Friday, October 23, 2020

Angels and Demons

There are various ways one can perform theatre in a pandemic. Blessed Unrest was able to perform an outdoor production of Battle of Angels with recorded sound making up for the fact that performers were masked. Other companies have held readings in Zoom. This can be depressing sometimes, but occasionally you come across a real gem, like Gingold Theatrical Group's reading of Arms and the Man.

Folks at the University of South Dakota have found another solution. I just watched their production of Angels and Demons, a show bringing together several pageants from the York and Wakefield cycles of medieval mystery plays. The show was performed live, but made available streaming through the theatre department's website. Though the actors didn't have masks, they did all wear face shields to protect them from one another, and audience members like me watched safely from our homes.

Is it the same as live theatre? Decidedly, the answer is no, but it did give me the chance to see some great medieval drama adapted from the Middle English original by the show's director, Casey Paradies. Unfortunately, we didn't get much of a sense of the poetry of the original, but the adaptation was able to give us a taste of some of the less well known plays from the cycles. We missed the much lauded Second Shepherd's Play, but got to see The Fall of the Angels, The Temptation, and The Harrowing of Hell, among other scenes.

At the beginning of the play, we see God (Chloe Sand) create the world. After she leaves her throne vacant, though, Lucifer (Tyler Peters) declares that he should be master now. In the original play from the York cycle, Lucifer declares:

To ressayve my reverence thorowe righte o renowne.
I sall be lyke unto hym that es hyeste on heghte —
Owe, what I am derworth and defte.
                            Owe, Dewes, all goes downe!
My mighte and my mayne es all marrande.
Helpe, felawes, in faythe I am fallande.

Notice how as soon as Lucifer places himself on the highest height, his pride sends him crashing down to Hell. Paradies' production shows Lucifer and his fellow angels then transformed into demons, with hideous horns and makeup.

With angelkind a disappointment, God decides to create Adam and Eve (Cody Jones and Abby Schwedhelm). In this production, Lucifer emerges from a prison at the side of the set, which seems reminiscent of the Hell Mouths of the medieval stage. Envious of humanity, the arch-fiend appears to Eve with a snake puppet, promising her that if she eats of the forbidden fruit, she will gain wisdom and become like God. She takes the fruit and... well... you should never listen to talking snakes.

After about 4,000 years, though, God comes up with a plan to create righteousness and bring forth a Son named Jesus (Camille Cook). Lucifer finds Jesus, who has wandered out into the wilderness alone, and attempts to tempt Him, but the Son is adamant. Lucifer departs in frustration, and two angels come to comfort Jesus. This is when He declares that His time is at hand. In the original York play, He says:

My blissing have thei with my hande
That with swilke greffe is noght grucchand,
And also that will stiffely stande
Agaynste the fende.
I knawe my tyme is faste command;
Now will I wende.

It's time for the Passion and Crucifixion. The scourging is performed as a dumb show in Paradies' version. Jesus then mounts a scaffold up to the Tree of Life, which we saw in the Adam and Eve sequence, but which lighting designer Dani Roth cleverly transforms into a cross. Jesus has been defeated by death. Or has he...?

The Harrowing of Hell is usually fascinating to modern audiences, in part because it is an event that does not appear in the Bible, other than a brief reference in the Apostle's Creed. Adam and Eve, trapped in Hell, see a great light, which indicates the coming of Christ. This event was prophesied by Isaiah, as well as by John the Baptist and Moses, all three of whom are still in Hell because the Son has yet to redeem humanity. 

Once Jesus enters Hell, it's time for the big fight scene with Lucifer. This is conducted both with words and staves in the USD production. Though Lucifer is defeated, he looks forward to still being able to damn evil souls in the future. He can't enjoy his lordship over Hell, though, as Jesus binds him and sends him to sink into the pit.

We missed The Resurrection and fast forwarded to The Last Judgment, where the online audience got to hear a chant of "Build That Wall!" Are we living in the Endtimes? Perhaps. The good are taken up to heaven, but the demons Beelzebub (Thomas Honeywell) and Ribald (Emmy Hewitt) exult in all the wicked they will be able to now torment eternally, both in body and in soul. 

Jesus then addresses the blessed, reminding them that when He was hungry, they gave Him food, and when thirsty, they gave Him drink. This they did whenever they provided anything for the poor and downtrodden. The damned, however, are reminded of how they never had pity on the unfortunate. When Jesus turns to humanity and reprimands them for their failure to act, it's a moving moment. Here's what it says in the original York play:

In all my woo toke I no wrake,
Mi will itt was for the love of thee.
Man, sore aught thee for to quake,
This dredfull day, this sight to see.
All this I suffered for thi sake.
Say, man, what suffered thou for me?

As we approach an election that seems like as great a reckoning as any our nation has seen, the words of Jesus ring with the force of a powerful accusation. What have we done for the least in our society? And if we have ignored the Face of God in them, what hope can we have for our own salvation?

If you're interested in watching the USD production, it will be livestreamed on Saturday October 24th at 7:30 p.m. Central Time and Sunday, October 25th at 2 p.m. Central. You can watch it here.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

The Measures Taken

Bertolt Brecht is known today mainly for his theory of the Verfremdungseffekt, or Alienation Effect, but he himself thought he would be remembered for a different innovation, the Lehrstücke, or teaching plays.

One of Brecht's most famous Lehrstücke is The Measures Taken, a didactic propaganda piece he wrote in collaboration with the composer Hanns Eisler in 1930. Though "didactic" often has a negative connotation, for Brecht didacticism was the whole point of Lehrstücke. Everyone is supposed to learn something from The Measures Taken, the actors as well as the audience.

Brecht himself claimed he based The Measures Taken on an old Japanese Noh drama on religious themes. In his version of the story, though, the "religion" being espoused is Communism. A Control Chorus representing the Communist Party is interviewing four agitators who have recently returned from China. Something has gone terribly wrong, and an idealistic young comrade has died.

The solution to the mystery is revealed on the first page of the play. The agitators shot the young comrade and threw him into a lime pit. This is not a whodunit, since we know who killed the comrade from the beginning. Instead, the rest of the play explains the decision the group had to make and why they made it. This explanation is made in the form of a play within the play. Three of the agitators stand together, while the fourth stands by himself, enacting the role of the young comrade.

When we meet the young comrade, he tells us he is in favor of "the measures taken by the Communist Party which fights for the classless society." He asks the agitators if they have brought any locomotives, tractors, seed, munitions and guns, or even a letter from the Central Committee. In fact, the agitators have brought nothing, but they demand that the young comrade provide them with an automobile and a guide while they try to spread propaganda across China.

As the play proceeds, each of the agitators take on new roles in telling the story of the incident. One of them, enacting the part of the leader at a party headquarters, tells them they must blot out their own identities, which is of course what they are doing in the performance as well. "You are not Karl Schmitt from Berlin, you are not Anna Kjersk from Kazan, and you are not Peter Sawitch from Moscow," he says. "One and all of you are nameless and motherless, blank pages on which the revolution writes its instructions."

Later, one of the agitators takes on the role of an overseer, another a policeman, another a trader. Each time, the performer must blot out his own identity as one of the three agitators to take on the role of a new part. This, of course, has also been done by the actors, who must blot out their own identities in order to portray the agitators. The Control Chorus, in watching the agitators perform different roles, plays the part of an onstage audience, yet they are also performers themselves. In this way, they provide a model for the regular audience watching the play: We are all performers, and we are all observers.

As a play, The Measures Taken not only teaches a lesson about the necessity of sacrifice, but the performance of the play itself is also a part of that lesson. In the process of performing the play, the actors must do the very thing the play advocates, which is to submit the will of the individual to the greater good.

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

O'Neill's London Debut

On October 6th, 1814, the actress Eliza O'Neill made her London debut at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden. She played the role of Juliet in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, and for years afterward, the night would not be forgotten.

One contemporary said of her that "for grace, sweetness, delicacy, and refinement, she was unequalled." The painter Sir Thomas Lawrence marveled at how natural O'Neill's acting was, comparing her (as many people did) to Sarah Siddons, who had retired from the stage by that time.

Born in 1791 into a theatrical family, O'Neill allegedly made her first stage appearance being carried onstage in her father's arms. The family performed for years in her native Ireland, going back and forth between the Drogheda and Dundalk Theatres. These were decidedly small affairs, so she was quite fortunate to be spotted by a talent scout and invited to perform in Belfast.

O'Neill insisted that her entire family join her in Belfast, so her father, three brothers, sister, and a sister-in-law were all given engagements at the new theatre. It was O'Neill, however, who was undoubtedly the star, and the newspapers in Belfast were extremely favorable in their revues. After two years, the whole family moved to Dublin, where a dispute between a theatre manager and a star actress led to O'Neill getting an opportunity to appear as Juliet at the Crow Street Theatre.

After her successful appearance as Juliet, the manager of the theatre offered her a contract, agreeing to take on her father and brother as well. It was in Dublin that John Philip Kemble first spied the actress. "She has great talent and some genius," was Kemble's assessment. He offered her an engagement in London. Again, O'Neill asked that she be able to take her family with her. Kemble refused to employ them, but did agree to allow her brother Robert to accompany her as a personal protector and to have access to the theatre's green room.

And so it was that O'Neill was finally able to bring her celebrated Juliet to London. The actor William Charles Macready, recalling O'Neill's debut, hailed her "beauty, simplicity, and grace," as well as her "native elegance" and "feminine sweetness." Others commented on how as Juliet her character blossomed after she fell in love, and then fell into a heart-breaking despair. If she was ever perceived in a negative light, it was because audiences found her too boisterous and vehement for an era that still extolled classicism.

In fact, O'Neill helped to usher in a new era of Romantic acting. That January, Edmund Kean had made his debut at Drury Lane, and audiences were looking for a more emotional approach to the stage than had been taken by the previous generation. O'Neill obliged them, at least until 1819. That was when she left the stage to marry William Wrixon Becher, Esq., who soon after the marriage became a baronet. Thus, the once impoverished actress ended her life as Lady Becher.

Many theatre fans no doubt wished she had continued on the stage, but the former actress seemed happy in her retirement. She and her husband raised a family in Ireland, and she ended up living to the ripe age of 81. In any case, the revolution in acting she helped to bring about continued, and performers throughout the rest of the nineteenth century tended to adopt her emotion-filled style.

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!