Sunday, November 19, 2017

Passing FREIGHT

I just got back from seeing Howard L. Craft's Freight: The Five Incarnations of Abel Green at the Castillo Theatre.

The production, directed by Joseph Megel and starring J. Alphonse Nicholson, was previously in New York at HERE Arts Center. In my opinion, it was one of the best plays of 2015.

Unfortunately, this is the last day of the show's run at the Castillo, where it was produced by the New Federal Theatre. If you missed it, perhaps the play will be back in the future. It certainly deserves to be. This one-man drama, which shows the same character in different incarnations from the 1910s to the 2010s, should have another incarnation of its own.

Megel will be directing a different one of Craft's plays, Miraculous and Mundane, coming up at ManBites Dog Theater in Durham this January. Will that play also have a New York run? We'll have to wait and see!

Sunday, November 12, 2017

THE NEW MRS. JONES in Michigan

Next month, Siena Heights University in Adrian, Michigan will be performing my one-act play The New Mrs. Jones.

The play is being performed through special arrangement with Brooklyn Publishers, which is how I found out about it. It's a student-directed performance, being done one night only, at 7:30 pm on Saturday, December 9th.

If you want to find out more about the production in Siena Heights' Stubnitz Lab Theater, check out the website of SHU's theater program.

Break a leg to all involved!

Friday, November 10, 2017

A Tale of Mystery

My last post was about the rise of melodrama, but today I want to write about what is arguably the first melodrama written in English, Thomas Holcroft's A Tale of Mystery.

Holcroft was familiar with Guilbert Pixérécourt's play Coelina, or The Child of Mystery and decided to adapt it into English. He changed the name of the title character to Selina and eliminated much of the dialogue, replacing it with extensive stage directions. This hybrid form, containing music and dumb shows as well as spoken text, he called "A Mélo-Drame In Two Acts."

The plot of the play in fact relies upon one character's inability to speak. Francisco, who saw his brother commit a brutal murder, was made mute after that same brother turned him over to the "Algerines" who presumably destroyed his vocal chords. Francisco can "speak" through gesture, and by writing, with his words conveyed to the audience by another character, Stephano.

Stephano is in love with Selina, an orphan taken in by his father, Bonamo. Francisco's brother, the villainous Count Romaldi, also loves Selina, and when Bonamo turns down the count's offer of marriage, the scoundrel supplies "proof" that Selina is the illegitimate child of adultery. Bonamo turns her out of his house, but his servant Fiametta objects. She comically reiterates that she won't say a word, even as she constantly interrupts other characters.

Playing up the muteness theme, Fiametta even says, "Tell all, sir, I am dumb" before allowing the local miller to shed some light on the mystery. As soon as he is finished with his speech, however, Fiametta cuts in yet again, only to pledge that this time she is really done speaking.

Reviewers responded to the play's use of mute dumbshow rather than dialogue. According to the Times: "There is no extravagance of idea--no laborious research after simile and metaphor, no display of pomp and inflated expression: the thought seems to arise from the moment, and the words appear to be suggested by the circumstance which pass under the eye of the spectator."

This sparseness of dialogue quickly became popular on the British stage. Numerous other melodramas followed, including James Baldwin Buckstone's Luke the Labourer, Douglas Jerrold's Black-Eyed Susan, and the many, many plays of Dion Boucicault.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

The Rise of Melodrama

The playwright René-Charles Guilbert de Pixérécourt pioneered melodrama in France, with such dramas as The Ruins of Babylon and The Dog of Montargis. These plays gave equal billing to their composers, as they relied just as much on dramatic music and acting dumb shows as on dialogue.

In 1802, the British playwright Thomas Holcroft adapted Pixérécourt's play Coelina, or The Child of Mystery as A Tale of Mystery, calling it "A Mélo-Drame In Two Acts." The melodrama had arrived in England, and was haunting Germany as well, where J.W. Goethe's rival August von Kotzebue had a string of hits, including The Ruins of Athens, Misanthropy and Repentance, and The Spanish in Peru.

These plays were tightly plotted, with succinct, functional dialogue designed to help the audience follow the plot, but the language of melodrama attempts little else and lacks the poetic qualities of Romantic drama. Also, while melodrama can be political, it is usually aimed at leading the audience to simplistic conclusions. Romantic dramas, by contrast, dealt seriously with political and moral issues, often giving equal voice to opposing views. Also, Romantic dramas provided towering characters suited for actors like Edmund Kean. The melodramas that overtook Romantic plays forced actors into roles of virtuous heroes or conniving villains in an effort to get the audience to focus on sensationalistic plot twists instead.

In England, the actress and theatre manager Jane Scott turned the Sans Pareil Theatre into a powerhouse of melodrama. The Sans Pareil was known as a "minor theatre" since it was licensed to perform musical entertainments, but was not allowed to perform purely spoken drama. Scott penned a series of plays that incorporated music and song, getting around the monopoly on spoken drama enjoyed by the patent theatres in London. She wrote more than 50 plays in all, many of them designed to show off her own talents as the leading performer. Her most famous, The Old Oak Chest, was originally a star vehicle for herself, but unlike her other works it was published, which allowed it to continue to be performed long after Scott retired from the stage in 1819.

Melodramas frequently drew inspiration from the Gothic novels of the period. Gothic tales frequently had exotic or medieval settings. They could have supernatural events, like Matthew G. Lewis's hit play The Castle Spectre, or they could portray apparently supernatural occurrences that get explained rationally, as happens in The Old Oak Chest. The most famous Gothic novel, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, was first adapted as a melodrama by Richard Brinsley Peakes in 1823 as Presumption, or The Fate of Frankenstein. The play initially ran for 37 performances and continued to be revived until the middle of the century.

Meanwhile, the official patent theatres in London saw their audiences dwindle, and they increasingly turned to melodrama themselves. The actor William Charles Macready took over the management of the patent theatre at Drury Lane in 1841 pledging to revive the drama to its former glory. Unable to compete with the minor theatres, however, he asked the owners of the theatre for a decrease in rent, and when they declined he petitioned parliament to end the monopoly held by the patent theatres. In 1843, parliament agreed and passed the Theatres Act, which kept censorship in place, but allowed minor theatres to perform any type of play they wanted. Rather than the minor theatres turning to spoken drama, however, the old patent theatres turned to melodrama, making it the dominant theatrical form of the nineteenth century.


Saturday, October 28, 2017

Joan of Arc Conquers Florida

The readings of my play Dark Night of the Soul were apparently a hit at The Villages in Florida this week.

The Daily Sun ran an article announcing the readings at the Eisenhower Recreation Center on Thursday and Laurel Manor Recreation Center on Friday. The publicity helped to bring out more than 200 people to fill the audiences.

Dave Saxe, who played the Earl of Warwick in the readings, called the play "a very powerful peace" in the article. Laura Saxe, who played Joan of Arc, called it "riveting drama." The reading also featured Alex Santoriello as Brother Martin and Dan Pona as the Bishop.

Hopefully, the play will receive a full production next year!


Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Saint Crispin's Day

Today is the feast of Saints Crispin and Crispinian, the patrons of cobblers, so in honor of today, we should all be wearing shoes.

Well, and theatre nerds like me are probably remembering the Saint Crispin's Day speech from Shakespeare's Henry V.

If you've never seen the Kenneth Branagh film version of Henry V, go watch it now. No, seriously, stop reading this blog post and watch it RIGHT NOW.

Done? Wasn't that awesome! As my friend Victoria put it, if only we could live life at the pitch of that film... well, okay, it would probably kill us, but still! It would be worth it.

In honor of the day, I thought I would blog the speech with a few random comments. Here's what the king has to say:

                                                            What's he that wishes so?
                              My cousin, Westmorland?

The Earl of Westmorland (one of the king's cousins, if you care) has just wished that ten thousand men now in England were with the English army in France. If the audience remembers back to the beginning of the play, they might recall that England had to leave some troops at home to guard against an invasion by Scotland. Henry, however, will have none of this second-guessing of that earlier decision.

                                                            No, my fair cousin;
                              If we are mark'd to die, we are enough
                              To do our country loss; and if to live,
                              The fewer men, the greater share of honor.

Honor has been a major theme throughout the Henriad, the tetralogy of history plays encompassing Richard II, The First Part of Henry IV, The Second Part of Henry IV, and Henry V. Falstaff, the shameful mentor to the future King Henry V, claims in 1H4 that honor is nothing but a word. Obviously, the king disagrees.

                              God's will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
                              By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
                              Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
                              It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
                              Such outward things dwell not in my desires.
                              But if it be a sin to covet honor,
                              I am the most offending soul alive.

Clothing imagery runs strong throughout Shakespeare. Think of Petruchio's line in The Taming of the Shrew: "To me she's married, not unto my clothes." Fine clothes, gold, rich food, these are all nothing. Honor is all that matters.

                              No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England.
                              God's peace! I would not lose so great an honor
                              As one man more, methinks, would share from me,
                              For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!

Of course, wishing more men won't bring them there, but the king has something else in mind. He wants to make sure that those who do fight with him give all that they have.

                              Rather proclaim it, Westmorland, through my host,
                              That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
                              Let him depart; his passport shall be made,
                              And crowns for convoy put into his purse;

Interestingly enough, this is pretty much what Judas Maccabaeus does in the Bible. According to the First Book of Maccabees (considered apocryphal by Protestants): "Those who were building houses or were about to be married, or were planting a vineyard, or were faint-hearted, he told them to go home again, according with the law" (1 MAC 3:56). In the play, the king gives this reason for his action:

                              We would not die in that man's company
                              That fears his fellowship to die with us.

And then we get to the day for which the speech is named.

                              This day is call'd the feast of Crispian.
                              He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
                              Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam'd,
                              And rouse him at the name of Crispian.

By some accounts, Crispin and Crispian were born in Britain and lived in Canterbury. In any case, they ended up martyred for preaching the Gospel in Gaul, which is present-day France. Now, the king must prepare his men for the possibility that they, too, will die as martyrs for a cause in France. Staying positive, however, he focuses on those who will survive.

                              He that shall live this day, and see old age,
                              Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbors,
                              And say "Tomorrow is Saint Crispian."
                              Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
                              And say "These wounds I had on Crispin's day."

That last line doesn't appear in the First Folio of Shakespeare's plays, but it does appear in a Quarto version published in 1600. It serves as a reminder that many of Shakespeare's plays have multiple texts from which editors can choose.

                              Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
                              But he'll remember, with advantages,
                              What feats he did that day. 

Remembering "with advantages" implies that the survivors will add to the truth, telling tall tales. So what? To the king, that doesn't seem to matter.

                                                            Then shall our names,
                              Familiar in his mouth as household words—

Charles Dickens borrowed from that line in naming a journal he edited Household Words.

                              Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
                              Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester—
                              Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb'red.

We get to see these characters onstage, adding to our enjoyment of the monologue.

                              This story shall the good man teach his son;
                              And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
                              From this day to the ending of the world,
                              But we in it shall be remembered—

And indeed, we do remember them, in plays, in films, and even in blog posts.

                              We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
                              For he today that sheds his blood with me
                              Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
                              This day shall gentle his condition;

As young Prince Hal, the future king hung out with lowlifes in a tavern in Eastcheap. That time seemed wasted to many, but now he is able to relate to the common man. He truly does see them as his brothers.

                              And gentlemen in England now a-bed
                              Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
                              And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
                              That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

Bravo, King Henry! Where do we sign up?

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Clearing Up the German Stage

In Germany, the Enlightenment was known as the "Aufklärung" which translates roughly to the "clearing up of things." Since the end of the Thirty Years War in 1648, Germany had been left as a mess, politically, economically, and intellectually. Enlightenment thinkers in Germany tended to steer clear of political problems, and they usually came from the rising middle class, which was helping to restore the finances of the region in the wake of decades of war. Their primary goal was to liberate people from superstition and worn-out ideas. They particularly took aim at prejudices among German-speaking people to favor fashions from France or England rather than something that had been produced locally, be it a cloak, a hat, or a new play.

The German Aufklärung also sought to clear up the mess that had been made of the country's theatre, and perhaps no one person was more dedicated to reorganizing the theatre than the actress and theatre manager Caroline Neuber. Born Friederike Caroline Weissenborn, she was well educated by an intelligent but tyrannical father who seems to have quite literally beaten her unfortunate mother to death. At twenty, she ran off with a young clerk, Johann Neuber, and married him. The couple joined a troupe of traveling actors, and then five years later moved to another company. In 1727, they founded their own troupe and were granted a special patent by the local government to perform at the annual Easter Fair in Leipzig.

Performing extensively rehearsed productions, the Neubers' company attracted the attention of a university professor in Leipzig, Johann Christoph Gottsched. Like Neuber, Gottsched wanted to elevate German drama, and the two worked together, with Neuber staging innovative new productions and Gottsched writing critical defenses of her actions. Most controversial was Neuber's holding a symbolic banishing of the traditional German clown, Hanswurst, an act Gottsched justified as necessary to bring about a new seriousness in drama. Unfortunately, Gottsched felt he needed to be deferred to in stage matters as well as literary ones, and Neuber would have none of that. The two fell out in 1741 over an argument in which even Gottsched's own wife had sided with Neuber.

Realizing the value of having an educated critic on her side, Neuber looked about for a replacement for Gottsched, and came upon a talented student at the University of Leipzig named Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. She induced him to translate French plays for her, and then in 1748 she produced his first original play, The Young Scholar. Lessing began reviewing theatre productions, and eventually co-founded a new journal dedicated exclusively to the drama. Though it lasted only four issues, it established his reputation. Lessing continued to write plays, and in 1755 penned Miss Sara Sampson, a bourgeois tragedy influenced by George Lillo's The London Merchant but surpassing it in many ways.

While Miss Sara Sampson introduced bourgeois tragedy to the German stage, Lessing's 1767 play Minna von Barnhelm set new standards in romantic comedy. The same year he wrote that play, Lessing began work on a series of essays for the Hamburg National Theater. Though the theatre closed two years later, Lessing's essays, collected together in the book Hamburg Dramaturgy, had a lasting effect on dramatic theory and criticism. In 1772 Lessing wrote Emilia Galotti, a tragedy on classical themes but with a contemporary setting, and seven years later he shocked religious sensibilities with his historical comedy about the Crusades, Nathan the Wise. Though Lessing intended the play as a plea for religious tolerance, people of many faiths condemned it for its argument that all religions are essentially interchangeable.

Lessing is generally credited with helping to pave the way for German Romanticism, but that's another story.