Lovers’ Vows: Melodrama

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

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

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

Proscenium.jpg

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

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

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

Costumes.jpg

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

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

I Dare Do All That May Become A Man

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

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

Trump Tantrum

Picture unrelated.

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

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

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

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

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

Macbeth Assassin

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

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

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

Lady M.jpg

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

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

Frankenstein’s Blogster: They’re Baaaa-aaack

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

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

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

Boris Karloff

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

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

Eron the Relentless

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

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

Terminator

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

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

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

Blog in the Manger: Expert Interview!

You guys! Our previews for Dog in the Manger start tonight! The show we’ve been working on for the last month is finally ready to show to the world! We’re all very excited for you to come and see it, we’re thrilled to share it with you all. Everyone but me has been working very hard all through tech week to make sure everything looked good for you all tonight, so I hope you all enjoy it. There are more than a few things that I noticed in our dress rehearsal that I am beyond thrilled to talk to you about, but I want to hold off on those ideas for a little while. At least until a few of you have gotten a chance to see the show and I won’t be spoiling too much by gushing about how clever and daring our actors, designers, directors, and crew are. But fear not! While I can’t share anything show-specific with you, I have another surprise to tide you all over until you can see the show.

You see, while everybody else was busting their humps in the theatre, slaving over a hot stage to create the play, I was having a calm and measured interview with a very exciting special guest who had some wonderful insights to share with me about his and other scholars’ views on this play, and the under-appreciated time from which it came. I am, in turn, delighted to share them with you:

 

K- Who are you? Tell me a little bit about yourself.

B- I’m Benjamin Djain (people call me Benji). I’m a doctoral candidate in the English Department at The Catholic University of America here in DC. I’m currently working on comparing the way Shakespeare and Lope de Vega used the soliloquy throughout their careers.

K- Do you have experience with creating theatre, or are you more familiar with the academic side?

B- I´m more familiar with the academic side. I’ve always been interested in the way theatre is able to affect the audience, so watching plays is always an exciting experience for me. More and more, though, I find that I need to know how theatre is created to be able to understand more about the way it can affect its audience.

K- What got you interested in de Vega? Why did you choose to specialize in him?

B- I started working with Lope de Vega during my MA at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. I have a Spanish background and wanted to use it in my research. I encountered his plays then, and was struck by how different he was to Shakespeare. The drama he creates relies on external symbols in ways that Shakespeare simply does not. When constructing my doctoral thesis, I went back to Lope de Vega because of how close to Shakespeare he is chronologically.

K- How familiar with de Vega’s, just, truly outrageous output are you? Have you read all 2000 yet? Which one is your favorite?

B- Blimey, I’d never finish my degree if I read every single one of the plays attributed to him! I’ve read all of his greatest works, and I’ve looked at a lot more while concentrating only on his soliloquies. My favourite play is El Castigo sin Venganza (Punishment Without Revenge). De Vega was at the end of his career then, and hadn’t been writing the same spectacular number of plays every year. Instead, we get a drama that is psychologically intricate and questions the honour that permeates every aspect of society in the Spanish Golden Age.

K- Have you ever seen Dog in the Manger, or any other de Vega, performed?

B- Only on film, never live. It really isn’t often that you see a Lope de Vega play being performed in the English speaking world.

K- Why do you think Spanish theatre is so under-represented in theatres and classrooms today? Last month on the blog I suggested a frankly sort of out-there Black Legend-based theory that I kinda doubt is really why.

B- Well, I think your Black Legend-based theory is on the right track, but it needs to be combined with other perceptions about Spain in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Spain was always seen as “other” compared to the rest of Europe. It was an exotic land whose culture was completely foreign and exciting for English travellers (and in many ways it still is, but for sunnier reasons). Moreover, Spain was under a rather isolationist fascist regime for most of the twentieth century, which happens to be the same time period that academic literature departments were developing. As such, in the ensuing years when literature departments began expanding their focus, and adding to the canon of literary drama, Golden Age Spain was overlooked. Nonetheless, there are a growing number of Spanish dramatists that are being performed globally, and I only hope their work gets more exposure.

K- Theatre of the Spanish Golden Age is surprisingly focused on and driven by the female characters, especially compared to its contemporaries in England. Do you have any ideas why that might be?

B- I think a large part of it is practical considerations. In England, women were not allowed on stage, and so female roles were played by young boys. In Spain, however, female actors were allowed. I think I can safely say that the range of a mature female actor is far greater than that of a young boy actor. Playwrights therefore, who were aware of the practical constraints of their respective theatre companies, tended to adapt what they were writing to the resources that were at their disposal.

K- Can you talk a little about de Vega’s use of meter and poetry? Meter is something I cannot decipher at the best of times but I know that there is a lot of significance in Dog in the Manger’s use of poetry that I just cannot access.

B- Much like its English counterpart, Spanish Golden Age Drama uses verse to great effect. What is impressive about Lope de Vega’s use of verse is that he uses different verse forms to enter different registers for different contexts. English Renaissance drama is associated in our heads with one type of verse: blank verse and the iambic pentameter. Instead of transitioning to a different type of verse, English Renaissance dramatists tended to swap to prose instead when wanting to create a divide between upper and lower class characters. Lope de Vega primarily uses different forms of octosyllabic meter (eight syllable lines) in the original Spanish. The number of verses in this meter and the rhyme scheme varies: The redondilla, consisting of four lines with an abba rhyme scheme, is recommended by Lope de Vega for love scenes, while the décima, consisting of ten lines, is for more formal occasions. Lope de Vega can seamlessly move between verse styles, demonstrating his poetical and theatrical talent – you’ll even find him composing Petrarchan sonnets in his plays regularly.

K- Is there anything else you find particularly interesting about Dog in the Manger, either compared to de Vega’s other works or to contemporary English plays?

B- Some of the most enduring plays from the early modern period are plays that entertain and make the audience feel uncomfortable at the same time. The Dog in the Manger isn’t afraid to use its comedy to make significant points about the class system and the role of females in Golden Age Spain. Compared to some of Lope’s other plays, The Dog in the Manger is notable because its principal characters stand out, even in some of the more complex moments of its comic plot. Compared to the Shakespearean drama we know so well, the play is happy to subvert the usual mechanisms for creating a comic ending.

K- Are you excited to get a chance to actually see a de Vega show staged?

B- I am super excited. I can legitimately say that it isn’t often that one of his plays is staged and I’m really looking forward to seeing how you stage a text with so many avenues for interpretation.

 

If you’re also curious and excited to see a de Vega play performed, please come and join us! Previews start tonight and the show runs until the 2nd of November, and tickets for every day are available online. And if you’re interested specifically in the things that Benji said, he will be joining me for a talkback after the matinee performance on Saturday, November 18th. I hope to see you there!