Count of Monte Cristo History Lesson: The Long 19th Century in France, Part 1

Hello again everybody! I am tremendously pleased to announce that we have finally made it through February, the worst month of the year, and it is now March, when good things start happening again. Good things like March Madness, the High Holy Days of the basketball calendar. Good things like DC’s cherry blossoms starting to bloom. Good things like the Landmark Theaters’ Studio Ghibli Festival (though I haven’t seen any announcements about that yet, which is bumming me out a little). Good things like spring, and sun, and warm weather. And, of course, the goodest thing of all; shows from everyone’s favorite independent theatre company We Happy Few! Our first show of 2020 will be another of our fan favorite Classics-in-Action, an in-house adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’ revenge adventure The Count of Monte Cristo.

As is my wont, I…will not be telling you much about the show itself or the particulars of our adaptation yet, to not spoil anything about the story or bias you with my own interpretation (and also I haven’t been to any rehearsals yet so I don’t have any valuable insights on this production). Instead I am pleased to offer you another entry in my History Lesson series, the only time in my life I get to make use of my Bachelor’s Degree in History. Fortunately for you all, my specialization was the 1800s, because I was so interested in the massive social, political, economic, cultural, technological, and demographic changes that occurred in the century. And one of the first things I learned about it was that you couldn’t discuss any of those changes without addressing the French Revolution, which began a little over a decade before the 19th century, in 1789. Historians also couldn’t wrap up the themes of the century neatly at 1900; the logical endpoint, and beginning of a new era in world history, was the First World War in 1914. This period, from the French Revolution to the outbreak of World War I, is referred to historiographically as the Long 19th Century. And I think it is important for us to discuss the first third of it, specifically in France, to get some context for our story. Let’s get learning!

It is difficult to imagine a nation that underwent more changes of government, in less time, than France did between 1789 and 1815. In that 26 years France was an Absolute Monarchy, a Republic, a Dictatorship, an Empire, briefly a Constitutional Monarchy, even more briefly an Empire again, and then stabilized as a Constitutional Monarchy. This arrangement wobbled in 1830 during a second revolution (you may have heard about it in Les Miserables), which maintained a Constitutional Monarchy of the Bourbons but moved the crown to another branch of the family, but then stabilized for about 30 years, until the revolution of 1848 established another Republic, which would be suborned into another Empire three years later. But since The Count of Monte Cristo was finished in 1846 we don’t have to worry about that part.

…yet.

Map France 1789

France Pre-Revolution.

Briefly: At the end of the 18th century the Kingdom of France was ruled by the Bourbon family, who held the throne and maintained their authority by Divine Right. However, due to, among other things, an inability to effectively levy taxes, particularly on the nobility, the cost of maintaining rivalries with Great Britain, Spain, and Austria, a handful of poor harvests, and the cartoonish extravagance of the Sun King Louis XIV a few generations before [cf. The end of the Spanish Golden Age -ed.], the kingdom was all but bankrupt. So in 1789, the first time in almost 200 years, the Estates General were invoked to find a way to make France solvent. The Estates General was an advisory body to the monarchy composed of three groups: the First Estate, the clergy, the Second Estate, the nobility, and the Third Estate, the “commoners”, although part of the requirement to participate in the Estate was a minimum tax payment. The vast majority of the Third Estate’s representation was actually drawn from the bourgeoisie, what we would call the upper middle class; lawyers, merchants, and non-noble landlords. With the aid of much of the First Estate and a few of the more liberal-minded of the Second, [most notably to my biased mind Hero of the American War of Independence and professional Revolutionary Gilbert du Motier, the Marquis de La Fayette -KH] the Third voted to rename the convocation the General Assembly and established its intention to create a Constitution for the nation which eliminated the feudal privileges of the nobility, dispossessed the Church of its holdings and wealth, and established a meritocratic and above all equal society. When the King attempted to dissolve the Assembly by dismissing its head, the Swiss financial expert Necker, and locking the representatives of the Third Estate out of their meeting hall, the people reacted…poorly. On July 14th partisan street fighters stormed prison/armory/Bourbon stronghold the Bastille, and we were off to the races. King Louis XVI lost his head to Madame La Guillotine a few years later and after some uncertainty France was officially a Republic in 1792.

Guillotine

“Une Exécution capitale, place de la Révolution”, by Pierre-Anton Demachy, 1793.

This Republic didn’t last long. Internal factionalism, paranoia, and radicalism from the sans-culottes [literally ‘without pants’, confusingly referring to the fact that laborers wore trousers instead of the knee-length breeches of the nobles -ed.], lower class laborers and peasantry, led to a series of massacres, show trials, and public executions initially targeting the nobility and clergy, and then spreading to moderates and critics of the sans-culottes in what is alarmingly but accurately referred to as the Terror. Under the influence of Maximilien Robespierre the radically leftist (even for revolutionaries) Committee of Public Safety oversaw the execution of almost twenty thousand and the arrest of over a quarter million more; the victims ranging from dispossessed nobles and noble sympathizers to political and personal enemies of the Committee. The Terror ended in 1794 in what is known as the Thermidorian Reaction; so named for the Revolutionary Month of Thermidor, mid-July to mid-August, when it took place. A coup by more moderate elements of the Revolution captured and executed Robespierre and a score of his allies, establishing in its place the Directory, a less radical but equally unpopular ruling council that was in its turn overthrown by Napoleon in 1799.

While this was happening in Paris the armies of the Revolution were fighting wars on just about all their borders. Austria, concerned by the precedent set by commoners guillotining their king and outraged by the execution of French queen and Austrian princess Marie Antoinette, declares war on Revolutionary France in 1792 and is joined by Prussia. [France actually preemptively declared war on THEM, presumably in order to have the initiative in the upcoming conflict, but since Austria was obviously preparing for war I am comfortable muddying the waters a little. This is why I don’t use my history degree that much; because I’m bad at it -KH] Spain, Portugal and Great Britain join the coalition the following year, and France suffers serious defeats in the Netherlands and the south of France. In 1794 the French armies, having instituted a universal draft and employing the unheard-of policy of promoting by merit instead of selling commissions, turned it around. By 1798 the French have established puppet client republics in the Netherlands, Belgium and Northern Italy, reached the gates of the Austrian capital of Vienna, and beaten the British so thoroughly at sea that Napoleon was free to invade British holdings in Egypt.

Napoleon

“Napoleon Crossing the Alps”, by Jacques-Louis David, 1801. I have a copy of this painting above my couch.

Since I’ve now mentioned him twice and he’s a fairly important figure in both the history of France and specifically in our story I should probably discuss him. Napoleon Bonaparte, a young Corsican artillerist who capitalized on the army’s new willingness to promote for merit, risen rapidly through the ranks, and been tremendously successful leading the Republican Army in Italy, seized the position of Consul in 1799 from the unpopular Directory. A few years later, like Caesar before him, he believed he should be Emperor instead. Unlike poor Caesar, however, the Senate of France agreed, and Napoleon was crowned Emperor of France in 1804. He promptly went back to war, that being what he was best at. He changed the policy of Revolutionary France’s warmaking from securing borders and supporting the causes of/establishing republics to the more Imperial goal of conquest. He conquered most of Western, Southern, and Central Europe until he found himself stymied in Spain by Arthur Wellesley and humiliated in Russia by General Winter. Napoleon was driven into exile on the Isle of Elba when the Allies (Great Britain, Spain, Russia…the rest of Europe) captured Paris in 1814, and Louis XVIII, the younger brother of the executed Louis XVI, was placed on the throne. But Napoleon, who had been tremendously popular as Emperor, not least for maintaining the Republican ideals of equality and meritocracy, escaped from exile less than a year later. He rallied his army for another try at conquering the world in the Hundred Days, only to be defeated again by Wellesley, now Duke Wellington, at Waterloo. With his defeat and second exile, this time to St. Helena in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, the Bourbon Restoration finally took and France was left to the (relative) stability of a constitutional monarchy under Louis XVIII. In 1815 the old order has been re-established, the nobility and the Church are returned to their previous positions of power, and all traces of Napoleonic or Revolutionary sentiment are ordered purged. A brief interruption in 1830 shifted the crown from one branch of the Bourbon family to another, but after that the body politic remained stable for almost twenty years.

This period of upheaval is the immediate backdrop to The Count of Monte Cristo, which begins literally days before Napoleon returns from Elba in 1815 and ends in 1839. France’s entire power structure has been inverted, twice, and it has conquered and subsequently lost most of Europe. It has shown the common people of France (and, indeed, the rest of Europe) that power is available for seizure, and that it could be maintained, even if all the world stood against them. It has taught the nobility that THEIR power is not as unassailable as they may have imagined. It has expelled religion entirely from the public sphere. And it has put the theories of the previous century’s Enlightenment into practice, radically leveling the field and explicitly enforcing the notion that all men are equal. That many of these changes were reversed by the Bourbon Restoration doesn’t mean they hadn’t happened, however much the King and his courtiers may wish it was so. Also worth noting is that the experience turned France into a Nation, with a coherent national identity beyond “the holdings of nobles owing allegiance to a king”. It maintains this identity even after the monarchy has been restored, with the new Bourbons referring to themselves as “King of the French” instead of “King of France”. This nascent proto-nationalism is the first whisper of the political movement that would define the Long 19th Century, and while it isn’t ESPECIALLY relevant to Monte Cristo it is still worth knowing.

I hope this helps to give you all some context for what is happening in and to France in the period immediately before our story starts. If this laughably incomplete history of France isn’t enough foreknowledge for you and you think it would help you understand the story if you’ve read it first, I would strongly encourage you to start right now, as the unabridged Count of Monte Cristo is about 1300 pages long. If you don’t want to read half a million words and you’re comfortable with trusting us to tell you the story, and you should be, the tickets are available now!

Lovers’ Vows: Biography Lesson

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

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

1280px-Mrs_Joseph_Inchbald,_by_Thomas_Lawrence

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lovers’ Vows: Literary Pedigree

Hi there everybody! It’s time for my first blog post of the season, and you know what that means: we’ve started rehearsals for an upcoming show! We will be opening this season in early November with Lovers’ Vows, by 18th-century novelist and playwright Elizabeth Inchbald, based upon the German playwright August von Kotzebue’s Das Kinde der Liebe [literally The Child of Love/Love-Child but occasionally translated as The Natural Son -ed.]

Unless you’re a student of 18th-century German theatre (or, surprisingly, political history), and if you’ve found your way to this blog post you may just be, you’ve almost certainly never heard of Kotzebue. He was a minor but reasonably popular author who was most famous for his murder as a “traitor to the fatherland” at the hands of Karl Ludwig Sand, a pro-German Unification student, during one of Germany’s many unfortunate flirtations with nationalism. I’m not especially interested in talking about him.

Of much greater interest to me is Elizabeth Inchbald, the actress, playwright, novelist, and critic who you’re also unlikely to have heard of. She is MUCH more interesting and I will certainly be digging deeper into her life at another time, but for now what is most relevant as regards her is that she wrote the play Lovers’ Vows, which we are staging this November and which you might have heard of if you worked your way deep enough into Jane Austen’s bibliography to read Mansfield Park, in which this play features prominently.

mansfield park

From Company Picture’s 2007 Mansfield Park. L-R: Joseph Beattie as Henry Crawford, Billie Piper as Fanny Price, Joseph Morgan as William Price, and Blake Ritson as Edmund Bertram.

Grateful as we are to Jane Austen for choosing to immortalize this play by its inclusion in Mansfield Park, it is worthwhile to speculate why she would do so. What purpose does it serve in the story and, more importantly, why she specifically chose THIS play, instead of the dozen or so others that Tom Bertram proposes. There is a simple answer that Austen supplies in the text, which also happens to be part of our own reasoning for selection: “They wanted a piece containing very few characters in the whole, but every character first-rate, and three principal women”. But there are some more thematically complex reasons that are worth exploring as well.

THOUGH I WILL DO MY BEST TO OBFUSCATE AND SPEAK IN GENERALITIES THIS BLOG POST WILL INCLUDE SOME SPOILERS FOR BOTH LOVERS’ VOWS AND MANSFIELD PARK. READ ON WITH CAUTION BUT ALSO IT WILL MAKE MORE SENSE IF YOU’RE FAMILIAR WITH AT LEAST ONE OF THEM.

First, a convenient inverse-similarity exists between many of the characters of the two stories, most noticeably the confident and forward Amelia and her retiring but righteous tutor Anhalt in the play, and in Mansfield Park the meek protagonist Fanny and her insufferably prudish and sanctimonious cousin/crush Edmund, perhaps the least likeable of Austen’s male love interests [What is it with characters named Edmund? King Lear, Narnia, this, all Edmunds are terrible -KH] {Edmond Dantes, star of our upcoming Count of Monte Cristo, gets a pass because he changes his name ~KH}. There are also comparisons to be made between Agatha and Fanny’s cousin Maria Bertram, both of whom loved not wisely but too well, and between Amelia’s father Baron Wildenhaim, and Fanny’s uncle and guardian Sir Thomas Bertram, who have differing views of their wards’ judgment and their own moral authority. And also a direct 1:1 similarity, with no ironic double meaning or inversion, between Austen’s Henry Crawford and Count Cassel, who both demonstrate feigned sincerity and inherent aristocratic respectability covering their shallow lusts. By happy coincidence almost all of these mirrors happen to align the actors in Mansfield Park with the characters they would have played! The only exception is Sir Thomas, who not only wasn’t going to appear in the show but also shut down the performance when he returned from his business trip to Antigua and ordered every copy of the play in his house burned. These mirrored characters and their in-play actions foreshadow their actors’ fates in the second half of Mansfield Park, a sort of preview of the story for those readers in the know.

[It is not impossible that there exists a reference to Mansfield Park in my personal favorite book, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, also, as the fate of the fiery Maria Bullworth in JS&MN seems to mirror that of Maria Rushworth nee Bertram eerily closely, with the role of notorious rake Henry Crawford being played expertly by the villainous Henry Lascelles. This has nothing at all to do with Lovers’ Vows and I don’t know what to do with this information, or even know for certain that it is an intentional homage (although those names are very similar to each other), but I noticed it and I cannot now fail to bring it up, because my mind is broken in a Very Particular Way which makes it impossible for me to stop talking or thinking about Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. -KH]

Strange Norrell Bullworth

From Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, 2004, chapter 36, All the mirrors of the world. L-R: Maria Bullworth, Jonathan Strange, Christopher Drawlight. Illustration by Portia Rosenberg.

On a broader level, Sir Thomas’ and that tattletale Edmund’s reactions to the allegedly prurient and offensive Lovers’ Vows (which dares to suggest that a woman should be honest and proactive in her desires, and that a man should be held at least as accountable for his actions as a woman) allows Austen to satirize the outrageous moral standards of her time. She contrasts the dangerous moral of the play, which ends with communication, understanding, satisfaction, and love between all parties, with the unsatisfying “happy ending” of Mansfield Park, in which seduction goes unpunished, the outspoken learn their place in meek servitude to their elders and betters, and the obsequious and passive are rewarded for their servility. Clearly a play with such a progressive and subversive message would truly be too dangerous to even see, much less perform, in this sort of society.

Fortunately for us, we now live in a world that, while still very bad, is not quite so upfront about its hatred and fear of transgressive art, nor so successful at restricting it, as the world of Mansfield Park. None of our dads even tried to burn our scripts when they found out what show we were doing. Please join us in November for the show, celebrate our freedom to stage a comparatively unknown but once extremely controversial show and see what all the fuss was about! Tickets are on sale now!

Treasure Island: Pirate History Lesson!

Truly there is no rest for the wicked. Macbeth just closed a few weeks ago and we’re already only another few weeks away from opening our third and final show of the season. Which means it’s about time for me to lecture you all at length about the history or cultural significance of whatever project we’re working on. I always look forward to doing this, because there is little that nerds love more than getting to show off how much more they know than other people. But I’m even more excited about this one than I usually am, because we’re putting on an adaptation of Treasure Island and that means that the topic of my lecture today is pirates!

I should clarify that I am specifically talking about Caribbean pirates during the Golden Age of Piracy, between the 1680s and 1720s. Pirates have always existed, wherever people have transported goods on the water and other people have stolen them, but the image you have in your head, with the cutlass and the Jolly Roger and the ruffled shirt and the bottle of rum, come to us directly, and surprisingly accurately, from the Caribbean. [Treasure Island is actually responsible for one of the only falsehoods we generally believe about pirates; that they buried their treasure, when instead, of course, they spent it. -ed.] Allow me to elaborate for 1500 words.

Capture of Blackbeard

“The Capture of the Pirate, Blackbeard, 1718”. By Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, 1920.

The reason that our image of pirates hews so closely to reality is due in large part to the fact that pirates were consciously cultivating and trading on their reputation and image. They actively sought to create an aura of menace to cow their victims with the terror of a pirate attack, so they took every available opportunity to make themselves look fearsome and desperate. The Jolly Roger flags they flew were adorned with totenkopfs, bleeding hearts, daggers, skellingtons…all manner of sinister imagery to terrify their victims. Blackbeard grew out his beard and hair and stuffed burning fuses in them so he would look like a demon during raids. This curated savage appearance made them intimidating and marked them as outsiders with dangerous and antisocial ideas. They wanted to distinguish themselves from the society from which they had been voluntarily exiled. Being a pirate was about freedom, and they wanted to celebrate that freedom. Outlaw bikers and punks dress and act in a very similar style for more or less the same reason; to shock the normals and consciously make a distinction between themselves and society. 

Our stereotype about pirates’ drunkenness is also borne out by the historical record. But all sailors were drunk; the difficulty of keeping fresh water fresh on a ship travelling across the ocean meant that the only drinkable fluids had to have alcohol in them. Plus sailing was hard, dangerous, boring work, and getting drunk every day was one of the few sources of reliable entertainment and escape available. English sailors had a daily ration of booze, usually somewhere in the neighborhood of a gallon of beer, 8 ounces of rum or brandy, or a bottle of wine. Pirates were simply less constrained in their consumption than ordinary sailors, being governed democratically [more on this in a second -KH] instead by of a top-down bureaucracy. Many of the extant pirate contracts and accords set it in stone that there is to be no rationing of alcohol or food consumption on the ship, unless there was danger of running out. This meant that securing sources of alcohol was often the highest priority. There are multiple accounts of pirates seizing a ship and only taking their wine, or of expeditions turning around because their supply of rum had run out or been destroyed.

Rum Bottles

There’s a reason rum brands are so thoroughly associated with sailors and the ocean. Photo by Tim Nusog.

As I mentioned above pirate ships were governed democratically; every crew member got a vote on the ship’s council, and the whole crew got a roughly equal share of any treasure. Rules were agreed upon and a contract signed before the ship sailed, and any disputes while on the journey would be decided by the ship’s council. The captain was in command during battle only, and for the responsibility received only a double share. The captaincy was also democratically elected and could be (and frequently were) deposed at more or less any time. This is in marked contrast to most navy and civilian ships at the time, which paid a fortune to their captains and a pittance, when it paid at all, to their crews, and were run like dictatorships. Floggings, beatings, and other, more arcane corporal punishments like the keel-haul or the gauntlet were common. The English navy in particular also had a nasty habit of “pressing” sailors, abducting them from merchant ships or literally kidnapping them off the street and forcing them into service It should not be surprising that most pirates started out as ordinary sailors who either deserted (often when they were boarded by pirates themselves) or mutinied.

There were also both unofficial pirate havens and settlements that were inhabited and run solely BY pirates. There was minimal presence in the area from colonial governments and pirates would routinely outnumber and outgun any garrisons. The heaps of treasure pirates had at their disposal made it extremely easy for them to dole out bribes, and their intimidating reputation made taking those bribes an easy choice for most mayors and colonial governors. Tortuga and Port Royal (until its destruction in an earthquake) were major hubs of pirate activity. In addition to these unofficial havens were settlements and ports actively and entirely under the control of pirates, in a conscious effort to recreate a similar pirate society on the island of Madagascar. Nassau in particular became the ‘capital’, if such a thing could exist, of the Republic of Pirates in the Bahamas.

Pirate Haven

From Sid Meier’s Pirates!, 2004.

Demographically pirates were more diverse than ordinary European or Caribbean society. The majority were English, and then a melting pot of Northern European nations, including French, Irish, Scottish (including many partisans of the exiled Stuart dynasty), Dutch, Danish, and Swedish, with a handful of Native American, mestizo, and African sailors as well. Having African sailors as crew members instead of as slaves seems to have been a ship-to-ship, and even person-to-person, decision; there were free black pirates on ships that re-sold slaves from captured slaver ships. There are also on record two female pirates at the time (and on the same ship under Calico Jack Rackham), Anne Bonny and Mary Read. And were I a gambling man I would wager there were many more who we don’t know about; existing as it did on the fringes of society, piracy would be likely to attract all manner of misfits and outcasts, including women seeking agency in their own lives.

Anne Bonny Mary Read

L-R: Anne Bonny and Mary Read. Illustration from Charles Johnson’s A General History of the Pyrates, 1724.

Contemporary accounts usually painted pirates as treacherous, greedy, cowardly, and vicious, because the contemporary accounts were written by authorities who had a vested interest in making piracy seem as hideous as possible. Elements of this reputation were in many ways welcomed and encouraged by the pirates themselves, because it made it much easier to intimidate civilian crews into surrendering (and because it suited their self-identity as outsiders). While it is certainly true that there were some pirates who tortured or executed prisoners it was very uncommon and frowned upon; Charles Vane was famous for his cruelty, but was also stripped of his captaincy and marooned by his crew for it. For all his fearsome reputation and appearance Blackbeard was never once known to execute anyone.

The historiography on piracy has undergone a recent shift to more accurately and sympathetically examine pirates, and the historical record is now much kinder to them. Pirates are now seen as more akin to the Luddite machine-breakers; disruptors, anarchists, and proto-socialists who scorned the society that would rather see them dead than equitably treated, or to frontiersmen who found autonomy in the absence of laws. This is not to say that pirates were maligned and persecuted heroes of yesteryear; they still made their living by theft and terror and by preying on the defenseless, and although they were mostly not sadists they were also certainly not opposed to killing. But the romantic, swashbuckling, devil-may-care reputation that they now enjoy is certainly how they saw themselves.

Will Turner

I swear I tried to avoid using pictures from these movies. Orlando Bloom as Will Turner, from Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.

 

A reputation that they currently enjoy in large part due to books like Treasure Island! Despite being written under the older historiographical model, in which pirates were villainous scum, this story and others like it were key to romanticizing the lifestyle and keeping them in the public eye. All media that depicts pirates, even the stories like this one or Peter Pan where they are the villains, inescapably serve to romanticize them. Just like, as Truffaut says, it is impossible to make a truly anti-war film, you cannot include pirates in a story without making them seem cool. Everyone wants to be a pirate, because pirates are the coolest.

If YOU want to be a pirate, or at least see us pretend to be pirates, please join us for Treasure Island! We will be performing at various locations throughout the city in May and June, and we’d be happy to have you join us! Tickets are available now!

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.

Blog in the Manger: History Lesson

Hello again, dear readers! Literary Director/Dramaturge/Blog Slave Keith Hock here. I am delighted to tell you we began our rehearsals for Dog in the Manger on Monday! I got to attend rehearsals for the last two nights to do some table work and exchange my Writing Chains for the Dramaturgy Hat for a little while. This is going to be a hell of a show that the rest of the team and I are very excited to share it with you. We are especially excited to bring it to you because it is comparatively little-known and so we have an opportunity (rare in a classical theatre company) to likely be your first experience with this play! Because we don’t want you to go in COMPLETELY blind, though, I wanted to take this opportunity to give you a little bit of context on Spanish theatre, our author Lope de Vega, and why I believe you don’t recognize his name or his plays despite him being utterly fascinating.

First some baseline information. Our play, Dog in the Manger, comes out of the Golden Age of Spanish Theatre, approximately 1580s-1670s. You may recognize this as contemporaneous with Shakespeare and his fellows, and shortly after the rise of the commedia dell’arte in Italy, the two styles to which it hews most closely artistically. You may also notice that you are familiar with Elizabethan theatre, and commedia, but have never seen anything purporting to have come out of the siglo de oro, much less seen theatre companies that are dedicated to exploring the style and aesthetic, like countless Shakespeare companies and our colleagues over at Faction of Fools. Until the past 40 or so years there has been little market penetration by Golden Age Spanish theatre in non-Spanish-speaking environments, I believe in large part due to the Black Legend.

The what? What is the Black Legend? I’m glad you asked, rhetorical framing device. The Black Legend was a historiographical tool that viewed Renaissance Spain through the lens of atrocities such as the Reconquista, Inquisition, subjugation of the Low Countries, and colonization of the Americas and concluded that Spain was a nation of cruel and intolerant monsters whose culture, beliefs, and ideologies have been rightfully forgotten by history. A culture such as this, which expelled or forced conversion on Muslims and Jews after confiscating their wealth, which profited off the exploitation and slaughter of native peoples in Mexico and the Caribbean, which fought an 80 Years’ War rather than tolerate Protestant faith in a portion of its holdings, could not understand or create any art that was subtle, sophisticated, or worth consuming. Surely no society run by those inbred bigots the Habsburgs could produce anything beautiful. Or so the argument went.

Charles II

Charles II, Last of the Spanish Habsburgs. Please note the profound busted-ness of his grill, otherwise known as the Habsburg Jaw

I will not deny that all of these horrific things, and many more, happened in Renaissance Spain. But I (and other, much better, theatre and regular historians) do not believe that these atrocities disqualify the art and culture created there, nor do we believe that Spain was somehow unique in its commitment of atrocities in the time period. Modern historians now regard the Black Legend as propaganda, more of a slam piece by contemporary-through-Enlightenment European rivals such as England and what is now the Netherlands to discredit and damage Spanish and Catholic prestige on the global stage. While the Black Legend itself has been discredited, it did its job pretty good for a while there, and the international community has largely ignored or at the least undervalued Spain’s greatest theatrical achievements for close to 400 years.

That is the only reason I can think of that we wouldn’t all learn about this era, and especially its greatest playwright, Lope de Vega, in the same high school literature class where we learned about Shakespeare and Cervantes. Which is too bad, because de Vega is well worth learning about. He claimed to have written over 2000 plays, which you might recognize as an utterly ludicrous number. He is known for certain to have written between 600 and 800, a somehow equally insane number, which would amount to writing more than one play a month, every month, for 50 years. If that were his sole claim to fame he would still be worth discussing just for that. But he was also a genius, a generational talent. His best plays, Dog in the Manger included, rank with the plays of Shakespeare, Racine, and Aeschylus.

De Vega

Felix Lope de Vega y Carpio, 1562-1635.

Even setting aside his prodigious output and preternatural talents, however, his life was NUTS. Born to a middle-class family, he was educated to be a priest but elected instead to marry twice, have several additional love affairs, and father at least 16 children, both legitimate and bastards. After the first of those affairs (with a prominent actress named Elena) went south he…didn’t take it well, and wrote a series of libelous poems about the woman and her family. The authorities quickly deduced it was him and he was exiled from Castile for two years, and the city of Madrid for eight. When he went into exile, he took his 16-year-old lover Isabel with him. They married in 1588, the same year that he sailed with the Armada. Fortunately for the art of theatre he escaped that fiasco with his life and settled in Valencia to live out the duration of his exile. For the next several years he served in the household of the Duke of Alba, until his wife Isabel died in childbirth in 1594. This coincided with the end of his exile and he returned to Madrid, where he lived and worked as an author until his death. He remarried to a woman named Juana in in 1598 (while continuing his numerous affairs) and supplemented his writing income by becoming secretary to the Duke of Sessa in 1607. Juana also died in childbirth in 1612 and in 1614 de Vega did at long last enter the priesthood, though without curtailing or even attempting to limit his affairs. In this time he was also a theatrical censor and informant for the Inquisition, and more than once attempted to ascend to the role of Royal Chronicler, though his ambitions were foiled by his common heritage. In 1616 he met his final love Marta, who would stay with him through the loss of her sight and reason until her death in 1632. De Vega himself would die in 1635 after the death of his favored son and the abduction of his youngest daughter, and his funeral allegedly took a full nine days and featured 150 speakers.

Hopefully this has given you a vague sense of the cultural geopolitics of 17th century Europe and how they could impact the popularity of plays in the modern day, as well as a small taste of the eccentricities of our playwright. I look forward to sharing much more with you as the creative team and I explore this play and see what beauty from the Golden Age of Spanish Theatre we’ve been missing all our lives. Won’t you come join us?

 

But wait! Don’t go yet! Unfortunately these Dog in the Manger rehearsals have kept me from writing about our other currently running performance, Dracula! [A situation I hope to rectify next week, so keep your eyes peeled -KH] Our space-specific four-person adaptation of Dracula is returning this weekend, to the Otis Street Arts Project! Follow THIS LINK for details, and join us there on October 14th!

The Gallic Temper

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

Savinien_de_Cyrano_de_Bergerac

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

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

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

Three Musketeers

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

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

 

SONY DSC

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

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

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

Bigger Lancelot

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

 

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

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

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

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

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.

Too Late To Be Known As John the First.jpg

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.

Go Tar Heels.jpg

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.

Dewey Defeats Truman

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.

Henry V Ugly Version

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.

VJ Kiss

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.

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.

poe-annie-daguerreotype

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.

wanderer-above-the-sea-of-fog

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.

harry-clarke-into-the-maelstrom-poe

“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 Path of the Circle

Hello Faithful Readers! Loyal blogslave Keith Hock here, and I want to take this opportunity to tell you a little about our upcoming play, CHALK, and its very interesting history, but in order to do that, I need to talk to you about stories. If you read my previous blog post about Star Wars or the one about Iphigenia you know I have a lot to say about stories, where they come from, and how they’re told and explored by different people and cultures. It may or may not be obvious to you that if you break down stories, and keep breaking them down, further and further until all you have is the bare structure, you start to find similar structures. There are only so many things that can happen to a character; how many stories can be described as “man is betrayed, seeks revenge” or “woman meets man, circumstances keep them separated” or “arrogance causes a person’s downfall” or “God floods the earth”? A lot, across all cultures. Some people much much smarter than me or you (well, me at least) realized this, and that these stories kept appearing over and over in different cultures, and they created something called the Aarne-Thompson-Uther Folk Tale Classification Index to keep track of them; to group similar stories, trace origins, and possibly discover the Ur-Myths that gave rise to them [A friend of mine who is also much much smarter than me clued me in to the existence of this amazing resource, for an unrelated project]. The story we are telling this summer would be classified as ATU 926: Clever Acts and Words, the Judgment of Solomon, otherwise known as the Circle of Chalk.

But the bare-bones classification number and description isn’t a story, much less a compelling one that you should go see in late June or early July. The structure is not the art, its just what holds the art together. How did this dry story structure, ATU 926, become a story you would be interested to hear? I am glad you asked, because that is the exact question I spent the next 2500 words answering. I would like to tell you the story of The Story of the Circle of Chalk, from its origin in the temple of Solomon, through South Asia to the Forbidden City, all the way back up the Silk Road to Europe from the Orientalist salons to the rubble of the Berlin Wall, where We Happy Few are honored to pick up the trail ourselves.

Solomon

The Judgment of Solomon, by Raphael.

The origin of the Ur-Myth that led us on the path that would eventually lead to CHALK is, in the nature of  Ur-Myths, likely destined to remain a mystery. The oldest version of the story that exists, and which I would therefore assert is the probable origin point, would be the famous Judgment of Solomon in First Kings in the Old Testament, dating, at the very latest, to around 500 BC. If you are reading this under a rock or immediately after an attack of amnesia and are therefore somehow unfamiliar with the myth, the basis of the story is that two women bring a baby to the king and each claim that the child belongs to them. Solomon, in his infinite wisdom, calls for his sword and proposes to cut the living baby in half and each presumptive mother be given an equal portion. One of the mothers rather spitefully assents to this suggestion, while the other pleads that she would rather see the child alive and raised by her rival than cut into pieces in front of her. Solomon cunningly deduces from this test that she is the true mother and awards her custody, and “all Israel heard of the judgment that the king had rendered, and they stood in awe of the king, because they perceived that the wisdom of God was in him to do justice”. I am glossing over a few elements here (the women are prostitutes and roommates, the first one accidentally crushed her own baby to death by rolling onto it while sleeping and swapped her dead child with the other woman’s live one, the babies were born 3 days apart), but the basic structure is there. That structure is very simple. A child, usually a boy, is at stake, and two women claim it. It is one woman’s word against the other, and there is no way for any outsider to know who is telling the truth. The judge proposes a trial which will in some way harm the child, the true mother would rather give the child away than potentially hurt him, and the judge uses her compassion as evidence that she is the real mother.

Next came The Mahosadha’s Judgment from Hindu folklore. In this story, instead of two women arguing, it is a single woman and a shapeshifting ghoul who steals the child in order to devour it. In addition, the judge (in this case Mahosadha, an incarnation of the Buddha) knows from the beginning which is the true mother, as the ghoul was unable to conceal its red eyes or inability to cast a shadow from the Enlightened One. And finally, instead of threatening to cut the baby in half, Mahosadha draws a line on the ground, stands the kid between the women on it, and instructs the two women to pull the child to them. It proceeds the same; when the mother lets go she explains that she could not bear to hurt her child, the judge demonstrates from this that she must be the mother, and lectures the crowd and demon on the virtue of compassion. It is not impossible that this, or a similar story on the subcontinent, is actually the Ur-Myth; while the stories are similar, there are a number of key differences and there are no hints that clearly suggest one story was drawn from the other. The line on the ground and the arm-pulling is a storytelling advancement from bisection in the direction of the Circle, but no other version has the judge knowing the identity of the mother before he conducts the trial or any supernatural elements, both of which seem likely things to disappear as a story is refined. Since the earliest physical evidence of this story appears much later than Wisdom of Solomon, however, I am willing to give the nod to the Old Testament as the origin. It also pleases me aesthetically if the path of syncretism flows East from the Holy Land to the subcontinent to China, instead of beginning in India, moving first to the Levant and then doubling back to get to the Far East.

Mahosadha

Sudarshanarama, by Galle Naravala

Additional evidence that the story began with the Old Testament is the original Chinese version of the story, dated around 150 AD, which is much closer to the Wisdom of Solomon than that of the Buddha, but clearly carries elements of the Hindu story; two women are pregnant, one miscarries but conceals it, steals the other’s child in the middle of the night. The judge had the child stand in the middle of the room and the women on opposite ends, and run to snatch him up. The older woman grabs him first and he begins to cry, at which the younger woman lets him go for fear of hurting him. By this evidence the Councilor-in-Chief deduces that the younger is the mother. This story features two women, one whose child has died, instead of a monster, a point in Solomon’s favor. But it also shows the women themselves being forced to act upon the child, specifically pulling on him, instead of a threat of violence from the Authority, which leans towards the Mahosadha. It could still go either way (hell, maybe THIS is the first story and the other two are disseminated from it!) but given how old the Old Testament is I still give the origin to Solomon.

This story in turn gave rise to the first representation of the story to my knowledge in play format, in Hui-Lan-Ki, The Story of the Circle of Chalk, from about 1200-1300 AD. This is where things really start to change, as the myth acquires an actual story and characters with names to lead up to the final judgment, as well as, at long last, the circle on the ground. Unfortunately, as I cannot read medieval Chinese (or modern Chinese for that matter) we must rely on the prudish 19th-century Bowlderization translation of Stanislas Julien into French in the 1820s. This translation, while old-fashioned, is absolutely hilarious, primly informing us at a particularly salacious scene that “Here follow eleven words, expurgated by Stanislas Julien, coarsely describing the physical attractions of Chen” [Naturally it was the first order of business of Kerry McGee and myself in adapting to ensure that our text made explicit mention of the nature of Chen’s …substantial physical attraction]. They also curiously remove all details on the mechanics of childbirth “for reasons of propriety” but leave in every one of the 5 beatings that the female protagonist receives, a small but telling glimpse at the priorities of 19th-century Europe.

Chalk Circle

Unnamed Illustration in  The Story of the Circle of Chalk, trans. Frances Hume, published by The Rodale Press. Painted by John Buckland-Wright

But I have put the cart before the horse. Let’s look what has been added; a plot. A young woman’s family has fallen onto hard times when her father dies and she is forced to “sell her beauty” to support her mother and brother. The brother, ashamed by this, beats his sister and departs in a rage to live with his uncle. A wealthy man has become enamored with the young woman and marries her as his second wife, but not before her mother extracts a sizable dowry from him and then promptly dies. The man’s first wife becomes jealous of her after the young woman bears him a son. She hates her husband and is having an affair with a clerk [the well-endowed Chen; see above], and the two of them begin to plot a way to kill the wealthy man and take his estate. The young woman’s brother returns impoverished and the first wife gives him gifts which the young woman had originally received from the rich man. The first wife tells the rich man that the young woman had an affair and offers the gifts she gave as evidence. In a fit of rage the rich man beats the young woman and then is poisoned by his first wife, who frames the young woman and claims the child as her own. A laughably corrupt and incompetent judge hears the testimony of some bribed townspeople, beats the young woman, sentences her to death, and then beats her some more for good measure. On the road to the capitol for execution the young woman is beaten even more by her guards and meets her brother again, who now serves in the court. In the capitol her case is heard again by a competent judge, who smells something fishy in the details. He hears the details, including all the beatings, and then calls for a piece of chalk and draws a circle on the floor. The young woman proves her innocence by releasing the child when it cries out, the clerk is beaten until he confesses to the murder, and he and the first wife are sentenced to be “cut into one hundred and twenty pieces”. And they all lived happily ever after. Not an exceptionally stirring plot, but a real story with rising and falling action and characters with traits beyond ‘mother’ and ‘judge’, ripe to be further refined.

Which it, of course, was, by German playwright Klabund in Der Kreidekreis, the Chalk Circle, about 100 years later in 1925. The plot remains the same with a few additions meant to update the story for a new audience: the wealthy man drove the young woman’s father to commit suicide, the Imperial Prince meets the young woman in the ‘tea’-house before the wealthy man marries her, her brother has fallen in with a revolutionary secret society and is sentenced to death alongside her, her case is retried after the Emperor dies and all death sentences are appealed by the new Emperor, who just happens to be the same Prince the young woman met before, and they get married.  Also, very uncomfortably, the love-struck Imperial Prince snuck into the young woman’s room while she worked in the tea house and ‘made love’ to raped her in her sleep, which she believed was a dream, and the child is revealed to actually be the new Prince of China [Kerry and I made very sure that this did NOT find its way into our interpretation of the story]. This is the same story, with a handful of flourishes to make it more interesting for a German audience, but it is still recognizably a Chinese story.

That all changed with Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle, the most famous interpretation of the story since Solomon (at least for now) and introducer of a number of story differences. I will not bore you with a full summary of Brecht, as it is a damn sight easier to get your hands on his plays than the Klabund or Julien, and I am already pushing 2000 words in this post. I will say, however that while the bones of the story remain identifiable, Cauc Chalk is very much its own story in a way that Der Kreidekreis was not. Brecht ditches the mother and the brothel and the affair and the poison, adds a literal class war, makes the young woman a fugitive, introduces some ancillary mean and selfish people, expands the character of the judge; he makes the story, in a word, Brechtian. Most significantly, however, he inverts the moral; the young woman is NOT the mother of the child, but a poor maid who protected the child from a mob when his mother abandoned him, and raised him herself, and when the trial comes, it is SHE, not the baby’s bourgeois mother, who is awarded custody. Also, in case his political leanings weren’t transparent enough, he adds a framing device where two neighboring kolkhoz argue about who deserves to use their adjoining valley that they liberated from the Nazis, and they turn to a character they address as “Comrade Agronomist” to settle the dispute before listening to the story of the Circle of Chalk. Brecht took the 2500-year-old implication in the myth that blood will out, that the bond of family is the most important thing in the world, and he asked if it was really still the best metric that we had, or if, perhaps, we should place more weight on a person’s actions and potential than on the circumstances of their birth. An altogether-too-relevant question for an exiled Communist German writer in the 1940s; a frustratingly-still-relevant question today.

Berlin Wall Falls

Muro de Berlin, photo by Alexandra Akavian

After Brecht, Charles Mee took a crack at the story in his own Full Circle, which he cheekily set in Brecht’s native Germany in the chaos of the demolition of the Berlin Wall. In many ways a shot-for-shot update of Brecht’s play, Full Circle doesn’t add much to the core of the Ur-Myth. Exploring the Ur-Myth and the meanings of love, duty, family, and obligation was never what Mee had in mind with this play, though; this play is about the cyclical nature of politics, and the crosshairs of Full Circle were centered on Communists, capitalists, revolutionaries, fascists…anyone who believes that there is a uniform System that would be the best for everyone, if everyone would only listen and do what they were told. Mee, in fine Mee fashion, does an excellent job of pointing out the flaws in every argument without suggesting a workable solution, enumerating what is bad without postulating what is good, and bringing everybody down a needed peg or two. The moral of his judge to the mothers is ‘If you let go of something it will be taken from you, and the winner is the person who ends with it’’. Because he is Charles Mee, he also has plenty to say about the role and purpose and meaning of art in society, particularly in the form of an exceedingly long speech he gives to his judge. As a play Full Circle is as great as your own feelings on Charles Mee and his particular style will allow it to be; as a piece exploring the Wisdom of Solomon…

All this, of course, brings us to OUR play, the next step along the path which we just began rehearsing this Monday. The Hebrews came up with the myth, the Hindus gave the actors agency, the Chinese fit the myth into a story, Brecht interrogated the moral of the myth, Mee used the myth to explore a different story; what did we add? Well, I suppose you’ll just have to come see the play in June to find out.

Until next time,
Keith Hock