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!

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: The Play(wright)’s the Thing

Finally! At last, at long last, I will talk about my mysterious name-drop of George Wilkins in my first blog and my continual hinting that something about it was coming. I wanted to save something special to share with you on opening night, so I’m very excited to finally talk about this with the half-dozen of you who didn’t either already know about it or just googled “George Wilkins Pericles” to find out what I was talking about. [Just kidding. My audience is barely a half-dozen people on a good day, and I know none of you would betray me like that -KH] By the way, if you hear something vaguely sinister while you’re reading this blog post, pay it no mind. It’s just me, putting on war paint and sharpening my knives for a …different discussion we’ll be having later on. But first Wilkins and the question of collaboration.

George Wilkins co-wrote Pericles with Shakespeare. This by itself is, while noteworthy, neither shocking nor scandalous. As I’ve discussed here before, theatre is a team sport. Even the smallest of shows rely on the actors working with the director working with the designers working with the producer…a whole roomful of artists working together to make the best show they can. This process is further compounded when the playwright is in the room, adding another vision and voice to the collaborative process. Shakespeare did not exist in a vacuum, handing down masterpieces from high in his ivory tower. He was an actor and company member in the Lord Chamberlain’s (later the King’s) Men, writing plays for specific people, his friends and colleagues. Early texts of his work occasionally replace character names with the names of the actors who would play them, most notably Will Kemp, the company’s clown. It’s not outside of the realm of possibility to assume that people like Kemp or Richard Burbage or Henry Condell or John Heminges, company members and artists in their own right, would have some feedback on the roles that they would be portraying. There is evidence that Kemp would improvise many of his lines, that Shakespeare would write into his final version. Moreover, Shakespeare was known to collaborate with other writers on both his writing and theirs: Two Noble Kinsmen has both Shakespeare and John Fletcher’s names attached to it, and textual analysis connects Shakespeare with Fletcher, Thomas Middleton, Thomas Kyd, and George Peele at the least. It is not unusual that Pericles would be co-written.

What IS unusual, however, is his choice of collaborators in this circumstance, and the nature of their cooperation. Shakespeare’s other known co-writers were all working writers and poets in their own right. Wilkins was a minor, poorly regarded pamphleteer and middling-successful tavernkeeper and pimp, whose greatest (indeed only) claim to fame was this very collaboration. The circumstances under which Shakespeare came to work with such a man, near the end of his career no less, are unclear. This confusion is amplified by a lack of clarity of HOW the collaboration worked. It is widely accepted that Wilkins wrote the first two acts, and Shakespeare the final three, but whether they wrote as a team, or one edited or re-wrote the other, is also uncertain. Wilkins wrote a novel version of the story, “The Painful Adventures of Pericles”, in 1608, which suggests to me that he also wrote the initial play and Shakespeare reworked it. The style of the writing shows a marked shift at this point, dropping many elements of the Fantastic Adventure I told you about last week and taking on the nascent characteristics of the Shakespearean Romance genre, particularly the separation and reunion of fathers and daughters. These distinctions can be clearly seen within the text itself; what cannot be seen is why or how they happened.

It Is a Mystery

While this mystery of Pericles’ authorship is certainly interesting, and well worth considering while watching the play, it is not really what I wanted to talk to you about. It was just a convenient and obliquely-related entrepot into the REAL discussion I wanted to have with you: authorship conspiracies. There are…theories regarding the veracity of Shakespeare’s claim to be the author of his own work. People question the ability of a countryside glover’s son to create the most compelling literature in the English language, and they have invented progressively outlandish explanations for how someone, ANYONE, who meets their rigorous criteria of “not being William Shakespeare of Stratford-Upon-Avon” was actually the writer. As you might imagine, I have Things to Say about that.

The Warriors Switchblade.gif

From The Warriors, 1979.

 

First of all, Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. End of discussion. Theories to the contrary are based largely on outdated classist assumptions about early modern education and culture. But it wouldn’t be a very informative or entertaining blog post if I just told you that and walked away, so I will dig into some of the prevailing theories a little bit and heap scorn upon them. They are designed (in the manner of conspiracy theories everywhere) to make their adherents feel superior and important, that they have discovered some tremendous mystery that has been kept a secret for hundreds of years. Generally conspiracy theories like this would also advance the interests of their own claimant, but every other name that is suggested was already famous in their own right and none of these theories started until the mid-19th century, two hundred years after everyone involved was dead. It’s worth noting, by the way, that no one denies the EXISTENCE of William Shakespeare the actor and landowner; there is too much extant evidence. Which means all of these theories feature Shakespeare as a willing co-conspirator, publishing someone else’s plays under his own name. These really read more like a smear campaign on Shakespeare than a revelation of hidden knowledge.

The top three conspiracy candidates for authorship are Sir Francis Bacon, Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, and Christopher Marlowe. The first two, Bacon and de Vere, would have been forced to hide their playwriting hobby from their peers, either to avoid humiliation for associating with low-class actors or (it is alleged) to shield themselves from blame for the treasonous and revolutionary content of the plays they were seemingly compelled to write (I’ll cover Marlowe’s reasoning in a second). The fact that two of them, de Vere and Marlowe, were dead for much of Shakespeare’s career is less of a deterrent than you might think. De Vere is handwaved with the excuse that the plays written after his death in 1604 had been completed earlier, and were released intermittently by other members of this ever-growing conspiracy, for reasons passing understanding. For Marlowe, who was stabbed in the head in a bar fight in 1593, it is alleged that…he wasn’t. That instead he killed his assailant that night and fled to Italy where he lived in exile, writing plays which he then sent to England to be published under the name of an actor he once knew there. [this is only one of several conspiracy theories associated with Kit Marlowe, and I unfortunately don’t have the time to get into all of them. Suffice it to say that he would have done this to escape assassins either because his cover as a spy was blown, or his Catholic OR homosexual leanings were discovered -KH] Astonishingly, of these three Bacon, the only one who was alive for the entirety of Shakespeare’s career, is the one whose cause is presently least championed.

 

Pepe Sylvia.jpg

Charlie Day as Charlie Kelly. From It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, season 4, episode 10, “Sweet Dee Has a Heart Attack”, 2008.

 

A major qualifying factor of all three of these candidates for anti-Shakespeareans is that they were university educated, while Shakespeare was not, having completed his formal education at the King’s New School in Stratford at around 14 years old. The education that he would have received at a grammar school certainly could not have prepared him to write so well, the argument goes. This argument underestimates the curriculum of an early modern English grammar school. Far from the middle school education it suggests to modern minds, this level of schooling would be heavy on memorization of the classics and include a grounding in Latin and Greek. Combined with working in the field and, you know, the ability to learn things outside of a formal university setting, there is no reason (aside from mistaken classist assumptions) to disqualify Shakespeare on the grounds of his education. [This also ignores the fact that other contemporary playwrights, including Ben Jonson, were ALSO not educated in a university, but no one casts any aspersions on their existence, making this conspiracy seem more and more like a hatchet job on Shakespeare -KH]

An argument that is not as outrageously inaccurate as the idea that they were written by either a dead man or a philosopher with zero indication of any poetic aspirations, but still staggeringly impossible, is that Shakespeare’s plays were written by a whole coterie of writers. This alleged rogue’s gallery of playwrights includes de Vere, Bacon, Jonson, Cervantes, and Queen Elizabeth I. On the one hand, there is solid and ever-growing evidence that Shakespeare was happy to collaborate. Deep textual analysis and orthographics offer proof that multiple people worked on any number of Shakespeare plays, as I said above, so it is not outside the realm of possibility that multiple people could cooperate to write. On the other hand, every single person that you add to a conspiracy makes the conspiracy that much harder to conceal. As Ben Franklin said, three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead. In order for ANY of these conspiracies to work the mystery author would have to swear to secrecy Shakespeare himself, all of his known collaborators such as Middleton and Fletcher, the members of his company, the publisher, their couriers, and who knows who else. To add an entire secret network of other writers, including a Spaniard and THE QUEEN…the complexity beggars the imagination. That secret would be out in a week. And for what?

Too Many Cooks

I unfortunately do not have the time to go through every single theory that has been posited, including those that mandate an author must experience personally everything that he would write about, that rely on cryptograms, ciphers, and Kabbalah-like word counting, or that suggest secret incest-children of Queen Elizabeth. Occam’s razor by itself should put paid to any theory more complicated than “the name on the manuscript is the name of the author”, but if that test is insufficient, ask yourself how anyone would benefit from the conspiracy, and how they could have kept it a secret for so long, especially if they included hints to prove to the sufficiently motivated that it was them.

 

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If you’d like more information I would recommend this book, which as you can see I flagged so thoroughly while writing this blog post that the flags quickly became completely useless.

 

In case you forgot why I wrote this, like I did halfway through, it’s because we are opening our production of Pericles tonight! We are sold out for tonight’s show but tickets are still available for the rest of our run, so come check it out! And be sure to stay tuned next week, when my contract requires that I write something about the actual play that we are staging.

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!

Pericles, Prince of Tyre: Geography Lesson

Welcome back, everyone! It’s been a while! I’m sorry to abandon you all winter, but, like a bear, We Happy Few needed to take the winter season to hibernate. We are rejuvenated along with the cherry blossoms of our fair city, though, and we are ready to begin preparations for our Spring show. We Happy Few are very excited to bring you all Pericles, Prince of Tyre this season! Tonight is our first rehearsal, which means while everyone else is working very hard in the rehearsal room I get to write about whatever oblique or tangential angle I can find on our play, and then find a way to connect it to our concept. To that end I am looking forward to answering your questions about this comparatively little-known play, starting with “What and where is a Tyre?”

Tyre is a city that used to be an island fortress off the coast of what is now Lebanon. Besides this play it is known for being the birthplace of legendary Carthaginian queen Dido and a stronghold of European crusaders in the 12th and 13th centuries. But it is perhaps most famous for its defiance of Alexander the Great and his…creative response.

Siege of Tyre

Art by Adam Hook, for Ancient Siege Warfare, by Duncan Campbell

Remember how I said earlier that it was once an island? It was actually barely connected to the land by an extremely narrow sandbar which was submerged in water most of the time. This placed the city in an unusually good defensive position when Alexander came a-calling on his mission to conquer the world, and the Tyrians were accordingly disinterested in his overtures. So disinterested, in fact, that they killed his emissaries and threw their bodies off the walls in plain sight of Alexander and his army. Not one to take an insult lying down, and demonstrating his famously pragmatic problem-solving, Alexander ordered the sandbar be enlarged and built up to a causeway allowing his army to march up to the walls and besiege them. This was STILL not enough for the Macedonians to conquer the city, as naval sorties kept his siege engines from making any headway until naval reinforcements from Greece eventually gave him control of the waves and he was finally able to conquer the city. In retribution for their arrogance in fighting for their city and lives he crucified 2,000 and sold the rest of the population into slavery, and then to add insult to injury left his causeway in place. It connects Tyre to the mainland to this day.

You may notice that I did not spend a lot of time actually getting into what is significant about Tyre and why Shakespeare (and George Wilkins [I’ll get to THAT another time-KH]) chose to set this place here. To address that briefly: the obvious and boring reason is that the story Shakespeare plagiarized from Gower based it on, Apollonius of Tyre, dictated that it be so. But like I said that’s not especially interesting, and as you can probably guess from my primary conceit in most of my other blog posts I have something else in mind. Pericles, despite the title of the play, spends comparatively little of his time in Tyre, mainly sailing between and having adventures on and around a handful of islands and ports in the eastern Mediterranean. He ventures to Mytilene and Ephesus on the Turkish coast, to Tharsus and Antioch in the northern Levant, and all the way down to Pentapolis in modern Libya.

Pericles Asimov Map

Illustration by Rafael Palacios, for Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare, by Isaac Asimov

But you won’t find me putting too much analysis into why he visits any of those cities, either. To my mind there is nothing overly significant about any of these locations individually; the important element to examine is the overarching setting of The Mediterranean, or to be even vaguer, The Sea. It is no accident that at different points the story is driven by not one but two distinct storms and a pirate raid.

Moore, Henry, 1831-1895; Rough Weather in the Mediterranean

Rough Weather in the Mediterranean, by Henry Moore, 1874.

And if the physical setting is meant to be vague the timing can be even more so. According to Isaac Asimov the presence of a King Antiochus the Great in the text vaguely establishes a time period of around 200BC, but since there never WAS a Pericles who ruled Tyre the timing can afford to be up in the air. Asimov also whines that ‘Tharsus’ doesn’t exist and is either a bastardization of Tarsus or Thasos, or an entirely made-up city-state, so its possible he was a little overly-concerned with the verisimilitude of this clearly fantastical play. This isn’t a history, like Henry V or Anthony and Cleopatra, where the time period is integral to the play and can be authoritatively nailed down. It is closer to a legendary ‘history’ like Cymbeline or Troilus and Cressida, that has a vague timeline but would be best categorized as ‘A long time ago’ or ‘Once upon a time’. If we must nail down a specific era the only timing that matters is that there be no hegemonic control in the region; for the plot to work all of the city-states, Pentapolis and Antioch and Tyre and Tharsus and Mytilene, all be independent and free to backstab and politic. That means it would have to be either after the Peloponnesian Wars (ended 404 BCE) and before the rise of Alexander the Great (330s-320s) or between the disintegration of Alexander’s empires (~300BCE) and the rise of Roman authority in the Near East (let’s call it 30BCE). This is without even taking into account anachronisms like Transylvanian whores and French johns and Spartan knights with Latin mottoes and clocks […not clocks. Wrong play again, sorry -KH]. The specific time period doesn’t seem to have been especially important for the story that Shakespeare wanted to tell, or we would have a more concrete textual sense of it.

This is not to say that we are meant to be kept off-balance or confused by the setting; only that we are not to put TOO much weight on where the action is meant to be. Pericles and the entire play are constantly in motion, and while I would argue that the Mediterranean/Greek/Hellenistic setting is important (for reasons I will ALSO discuss in a later blog) the continual, overwhelming, and above all unpredictable nature of The Sea is essential to the constant upheaval that typifies this show. I look forward to talking your ears off about this play for the next month until you all agree with me, and then continually bragging about how good it is after it opens in May. Won’t you join me?