The Gallic Temper

Welcome back, everybody! I hope you all had a good summer vacation. But breaktime is over, and it’s time for us to head back into the proverbial classroom with our upcoming staged reading of that High School Literature standby, Cyrano de Bergerac, this Friday. But what could I have to say about that notoriously hot-blooded French musketeer?

Savinien_de_Cyrano_de_Bergerac

Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac, the real man the play was based on. From a painting by Zacharie Hience.

Well, the thing is (and PLEASE don’t tell him I said this), there is nothing really exceptional about Cyrano. He is merely the largest-nosed in a long line of arrogant and impetuous Frenchmen. He may be easier to offend than other men, because he has an obvious and difficult-to-avoid potential sore spot and a willing, nay EAGERNESS to assume any comment, no matter how apologetic or innocuous, is a slight on it. And he is, of a certainty, more dangerous than other men. But he is not the only prideful Frenchman with a black and deadly temper; far from it. Rostand did not invent the choleric French warrior, he simply followed in the path of nearly a thousand years of archetypes.

Perhaps the easiest place to start is with the musketeer, a storied archetype which thrived in the literature of the 19th century and which Rostand was clearly capitalizing on with Cyrano. Alexandre Dumas has given the world perhaps the best-known musketeers in his book The Three Musketeers. Porthos, Athos, and Aramis, the titular musketeers, have an array of different character types, heavyset life of the party   wronged noble/tortured father figure and ambitious ladies’ man, but they are also all musketeers and that means two things: dangerous, and easily offended. [I have personal issues with ‘fat’ being a character type but that’s a matter for another time -KH] The three of them meet the protagonist, D’Artagnan, when he has managed to schedule a duel against all three of them at the same time in the same place, and the foursome become allies after they cut their way out of an attempted arrest. D’Artagnan, you will not be surprised to learn, by the end of the series earns a reputation as the most hot-blooded and renowned musketeer in France. Oh, and fun fact: D’Artagnan is from Gascony, just like Cyrano.

Three Musketeers

I’m pretty sure this is them. [from Disney’s Mickey, Donald, Goofy: The Three Musketeers, 2006.]

I’ve got some more literary evidence but before we wander too far afield (and we’ll be going on a bit of a hike) let’s bring it back to one of our specialities: Shakespeare. Cast your minds back a few months to our Henry V, which I am certain all of you saw. The Dauphin throws tantrum after tantrum and stomps around the stage in a towering rage at all times, and he explicitly claims that his strength and anger comes from his French heritage. About midway though he throws some shade on the phlegmatic English and suggests the French have naturally quicker blood which is, what’s more, “Spirited with wine” and should easily carry them to victory over their cold-blooded foes. The Dauphin is characterized throughout the play by his arrogance, choler, and eagerness to pick a fight. It is his tennis balls which spark the conflict, and he tells Exeter and the audience that he “desire[s] nothing but odds with England!” He is portrayed as a buffoon in the play to draw unfavorable comparison with the slow-to-anger Henry V, but the effectiveness of the character and the specificity with which he hits those clues seems to suggest that there was a stereotype already in place.

 

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L-R: Kiernan McGowan as Henry V, Niusha Nawab as the Dauphin. From We Happy Few’s 2017 production of Henry V. Photo by Tori Boutin.

But where did this stereotype come from, for Shakespeare to have heard of it in the 16th century and for Dumas to embrace it in the 19th? We will need to look back about a century to Thomas Malory and Le Morte D’Arthur, and then immediately back another three centuries to French poet Chrétien de Troyes, who inspired Malory. Before you start, yes, King Arthur is originally a Welsh story and an English king. BUT, it was written at and more importantly ABOUT a time when there was both animosity and commonality across the channel. Remember from THIS that every English king between Harold Godwinson and Henry VII was descended from French Normans. It is no accident that de Troyes, who really couldn’t have a more Medieval French name if he tried, is one of the most important Arthurian poets. Perhaps his most important contribution to the Arthurian mythos, and certainly most relevant for my thesis, was the invention of Sir Lancelot du Lac, widely recognized as the most ardent and heroic knight in the canon of chivalry.

Significantly for my purposes, Lancelot was a native of France. He was raised by the Lady of the Lake in, I guess, Avalon, but he was born in Brittany and it shows. He is the greatest jouster and swordsman at the Round Table from the moment he arrives at age 16, he has a tendency to win fights where he is enormously outnumbered, and his colleagues universally acknowledge that he was in every [apparent] aspect the perfect knight. But, as you doubtless remember from the cultural osmosis by which all people learn about King Arthur without consciously reading any stories, he also had a pretty major flaw in the shape of an affair with Arthur’s wife Guinevere. And when his secret is discovered, instead of acknowledging his mistake and accepting their punishment, he allows his pride to get the better of him, kills a dozen of his fellow knights and saves the queen, throwing the nation into civil war over a crime that is certainly romantic but is also unequivocally his fault. Lancelot represents a chivalric morality that seems complex to us but would make absolute sense to the Dauphin, and D’Artagnan, and Cyrano himself.

Bigger Lancelot

Lancelot, by Howard Pyle. For Tennyson’s The Lady of Shallot, 1881. I like this picture of Lancelot because he looks Chinese.

 

Even for Lancelot, however, there is a suggestion that his being FROM France would be meaningful to the readers, otherwise it serves no purpose. Lancelot can trace his own literary heritage back to the Chanson de Roland, the final in a series of stories about Charlemagne’s nephew Roland and his companions the Paladins. Charlemagne’s army is marching back to France from Spain when they are betrayed and ambushed by a Moorish army. Roland has the rearguard but refuses to call for help from the main army for fear of being labelled a coward. He does finally blow his famous horn Olifant and call for aid vengeance after his forces’ destruction is assured. [sidenote: Roland isn’t actually killed by the Saracens, he dies because he blew the horn so hard he broke his own skull. Hand to God. -KH] Roland and his Paladins are widely regarded as the origin and gold standard for literary examples of chivalric behavior, and I don’t think it unreasonable to claim that every other character in this blog owes their existence to Roland’s heroic but ultimately selfish sacrifice.

I hope I have proved both that the Impetuous French Warrior exists and that there is something interesting about that fact. We can observe as time passes that interpretation of the archetype changed from prideful and passionate closer to arrogant and ill-tempered; or perhaps we as a culture became less tolerant of pride in our heroes. Both Roland and Lancelot would have been regarded as unequivocal and uncomplicated heroes to their contemporaries, but as time passes we seem to expect more out of our characters. Their characteristics remained largely the same (brave, dangerous, rash, proud) but the way the audiences interpret them has changed from admiration to indulgence/scorn/frustration. Or maybe you think I’m totally off-base and this whole essay you’ve been getting madder and madder at my understanding of your favorite characters. If that’s the case I would implore you to come to the reading tomorrow night and demand satisfaction. You will not find me wanting.

Even if you DO agree with my arguments, though, you should come to the reading at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop at 7:30PM Friday night. And then, the following day, you should come to the Kennedy Center at noon for a portion of our upcoming Dracula in their Page to Stage Festival. Two DIFFERENT We Happy Few events in the same weekend! And you can go to both! For free! How lucky you are!

Until next time I remain, yr humble Blogslave,
K. Hock

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Poe and the Halloween Tradition

Today I want to talk to you about a historic and time-honored Halloween tradition. Something that everyone above a certain age associates with Halloween and Halloween parties. Something you’ll see in many, many Halloween movies. Something that our dear friend Edgar Allan Poe was very familiar with, which he wrote about on more than one occasion. Something that, for many of us, life Halloween would feel incomplete without. I am speaking, of course, of alcohol. So on this spookiest of days, me and this adorable bottle of absinthe I found at the liquor store last week want to share some thoughts about drinking, Poe, our newly adapted Poe piece “A Midnight Dreary”, our upcoming Durham performance thereof, and the way in which those things might be related.

absinthe

Look how little and cute it is!

As I alluded to when last we spoke, Poe had an unfortunate relationship with alcohol. He was unable to control himself in its presence and so he endeavored to teetotal. Unfortunately, the culture of the time regularly found him attending social gatherings where drinking would be expected and he fell from the wagon more than once. While attending these events Poe had a tendency to drink to excess and make a fool of himself, an attribute that he and I share. I can fortunately say that my propensity for blacking out over-imbibing at parties has not seriously damaged my life or prospects, but Mr. Poe cannot say the same, as his drinking problem cost him at least two jobs and twice as many friendships. It is to his credit that he, unlike me (and, hopefully, you), hated the habit and its effect on him and routinely attempted to abstain and distance himself from alcohol, an effort which is no less noble for it having been unsuccessful. I have every confidence that my fine readers can hold their liquor better than poor Edgar, however, and as our upcoming performances are thematically paired with a variety of wines, I encourage you to put the thought of Poe drinking himself to death on the cold autumn streets of Baltimore out of your minds. Contemplate instead how delicious these wines sound, and how appropriately they have been matched by We Happy Few’s Bartender-in-Residence Kerry McGee.

masque-of-red-death-extraordinary-tales

From Extraordinary Tales, 2013. Directed by Raul Garcia.

First on the docket is The Masque of the Red Death, which is, appropriately for a party, matched with a sparking wine. But not just any sparkling wine. This is a SPECIAL party, to celebrate the end of the world, so ordinary champagne or prosecco would never do (also, there’s nothing scary about champagne, unless you’re exceptionally prone to hangovers). This is an almond-flavored sparkling wine, to give it that extra special decadence, that rich little kick of marzipan. But marzipan isn’t the only thing you can make out of almonds, is it? The more morbid of my readers will recall that the taste or smell of bitter almonds is a telltale sign of cyanide, a popular poison you might recognize as the one that brought down Jonestown but failed to kill famed Russian necromancer Rasputin. While the titular Red Death did not manifest as poison in the wine, but rather as a plague on the countryside, we felt the surprise of the almond flavor in the wine makes a fitting match to the uninvited guest who gate-crashes Prince Prospero’s party.

Next up is The Cask of Amontillado. I will give you three guesses as to what wine we chose for this story.

whats-the-word

That’s right. T-Bird.

Nah, we went with the obvious for this one. Amontillado is a Spanish sherry with a sweet nose that does not exactly translate to the taste, which is much drier than you might expect. The variance between the scent and flavor means that this drink comes with an unexpected surprise, just as the sparking wine did. Similar to the sort of surprise you might encounter if a dear friend had told you about a cask of sherry he had purchased and wanted you to verify the quality of, but then instead he got you drunk and walled you up in his basement. Above all I would say Amontillado tastes like revenge, and much like revenge it is best served cold.

For The Tell-Tale Heart we decided to keep up the bait-and-switch flavor profile we used for the other stories, though the third drink is better known and therefore the twist is less surprising than the others. Our wine of choice for this story is Velvet Moon Cabernet Sauvignon from Trader Joe’s, the #1 store for the wino on a budget. [Trader Joe’s sponsor us please! -KH] Velvet Moon, in the nature of Cab Sauvs everywhere, is fruity and full bodied with a hefty dose of tannins. It has the rich color of arterial blood, the full profile of a satisfied obsession, and the bitterness of regret. That is not to say that you will be left unsatisfied by either the drink or the story, merely that the way something starts is seldom the way that it ends. Sometimes your wine turns bitter on your palate, and sometimes the motiveless murder of a dear friend because he had cataracts results in you shrieking your guilt to the police in an effort to expiate yourself and silence the ceaseless pounding of his impossibly-still-beating heart.

tell-tale-heart-fores

The Tell-Tale Heart, by David G. Fores.

If these wines sound interesting to you, especially in connection with these chilling stories, brought to the stage by Raven Bonniwell, Kerry McGee, and Jon Reynolds under the direction of Bridget Grace Sheaff, then please join us for “A Midnight Dreary”, to be performed at Spectre Arts in Durham, North Carolina the evenings of November 11th and 12th. For my thousands of readers in the Raleigh-Durham area this should be an easy trip. For those in the greater DC metro area it is a scant four hour drive, and for those of you in the rest of the country and world, I say to you a journey of ten thousand miles would be a small price to pay to see a show of this caliber. If that travel seems a little much for you, however, then fear not! Lord willing and the creek don’t rise, we will have additional performances of this show in January, here in our nation’s capital. Keep an eye on this space and our website and twitter for additional details as they develop. Honestly it would probably be better to just come down to North Carolina on the 11th or 12th, though.

Until next time, I hope you all have a spooky and responsible-drinking good time tonight. Keep your cell phones charged, be sure to check the back seat for killers, and whatever you do, don’t split up.

Keith Hock

Living Room Reads, a new series brought to you exclusively by WHF!

[Editor’s Note: Regular readers may notice some differences in the writing of this post.  It may seem less arch, less mean, more endearing and warm and positive. That is because a lot of it, and just about 100% of the good parts, were not written by me, Production Manager Keith Hock, but by Assistant Producer Bridget Grace Sheaff, whose spirit we have not crushed yet and who still has some joy in her soul. She has made a terrible, TERRIBLE error by allowing me to discover how good of a writer she is, and I would not be surprised if you saw more of her voice on this blog as I increasingly attempt to shirk my responsibilities and saddle her with writing duties.]

Hello again, fanatical followers of our tremendously popular blog.  I promised I would bring you another post soon, last time, and here one is, right on (intentionally nebulous) schedule.  “What could you have done so soon after your last impeccably-written blog post that would warrant another entry so soon?” you clamor. “You only write about things that you are doing and you haven’t staged anything else or done anything of public note this whole month!” you cry, a trifle judgmentally. “What could the subject of this blog post possibly be?” you shriek to the heavens in terrified confusion.

What we did, long-suffering readers and my only greatest friends in the whole wide world, was gather together a bunch of people, drink some wine, and read a play to each other, because when you work in theatre you have a different definition of the word “fun” than normals have. You see, it may come as a surprise to you, coming from your favorite producers of confusing classical theatre, but We Happy Few is staffed entirely by nerds. You heard me. We embrace it. We welcome it into our lives with a warm smile and a glass of red wine (though we wouldn’t say no to something stronger!) So, when we tell you that we spent our Saturday night sitting around a living room reading Caryl Churchill’s Dream Play out loud, we won’t be offended when you call us nerds, slap the books out of our hands, or push us into some lockers.

Revenge of the Nerds Gif

From “Revenge of the Nerds”, 1984.  Pictured: Ted McGinley and Donald Gibb.

 

If you’ve paid attention to the way we frame this blog in the past, Constant Readers, you should expect that next I would put some words in your mouth purporting to be some questions you have about something I just said, to spare me from having to learn to write actual segues and give me an easy opportunity to introduce our topics.  And who am I to argue with success.  Your questions about what I just said are as follows:

  1. We Happy Few doing Churchill? Don’t they do Shakespeare?
  2. Churchill’s Dream Play? Why not the original Strindberg?
  3. Couldn’t you all just read it in your free time? Why the public gathering?
  4. What does this mean about your next project?
  5. How many roads must a man walk down before they call him a man?

I am confident we can conjure up an answer for about 80% of these questions.  That last one, my friends, is blowing in the wind.

This first question was a little bit of a straw man on your part, seeing as we did an adaptation of a Poe story last month, and a Webster play in 2014, but we can dig into it anyway! Let’s start by defining and operationalizing a few things here. We Happy Few works with classic texts in a stripped down, straightforward, no-nonsense/all-nonsense sort of way. We all know this. What is a little more fluid is the definition of what we consider “Classic.” There is a lot to unpack in that word. We by no means are the experts on what constitutes a “Classic”; after all, this is a vague enough term that any story might fit inside this definition with some fairly flimsy justification. When we start identifying works outside their structural genre, the world gets a little trickier. What’s the difference between an adaptation and a new work? Where is the line between translator and playwright? Defining plays under these umbrellas helps us pinpoint a means to our end, but doesn’t always help us with semantics. When We Happy Few thinks of “Classics,” our eyes are drawn to stories that are told and retold in new ways by many different artists.

 

Enter Dream Play.

CUA Dream Play

From CUA’s 2013 production of Dream Play.  L-R: Natasha Gallop, Kiernan McGowan, Kimberlee Wolfson, Samantha Smedley, Claire Aniela, Joseph Weber, Seth Rosenke

Strindberg wrote Dream Play just after the turn of the twentieth century. (For those of you that like math, that’s 114 years ago. For those of you who don’t like math, it was way before you were born.) Churchill’s adaptation was brought to the London stage in 2005. And betwixt and between those two dates, a number of very famous adaptations popped up and gained widespread popularity.

Why do we keep coming back to Dream Play? Could it be (perish the thought!) a Classic?

 

We Happy Few thinks so.

 

Familiar enough with the basic premise of the play, and leaning somewhat on the experience of former WHF sound designer Bob Pike and …this memo says I have to say Senior Executive Producer, Actor Extraordinary & Plenipotentiary, The Right Honorable Kiernan McGowan when they staged it at Catholic in 2013, we turned to Caryl Churchill’s version as a study of adaptation and revitalizing a standard for a modern audience. We got to ask the play some questions and it asked some back. (Yeah, the play talks to us… why, is that weird?) Reading it as a group allowed us to experience the play in the same time and space. Plays aren’t meant to sit on the page, we all know that. But we take for granted that very obvious essence of a play sometimes and forget that the play moves with us, lives with us, confronts us, pushes us away, and pulls us back in. It’s a verb. Theatre is just verbs. “Play.” “Act.” “Watch.” “Perform.” “Design.” “Write.” “Fall down in exhaustion after a 12 hour technical rehearsal.” You get the picture.

And so with several bottles of red wine, pizza, a few good friends, a few great friends (which is which? Fight amongst yourselves) and the words of Caryl Churchill, We Happy Few got to throw all of our ingredients into a pot and see what kind of stone soup we came up with. Reading the play led us to talking about our mission, long term goals, the heart of the play, the nature of devising, and even the lighter, humorous side of this dense, cerebral play.

WHF Dream Play Living Room Read

Living Room Read of Dream Play at We Happy House, 2015. L-R Tori Boutin, Bob Pike, Raven Bonniwell, Kerry McGee, Keith Hock, Adaire Brooks, Kiernan McGowan. Not pictured: Nathan Bennett, Che Wernsman, Bridget Grace Sheaff

 

What comes next?

 

That’s a really great question, blog.

For that, you’re just going to have to keep your eyes out, aren’t you? Big stuff is coming your way, world. Our little band of brothers has not yet begun to fight.

Needless to say, We Happy Few is going to keep digging into the beauty of plays like Dream Play to find what our audience needs to hear in this increasingly confusing time. As we move forward, we keep one foot firmly planted in our past, strengthening ourselves from those who came before us. And if Churchill’s fragmented, non-linear, metaphoric play can provide us with any answers, then bring on the dream dictionaries.

“What’s poetry? It’s not real but maybe it’s more than real. It’s dreaming while you’re awake.”

CARYL CHURCHILL, A Dream Play