Friday, January 22, 2021

Dangerous to Show

Today is 233rd birthday of George Gordon Byron, the playwright of Manfred, Marino Faliero, and Cain, among other dramas.

Byron was known not only for his writing, but also for his devilish good looks. Last year Geoffrey Bond and Christine Kenyon Jones published a wonderful book called Dangerous to Show: Lord Byron and His Portraits, which brings together many of the images made of Lord Byron, both during his life and after his famous death in Greece.

George Sanders painted the first fully professional portrait of Byron, which showed him getting ready to climb aboard a boat with his servant Robert Rushton. Byron's windswept hair and clothing capture the spirit of the new Romantic era. An engraving of the painting was used as a frontispiece in a biography of the writer published in 1830, so it helped to solidify the image of Byron after his death as an adventurous hero.


An even more famous portrait was painted by Richard Westall in 1813. Westall went on to illustrate a number of Byron's works, and the image of the dreamy, contemplative young man influenced the way Westall later portrayed Byron's protagonists. Byron himself tended to blend together his own identity with those of his characters, which is perhaps apparent in Thomas Phillips's portrait of Byron wearing some "traditional" Albanian clothes he had acquired.


In 1816, Byron left Britain never to return. This is when he began his productive period as a dramatist, though only one of his plays was performed during his lifetime. The year after his departure, the Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen created a bust of Byron, which gives us a three-dimensional likeness of the writer. Apparently, one of Byron's friends wanted to add a laurel wreath to the bust, but Byron objected, saying he didn't want his head garnished like a Christmas pie.


In 1822, Byron sat for another bust by Lorenzo Bartolini. After the writer's death two years later, the many images made during his lifetime became the basis for fanciful portrayals of his life. Charles Eastlake, for instance, created a famous painting of Byron's poem "The Dream" showing the writer amidst ancient ruins.


A computer screen can't really do these images justice, so if you're interested, check out the book from the University of Chicago Press. It's well worth it!

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Dear Mr. President and Madam Vice President

The Dramatists Guild today delivered to the incoming President and Vice President of the United States letters written by playwrights, lyricists, and composers from across the country.

Our message is clear. The arts are vital to our country, both economically and spiritually. With the country facing so many challenges, the arts have got to be part of the solution, and we are asking the new administration to think big.

You can read a selection of letters here, including my own. Other dramatists who contributed letters include David Ives, Ken LudwigTheresa Rebeck, and John Weidman, to name just a few.

In the wake of COVID-19 and the economic devastation it has caused, some dramatists have suggested that we could revive the Federal Theatre Project, which in the 1930s paved the way for the golden ages of both Broadway and Hollywood. This could potentially help to knit back together our frayed body politic, as well as provide relief to arts workers who have been made unemployed through no fault of their own.

Alternatively, we could do what the great American playwright Arthur Miller urged us to do, and create a national theatre. While the Kennedy Center provides a home for arts organizations, our nation still has no official national theatre with funding from the government, a situation lamented not just by Democrats like President Kennedy, but by Republicans like President Eisenhower as well. We could at long last rectify that situation, perhaps naming the new national theatre for Arthur Miller.

Whatever we do, however, we must do it now. America does not have a moment to lose.

Saturday, January 9, 2021

The Family Legend

Joanna Baillie is probably best known for her tragedy De Monfort, but she also enjoyed considerable success with a later drama, The Family Legend.

Baillie rose to fame after publishing the first volume of her Plays on the Passions in 1798. After De Monfort, the strongest piece in that volume, was performed at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in 1800, Baillie issued a second volume of Plays on the Passions in 1802. She published a volume of miscellaneous plays in 1804, but still held back The Family Legend from being published, in hopes of having it produced first.

A production at Drury Lane was not forthcoming, but Baillie's friend Walter Scott helped to secure a production in Edinburgh. Scott himself wrote the prologue to the play, which as the title suggests, is based on a legend about a feud between the Maclean and Campbell clans. The actor Daniel Terry played the Earl of Argyll, leader of the Campbell clan, and also recited Scott's prologue.

When the play opens, Argyll's daughter Helen has been married to the chief of the Maclean clan in order to resolve a feud between the two families. They have a baby son together, but many of the Macleans are furious that a half-Campbell is set to one day rule over them all. The vengeful Benlora, who was once imprisoned in a Campbell dungeon, calls Helen "a bosom worm, / Nursed in that viper's nest, to infuse its venom / Through all our after race."

In reality, Helen is not only virtuous, showing kindness to the misfortunate, but also fiercely loyal to the Maclean clan that she now regards as her new family. When her brother, the Lord of Lorne, comes in disguise to see her, she tells him:

                              here my place I'll hold
As dame and mistress of the warlike clan
Who yield obedience to their chief, my lord ;
And whatsoe'er their will to me may bear,
Of good or ill, so will I hold me ever.

The Lord of Lorne, it so happens, was played by Henry Siddons, son of the famous Sarah Siddons who had originated the role of Jane De Monfort in Baillie's earlier stage success. Lorne's sister Helen was played by Henry's wife Harriet. Though she had not been born in Scotland, Harriet (the daughter of the famed Scottish actor Charles Murray) was considered Scottish by Edinburgh theatre fans, who referred to her as "Our Mrs. Siddons" to distinguish her from her mother-in-law.

Harriet got to really show off her acting in the third act of the play, as the Macleans abandon her character on a tidal island to drown when the sea rises. Putting her trust in God, Helen raises her eyes to heaven and says:

Thou art i' the blue coped sky—th' expanse immeasurable;
I' the dark roll'd clouds, the thunder's awful home:
Thou art i' the wide-shored earth,—the pathless desert;
And in the dread immensity of waters,—
I' the fathomless deep thou art.
Awful but excellent! beneath thy hand,
With trembling confidence, I bow me low,
And wait thy will in peace.

Fortunately, Helen does not drown. Fisherman rescue her and return her to Lorne and his friend, Sir Hubert de Grey. In Act IV, they bring her back to her father's castle. Lorne wants revenge, but his father cautions him that they must be careful. Then, a messenger arrives with false news from the Maclean clan that Helen died tragically in an unforeseen illness and was bitterly mourned. This sets the stage for Act V, when Helen's deceitful husband and the other members of the Maclean clan arrive at Argyll's castle wearing black and bewailing the innocent woman they tried to murder.

How does the play end? No spoilers here, but it should be sufficed to say that medieval Scottish clans were not generally known for their tendency to forgive and forget. The play was a hit in Edinburgh, and in 1815 it was produced at Drury Lane as well. I'd love to see a modern production of the piece!

Thursday, December 31, 2020

Top Shows (that I missed) in 2020

In past Decembers, I have come up with a list of the best shows I saw that opened in New York City that year. Well, for 2020, that list would have to be pretty short.

Sure, I could talk about Blessed Unrest's Battle of Angels, and Irish Rep's Lady G, and end with Roundabout's standout production of A Soldier's Play, but for the most part, 2020 was a total loss when it came to live theatre.

Instead, I'm going to write about ten shows I missed, plays I was looking forward to seeing live, but couldn't experience because massive government incompetence turned a completely predictable (and predicted) outbreak into the worst health crisis since the influenza of 1918-1920.

This year was supposed to be one of world travel for me, rather than confinement to mostly just four small rooms. That's why my list is not restricted to just New York City this year. Here are ten shows I should have seen, would have seen, and likely would have loved, had it not been for the dumpster fire of 2020:

10. A Touch of the Poet. Okay, this one is partially my fault, since Irish Rep went ahead and produced this Eugene O'Neill play digitally. I was looking forward to seeing it live, though, and Zoom fatigue combined with the added work of trying to teach classes online meant that I missed the virtual performance. I still blame 2020.

9. Hangmen. Was Martin McDonough's latest play going to be a masterpiece? Maybe. Maybe not. But New York never got to find out, because it was still in previews when COVID-19 shut down theatres. Some shows vowed to reopen once the crisis passed, but as it became clear that the shutdown would last for weeks and then months, producers had to pull the plug on this one.

8. Man of La Mancha. The Astoria Performing Arts Center had planned a revival of this classic musical, to be directed by Dev Bondarin, whose work I've always loved. Fortunately, APAC is still going, though other theatre companies have been forced to fold. Theatre in Queens took a big hit when the Secret Theatre announced its closure this year. The one bright spot is that APAC will be taking over the space they've vacated.

7. As You Like It. The Public Theater has experienced tremendous success with its Public Works productions in Central Park, bringing together professional artists and amateurs in a celebration of all that's great about New York City. Shaina Taub did an excellent job composing music for 2019's production of Twelfth Night, and I was looking forward to hearing her score for As You Like It. It looks like I'll have to wait a bit longer now.

6. Richard II. The Shakespeare in the Park production I was really looking forward to seeing this year, though, was Richard II. Though I've seen multiple filmed versions of the play this is the only one in the Shakespeare canon I've never experienced live. After the shutdown, director Saheem Ali organized a radio version of the piece that aired on WNYC. You can listen to each of the four episodes, which are available as podcasts, though it's certainly not the same thing.

5. The Prince of Egypt. After attending a Shaw conference in Spain this May, I was supposed to spend some time with my sister in London. She had already gotten us tickets to see the stage adaptation of Stephen Schwartz's The Prince of Egypt at the Dominion Theatre. The movie was delightful, and the score does seem to lend itself to a stage transfer, so I was looking forward to seeing how it works on stage, as well as spending some time with my sister. Instead, I've only been able to see her virtually this year.

4. Leopoldstadt. Even more exciting than The Prince of Egypt was the other show my sister had gotten us tickets to see. Tom Stoppard's new play Leopoldstadt opened this January in a production directed by Patrick Marber, who had done such a brilliant job directing Stoppard's Travesties. Of all the shows playing in London this year, this was the one I really, really wanted to see. It tells the stories of members of the Jewish community in Vienna during the first half of the 20th century. We had tickets, but now I don't know if I'll ever have a chance to see it.

3. The Devil's Disciple. Though the Shaw conference in Spain was cancelled due to COVID-19, I briefly entertained hopes of attending another Shaw conference in Niagara-on-the-Lake in Canada. Instead, that conference went virtual, and the Shaw Festival decided to postpone its summer season for the summer of 2021. That means I might still get a chance to see the Shaw play they were supposed to do this year, The Devil's Disciple. Incidentally, Gingold Theatrical Group had planned to produce the same play this autumn. Will it be possible in 2021? We're still not sure.

2. Great Expectations. This play isn't an adaptation of the work by Charles Dickens, though I would have been excited about that, too. No, this Great Expectations is a reworking of my own short play The Rainbow, but for two older actors. A friend of mine, Ellen DiStasi, approached me earlier this year about doing The Rainbow with Theater of Light, which brings live drama to communities of older folks here in New York. Ellen asked if I could update the script to be performed by more mature actors, so a woman who had recently had a break-up became a widow, and there were a few other changes as well. The biggest thing, though, was that Ellen wasn't sure that a long monologue about a D.H. Lawrence novel would work for her target audience, so I changed it to a monologue about Great Expectations instead, which naturally changed the title of the play as well. I'd love to be able to do this show in 2021, but a play performed by members of a vulnerable community for other members of a vulnerable community....

1. The Love Songs of Brooklynites. I've been working on a full-length version of my one-act play that was workshopped in 2019 at the Theatre of Western Springs. Meanwhile, the one-act version was accepted for the theatre trail at the Arundel Festival of the Arts in the United Kingdom. The Drip Action Theatre Company in Arundel says they want to do the show this upcoming year. That would be wonderful. Though I've had my work performed in Canada, Australia, and even Japan, I've never had a production in the U.K., and Arundel looks like an amazing place to visit. Perhaps I'll be able to go this August and see it. Whether that happens or not, I'm still holding out hope for the full-length version of The Love Songs of Brooklynites to have a New York production once the theatres reopen. That means we're all going to have to wear masks, limit unnecessary travel, and get vaccinated. It also means that the government needs to get its act together and actually distribute and administer the vaccines being produced. Only then are we going to be able to have great theatre back.

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

English Melodrama

Melodrama began in France and Germany, arriving in England only after it had already been developed abroad. In France, a "melo-drame" referred to a work that used music and dumbshow, while in Germany a melodrama was a piece with spoken dialogue accompanied by musical underscoring.

It was in England, though, that melodrama developed, expanded, and was eventually exported all around the world. The Cambridge Companion to English Melodrama, edited by Carolyn Williams, aims to establish England's centrality in the emergence of the genre, containing essays contributed from top scholars, including Michael Gamer, Peter Brooks, and Juliet John.

Jim Davis has a great essay in the collection looking at the various theatres where melodrama was performed in England during the nineteenth century. Thomas Holcroft's A Tale of Mystery is often considered the first English melodrama, since Holcroft was the first person to use that term in describing his work, calling his play "A Mélo-Drame In Two Acts." It premiered at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden in 1802.

Though Covent Garden continued to produce numerous melodramas, the form was associated more with the minor theatres rather than the huge houses at Covent Garden and Drury Lane that held royal patents. The West End theatre that really drew audiences in for melodramas was the Adelphi, previously known as the Sans Pareil when under the direction of Jane Scott. The theatre was demolished and rebuilt twice, once in 1858 and once in 1901. It was in the second building that Dion Boucicault staged his play The Colleen Bawn with it's sensational scene showing a woman being rescued from drowning.

Over in the East End, the Pavilion Theatre in Whitechapel opened in 1826 and served a working-class audience that typically included a number of sailors who walked over from the docks. Not surprisingly, the Pavilion was known for its nautical melodramas. It burned down in 1856, but was rebuilt two years later. During its earlier years, it provided a home for melodramas penned by Elizabeth Polack, including the biblically inspired play Esther the Royal Jewess.

On the south side of the Thames was the Royal Coburg, later renamed the Royal Victoria, and today known as the Old Vic. It had to compete with a slew of other theatres in the neighborhood, though, including the Surrey Theatre, which premiered Douglas Jerrold's play Black-Eyed Susan in 1829. The Surrey also produced Edward Fitzball's 1833 crime melodrama Jonathan Bradford, which featured a set that showed four rooms simultaneously.

There was plenty of English theatre outside of London, too, and Davis includes a section on provincial theatres that did melodrama as well. One, the Sheffield Theatre Royal, staged Joseph Fox's controversial melodrama The Union Wheel in 1870, causing an outcry in the press, with some critics considering the piece to be an incitement to strike.

Monday, December 28, 2020

Theatre and Feeling

I recently read Erin Hurley's short book Theatre & Feeling, which has some interesting things to say about melodrama, a genre she calls "a kind of feeling-producing machine."

According to Hurley, melodrama appeals to audiences because it is designed specifically to please them, invoking emotional responses in predictable and thus reassuring ways. Moral complexity is cleared up, like a lifting fog, so even when virtue does not ultimately triumph, it at least is recognized.

One astute observation of Hurley is that melodrama arose just as industrialization was separating emotion from daily labor. Workers were no longer engaged in crafts they had learned and nurtured since apprenticeship, nor employed by a venerable family that had multi-generational ties to everyone in the area. Industrial laborers (and, Hurley argues, the domestic laborers employed in the homes of the newly enriched) were expected to divorce their emotions from their daily toil.

Melodrama, Hurley argues, drew feeling back together with the bodies of workers who had to labor daily without a significant emotional connection to that labor. Rather than being "escapist fantasy" these plays helped workers to reclaim their own emotional lives, by feeling things more intensely than they ever could on a factory floor or in the master's kitchen.

Though the moral world of melodrama is recycled, simply re-enacting certain well-rehearsed tropes, Hurley writes that this is precisely what made it reassuring. In a world of constant change, melodrama promised an ultimate return of the familiar.

Thursday, December 24, 2020

The Rent-Day

Douglas Jerrold's 1832 drama The Rent-Day capitalized on the burgeoning print culture of Britain to score a theatrical coup.

In the opening stage directions, Jerrold called for the curtain to rise on "a representation of Wilkie's picture of 'Rent-Day.'" Though few audience members were likely to have seen the famous painting by Scottish artist David Wilkie, they certainly would have known it from the numerous prints that circulated in middle-class drawing rooms.

Today, you can still find some of these prints come up in online auctions. I recently acquired one, as I've been doing work on Jerrold's play and its relationship to the work of his good friend, novelist Charles Dickens. This summer, I even gave a lightning talk on the topic as part of an online conference marking the 150th anniversary of Dickens's death.

Well, I continued to develop that talk into a full-length paper which has now been accepted for publication in an upcoming issue of Dickens Quarterly. Naturally, I'd like to include an image of the print with the article, but with the way copyright works these days, it's frequently less expensive to buy a 19th-century print and scan it yourself than to pay for the rights to one in a museum's collection. Here's the scan:


Jerrold didn't stop with just one reference to a Wilkie painting, though. At the end of the play's second act, the stage directions call for "characters to arrange themselves as to represent Wilkie's picture of 'Distraining for Rent.'" Don't worry--I was able to find a print of that one, as well. Here it is:


As usual, I'm offering these images for free to anyone who wants to publish them in a journal, book, newspaper, or magazine. If you want a higher quality image, feel free to contact me. You can credit the image to the personal collection of James Armstrong.