Lovers’ Vows: Melodrama

Tonight is the night! It’s time for Opening Night, to reintroduce Elizabeth Inchbald and Lovers’ Vows to the world of theatre, where they both belong. We are thrilled for the opportunity to share this play with you all and to restore Inchbald’s reputation as a master of the stage. It is difficult now, having lived and breathed this show for months, to imagine how this play could have vanished, largely remembered only as ‘the play in Mansfield Park’, considering how much fun it IS, how popular and controversial it WAS, and how illuminating that controversy and by extension the play as a whole is into the gender politics of the time, especially considering that it was written by a woman [you’ll have to read my dramaturgy notes for a fuller but still laughably incomplete exploration of that controversy -KH]. I do have a guess as to why it may have been cast aside, however, and very conveniently for me and fortunately for you it is an explanation that dovetails nicely with an element of our staging that I can call out and discuss with you. That idea, of course, is the Melodrama. I think that the formulaic nature of melodramas makes it easy for people to underestimate and ignore them, and I think that the elements of melodrama in Lovers’ Vows may have unjustly hurt its reputation in the historical record.

What do I mean by melodrama? It is one of those words that is easier to understand through examples than by definition, but the core elements are exaggerated characters, obvious plot points, outsized reactions, and utter sincerity in production. It has some elements, the exaggerated character types and formulaic plot structure, in common with Italian commedia dell’arte, Spanish siglo de oro, and Japanese Noh plays. Lovers’ Vows is not a full melodrama (see our director Kerry McGee’s director notes for more information about the line that it walks) but it shares some of these traits with the pseudogenre. It is not as by-the-numbers as some of Inchbald’s earlier plays, in which she used descriptor names to indicate the morality and traits of the characters; a common form of literary shorthand you may recognize from, among other places, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, in which the villain is named Chillingworth [no offence to any readers named Chillingworth, but it is an objectively sinister name -KH]. But the play is no mystery, and while surprises by the handful are in store for the characters, the audience is unlikely to be shocked by any of the revelations. It is a style that rewards fidelity to structure, that draws energy and humor from its rigidity to form.

And if you know anything about our approach to staging challenges, and specifically my analysis of our approach to staging challenges, is that we love to Lean In. Finding what makes a play tick and emphasizing it. In this case what makes the play tick is traditional execution. So we are executing the play traditionally.

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From We Happy Few’s 2019 production Lovers’ Vows. L-R: Jessica Lefkow as Agatha, Lee Ordeman as Baron Wildenhaim, Jack Novak as Frederick, Gabby Wolfe as Amelia, Alex Turner as Anhalt. Photo by Mark Williams Hoelscher.

We are putting the show in a straight proscenium, no tricky inversions or thrust configurations or in-the-round shenanigans. A proscenium focuses the audience’s attention on the stage, paints the same picture to every member of the audience, defines the playing space, contains the action. This show doesn’t want to conceal anything or trick the audience, leave ambiguity about where the action is taking place or what is motivating a choice. It wants to hide information from its characters but make that information abundantly clear to the audience. So our proscenium emphasizes the reality of the world on stage and reassures the viewer that they can trust their perceptions and their assumptions. And, more importantly, that they can trust us.

We are playing in period costumes. No ambiguity about the time or place that the play is inhabiting; we want it to be abundantly clear that we are in rural Germany in the mid to late 1700s. More importantly and unusually for us, we also have no on-stage quick changes. Everyone is who they are. We don’t want the audience to spend time or energy thinking about who or what else a character could become, we want them to focus on who they are and what they are doing in the moment. Unlike many of our shows, everything on stage is exactly as it seems, and our clarity in costuming emphasizes that the audience should trust their senses and us, the players, to deliver on their expectations of the world we are inhabiting.

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From We Happy Few’s 2019 production of Lovers’ Vows. Background: Jessica Lefkow as Agatha. Foreground: Jack Novak as Frederick. Photo by Mark Williams Hoelscher.

Melodramas and other form-driven plays live or die by their execution. The point isn’t to surprise the audience with revelations, it is to reward their understanding of story structure and impress them with the clarity and fidelity with which the story is implemented. I think we’ve done a pretty good job of establishing the world of Lovers’ Vows, introducing and typifying the inhabitants, and delivering exactly the kind of story that Elizabeth Inchbald wanted to share with the world. But I am a little biased. It is up to you, the audience, to judge if our execution is up to snuff, so I encourage you to join us and see for yourself.

Lovers’ Vows: Biography Lesson

Hello again, devoted fans! We are into tech rehearsals for Lovers’ Vows, and I think it is past time to offer some introductions. Last time we spoke I mentioned our author, the criminally underappreciated Elizabeth Inchbald, and promised that I would at another time give you some greater insight into her super cool life. Well, I am happy to announce that ‘another time’ is Now! Please join me on a whirlwind tour of the life of Elizabeth Inchbald: actress, playwright, novelist, critic, and our current Muse.

Elizabeth Inchbald was born Elizabeth Simpson in 1753, the eighth of nine children, to a Catholic farming family in Suffolk, England. Coming from a large middle-class family she lacked the advantages of a formal education, but was taught at home by her mother and myriad older sisters. She demonstrated an early interest in theatre, in part as a tool to help her combat a speech impediment, but her early attempts to join a local company met with neither family support nor success. Undeterred, she ran away from home at age 18 and joined her brother, working actor George Simpson, in London. In spite of her early failure she was able to make a living on the stage, although her stutter continued to plague her and may have kept her from a breakout success. The following year, at age 19, she entered into a loveless marriage with Joseph Inchbald, an unremarkable actor twice her age with two illegitimate sons who she had met on a previous trip to London [Joseph, not the sons. Well, maybe the sons. But Joseph for sure -KH] and maintained a correspondence and “the strongest friendship” with. This marriage seems pretty obviously to have been one of safety and convenience for her. Certainly a husband in her field would open up new networks and opportunities for her, and having a husband of ANY sort would offer her at least some protection from the unwanted advances of unscrupulous managers and all manner of other creeps. But their significant age difference, the absence of children of their own, and regular arguments about money and Joseph’s drinking and other extracurriculars do not paint a picture of a joyous union. What’s more, every single biography I’ve seen makes a point of how tall, slender, attractive, red-haired, and well-read her and all 5 of her sisters were, and while I’m well aware that love is blind and ‘leagues’ don’t exist, it seems like she could have done better.

1280px-Mrs_Joseph_Inchbald,_by_Thomas_Lawrence

These biographies weren’t wrong. Just strangely insistent I know it. Painting by Thomas Lawrence, 1796.

Having hitched her wagon to the plodding mule of Joseph Inchbald’s career, the two of them toiled in obscurity for some time, working for a touring company in Scotland where Elizabeth honed her talents in ingenue roles such as Cordelia, Desdemona, and Juliet. In 1776 they had the spectacularly ill-advised idea to move to France, where Joseph would learn to paint and Elizabeth would break into the French acting scene. This did not pan out and they were forced to return to England, penniless, after a month, and there join a theatre company in Liverpool. While in Liverpool Elizabeth met actress Sarah Siddons and her brother the soon-to-be-famous actor and manager John Philip Kemble, with whom she would remain lifelong friends. After a few more years of yeomanlike work in regional theatres across the country, Joseph Inchbald had the good sense to die suddenly and unexpectedly in 1779.

His death seems for whatever to have been the trigger that Elizabeth needed. Whether through freeing her from the physical and emotional labor of supporting her husband, or simply by impressing upon her the fragility of life, she began to thrive in the years following his death. She would never remarry and rebuffed many proposals, including from the Earl of Carmarthen, but there was little evidence to suggest she stayed single out of obligation to Joseph. Elizabeth continued to act, in 1780 playing Bellario in John Fletcher’s Philaster [which I mention only because source after source keeps telling me how good she looked in the pants she wore for this cross-dressing role -KH]. But, much more importantly for our purposes, she began to write. In 1784, after years of rejections, one of her plays (The Mogul’s Tale; or, the Descent of the Balloon) that she wrote under an assumed name saw production and success at Covent Garden. She promptly owned up to it, presumably causing spit-takes and popped-out monocles across the nation. Once the seal was broken and her bona fides as a writer established, her career rapidly progressed, writing almost twenty plays (among them our own Lovers’ Vows) and two novels in the 1780s and ‘90s. [These novels, A Simple Story and Nature and Art, are apparently what she is best known for, but we here at We Happy Few are hoping to change THAT -ed.] By 1789 she was successful enough to retire from the stage, enter high society, and make her living entirely as a playwright, and by the end of the century she was able to retire from THAT and live solely as a critic and socialite.

Inchbald regarded it as an obligation to turn critic and editor, believing that she owed something to the theatrical community which had given her so much. She seemed to have taken that obligation seriously, writing for the well-respected Edinburgh Review, and in 1806 she was commissioned by the publisher Thomas Longman to write introductions for The British Theatre, a series of 125 plays from the 16th-18th centuries, a substantial honor and vote of confidence for any playwright. Not content to run solely in theatrical circles, she was a well-known feature in London’s social and philosophical scene and counted among her friends author Maria Edgeworth, journalist and notorious Jacobin Thomas Holcroft, the aforementioned John Kemble, and noted philosopher [and the father of We Happy Few’s goth mom Mary Shelley -KH] William Godwin, with whom she had a nasty and confusing falling-out in the late 1790s over his marriage to Mary Wollstonecraft, of whose affair and child with noted American creep Gilbert Imlay Inchbald did not approve.

In her final decade Inchbald turned inward, retreating from high society and rediscovering her long-neglected Catholic faith. She maintained correspondence with her friends, especially Maria Edgeworth, and worked on her memoirs which have unfortunately been lost to the sands of time (or, specifically, the flames of her confessor, who unaccountably advised that she destroy them), but spent much of her time in contemplative seclusion. She died in 1821 at the age of 68.

My main takeaway from Elizabeth Inchbald’s life, aside from that she is incredible and that everyone should know her name and her work, are the virtues of persistence and tenacity. She overcame parental disapproval and a speech impediment to achieve her dream of acting professionally, made the best of a bad marriage to hone her theatrical talents, didn’t take ‘no’ for an answer until she got her plays and prose published, and wedged herself into an artistic and societal niche that she then forced open so wide that fame, fortune, and respect could not help but fall in. That her name is not as well known as Jane Austen, Ann Radcliffe, the Brontë sisters, Mary Shelley, or her own friend Maria Edgecombe as a formative writer of the late Georgian period is an unaccountable flaw in history, and it is my sincere hope that our production of one of her finest works will do some small part in restoring her name to the theatrical consciousness. If you’d like to assist me and my colleagues in this idiosyncratic venture, please purchase tickets HERE and join us!

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.

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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]

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“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.

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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!

Confusion Now Hath Made His Masterpiece

Hello everybody! We are halfway through the run of our critically acclaimed Macbeth, and you know what that means! I am finally free to discuss some of the staging decisions that we made, instead of focusing on tangential aspects of the show’s history or our concept for it. Instead of discussing the play Macbeth, I can discuss our production of Macbeth. Which is very exciting, because I’ve wanted to discuss this topic since I walked into the theatre for tech rehearsal and saw the stage for the first time.

This show actually has one of our more traditional stagings. I think it is the closest we’ve ever gotten to actually using even the suggestion of a proscenium [don’t tell Hannah I said that or she’ll fly back here and re-stage it -KH]. All we did is turn the theatre around. And I can imagine, if this is your first experience in the space at CHAW, you might not notice that anything is different. But if you’re familiar with that theatre, and you walked in and saw the room rotated 180 degrees, and then took a seat on the stage, where you normally watch the action happen, and watched the actors moving up and down on the risers that you normally sit on…its a profoundly disorienting sensation. It isn’t disorienting in the ‘takes you out of the world of the play’ way, our space is still recognizable as a stage. Only its backwards, and that feels…wrong.

I don’t mean to imply that the staging makes the audience complicit in the action, or suggest that in fact THEY are the ones who are being watched. There is certainly space in Macbeth to explore both of those ideas; any show that features violence inherently makes the argument that its watching audience at least passively approves of the violence, and the Weird Sisters’ nebulous existence in the universe of the show (along with, metatextually, its built-in audience of ghosts) give the enterprising Panopticon enthusiast enough ammunition to do themselves some serious harm. But our show doesn’t bear out either of those interpretations. We are much more interested in the sense of unfamiliarity that the change engenders, with the idea of losing control of your surroundings and losing touch with reality.

WHF_MacBeth-13

Danny Cackley as Macbeth. From We Happy Few’s 2019 production of Macbeth. Photo by Mark Williams Hoelscher.

On a less meta-theatrical, more staging level, our establishment of an actual set, with a chair and empty picture frames on the wall and all that, is ripe with opportunities for disorientation. It is easy to understand how the stage can be Duncan’s (later Macbeth’s) throne room and the Macbeths’ sitting room. It’s not that far of a stretch to make it the Macduff estate and Macbeth’s banquet hall, as well. But when the stage is supposed to be the witches’ heath, or England, or Birnam Wood, it becomes a little more…incongruous. Certainly on one level the central presence of the throne makes a straightforward point about the dominating power the kingship holds over the play as a whole. But on a less metaphorical level, the throne doesn’t belong there. The picture frames don’t belong there. It creates a cognitive dissonance, a sense of confusion about where we really are. A simple blackbox would be less confusing, because the audience would be forced to imagine ALL of the set pieces and environs. But instead, this design forces the audience to un-see portions of the set, to ignore what their eyes are telling them is right there.

Messing with the playing space is only one of the ways we played with a sense of discomfort, disorientation, and confusion in this show. Much has been made of our sound design for this performance, and all of it deserved. Sound is a tempting and powerful but notoriously difficult beast to harness for this sort of disorienting performance [I speak from 4 long years of college soundboard operating experience -KH]. Many companies, ourselves often included, will shy away from a concept so reliant on pre-recorded sound, eschewing it as both high-risk and insufficiently…earthy, DIY, visceral, actor-generated, however you prefer to conceive that in your mind. But sometimes, like for this show, the risk is worth the reward, because it allows you to blur the line between diegetic and nondiegetic sound. If a character brings a drum on stage and bangs it, everyone else on stage can and must hear it. But when the sound of a drum just…starts…playing, it is open for interpretation who, if anyone, can hear. And if a character can hear something the audience can hear, but the rest of the cast can’t, what else are they aware of? Can they see the audience too? The miracle of pre-recorded sound also opens the door for all manner of shenanigans about who is speaking, and where the sounds are coming from. When Macbeth hears his wife’s voice on the wind, or his own, whispering to him about a title he has not yet earned, he is understandably unsettled. When we in the audience see a character in front of us, and then hear their voice coming from behind us, we are likewise discomfited.

But let’s set aside the technical aspects of the show for a second and examine how the text and action also push and disorient us. This show intentionally tells us very little about the passage of time. We have no idea how long Macbeth reigned. In the source material, Holinshed’s Chronicles, Macbeth had a reasonably prosperous 10-year reign before being overthrown, but in the play we are given no clues how much time passes. We know that the assassination happens a few days after the prophecy, and we are given to understand that Macbeth’s coronation takes place shortly thereafter, but nothing after that. This can be seen as an issue with the text, and is often a problem in other productions; Macbeth has a reputation for dragging in the second half, as it wades through interminable meandering paranoia with no clear sense of time. Macbeth could have reigned for years, and it certainly feels like it sometimes. But when you cut a show down to 90 minutes that meandering suddenly picks up a breakneck pace. You’re still lost, but it feels much more frantic. Instead of losing momentum in the wake of his ascendency, our Macbeth gains it, hardly taking his seat on the throne before he begins to worry about the threat allegedly posed by Banquo, and then can barely turn around but he runs to the forest to learn new things to fear from the witches, desperately trying to stay one step ahead of the doom at the end of his prophecy. It feels like the entire show happens in a bare handful of days. Instead of the lack of time sense dragging the play down, our production leans into it and allows it to mean that almost no time has passed. Like running headlong down a hill with no way to stop and no idea what’s at the bottom, Macbeth hurdles through the second half of the play, having unwittingly surrendered control of himself to his ambition. And the audience finds themselves dragged with him, trying to catch up or at least catch a breath as the play rushes to the end, only to SLAM into “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow”, when it drops back to a well-deserved crawl for its final scenes, a final moment of emotional clarify for Macbeth but a tremendously disorienting snap of pacing whiplash for the audience.

All of these things, the sound and the set and the timing, all serve to disorient the audience and keep them on their toes. Some might say that trying to confound and discomfit the audience is a bad thing, but Brecht and I would argue otherwise. We aren’t quite going for a Brechtian level of alienation in this production but we’re certainly in the same ballpark. But aside from arguments of theatre as a tool of class pedagogy, this is a play full of magic, ghosts, witches, and unintended consequences. It should be difficult and unnerving, and it should keep you off balance. Macbeth’s actions have disrupted nature itself; the night of Duncan’s murder the world is shaken with wind, thunder, and lightning, and his horses EAT each other. Macbeth’s sin has thrown very world off balance, as the creators of Macbeth’s world on the stage it is our responsibility to mirror that imbalance however possible. If you think it sounds fun to be disoriented and confused by the staging of one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays, why don’t you come see it? We’ve got a show TONIGHT, and more shows until March 30th! I hope to see you there!

I Dare Do All That May Become A Man

Hey folks. Tonight is opening night, we’ve gotten through our previews, so I think it’s time for us to talk about something a little more serious, but relevant and necessary to understand for this show. Unfortunately not everything can be ghosts and magic and basketball; sometimes I have to provide more concrete context. And sometimes that context isn’t about something fun or old-timey, but is instead a dangerous and insidious real world problem that gave us an anchor point for the concept of this production. A problem like, for example, toxic masculinity. That’s right, I’m going to talk about the pernicious influence of masculinity on men, and the way that it impacts and can be identified in Macbeth, for 1500 words. If you’d rather not engage with this topic, first of all I don’t blame you, and second, why don’t you read this piece about acknowledging artifice on stage that I wrote a few years ago, and pretend we’re talking about that instead. It’ll still be relevant and it WON’T be a bummer!

Since you’re alive and Online in this, the Year of Our Lord Two Thousand and Nineteen, I’m certain you’re at the least aware of toxic masculinity. But in the interest of clarity it is helpful to define our terms anyway. Toxic, or hegemonic, masculinity is a restrictive and dangerous understanding of what it means to be a man, typified by the deadening of any emotion but anger, the demonstration of sexual prowess, an all-but-solipsistic view of the world, the necessity of being a dominant figure in the world around you, and the willingness, if not open eagerness, to impose that dominance through physical violence. It is also referred to as hegemonic masculinity, since (as a casual look at our society will no doubt demonstrate) it is and long has been the dominant force in the Western world. Ceaselessly upheld by just about every institution in existence, it is ubiquitous to the point that it has until recently been invisible, “just the way things worked”.

Trump Tantrum

Picture unrelated.

A necessary aspect of this culture is the denigration of those who do not fall into this carefully curated vision of manliness and a need to rebuke or correct them for their transgressions, preferably through the application of the aforementioned violence. Any such rejection of the values of toxic masculinity is regarded as what you might call gender treason, an admission of personal weakness, and an existential threat to the concept of manhood. It is, as you see, an extraordinarily fragile worldview, requiring near-constant external affirmation and outright antagonism towards other beliefs. For our purposes there are three main facets of toxic masculinity to consider: the death of feeling, self-policing, and its performative nature. Fortunately we are observing this through the lens of Macbeth and not that of Titus Andronicus, so I do not have to engage in this blog with the truly monstrous sexual violence that comes part and parcel with a need to dominate your surroundings, a hypersensitivity to perceived slights, and the arrogance of unacknowledged privilege.

[Side note: As a straight white cis man it seems to me that I am either the best or the worst person to talk about this subject, but since I’m the one whose job it is to write these blogs let’s defer to my lived experience in it instead of disqualifying me for my potential for blind spots. -KH]

Of all these aspects of toxicity, the murder of emotion is the one most harmful to the men themselves, as well as the aspect that can be most clearly observed in the character of Macbeth. Acknowledging feelings, and sharing those feelings with friends and loved ones, is feminine, and therefore weak. A real man doesn’t expose their weaknesses, and he ESPECIALLY doesn’t complain about how he’s feeling. The strong man is strong enough to bear any torment. And if he isn’t he suffers in silence, until he can take his revenge, because anger is the only acceptable emotion. This puts an often-unbearable weight on men to pretend they have no feelings, until either they’ve successfully killed their emotional sides, find a way to convert any emotion into rage, or snap and commit suicide.

Macbeth gives us a wonderful pair of examples of this attitude late in the show, from Macbeth and Macduff. Upon learning of his wife’s death, Macbeth responds with his most famous soliloquy, “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow”, which gives us a peek into the nihilism, desolation, and apparent death wish that now make up his psyche. Macbeth’s soul has been so consumed by his desire for domination and strength that he cannot summon up a tear or a sweet word for his wife and partner. Gone is the passionate lover, the loyal retainer, the man who joked with his friend Banquo; all replaced by a brief candle, lighting the way to dusty death. By contrast, Macduff makes no secret of the terrible depths of his emotion when he learns of HIS wife’s death, and when he is enjoined to “Dispute it like a man” by Malcolm, Macduff counters that a real man can, will, and must embrace his feelings. This exchange is riddled with Malcolm’s repeated insistence that Macduff man up, pull himself together, and use his grief to fuel his rage. There has been no hint at any point elsewhere in the play that Macduff is weak, but this display of emotion so upsets and discomfits Malcom that he demands, over and over, that Macduff stop crying and “[l]et grief convert to anger.”

This could not be a more perfect example of the self-policing that men do. It is very important to note that there is no outside observer setting or enforcing these standards, nor a biological imperative driving men to execute these masculine traits, despite what its proponents may lead you to believe. Baby boys aren’t born with a need to impose dominance on their surroundings. All of these attitudes and behaviors are learned from, and enforced by, other men. I regularly refer to masculinity as a Death Cult, and while there is no Messianic figure extolling these ‘virtues’ from on high, there is certainly a cultlike internal enforcement of these values between men. Look shortly before the banquet scene, when Macbeth recruits a “Murtherer”, whatever that is, to do his dirty work for him. Macbeth is able to provoke the assassin into action by calling his manliness into question, noting that there are as many different kinds of ‘men’ as there are dogs, and taunting him into proving his masculinity.

Macbeth Assassin

L-R: Dylan Fleming as Murderer, Danny Cackley as Macbeth. From We Happy Few’s 2019 production of Macbeth. Photo by Mark Williams Hoelschler.

And the fact that this taunt works on the killer proves that, because it is entirely self-policed and self-defined, how performative toxic masculinity of necessity has to be. It’s a race to the bottom in an echo chamber, where every man assumes they are being judged by every other man and they must demonstrate their bona fides to each other at all times, lest they be outed and ridiculed, at best, for not being real men. It is the sort of thing that, in our society, leads men to feign interest in sports instead of poetry, or drink brown liquor instead of fruit-heavy cocktails, or wear nothing but utilitarian earth tones. And it is the sort of thing that Macbeth proves time and again. When Siward refuses to mourn his son’s death because he died fighting, he is performing his manliness. When Macbeth would rather die than be taken captive and be forced to kneel before Malcolm, he is performing his manliness. When he is frightened by the ghost of Banquo at the banquet, Macbeth angrily lists his credentials, all the things he isn’t afraid of, as evidence that this apparition is hideous enough to even frighten a MAN.

This show also clearly demonstrates that belief in the cult is not limited to men. Women can and often do buy in to the rules that men are expected to abide by. In that banquet scene it is not one of the male guests, but rather Lady M who calls Macbeth on being “quite unmann’d in folly”, and when he gets cold feet before the murder she is there to coax him into manly action. Lady Macbeth is so on board with this conception of masculinity that she openly laments her misfortune in being a woman, and wishes she were a man, or at the least, “unsex[ed]”, so that she would be allowed to seize the power that her husband apparently struggles with. As a woman she feels these aggressive, ambitious thoughts, but instead of accepting them as part of her personality she wishes she were a man, so those thoughts would be not only acceptable, but normal.

Lady M.jpg

Raven Bonniwell as Lady Macbeth. From We Happy Few’s 2019 Production of Macbeth. Photo by Mark Williams Hoelschler.

This is obviously a tiny, TINY primer on the pervasive danger of toxic masculinity. I have skipped over a lot of the inherent privileges and ALL of the sexual violence that is arguably its most appalling feature. And because I was viewing it through an inherently violent play I left most of the potential for physical violence to be inferred, instead of addressing it directly. But regardless I hope that this will help you interpret the toxic conceptions of masculinity that pervade not only our play, but the world we live in as a whole. If you want to see all of this play out on stage, tickets are available now! We are sold out for the rest of this weekend but the show runs until the end of the month!