Day #14: June 8, 2019
“I am amazed and know not what to say.” Hermia, MND. (This is my general emotional state these days.)
I haven’t learned much about my Gramercy neighborhood. I just put my head down and barrel down 3rd Avenue to 440 Lafayette every morning around 9:15. But coming home at night, I try to catch the action on the ave. And I’ve grown very curious about the nail salon a few blocks from my apartment building that is open until 11pm. And especially curious because there are always a few people in there getting pedicures at 10:30. I’m tempted to drop in one night. I’ve been biting my nails again, after having broken the habit of a lifetime just recently. Yeah, I’m stressed. What else is new?
My mother called the other day and asked how the production went. I explained that I’m in NY for the whole month and that we’re reading 39 plays. She’s not quite grasping the scale of the enterprise, and it is too convoluted to explain, so I just say, “Everything is fine, mom.” To which she then asks, “What else is new?” I reply that I don’t have time for anything new. She, at 92, would love to have something new. Such is the ebb and flow of a life cycle, I think. We always want to get to the other end of the fulcrum.
Right now, that fulcrum is going to be fully flipped up and down today, what with readings of MIDSUMMER and KING JOHN. Had I been a savvy producer, I would have programmed MND on a Saturday night. But I’m interested in promoting the lesser known plays, and so I pulled an Addams Family. (You know what I mean by that? In the original tv, yes, I am that old, Gomez always bought high and sold low in the stock market, and he still made money. Everything they did was opposite of conventional wisdom. And I thought that was the key to a fun life.)
I also had hoped that more people would take advantage of packages, and hear three or four of these readings in a row. And so with that in mind, I wanted people to hear MND right after hearing R&J. Because perhaps Shakespeare is making a little bit of fun at R&J with the Pyramus and Thisbe story. First time, tragedy; second time farce, as Karl Marx, the literary critic once wrote. (You did know he was a literary critic before he was a Marxist, right? There were days in the literary office when I read play after play and thought, “This could lead someone to wanting to be a Marxist.”)
When I write my Shakespeare book (which will probably just be these blogs edited by a professional), it will begin with my first memory of Shakespeare: it’s a photograph of two college-aged women on the apron of a stage, wearing traditional Robin Hood styled tights and tunics that still seem to be a fashion choice for Shakespeare plays. On the right is my mother. On the left is Estelle Parsons, who has been a lifelong friend to our family. (I vividly remember my mother sobbing as she watched her friend accept the Academy Award for her work in BONNIE AND CLYDE). Im not sure my mother remembers who she played, but Estelle recalls that she was Wall in this production of MND at Connecticut College.
This listening thing is proving to be extremely interesting. Especially when it comes to the comedies.
I mean, who ever knew all the nuances going on between the lovers, let alone what Oberon and Titania are fighting about? I realize that when i saw the bubble procession during the reading that my experience with productions of Dream are just that: bubble machines. Productions don’t seem to believe or trust that there is a lot of heart in these comedies. So productions tend to focus on presenting a fun theatrical world to delight the eye until the play is over.
But toss some heart in there, and make the stakes real and clear, and suddenly, a lot of the shenanigans makes sense. And the funny is deeper. (The play opens with a father angry at the defiance of his daughter and the law of Athens seems to indicate that he can do with her as he wishes. Theseus, the state’s authority – is he the Duke? Suddenly I have no idea what his title is – relaxes it just a bit. “You have three choices, Hermia, if you don’t agree to your father’s demands that you marry the man he has chosen for you: death, banishment, or a nunnery.” This is a comedy?
The French say that 90% of dramatic literature is comedic. They have a WIDE definition of comedy: it’s anything that isn’t tragic. And i think we would all agree on what is tragic. What we don’t all agree on is what’s funny, which makes it an incredibly risky proposition. But when the actions are grounded in the real, we laugh with the foibles of the characters, not at.
I understand that the fake knife that Pyramus and Thisbe used during the play within the play died because of over-use. Well, comedy can be generated through repetition. And it’s hard to resist hamming up the death of Bottom. Our actors are taking things very seriously!
Playwright Jeffrey Whitty engulfed in bubbles during rehearsals for Midsummer.
Tonight was the reading of KING JOHN. And I’ve been looking forward to presenting this one. It’s a strange play stylistically. It feels like Shakespeare is making fun of the history plays, a genre that I think he had a hand in creating in the first place.
And it feels strangely relevant. Or maybe that’s the definition of a classic play? One that always feels relevant no matter when it is produced? In this case, a story about a king who gets the crown under shaky circumstances (some good genealogy software would have been useful to the British, even they can’t keep straight who had the stronger claim to the throne. It’s all Edward’s fault: he had SEVEN sons!) and just seems confused about being king. What did he think it would be? Richard II seems clueless to the world around him, which leads to bad decision making. King John just seems inept. When he tries to enforce policy, it doesn’t work out. In one specular sequence, he hints to his subordinate Hubert that he wants his nephew killed, and when the death of Arthur is made public, he is embarrassed and berates for Hubert for not knowing that he didn’t mean it. (Henry II is reputed to have said the same thing to the knight who killed Thomas Becket.)
Shakespeare is our first modern playwright. A perfect illustration of that is a ten-syllable sequence between John and Hubert, which is worthy of the best film scripts going:
Hubert: My lord?
John: A grave
Hubert: He shall not live.
(Ok technically, that’s 11-syllables from Brighde Mullins’ translation. But perhaps you get my point.)
The audience spoke afterwards about their delight in discovering this play. I’ve only seen it once before, and it was a marvelous production, but I missed so much of the political maneuvering. And I know that Bastard is a fun role, but I couldn’t quite figure out how he fit in before. Clarity is a wonderful thing, methinks. When something is clear, I get to decide how it means to me. When it isn’t, one side has power over the other.
Tomorrow: Wait until you hear the clarity of MERCHANT OF VENICE