirates, please join us for Treasure Island! We will be performing at various locations throughout the city in May and June, and we’d be happy to have you join us! Tickets are available now!

Pericles, Prince of Tyre: Driven Before The Winds

Hi again, everybody! We’re about halfway through the run of Pericles and I wanted to check back in with you all, see how you were doing, brag about our amazing reviews and talk about our play for a while, to edify some of you and shame the rest into buying tickets and coming to see the show, like you know you should have already. And now that we’ve opened I can actually talk about specific, as opposed to structural, elements. We get to delve into what makes OUR production work, not just the building blocks and context of the play itself. And nothing makes our production work quite so much as the breakneck pace of the action.

Given what I’ve told you in my previous blog posts you probably know by now that a lot of stuff happens in this play, in a lot of different places, usually in very quick succession (or, in one notable place, after a 14-year time jump). Set in castles and palaces and temples and fishermen’s huts and beaches and tourney yards and gardens and whorehouses on at least six different islands and several ships, not to mention the storms and assassins and pirates and dream sequences and narrative interludes that dog our heroes, Pericles runs the risk of being disjointed, bogged down, and poorly structured [Much like this sentence! -KH]. Too much happens too quickly in too many places and it is easy to get lost. On a metatheatrical level there is something very interesting about that, the play running out of control like a ship tossed about in a storm. But just because something is intellectually interesting does not make it good theatre, as I have repeatedly been told at pitch meetings.

Pericles Shipwreck

From We Happy Few’s 2018 production of Pericles. L-R: Dave Gamble, Jenna Berk, Grant Cloyd, Charlie Retzlaff, Jon Reynolds, Kerry McGee, Jennifer J. Hopkins. Photo by Mark Williams Hoelscher.

Fortunately for us, our particular 90-minute small-cast stripped-down aesthetic works extremely well in this sort of situation. To continue the ship metaphor, our technical flexibility allows us to stay ahead of the storm. Instead of potentially stalling and losing momentum in lengthy scene transitions or costume changes, as a straight production might do, we can lean into it (which you might remember is my favorite device) and let the play rush us along. We trust in new lighting looks, our signature rapid costume changes, some quick box movements, and above all the intelligence of our audience, to understand that this new scene is happening in a new place. Instead of letting the settings and scene changes overwhelm and slow down the action we can use the breakneck action to speed ourselves up, keep the play moving too fast for anyone to get lost.

It helps, too, that we have more control over our pacing than a traditional companies. We are not beholden to each and every word of the text. We hold ourselves to a higher standard: a 90-minute show. Because we do so much cutting and rebalancing of the text to find the absolute bare bones of the story, we control more or less how long we spend in any given location. If we followed the flow of the play itself the audience would often spend just enough time somewhere to get used to it, and then be disoriented and lost again at the next scene transition. For us, though, movement becomes the norm instead of the exception. We can once again use the momentum of the play to our advantage, to keep the audience on their toes and ready for whatever comes next.

 

Pericles Party.JPG

From We Happy Few’s 2018 production of Pericles. Foreground L-R: Jenna Berk, Jon Reynolds. Background L-R: Kerry McGee, Charlie Retzlaff, Jennifer J. Hopkins, Grant Cloyd, Dave Gamble. Photo by Mark Williams Hoelschler.

 

But all of those staging and cutting tricks wouldn’t mean a thing if we didn’t have the chops to sell it to the audience. For all of this to work we need to MOVE, and we need to have clarity and purpose. The audience is smart and they can follow our breakneck island-hopping if we trust them, but that trust has to go both ways. They have to trust US, as well, to guide them from place to place, or they’ll get hopelessly lost between who is who and where we are. As you may have guessed from the structure of this blog post, however, we have multiple advantages on this front as well. We’ve got a wonderfully trusting and energetic cast, an altogether-too-qualified movement team, and a proven history of stripping down classical stories and bringing them to a new audience. Oh, I guess our director is all right, too, seeing as he was the one who realized how to put all of these things together and shepherd this play from an inconsistent island-hopping hodge-podge to the critically acclaimed show you still have a chance to see! We’re running tonight, tomorrow, and then Wednesday through Saturday of next week, come see what I’m talking about!

Pericles, Prince of Tyre: Thrilling Adventure Hour and a Half

Good morning/afternoon/evening/sleepless midnight hours, whenever you do your independent-theatre-blog-reading. Its Tech Week here at the We Happy Factory, which means while everybody everybody else in the company works very hard to iron out any kinks in the production and make sure the play is the best it can be, I sit in a corner of the theatre and hope that someone has a historical or textual question that I can answer. I like to use this time to put together a blog post so it feels like I’m accomplishing something to draw upon the creative energy in the room and distill it to infuse some enthusiasm into my dry and staid prose.

Pericles has a lot going on. More than most of Shakespeare’s plays, more even than the other Romances. While he didn’t strictly obey the Aristotelian Unities of Time or Place, generally Shakespeare constrained himself to a handful of fairly nearby locations (sometimes as small as a single castle, city, or island) and a relatively brief timeline, not more than a few days or weeks. Some of them are a little more spread out, such as the Histories (and Lear) set in France and England, and sometimes, like Hamlet, their sense of time is more ambiguous. But none of them range as far afield and with so many different settings as in Pericles, not even Julius Caesar or Winter’s Tale, and only Winter’s Tale features such a tremendous time-warp in the middle of the play.

Time Warp

Its about time we did another Time Warp. From Rocky Horror Picture Show, 1975.

That’s because Shakespeare was drawing on an ancient and well-pedigreed storytelling tradition when he wrote this play, a genre he otherwise avoided. Pericles is, to my mind, Shakespeare dipping his toes into what I like to think of as the Fantastic Adventure story. These stories are typified by a young hero either travelling by himself or being separated from his companions, encountering fantastic and mysterious circumstances, and triumphing over them. Repeat as needed. Pericles spends the play wandering the Mediterranean and searching for glory, fleeing villainous monarchs, rescuing cities, miraculously escaping storms, mourning…He fits the literal archetype of the Adventurer.

Arguably the first and most famous Fantastic Adventure, and the one which shares the most in common with our story, is Homer’s Odyssey. As you all doubtless know, this is the story of Odysseus’ ten-year journey from the Trojan War to his home in Ithaca, and the trials and adventures he encounters along the way. Relevant for OUR interests, Odysseus too finds himself at the mercy of the divine, aided by Athena and opposed by Poseidon. Pericles’ adventures may be less fantastical than Odysseus’, he doesn’t blind any cyclopes or tie himself to the mast to hear the song of the sirens, but the two of them would be hard-pressed to determine whose tribulations were more punishing before they were reunited with their families.

1501_ 044

The Blinding of Polyphemus, by Pellegrino Tibaldi, 1550-1551

The Odyssey, the Aeneid, and other similar Classical stories set the stage for (or, more likely, revealed parallel cultural evolution in) Celtic stories such as the legends of Cuchulainn and Beowulf and King Arthur, or Arabic stories like Sinbad the Sailor in the Thousand and One Nights. This introduces a minor complication to my constructed through-line of the adventure story, in that the earlier Classical stories I cited were singular and self-contained, while the medieval ones are looser. The Odyssey is one continuous story with a beginning, ending, and continual forward progress in between, while Arthur or Robin Hood or Sinbad stories can be read out of order and independent of each other, having introduced and resolved their problem within the same story. But I would argue that the older Classical stories, and our own example Pericles, are also more or less episodic. While they are all marching towards a coherent goal (reunification with family, escaping Antiochan assassins, founding of Rome, etc), each of their individual adventures happens in a vacuum, and the accompanying stories can be told without any more backstory than “Pericles discovered himself shipwrecked”. The more you know about the character the better you’ll understand his actions, just like the more stories you’ve read featuring Gawayne or Alan-a-dale the better handle you’ll have on them, but the stories themselves are designed to be enjoyable without any context.

Alan_A_Dale

Alan-a-dale from Disney’s Robin Hood (1973). I will never pass up an opportunity to include a picture from this movie in the blog.

We can trace this kind of story all the way to the 20th century, and one of my all-time favorite genres; the pulp adventure story. It is really here that we see the pinnacle of the Fantastic Adventure take hold, embodied by characters like Tarzan, Solomon Kane, and Conan. These stories are utterly episodic; consequences seldom carry over from adventure to adventure, new allies and enemies alike are killed by the end of the story, and the hero finds himself in the exact situation he was in at the beginning. Looking forward and expanding your definitions a bit you can see this tradition continued in the original Star Trek, where no story lasted longer than two episodes. Clearly the Fantastic Adventure has got some legs.

James T Kirk

William Shatner as Captain James T. Kirk, from Star Trek (1966-1969)

‘Why does this matter?’, I can hear you asking. ‘What’s so important about Pericles being an adventure story that you felt the need to say a thousand words about it at us?’ Aside from that I think it’s super neat to be able to trace a genre from the fires of a Greek basileus or Saxon mead-hall, through the Middle Ages, across the boards of the Globe Theatre, all the way to Conan the Cimmerian and Captain Kirk, it represents an unusual departure in form from Shakespeare’s usual style. Unlike Shakespeare’s other plays, which create a single problem which is resolved by the end of the play, Pericles allows the audience to accompany the protagonist as he encounters and solves multiple problems. [Stay tuned later in the week for a potential reason this play is conceptually unique in Shakespeare’s canon -KH] We get to see our hero deal with a number of different situations, romantic, tragic, comic, and absurd, before the story concludes. We have a chance to get to know Pericles better than any other Shakespearean character, because we see more of his life than anyone else.

If YOU’D like to get to know Pericles better, your chance is coming soon! Tickets are on sale NOW and performances begin this Wednesday the 16th! I’ll be there, you should be too! Won’t you come on an adventure with us?

Pericles, Prince of Tyre: The Greek Connection

Happy May, everybody! Dramaturge and blogslave Keith Hock, back again as promised to satisfy that cliffhanger/teaser from my first blog post in almost the amount of time I said I would take to do it! No, not the cryptic “George Wilkins” aside (hold on just a little longer for that), the other one, right at the end. Yeah, that Greek thing. Despite my rejoinder last time to not place too much weight on the specific locations where the show takes place I believe that there is a lot to unpack in the Hellenistic setting and time period of this play, possibly more than in any of Shakespeare’s other plays (with the exception of the Histories, including Julius Caesar and Anthony & Cleopatra, for obvious reasons).

THIS IS GOING TO BE ONE OF THOSE BLOG POSTS WITH SPOILERS FOR A 400-YEAR-OLD PLAY BY THE MOST FAMOUS WRITER IN HISTORY, SO IF YOU DON’T WANT THE ENDING REVEALED NOW WOULD BE A GOOD TIME TO STOP READING. ALSO I WILL BE REFERRING TO DIANA AND THE ‘GREEK’ GODS IN THE SAME SENTENCE, I KNOW DIANA IS THE ROMAN NAME, I DIDN’T WRITE THIS PLAY, TAKE YOUR PEDANTRY UP WITH SHAKESPEARE

Most of Shakespeare’s plays could happen in a vacuum. As I’m certain I’ve discussed before, the majesty of the Bard lies neither in his plotting, nor his set dressing, but in the language and psychology. Hamlet could happen anywhere that men are depressed and isolated, Lear and the (other) Romances wherever you can find daughters and their aging fathers. Just about every Italian play is set there because the Italians made it to the Renaissance first and wrote all the stories and plays that Shakespeare stole and improved (seriously, the cultural weight, if not the political significance, of the Italian peninsula between the Renaissance and the First World War cannot be overstated). Titus Andronicus is really just a show about family. Macbeth gains something (possibly something vaguely racist and clannish) from its Scottish setting but Kurosawa pretty concretely proved that that story has legs elsewhere with Throne of Blood. So why do I give this show so much more credit for its setting?

 

Toshiro Mifune

Toshiro Mifune as Taketoki Washizu, from Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (1957)

 

If you’ve been a long-time reader of the blog, or you read the title or the introductory paragraph of this post, you may have guessed the answer already. It should come as no surprise that I attach a lot of value to ancient Greek literature, particularly the Tragedies. As one of the cornerstones of Western art and quite possibly THE basis for the tradition of theatre I do not think my passion and respect for them is overblown, though some of my colleagues disagree. I have regular tantrums reasoned and mature discussions at pitch meetings over why I’m not allowed to stage a full mask-and-chorus Oresteia in one of our season slots or do a Seven Against Thebes/Prometheus Bound heraldry-and-pyrotechnics showcase as a fundraiser. My colleagues’ [correct -ed.] insistence on how unstageable, unmarketable, and unapproachable these shows are to a modern audience notwithstanding, their influence on the medium cannot be ignored. Since Shakespeare was probably about as smart as me I bet he thought the same thing. I believe that he took advantage of the Hellenistic setting of Pericles to consciously explore the tropes that typify Greek theatre, as a combination homage and experimental update.

There are two related Ancient Greek tropes that in my opinion really stand out in Pericles. The first is the intercession of the divine, a hallmark of Greek tragedies but few and far between in Shakespeare’s work (to my recollection the only other physical manifestations of gods in his plays are Jupiter in Cymbeline, which is basically a ‘Greatest Hits’ of Shakespeare’s other works, and Hecuba in Macbeth, whose appearance may have been a later addition to the play). Diana’s appearance in the penultimate scene mirrors the tendency of the Greek gods to appear out of nowhere at the end of the tragedies to resolve the plot, a trope so prevalent that it gave us the idiom deus ex machina, the god out of the machine, to describe an extraordinary and unearned conclusion to a story. The god in question would then explain why whatever cruelty they have inflicted on the hero and his family was justified, more or less because they said so and the whims of the gods are irresistible. The action Diana takes at the end of our play, to reunite the long-suffering Pericles with his wife and thereby turn his fortunes from miserable to joyous, does not strike me as very in-character for the notoriously virginal Diana, nor for the petty and vindictive Greek gods as a whole, but I suppose Shakespeare should get at least as much credit as I gave Racine for the need to update for new audience sensibilities. Besides, Pericles ISN’T a tragic hero; he isn’t being punished for his hubris, he is just an adventurer at the mercy of the gods.

Deus Ex

Box art for Eidos’ Deus Ex, (2000) Surely that is what this game was about.

 

Which conveniently segues us into the second trope, part of which I mentioned above; the inexorable will of the divine, and it being indistinguishable from fortune or luck. To the Greeks there was no such thing as random chance; all luck, either good or bad, was interpreted as the will of the gods. And they were completely helpless to the whims of fortune. Once the gods decide something (usually something bad), the decision is made. When Ajax figures out that Athena wants him dead, he kisses his wife goodbye, gives his son Eurysaces his famous shield, which is ALSO named Eurysaces, and trundles himself off to the beach to fall on his sword; his desires mean nothing, even to himself, in the face of Athena’s decree. Pericles seems to buy in completely to this philosophy [though many of the other characters, Marina especially, seem less on board with this fatalism, as we discussed in our dramaturgy rehearsal -KH]. Both Pericles himself and the omniscient narrator (thoroughly We Happy Few-ified for this production) tell us multiple times, in multiple scenes, that Pericles is utterly at the mercy of fortune. He accepts with equimanity both his marooning and the death of all his men by shipwreck and the miraculous recovery of his ancestral armor in the space of a single scene, and he attributes both his wife’s wooing and apparent demise to “the powers above us”, which “We cannot but obey”. It is not that Pericles has no agency; he just accepts that there are some things beyond his control and works to navigate AROUND those increasingly-common reversals of fortune in his life.

This is obviously not the only time that Shakespeare toyed with fate: I could write another entire blog post about the prophecy in Macbeth, and Romeo famously shrieks that he is “Fortune’s fool” after killing Tybalt. But Macbeth spends his entire play trying to game his prophecy, and Romeo is a 19-year-old in love, with more than his share of the accompanying self-involvement, while Pericles knows FOR CERTAIN that the gods are toying with him and is just trying to roll with the punches and see where he lands. By explicitly making Pericles the gods’ plaything Shakespeare had the opportunity to write a character who was made to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, just as Heracles and Oedipus and Odysseus and the other tragic heroes of antiquity would. Except Shakespeare, perhaps tired of killing his darlings, gets to engineer a happy ending.

To some of you this connection may feel like a stretch, to which I say get bent, why don’t you write your own blog if you’re so smart, why? Shakespeare’s plays are riddled with classical allusions and can be sourced to everything between Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Brittaniae, Boccaccio’s Decameron, the Iliad, Plutarch, and (apocryphally) Don Quixote. It seems unlikely, almost impossible, that he WOULDN’T be familiar with the tragedians given the breadth of his knowledge. Indeed, the hubristic downfall of his tragic heroes offers some pretty solid evidence of their influence on him. Besides, Pericles comes near the end of his career, when he was getting experimental with a new style. The similarities are too close, and they add too much to the play, for me to ignore. If you’re still not convinced, come see the show for yourself in a few weeks and try to change my mind! Tickets are available now!