Thursday, February 25, 2021

The Battle of Hernani

Today, February 25th, is the anniversary of the so-called "Battle of Hernani" when partisans for and against Victor Hugo fought in the auditorium of the Comédie-Française.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the Metropolitan Opera streamed this evening (available until Friday night) Giuseppe Verdi's operatic version of the play, Ernani. Like the original play, the opera is not terribly realistic, but it wasn't meant to be. It was the plot's over-the-top Romanticism that provoked audience members to resort to fisticuffs back in 1830.

The title character of the play is a bandit who gets into an unlikely love triangle with the beautiful Doña Sol, the King of Spain, and Doña Sol's elderly guardian Don Ruy Gomez de Silva. During the pivotal third act, the guardian has arranged to marry Doña Sol against her will, but Hernani shows up in disguise. Ruy Gomez offers hospitality to Hernani, not aware of who he is, and then the king shows up and carries off the would-be bride.

Sound crazy? It gets even crazier. Ruy Gomez refuses to give up his guest in spite of the fact that he really wants him dead, so duty-bound he is to the laws of hospitality. Hernani needs to go and rescue Doña Sol, but Ruy Gomez won't let him leave until he makes a promise. In order to escape and save his love, Hernani gives a horn to Ruy Gomez, promising to die when his enemy sounds the horn, if he will only give him a chance to rescue Doña Sol.

The fourth act takes place in a chapel that holds the tomb of Charlemagne. The king is awaiting his election as Holy Roman Emperor, but conspirators, including both Ruy Gomez and Hernani, are planning to assassinate him. The king (naturally) hides inside the tomb and surprises the conspirators. It turns out that Hernani is actually the exiled John of Aragon, the king is elected Emperor Charles V, everyone gets pardoned, and Doña Sol finally becomes engaged to her one true love. (That would be John/Hernani.)

You know what the problem is with giving your sworn enemy a horn and promising to kill yourself as soon as he sounds it and calls for your death? Well, sometimes he waits until the fifth act, shows up at your wedding, and then sounds the horn so you have to die. Then you and your bride both end up taking poison, your rival kills himself, and the whole stage gets littered with bodies.

Verdi's opera ends a bit differently, with Hernani (called Ernani) and his love (called Elvira in the opera) stabbing themselves instead. Also, old Gomez de Silva also doesn't off himself at the end (at least not in the Met's production). The lovers get to die to beautiful music, though, and that makes all the difference.

The Battle of Hernani in 1830 fell short of an all-out riot. A few people were arrested, but the play was allowed to finish, and it went on to run for a total of 39 performances. The Met's production won't be available for nearly that long. It disappears at 6:30 pm on Friday, so catch it while you can!

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

The Debut(s) of Sarah Siddons

When David Garrick heard about "a Mrs. Siddons" who might "be a valuable acquisition to Drury Lane" he sent his friend the Reverend Bate to scout her.

Bate's letter to Garrick, dated August 21, 1775, praised the beauty of the actress, but spent more time emphasizing her magnificent control of her body and voice:

Her face, if I may judge from whence I saw it, is one of the most beautiful for stage effect ever I beheld; but I shall surprise you when I shall assure you that these are nothing to her action and general stage deportment, which are remarkably pleasing and characteristic--in short, I know no woman who marks the different passages and transitions with so much variety, and, at the same time, propriety of expression.

It's interesting to note that according to Bate's letter, Sarah Siddons's voice itself was "rather dissonant" and perhaps even "grating" at times. That seems amazing to us, who now think of the Siddons voice as legendary. We also generally think of Siddons's appearances as Hamlet as coming late in her career, but Bate claimed even back in 1775 that the actress "plays Hamlet to the satisfaction of the Worcestershire critics."

Garrick wrote back that Bate should "secure the lady" to appear at Drury Lane after she had her "lie in," as Siddons was heavily pregnant at the time. He also requested a list of roles that the actress had played, and Bate obliged, naming such parts as Jane Shore, Roxana (presumably from The Rival Queens), Calista (presumably in The Fair Penitent), and a number of Shakespearean roles, including Juliet, Cordelia, Horatio, Portia, and Rosalind, the last of which Bate had seen her perform.

In November, Siddons gave birth to a girl, apparently a bit earlier than expected. At the end of the following month, she made her debut at Drury Lane, billed as "A Young Gentlewoman" playing Portia in The Merchant of Venice. Unfortunately, the debut was not a success, and reviews were hostile. She later appeared as Lady Anne in Richard III, but the press attacked her again.

Garrick retired in 1776, and the new manager of Drury Lane, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, unsurprisingly chose not to reengage Siddons. It was years later that Sheridan's father Thomas saw Siddons performing in a provincial theatre. The decision was made to give the actress another chance, and her second debut at Drury Lane was set for October 10, 1782. She would be playing the leading role of Isabella in Garrick's adaptation of The Fatal Marriage by Thomas Southerne.

Two days before the big night, Siddons reportedly "was seized with a nervous hoarseness." Her voice came back on the morning of the performance, though, and so thorough was her triumph that by the end of the play "every speech was interrupted by bursts of applause," according to accounts. The rest is history.



Monday, February 15, 2021

Shaw and Smallpox

I enjoyed many articles in the most recent issue of the Shaw journal, but I found Bernard Dukore's piece "Bernard Shaw and the Smallpox Epidemic of 1901-2" particularly engrossing.

Dukore points out that during London's deadly smallpox outbreak at the start of the 20th century, Shaw was writing his masterful drama Man and Superman. The extraordinarily long play, which also includes a prologue and and epilogue, seems meant more for reading than actual performance. Could it be that the social distancing required by the epidemic nudged the author towards envisioning something more literary than theatrical? Dukore doesn't consider that possibility explicitly, but he brings up a number of other fascinating points.

As a vestryman for the borough of St. Pancras in London, Shaw worked to try to prevent the smallpox outbreak through improved sanitation. For Shaw, whose opposition to vaccination grew and hardened over the years, the only way to prevent outbreaks of disease was to increase hygiene. When Shaw had been inoculated as a child, people believed that a single vaccination produced life-long immunity to smallpox. It doesn't, and in the smallpox outbreak of 1881, he caught the disease. It scarred his face, and might have been the reason for his growing his trademark beard.

Shaw's hero was Florence Nightingale, who had recognized the importance of clean air and water and striven for better sanitation and improved drainage. Dukore observes that health policy shouldn't be a question of hygiene or vaccination, since both are important, but Shaw single-mindedly pursued one strategy while foolishly dismissing the other. To his credit, though, the vestryman worked to secure funds for increased inspections, writing to the chairman of the borough's health committee: "It is better to frighten London now than to bury it next year."

On September 21st, 1901, Shaw had a letter published in The Times warning of a coming epidemic of smallpox. The letter did not argue against vaccination, but called it irrelevant, since "the ordinary Londoner, who does not quite know what to think about vaccination, wants neither an aggravated epidemic nor a mitigated one; he wants no epidemic at all." Shaw argued against closing schools, since poor students would just be spending more time in their overcrowded and unsanitary homes. He called for increased inspections, though, and legal sanctions for poor ventilation.

By the beginning of 1903, close to 10,000 people had contracted smallpox in London. Shaw's suggestion of frequent inspections was a good one, but the problem was that overworked inspectors weren't quite sure what they were looking for anyway. Increased ventilation certainly would have slowed the spread of the disease, though inoculation would have, too.

As time went on, Shaw became increasingly hostile to both vaccines and the medical profession in general. His 1906 play The Doctor's Dilemma poured vitriol on physicians. Perhaps his own failure to stop a deadly smallpox outbreak helped feed his anger at others who had likewise failed to protect the public.

Monday, February 8, 2021

Precious Incense

The kabuki play The Precious Incense and Autumn Flowers of Sendai was originally written by Nagawa Kamesuke, but was adapted as a puppet play, and then adapted back into kabuki. This is why it uses the convention of takemoto, a chanter and shamisen player fully visible onstage and narrating the action, as occurs in the traditional Japanese puppet performance of joruri.

Today, the play is rarely performed in its entirety, but two scenes from its second act are frequently done on their own, and have become a standard of the kabuki repertoire. This is largely due to the character of Masaoka, which is considered one of the most difficult onnagata (female character) roles in kabuki. A nursemaid in charge of a young lord, Tsuruchiyo, Masaoka is forced to watch while her son Senmatsu is stabbed right in front of her by the villain's sister, Yashio. The takemoto describes the action, chanting:

     As she twists the knife,
     the sound of Senmatsu's screams
     is enough to make Masaoka feel the sadness
     even in her own liver,
     but she endures the pain
     for the sake of the young lord
     and doesn't even shed a tear.

This moment has been frequently recorded in visual art. Here's a print of Yashio committing the foul murder:


The horrifying violence is aestheticized onstage, a technique known as zankoku no bi. The audience might be revolted, but the beauty of Masaoka's stoic endurance is at the same time applauded and appreciated. Her virtue and patience are rewarded when she receives a scroll with the names of all the conspirators plotting to overthrow and murder Tsuruchiyo.

Nothing is ever easy in kabuki, and a rat ends up stealing the scroll and running away with it in its mouth. The rat later transforms into the villain sorcerer Danjo, who appears with the scroll in his mouth. You can see a print of him here:


Eventually, good triumphs over evil in the play, but not before there's been plenty of excitement.

Sunday, February 7, 2021

Dickens Lights the Stage

Today is the 209th birthday of Charles Dickens. Though the plays Dickens wrote were never as popular as his novels, he enjoyed the theatre enormously, and frequently presented private theatricals in his own home.

I've previously written about The Frozen Deep, a play by Wilkie Collins that Dickens substantially rewrote, directed, and starred in at his home, and then for the general public in order to raise money for charity.

The Frozen Deep wasn't the only Collins play Dickens produced, however. Two years prior to that, Dickens staged at his home of Tavistock House another Collins melodrama, this one called The Lighthouse. Calling himself "Mr. Crummles" after the character from Nicholas Nickleby, Dickens took on the role of the "lessee and manager" of "the smallest theatre in the world" according to this playbill printed up for the event:


Clarkson Stanfield, who later provided some of the scenery for The Frozen Deep, painted the scenes for The Lighthouse, and a drop used for the performance later ended up at the Charles Dickens Museum in London:


Collins appeared in the production as well, along with Dickens's friends Mark Lemon and Augustus Egg, and a slew of Dickens family members. Dickens also wrote the words to a ballad that accompanied the play.

The Victorians rarely went to see only one play at a time, and it was customary to conclude each evening of theatre with a farce that would send the audience home in a good mood. The farce for that performance was Mr. Nightingale's Diary, a one-act play Dickens had written together with Lemon.

With COVID-19 still keeping professional theatres closed, perhaps we should revive the tradition of private theatricals. Unfortunately, few of us happen to live in a bubble with people as talented as Dickens, Collins, and Stanfield!

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Okuni's Screen

The earliest known depiction of Izumo no Okuni, the founder of the theatrical form of kabuki, is on a screen currently owned by the Kyoto National Museum in Japan.

This six-paneled screen, which dates from the 17th century, utilizes gold-leafed paper to create a grand and impressive image.  The screen is nearly three feet high and close to nine feet long. You can see a reduced image of it here:


In the third panel from the left, Okuni herself appears onstage, sporting a sword over her shoulder. She appears to be acting in a scene set in a teahouse (which could also double as a brothel in Okuni's day). Dressed in men's clothes, the founder of kabuki would perform male roles to the delight (and frequently scandal) of the audience. Here's how she appears on the screen:


We have a few first-person accounts of Okuni's performance. Here's one from the early 17th century, as translated by Akemi Horie Webber:

Lately there is a thing called kabuki dance. A shamaness from Izumi province, named O-kuni, came to Kyoto and initiated it. For example, she imitated a man of unusual appearance, carrying a sword and wearing distinctly exotic costume. This man mimicked the gestures of flirtation with a woman of the teahouses. There was no one in the whole of Kyoto, high and low, why did not rave about her performance. She often went up to Fushimi castle and danced there. Soon, there sprouted numerous kabuki troupes that imitated this, and many of them traveled the provinces.

Another written account describes Okuni's character purchasing the services of a courtesan in the teahouse, but  the courtesan acts in a comical manner and is dressed with a colorful scarf over her head. Such a figure, crouching down and holding a fan in front of her face, appears on the screen not far from Okuni.


Part of the reason these performances became popular was that they reflected the uproar society in general was experiencing in Japan during the early 17th century. The country had just been through a period of civil war, which came to a head in 1600 with the Battle of Sekigahara. After that battle, the military leader Tokugawa Ieyasu was able to establish his power, and in 1603, he was named shogun, the de facto ruler of Japan.

The thing is, a lot of people were unhappy with Tokugawa's shogunate. It had risen to power only after fierce conflict, and many samurai remained resentful of the new government. Certain clans had lost power and status, and though they couldn't openly defy the new regime, they mocked the conventions of society as a way to express their displeasure. Okuni's characters reflected the formerly powerful warriors who were now left adrift in Japan.

Audiences, it seems, related to the new style of performance, which unlike Noh, did not use masks and tended to be more secular than religious. Like Noh, however, it relied on music and dance to help tell the story. The screen at the Kyoto National Museum shows musicians playing flutes and drums, though not the shamisen, a stringed instrument that later became popular in kabuki.


The audience members in the screen sit on mats on the ground, watching the performers on the elevated stage. This stage resembles a classic Noh stage more than it does a modern kabuki stage with its hanamichi bridge extending out over the audience. We can see that the audience members are paying attention to the performance, but they are also socializing with one another.


A barrier surrounds the audience, and outside that barrier, we can see what appears to be a refreshment stand, providing people with snacks.


Though we cannot know for sure what it was like to watch Okuni pioneering her new performance style, the screen at least gives us some fascinating hints.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

The Orphan of China

When I was visiting the Tate Britain a couple years ago, I came across Tilly Kettle's portrait "Mrs. Yates as Mandane in The Orphan of China." The piece captures a nearly forgotten moment of transcultural drama in the 18th century.

Beginning in 1731, zaju drama from China began being translated into European languages, causing a burst of excitement in the West. The first translation of a Chinese drama to be published in Europe was a French version of Ji Junxiang's The Orphan of Zhao.

Though The Orphan of Zhao was written in the 13th century, like most zaju plays, it takes place in the distant past, telling the story of how the Zhao clan was almost wiped out, but one child was saved and hidden away from the family's enemies. After many sacrifices are made to preserve the child, the orphan returns to avenge the Zhao clan and restore their authority.

In 1741, William Hatchett published the first English adaptation of The Orphan of Zhao, but it was seen as an attack on the British Prime Minister, Robert Walpole, so it was never performed. The most famous version of the story was the one the French dramatist Voltaire penned in 1753. Known as L'Orphelin de la Chine, this version reset the play during the Mongol period. The adaptation quickly spread across Europe.

Voltaire's play adheres to unities of time, place, and action, something zaju drama rarely if ever did. In his version, the orphan is already grown, and everything takes place in the same imperial palace. All of this was done to comply with the rules of neoclassicism. The rules were supposed to make drama more realistic, though to us neoclassical plays often feel ridiculously improbable. In any case, it was Voltaire's version of the story that inspired the British dramatist Arthur Murphy to write his own adaptation in 1756.

"Enough of Greece and Rome," Britain's poet laureate William Whitehead wrote in the play's prologue, remarking:

     On eagle wings the poet of to-night
     Soars for fresh virtues to the source of light;
     To China's eastern realms: and boldly bears
     Confucius' morals to Britannia's ears.

Thus, the play's Chinese-ness was one of its main selling points. That's probably apparent, too, in the costume Mary Ann Yates is wearing as Mandane in Kettle's portrait. Is the costume authentically Chinese? Of course not. However, it attempts to evoke an idealized East that is "the source of light" and that upholds morals the decadent West had forgotten. That moralizing can sometimes make the play's dialogue feel stilted, as when Mandane's husband Zamti praises "sacred laws by hoary elders taught."

Zamti has raised the heir to the throne as his own son, while sending his biological son Hamet to Korea. This serves to distract Timurkan, the Emperor of the Tartars, from the real heir. David Garrick played Zamti in the original production of Murphy's play. Echoing the values of the Age of Reason, he declares in Act II: "Priestcraft and sacerdotal perfidy / To me are yet unknown: religion's garb / Here never serves to consecrate a crime..."

In the play's third act, Zamti reveals to his adopted son Etan that the boy is actually Zaphimri, heir to the throne of China. Being naturally good, however, the boy refuses to allow Zamti's biological son Hamet to die in his place. This is a big change from the original zaju drama, where tons of people are sacrificed in order to protect the young orphan. Though Murphy's play is staunchly monarchal, it looks for a justification beyond the mere Divine Right of Kings. As Zamti puts it:

                                   Tho' rufian pow'r
     May for a while suppress all sacred order,
     And trample on the rights of man, the soul
     Which gave our legislation life and vigour
     Shall still subsist, above the tyrant's reach.

All deaths are kept for the play's final fifth act, where they decorously take place offstage, out of the direct view of the audience. This might not be as exciting for us as the original, but it allowed London audiences in the 18th century to feel more comfortable with the play, since it conformed to conventions of the time. 

Perhaps it was necessary for audiences of the period to have some elements of the play rendered familiar so they could better enjoy the elements of the Chinese-inspired play that were unfamiliar and exotic to them.