The Gallic Temper

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

Savinien_de_Cyrano_de_Bergerac

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

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

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

Three Musketeers

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

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

 

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

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

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

Bigger Lancelot

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

 

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

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

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

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

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Iphigenia: Director Chat!

Hello again, readers.  It’s me, blog slave Keith Hock, here with some more ranting and raving on the subject of our upcoming reading of Iphigenia.  We’re gonna mix it up today, however, and the majority of the ranting will come not from myself, but from the director of the reading and my maybe-boss, Bridget Grace Sheaff (the managerial hierarchy of We Happy Few is Byzantine, to say the least, and the only thing I can say with any degree of confidence is that I am NOT in charge).  Readers from the last time I had Bridget drop by will recall that she is much better at saying nice things than I am, so those of you still with functioning hearts should be very excited to have her back.  She has graciously consented to an interview which we certainly conducted face-to-face over tea, and not in any way over the internet and hours apart while we were both snowed into our respective apartments this previous weekend.


Keith: Tell us about yourself.  How did you come to be entangled in the WHF network?  Are you secretly gunning for my job?

Bridget: Wow. So suspicious. Why would I be after your job? Seriously. Drink your tea.
No, go ahead, drink it. It’s perfectly safe…

The short answer: I fell in love. It’s as easy as that.

The long answer: I think one of the answers I hear the most from theatre artists when they are asked how they get jobs is “It’s who you know.” Which, after you hear it over and over again, becomes quite annoying. But it’s truth doesn’t disappear. (These are my exact feelings about Taylor Swift songs- always annoying, always true to life.)  So, yes, I got involved with We Happy Few because I went to school with Bob Pike (the sound designer of Duchess of Malfi, CUA Class of 2014) who got involved because he talked to Kiernan McGowan (trusted Brain Trust member who also graduated from CUA (represent, amiright)) who is now engaged to Raven Bonniwell (co-founding Artistic Director).

Right? It’s who you know. But it’s also about finding your tribe, about finding people whose work speaks to you. So when I was looking for projects to get involved in, I took a look at the work WHF had done in the past, of which I heard nothing but high praise. And, I’ll tell you what, I don’t believe in fate. But I got pretty close to believing when it hit me that the goals of WHF and my goals were synchronous if not identical.

And so it’s less about me than it is about mission and goals and finding people who want to change the world in the same way you do. (Look at me, I’m gettin’ all misty over here.I am a fool/ To weep at what I am glad of.”) That should tell you everything you need to know about me. And I really mean that.

K: Drop some knowledge about the difference between directing a staged reading and directing a performance.  What about it is easier?  What is harder?

B: Directing a staged reading is actually quite difficult. You would think it would be easy. “Oh hey, all your actors will have scripts and they are just expected to stand and talk and sound pretty and make the right faces at the right time and you don’t have to worry that they don’t have it memorized or that they forget a costume piece or whatever, you’re going to be fine.”

That’s a surface level analysis of a staged reading.

In a staged reading, the text is the star. The play is the only ego in the room you need to be concerned about. It rules. It dominates. It stares you in the face and does that annoying nose-flick thing every nine seconds. It demands that you pay attention to it and acknowledge the wound that it opens. It says, “I am flawed and complicated and leagues deep with knowledge. I am older than you and I have something to teach you. WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO SAY.”

Of course you have to do this with a full production. But in a full production, you get to use the text to do things on stage. In a staged reading, the text uses you to do things to an audience.

It’s vulnerable important work. It’s no less valuable than work on a full production. It just involves less props.

K: Why?  Why Iphigenia?  Why, specifically, THIS Iphigenia?

B: If I’m being totally honest (which I wish was a bigger failing of mine), I knew NOTHING about this play or even it’s original legend four months ago. As most things go in the Brain Trust [Editor: point of clarification; the Brain Trust is how we refer to the organizational core of We Happy Few.  My pitches to call it the War Council, the Synod, and the High Circle were rejected], one person suggests one thing, which leads to one person suggesting another things, which leads to Bridget volunteering to help in whatever way possible. In this case, it happened in such a way where Bridget volunteered to help cut and organize the script in a some sort of WHF fashion of changing the play and ended with a stellar cast of actors that make Bridget’s heart flutter. I didn’t choose Iphigenia as much as I stumbled over it one day, turned around to see what had made me lose my footing, and found this beautiful story that I can’t stop thinking about. This particular Iphigenia happened because of my absolute devotion to Racine and all things French. (I’ll get into that later). I will tell you that if I had to answer “Why this play, why now?” I would give you some long flowery answer that essentially boils down to this: what does it mean to sacrifice? When all instincts to love and protect and serve the ones we love fall short of what is asked, what is the precipitate of the reaction?

K: There’s a pretty enormous parallel between the Iphigenia story and the Abraham/Isaac story in Genesis, which I unaccountably managed to completely ignore in my previous blog post.  Do you have any thoughts on that?

B: I’m very Catholic, I have thoughts on everything. It actually is one of the things I continually come back to when I think about this piece. Of course, in the Abraham story, God was testing him to see if his faith was strong enough to trust something as precious as his son to the Lord (and, you know, is foreshadowing for the whole Jesus thing, but let’s not get into that because we could be here all day). In this story, it’s pretty clear that Iphigenia is going to die. She has to die. These gods work in a different way than the Judeo-Christian God, even the one in the Old Testament. I could get pretty theologically philosophical with you, but I only have minors in Theology and Philosophy. However, I have a major in Drama, so I instead am going to talk about how this is MAJOR DRAMA.  It’s a classic story, sacrificing your children. And both Abraham and Agamemnon are reasons that it is classic. It’s something we all identify with, even those of us without children. It’s access to our empathetic pathways is immediate. It sits on our skin and instantaneously seeps into our bloodstream. It hearkens back to landmarks in our mythic and spiritual culture that we all identify. And that’s why we can keep telling it today.

K: As a dame [Editor: I narrowly dodged a slap here], how do you feel about my assertion that the primary drama in this story is about how Agamemnon is forced into an unwinnable situation?  Do you think that is true, or am I blinded by my own undeniable masculinity about the true nature of the piece?  Does it change from version to version?

B: Yes. Thank you for asking this question. Let’s talk about this: Yes. I am a female director. Yes. There is some inherent male/female dichotomy in this play. Yes. I think that it is a really interesting aspect to talk about.

HOWEVER. For me, this is a play primarily about human beings, not just men and women. This is a play about family. This is a play about duty and sacrifice and loyalty and war and love and heartbreak and ruin and triumph and fate and God and country and children and, ultimately, fault. That’s the primary drama of the story. What goes wrong.

I think that you are structurally correct that Agamemnon’s struggle is the catalyst of the piece. That is what the through line of the story is saying to us. If we are going to look further at the piece, I think we need to talk about what changes from beginning to end. Elinor Fuchs tells us that we can find the heart of the story by setting the play in the middle distance and looking at the play through squinted eyes all the way through. And when we look at Iphigenia this way, we have at both ends parent’s fretting about the fate of their child. Even though Clytemnestra only comes in (like a wrecking ball) halfway through, she is the parent remaining onstage at the end while Ulysses describes the scene at the temple. This directly bookends Agamemnon talking to Ulysses at the initial incident of the play. And so my argument is that the true nature of the piece is not about men or women, but about how our labels and roles define how we react under pressure.

K: Who do you think is the most interesting/exciting character in this show?

B: I love Racine’s added character of Eriphile. There is something so April Ludgate about her. She speaks to a part of us that we all like to deny. We would all love to be the tragic hero. We would love to be the victim. We would love to be the martyr. Because those people are revered and respected and sacrificed for. And what’s great about Eriphile is that she LOUDLY wants all of those things. She is frustrated and annoyed that Iphigenia gets that kind of attention. What an amazing and very human desire to explore in this age of digitalization, of internet stardom and reality TV fame. And what a fascinating take on self-centered sacrifice. Where is the virtue in that thought process? I mean that question very seriously. I’m really excited to look at this character further.

K: Is there anybody you’re especially excited to work with on your cast for the reading?  Anyone you’re dreading?

B: I couldn’t be more thrilled with the cast! I’m excited to work with everyone. One of the big highlights of this for me is that I get to watch Melissa Flaim act. I have deeply and fervently admired Melissa since my time at CUA. The first time I ever saw her, I got to watch her fearlessly and with amazing grace tell a boy in my Drama 101 class that if he was going to be proud of doing half-hearted work then there was no reason for her to be in the room because he could do that without her. She taught me so much about how to be in command and watching her as Clytemnestra may be the highlight of my 2016.

I’m dreading working with Tori Boutin because she is my best friend and really talented and funny and clearly I hate her with my whole soul. (Is she reading this? I hope so. She’s gonna be so mad.)

K: This translation is, in the nature of French plays, structured as rhyming couplets.  How long does it take you reading it to not hear it all sing-songy and actually take it serious?

B: I think that verse text is my soulmate. It understands me in a way I don’t understand myself. I come back to it at the end of the day, safe and secure in the truth it provides me. I don’t know what it is, but I love French plays. Cyrano de Bergerac is my favorite piece of theatre of all time, Racine’s Phedre is my current dream project, and who doesn’t love Moliere? The rhyming couplets doesn’t bother me at all. I gave up the idea that something that rhymes sounds like songs a long time ago. (I mean, look at Sondheim. Rhyming or not, there is nothing “sing-songy” about that man’s work.)

To me, something is too “sing-songy” when it is just rhyming for the sake of rhyming. If it has purpose and drive, then rhyme merely helps bounce the actor from line to line. Really, if the text is about human beings, real and full-blooded people with real and earnest problems, then it’s not “too” anything for me.

The translation makes all the difference in my mind. My friend Bob once compared translating to carving wood. Pieces of the original block have to go, but if you are careful, you are going to get something equally as beautiful as the end result as you did with the original. When translating from French, especially translating Racine, you have to balance keeping the verse intact, the rhyme intact, the meaning intact, and the story intact. It takes a lot of skill and what is great about using the Cairncross translation is that so much of the original beauty of the text is preserved with great care and tact. It’s really exciting.


And there you have it, folks.  Hopefully this will have piqued your curiosity to see what exactly we’ve been talking about these last two blog posts.  Perhaps you are curious how Racine (and then Cairncross, and then Ms. Sheaff) were able to take this ancient story and update it, drag it from the Festivals of Dionysus in Attica some three thousand years in the past, through the court of the Sun King, and share it and make it relevant to you today.  It could be you want to know how exactly Bridget exists with all this passion clearly boiling out of her at all times, and you want to see how that manifests in her directing.  Maybe you’re mad at me for some reason and you want to attend this solely to yell at me for some error or slight I have made (It’s probably that last one, isn’t it.)  Whatever the reason, you should be able to satisfy your burning desires at our fundraising event, tonight at 7:30PM at CHAW in Eastern Market.  Free Reading!  Fabulous Prizes!  Cash Bar!  Cool People!  Donation Opportunities!  Truly the social event of the season.  I look forward to seeing you all there.