Treasure Island: DER BILDUNGSROMAN

Happy May, everyone! I have a special treat for you all today! It’s another blog, about the intended audience and literary structure of Treasure Island. [wait come back -KH] Ordinarily I would sit on this blog post until Opening Night, but since we are opening Treasure Island on a Saturday, and people spend less of their time on Saturdays goofing off on the internet, I thought I would run it out a little early, as a reward for you all for being such a loyal audience. And also for our adoring audience members who may have, through no fault of their own, neglected to purchase their tickets for Treasure Island so far, it may serve as a passive-aggressive friendly reminder to do so!

Originally serialized in the 1880s in a magazine named [with traditional 19th century brevity -ed.] “Young Folks: A Boys’ and Girls’ Paper of Instructive and Entertaining Literature”, Treasure Island is clearly marketed towards, and written with an eye for the interests of, children, in a way that many books that had come before were not. Treasure Island is what I would describe as a second-generation Young Adult novel, an at-the-time comparatively recent innovation in literature of a story aimed specifically at children. Following in the footsteps of Carroll, Dickens, Alcott, and Twain, Stevenson had learned the primary lesson to engaging young readers: make the protagonist a child.

Treasure Island Norman Price

From Treasure Island, 1947. Illustration by Norman Price.

 

This is the closest to a unifying feature that YA stories get, and even it is not universal. Young Adult novels, in an uncomfortable parallel to pornography, defy definition but can easily be identified. It is tempting to think of it as a genre unto itself, and many of the books share enough difficult-to-define similarities to justify such a grouping, such as length, simplicity of language, or occasional tension-breaking silliness. But [if you’ll pardon me putting on my Librarian Hat for a second -KH] it is in my opinion more helpful and accurate to make it an overarching category, one that any sort of book can belong to and still fall into other, more specialized categories. This way you retain the helpful audience label of YA but you don’t sacrifice the association with their stylistic genre. Compare, for example, the Hardy Boys to a James Bond story, and then to The Outsiders. Or for a more extreme comparison, read The Hunger Games, and tell me if it has more in common with 1984 or Great Expectations. Their audience may always be children or teens, but just like with adults, different children have different interests and what appeals to one may not appeal to another, so I think a more reasonable cataloging style would be, for example, YA Fantasy, or YA Mystery, or YA Historical Fiction. By this metric Treasure Island would fall into the wide category of Young Adult Adventure Fiction, among such rarefied company as Tom Sawyer, The Book of Three, Hatchet, and The Golden Compass.

Tom Sawyer Bats

“Tom and Becky Lost in the Caves”, from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, 1876. Illustration by True Williams.

I won’t bore you overmuch right now with further discussions of the adventure genre, which I have already covered in detail here. But Treasure Island ALSO happens to be a Bildungsroman, as YA Adventures reasonably tend to be, and I would be happy to bore you with discussions of that!

And the best way to bore someone is to lecture them about the terms you will be using, terms with which they may well already be familiar. The Bildungsroman, literally “novel of education”, is also referred to as a “coming of age” story, so you can see why it might be so heavily associated with the Young Adult genre. Though not universally a story about or for children (the “age” to which one might “come” can be metaphorical, and refers to any sort of maturing and coming into one’s own) it often tracks the growth of a young person as they discover that there is more to the world, both for good and for bad, than they had initially understood, and of them consequently understanding their place in it. It has a very straightforward and approachable story design, generally adhering closely to the Hero’s Journey that I described for you oh those many moons ago for our selected readings from Ian Doescher’s William Shakespeare’s Star Wars. This is unsurprising because Star Wars is also about as Bildungsroman as you can get, what with the young man leaving his home, meeting a mentor, learning about the world outside of his small experience, and discovering the person he was truly meant to be. These traits are clearly mirrored in Treasure Island as well. When our story begins Jim Hawkins has probably never been more than 5 miles away from the Admiral Benbow in his life, but by the end he has learned about sailing, loyalty, and greed, and has made his family more money they could possibly spend.

Treasure Island Mervyn Peake Gold

From Treasure Island, 1949. Illustration by Mervyn Peake.

You may have noticed that I haven’t mentioned a whole lot of plays, or anything about theatrical theory and history, as regards Treasure Island or any of these other YA Bildungsroman adventure stories. That is by design. Barring Peter Pan [another stellar Bildungsroman also regularly on my pitch list at season development time -KH], adventure stories are seldom produced on stage, and when they are it is usually in the context of children’s theatre, like our colleagues at the aptly-named Adventure Theatre. Even Billy Shakes’ much-beloved Pericles is rarely seen performed. Adventures are often dependent on large-scale dynamic scenes with a lot of moving parts; what are often confusingly referred to as set pieces in the movie world. Battles, or heists, or explosions, or chases, or whatever sort of heart-pounding action and excitement the setting will afford. They are action-oriented, and the stage is not an ideal medium for action-heavy performances.  Depending on how forgiving your audience is, or how audacious your company is, you can get away with a little more, but a stage can only be so big and even the biggest companies cannot match up to a film studio or the power of the human imagination. The entire prologue of Henry V is an apology for theatre’s inability to truly capture the excitement of war.

But as I’ve said before the Prologue to Henry V is also a thrown gauntlet to prove it wrong, and we here at We Happy Few like a challenge. Whether that challenge is creating an exciting pirate adventure with four actors and as much set and props as we can fit in the trunk of a car, or taking a story written for 19th-century tweens and making it interesting, accessible, and exciting for a 21st-century audience of all ages [we’ve got a secret weapon in our signature cocktails for that second part -KH]. If you want to go on a pirate adventure with us, and maybe discover something more about yourself and the world around you while you do it, please join us for Treasure Island! Tickets are available now!

Frankenstein History Lesson: Isn’t It Romantic?

Welcome back, boys and ghouls! The continual clouds and drizzle outside have informed me that, at long last, DC’s hot miserable humid nightmare of a summer has ended and we can finally move into the comparative comfort of our cooler but somehow equally sticky autumn. And with the changing of the seasons returns We Happy Few, emerging from our opposite hibernation to prepare for our upcoming season. Beginning in mid-October we will be presenting our first performance in repertory, as we conclude our first Classics-in-Action Cycle with the Horror Rep. We are remounting 2016’s A Midnight Dreary and last year’s Dracula and, just in time for the 200th anniversary, introducing our brand-spanking-new adaptation of Frankenstein! As you might imagine, since you’ve already read at least 6000 combined words about our adaptations of Poe and Dracula, and since I mentioned the whole anniversary thing, and also because of the title at the top of this blog post, I’m planning on spending some time today talking about Frankenstein. Specifically the literary origins and context of this, a cornerstone of Gothic fiction and arguably the foundation of both science fiction and horror [yr. humble narrator’s two favorite genres, in case I haven’t made that abundantly clear -KH], borne from deep within the English Romantic movement. Let’s get to it.

The grim weather of DC fall puts me in the mind of the legendary origins of Frankenstein. On a similarly grey and drizzly day while on vacation in Geneva in 1816, Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, his lover and wife-to-be Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, their boyfriend and fellow Romantic writer Lord Byron, and his doctor John Polidori decided to entertain themselves by writing spooky stories when they couldn’t play outside. Percy wrote a largely forgotten ghost story, Polidori a moderately famous novella called The Vampyre, Byron doubtless wrote something tedious about himself, and Mary, unable to offer anything at the time, wracked her brain for a while before offering up the foundation for what would become Frankenstein. Contrary to popular (or, at least, my) belief, she did not write the story at one go on that very evening, as if in a trance or fugue state, but rather worked at it for months before it was finished and saw print. Mary Shelley’s own introduction to the second edition of the story describes her husband frequently asking as to her progress and encouraging her to expand the story from a mere fragment to the full-length masterpiece it would become. It should be unsurprising that a woman with the blood of revolutionary intellectuals Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, and so frequently in the company of Romantic greats Percy Shelley and Byron, should produce such a remarkable and long-lasting story. But I’m getting ahead of myself. What was this “Romanticism” that Mary found herself surrounded by, and what influence could it have had on her writing?

Romanticism as an artistic/cultural movement varied somewhat from country to country (unsurprising for something so deeply connected to the rise of nationalism), but there are a handful of universal elements: a fondness for pastoralism, an affinity with nature, the idealization of the past and accompanying mistrust of progress, and increased trust in emotion and individuality at the expense of reason and parochialism. In America Romanticism tended to focus on the frontier and the vast swathes of unspoiled nature that could be found there. In Continental Europe, particularly in France and what is now Germany and Italy, it frequently took on a political flavor and often emphasized shared cultural traditions, especially language, and was instrumental in the consolidation of both of those nations as nations.

wanderer-above-the-sea-of-fog

Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, by Casper David Friedrich, 1818. I still maintain that this picture will tell you everything about Romanticism you need to know.

English Romanticism cannot be so easily keyholed, not least because I am more familiar with it and did extra research about it, in order to write this blog post. It did not have access to the Great Wide Open that inspired the Americans, nor their bright and youthful optimism. It also largely avoided the political and revolutionary timbre of the Continentals, presumably by the same mysterious force that quarantined the island from the bloody populist rebellions which swept across Europe in the 19th century. [Please refer to the author’s unpublished dramaturgy notes from Henry V and to Chapter 38 of the Napoleonic Faerie novel Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell for two contrasting theories on how these rebellions could have been avoided. -ed.] While German Romantics explored their own storied history, the English Romantics usually spent their energies on the Ancient Greeks and Romans, presumably because the Arthur legend had been claimed by more conservative, reactionary writers of prior generations. For every English poem where a poet spent his ink on tales of that legendary past (Percy Shelley’s Ozymandias and Prometheus Unbound, most of Byron) there was another who had concerned themselves with nature and meditation (Keats’ Ode to A Nightingale, Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey). Percy and Mary Shelley were avowed and vehement atheists, while Blake wrote an entire book, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, to interpret his faith through his Romantic beliefs.

But I’m not just here to talk about English Romanticism, I’m here to talk about Frankenstein. And despite its pedigree and the unique circumstances of its birth, Frankenstein is clearly NOT a true Romantic work in the way that Prometheus Unbound or Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage or Tintern Abbey are. It certainly contains some of the earmarks, though queerly twisted; note the story’s ambivalence towards the pursuit of knowledge, or Nature’s cruelly destructive majesty typified by the glacier, the lightning bolt, the Arctic. But it does not reflect Romantic beliefs so much as reference and question them. In this way it almost seems like a reaction to Romanticism, the dichotomy within both the Doctor and the Creature between their reason and their emotion mirroring, perhaps, Mary Shelley’s conflict with the movement. In any case, our story thematically hews closer to a Gothic aesthetic. Frankenstein’s aristocratic protagonist, the propensity by both him and the antagonist for melodramatic versifying, the suspiciously well-timed thunderstorms at dramatically convenient moments, the twinges of the supernatural, all aesthetically link the story more closely to the crumbling castles and tortured antiheroes of Gothic icons like Bram Stoker and Edgar Allan Poe than to the bucolic likes of Wordsworth and Keats. Which is convenient, because we are not presenting dramatizations of Romantic poems, but of Frankenstein, Dracula, and Poe.

Neuschwanstein Lightning Filippo Rome.jpg

Neuschwanstein Castle. Photo by Filippo Rome. This picture is, likewise, basically just Gothic literature in a nutshell

Some other time I will come back and tell you about the bona fides of Frankenstein’s connection to horror and science fiction, as I mentioned earlier. For now I hope that this high school-level recapitulation of Romantic literature and my vague assertions as to how it alternatively influenced and differs from our story piques your curiosity about our show. Tickets are on sale now for performances of Dracula, A Midnight Dreary, and Frankenstein! Come check it out!

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!