Friday, September 25, 2020

Battle of Angels

Theatre cannot be killed. You can try to murder it, but it will not stay quietly in its grave. That is the lesson of Blessed Unrest's new production of Tennessee Williams' Battle of Angels.

Indoor theatre is still illegal, though some companies, like Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, are producing theatre outdoors. They'll be putting on three short pieces by Bernard Shaw next month in Florham Park, which I wish I could see, but Florham Park isn't the most accessible place to get to by public transportation. That's why I was excited to get an e-mail from Blessed Unrest about their outdoor production of Battle of Angels this weekend.

Blessed Unrest has been around for the past 20 years, and I fondly remember the production they did of Shakespeare's All's Well That Ends Well not long after I moved to New York. Though they might not have the budgets of larger theatre companies, they have the creativity to come up with ways to produce memorable performances even when facing difficult circumstances. Well, COVID-19 has created some of the most difficult conditions imaginable, but this can-do company has figured out how to still produce live drama.

And how is that? Well, you have to be outside, of course, which is why this production is in Central Park. If you make a reservation, the company will tell you where to meet them. They'll also ask you to download an audio file to a cell phone or MP3 player. When you show up at the park, with your audio device and headphones, you can sit on the ground or stand if you'd rather, and watch the actors perform while their dialogue plays in your ears. The stage manager helps the audience to synchronize their devices, and then the audio perfectly accompanies the show.

"Show" is perhaps a better term than "play" since the performers dance their roles rather than just act them. We don't have to worry about lip-synching, since the performers are all wearing masks for safety anyway. However, their physical movements suit the emotionally charged nature of Williams' play. The audio also supplies important stage directions (voiced by the actors) when characters light cigarettes or perform other tasks not particularly suited to mask-wearing. The audience gets to also hear music, sound effects, and artificially altered voices that enhance the experience.

There are some drawbacks to the method. Since this is a busy part of Central Park, the audience hears buskers performing right next to the performance. The company invites the audience to embrace this cacophony, since there is no way around it. I also didn't bring a towel to sit down on, which might have been a good idea, but you can bring one if you see the show Saturday or Sunday night at 6:30.

How do you make reservations? E-mail and tell them if you want to come on Saturday or Sunday. They do suggest a $25 donation, but the show is well worth it, so please support these talented and courageous artists.

Saturday, September 19, 2020


We generally think of the Greeks and Romans as dividing their plays into clear examples of comedies and tragedies, but Plautus's play Amphitryon turns that idea on its head.

In the prologue, we have Mercury, messenger of the gods and patron of thieves and tricksters, tell us the performance will be a tragedy, but then he quickly walks back that declaration:

What? Frowning because I said it's tragedy!
I'm a god. I'll change it for you:
Transform this selfsame play from tragedy to comedy and never blot a line.

Later, Mercury says that instead the play will be a tragicomedy, since you don't have kings and gods in all-out comedy. Thus, the genre of tragicomedy was born, blending together the conventions of two different genres. Later authors who wanted to mix genres could point back to Amphitryon as a model for their own experiments.

In the first act, the conquering general Amphitryon has returned from a war against the Teleboians on behalf of the king of Thebes, Creon. He's brought back with him his faithful servant Sosia, but little do they know the god Jupiter has just spent the night with Amphitryon's wife Alcmena. Jupiter has disguised himself as Amphitryon, and Alcmena is ignorant of the deception. What is more, Mercury has disguised himself as Sosia, who gets beaten up by his own doppelganger.

When the real Amphitryon shows up, Sosia doesn't know how to explain what has happened. Things get even more confused when the general sees his wife for the first time in months, but she assures him that they just parted. Sosia compares Alcmena to the same type of ecstatic women who appear in Euripides's play The Bacchae:

These raving maenads when they're raving--
You mustn't cross them... 
Or you'll make the crazy things still crazier 
And get yourself torn in two. 

Alcmena isn't about to tear anyone in two, yet she has been possessed by a god... though in a different way from the maenads who worshipped Bacchus. She shuts herself up in her house, and when Amphitryon tries to get inside, Mercury as Sosia mocks him and dumps water on his head. This scene provided the model for the first scene of Act III in Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors, though most of that play is inspired by another Plautus work, Menaechmi.

Amphitryon gets resolved when Jupiter miraculously reveals to the general and his household what has been going on the whole time. Alcmena gives birth to two sons, one biologically Amphitryon's, while the other is the child of Jupiter and destined to become the great hero Hercules. The general doesn't mind being cuckolded as long as it was by a god, and he accepts his situation, sending away the prophet Tiresias, who had been called in to sort out the matter.

So many of the characters--Creon, Tiresias, Hercules--appear in other ancient tragedies we have, and apparently the tragic dramatist Sophocles even wrote a play about Amphitryon, though it is now lost. Overall, though, Plautus's Amphitryon presents the action in a decidedly comic manner.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

The Compass Rose

Luigi Antonelli is mainly known in the United States (if he is known at all) for his 1918 play L'uomo che incontra se stesso (A Man Confronts Himself). The play is an example of the "Theatre of the Grotesque" movement at the beginning of the 20th century.

However, Antonelli later wrote two other plays he considered to form a "dramatic triptych" together with L'uomo che incontra se stesso. These plays were La bottega dei sogni (The Shop of Dreams) and La rosa dei venti (The Compass Rose, a title sometimes translated as The Weathervane). According to a note Antonelli wrote to accompany La rosa dei venti, the first play in the triptych displayed the drama of those who remake youth, the second the drama of those who remake illusion, and the third the drama of those who remake public opinion.

All three plays, according to Antonelli, "have the same scenic beginning" and "start from the same root to raise different but not distant problems relating to the spiritual life of men." While the plays don't literally have the same opening scenes, they do each show a protagonist entering into a new and magical world. In L'uomo che incontra se stesso, the protagonist is shipwrecked on a magical island run by a mysterious doctor. La rosa dei venti begins instead in the throne room of Time himself, personified by the character of Cronos.

The titular rosa dei venti in the play is "a compass rose, graduated and numbered, in the center of which is a hand." When activated, "the hand turns dizzyingly until it stops on one of the many numbers on the dial." Cronos's mischievous nephew pulls the rope, and when it lands on a certain number, Evaristo appears. Evaristo has recently died from suicide, having leapt headfirst onto a stage from a proscenium box in the theatre. Now that he is dead, he assumes he must be in hell. Instead of receiving a conventional torture, however, he is given the chance to remake his life and save his previously soiled reputation.

Cronos explains to Evaristo that no one ever really dies. "This is an ancient belief of men," he says. "When someone dies, what happened to you is what almost always happens...." Evaristo urges Cronos to reveal this fact to humanity, but the immortal assures him that no one would believe the truth even if they were told. (This foreshadows some of the events to come.) Evaristo first revisits the time when he first met his wife, and then in the second act is able to undo the disastrous events that led to his being disgraced and wrongfully convicted of a crime he didn't commit. Evaristo makes fun of public opinion, which can so easily be swayed and even completely changed.

The third act, however, shows the futility of trying to change the mind of the public. In freeing himself of the suspicion that he tried to kill his mother-in-law, he ends up driving his mother-in-law into trying to kill herself by jumping out a window. Even in the despair of his previous life, Evaristo always had as a companion his own innocence. Now, he feels like he has actually committed the crime for which he was once wrongfully convicted. Cronos, however, tells him that truth is irrelevant, since the judgment of time is merely what people come to believe the truth to be.

In a final act of desperation, Evaristo tries to prove his own guilt. When this fails, he begins jumping about, and eventually falls to the stage, just as he once crashed to the stage in his suicide. Antonelli seems to be telling us that our own efforts to save ourselves can sometimes unwittingly lead to our damnation. A compass rose, or rosa dei venti, is supposed to give people a sense of direction, but the play ultimately uproots our sense of orientation, and leaves the audience unsure of which way to go.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

The Illustrated London News

I've written previously about Hermann Sudermann's play Heimat (Home), and I even presented a paper this summer at a Shaw Symposium about Sarah Bernhardt's starring in the play in London.

That's why when I saw on ebay the cover of The Illustrated London News with Sarah Bernhardt pictured in that very role, I figured I had to get it, even though the seller was across an ocean in Tauton, UK.

Well, the cover arrived in a shipping tube, and I placed it under piles of books for a few days to flatten it out, but now it looks pretty good. Due to libraries being closed for the epidemic, I can't make a high-resolution scan right now, but I took this picture of it with my camera:

The Illustrated London News was a weekly publication that ran between 1842 and 2003, though after 1971, it switched to monthly editions. Its first issue reported on a masquerade ball held by Queen Victoria, but the magazine covered a variety of topics of city-wide, national, and international importance. It also ran theatre reviews.

On June 22, 1895, the magazine ran Bernhardt on the cover and a description of the show on the inside pages. All of the issues of ILN are available online by subscription, so I decided to check out the article. Like many reviews of the play, it draws attention to Bernhardt performing the show in London around the same time that Eleonora Duse was appearing in the same role.

"London has seen two Magdas, and personal preferences are inevitable," the article states, adding that "it is quite easy to admire both these great artists." The reviewer did find, however, that Bernhardt's supporting cast was superior to that of Duse.

Anyway, I was glad to make the find, and grateful to the seller for shipping it to me!

Sunday, September 6, 2020

Streaming Licenses

Last month, I was contacted by Brooklyn Publishers, which represents my play The New Mrs. Jones about a producing organization that wanted to stream a performance of the play on a private YouTube channel. The publisher asked me if this would be acceptable.

My answer: Yes, please! In the current environment, I'm thankful for anyone who wants to bring theater to audiences, even if it's in a mediated form that isn't my ideal of live performance. The publisher is being cautious, as well. Audiences will need a link with a password in order to view the video. The video will also only be available for viewing for 14 days.

Right now, everything is being done on an ad hoc basis, because most people didn't think to write these things into contracts drafted more than a decade ago. Brooklyn Publishers recently announced their own practices for streaming, which seem like a reasonable set of principles. Here's what they are:

License Rights: To be eligible for a streaming rights, the producing organization must still purchase cast scripts and pay performance royalties. The limited streaming rights will be an additional fee. (Seems reasonable to me.)

Privacy: Brooklyn is only allowing streaming with approved companies with digital rights management capabilities. This is to ensure proper security. (YouTube has apparently made the cut.)

Limited Time Frame: Brooklyn is limiting the time over which a company can stream their production. (I've pushed for limited time frames for other things, such as residual payments to commissioning theaters.)

Limited Number of Streams: The customer will pay for a specific amount of streams/views. (We'll see how this ultimately works, but it seems reasonable, as there are only so many people you can pack into an auditorium, and potentially much larger audiences are available on the Internet.)

Will these general concepts ultimately hold sway? I think they will. The industry is being smart about this, and while I am still eager to get back to live performances, right now streaming is the only option in many parts of the country... and the world.

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Verse in THE ROVER

One of the innovations of Restoration comedy was to write substantially all of the play in verse. English comedies before the Restoration, even if they contained substantial amounts of prose, still had part of the play written in verse.

William Wycherley's Restoration comedy The Country Wife, however, contains almost no verse, other than the prologue and epilogue. True, there is a song, and each act ends with a rhyme to punctuate the action, but with those few exceptions, the play is entirely in prose.

The playwright Aphra Behn tended to follow her own path, though, and her plays usually combine a substantial amount of verse dialogue with the prose. For instance, in her most famous play, The Rover, the first scene is entirely in prose until the men leave. Then, Florinda says:

I ne'er till now perceiv'd my ruin near,

I've no defense against Antonio's love,

For he has all the advantages of nature,

The moving arguments of youth and fortune.

Florinda doesn't want to marry Antonio, in spite of the fact that he is the viceroy's son. Instead, she loves Belvile, an English colonel who is a cavalier, a champion of the king during the English Civil War. Since the play takes place during the Commonwealth period, however, he is living abroad in exile in the Spanish-occupied Kingdom of Naples.

There is no more verse for the rest of the act, but in Act II there is a song, which seems to inspire other characters to speak in verse. After the song, the men who are in love, Pedro, Antonio, and Willmore, have a few lines of elevated verse. The first substantial passage of verse occurs in in the second scene, though, when Wilmore has a long debate with the courtesan Angelica about the relative avarice of men and women. Willmore says:

Poor as I am, I would not sell myself,

No, not to gain your charming high-priz’d person.

Though I admire you strangely for your beauty,

Yet I contemn your mind.

At first, Angelica answers him in prose, but then she begins to take him more seriously and gives this verse reply:

—No, I will not hear thee talk,—thou hast a charm

In every word, that draws my heart away.

And all the thousand trophies I design’d,

Thou hast undone—Why art thou soft?

Thy looks are bravely rough, and meant for war.

Enamored, Angelica not only gives her favors freely to Willmore, but actually makes a gift of gold to him, essentially paying him for the encounter. In spite of all this, the fickle Willmore runs off after another woman. When Angelica's servant tells her this is all one can expect from such a man, the courtesan's language is once more elevated to verse, and she says:

Expect! as much as I paid him, a heart entire,

Which I had pride enough to think when e’er I gave

It would have rais’d the man above the vulgar,

Made him all soul, and that all soft and constant.

In Act III, there are couplets to indicate scene transitions, and in a moment of passion, Belville breaks out into a quatrain, but no more extended periods of verse occur until the fourth act. Don Antonio has a discussion with Belvile in which he orders him to fight a duel on the Don's behalf, since Belvile has just wounded Antonio in the arm. Antonio states in the verse scene that he has a rival in love. As he tells Belvile:

He challeng’d me to meet him on the Molo,

As soon as day appear’d; but last night’s quarrel

Has made my arm unfit to guide a sword.

Belvile hesitantly agrees, realizing that the duel is over his own beloved Florinda. Out on the Molo, Belvile meets the rival, who is actually Florinda's brother, Pedro, rather than a romantic rival. Pedro, you see, is upset that Don Antonio was courting Angelica, when he was supposed to be engaged to Angelica. (Angelica is actually in love with Belvile. Her Facebook relationship status should definitely be: "It's complicated.")

The dialogue for the duel is largely in verse, and at the end, Belvile disarms Pedro, and then lies his sword at Florinda's feet. Satisfied that Antonio (who is actually Belvile in disguise) really does love Florinda, Pedro asks the masked Belvile if he can give his heart entirely to Florinda. Belvile responds, saying:

Entire, as dying saints confessions are.

I can delay my happiness no longer.

This minute let me make Florinda mine.

Pedro agrees, and they decide the ceremony will take place at St. Peter's church. Then Belvile's mask falls off, and... well, again, things get complicated.

Interestingly enough, the best verse in the play belongs to Angelica. In Act IV, she complains to her maid Moretta:

Oh, name not such mean trifles.—Had I given him all

My youth has earn’d from sin,

I had not lost a thought nor sigh upon’t.

But I have given him my eternal rest,

My whole repose, my future joys, my heart;

My virgin heart. Moretta! oh ’tis gone!

Though Angelica is hardly a virgin in body, Willmore is the first man she has ever truly loved, and the betrayal stings. In the last act, she holds a pistol to his breast, declaring:

Had I remain’d in innocent security,

I shou’d have thought all men were born my slaves;

And worn my pow’r like lightning in my eyes,

To have destroy’d at pleasure when offended.

—But when love held the mirror, the undeceiving glass

Reflected all the weakness of my soul, and made me know,

My richest treasure being lost, my honour,

All the remaining spoil cou’d not be worth

The conqueror’s care or value.

—Oh how I fell like a long worship’d idol,

Discovering all the cheat!

Wou’d not the incense and rich sacrifice,

Which blind devotion offer’d at my altars,

Have fall’n to thee?

Why woud’st thou then destroy my fancy’d power?

Behn had a lot to say with The Rover, but it seems she kept her best writing for the verse passages.

Friday, August 14, 2020

The Original Tartuffe

 Moliere's classic attack on religious hypocrisy, Tartuffe, originally premiered as a three-act play on May 12, 1664. The playwright's enemies were not impressed.

Immediately, the very people Moliere had criticized began to attack the play. The original script is now lost, so we don't know how much this early version resembles the text we have today. What we do know is that after it was performed at the Palace of Versailles, it was immediately condemned.

Tartuffe criticizes people who pretend to be pious, but actually are just after sex, money, and power. Religious conservatives urged King Louis XIV to ban the play, which he did, though he added that he did not doubt the good intentions of the author. Undeterred, Moliere not only revised the piece but actually expanded it into five acts.

This new version of the play premiered in November at the Chateau de Raincy outside of Paris. The King seems to have encouraged Moliere in his revising of the play, and in 1665 he even extended his patronage directly to Moliere's company. This did not stop calls to ban the piece, though, and the writer struggled to mount productions, often as private performances due to the extreme hostility toward the piece.

While Moliere was concerned with the social conditions surrounding the play, he was also concerned with providing a vehicle for the actors of his company, and they seem to have each left a mark on the piece. The writer himself played Orgon, the obsessed dupe who cares about nothing so much as his pseudo-holy  houseguest Tartuffe. Philibert Gassot, known by the stage name of Du Croisy, played the title character.

Armande Bejart, who was by then known as Mademoiselle Moliere, played Orgon's wife, Elmire, while Madeleine Bejart played the sassy maid, Dorine. Madeleine had co-founded the Illustre Theatre troupe with Moliere in 1643. Though the two were romantically involved on and off in the past, Moliere had ended up marrying Armande. And while Armande was supposedly the younger sister of Madeleine, in actuality she was her illegitimate daughter. (No, not by Moliere, though his enemies later insinuated this.)

With a cast like that, one can imagine some offstage drama rivaling what occurred onstage!