Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Lillah McCarthy as Dionysus

Euripides's masterpiece The Bacchae won a posthumous first-place prize for the author when it originally premiered at the City Dionysia in 405 BCE. However, it was not generally performed after the collapse of the classical world. In fact, the play's premiere in English did not occur until 1908, when the role of the great god Dionysus was played by none other than the actress Lillah McCarthy.

David Bullen has an excellent article on this production in the most recent issue of Theatre Notebook. Originally, Dionysus would have been played by a man, of course, given the conventions of Greek drama, and throughout the twentieth century, the part has almost always been cast as male. However, Bullen puts McCarthy's portrayal in the context of nineteenth-century actresses like Elizabeth Vestris who expanded the repertoire of female performers by taking on traditionally male roles.

The 1908 production lasted only two matinees, due to a dispute between translator Gilbert Murray and director William Poel, who was famous for his stagings of Elizabethan classics but appears to have been unsuited for a Greek revival. In spite of the fact that the chorus was supposed to consist of frantic maenads, Poel had the women speaking the chorus's lines stay virtually still for the entire play, while other dancers playing maenads danced in a small space at the center of the stage.

McCarthy herself complained about Poel cutting many of her lines and having her stand like "a statue in Ivory & Gold." This was quite a change for the vigorous actress who had originated the role of Ann Whitefield in Bernard Shaw's Man and Superman. The production was apparently so far away from the Dionysian passion Murray imagined that the translator withdrew his consent. McCarthy asked Murray for permission to re-stage the piece if she could find a new director, but alas, nothing came of those plans.

Bullen argues that the ill-fated production still had an effect on British drama, though, including influencing Shaw's Misalliance. Shaw originally crafted the part of Lina Szczepanowska in that play for McCarthy, though the part ultimately went to another performer. Lina literally descends from the heavens in Misalliance (albeit in an airplane rather than on a cloud of glory) and introduces a new Bacchic energy into the lives of a rather staid English family. As Bullen notes, the play is not an adaptation of The Bacchae, but it is certainly influenced by it.

Even more important to Bullen is the play's engagement with the women's suffrage movement, which was backed by many of the artists involved in the production, McCarthy included. Sometimes simply performing a role can be a political act, and the on-stage maenads in many ways reflected the frenzied protests of suffrage advocates off the stage.

Friday, June 11, 2021

The Drama Book Shop

Today, I got a chance to visit the newly reopened Drama Book Shop in Midtown. It was great to finally be able to return!

The Drama Book Shop used to be over on West 40th Street, but it shut down when the landlords figured they could make more money leasing the space to a high-end clothing store. A group of investors, including Lin-Manuel Miranda, bought the remaining stock of the bookstore and promised to reopen is somewhere in the same neighborhood.

Well, there were the inevitable delays, and then COVID hit, so the reopening has been a long time coming. The selection on hand looked about the same as it has always been, though I noticed they also had a section in the front for "Bestsellers" that included novels, poetry, and other books that had nothing to do with the theatre, which I don't remember from the past.

There used to be a theatre downstairs from the bookstore, where I had a reading of a selection from The Mysteries of the Castle of the Monk of Falconara as part of the book launch for The Best American Short Plays: 2005-2006. I was down there more recently for a talk given by the director Ivo van Hove. The new location of the Drama Book Shop has a roped-off staircase leading down to... dare we hope a theatre?

The new location also has a cafe, so you can get snacks and beverages. Currently, management is recommending that you make a reservation to be sure you can get inside, since capacity is capped. When I showed up on a Friday afternoon, though, they just waived me in without checking my reservation, so it looks like they're taking walk-up browsers, provided the store isn't too full.

I bought a volume of some Eugene O'Neill plays while I was there, and I look forward to spending more time reading this summer. Thank goodness the Drama Book Shop is open again for hungry readers like me!

Tuesday, June 1, 2021


My short play Housekeeping is now officially out in the journal Rip Rap, a publication of California State University Long Beach's creative writing program.

Housekeeping tells the story of a businessman who gets more than he bargained for after he admits a woman into his hotel room for housekeeping. It was originally written for a fundraiser for the Abingdon Theatre Company, and received its premiere by Aching Dogs Theatre in 2011.

Rip Rap is available in a print edition, but you can read the journal digitally here. In addition to Housekeeping, the journal also has the short plays Adrift by Andrew G. Cooper, Silver Linings by Mark Sherstinsky, Dear Crossing by Lisa Kimball, and Sam's Lament by Robert Wray.

Thanks to Adam Largaespada and Leticia Valente for editing the collection, and Julia Edith Rios for serving as the play editor.

Monday, May 31, 2021

Samuel Phelps

The Victorian actor Samuel Phelps was described by his biographer Richard Lee as "the last typical classic actor of the English theatre." Lee knew Phelps, and shortly before the great actor died, he had agreed to perform in a comedy Lee had written called Cent per Cent. Alas, he never performed that play, but he appeared in so many other great shows!

Born in 1806, Phelps was the son of a wine merchant. His family valued education, and his younger brother Robert eventually led Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge, and at one point even served as Vice-Chancellor of the university there.

Arriving in London as a young man, Phelps took a job in a printing office, where his foreman was Douglas Jerrold, who had not yet risen to fame writing such plays as Black-Eyed Susan and The Rent-Day. Phelps invited Jerrold to watch him act in an amateur production of The Castle Spectre by Matthew G. Lewis. According to Phelps, after the performance "Jerrold told me that by dent of hard study, luck, and patience I might in time act well enough to get thirty shillings a week."

Well, Phelps later made far more than that! His professional debut occurred in 1827 at the Queen's Theatre off of Tottenham Court Road, which later came to be know as the Prince of Wales's Royal Theatre. Phelps, then 21 years old, appeared as Captain Galliard in the farce XYZ. He then joined a company performing in the northern circuit, and according to Lee, Phelps "rapidly became a recognized stage favorite throughout the North of England, in Scotland, and, across St. George's Channel, at Belfast and Londonderry."

Ten years later, in 1837, Phelps made his debut at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden in Thomas Otway's tragedy Venice Preserved. Phelps played Jaffier opposite the Pierre of William Charles Macready, an actor who would be both his colleague and his rival for many years to come. Phelps accompanied Macready when the star actor took over the management of the rival Theatre Royal at Drury Lane. It was there that Macready staged Robert Browning's tragedy A Blot in the 'Scutcheon with Phelps as the lead, and then abruptly cancelled it.

"Though its success was undoubted," Lee writes, the play "for reasons never publicly stated, disappeared from the bills after the third representation." Macready was jealous of Phelps's success, but he also had bigger things to worry about as manager of Drury Lane. In 1843, the theatre's owners declined to give him a decrease in rent, and Macready responded by petitioning parliament to end the monopoly the two patent theatres had on performing spoken-word drama. The result was the Theatres Act, which paved the way for the so-called minor theatres like Sadler's Wells to perform more serious fare than melodrama and burletta.

Phelps, together with Thomas L. Greenwood and the actress Mary Warner, took over the management of Sadler's Wells. At first, they planned to stage melodramas, as the house always had, and they even determined to get a fresh one written by Zachary Barnett to inaugurate their new management. When Barnett's melodrama was not forthcoming, however, and with the opening date of Sadler's Wells already advertised, the experienced, classical actors decided to begin with what they knew best. Instead of using a melodrama, they opened with Macbeth. Phelps and Warner played the two leads, and according to Lee, who was there that night, the audience "was hushed by its attention to the action of the tragedy to such perfect stillness as quickened the sense to hear the faintest whisper from the stage."

The trio of managers quickly abandoned their plans to produce melodramas. The Theatres Act now allowed Sadler's Wells to produce any type of show it liked without having to split legal hairs over exactly how many songs were needed to qualify a piece as melodrama or burletta. For a while, they did try to produce new works, but after three new plays in a row failed, and a fourth was not likely to be ready for production, they went back to the classics.

Phelps was particularly known for his stagings of works by William Shakespeare. Of the plays accepted to be in the Shakespeare canon at the time, Phelps staged all of them at Sadler's Wells except the Henry VI trilogy, Troilus and Cressida, and Richard II. Was he the last typical classic actor of the English theatre? I don't know, but he was probably one of the best.

Friday, May 28, 2021

Bernhardt's Fedora

When we watch hard-boiled detectives like Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe wear fedoras in film noir movies, we probably don't relate the hats they're wearing to the French stage actress Sarah Bernhardt, but they actually do have a connection to her, though it might be somewhat tenuous.

The name fedora comes from Fédora, a drama by Victorien Sardou, who was known for writing such well-made plays as A Scrap of Paper, and would go on to pen hits like La Tosca, Thermidor, and Gismonda. When Fédora first opened in Paris in 1882, it starred Bernhardt, who was the most famous actress in France, and probably the world.

Bernhardt had first toured the United States in 1880 and 1881, then performed a three-week stint at London's Gaiety Theatre, and Fédora was one of the first new plays she decided to perform after her triumphs abroad. Sardou appears to have tailored the title role specifically for Bernhardt, as he would later do with a host of other plays. After the playwright read the piece aloud to her in her garden, she agreed to do the play, but for a mammoth sum and only after her schedule cleared sometime in the new year.

Fédora premiered at the Théâtre du Vaudeville in Paris on December 12, 1882, with Pierre Berton playing the male lead, and not Bernhardt's new husband, Jacques Damala, as the actress had wanted. The play opened as a success, but the new marriage did not. Damala's resentment at being passed over for a plum role, and his jealousy of his wife's success, led him to abandon her and enlist with the Foreign Legion in North Africa. (When he returned the next year, things went even worse for the couple.) Despite initial enthusiasm from audiences, Fédora ended up losing money, and a string of bombs cost Bernhardt dearly.

Another Sardou play, Théodora, revived the actress's fortunes, but after a couple more disappointing productions, she decided to embark on a world tour, including a return to the United States. It was on this tour in 1887 that Bernhardt performed Fédora in New York at the Star Theatre on Broadway, but by that time, the play had already premiered in America with Fannie Davenport in the title role. It was after Davenport first performed Fédora in the U.S. in 1883 that advertisements start appearing using the name of the play for a style of hat. The first such ad, appearing in the New York Sun, called the fedora "a new and perfect soft felt hat, one that can be worn upon any and all occasions."

An advertisement the following year in the Daily Charlotte Observer called the fedora "'The Hat' of this season." Since early advertisements and other references to fedoras seem to always refer to men's hats, it would seem that the hat was modeled after the one worn by Robert Mantell, who played opposite Davenport in the play. The famous photograph we have of Bernhardt in the role does show her wearing a hat, but one that looks nothing like a fedora:

Still, it was Bernhardt who made the play a hit, and the play that lent its name to the hat style. This is just one of the many ways that Bernhardt has influenced popular culture, and continues to influence it to this day.

Monday, May 17, 2021

The Maid a Semifinalist

I can now announce that my play The Maid was a semifinalist for the Shakespeare’s New Contemporaries program at the American Shakespeare Center in Virginia.

Last year the play Shakespeare or the Devil, which I cowrote with Matt Bird, was named a finalist in the contest. Alas, I cannot announce that this year for The Maid, as it will not be advancing to the next round.

The Maid responds to the first play in Shakespeare's King Henry VI trilogy. Instead of focusing on the English hero, John Talbot, however, it focuses in on Joan of Arc, who appears as Joan La Pucelle in Shakespeare's play.

Talbot does appear as a character in The Maid, however, which makes other references to the Shakespeare trilogy as well. It's disappointing that the American Shakespeare Center won't be performing the work, but perhaps some other theatre will pick it up in the future. 

Sunday, May 16, 2021

The Masque of Queens

Ben Jonson's The Masque of Queens was first performed for James I and his wife, Queen Anne of Denmark, on February 2, 1609. The piece is particularly flattering to Anne, who performed in it, as well.

Anne was not alone. She was accompanied by the Countess of Montgomery, the Countess of Arundel, the Viscountess of Cranbourne, the Countess of Derby, Lady Elizabeth Guilford, the Countess of Huntingdon, Lady Anne Winter, Lady Windsore, the Countess of Essex, and Lady Anne Clifford. Because royalty and nobles were participating in the performance, Jonson wrote that it was his intention "to see that the nobility of the Invention should be answerable to the dignity of their Persons."

To better show off the beauty of the ladies, Jonson began with "an Anti-masque of Boys" who were dressed "in the habit of Hags, or Witches, sustaining the Persons of Ignorance, Suspicion, Credulity, &c. the Opposites to good Fame." This prelude provided "a Spectacle of strangeness," according to Jonson. The set designer Inigo Jones also built an image of Hell for the witches to make their entrance from, accompanied by "a kind of hollow and infernal Musick." The witches then called for their leader with this charm:

      Dame, Dame, the Watch is set:
      Quickly come, we all are met.
      From the Lakes, and from the Fens,
      From the Rocks, and from the Dens,
      From the Woods, and from the Caves,
      From the Church-yards, from the Graves,              
      From the Dungeon, from the Tree
      That they die on, here are we.
            Comes she not yet?
            Strike another heat.

Sound a bit like a certain Scottish play by one of Jonson's contemporaries? The witches' second charm does, too, perhaps even more so:

      The Weather is fair, the Wind is good,
      Up Dame, o' your Horse of Wood:
      Or else, tuck up your gray Frock,
      And saddle your Goat, or your green Cock,
      And make his Bridle a bottom of Thrid,
      To rowl up how many Miles you have rid.
      Quickly come away;
      For we, all, stay.
            Nor yet? Nay, then,
            We'll try her agen.

The Dame who leads the witches finally does arrive, and leads them all in "a magical Dance, full of preposterous change, and gesticulation." This was supposed to be an inversion of the customary rules of dance, with the witches "dancing back to back, and hip to hip, their hands joined, and making their circles backward, to the left hand, with strange phantastick motions of their heads, and bodies." Jonson credits the choreographer Hierome Herne with coming up with this spectacular stage business.

In the middle of the dance, "on the sudden, was heard a sound of loud Musick" and then "not only the Haggs themselves, but the Hell, into which they ran, quite vanished." In place of Hell "appeared a glorious, and magnificent Building, figuring the House of Fame. The twelve ladies, including the Queen herself, were arrayed on this arch. Jonson knew better than to give these noblewomen a bunch of lines to recite, so instead they just had to present themselves in costumes designed by Jones, representing famous Queens from history.

An actor dressed as Perseus representing "masculine Vertue" descended to the stage and said:

      So should, at Fame's loud sound, and Virtue's sight,
      All dark, and envious Witchcraft flie the light.
      I did not borrow Hermes Wings, nor ask
      His crooked Sword, nor put on Pluto's Cask,
      Nor on mine arm, advanc'd wise Pallas shield,
      (By which, my Face avers'd, in open field
      I slew the Gorgon) for an empty Name:
      When Virtue cut off Terror, he gat Fame.

He then introduced the women who adorned the House of Fame. Eleven of them were queens of the past: Penthesilea the Amazon, Camilla of Volscia, Thomyris of Scythia, Artemisia of Caria, Beronice of Egypt, Hypsicratea of Pontus, Candace of Ethiopia, Voadicea (Boudica) of Britain, Zenobia of Palmyra, Amalasunta the Goth, and Valasca of Bohemia. On top of this pyramid of fame sat Queen Anne herself, in the person of "Bel-anna."

Fame personified then appeared, "attir'd in white, with white wings, having a collar of gold about her neck, and a heart hanging at it." She said to Virtue:

      Vertue, my Father, and my Honour; thou
      That mad'st me good, as great; and dar'st avow
      No Fame, for thine, but what is perfect: Aid,
      To night, the triumphs of thy white-wing'd Maid.
      Do those renowned Queens all utmost Rites
      Their states can ask. This is a night of nights.

The queens then mounted chariots and bound up the witches. The masque ended with this song:

      Who, Vertue, can thy power forget,
      That sees these live, and triumph yet?
      Th' Assyrian Pomp, the Persian Pride,
      Greeks Glory, and the Romans di'de:
            And who yet imitate
      Their Noises, tarry the same Fate.
            Force greatness all the glorious ways
            You can, it soon decays;
            But so good Fame shall never:
      Her Triumphs, as their Causes, are for ever.

Jonson's masque didn't last forever, and the Stuart monarchy itself collapsed within a generation. We do have some of Jones's sketches of the costumes, though. Here's his design for Artemisia, as played by Lady Elizabeth Guilford:

You can also watch video of a 2016 production of the masque at New College Chapel in Oxford. They clearly didn't have the budget of James I's court, but hey, they gave it a try!