Oi! For a Muse of Fire

 

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Wyckham Avery as Pistol. From WHF’s 2017 Henry V. Photo by Tori Boutin

Hey folks! Keith Hock here, back again for the final week of our critically acclaimed Henry V! Last week I promised I would talk about our quick-changes and their function in our concept. I’m a man of my word, so I’ll get into them here, but since a) I don’t think even I could spend a thousand words talking solely about the concept of quick-changes and b) there has been an elephant in the room for this whole production that I have mentioned in passing but never addressed in the blog, I want to talk about it in light of another context; Punk Rock. In fact, I’ll do you one better, and I’ll bring EVERYTHING back together under this punk umbrella. Sound good?

Much to 14-year-old me’s disappointment I am perhaps the least punk person I know. I love rules, my concealed-by-work-attire tattoos are about being a contributing member of society, and I got my ear pierced at the mall. My whole lifestyle and aesthetic falls somewhere between “nice young man” and “lovable oaf”. But I’m not exactly a Chinese or Balkans scholar, either, and that didn’t stop me from dramaturging CHALK. So I bit the bullet and set out to learn all that I could about punk. Which I did in, without a doubt, the squarest and LEAST punk of all possible ways: I read about it. I went to my job at the library and I went to our catalog and I typed the words “Punk” and “Class Conflict” in the search engine and I read all the books and articles that popped up. Henry Rollins and Ian MacKaye would not approve.

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“Shame on you, nerd.” Ian MacKaye and Henry Rollins

Nevertheless, my nerd research pinged onto a key aspect of the punk philosophy, one that spoke deeply to We Happy Few’s collective heart; an aggressively democratic, improvisational, anti-authority, do-it-yourself attitude towards creating art and just generally living life. There are no barriers to creating punk art. All that is important is the desire to do it, and the wherewithal to follow through on that desire. Failure doesn’t exist. If you do a bad job all that happens is you made some bad art, and you learn from the experience and get better. [Or you don’t, as cast member and punk survivor Wyckham Avery pointed out to me in a rehearsal. Maybe you don’t get better. It doesn’t matter. Between quality and authenticity in punk culture, quality is the less important attribute by a wide margin. -KH] The point is no one can stop you from doing something you want to do, no authority can tell you that what you made was right or wrong, good or bad.

There is a lot of good stuff to unpack from this philosophy but the one that I really want to focus on is the egalitarian aspect. Why do you think we did away with the Chorus? The expository scenes at the beginning of each act and end of the play are all supposed to be delivered by a (confusingly-named) single Chorus character. But that’s boring, and who is this guy who gets to tell us all what’s going on? HE isn’t the one telling the story, HE wasn’t there. You know who WAS there? Pistol, and Nym, and Alice, and Quickly, and Gower, and the Dauphin, and Exeter; the ensemble. Likewise with “Once more unto the breach”, traditionally a Henry monologue that we broke up across the whole army. Henry isn’t a god, he’s just one man. He is no more important in this battle than any of his soldiers, so his second-most-famous battle cry gets spread around to everyone doing their own bit of fighting. [Henry gets to keep St Crispin’s Day because he is openly trading on his royal status in that one -KH] Long-time fans may recall this trick from our Tempest days, when we cast everyone who wasn’t Prospero as Ariel. The thematic thrust was different (creating a community versus demonstrating the ubiquity of magic on the island) but the tool was the same.

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L-R: Josh Adams, Andrew Keller, Scott Gaines, Britt Duff. From We Happy Few’s 2013 The Tempest. Photo by Jon Harvey

You might, by now, see the skeleton of how this is connected to quick changes and multiple characters. You may even see how it is tied to the illusory nature of theatre and why this play, in particular, rewards acknowledging the deception that I talked about on opening night. These conceits—democratizing the stage, drawing attention to class divides through intentional multi-casting, and openly acknowledging the artifice of the play exposed by Shakespeare’s own language—allow us to have our characters change appearances on the fly, sometimes even mid-scene. This was not exactly new territory for us, having cut our teeth on this very conceit in Hamlet, but it had been a while since we were able to do it with such clarity and intent.

Here as elsewhere we found ourselves a mighty ally in the Prologue’s metatheatrical reminder that the audience is watching a play. Thanks to the Prologue, we had fourth-wall-breaking playwright permission to appear as Actors on a Stage from time to time. We didn’t need Hamlet’s insanity nor the dream logic of The Tempest and Winter’s Tale to explain the rapid changes. This time they were actual costume changes in the context of a play. They just happened in broad view of the audience, rejecting the audience’s assumptions about how a play is supposed to be staged. This gave us some leeway in facilitating some quick scene changes; for example, we could have Kiernan traipsing around the French camp as noted coward Le Fer while carrying his Henry robe, because he won’t have time to get back where he stowed it before his entrance for St. Crispin’s Day. It also gave us more opportunities to play with our doubling, letting us do fun things like turn the Boy (on lookout duty during some nefarious dealings) into Exeter, the exact sort of Authority Figure she is supposed to be looking out for.

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L-R: Natasha Gallop as the Boy, Niusha Nawab as Bardolph, Robert Pike as French Corpse. From We Happy Few’s 2017 Henry V. Photo by Tori Boutin

This is what I was talking about when I said it was so difficult to examine one aspect of this play without bringing up two others. The punk framework of …rejecting traditional frameworks dovetails perfectly into the Prologue’s acknowledgement of artifice and our own exploration of the clear but underrepresented class divide in the show. Our own propensity for multicasting and on-stage character changes lends itself equally well to examining class divisions and reminding the audience where they are and what they’re doing.

If you would like to see this seamless combination of form and function on stage, time is running out! We are running for the rest of this week and then MUST CLOSE on Saturday the 29th of April. Don’t miss your chance! Tickets are available HERE!

History Lesson: The Hundred Years’ War (And Another 200 Years Before it)

Good evening, Dear Readers! We started rehearsals for our upcoming performance of Henry V today, and oh man am I excited about it. Henry V, as I intimated in my last blog post, is one of Shakespeare’s Histories, which means there is more context to the story than usual. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream or King Lear or any other non-history play you care to mention all that you need to know is whatever exposition some ancillary character or Chorus analogue ham-fistedly delivers in the first few scenes. These stories are self-contained, just as Aristotle would like. But the Histories are real events, hence the name, so it is helpful to have additional background on what was happening around the events of the play. Since my job around here these days is basically Head Stuff Knower (a title I have wanted all my life) I have spent the last few weeks teaching myself all about what was happening around the reign of Henry V, and it turns out that was the Hundred Years’ War. So I hope you guys want to read about a centuries-long dynastic conflict as much as I want to write about it!

It all started, as English histories are wont to, in 1066 with William the Conqueror (nee Bastard) crossing the Channel, defeating Harold Godwinson, subjugating the Anglo-Saxons, and establishing the Norman dynasty in England. This conquest established William as the King of England, though he remained the Duke of Normandy. The Duchy of Normandy was technically a fief of the King of France, which means that the King of England was, in his office as the Duke of Normandy, a subject of the French Crown. This is obviously a less than ideal circumstance for a king to be in, but it was tolerable for a time while the king of France was not powerful enough to exert control over the nobles over whom he was suzerain.

This circumstance was complicated by Eleanor of Aquitaine. In 1137 she married the soon-to-be King Louis VII of France but bore him only daughters. In 1152 he sought and received an annulment technically on the grounds that they were like 4th cousins but really because she kept having daughters. Then, in 1154, she married King Henry II of England and shortly thereafter bore him five sons, among them King Richard I Lionheart [there is no evidence to support this, and frankly biology is against me here, but I assume she did so out of spite -KH]. In addition to securing Henry II’s bloodline and beginning the Plantagenet dynasty, this highly advantageous marriage wed her substantial holdings in south and central France to his in Normandy and England, creating the Angevin empire which for a time controlled more French land than the king of France.

This empire was not to last, however. One of England’s greatest and most heroic kings, Richard I, was followed by one of her weakest, King John. You may know him as John Lackland, for losing Normandy and other continental holdings. You may know him as John Softsword, for a lack of martial virtue and…alleged marital issues. You may even know him as the king who was forced to sign the Magna Carta in 1215 and usher in the era of constitutionality.

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But probably you know him as this guy. From Disney’s Robin Hood, 1973.

In any case, John lost England all of her continental holdings, save Aquitaine and Gascony, in the early 13th century. Smash cut to ~100 years in the future, to the reign of Edward II (he was the fey, foppish prince in Braveheart whose lover is defenestrated by Edward I Longshanks). He married Isabella, princess of France, in an ill-conceived effort to unify their feuding nations. Edward II is otherwise unremarkable for our purposes, though I would be remiss if I did not mention that he was apocryphally killed by a red-hot poker being inserted into his anus, presumably in reference to his alleged homosexuality.

Meanwhile, in France King Charles IV has died without male issue, ending the 400-year-old house of Capet as the rulers of France. The throne was claimed by Philip VI, Charles’ first cousin and count of Valois. But Edward III contested the throne, asserting that his claim (through his mother Isabella, Charles IV’s older sister) is more valid than Philip’s, which is through his grandfather. Philip’s claim, however, is entirely through the male line, while Edward’s passes through a woman, which the “Law Salique” forbids. Edward did not choose to accept this interpretation, as you might imagine, and declared war to take what is rightfully his. Finally, some 800 words into this blog post, the Hundred Years’ War has begun.

I should clear up a couple things about the war before we get into it. First, it is longer than 100 years; the opening action takes place in 1337 and its final action is in 1453, so in reality it lasted almost 120 years. Second, as you will soon see, it was not the beginning of Anglo-French discord, nor was it the end. France and England hated each other, UNC/Duke-like, from the time of William the Conqueror to shortly before the First World War. Third, it was not, as it might sound, a straight century-plus of nonstop warfare across the green fields of France. It was raids, proxy wars, border conflicts, a handful of campaigns of conquest, and long periods of peace. I do not have the time to go as deep as it demands (people can, and have, written entire books about what I just summarized in 5 paragraphs), so I will try to hit highlights and important facts for our purposes.

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Go Tar Heels.

The war opened with great success for the English. At the Battle of Sluys in 1340 the English navy utilized inventive tactics and advanced technology to crush a numerically superior French force (this will be a theme). The French navy was obliterated and the English ruled the waves for the next 30 or so years. In 1346, Edward and his son the Black Prince launched a chevauchee across northern France to destroy the French’s capacity to make war and demoralize the French populace. They were caught near Crécy by an army led by Philip and King John the Blind of Bohemia, who outnumbered them approximately 3:1. The English army was made up predominantly of longbowmen and they shattered the French; around 2,000 knights are killed, including King John of Bohemia, and who-knows how many French commoners, while the English lost around 300 men. Eight years later the Black Prince is leading another chevauchee when he is caught near the city of Poitiers by a French army led by the new French King, Jean II. Again the French outnumbered them at least 2:1, and again the result was a crushing defeat for the French, including the capture of their king, whose ransom was set at the preposterous sum of 3 million crowns, twice France’s annual income. The dauphin [the French name for their heir apparent, for reasons passing understanding -KH] arranged the Treaty of Bretigny, which in 1360 granted the English suzerainty of much of Southern and Western France in exchange for the English renunciation of their claim to the French throne. So, war solved, I suppose.

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Guess again. Pictured: President Harry S. Truman.

Oh, if only it were so simple. After some proxy wars fought in Brittany and Spain, in 1369 new French king Charles V declared war after the Black Prince (ruling in Aquitaine) refused to answer summons by Charles to Paris. England was stymied by an aging Edward III and an ill Black Prince, while France had recruited somewhat of a genius in Bertrand du Guesclin (this, too, is a theme). Guesclin had noted that when the French and the English met on the field, the French were destroyed, so he avoided pitched battles wherever possible and outmaneuvered the English army, seizing lightly-held cities where possible and gradually retaking French territory but never engaging. In addition, the French with Castilian aid had rebuilt their fleet and defeated an English squadron at the Battle of La Rochelle in 1372, lessening England’s control of the seas. By 1380 Edward III, his son the Black Prince, and Charles V were all dead and the underage Richard II and Charles VI were the rulers of England and France, respectively, but this period of the war technically continued until 1389.

This is where Shakespeare comes in. Richard II starts after Richard has ruled for some time, and it traces the exile of Henry Bolingbroke, the death of John of Gaunt (Henry’s father and Richard’s uncle), and Bolingbroke’s deposition of Richard and accession to the throne as Henry IV. Henry IV fights the Percy rebellion and fathers a dissolute son named Hal, who discovers his true knightly purpose after fighting in Wales, where he gets hit by an arrow right square in the face. He takes the throne as Henry V in 1413, though not without a checkered past and a big gnarly arrow scar. Meanwhile some other stuff that is thoroughly confusing and not pertinent to Shakespeare happens in France; suffice it to say that France is as divided as it has ever been. Henry V reopens hostilities in 1415, resurrecting Edward’s claim to the throne and sailing to Harfleur.

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Henry V of England, by unknown painter, 1520.    Our Henry will be much handsomer.

Henry V has a different plan in mind than his predecessors. Unlike Edward III and the Black Prince, Henry’s goal was to conquer and rule all of France, not simply win concessions or “some petty and unprofitable dukedoms” from its nobility. He set out not simply to raid but to conquer and hold. To that end he besieged Harfleur and after a lengthy siege took it. Returning overland to the English-held port of Calais he was caught near Agincourt by a numerically superior French army, who you would think would know better by now. Henry was outnumbered 5:1 at least but clever application of longbows allowed him to slaughter by the thousands, for the third time in a century, the flower of French chivalry.

Henry V was seemingly unstoppable on the field, and he also secured a powerful ally in the Duke of Burgundy. After another couple successful campaigns they forced the signing in 1419 of the Treaty of Troyes, under which Henry is wed to Charles VI’s daughter Katherine, the dauphin is declared illegitimate, and Henry’s children are understood to be the rulers of both England and France. But then Henry died in 1422 at the age of 36, leaving an infant son in the hands of a regency council, and shortly thereafter the wheels began to come off the English wagon.

The dauphin and his followers understandably did not accept the conditions of the Treaty of Troyes. In 1428 he gained some unlooked-for help when a maid named Joan of Arc appeared, claiming to be sent by God, and assisted him in breaking the Siege of Orleans. She attended the coronation of the dauphin and accompanied the French army until her capture and execution for heresy in 1431. Shakespeare elected to portray her as a literal witch, consorting with literal devils, for her appearance in Henry VI, in case you were wondering the English opinion of her [though she did count the world’s first serial killer as part of her retinue, so maybe Billy Shakes wasn’t as off-base as I thought -KH]. Charles’ cause was further aided by the professionalization of artillery under Jean and Gaspard Bureau starting in 1434, the defection and separate peace forged with the Burgundians in 1435, and the absence of a strong English leader. Charles continued to retake ground throughout the mid 1400s and in 1453, with the help of the Bureau Brothers’ cannons, he defeated John Talbot at the Battle of Castillon, the final battle of the 100 Years’ War. The French Crown had regained every piece of French land with the exception of Calais, which would remain in English hands until the middle of the 16th century.

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V-J Day in Times Square. Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt. Unknown man and (probably) Greta Friedman

::deep breath:: And there you have it. A hilariously brief 2000 words on the history of one of the longest conflicts in human history. 300 years of historical context for a 90-minute play that takes place over about three months but is only about one night and the following day. 10 books and 15 articles of history, sociology, literary criticism, and punk rock ideology crammed into my head to turn into some 10-page pamphlets and however many blog posts my contract says I am obligated to write. 1500 combined hours of rehearsal to turn into 16 performances. Let’s get to work.

Henry IV: Theatrical Prequel

Happy one month into the New Year, Faithful Readers!

I’m sorry I missed you for our first performance a couple weeks ago, when we brought A Midnight Dreary, our immersive Poe-and-alcohol performance, back to DC in mid-January. I had some personal stuff happening in my Real World Life that was occupying most of my time and I figured you all could go without me waxing rhapsodic about horror for another 1500 words. And it turns out I was right, because we sold out that performance! Thank you all for coming to that! Sometime I’ll share with you all yet more of the thoughts I have on that subject. But that’s a blog post for another time. Today I want need to talk to you about the reading of Henry IV, parts 1 & 2, that we’re doing tonight, free of charge, at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop!

We’re reading Henry IV tonight because we’re performing Henry V in April, and Henry V, in case the Roman numeral at the end of the title didn’t give it away, is that rarity in theatre; a sequel. While we are used to sequels in our movies and books and video games, it is unusual to see playwrights doing them. Tennessee Williams didn’t follow up the success of The Glass Menagerie with Menagerie 2: Broken Glass, Broken Dreams. Eugene O’Neill foolishly declined to pen the logical successor to his masterpiece with Long Night’s Journey into Day. There was no The Importance of Being Frank from Wilde, no Rumors 2: Electric Boogaloo from Simon. And Arthur Miller had a bad habit of ensuring that his plays could not be followed by having his characters die at the end; there could be no Life of a Salesman or 2 Fast 2 Crucible. Most playwrights seem opposed to following their characters across multiple stories and adventures.

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I can’t imagine why.

There is a theatrical reason for this. The Aristotelian Unities insist that plays should be structured with uniformity of action, uniformity of time, and uniformity of place; that is to say, they should be about one thing, happen in one day, and take place in one location. We have largely thrown those last two restrictions out by now, 2500 years after Aristotle said them, but we generally abide by the first rule (not least because it is the rule most open to interpretation). Plays tend to follow one problem from its inception to its conclusion. If there is room for a sequel in a play, it suggests that there are loose ends floating around, and in order for a story to be satisfying (cathartic, as Aristotle would describe it) it should have resolved itself by the time the play ends.

This is not to say that theatrical sequels or series are unheard-of or impossible, though. Just unusual. Angels in America is a two-part play. So is Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which also happens to be a cross-platform sequel to a book series, making it a rare and unstable Doppelzequel. The Greek tragedians almost uniformly organized their plays into cycles of three tragedies and one comical satyr play, and these tetralogies often focused on the same characters, such as Orestes or Prometheus, or at least a continuous story, such as the Curse of Laius (these examples are also all intended to be viewed back-to-back). August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle springs to mind, as does Brian Friel’s setting of Ballybeg, as interconnected narratives; not sequels per se, but inhabiting the same universe and populated by the same characters. Charles Mee’s Summertime and Wintertime overlap a few characters and a setting while telling very different stories. Alan Ayckbourn’s very odd House & Garden exists as a single play happening simultaneously in adjoining theatres, which is a stretch as far as my sequel/series theme goes but is so goddamn weird I never pass up an opportunity to mention it.

And then, of course, there was Shakespeare. Shakespeare wrote two tetralogies, one spin-off, and a lost sequel, all but the last circling around the same period and family. The lost sequel, of course, is Love’s Labours Won, an alleged follow-up to Love’s Labours Lost. Since all we have of …Won is the title, there is room for disagreement on whether it was actually a sequel, an alternate name for a different play, or a completely unrelated story, but the structure of …Lost certainly suggests room for a sequel. The spin-off is The Merry Wives of Windsor, a light comedy following the adventures of fat idiot knight Sir Falstaff, bosom friend of Prince Hal in Henry IV. And the tetralogies are a series of historical plays during the Hundred Years’ War and the Wars of the Roses. Confusingly, these series are referred to as the Henriads even through the cycle begins with Richard II and ends with Richard III. More confusingly, there are eight plays in the series but the plays are only about five kings; Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VI, and Richard III, the plays for IV and VI being broken into two and three parts, respectively. And most confusingly of all, the Second Henriad was written first and the First Henriad second, like the Star Wars movies.

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I don’t know, it doesn’t seem THAT confusing.

I’ll give Shakespeare the benefit of the doubt on the difficulties and pitfalls and artistic risks inherent to theatrical sequels because, well, he’s Shakespeare. He does as he pleases. He also gets a pass because most of them are histories, and therefore based on real events. Shakespeare didn’t create the Wars of the Roses, they actually happened. It may not be convenient to us as an audience for the life, death, and legacy of Henry VI to be broken into three parts on stage, but a lot of stuff happened because of him, stuff that couldn’t be adequately expressed, in Shakespeare’s mind, in a single play. The founding of the House of Lancaster, their consolidation of power, and their greatest triumph under Henry V is too complex a story to be told in one sitting, so Shakespeare broke into pieces, choosing to hew more closely to the narrative itself than to the conventions of theatre.

Which brings us to tonight, where we explore a piece of that story. As I mentioned before, we will be performing the second and third pieces of the First Henriad, Henry IV, parts 1 & 2, condensed in true We Happy Few fashion into a single two-hour performance by Cofounder-in-Exile Hannah Todd. It is named after King Henry IV, and happens predominantly during his reign, but it in actuality is mostly about Prince Hal, the soon-to-be King Henry V, and his growth from a callow playboy in the company of ne’er-do-wells to a noble knight and worthy heir to the throne. Since Henry V explores, in part, Henry’s nobility in light of his checkered past we figured a reading of this play would be a good way to introduce that character and his erstwhile companions to the audience. Plus its another opportunity for you to spend some quality time with the We Happy Few team, for free! Who could pass up such an opportunity? I hope you can make it to CHAW tonight, by 7:30PM, to see it!

Poe: American Literature’s Bitter Uncle

Ladies and Gentlemen! There has been a palace coup in the We Happy Few Managerial Hierarchy! I have been deposed as Production Manager by the altogether-more-competent Kiernan McGowan, who, I promise, will live to rue the day he dared step to me. I shall engineer such a revenge that the ill-gotten fruits of his underhanded betrayal will turn to ashes in his mouth, and he will weep for a death which will not come will do a much better job in the role than Yours Truly. I, for my sins, have been given the title of Literary Director and was graciously allowed to keep the title of Blogslave after I told them that they could have the password to this WordPress account when they pried it from my cold dead hands. “But what does this mean for me, the loyal follower of WHF?” I hear you asking, and the answer is: literally nothing. Unless you are a member of the organization this change will impact you not even the tiniest bit, except that our names will be labelled differently in the programs of future shows. So I encourage you to put it out of your mind and come with me into today’s blog post.

In celebration of our new organizational structure, in recognition of my sexy new title, and in anticipation of some very exciting upcoming performances of ours, I would like to offer you some thoughts on American writing’s mopey godfather: Edgar Allan Poe. I personally regard Poe as the father of horror. Others call him the father of the detective story and of science fiction, and even of the American short story. Indeed, with so many literary children to take care of it is small wonder that he drank himself to death! [rimshot] But I am not here to tell you about his drinking problem (…yet), I want to talk to you about his legacy and how his stories, for all their influence, never earned him the title that would seem to be rightfully his: the Father of American Literature.

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Before we really get into that a brief biographical sketch is necessary. Edgar Poe was born in 1809 in Boston to an actress named Elizabeth Poe, whose husband David either died or disappeared at some point in 1810. In 1811 Elizabeth moved to Richmond and then died in her turn, leaving Edgar too far from his paternal grandfather to be brought up with him and therefore at the mercy of the people of Richmond. He was taken in (but not adopted; he retained the name ‘Poe’) by wealthy merchant John Allan and his wife Fanny. Fanny seems to have cared more for the boy than John, with whom Edgar did not get along. Allan was not a member of the landed Virginia gentry, but rather a first-generation Scots trader who had made good, and it is likely that his neighbors did not let him forget it. Poe was betrothed to a woman named Sarah Elmira Royster, with whom he exchanged letters for some time despite her father’s disapproval of the match. Poe attended the University of Virginia but was forced to withdraw after a year due to financial difficulties (Allan had provided Poe with not quite enough money for both classes and rent, and Poe was forced to borrow and gamble in an ill-conceived attempt to make it up). Upon returning to Richmond he discovered that Sarah Royster had married someone else, doubtless under pressure from her father. After a series of arguments with Allan, Poe ran away to Boston where he published his first collection of poetry. It did not make any money and he was forced to join the Army to make ends meet. After some time in the Army, and with the aid of Fanny on her deathbed, Poe was able to convince Allan to support his bid to enter West Point. Unfortunately bad luck conspired to delay his entry until 1830, by which time Fanny Allan had died. Some of Poe’s debts caught up to his foster father in this time period and Allan severed all communication with Poe around the same time as he was expelled from West Point in 1831. Poe moved to Baltimore and lived with his paternal Aunt Maria Clemm and his 9-year-old cousin and future wife Virginia Clemm (they would marry when she was 13. Not as unusual for the time as you might think, but certainly…off-putting).

From this point until his death in 1849 he worked as a professional writer and lecturer, as well as an editor and critic for literary magazines. He regarded it as his mission as a critic to improve the quality of American writing and make it competitive with the writers of Europe, especially England and France (where he was always more popular than America), and as such he made powerful foes of a clique of New York writers, centered on the Knickerbocker magazine and led by the hilariously-named twin editors Lewis and Willis Gaylord Clark, for their propensity to “puff”, or uncritically endorse, each other’s pieces in reviews. He achieved widespread fame upon the publication of “The Raven” in 1845 but was unable to parley even that into financial security, often moving between Baltimore, Richmond, Philadelphia, and New York City as work and finances dictated. Virginia died in 1847 after fighting tuberculosis for some time, and Poe himself died under somewhat mysterious circumstances (he was blind drunk and wearing someone else’s clothes) in Baltimore some two years later. For a number of years his reputation in America was damaged by the actions of his literary executor, Rufus Wilmot Griswold, who had (unbeknownst to Poe) hated him and spread rumors of infidelity and drug abuse after his death, but his legacy had been salvaged by the end of the 19th century.

You may have noticed that my biography seems to lean very heavily on his early years, before he became one of America’s first professional writers. I assure you that this is by design; it is my belief that Poe’s writing was more shaped by the first half of his life than the second. Poe learned at a young age what it was to be alone, to be outside of the norm, and it seems that he may never have truly learned what it was like to be otherwise. The lessons of Poe’s childhood were cruel and thorough, as I hope I have demonstrated above. He learned how it felt to lose a loved one, to disappoint a friend, to be hungry and cold for want of money, to desire a thing he could not attain, and above all, to be neither welcome nor wanted by those around him. Though Poe did happily marry, and his later life was as full of bosom friends as with rivals, he would never reach a financial level that one might call “stable”, let alone comfortable, despite his fame, and he still struggled with bouts of depression, which were doubtless exacerbated by his financial instability and his wife’s untimely demise. It should come as no surprise that his writing should tend toward the macabre and Gothic, into the dark and brooding half of Romanticism and away from the nationalist Romanticism of his fellows.

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Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, by Caspar David Friedrich, 1818. This picture is pretty much all you need to know about Romanticism.

Poe seems to have projected this psychological isolation and half-imagined social exile onto his characters. Contrary to the now-traditional American protagonist of the cunning and self-made frontiersman, popularized by writers such as James Fenimore Cooper and Mark Twain and inspired by outdoorsy American heroes such as Davey Crockett, Daniel Boone, and Andrew Jackson, Poe created elegant, aristocratic protagonists. Prince Prospero, Roderick Usher, Monsieur C. Auguste Dupin, Montresor, and his many nameless narrators of such pieces as “The Pit and the Pendulum” and “The Black Cat”: these are men of property and education. They are aristocrats, similar to Poe’s classmates at the University of Virginia or West Point, or his childhood friends in Richmond. But (excepting Mssr. Dupin) their education and breeding boots them naught. Poe’s characters are almost universally undone or driven mad by their own obsessions, by their isolation, their superiority, their overwhelming desire for the unattainable, and above all by their arrogance. His characters are blind to their faults, assuming that their superior intelligence and class will keep them safe, that they are too clever and important to suffer any consequences. Poe inverted the American Dream, before we even really knew what that meant. His characters start with everything and then lose it all.

squandered-resources

Squandered Resources, Visions, Magic: The Gathering. Art by Romas Kukalis

Even more striking than Poe’s choice of characters is his choice of settings and subjects. Poe’s contemporaries, Longfellow, Whitman, Whittier, Cooper, Hawthorne, Irving, positively reveled in writing about the the rough, vast new country in which they found themselves. Longfellow, a member of the adversarial Knickerbocker clique and Your Humble Narrator’s favorite poet, is best known for the thoroughly American poems Song of Hiawatha, The Courtship of Miles Standish, and The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere. Hawthorne rooted himself so inextricably to colonial Massachusetts that I had to read The Scarlet Letter twice in high school, first to learn about Puritans and then again to learn about Transcendentalism. Cooper’s Leatherstocking stories may be poorly written drivel, but they were indisputably American drivel. Whitman even wrote a poem titled “I Hear America Singing”, for God’s sake! The American frontier and our brief but vibrant history offers an infinity of stories to American writers.

But Poe was not seduced by the Great Wide Open or America’s heroic past. Poe’s stories are set in crowded cities, where people get too close and drive one another mad, where apes escape from their owners and commit grisly murders, where science, blindly pursued, visits horrific consequences on its practitioners. They take place in crumbling manors and castles, where mad kings die at their own hideous parties and where long-sought vengeance is planned. They take place in richly appointed rooms where men may be alone with their grief and their wine. They take place in nightmares and prison cells, museums and graveyards, hurricanes and catacombs. Poe didn’t completely ignore America, “The Gold-Bug” is set on an island where he was stationed in the Army and Arthur Gordon Pym is from Nantucket, but he did not feel the urge to tell ‘American’ stories in the way that his colleagues did. Maybe his melancholia simply found better purchase in the foggy Gothic settings favored by his colleagues in Europe than the bright sun of the American frontier, though I think the answer is more complicated than that. Poe, perhaps, did not have the same unblemished view of his country as his fellows. His experience with America had shown him many more unfriendly faces, closed doors, and cold, dark city streets than welcoming arms and sun-dappled meadows. Moreover, he did not feel himself to be a member of the community of American writers which he had worked so strenuously to create, and which had consistently shunned and maligned him, even after he was in the grave.

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“A Descent Into the Maelstrom”. Illustration by Harry Clarke, for Tales of Mystery and Imagination, 1919.

For these reasons I find it difficult to either grant or rescind Poe the title of Father of American Literature. He was among the first and greatest writers in American history and he dedicated his life to improving America’s writing profile on the world stage.  But at the same time his stories, for all of his being one of America’s finest writers, are not American. They are horror stories, detective stories, adventure stories, melancholy poems, introspective poems, the origins of science fiction, but not a one of them is an American story in the way that Tom Sawyer or To Kill a Mockingbird or The Great Gatsby is. Poe’s writing lacks the setting and the spirit that sets The Great American Novel apart from other genres. It is impossible to ignore his role in American literature but his own actions disqualify him from the title. It’s all right, though. Horror is a better genre than Americana.

If you agree with me that horror is great, and you also think that drinking is great, keep a weather eye on this space as well as the We Happy Few emails, websitetwitter, and facebook; however you keep track of our comings and goings. We will have some Poe-related things coming up  soon that you will be VERY excited to attend. Remember THIS THING I told you about last year? Think bigger, and keep your eyes open for more details! Until next time, I am (and always have been) your friend Keith Hock.

[editor’s note: I would be remiss if I did not mention that, in addition to Wikipedia for quick fact-checking, I relied heavily upon Nigel Barnes’ “A Dream Within a Dream: The Life of Edgar Allan Poe” (Peter Owen Publishers, 2009) and Edward H. Davidson’s “Poe: A Critical Study” (Harvard University Press, 1957) while writing this blog post. KH]

CHALK: The Judge on stage

Hello again, everyone! I’m glad I caught you today! This is Keith Hock, Production Manager, Technical Director, occasional Dramaturge, and Blogslave for We Happy Few, your favorite DC indie theatre company and your biggest tax write-off. My boss Raven Bonniwell pulled me aside after one of our run-throughs a few days ago and rather forcibly reminded me that writing blog posts is like the only reason they keep me around asked if it wouldn’t be too much trouble for me to throw something together for you folks to read, and seeing as we open THIS VERY EVENING I figured it was probably about time to get something up here.

This is a play about a trial, as you should remember from the small book I wrote about the play’s history a month or so ago (I promise this one will be shorter). Oh, sure, other stuff happens it in, things which I am told by the actors and director are important, and which I will probably talk to you all about once you’ve had a chance to see the play. But the trial is the climactic scene, the core of the Ur-Myth that I just can’t seem to stop talking about, and I wanted to look into what makes the trial so pivotal and interesting. To that end, I gathered as many trial plays as I could get my grubby mitts on and I read them, back-to-back-to-back, while tech rehearsals happened around me, to see what I could learn and turn into a blog post so I could keep my job.

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Research

Trials are already very dramatic by their own nature, and playwrights were quick to pick up on that. Playwrights from Aeschylus to Shakespeare to Miller have explored the topic. The stories regularly explore bigotry and injustice within the legal system (Gross Injustice, 12 Angry Men, Trial of the Catonsville Nine), but also examine how trials serve the cause of justice, and why we use them (The Eumenides, A Few Good Men, God’s Country, 12 Angry Men again). Frequently playwrights write about famous or significant cases like the Salem Witch Trials and the Scopes Monkey Trial, and famous lawyers, by which I mean Clarence Darrow, because Clarence Darrow is the only famous lawyer in American history and has had at least 3 plays written about his trials. These accounts of real trials and of Clarence Darrow vary between using the actual words used in the trial (Gross Indecency, God’s Country) to varying levels of fictionalization, from assumptions about what Leopold and Loeb may have said to each other interspersed with real trial language in Never the Sinner to making up a whole new town, trial name, and Clarence Darrow analogue in Inherit the Wind. They confusingly tell us it is both right AND wrong to persecute Jews (Merchant of Venice, God’s Country). Occasionally the playwrights write about themselves, as Daniel Berrigan did about his own trial in The Trial of the Catonsville Nine or, more broadly their art, when Moises Kaufman wrote about the Trials of Oscar Wilde in Gross Indecency.  Sometimes the stories are invented from whole cloth, as in A Few Good Men or The Merchant of Venice, or to explore what a trial could uncover in a different story, such as The Last Days of Judas Iscariot or that time in middle school when your English teacher made you put Goldilocks on trial for breaking and entering. It is a form ripe for storytelling, and it can be used to tell all manner of stories.

But in the reading of all these plays I noticed a peculiar thing. The character of the Judge, a key figure in a trial, is tremendously and unaccountably underrepresented, at least in the selection of plays that I read. It is truly astounding how few of the Judges even get names. Lawyers, plaintiffs, witnesses, and defendants have traits and agency and all those things that a character calls for in order to be interesting to the audience. Even juries get to have personality! 12 Angry Men is literally all about jurors butting heads, and both Inherit the Wind and The Trial of the Catonsville Nine include portions of the juror selection process. But the Judges seldom get these, serving instead as the implement of the court; a tool, not a person. The whims, idiosyncrasies, and beliefs of the Judge in a courtroom have a tremendous impact on the course of a trial, but in many of these plays the Judge may as well be a mildly biased robot. The Judge exists in these dramas to dispense courtroom jargon, threaten to “clear the court”, and frequently to overrule the objections of whichever lawyer the audience is supposed to like more.

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Judge 723, Futurama.

When the Judge DOES get a sketch of characterization, as I alluded to at the end of that previous paragraph, it is to be either a vocal representative of the status quo or openly antagonistic to the case of the protagonist, or both. The most well-defined Judge in the dozen or so plays that I read for this project would probably be Judge Littlefield in The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, whose only traits are that he hanged himself on a Civil War battlefield, that he absolutely hates the attorney who is bringing the suit on behalf of Judas, and that he ran a chain of successful “Kosher Pizza Parlors in East Purgatory” with Caiaphas the Elder and must therefore recuse himself when Caiaphas takes the stand (it’s a weird play). The Judge in Inherit the Wind doesn’t have a name, but he is more than happy to make pro-religion announcements from the bench in a religiously charged case and to dismiss out of hand every single witness presented by the defense. Likewise the Judge in Gross Indecency, who has the temerity to assert that “There is no worse crime than that with which the prisoner has been charged”, but does not deign to give us his name as the lawyers and witnesses do, even though, since this was a real trial, he actually has one: Alfred Wills. Judge Hawthorne in The Crucible actively wants blood and the Judge in The Trial of the Catonsville Nine cowers behind technicalities and his pretended impartiality to heap scorn on the defendants and influence the court. The venal cowardice and bigotry of these judges is a scathing indictment of the abuse of authority and the perils of an unjust court.

Judge Whitey Presiding

The Hon. Judge Whitey. Also Futurama.

The only Judges who are even remotely sympathetic to the heroes are Captain Julius Randolph in A Few Good Men, more out of irritation with Lieutenant Colonel Jessep (the Jack Nicholson character) than anything else, and Athena in The Eumenides, who is a literal god. And, I suppose, Portia in The Merchant of Venice, although I would assert that the protagonists of that particular piece are, in fact, the villains of the story. (It is telling that of the sympathetic Judges, one was written by Shakespeare and another by Aeschylus, in a time and place where plays were not used as weapons of the counterculture). I won’t pretend this doesn’t make sense from a storytelling perspective; most modern theatre by its very nature tends to run in a countercultural direction, and there is little more countercultural than fighting an unjust court, the literal embodiment of Authority. If you want your villain to be Corrupt Society, it is easy and effective to corrupt your Judge as well, and it is therefore unsurprising that so many writers would use this tool.

Not so for us! CHALK (and its predecessors) continues to invert the status quo, making the Judge in our play matter and moving him to the opposite corner of the alignment chart [LE to CG, for my fellow nerds out there. ed.], giving him free rein to both have unpopular but just opinions and to act upon them. To be fair, our play’s origins also fall in a time and place where theatre was not a tool of the oppressed, and its original moral could easily be rendered as “Confucianism is correct.” Since we are not Song-Dynasty Chinese, however, our moral is somewhat more complex, and our Judge gets to be an active countercultural warrior.

He is also more than a voice delivering instructions to a jury off-stage or a machine programmed to clear courtrooms and overrule objections. We see him not being a Judge, having his own opinions, and in general doing more than simply dispensing justice from the bench. The Judge is a character of crucial importance in the play, second perhaps only to Alma, the ‘mother’ of the child. (Maybe third, if you count a bag of flour wrapped in cloth with no lines. Really more of a MacGuffin than a character, all things considered. But that’s a matter for another blog post.) Far from disappearing behind a one-word combination job title, description, and character name, our Judge (who has a real name, Zeke) creates and defines his own world in his own image. No passive arbiter he, Zeke brings his own beliefs and personalities to the table and forces the people around him to deal with it. He represents passion and energy, excitement and empathy, a significant tonal shift from the traditional interpretation of the Judge on stage.

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L-R foreground: Raven Bonniwell (Dave), Ann Fraistat (Mary). background: Josh Adams (Zeke), Louis Davis (Jeren). Photo by Tori Boutin.

And we can’t wait to share it with you! This unorthodox take on the Judge is but one of the many exciting elements of this play that we have been sitting on here for the last few months waiting to share with you, and I am beyond thrilled that you all finally get to see it! Tickets are on sale now, and we run from tonight until July 9th at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop in Eastern Market. I look forward to seeing you all there.