Saturday, January 22, 2022

Mazeppa

Today is the 234th birthday of George Gordon Byron. Not only was Lord Byron a dramatist, but many of his narrative poems have been adapted for the stage, including Don Juan and Mazeppa.

Why would Mazeppa, a tale of a man strapped naked to a wild horse, be adapted over and over again for the stage? The answer is the 19th century's love of hippodrama: the performance of plays involving onstage horses.

H.M. Milner (who also adapted Mary Shelley's Frankenstein) adapted Mazeppa to be performed at Astley's Amphitheatre in 1831--with a live trained horse--and countless imitations followed. Perhaps the most famous performances of Mazeppa were by the actress Adah Isaacs Menken, who played the hero as a breeches role, though in her case the "breeches" were a skin-tight body stocking that realistically mimicked nudity. Men flocked to see her tremendous... acting skills.

The play was also adapted numerous times for the toy theatre. The Boys of England Edition included an original script for home performances. Entitled Mazeppa; or, The Wild Horse of Tartary, the play begins in the Castle of Laurinski, where the lovers Cassimer and Olinska meet. Unfortunately, Olinska is engaged to Count Palatine, but Cassimer competes nobly in an armed tournament. (The stage directions indicate that sound effects of the tournament could be created for the toy theatre by "striking two pieces of steel, or old knives together.") The night after the tournament, Cassimer attacks the count, but he is caught. That's when Olinska's father devises the punishment of lashing him to a horse's back and using torches to chase the animal away in a mad gallop.

In Act II, Cassimer is portrayed "on a Horse, pursued by Wolves and Wild Horses." Anticipating the hero's death, a vulture is supposed to descend "by means of a thin piece of wire." As is the case in Byron's poem, however, the young man does not die. In the following scene, a shepherdess in the woods hears the story of the Volpas, a mythical giant horse that is supposed to be an ill omen. The play is mostly in verse, and when it does include a song, it isn't even poetry composed by Byron. Instead, the reveling shepherds and shepherdesses sing:

     Let the lovely shepherd maid,
     Most of all his sight evade;
     Quick to your tents hasten back,
     The pursuer is on your track;
     Fly, maiden, fly! the Volpas is nigh.

A storm comes on, and the stage directions indicate that the sound of rain could be mimicked by "peas in a tin canister" while thunder can be made with "a sheet of copper to be shaken" and lightning with "a pinch of powder in a small earthen bowl." Cassimer enters on the horse, which collapses, exhausted. The shepherdess resolves to inform the local leader, Abder Khan, who recognizes Cassimer as his long-lost son Mazeppa. Then, there comes another piece of non-Byronic verse:

     Gracious powers whom we adore,
     Our future monarch now restore.
     That our triumphant shouts may raise,
     In songs of gratitude and praise.

Like the earlier song, this actually comes from Milner's stage adaptation, not Byron's poem. Anyway, Cassimer--now Mazeppa--saves his father's life. Proclaimed the new King of Tartary, he should be happy, but he cannot be so without his beloved Olinska. He leads the Tartars back to Poland to besiege the castle and claim his love.

Act III begins in the castle, where preparations are underway for Olinska's marriage to Count Palatine. A group of wandering Tartars has been hired to provide entertainment, and Mazeppa is disguised among them. He reveals himself to Olinska, who is happy to see him. At the wedding procession outside the castle, Mazeppa claims the princess as his own bride. There is another great battle, and the curtain falls.

Curiously, Milner's adaptation ends the same way, with a climactic battle and no further dialogue. The script for the Boys of England Edition is ambiguous as to who wins, but Milner's stage directions make it clear that Mezeppa gets Olinska in the end.

That's not in Byron's poem, by the way. In the original, Mazeppa simply ends his tale after the part of the story where he is made king. Stage adaptations took little from Byron's work, but the poem still inspired countless productions.


Friday, January 21, 2022

Harriet Smithson

In 1833, composer Hector Berlioz married Harriet Smithson, but she had enjoyed a distinctive career on her own as an actress long before she became Madame Berlioz.

According to her entry in Oxberry's Dramatic Biography, Smithson was born on March 18th, 1800 in County Clare, Ireland, of English parentage. Her father, William Smithson, traced his ancestry back to Gloucestershire, but worked managing theatres in the Waterford and Kilkenny circuit.

At first, young Harriet's parents had great ambitions for her, and they actively kept her away from the stage, but after hard times fell upon the family, the young girl seemed their only hope. She made her stage debut in Dublin as Albina Mandeville in Frederick Reynolds's play The Will, and subsequently began to perform across Ireland.

In 1817, Smithson was introduced to Robert William Elliston, who was then manager of the Birmingham Theatre Royal. It was while performing in Birmingham that she caught the attention of the management of the Theatre Royal at Drury Lane in London. She made her debut at that theatre on January 20, 1818 as Letitia Hardy in Hannah Cowley's comedy The Belle's Stratagem.

Since her brother was manager of an English theatre in Boulogne, Smithson performed both there and in Calais. She made her Paris debut in 1827, performing the role of Lydia Languish in Richard Brinsley Sheridan's The Rivals. Charles Kemble's company, touring in France, then took her on to play Ophelia in Hamlet, and she made quite a stir with her mad scene. Kemble was apparently impressed, as he subsequently cast her opposite himself as they played the leading roles in Romeo and Juliet.

Berlioz saw Smithson perform as Ophelia in 1827 and promptly became obsessed with her. She was reportedly the inspiration for his Symphonie Fantastique, as well as other works of his. He also wrote her numerous love letters, which she failed to answer. Berlioz was three years younger than her, and not yet particularly well known. He also could just barely speak English. The young composer entreated her to meet with him. She declined.

Smithson returned to London, this time performing at the rival Theatre Royal at Covent Garden rather than Drury Lane. Unfortunately, the reviews were harsh. She toured a bit, joined the company of the smaller Haymarket Theatre, then eventually went back to Paris to set up her own troupe in 1830. She performed in English at the Théâtre-Italien, but the next year she broke her leg and had to put her whole career on hold.

Then, in 1832, there was a performance of Lélio, Berlioz's sequel to Symphonie Fantastique. She had missed Symphonie Fantastique's premiere in 1830, but this time she thought she'd give that mad Frenchman's music a try. That's when she figured out that this crazy twenty-something kid who'd been stalking her was a musical genius. She agreed to meet with him, and the next year they were married.

Sadly, their marriage was not the happiest. They never really got along with each other's families and friends. Plus, her career had already peaked, and his was just beginning. She became jealous of his success, not to mention of the mistress he picked up at the Paris Opera. Still, her performances were both inspired and inspiring, and for that, she should be remembered.

Thursday, January 20, 2022

Martin Chuzzlewit and Sweeney Todd

Sweeney Todd, the demon barber of Fleet Street made famous by the Stephen Sondheim/Hugh Wheeler musical, first made his appearance as a character in the anonymous penny-dreadful novel The String of Pearls, published in installments between 1846 and 1847.

However, stories of Londoners who murdered people and baked them into meat pies predated the publication of The String of Pearls. The urban legend appears in the Charles Dickens novel Martin Chuzzlewit (published 1843-1844), which includes a non-murderous barber named Poll Sweedlepipe.

In chapter 26 of Dickens's novel, we even learn of a "sympathy between beards and birds" that "frequently impels a shaver of the one to be a dealer in the other." Though Poll doesn't keep a green finch, linnet bird, nightingale, or blackbird, he does house gamecocks, bantams, owls, and smaller birds in the same building where he has his shop.

When Hablot Knight Browne (using the pseudonym "Phiz") illustrated Poll Sweedlepipe's shop, he included next to the "EASY SHAVING" and "HAIR DRESSED" advertisements (yup) signs for mutton pies. That's right! The barber was located right next to a shop that sold meat pies. Though there's no evidence in the novel that Dickens's barber is up to anything nefarious, Browne might have been alluding to a well-known folk belief.

And how widespread were Victorian tales of urban cannibalism? Well, Dickens alludes to them at the end of chapter 36 of Martin Chuzzlewit when the character Tom Pinch worries that his friend will think he has "strayed into one of those streets where the countrymen are murdered" and has "been made meat pies of, or some such horrible thing." Not letting the issue drop, Dickens begins the next chapter with the line: "Tom’s evil genius did not lead him into the dens of any of those preparers of cannibalic pastry, who are represented in many standard country legends as doing a lively retail business in the Metropolis."

What's interesting to me is that in Martin Chuzzlewit the urban legend of people being baked into meat pies is represented as having its origins in the country. It is only rural folks who believe such fantastic accounts of city dwellers feeding upon one another. Dickens was a city dweller himself, and he shows London as a place of opportunity for Tom Pinch rather than a location of danger.

The novel does contain other references to cannibalism, though, as when the innkeeper Mrs. Lupin regrets that a character went off to the United States rather than "to some of those countries which are not quite barbarous; where the savages eat each other fairly, and give an equal chance to every one!"

Well, as Mrs. Lovett and Sweeney sing, "How gratifying for once to know / That those above will serve those down below!"

Saturday, January 15, 2022

The Bourgeois Gentleman

We don't know exactly when the French playwright Moliere was born, but he was baptized on the 15th of January, 1622.

Of course, Moliere was his stage name, so he was baptized Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, not Moliere. In honor of the anniversary of his baptismal day today, I read his play Le Bourgeois gentilhomme, which is generally translated as The Bourgeois Gentleman.

The play premiered in 1670, at which point Moliere was already famous for writing The Blunderer, Sganarelle, and The School for Wives, and infamous for writing Tartuffe, Don Juan, and a scandalous adaptation of Amphitryon. This time, however, he would flatter the court of Louis XIV and make fun of the rising middle class.

Moliere himself played the titular character, Monsieur Jourdain, who is merely bourgeois, but has pretensions of being a gentleman. He receives lessons from a music master, a dancing master, a fencing master, and a philosophy master. Though Moliere was a magnificent poet, the play is mostly written in prose. This leads to a comic moment, when Jourdain famously exclaims: "On my conscience, I have spoken prose above these forty years, without knowing anything of the matter...."

Armande Bejart, who was married to Moliere, played Jourdain's daughter Lucile. As often happens in Moliere's plays, the protagonist's daughter is in love with one man, but he wants to marry her off to someone else. In this case, the social climbing Jourdain fixates on the idea of marrying his daughter to a son of the Ottoman Emperor. The year before, an Ottoman ambassador had refused to bow before the king, creating quite a scandal, so the play's aristocratic audiences probably enjoyed the idea of making fun of the Turks as well.

In the play, Lucile's lover dresses up as a Turk and pretends to be the son of the Ottoman Emperor. There's a lot of goofy fake Turkish, as he and his servant fool Jourdain into thinking that they're actually from the court of the Ottomans. The plan works, and all ends happily.

The composer Jean-Baptiste Lully composed music for the piece. The score survives, and what I've heard of it sounds fun. I'd love to see a production someday using the original music!

Friday, January 14, 2022

Passings

Today was the day my play Kew Gardens was supposed to premiere at Actors' Theatre in Santa Cruz. Alas, live performances of the play have been cancelled, just the latest casualty of 2022.

Fortunately, Actors' Theatre will be filming its 8 Tens @ 8 Festival this year, and the play should be available to view streaming sometime next month. Both Bill Peters, who is directing Kew Gardens, and Sienna Thorgusen, who is starring in the one-woman play, are okay, in spite of the Omicron surge.

Omicron has not shut down Broadway (though it has closed a number of shows), which means that last night I got to see Irene Sankoff and David Hein's musical Come From Away. Seeing a play about 9-11 has different resonances in 2022. Watching it, I certainly remembered my own experiences that day, and the loss of Carol LaPlante, who died in the Towers, but there were other feelings, too, and the memory of all the people in my life who have died of Covid, including Marge Green who passed only recently.

Then, last night, I got word of another passing. Terry Teachout, the long-time theatre critic for the Wall Street Journal, is dead at 65. For nearly 20 years, he wrote for the Journal in a way that wrote for all America. Rather than just cover theatre in New York City, he traveled across the country, reviewing regional productions that were often doing far more exciting work than what is usually seen on or off Broadway. (I invited him to come out to Michigan to review Detroit Rep's production of my play Capital, but alas, he never responded.)

Teachout was an enthusiastic supporter of Gingold Theatrical Group and Bedlam. He also loved attending shows at the Mint Theater Company, which sent out a brief memorial to him today. According to Jonathan Bank, the Mint's producing artistic director, "Terry reviewed 14 Mint productions between 2005 and 2018. His impact on the Mint, and so many other smaller companies, is profound and immeasurable."

The only time I met Teachout in person was at a Shaw conference in New York, where he argued that just as we've liberated the plays of William Shakespeare from having to always be set in the same time period, we should free the plays of Bernard Shaw and other more recent dramatists from always being staged the same way. He particularly praised Bedlam's innovative production of Saint Joan.

So many losses in the past couple of years! Let's hope for better things in the year to come.

Thursday, January 13, 2022

O'Flaherty and the Gregorys

Yesterday, the latest issue of The Shavian landed in my mailbox, and an article by James Moran reminded me of the links between Bernard Shaw's play O'Flaherty VC and the family of Lady Gregory.

O'Flaherty VC
is one of a handful of short plays Shaw wrote during the First World War. His opposition to the war at its outbreak had turned Shaw into something of a pariah in England, and it was while staying at the home of his friend Lady Gregory in Ireland that he wrote O'Flaherty VC, which likewise takes place in Ireland.

Lady Gregory was a distinguished playwright and one of the co-founders of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. It was at her estate, Coole Park, that Shaw wrote his tale of an Irish soldier who is awarded the Victoria Cross and then is sent back to Ireland to participate in a recruitment drive. Since Shaw intended the play to be done at the Abbey, which had few resources at the time, he kept production requirements to a minimum. The play requires a simple set and just four cast members.

Unfortunately, the Abbey kept running into trouble with the authorities during its early years. The British government, which had previously tried to stop the Abbey from producing Shaw's The Showing-up of Blanco Posnet in 1909, stepped in again, and the theatre was forced to withdraw the play in spite of plentiful advance ticket sales. That meant the first production of O'Flaherty VC was not in Ireland, but in Belgium--right near the front lines of the very war is was satirizing!

That production was put on by some amateurs who belonged to the Royal Flying Corps. Men took on the two female roles, and O'Flaherty's girlfriend Teresa was played by Lady Gregory's son Robert. Sadly, Robert Gregory did not survive the war. His Sopwith Camel went down over Italy in 1918. Lady Gregory's friend William Butler Yeats later memorialized Robert in the poem "An Irish Airman Foresees His Death."

The play was not professionally produced until after the war, when the Stage Society presented it in London. O'Flaherty VC was later broadcast over the radio in 1924, with Shaw himself performing all of the roles in different voices. An estimated four million people are thought to have tuned in for that broadcast. None of this would have happened had it not been for the support of Lady Gregory.

Monday, January 3, 2022

Ulysses in Nighttown

James Joyce is known for his prose fiction, not for drama, though he did pen the 1918 play Exiles, rejected by W.B. Yeats for the Abbey Theatre.

A more famous play by Joyce was not intended as a play at all. When he wrote the "Circe" section of his novel Ulysses, Joyce decided to craft it in the form of a play, complete with character headings, dialogue, and stage directions.

That "play" never meant for performance has been staged, however, most famously in Marjorie Barkentin's adaptation Ulysses in Nighttown. Jonathan Greenberg gives an excellent account of the 1958 premiere of the play in a recent issue of PMLA.

Apparently, the producers of Ulysses in Nighttown originally wanted to cast Irish actors in the play "to insure fidelity to Joyce's characters and atmosphere," according to a press release. When stars of the Dublin stage proved unavailable, Barkentin instead offered the leading role to Burgess Meredith.

Meredith instead wanted to direct the play, bringing John Astin on board to assistant direct. (As Greenberg slyly notes in his article "Springtime for Ulysses," that means "for fans of the TV show Batman, the production was in the hands of the Penguin and the Riddler.") To play the protagonist, Leopold Bloom, Meredith hired Zero Mostel, a move that reinvigorated Mostel's career.

Both Meredith and Mostel had been blacklisted following their uncooperative appearances before the House Un-American Activities Committee. (Mostel--in a loud stage whisper--had referred to the chairman of the committee as a "schmuck" during the hearings.) This would be their chance to do on stage what Hollywood no longer allowed them to do in front of a camera. The venue was the Rooftop Theater on Houston Street. Yes, the theatre was literally on the roof, with the ground floor of the building being a cinema that had previously been home to a prominent Yiddish theatre company. (The second floor was the headquarters for a bagel workers union. Only in New York....)

The play featured not only Mostel, but also Carroll O'Connor as Buck Mulligan, Anne Meara as Mrs. Breen, and Bea Arthur as Bella Cohen. Mostel received an Obie Award for his performance. The broad comedy of his acting fit with the source material, since Joyce frequently referenced popular entertainers in Ulysses, including Marie Kendall, Jenny Lind, and Herbert Beerbohm Tree.

Success in Ulysses in Nighttown allowed Mostel to work again after years of being blacklisted, and it also endowed him with a new reputation for interpreting avant-garde absurdist drama. He played Estragon in a television adaptation of Waiting for Godot by Joyce's former research assistant Samuel Beckett, and was in Eugene Ionesco's Rhinoceros.

In 1962, Mostel played Pseudolus in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and then in 1964 he played Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. Those who never saw him on stage probably remember him best, however, as Max Bialystock in Mel Brooks's 1967 film The Producers. The name of the other producer in that movie? Leo Bloom.

This was no coincidence. As Greenberg points out, Brooks himself has said he chose the name Leo Bloom in tribute to the Leopold Bloom of Joyce's novel. Sometimes, influences pop up even where you least expect them.