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.

Solomon

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

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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.

Oh Oh, it’s Magic

We Happy Few’s THE TEMPEST is starting to take shape. The script is in its final stages and slowly-but-surely the artistic vision is emerging.

What makes this show special? We are reimagining THE TEMPEST on a living, breathing island- its primal magic conjured in the bodies and voices of a seven-actor ensemble. The omniscient Prospero stands apart, wielding the island’s power to manipulate monsters and spirits, kings and drunkards, a treacherous brother, and a daughter in love. But is harnessing the magic of the island for one’s own ends really worth the isolation it brings?

The most difficult part of staging THE TEMPEST has always been making it truly magical. At WHF, we believe there is nothing more magical than watching actors on a stage create a world. As such, WHF’s THE TEMPEST will follow in the company’s tradition of stripped-down productions, focusing on using the actors themselves to produce the entirety of this world. Just as the ensemble will build the world of the island, they will also create all the magic that happens – not with sleight-of-hand, but with the movement of their bodies. Additionally, the sound of the world will all be created with only the actors’ voices and bodies – including original music composed for the production. Along with these elements, WHF will continue its signature focus on maintaining the integrity of Shakespeare’s text while exploring it from an exciting new angle.

Stay tuned for more details about THE TEMPEST– there will be many more to come!