Blog in the Manger: Keep Your Distance

Welcome back, everyone. I hope you all had a lovely thanksgiving. I have some good news and some bad news. The good news is that we’ve got another week of shows, starting tonight at 7:30 (including a talkback with the cast proctored by Yours Truly) and running every night until this Saturday. The bad news is that these performances will be the last of the run, we MUST close on Saturday, December 2nd. And who knows when you’ll have another chance to see a production of a Spanish Golden Age play performed, much less one of such quality by your favorite company? Run, don’t walk, over to our ticket-sales website and pick up your tickets for this weekend! Go ahead, do it now. The rest of the blog will wait.

Done? I’m glad you came back because I didn’t stop by simply to nag you all into coming to see the show. That was part of my reason for writing this, don’t get me wrong. But all stick and no carrot is no way to motivate someone, as I have repeatedly informed my superiors. Mostly they just laugh and bang the Writing Stick harder on my cage, so I doubt they’re likely to change anytime soon. But I am happy to include bribery in my coercion, so I wanted to give you some chewy dramaturgical explanations to consider while you watch or reflect on the show. Specifically, I wanted to look at the way that both allusion and geography are used to separate the action on stage from the audience, to simplify the audience’s suspension of disbelief by creating distance between their world and the world of the play. Confused? Good! Let’s see if I can clarify.

If you’ve already seen the show you might have noticed that Teodoro …certain characters just absolutely will not shut the hell up about the legends of Icarus and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Phaeton. Nor are these the only mythological references in the piece. Tristan outrageously claims to be a greater warrior than Hector. Diana’s very name is a classical allusion, to the notoriously prickly and virginal goddess of the hunt. These allusions serve the same multiple purposes that classical allusions always serve. First, they prove to the audience how literate both the character and the author are, that they can intelligently make such a reference. As Benji Djain pointed out to us in his talkback, De Vega would want to show off to the audience how much he knew about Greek mythology, and his audience in turn would be flattered and proud that they, too, caught the inside joke. Second, they use a common reference point to illustrate or elaborate on a concept. Allusions can be used as shorthand for a more involved explanation, provided your audience makes the connection; for example, referring to yourself as Atlas when you feel like everyone is unfairly relying on you.

Darmok

Or by showing you this. From Star Trek: The Next Generation, season 5 episode 2, “Darmok”, 1991. L-R: Sir Patrick Stewart as Captain Picard, Paul Winfield as Captain Dathon.

And finally, classical allusions simultaneously elevate and distance the situation that they are applied to, places it on an even footing with the myth. It isn’t Teodoro’s fault, or Diana’s, or even just bad luck that caused this trouble, it was the will of the gods. Zeus himself struck down Phaeton when he rode the carriage of the sun too high. By drawing these overblown comparisons the characters, and by extension de Vega, are identifying themselves with these legends and myths. It makes the situation seem all the more impressive and important to be placed on the same footing as these stories, but it also justifies why something so outlandish is happening. This story exists in the same world as these myths and legends, the allusion says, not the normal world where you walk down the street to buy eggs and bread and nothing out of the ordinary ever happens.

Mulberry Street

And it isn’t merely by these flowery metaphors that this play seeks to disassociate itself from the ordinary. Something that we very consistently found ourselves forgetting, and then reminding ourselves of, during the rehearsal process is where, exactly, it was set. “It’s a Spanish play”, we said to ourselves, “it must be set in Spain!” Forgetting, as we did so, that only one-third of Shakespeare’s plays (mostly the bad ones) are set in merry old England. Another third of Shakespeare’s plays are set in strange one-off settings like Denmark, Bohemia, Athens, or some fanciful island or enchanted forest.  And the final third take place in Italy [I know this mostly because Isaac Asimov, in his infinite strangeness, took a break from his busy biochemistry professor/science fiction author career to organize his Guide to Shakespeare under these geographical distinctions instead of similarities in plot or type -KH]. Dog in the Manger is set in Italy, as well. This might seem confusing to us because we’re stupid, but de Vega didn’t choose an Italian setting for no reason. Italy isn’t THAT far away from Spain, but it’s not exactly close either. His audience would be familiar with the concept of Italy, but many would not be familiar with the country or culture. Presumably they would therefore be more inclined to believe some outlandish things about it, like maybe that some Countess would fall in love beneath her station and set in motion a complicated love triangle as the one they’ve just observed. After all, isn’t Italy where all of those touring theatre companies came from? And isn’t it where those plays were set, too? They must have gotten their stories from somewhere, right? It’s easier to believe that something unusual would happen in some other foreign place, than that it would happen on the street you walk down every day to go to work. By distancing, de Vega is giving the audience more opportunity to suspend their disbelief: this isn’t a Spanish story, it could never happen in Spain! But Italy, crazy things happen there all the time. Who knows what they do over there.

DiM Screaming

From We Happy Few’s 2017 production of The Dog in the Manger. Foreground; Raven Bonniwell as Diana. Background L-R: Charlie Retzlaff as Fabio, Deborah Crabbe as Dorotea, Tori Boutin as Anarda. Photo by Mark Williams Hoeschler.

Even within the play itself, we see distancing being utilized, almost to the point of exoticism. There is a reason that Tristan’s outrageous lie about Teodoro’s origin centers the story in Greece (and then, when he slips up again, even further afield in Armenia). Greece would be a place that an audience would have heard of, but know comparatively little about. And the things they would have heard of would be even stranger than they would have heard about Italy. They have their own crazy non-Catholic Christian church over there, for one thing. Duke Ludovico has a line about what a strange musical language Greek is, a line that really pushes the line between creating distance and being openly racist. They also eat all that exotic food that Tristan so enjoys, not normal Spanish food. And, lest we forget, it’s also where all those wacky stories I talked about before came from. Crazy shit [pardon my French -KH] like that happens all the time over in Greece, just look at all those legends. Just like the Italian setting excuses some plot shenanigans for the Spanish audience, the merchant’s faux-Greek-ness explains the preposterousness of his story. It becomes another unlikely miraculous coincidence from Greece, the land of unlikely miraculous coincidences. Ludovico is willing to seize on any pretext to regain his son, so he is prepared to ignore some inconsistencies as long as he can justify them to himself. His doing so gives the audience permission to overlook any flaws or errors that they might have noticed in the story, in order to suspend their own disbelief and allow the story to wash over them.

And there you have it! I hope my pedantic overanalysis helps you let go of your own overanalytical tendencies and just let the story happen. If you want to see this distancing I’ve just discussed played out on stage, or give yourself some context for what you just read, we’re still running until the end of the week! Tickets are available HERE. I hope to see you there!

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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!

Henry V: Into a Thousand Parts Divide Eight Actors

Hello again, Constant Readers! We Happy Few’s resident Blogslave Keith Hock here, freed from my Blogcage for our second weekend of performances! I have been ungagged and a keyboard placed in front of my fingers and now I can share with you some of those neato secrets that I couldn’t talk about until after the show opened. The fun concept I wanted to look at in this blog is something that is, by now, somewhat of a calling card of a We Happy Few show; our approach to multi-casting. We are no strangers to playing around with our actor tracks to unearth interesting nuance between different characters or highlight a particular aspect of a production, whether that’s the pervasive magic of Prospero’s island in The Tempest or Juliet’s relationship with her nurse and her cousin Tybalt. This play is no different, and I wanted to walk you through some of the thought process behind it.

**400-YEAR OLD SPOILERS BELOW**

There are three major communities in this play that we had to account for: the French court, the English court, and Cheapside. For this play, because we were paying such close attention to class dynamics, we thought it would be informative to make the doubling happen along a haves/have-nots axis wherever possible. [We also did this out of necessity; scenes generally take place between members of the same class and when you only have 8 actors and you take your Henry out of contention by having him observe just about every scene in-character you will run out of actors before you run out of roles. But I’m getting ahead of myself. -KH] Take, for instance, doubling Montjoy with Quickly.  First and most importantly, these characters would never, ever, appear in the same scene, so we knew that Riley Bartlebaugh would be free to do both. Second, Montjoy’s role is that of messenger for the French and since the French “desire nothing but odds with England”, her job is principally to carry insults from the Dauphin and Constable to Henry, engendering and encouraging the conflict. By contrast, Mistress Quickly’s (dramatically expanded) role in the English camp is that of peacemaker, keeping the Cheapside boys’ spirits up and their knives away from each other’s throats. Through her doubled eyes we see both a war begun out of pique and boredom and the ravages that same war wreaks on a family that found themselves dragged into it.

Quickly Mourns.JPG

Riley Bartlebaugh as Quickly, from We Happy Few’s Henry V, 2017. Photo by Tori Boutin

Sometimes, as above, we double to examine the differences between two characters. Other times we seek to explore unexpected similarities and create vicious ironies, as by doubling Exeter with the Boy. As before, their paths do not cross in the story so we knew we were free to send Tasha Gallop to do both. In addition, this doubling forces the audience to consider the similarities between Exeter, Henry’s uncle and most trusted advisor, and the Boy, Hal’s onetime Cheapside companion and an unwilling apprentice in blackguardy. Exeter has enough of Henry’s faith to speak for him in both parley and at the negotiation table and it is, if anything, an understatement to describe the Boy as the wisest, maturest, and most competent of the Pranksters. Considering her monologue about the worthlessness of her associates and her desire to extricate herself from their villainy, the Boy seems on the path to straighten up and make something of herself. Until she is killed in a war that Exeter helped to start.

boy 2.JPG

Natasha Gallop as The Boy, from We Happy Few’s 2017 Henry V. Photo by Tori Boutin

Doubling also allow us to tell the story without dumping our actors into minimal roles, and keeps everyone’s business about equal. For example, our concept largely neuters the English nobility with the exception of Exeter, but there still needs to be a court around when Henry wants to say badass things like the St. Crispin’s Day speech. And for as fun and important as Nym and Bardolph are to our play, they just don’t have a ton to do, especially after they get themselves killed. So we doubled Westmoreland and Gloucester with Nym and Bardolph, to give us a chance to see how Hal’s old drinking buddies match up to Henry’s new royal associates. Then, when we saw how much fun Josh Adams and Niusha Nawab were having together, we tacked on the Constable and Dauphin to those tracks as well. For comparison, because Pistol actually makes it through the entire play and gets a nice juicy scene right at the end, there was no need for us to find another supernumerary English lord to give to Wyckham Avery to fill out her business. Pistol and Alice combined to keep her busy enough.

tavern.JPG

L-R: Josh Adams as Nym, Niusha Nawab as Bardolph, Wyckham Avery as Pistol, Kiernan McGowan as Henry, Natasha Gallop as Boy, Riley Bartlebaugh as Quickly. From We Happy Few’s 2017 Henry V. Photo by Tori Boutin

Speaking of Alice, the last pieces of the cast puzzle are the French royalty Katherine and the King, and the middle class Captains Fluellen and Gower. Raven Bonniwell as Katherine finds herself doubled with Captain Fluellen, for several reasons. One, as always, Katherine does not encounter Fluellen in the play. Two, both characters serve predominantly as comic relief, and both do it through their preposterous and overblown voices. Shakespeare wrote Katherine’s scenes in bad French to be funnier, and replaced every ‘b’ that Fluellen would say with a ‘p’ to replicate the silly-sounding Welsh accent. And three, the most serious reason: Fluellen and Katherine have the two closest relationships with Henry. He has cut his ties to Cheapside, callously sending Nym and Bardolph to their deaths, and his court is filled with allies and advisors, not friends. But Fluellen and Henry share an easy camaraderie, bound by their joint Welsh heritage. Katherine, meanwhile, is Henry’s “capital demand” in conquering France and based on his mumble-mouthed wooing seems to have quite enchanted the otherwise eloquent Henry. These two characters do more to humanize Henry than the whole of his “Upon the King” soliloquy.

This leaves Bob Pike having drawn the unenviable task of being the two straight men in the play. France is sober and conscientious. He bases his measured actions on advice from his court and his own wisdom while corralling his hot-blooded son the Dauphin. Gower in turn is a no-nonsense professional soldier who, in our story, largely exists to keep the Cheapside boys under control and listen to Fluellen yammer endlessly about whatever she feels like talking about that day. They represent gruff, unyielding, and unsmiling authority, of the sort that Hal used to rebel against in Cheapside and is still fighting in France.

F&G.JPG

L-R: Raven Bonniwell as Fluellen, Robert Pike as Gower. From We Happy Few’s 2017 Henry V. Photo by Tori Boutin

This ended up being a lot longer than I thought I would be able to squeeze out of this topic. I was going to get into how this multiple casting called for us to occasionally play with our quick changes but I suppose that topic will have to wait for another day. If you want to see what I’m talking about, or you want to fact-check what I said here (smart money says I got something wrong), come see the show!

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.

CHALK: The Medium IS the Message

Hello again adoring fans! Keith Hock here, and I wanted to tell you some more about our critically acclaimed play CHALK, playing now at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop. In earlier posts I had wanted to keep some secrets from you all in order to preserve the element of surprise when you came to see the show, but since the run is now two-thirds over I am assuming that most of you have already come to check it out, and hoping that this introduction serves to shame the rest of you into coming in this final week of shows. To that end, I am going to talk to you more about set design, chalk, and the role that the latter can play in the former than you ever wanted to hear. Please note that if you don’t want to have a SUPER COOL element of the show spoiled for you, it would be advisable for you to stop reading until you have a chance to come see it for yourself.

If you have seen the show, or, like, any of our promotional materials, you will know that chalk drawings feature prominently in the set for CHALK. We Happy Few stakes a portion of its considerable reputation on the minimalist nature of its sets; this show probably has our second-largest set besides Tempest, and this set is a couple of platforms, a diagonal wall with some doors and a tower, and some stools. To supplement this design and to help establish a sense of place we have a bunch of drawings all over the walls, some of them chalk sketches and some white paint cleverly disguised as chalk sketches. These drawings help to clarify where we are and what’s going on on-stage; a town, a pillar, a cart, some doors. In the distance a mountain range. These drawings are not strictly necessary to indicate what’s going on; we can, and have, done shows with less set dressing than this. But it certainly doesn’t hurt the piece any to have them there, and besides prettifying the stage and indicating that sense of space, like I said above, they give us an opportunity to do something super neato with the set that a show can’t ordinarily do, which I will get to after another paragraph of explanation and scene-setting.

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CHALK backdrop. Design by Adelaide Waldrop. Picture by Tori Boutin.

It is in the nature of black box shows in general and We Happy Few shows in particular to be tricky to indicate changes of scene, location, and the passage of time. You can use lights, you can shift around what little set elements you may have, and you can have your characters exposit. We are supremely fortunate that we are able to work with one of the best lighting designers in the city, Jason Aufdem-Brinke, so our light game is and always has been on point. Character exposition is both the clunkiest and the most ubiquitous method of indicating those changes; you would be hard-pressed to find a play that doesn’t use dialogue to either imply or flat-out say where and when the action is taking place, because plays are written to be seen, not read, and audiences don’t have those convenient stage directions at the beginning of every scene to contextualize the performance unless your director is REALLY pretentious. So we fall on even footing with context clues as well. But We Happy Few really can’t compete with a full ‘drop curtain, wait 20 seconds, the corn field is now a bustling frontier town’, ‘turntable rotates from Skid Row to the interior of the dentist’s office’, or ‘a whole new backdrop flies in from the ceiling and we are now in the King’s Palace in Siam’ style transition such that a company with a full stage crew or using a fully kitted-out stage would use.

So we did what we always do; we improvised. We knew already that there was going to be a scene where the Judge would draw a circle on the floor, for the climactic moment in the play. We said “why not do, like, a whole bunch more of that?” We already knew drawing, having the characters interact directly with and add to the set, is going to be a part of the world, so we decided to lean into it, and we started drawing all over the stage. Want to set the city on fire? Scribble red and orange chalk all over it and smear it a little. Need a river? Some blue chalk on the floor and hey presto! a river appears. Script says a scene is happening in a bar? Write BAR on the wall after you enter. We’re in the countryside now? Here’s some flowers to prove it. Props budget a little tight and we can’t afford any dummies to drop from the rafters in a grisly facsimile of a public hanging? Draw up a hangman, an image so simple and evocative that we literally use it as a game to teach spelling [which, come to think of it, wow, right? ed.]. This genius decision allowed us to expand on that sense of place that the artwork was creating. It also gave us the opportunity to democratize the space; the actors are not trapped in a static world, they are in control of their own environment, and can affect change on the world around them.

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CHALK. Pictured: Raven Bonniwell. Design by Adelaide Waldrop, picture by Tori Boutin.

One of the beauties of chalk as a medium is that it is dry, so it can be applied, seen, and interacted with immediately without making a huge mess or damaging costumes. Another is that is cheap, so we can use it to approximate props or set pieces that would have broken the bank or we just couldn’t have had otherwise; I don’t know HOW we would have done a bridge without the chalk conceit. A third is that it can be cleaned and wiped away with relatively little effort, which is why we as a society use it to teach math and spelling to children and announce the specials at bars restaurants, and why we as a company thought it would be perfect. Draw everywhere for the show, wipe it clean at the end of the night, start with a blank slate the next day!

It turns out it is not quite as simple to clean up as one might believe. The last time the walls of the stage were totally clean was the first time we came into the space after our chalk artist, Adelaide Waldrop, had added her drawings, but before the actors started drawing everywhere. What we had failed to realize was that, if the set drawings are chalk, and OUR drawings are ALSO chalk, when we try to clean it up we will obliterate the nice professional drawings that Adelaide along with our slapdash mid-show sketches. This problem is assuaged somewhat by the fact that Adelaide used some mysterious substance called “chalk markers” which isn’t affected when wiped with a dry rag. It IS, however, just as vulnerable to water as normal sidewalk or school chalk, so we wouldn’t wet-wipe the walls as we wanted [this clause brought to you by the letter W!]. We realized this about halfway through tech, so we had ourselves a desperate little pow-wow about what we should do about this conundrum. Wet-wiping AROUND the permanent art every night would have taken for-damn-ever and ran the risk of accidentally erasing part of the artwork. The designs are too elaborate to erase and re-draw for every performance, even if Adelaide had been willing to do so, which we were reasonably confident she was not. We started to go over the designs with paint to em-permanent them all but realized we wouldn’t have time to go over everything, and thought that it would look bad if part of the set was restored to pristine blackness and part was left dusty. We were at a loss.

Aftermath Panorama

CHALK. Pictured: Bridget Grace Sheaff. Design by Adelaide Waldrop. Picture by Kerry McGee.

What we decided to to, as you can see, is nothing. We leaned into it again, a favorite tool of mine, because it lets me be very lazy. It occurred to us that it made a lot of sense to the themes of the show for there to be physical evidence of previous performances on the stage. So much of this play is about cycles of history, about gradual change and the way that the past echoes in the future. The ever-present chalk dust establishes that on both a textual and metatheatrical level. Our city of Tuzla and the surrounding countryside is permeated with the dust of revolutions past; every action anyone takes, every thing they draw, is happening on top of what happened before. Zeke and Natalya both recall the rebellion in Persia, and they trace clear parallels to the current uprising. That rebellion was put down but the memory of it echoes in this one, and the memory of this rebellion will echo in the future. No matter how hard you try, you can’t completely erase the past, you can’t start over with a clean slate. From a metatheatrical level the mess of chalk dust hanging around the space reminds the audience that this is not the first time we’ve done this. The performance you’re watching isn’t the only performance we’ve done, and it didn’t just happen. The dust looks back at the show the night before and the week of tech rehearsals in the middle of June, and reminds us that the show didn’t always look like this, and it might not look like this tomorrow. Theatre doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and it would be a mistake to forget that. When rehearsals started in mid-May the play was still being written. The purpose of rehearsal is to learn how to tell a story, so things by necessity will change. Then tech started, and we had to learn how to fit the story into our space and integrate technical aspects. And then we found out what works and what doesn’t with an audience on opening night. The chalk dust reminds us how we got to where we are, and that things are neither as permanent nor as transient as we may believe.

I hope reading this has been as illuminating and enjoyable for you as writing it was for me. If you had no idea what I was talking about, it’s probably because you haven’t seen the performance yet and don’t have any context for what I was saying. But fear not! We still have a week’s worth of performances left in the run, from this coming Wednesday the 6th until Saturday the 9th over at CHAW. There is still time to see it, but that time is running out, so don’t delay! Come on by sometime this week and check us out! Tickets are available HERE. Mention that you heard about it from Keith when you come! It won’t, you know, matter, we won’t do anything special for you, but it’d make me feel good if you told everyone the reason you did something was because of what I said.

CHALK: The Judge on stage

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

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

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Research

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

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

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Judge 723, Futurama.

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

Judge Whitey Presiding

The Hon. Judge Whitey. Also Futurama.

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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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