Saturday, November 28, 2020

Herr Tartüff

Molière's comedy Tartuffe has produced numerous adaptations, but perhaps few as original as F.W. Murnau's silent film Herr Tartüff.

Murnau is one of those directors who has always fascinated me. After serving in the German army during the First World War, he made the terrifying horror film Nosferatu, based on Bram Stoker's Dracula. He later filmed the innovative comedy The Last Laugh as well as his re-imagining of Tartuffe, before adapting for film what is probably an even more famous play, Goethe's Faust.

Herr Tartüff really is a reimagining, as it departs significantly from Molière's play. The film uses a framing device in which an old man is being slowly poisoned by his housekeeper. The old man's grandson comes for a visit, but gets thrown out for being a good-for-nothing actor. Being an actor, however, he is able to disguise himself and visit the house with a traveling cinema. He then shows a film based on Tartuffe and exposes the housekeeper's hypocrisy.

Because the silent film can't use Molière's witty dialogue, it has to find other ways to tell the story. I was mainly watching to see the scene in Act IV of the play where Orgon hides under a table while the hypocrite Tartuffe tries to seduce his wife. In the film, Orgon hides behind a curtain, and just when the hypocrite is about to make his move, he sees the husband's face in a reflection. Immediately, he resumes his pious act, and Orgon becomes more convinced of his friend's saintliness than ever before.

That just stretches the action out longer, though, as the film has another scene that takes place that night, where Orgon's wife Elmire goes even further with Herr Tartüff, this time in a room that contains a bed! The faithful maid Dorine forces Orgon to watch through a keyhole, though, and the impostor is unmasked.

Lil Dagover, who played the heroine in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, takes on the part of Elmire, and is stunning in the role. If you're interested, you can watch the whole film here.

Thursday, November 26, 2020

Don Juan in Zoom

It's hard to feel thankful in this current pandemic, with hospitals filling up, theatres shuttered, and half the country ignoring the measures that might help us open up again as a society. However, I do want to give thanks to the Washington Stage Guild, for their production of Bernard Shaw's Don Juan in Hell that went live last night.

You can still watch the production on the theatre's YouTube channel, and it is very much worth watching. Nathan Whitmer plays the show's legendary lover, trapped in an infernal afterlife of stagnation. The short play was originally supposed to be a dream sequence in the mammoth Man and Superman, but when that show first opened at the Royal Court Theatre in 1905, management deemed it too long, and the entire third act was omitted.

Two years later, the Royal Court staged Shaw's dream sequence as its own one-act play, pairing it with another Shaw short, The Man of Destiny. Shaw wrote a program note for this production, explaining to the audience that hell is a state in which people are "given wholly to the pursuit of immediate individual pleasure, and cannot even conceive the passion of the divine will." Don Juan, unable to be satisfied by a life of self-indulgence, finds himself "suffering amid the pleasures of hell an agony of tedium."

At the beginning of the scene, Shaw calls for Mozart's music from the Don Juan opera Don Giovanni to be played. Next, Doña Ana enters. This is the woman Juan once dishonored, leading to a duel with her father. Emelie Faith Thompson plays the role brilliantly in the Washington Stage Guild production. She is shocked that she could be damned, and when she asks whom she can speak to in order to rectify the situation, Juan suggests she try the Devil. "In Hell," he tells her, "the Devil is the leader of the best society."

After much banter between the two, Doña Ana's father shows up, appearing as the statue of himself that dragged Don Juan off to hell at the end of Mozart's opera. The magnificent Bill Largess plays this role in the Washington Stage Guild production, remarking wittily of his form: "I am so much more admired in marble than I ever was in my own person that I have retained the shape the sculptor gave me."

All this is preliminary to the entrance of the great enemy of mankind himself, the Devil. Morgan Duncan is delightful in the role. The script calls for him to enter to some bizarre sounds in which "Mozart's music gets grotesquely adulterated with Gounod's" (presumably from Faust). The present production opts instead for "Night on Bald Mountain" by Mussorgsky, which was perhaps easier to find. 

The four-act Man and Superman generally does just fine without its third act, but has been performed successfully with it as well. Meanwhile, Don Juan in Hell has continued to have a life as a one-act of its own, and the current virtual production gives us a good idea why. Plus, the show is ideal for our current environment, where Zoom is fast becoming our modern-day equivalent of hell.

Friday, November 20, 2020

Major Barbara

Whenever I teach Business Communications at Baruch College, I like to show the 1941 film of Bernard Shaw's play Major Barbara.

Business students are almost never familiar with Shaw, not even with his most famous play, Pygmalion. Some of them are familiar with it's musical adaptation, My Fair Lady, though, and when I introduced the film in class today, one student said she had definitely heard the song "I Could Have Danced All Night."

Why show Major Barbara in a Business Communications class? Well, it is a play about business, after all, and the issues that get brought up in the drama remain relevant today. I also try to get the students to analyze Andrew Undershaft's strategy in bringing Barbara around to his own point of view. I even wrote an article about this exercise, which appeared in the journal Shaw.

The film always serves as a nice jumping off point for discussing issues of business ethics. I like to ask students to consider if there is any company or industry where they simply wouldn't work, no matter how much money they would make. Sometimes they reply that they wouldn't do anything illegal, but I try to press them to consider the matter as more than mere legality.

If you haven't seen the film, it's in the public domain now and freely available. It's worth a watch, especially now when the lockdown is depriving us of live theatre.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Miss Julie on Midsummer Eve

August Strindberg specifically set his play Miss Julie to take place on Midsummer Eve, in the kitchen of a Count's country house. That's not a holiday we celebrate much in the 21st-century U.S. What was the significance of it?

Well, the opening stage directions of the play specify, "The stove is decorated with bunches of birch leaves; the floor is strewn with juniper." Such decorations would have been typical in 19th-century Scandinavia on the night before the summer solstice, which is what Midsummer Eve marks.

Another tradition was the cooking of trollsoppe, or troll soup. This is the "magic potion" Jean alludes to when he sees Julie is up to something with the cook. He hints they are preparing a traditional dish that will allow them to dream about the future that night. Young women in northern Europe would typically prepare a special soup so they could dream about their future husbands on Midsummer Eve.

Of course, that's not what's being prepared at all. As the cook has already made clear, she's been working on an abortifacient for Miss Julie's dog Diana, who has been impregnated by a dog owned by the gatekeeper. In this play, the romance of Midsummer Eve always masks something far more sinister. In a sense, the holiday is like the "Turkish pavilion" Jean remembers sneaking into as a boy. He recalls he "had no idea what it was for." In fact, it was only a fancy outhouse.

The holiday of Midsummer Eve is perhaps best exemplified in the play by the song the peasants sing, which sounds festive, but upon closer examination, is actually a little dirty. "The bridal wreath I'll give to you," they all sing, "But to another I'll be true." Jean calls the song obscene, and tells Miss Julie that they are singing about the two of them. He offers to help her run away... to his bedroom. We can guess what happens there. The peasants sing and dance on stage, while offstage there is a different sort of dance between Jean and Julie.

Midsummer Eve, and the celebration of the summer solstice generally, goes back to pagan times, though the Christian church appropriated it, making the solstice also the Feast of Saint John the Baptist. This shows up in Miss Julie when Jean is preparing to go to church with the cook as he promised. When he asks what the lesson of the service will be, she responds, "The beheading of John the Baptist, I suppose." That story, filled with sexual longing, sin, and death, has multiple resonances with the play.

As Midsummer Eve gives way to the actual midsummer solstice--the Feast of John the Baptist and the longest day of the year--the light of morning seems to break the spell of Jean and Julie's infatuation. Scandinavian folk belief held that sunlight "breaks the troll's spell" as Jean says. Trolls that were caught out in the sunlight would allegedly turn to stone and shatter at dawn, as happens to Julie's dreams.

Wednesday, November 4, 2020


Written in 1573, Torquato Tasso's play Aminta is perhaps the quintessential pastoral drama of the Italian Renaissance.

The play begins with a prologue in which the God of Love, disguised as a shepherd, relates how his mother Venus wants him to dwell (according to Leigh Hunt's translation) "Among mere courts and coronets, and scepters." He, however, wishes "To lodge in the green woods" and shoot his arrows "In bosoms rude."

Love's point here is that romantic passion should not be just for the upper classes. He wants to dwell among the simple shepherds and bestow feeling upon the lowly as well as the exalted. There is one person in particular he'd like to target, too. She is Sylvia, "the cruelest nymph, / That ever followed on Diana's choir." The shepherd Aminta has been in love with Sylvia, but up until now, she has not returned his affections.

We meet Sylvia in Act I, where she tells her friend Daphne:

          Let others follow the delights of love,
          If love indeed has any. To my taste
          This life is best. I have enough to care for
          In my dear bow and arrows.

A follower of the virgin goddess Diana, Sylvia delights in "following the chase" as she hunts in the woods. She has no desire to enjoy the love of a man, though Daphne promises her that "Darkness, and one short night" has "the long luster of a thousand days."

Aminta has his own friend to confide in, named Thyrsis. Not only has Thyrsis been in love before, but he actually went mad with love, and went around writing poems on the barks of trees. (This detail, taken from Ariosto's poem Orlando Furioso, would later find its way into Shakespeare's As You Like It.) Sensing his own impending doom, Aminta asks Thyrsis to record his death "Upon a beech tree near where they will bury" him.

The second act opens with a satyr pledging to rape a nymph who rejected him. That nymph, we later find out, was none other than Sylvia. The satyr ends up tying her to a tree in order to have his way with her, but Aminta arrives just in time and chases him away with a lance. After Sylvia is cold to him following her rescue, Aminta goes off more depressed than ever. Thyrsis begins to fear his friend might even attempt suicide.

Aminta does seem to be on the point of killing himself when Daphne snatches away his lance. It's at this point that a nymph named Nerina runs on with even more bad news. After the whole satyr incident, Sylvia went out hunting with Nerina, and ran off in pursuit of a wolf. When Nerina caught up, all she found was a pack of wolves licking blood off of some bones, and Sylvia's hair net among them.

Fortunately, Sylvia isn't dead. She meets up with Daphne and tells her of her escape from the wolves, but Daphne relates how upon hearing that Sylvia was killed, Aminta ran off in desperation. At this point, Sylvia is overwhelmed with pity, crying:

          Ah me! And thou not follow him! Let us go;
          Oh, let us find him! If he would have died
          To follow me, he must live now to save me.

The implication here is that Aminta's love has moved Sylvia. She now cannot imagine life without him, and if he has killed himself for her, she herself will no longer be able to live. Still, Sylvia claims that her tears for Aminta are not for love, but pity. A messenger arrives and announces that Aminta is dead, having leapt into a chasm in despair, leaving only a scarf behind. Picking up the scarf, Sylvia vows to use it to kill herself. First, though, she will go and bury the body of her beloved Aminta.

As the final act begins, the wise Elpino enters, calling Aminta fortunate. Everyone thinks this means Aminta is fortunate to be dead, and in death to have finally won his lover's affections. Elpino explains that in actuality some bushes broke Aminta's fall, and he was stunned, but alive. Seeing the limp body of Aminta, Sylvia embraced her lover, and revived him with kisses.

It's a beautiful story, and perhaps too naïve for our cynical era. On the other hand, perhaps it's just what we need as we wait for the election returns to slowly come in day by day. Aminta teaches that if we are patient, love will conquer hate, and though we might have to wait in fear and trembling, hope can lead at last to joy.

Saturday, October 31, 2020


In medieval drama, Hellmouths frequently appeared on stage. A mouth opening up into Hell appears, for instance, in the illustration of a Passion Play performed at Valenciennes in northern France. Another Hellmouth appears on a diagram of a Passion Play put on in Lucerne, Switzerland.

The entrance to Hell also appears in various plays of the English Mystery Cycles. For instance, The Fall of Lucifer in the N-town Cycle ends with the lines:

Now to helle the way I take,
     In endeles peyn ther to be pyht.
For fere of fyre a fart I crake;
     In helle donjoone myn dene is dyth.

What did these Hellmouths look like? Well, both in the illustrations we have of medieval stages and general depictions of Hell in medieval art we see the mouth of Hell represented as a literal demonic mouth. Yesterday, I was as the Cloisters Museum and snapped this picture of a capital on a medieval pillar:

The souls are being dragged off to Hell by demons and are deposited in the gigantic teeth-filled maw. We see these demons in medieval plays as well. In the York Cycle's version of The Judgment Day, a demon says:

He schall do right to foo and frende,
     For nowe schall all the soth be sought.
All weried wightis with vs schall wende;
     To payne endles thei schall be brought.

In spite of the confidence of the demons, however, they are no match for Christ. In the play of The Harrowing of Hell, we see the gates of Hell opened up by the Messiah, who liberates the dead from Hell, going back all the way to Adam and Eve. In the Chester Cycle, Jesus says:

Open vp Hell gates, yet I say,
     You princes of pine that be present,
And lett the Kinge of Bliss this way,
     That he may fulfill his intent!

You can see an image of Jesus opening the Hellmouth and liberating the dead in this tapestry from the Metropolitan Museum of Art (at the Fifth Avenue location this time, not the Cloisters):

What was it like to see these Hellmouths on stage? I imagine it was pretty thrilling. Contemporary accounts recollect smoke, fire, and explosions coming out of some of the Hellmouths on stage. Quite a spooky effect!

Thursday, October 29, 2020


If you haven't seen it yet, the Mint Theater Company is currently streaming Miles Malleson's play Conflict. For the rest of the month, you can watch the piece for free on their website.

Conflict involves an election, so it's rather timely, but the election it portrays is almost unimaginable today. I couldn't sympathize at all with the politics of Sir Major Ronald Clive (played brilliantly by Henry Clarke), who is the Conservative candidate for parliament. However, as a person, he is more than admirable, refusing to use dirt he has on the Labour candidate Tom Smith (played by the equally brilliant Jeremy Beck). His reason: The election should be about issues, not personalities!

Things get complicated when the love of Clive's life Dare (the excellent Jessie Shelton) starts to fall for Smith. This is the 1920s, so as a liberated woman Dare can choose whomever she wants as a lover. But... but... the Labour candidate! That's just too much for her family to take. I found myself particularly sympathetic towards Dare's father. Though the character's politics are frequently revolting, veteran actor Graeme Malcolm played him with such compassion that you couldn't help feeling sorry for the guy as his whole world comes crumbling down around him.

Malleson's writing is sharp, and the cast couldn't be better. I loved Beck in Bernard Shaw's Widowers' Houses back in 2016, and he brings a rather Shavian sensibility to the role of Smith. Jenn Thompson deftly directed the piece, and Martha Halley's costumes do a great job of evoking the period without feeling too alien to modern sensibilities.

So if you're tired of our country's own election and want to see how an electoral contest should actually be fought, check out the Mint's latest offering. If you can, you also might want to chip in a few bucks to help out the company, but whether you do or not, I'm sure they'd love to have you watch the show!