Count of Monte Cristo: Sad News and Sandwiches

NOTE: I began writing this blog before we knew that the run of Count of Monte Cristo would be cancelled, but I had too much fun writing about sandwiches for a thousand+ words to not share it with you all, and I figured that now was as good a time as any for some levity. So I’m sorry that this isn’t like a history of infectious disease and its relation to the theatre or something, sorry I couldn’t write up an essay about London theatres being closed during epidemic outbreaks or how the action of Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist is predicated on the city being emptied of its wealthiest inhabitants out of fear of the Plague. Hopefully in the future I’ll have more lead time and can put something like that together. -KH, Blogslave

Last week I shared with you all the historical context essential to the understanding of The Count of Monte Cristo, not only because it is my job to give you the audience the information that you will need to appreciate the show that my friends and I worked so hard to create for you, but also because history is one of my great passions. History is something I care about and trouble myself to understand deeply, because knowing and understanding history makes me feel connected to humanity at large. I’m a traditionalist sort of guy [sneak in to a pitch meeting some time to see just how boring, backwards and basic old-fashioned my show suggestions tend to be -KH] and the study of history gives me a comforting sense of continuity and fellowship with mankind.

This week, in an incredibly inadequate replacement for the Opening Night we were supposed to have tonight, I want to share with you another of my great passions, one about which I feel at least as strongly, and which comforts me at least as deeply, as the study of history. I am talking, of course, about sandwiches. And specifically, the Monte Cristo sandwich; what it is, how to make it, and arguably most importantly for the blog of a theatre company, what in the Sam Hill it could possibly have in common with our new show other than the name. Of all our shows in the past 9 years, this is the first time I have been able to shoehorn in a sandwich discussion [and I’ve been trying, believe-you-me -KH], and I’m certainly not going to let an opportunity like this go to waste. Please indulge me.

First things first: What is it? The Monte Cristo is one of a handful of sandwiches whose name is not self-explanatory, like Egg Salad or Beef on Weck or BLT or Turkey-Swiss Panini or Sausage Egg & Cheese McMuffin. It instead shares the cryptic naming convention of the Reuben, the Elvis, the Club, or that lovely French couple, Mr. and Mrs. Crunch themselves, the croque monsieur and croque madame. The Monte Cristo also defies simple description; it is one of the more…complicated sandwiches that I can think of, and as you might imagine from what you’ve read already I spend a lot of time thinking about sandwiches. It has three slices of bread, two kinds of meat, mandatory compression (an element shared only by the panini and archaic internet darling the Shooter’s Sandwich), egg batter, and is pan-fried [if you’re a Food Sinner it also has powdered sugar and raspberry jam -ed.] The best comparison I can make is a grilled cheese combined with a club sandwich, made with French toast.

So, second things second: how do you make it? [In case this wasn’t clear, this will indeed be one of those “three paragraphs of nonsense before the recipe” recipe. You know, those things everybody hates? But instead of being supposed to be a recipe, this is supposed to be an essay about what Monte Cristo sandwiches have to do with the Alexandre Dumas novel The Count of Monte Cristo, and We Happy Few’s adaptation thereof, so really this is the meaningless paragraph, not the previous ones -ed.] You start with the bread. Three slices, ideally brioche or something else rich and/or spongy. Like with French toast a little stale is fine, perhaps even ideal; my girlfriend taught me that in France French toast is called pain perdu, ‘lost bread’, because it is a way to use bread that you wouldn’t ordinarily eat, so dont fret about the freshness. Spread one slice with dijon mustard, then top with a slice of swiss cheese and two slices of deli turkey. If you like to mix sweet and savory, spread the next slice of bread with raspberry jam, then top with another slice of swiss cheese and two slices of ham. If you’re a good person use more dijon instead of jam. Put on the final slice of bread and smoosh it down real good. Cut off the crusts and press the edges together to seal everything in. Leave the sandwich weighted down while you prepare the batter; whisk together an egg and a splash of milk, maybe an ounce or two, and add in salt, pepper, nutmeg, and garlic. Dredge your sandwich in the batter (coat in breadcrumbs and re-dredge if you’re feeling fancy), place in a buttered frying pan over medium-low heat, cover and cook for 5 minutes. Flip and cook for 4 more, then remove and slice on the bias. If you’re anything like me both sides of the sandwich will be dark brown tending towards black but somehow the cheese won’t have melted yet; if you’re a good cook it will be golden brown and perfectly cooked through. If you used jam dust the sandwich with powdered sugar. Eat and enjoy!

Now, the real question. What does this have to do with our (cancelled) play? The name seems to be a misnomer, not used until the middle of the 20th century. It was apparently chosen because it sounded mysterious, fancy, and French-like. It did not seem to be intentionally chosen in reference to Dumas’ book, but it nevertheless has a number of similarities. The first I have already mentioned; the secret hidden by the name Monte Cristo. Just as Edmond Dantes hides his true name in order to seek his revenge, so does the sandwich conceal its ingredients behind a name. The second I have referred to as well; Monte Cristo, both for the sandwich and for Dantes himself, is a name that suggests fanciness. Dantes started as a simple sailor, and the sandwich begins with basic deli meats and old bread, but it sounds much more exotic and exciting to say “Monte Cristo” than to say “Edmond Dantes” or “Pan-fried Turkey, Ham, and Swiss Egg-Battered Sandwich with Raspberry Jam”, which we can all agree is a mouthful [but the bad kind, not the good kind, like the sandwich. -KH] The third is closely tied to the second; wealth and richness. Just as the Abbe Faria passes on the lost wealth of the Spadas to Dantes and gives him untold riches, so does the sandwich become much richer when you add the batter and fry it in butter.

There, unfortunately, we have it. Usually I would just now be swapping my Dramaturgy Chains for my Box Office Hat [MUCH prettier but, unfortunately, just as heavy. -KH] However, due to the unfortunate global outbreak of the Coronavirus we have cancelled our upcoming run of The Count of Monte Cristo. In lieu of my normal request that you purchase tickets to our upcoming show, I would instead ask that you keep yourselves safe and healthy in this uncertain time. And that, should you find yourself with excess coin after ensuring your own stability, you send a little of it our way as well. Times will be tight for us, as you might imagine, and every little bit helps us to pay our actors, designers, and technicians so we can keep making art for you.

Stay healthy, everyone. I hope to see you soon,
Keith and the team at We Happy Few

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: Melodrama

Tonight is the night! It’s time for Opening Night, to reintroduce Elizabeth Inchbald and Lovers’ Vows to the world of theatre, where they both belong. We are thrilled for the opportunity to share this play with you all and to restore Inchbald’s reputation as a master of the stage. It is difficult now, having lived and breathed this show for months, to imagine how this play could have vanished, largely remembered only as ‘the play in Mansfield Park’, considering how much fun it IS, how popular and controversial it WAS, and how illuminating that controversy and by extension the play as a whole is into the gender politics of the time, especially considering that it was written by a woman [you’ll have to read my dramaturgy notes for a fuller but still laughably incomplete exploration of that controversy -KH]. I do have a guess as to why it may have been cast aside, however, and very conveniently for me and fortunately for you it is an explanation that dovetails nicely with an element of our staging that I can call out and discuss with you. That idea, of course, is the Melodrama. I think that the formulaic nature of melodramas makes it easy for people to underestimate and ignore them, and I think that the elements of melodrama in Lovers’ Vows may have unjustly hurt its reputation in the historical record.

What do I mean by melodrama? It is one of those words that is easier to understand through examples than by definition, but the core elements are exaggerated characters, obvious plot points, outsized reactions, and utter sincerity in production. It has some elements, the exaggerated character types and formulaic plot structure, in common with Italian commedia dell’arte, Spanish siglo de oro, and Japanese Noh plays. Lovers’ Vows is not a full melodrama (see our director Kerry McGee’s director notes for more information about the line that it walks) but it shares some of these traits with the pseudogenre. It is not as by-the-numbers as some of Inchbald’s earlier plays, in which she used descriptor names to indicate the morality and traits of the characters; a common form of literary shorthand you may recognize from, among other places, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, in which the villain is named Chillingworth [no offence to any readers named Chillingworth, but it is an objectively sinister name -KH]. But the play is no mystery, and while surprises by the handful are in store for the characters, the audience is unlikely to be shocked by any of the revelations. It is a style that rewards fidelity to structure, that draws energy and humor from its rigidity to form.

And if you know anything about our approach to staging challenges, and specifically my analysis of our approach to staging challenges, is that we love to Lean In. Finding what makes a play tick and emphasizing it. In this case what makes the play tick is traditional execution. So we are executing the play traditionally.

Proscenium.jpg

From We Happy Few’s 2019 production Lovers’ Vows. L-R: Jessica Lefkow as Agatha, Lee Ordeman as Baron Wildenhaim, Jack Novak as Frederick, Gabby Wolfe as Amelia, Alex Turner as Anhalt. Photo by Mark Williams Hoelscher.

We are putting the show in a straight proscenium, no tricky inversions or thrust configurations or in-the-round shenanigans. A proscenium focuses the audience’s attention on the stage, paints the same picture to every member of the audience, defines the playing space, contains the action. This show doesn’t want to conceal anything or trick the audience, leave ambiguity about where the action is taking place or what is motivating a choice. It wants to hide information from its characters but make that information abundantly clear to the audience. So our proscenium emphasizes the reality of the world on stage and reassures the viewer that they can trust their perceptions and their assumptions. And, more importantly, that they can trust us.

We are playing in period costumes. No ambiguity about the time or place that the play is inhabiting; we want it to be abundantly clear that we are in rural Germany in the mid to late 1700s. More importantly and unusually for us, we also have no on-stage quick changes. Everyone is who they are. We don’t want the audience to spend time or energy thinking about who or what else a character could become, we want them to focus on who they are and what they are doing in the moment. Unlike many of our shows, everything on stage is exactly as it seems, and our clarity in costuming emphasizes that the audience should trust their senses and us, the players, to deliver on their expectations of the world we are inhabiting.

Costumes.jpg

From We Happy Few’s 2019 production of Lovers’ Vows. Background: Jessica Lefkow as Agatha. Foreground: Jack Novak as Frederick. Photo by Mark Williams Hoelscher.

Melodramas and other form-driven plays live or die by their execution. The point isn’t to surprise the audience with revelations, it is to reward their understanding of story structure and impress them with the clarity and fidelity with which the story is implemented. I think we’ve done a pretty good job of establishing the world of Lovers’ Vows, introducing and typifying the inhabitants, and delivering exactly the kind of story that Elizabeth Inchbald wanted to share with the world. But I am a little biased. It is up to you, the audience, to judge if our execution is up to snuff, so I encourage you to join us and see for yourself.

I Dare Do All That May Become A Man

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

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

Trump Tantrum

Picture unrelated.

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

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

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

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

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

Macbeth Assassin

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

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

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

Lady M.jpg

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

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

Macbeth: 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.

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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.

Frankenstein’s Blogster: They’re Baaaa-aaack

Hey we opened last night, everybody! I am beyond thrilled to share this exciting Horror Rep production with you all! Rehearsing and performing in repertory is no picnic, as I’m sure you can all imagine, so we’re all very excited to get these shows rolling and for you to see our hard work. And to celebrate opening, I will speak to you at length about monsters!

I spent so much time last week talking about similarities between Shelly and Poe, it seems only fair for me to go the other way this time, and get into some of the similarities between Frankenstein and Dracula. And the biggest thing that they both have in common, and which they DON’T share with any of Poe’s stories, is a monster. Poe was primarily concerned with Man’s struggle with Man, or with Himself, and seldom felt the need to include a hideous unknowable force for evil to complicate matters for his already thoroughly confused and desperate protagonists. So I’m leaving Baltimore’s ill-favored son on the bench this week.

First things first. Using the term “monster” to describe the Creation in Mary Shelley’s book Frankenstein is, in my opinion, neither entirely accurate nor fair. No incoherent shambling horror he, Shelley’s Creation is articulate, sensitive, even refined…and far more dangerous. Throughout the devising process we were careful to avoid referring to him as The Monster as much as possible, in order to keep ourselves from mischaracterizing or, especially, underestimating him. The Creation is less monstrous even than Dracula, with whom he shares many of these sophisticated traits. But he lacks the Count’s arrogance, savagery, and predatory nature, being driven to evil against his own inclinations. I considered using the term “Villain” for this post, but I don’t find it as evocative or accurate for the types of creatures that I wanted to talk about. Also, there is enough room for debate on who, exactly, is the ‘villain’ of Frankenstein that I am less than comfortable blithely assigning that label to the Creation. And it is inescapable that the Creation shares this trait with his more typical monstrous brethren. So for my purposes tonight I will grit my teeth and accept the pejorative, along with the inevitable Boris Karloff image that it conjures, and needlessly justify it to all of you with this 200-word paragraph.

Boris Karloff

Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s Monster, from Bride of Frankenstein, 1935.

As you might remember from my previous discussions of monsters there are certain things that they do, traits they have, which serve to separate them from humans; ugliness and anthropophagy. Today I want to discuss a third; tenacity. Relentless and inexorable, horror monsters pursue their seemingly arbitrary victims with the single-minded patience of a clock. Sometimes this tireless pursuit is literal, like the continual forward motion of the Unstoppable Sex Monster in It Follows. Sometimes it is more subjective, an implication of being watched or a tendency to appear when least expected, such as the unseen cultists awaiting their opportunity to strike in The Call of Cthulhu, the low-key but everpresent menace of the zombie horde in Dawn of the Dead, or the jump-scare appearance in the mirror or behind the door in every single slasher movie that has ever been made. You can neither run nor hide when a monster has marked you.

Eron the Relentless

Eron the Relenless, from Magic: The Gathering, Homelands. Art by Christopher Rush,  1995.

In addition to being implacable hunters, monsters are also nigh-unkillable. Monsters are much more durable than their human victims, to emphasize just how fragile we are. Sometimes this manifests in secret knowledge needed to penetrate their defenses, like silver bullets for werewolves, headshots for zombies, the phylacteries of liches like Koschei or Voldemort…you get the idea. More frequently, however, it is just a maddening refusal to die. Michael Myers gets stabbed and shot more times than I can count in Halloween. The Terminator [and if you don’t think The Terminator is a horror movie you and I watched different movies, the T-800 fits these criteria so perfectly I can’t believe I didn’t base them on him -KH] walks through a hail of bullets in pursuit of Sarah Connor. Ghosts, by their very nature, cannot be even killed. No one can go toe to toe with such hideous strength.

Terminator

Arnold Schwarzenegger as the T-800, from The Terminator, 1984.

Frankenstein and Dracula obviously fit these qualifications to a ‘T’. Even when the Count is (seemingly) on his heels returning to Transylvania he threatens, taunts, and discomfits his would-be hunters, staying a step ahead of them all the way to the Carpathians. And Dracula’s seeming invincibility allows Van Helsing to spend almost an entire chapter listing off the veritable host of vampires’ traditional vulnerabilities: mirrors, sunlight, mountain rose, garlic, fragments of the consecrated Host, ash-wood stakes, running water… Meanwhile, the Creation has a nasty habit of turning up no matter where his Creator goes, regardless of how unlikely it seems that he could find out where he was. And, in addition to shrugging off Frankenstein’s pistol shots, the Creation bears with equanimity the frigid cold of the glacier and the Arctic in his ceaseless quest to torment the doctor.

The upshot of both these traits is that monsters negate both the ‘fight’ and ‘flight’ response in their human victims. Traits, you might recognize, we inherited from our animal ancestors. Knee-jerk instinctual reactions, our initial response to danger, won’t work on the supernatural; we have to dig deeper. We can activate our humanity and take advantage of cleverness, compassion, and friendship, as Harker and co. do in Dracula. Or we can surrender to our latent capacity for monstrosity and take on our pursuer’s ruthless viciousness, as the doctor does in Frankenstein. Which path would you take? Come see the shows and maybe you’ll find out.

Pericles, Prince of Tyre: The Play(wright)’s the Thing

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

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

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

It Is a Mystery

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

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From The Warriors, 1979.

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

Too Many Cooks

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

 

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

 

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