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!

The TRUE and SHOCKING Tale of Giovanna D’Aragona, the Duchess of Malfi

Lindsey's face is saying "Cool story, bro"

Lindsey Snyder (seated) as the Duchess of Malfi being patronized by Brit Herring (center) as the Duchess’ brother Duke Ferdinand, while Matthew Pauli (right) looking on as the Cardinal, the Duchess other brother. Photo courtesy Paul Reisman, who puts the capital D in Director.

Welcome to the most kick-ass Duchess of Malfi blog you will read today! I’m Alan Katz, your faithful dramaturg and blogger. We Happy Few are deep in tech rehearsal right now at the Mead Theatre Lab, creating some technical theater magic that will wow you when you come see the show. While they are busy making magic in the present day, I’m going to take you back in time, way back, in fact, to the early 16th century in southern Italy. Here we’ll not only find courts full of plots and panderers, but also our eponymous Duchess, Giovanna d’Aragona, whose tragic life is the subject of John Webster’s play.

Apparently, Ayrton thought that the Duchess had an alternate career in the circus as "The Incredible Long-Armed Woman"

Since no contemporary portrait exists of our particular Giovanna d’Aragona, here is Michael Ayrton’s interpretation of the Duchess circa 1945. Photo courtesy of liveauctioneers.com

Giovanna d’Aragona’s life was tragic, with death following her even from early in her life. Her father, Enrico d’Aragona Marquis of Gerace, was poisoned by mushrooms in 1478 when she was just a year old. She became the Duchess of Malfi through marriage, having wedded late (for her time) at the age of twenty. Her husband died shortly thereafter, widowing her before the age of 30 and giving her sole claim to rule the Duchy of Amalfi. John Webster’s play picks up a while after her husband’s death, with the Duchess ruling the roost.

Up in the club, you just croaked up/ I'm doing my own little thing/You decided to dip, but now you wanna trip/Cause my jealous brothers noticed me

Here is Lindsey Snyder, our Duchess of Malfi, blinging out like the badass ruler she is and staying strong despite her husband’s early demise. Photo Courtesy of Gwen Grastorf, who rocks

Here is where our Duchess starts to get into trouble. With the culture of 16th century Italy being as sexist as it was, even a woman of royal blood who was ruling a Duchy had to have a man taking care of business affairs for her. For the Duchess, this man was Antonio Beccadelli Bologna. Now, Antonio was the major domo to the Duchess (sometimes called a butler), so he handled the accounting of her possessions and lands, a chief steward to the household. That isn’t to say that Antonio was just a common peasant. His grandfather was a celebrated Humanist and had been granted citizenship and nobility in the Kingdom of Naples, so Antonio was more of a small-time, up-jumped aristocrat. Despite that rank, Antonio and the Duchess got themselves into trouble when they fell in love. The Duchess was of royal blood (her grandfather was the King of Naples) and loving a mid-status guy like Antonio was frowned upon, especially by her brother Luigi (a Cardinal and the chief power-broker in her family).

He'll live on, and he'll be strong, cause it ain't his cross to bear.

Here is Matthew Pauli as the Cardinal, looking super dark and mysterious with his ominous cross necklace. Photo courtesy of Paul Reisman, who can really capture Noir, even without the use of fedoras.

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SPOILER ALERT! From here to the end of this blog post there are potential SPOILERS! While John Webster didn’t exactly follow the true history of the real Duchess of Malfi, he did incorporate major elements of the history into his play. If you continue reading, you do so at the risk of SPOILING some of the plot twists in the play. If you don’t care about spoilers or have already read the Wikipedia article for the Duchess of Malfi, read on, brave soul. **

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The fact that the Duchess and Antonio were in love wasn’t very culturally acceptable, but not uncommon. There are all sorts of examples of royals having affairs with lower nobility at this time in Italy. But, and this is a big but, one thing that was NOT done was a royal marrying someone of a lower class, even a lower noble class. So what do the Duchess and Antonio do? Get married, of course. They were married in a secret ceremony, too, so they definitely knew that they were breaking taboos. Then, the took another step and had children together, which is a pretty hard thing to hide. They wound up not being able to hide it. Cardinal Luigi found out, so the Duchess and Antonio picked up their children and ran. The Cardinal, being a powerful man with connections throughout Italy, found their hiding spot in Ancona, and got them exiled.

All along the watchtower, Duchess kept the view. Where both her brothers came and went, and executioners, too.

The Torre Dello Ziro, one of the possible resting places of the Duchess of Malfi and her children. Part of its grounds have been converted into a bed and breakfast. Because, you know, historical child murder is what you really want in a B&B. Photo courtesy of dianacity.com

Here’s where things get interesting. Antonio escapes to Milan, but the Duchess and her children don’t. They disappear. Tradition holds that the Duchess and her children were either taken back to her palace at Amalfi or to the Torre Dello Ziro on the Amalfi coast. All of the sources agree, however, that none of them were ever seen again. The Cardinal was thought to be the force behind her murder. Soon after, Antonio was spotted going to church in Milan, and, right after he left, he was murdered in the street by a man named Bosola, who was thought to be an agent of the Cardinal. Ironically, after being the prime suspect in the murders of two adults and three children, Cardinal Luigi headed up a Papal Commission investigating secret intrigues. I guess it takes an evil, secretive conspirator to know an evil, secretive conspirator.

Over the next couple of posts, we’ll be featuring some meet-the-cast videos, and a look at the Early Modern adaptation, plus the original production of Duchess of Malfi to see how it influenced the play you are going to go see, starting July 13th!

Get your tickets for Duchess of Malfi now!