Confusion Now Hath Made His Masterpiece

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

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

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

WHF_MacBeth-13

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

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

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

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

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

I Dare Do All That May Become A Man

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

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

Trump Tantrum

Picture unrelated.

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

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

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

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

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

Macbeth Assassin

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

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

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

Lady M.jpg

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

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

Macbeth: Superstition

Theatre people, much like the criminals with whom we have long been associated, are a superstitious, cowardly lot. But unlike our felonious brethren, we are not frightened of a psychologically damaged billionaire wearing a bat costume, no matter how many gadgets he possesses. We are much more afraid of the spaces where we work, the shows that we perform, and the ever-present menace of the audience. Things can go wrong on stage. Disastrously so. In an effort to mitigate these risks or feign control over the uncontrollable, we have devised any number of superstitions and rituals to placate whatever malevolent or hubris-punishing spirits would seek to ruin our shows. But surely there could be nothing foolhardy or dangerous about explaining all of these fears and superstitions before the opening of a famously cursed play, right? …right?

I am aware that even writing this blog is a gamble, but I am putting my faith in faerie tale rules, where naming a thing gives you power over it, instead of horror rules, where mentioning a thing draws its attention to you. If I am wrong I beg indulgence of Thespis, and beseech Saints Genesius and Jerome to protect our humble company and me, personally, from the consequences of my arrogance.

Saint Genesius protoicon

Icon of Genesius, patron saint of actors. Image commissioned by the Fraternity of St. Genesius, 2007.

Like I mentioned above, things can go very wrong in a performance. A lot, a LOT, of moving parts go into every show, and any of them can go off the rails at any time. And Murphy’s Law tells us that ALL of them will go wrong. It is therefore an article of faith that as many of those things as possible should go wrong during the dress rehearsals. What better time could there be to jump some lines, to burn out a lamp, to rip a seam on a costume, to miss a cue? As humans, our faulty comprehension of probability tells us that if an unlikely thing happens it is guaranteed not to happen again for a good long while, whereas if something HASN’T happened for a some time, we may well be due for it. That’s why a bad dress rehearsal makes for a good opening night. It is an opportunity to burn through a bunch of mistakes in a controlled environment so we don’t have to be afraid they will happen while the audience is watching.

Another of the myriad things we fear is the sound of whistling. Unless the play specifically calls for it, whistling is verboten anywhere on- or backstage, and, to be safe, anywhere in the theatre at all. The possibly-apocryphal reason for this injunction lurks in the fly loft, the network of ropes, pulleys, curtains, weights, sandbags, lights, and scenery pieces that hangs like the Sword of Damocles above many stages. When theatres began hanging scenery above the stage to raise and lower into the audience’s field of vision, they routinely hired sailors to run the complicated rigging, sailors being second only to perverts in their familiarity with ropes. These sailors imported their use of whistling as signals to each other of when something needed to go up or down. An errant whistle could therefore result in a flat embarrassingly rising at the wrong time, or more dangerously in an unexpected sandbag hurtling to the ground. Although no company to my knowledge retains such an archaic and distracting cueing system, and many theatres do not even have a fly loft, including our own home base of CHAW, the theatre has a long institutional memory and being safe is generally preferable to being sorry.

We are also afraid of g-g-g-ghosts. Every theatre I have worked in has had at least one resident ghost, although I only ever met one, working late on a paper in my college theatre [s/o to Harper Joy! -KH]. Sometimes they’re helpful, other times…less so. Most of the time they show themselves late at night when people are alone, and so their appearances are usually a hint, subtle or otherwise, that you need to go home and get some sleep. In addition to every theatre’s Ghost-in-Residence, we also have the spectre of Thespis to contend with. Thespis, the (Western) world’s first actor and the namesake of the word “Thespian”, haunts the theatrical and performing-arts world on November 23rd, the date when he first stepped out of the chorus and delivered lines as a character in a play. His portfolio is more mischievous than our resident ghosts, concerned, like the good Greek Tragedian he is, on exposing hubris and encouraging humility. Fortunately for us he seems to have mellowed in his old age, because his lessons tend to be merely embarrassing, and not as lethal as his former colleagues Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides might prefer.

Sports Night Thespis

L-R: Jeff Mooring as Dave, Felicity Huffman as Dana Whitaker, Joshua Malina as Jeremy Goodwin, Ron Ostrow as Will. From Sports Night, Season 1 Episode 8, “Thespis”, 1998.

While Thespis is simply a force who must be endured, resident ghosts are more easily placated. What they want is to get to use the stage again every once in a while. That’s why they chase us home if we’re around too late, and it’s why we leave them the ghost light, a light that stays on in the middle of the stage all night when the rest of the lights are off and the theatre is (or, at least, supposed to be) abandoned. Often, but not always, a bare bulb on a floor lamp, the ghost light lets the ghosts see and put on their own shows in the space while we are at home asleep. Very conveniently, the ghost light also illuminates the stage for any mortals who are inadvisably wandering through the theatre late at night. A dark stage is rife with potential hazards, including open trapdoors, the orchestra pit, and loose tools and pieces of scenery, just waiting for a careless or overtired technician, stage manager, or actor’s legs to trip and neck to break.

Ghost Light

Image from ramagrrl on Flickr.

Speaking of breaking bones, one of the best-known theatre superstitions is the phrase “break a leg”. Used instead of the prosaic “good luck”, it is a defense against jinxing, a reproving assertion that a good show doesn’t need luck to be successful, and a bit of gallows humor. It may also be related to failed actor but successful assassin John Wilkes Booth, who injured his leg when he leapt down to the stage after killing President Abraham Lincoln at a production of Our American Cousin [which, along with RUR and The King in Yellow, routinely tops my season proposal list -KH]. The French, because they simply MUST be different, instead say “merde”, literally “shit”, allegedly a roundabout reference to the hope that there would be many carriages dropping patrons off in front of the theatre and, therefore, a good deal of horse manure on the street. And I am given to understand that Australians say “Chooka!” instead, for reasons perhaps best left to themselves.

Of course, the elephant in the room is the play Macbeth itself, which has a sinister reputation. Besides being notoriously difficult to execute well, it is believed to be actively cursed, perhaps on account of the witches and ghosts and blood that permeates the show. This curse has been around seemingly as long as the show itself, and it seems to me that every person and company has a different theory about how the curse came about. Maybe Shakespeare, intentionally or otherwise, included real magic spells in the text. Maybe a local coven took offense to the portrayal of witches on stage and hexed it. Maybe Thomas Middleton’s alteration of the text angered Shakespeare’s ghost. Whatever the reason, strange things undeniably happen during Macbeth performances, including bankruptcy, actor injuries, fires, and disappearances.

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Ian Merrill Peakes as Macbeth, in Folger Theatre/Two River Theatre co-production of Macbeth, 2008. Photo by Carroll Pratt

One piece of lore universally agreed upon is that saying the name of the play is forbidden. It is a sure-fire way to draw the unwanted attention of whatever actual witches or murdered Scots or discontented actors have seen fit to torment the foolish. It is instead referred to as Mackers or the Scottish Play, and the characters as Lord and Lady M [or, if you’re me, Mr. and Mrs. Scottish Play -KH]. The more astute among my audience will recognize that such a blanket ban on both the title of the play and the name of its main character would make it impossible to rehearse, advertise, or perform, so it should be noted that the ban only applies onstage when not rehearsing or performing the show itself. Fortunately, and very unusually, this curse comes with a countercharm. While the details vary from company to company, the basic form calls for the offending party to immediately exit the theatre, run around it three times, and spit or curse. Embellishments may include nudity, quotations from other Shakespeare, holy scripture, a slap, or permission to re-enter the space. In this way the curse will be satisfied and disaster, hopefully, averted.

Your belief in these superstitions may vary, but I assure you they are real to us, and despite my tone we do take them seriously. I myself wear a tie line bracelet as a good luck charm that I never remove, because things can always go wrong and you never know when a length of tie line will come in handy. If you have any charms or rituals you’d like to share I’d be thrilled to hear about them at the show, for which tickets are available now! I’ll be working the box office for Scottish Play most weekends, and if you come on either the 15th or 22nd of March I am hosting a talkback after the shows! In the meantime, keep us in your thoughts but whatever you do, don’t wish us luck.

Macbeth: Prophecy Lesson

Tarot

Happy February, everybody! Well done on making it through January, the worst month of the year! Now we’ve just got another month of winter left before March arrives, bringing with it spring and cherry blossoms and the NCAA men’s basketball tournament and the Studio Ghibli festival at E Street and all good things in the world. This year March heralds even more good news than usual, because our production of Macbeth begins then! We start rehearsals today and so, as is my wont, I will now begin sharing play-adjacent and contextual blog posts to whet your appetite for the show.

There’s a lot going on in Macbeth. It is one of the bloodiest of Shakespeare’s plays, and it also happens to be the shortest (possibly because we are missing parts of the play). It is also one of the most explicitly magical, which as you might imagine is of great interest to me. Part of the magic in this play, and also the inciting action of the story, is in the prophecies that Macbeth and Banquo receive from a trio of witches at the top of the show: that Macbeth will become the Thane of Cawdor and King of Scotland, and that Banquo’s descendents shall reign though he does not. Macbeth later demands (and, surprisingly, receives) additional prophecies later in the show when he somehow tracks down the witches in Act 4, unintentionally revealing the seeds of his own destruction to those with the knowledge to read their auguries. Macbeth, to his woe, cannot interpret even the most straightforward of prophecies and leaves himself wide open for his tragic demise. But hopefully, once you finish this blog post, you will be able to read these signs for yourself and plan accordingly, should you receive any prophecies in the future.

Roll the Bones Gabor Hearthstone

Roll the Bones, from Hearthstone: Knights of the Frozen Throne. Original art by Gabor Szikszai

There are two prevailing arguments on the nature of prophecies: either they are objective truth, or they bring themselves about by the hearing of them. In practical terms there is little difference, except that it gives people a chance to argue about it, as Macbeth director Hannah Todd and I have done at literally every opportunity: I am of the opinion that they are objectively true, whether they are heard or not, while Hannah maintains that once the subject of a prophecy hears it they set into motion a series of events that will lead to its fulfillment. Unfortunately the realities of storytelling mean that in order for a prophecy to exist in the world of a story the audience and at least one other character must ‘hear’ it. And due to the linear nature of time we can only ever see one path from prophecy-dictated to prophecy-fulfilled. It is therefore impossible for us to know which theory is correct. [mine -KH] Conveniently for us, though, the arcane and unknowable rules governing fortune-telling are not relevant for understanding those rules from a practical/narrative perspective, so this will all be helpful no matter what theory you believe.

This is going to sound obvious but it is a good place to start and is worth really hammering home. Prophecies must happen. It is impossible for a prophecy to not come to pass, regardless of the mechanism by which it does so. Once a prophecy is made it cannot not happen. It is information about the future that the characters KNOW to be true, unless they heard it from Cassandra, in which case it is no less true but they refuse to believe it. Prophecies are not ‘likely’ or ’probable’ or any of that equivocating garbage, they are The Truth. And that is a hell of a thing for a character in a story to know. It is one thing for us to sit on our genre-savvy high horses and posit that of course Harry Potter will kill Voldemort, because that is what the heroes of YA fantasy do. It is another thing entirely for Harry Potter himself to wrap his head around the prophecy and understand that the outcome WILL BE and MUST BE and CANNOT BE OTHER THAN one of them killing the other.

The Department of Mysteries.jpg

Chapter illustration for “The Department of Mysteries”, in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Art by Mary Grandpre.

The argument can be made that this ruins the story, especially when the prophecy is more final than ‘one of you will die’. Predictability is the enemy of excitement, and prophecies are nothing if not predictable. It’s why you read the last page of the book last. Merlin knows the entire time that he will be imprisoned in a tree by Nimue and it saps every adventure he goes on beforehand of any tension, because we know he has to survive and make it to that tree. This is what makes prequels bad; there are no stakes. Everyone you already knew will live and, most likely, most of the new characters will die.

If properly used, however, their inherent inevitability can play a key role in a prophecy’s value, despite this narrative risk. The Greeks, as I’m sure you remember, were especially partial to prophecies, serving as reminders of the inexorable will of the gods. The Curse of Oedipus comes part and parcel with not one but two fatal prophecies; that Laius’ son (Oedipus) would kill him and marry his wife, and that the sons of Oedipus (Polyneices and Eteocles) would kill each other. In both of these situations the victim of the prophecy knew the prophecy in advance, but not the manner in which it would be fulfilled, and their reactions tell us everything we need to know about defying the gods. Laius, knowing the prophecy, sent his son out into the wilderness to die, and believed he had beaten the gods at their own game and was therefore invulnerable. It must, therefore, have come as a tremendous shock when he was murdered in the open road. By contrast, Eteocles is fully aware that he must kill, and be killed by, his brother Polyneices, so he consciously arranges for their single combat during the defense of Thebes. Knowing as he did that circumstances would eventually align such that they killed each other, he chooses to accept his fate and meet death in a manner of his own choosing. Attempting to subvert a prophecy either, depending on what theory you buy into, leads directly to the prophecy being fulfilled OR forces the universe to construct a more and more elaborate series of events in order to bring it about, Final Destination-style. There is no running from your fate.

That it not to say that prophecies cannot be manipulated, though, if you are savvy enough. It is wise to pay exact attention to the language used in prophecies, because they are as literal as can be, and they reward close readings. This is the same method by which faeries so easily escape contracts and wish-givers grant ironic rewards, but it can have more serious consequences as well. When the Witch-King of Angmar issued his challenges to Earnur, last king of Gondor, he did so secure in the knowledge that “not by the hand of man will he fall.” This prophecy kept him safe for almost a thousand years, until he was blindsided by some unexpected combatants at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields. This example is interestingly complicated by the fact that that setting has two different meanings of “man”, i.e. the Race of Man or the male gender. And as the eventual fall of the Witch-King involves both a non-human male AND a human woman, the exact nature of that prophecy remains unclear.

Eowyn Witch King

From The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, 2003. L-R: Miranda Otto as Eowyn, Lawrence Makoare as the Witch-King.

Which is a perfect segue into my next point: this sort of interpretation cuts both ways. The Jedi Council okays the training of Anakin Skywalker because he is prophesied to “bring balance” to the Force. But they, blinded by their arrogance, fail to consider that the balance he brings might break bad for them. [This sentence brought to you by the letter B! -ed.] It is STILL not clear exactly what sort of balance the Curse of the Skywalkers is meant to bring to the Force, as the saga isn’t complete yet, but obviously it started with the fall of the Jedi Order, which is probably not what they had in mind. A prophecy may be a useful tool, but it is also a dangerous one, and it is never more dangerous than when its wielder thinks they understand it.

There is a reason I have referred to prophecies twice in the context of curses. By and large, if you are the subject OR object of a prophecy, it is bad news. In every story I have mentioned in this essay thus far, the only character for whom things have gone not horribly by the end was Harry Potter, and even he got his parents killed because he MIGHT have been the Chosen One. Macbeth thinks he has been given a boon by the witches when he receives his prophecy, but in reality it drives an otherwise honorable and loyal man to regicide, paranoia, and child-slaughter.

Come and track that descent into madness and death with us at the show! We open on the 6th of March and run until the 30th, and tickets are available even as we speak. Until then, try to avoid learning what will happen to you in the future, no matter how tempting that sorcerer’s offer sounds. It will not go the way you think.

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.

 

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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?