Day #12: June 6, 2019
“He cheated. And if he can cheat, then I can cheat.” Octavio Solis talking about his process of translating EDWARD III.
I’m fascinated by the people who have stayed in my corporate apartment before me. I check the mail about once a week, and there are about four different names who are still receiving mail. Nothing terribly personal. Food delivery services are big. It seems that no one in NY cooks. Then again, if one doesn’t have drawers or a place to put pantry items, it doesn’t encourage cooking. (This is my situation. Taylor got the apartment with a real kitchen and more space, but he is running the festival out of that apartment, and so he is using all that space.)
But the flyer that caught my eye was “learn the new f… word.” With a very pretty blue background. And in the bottom right corner, you learn that this is from the French Institute. Of course the background is blue! We know that’s the French color from all those damn English history plays. (I shouldn’t diss the history plays. I think I love them the best because they contain everything in them. And if we only knew who was who and why whatever it is matters so much to them, we would realize that these stories are the West Wing or Game of Thrones in their political scheming and global dominating ambition.)
And if you’ve been following the history plays, it may well be the underlying nationalistic theme that speaking French would be like dropping the f-bomb to English ears. Not that I know my linguistic history AT ALL (David Crystal is the go-to on this; he has a great History of the English language book with maps – I love maps! – but I didn’t lug the book here.), but I think one of the ironies about the plays is that the people in power spoke French until the end of the 15th century. Which means that the worlds of EDWARD III, KING JOHN, and HENRY VIs would have had plenty of French spoken at court. And helps explain why these plays are so obsessed with the French territories that the English kings seem to be perpetually winning and losing. William the Conqueror came from Normandy in 1066 and brought French with him. When you consider that a good percentage of English words have a French origin, it puts a different perspective on the matter of conquest.
With two readings, Thursdays don’t allow me spend much time in any rehearsal room, but I managed to drop by in all three rooms before heading to CSC for the matinee.
I see that the Lancaster rose prop from one of the Henry 6’s was being used for the flower that Oberon asks Puck to find for him. And I entered the room just as Jeff was talking about wanting some bubbles to proceed the arrival of the fairy court. Ali, the stage manager, looked at me, perhaps in hopes that I would put a kabosh on such a request, but I kind of loved the idea. (I just hope no one slips on the soap!)
Jeff called a long lunch break so he could listen to some sound cues – what is the fairy world going to sound like? Stay tuned.
It is the first day for MERCHANT OF VENICE, and I gave a little talk about the power of beautiful poetry that obscures ugliness. I do think that our culture privileges beauty over other values. And that we can be mesmerized by it. It a longstanding aspect of western culture that begins with Helen of Troy. But these plays are riddled with discussions about physical beauty, particularly when it comes to describing women. I think that carries forward today. And we should be more consciously aware of the power of beautiful things. And I don’t mean just in love.
Every time I have managed to get to the KING JOHN room they are on a break. I read the daily reports so I know that they are having a good time and proceeding apace. But when are they doing the work?
We have these popcorn chips on the snack table that are wickedly addicting, so I grabbed a bag on my way over to CSC, where I spent the rest of the day.
EDWARD III, or TED3 as we affectionately dubbed it, is an odd play. But we are realizing that all the plays are a bit odd. From our perspective of clean dramaturgy based on the formula for movies and television shows. In this day, when finally content is catching up with the variety of ways to present content, we are getting different forms. I’m not just talking about kinds of media presentation. I mean that the 22-minute sitcom formula and the well-made three-act movie script that I was raised on aren’t the only ways to skin a cat. (Which refers to catfish, by the way. Not Morris.)
This play is very episodic. What happens in scenes stays contained within those scenes. Take the Countess scene for instance. This happens in the second act when the mercurial King Edward takes such a fancy to the Countess of Salisbury that he is ready to put his wife and her husband to death to clear the way to her bed. Her argument to him as well as the depth of her commitment to her marriage vows (she’s willing to kill herself rather than submit to him – remember this when we get to Measure for Measure) finally penetrate through the fog of lust that was ruling Edward.
But once that’s done, nothing is ever said about it for the rest of the play. Her husband becomes a hero in the second half, and I suppose the big question is: did he ever know? And it just doesn’t seem to matter. Looking at these plays as incremental building blocks – the cause and effect kind of storytelling which we get from the Greek plays – isn’t the way this one works. What is being carried forward, however, are major themes. We see episodes about honor, especially in terms of one’s word. If one gives one’s word in this world, one keeps it. I do think there is a throwback to some romantic notion of a more chivalrous world (remember the French influence!) but I rather love being reminded about the power of keeping one’s word. And the disasters that happen when one doesn’t.
Octavio entered that romantic world, which is 100% verse, with great gusto. He talked about putting on Shakespeare’s gloves and approached the assignment like he would a crossword puzzle: once he figures out the mind of the puzzler, he can then tackle the puzzle. And for him, the key was about the verse. As he struggled to fit everything into 10 beats, suddenly he realized that there were 11 or 12 beats on occasion and that realization freed him a bit. His aim was to make it sing.
He talked about the authorship of the play. There are scholars who think that maybe Shakespeare wrote the first two acts and perhaps contributed a speech here and there. The obvious choices are the scenes with the Countess and there is a beautiful speech about life and death that is spoken on the battlefield. I caution us to romanticize Shakespeare in the sense that we think that everything he wrote was beautiful and perfect. Cherry-picking through the plays and heralding only the good bits (based on some literary quality, not dramaturgical) misses the forest for the trees. Octavio believes that the play has two authors: one if Shakespeare the early-career writer beginning to learn his craft; and the other is Shakespeare the genius. He reminded us that we have 400 years of language in between us and Shakespeare. English was new then, and he could feel where Shakespeare had to invent words because they weren’t available yet.
This is also the reading that is in contention for the most sound cues used. So many battles! But no swordfights onstage. All that action happens off-stage. Which is very Greek-like.
That evening we jumped two generations to RICHARD II. It also is 100% verse, and contrary to Ted3, everyone keeps carrying the actions of the previous scene into the next. They can’t seem to forget. But it’s because they are dismantling a system. And it takes a long time to formally depose a king. If you agree to the system of divine right, what do you do when you get an ineffectual king? And the play documents that incremental political scheming that it takes to achieve this. My experience with English people (and I happen to be 80% English) is that we don’t often speak directly about what we want. We hint, we say all the nice things in public that one is supposed to say, and then we scheme behind your back. Well, that is exactly what happens in this play. Poor Richard, however, who in his isolation as king, never got the memo on how to be a political operator. But perhaps that’s what made him not such a great king. The matter of great is in the eye of the beholder but it seems to me that neither the people nor the nobility liked how he behaved.
I wanted Naomi Iizuka to take this play for several reasons. She has an incredible ear. And by that I mean, she would know just the right word or inversion to gracefully slip into a verse line. And it would so imperceptible that we might not catch it in the hearing of it during the course of a play. Unless you know the play extremely well.
I also thought that she would be the one to untangle that political maneuvering and put it back into the lines keeping the nefarious psychological methods that people were using but making it clear to me that they were manipulating others, not that I couldn’t follow their crazy logic. This is one of the goals of Play on: I want to know that it the character not making sense or being obtuse, not that I don’t understand what is being said. This is a subtle difference but they are worlds apart in how it lands with me. Im fine being confused about whether Bolingbroke is playing true in those first scenes and whether Thomas Mowbray is really the honorable one. I like wrestling with my ability to gauge character. What I don’t like wrestling with is what are they literally saying. ‘Literal’ meaning is not where Shakespeare rests.
We had small audiences for both of these readings. And my goodness these casts are just giving it their all. These readings have turned into amazing performances! I am sad that more people are not venturing to hear some of these lesser known plays. I believe that they would be amazed at them. And would have an even greater appreciation for Shakespeare the writer than they already have.
Tomorrow: Our first blockbuster: Romeo and Juliet. The test gets real.