A Writer's Views on the Arts, Literature, Culture, Life, and Humanity

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Saturday, June 3, 2017

O Brave New World, That Has Such People In't: Grassroots Shakespeare Company's The Tempest and "Original Practice"

Amber Dodge and Jason Sullivan in Grassroot Shakespeare Company's
production of The Tempest.

I was thrilled to bring my little family to Grassroots Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Among Shakespeare’s many masterpieces, it is a beautiful, delicate piece, and a personal favorite. 

Written in his waning years, it is supposed to be Shakespeare’s last, non-collaborative play, generally seen as his swan song before he retires to Stratford Upon Avon with his family. It seems to be one Shakespeare’s more personal plays and, like the other plays he wrote in this final period, it is in the realm of “tragicomedy,” or what are later called Shakespeare’s Romances. These late plays of Shakespeare mix tragic beginnings with happy endings, have lots of spectacle (to compete with the Jacobean masques that were becoming popular), redeem flawed characters and offer forgiveness over catastrophe, focus on family relationships, and seem to be the mature reflections of a playwright at the end of his life who is seeking a final peace. Along with A Winter’s Tale, it is perhaps Shakespeare’s best example of the genre, despite the affection I also hold for Pericles and Cymbeline.  
The Tempest, on its surface, is a deceptively simple piece, thus easy to mar. Thankfully, Grassroots Shakespeare Company also has a deceptively simple style that hides a more mature understanding of Shakespeare that is up to the task of representing such masterpieces of the English language. 

Now that is not to say Grassroots Shakespeare Company is flawless, nor all they claim to be. Grassroots claims to be an “original practice” Shakespeare Company—though it is a claim I believe ought to be contested. 

For example, Grassroots Shakespeare Company claim that Shakespeare’s actors brought their own costumes and props. They certainly did not, at least not for the characters within the gentry. As noted Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt mentions, what a person wore in Elizabethan England mattered, and the Kingsmen who would have performed The Tempest certainly understood this:
Dress was the opposite of democratizing—nothing could be further from Shakespeare’s world than a culture in which magnates and workmen often wear the same clothes. It wasn’t simply a question of money. By royal proclamation, silks and satins were officially restricted to the gentry. Actors were exempted, but outside the playhouse they could not legally wear their costumes. [1]

To have a royal character, like Prince Ferdinand or King Alonzo in The Tempest, dressed from the closet of an actor, as GSC claims they did, that would have been seen as deeply disrespectful in the stratified society of Elizabethan and Jacobean England. It’s possible that actors may have worn their own clothes for a lower-ranking character in Shakespeare’s plays, but for a “higher” bred character, as they would have seen it, Elizabethan government and society would have been seen as societal blasphemy. The color, the fabric, the fashion, etc. that would represent a certain class was all dictated by British law and highly restricted.

Such practices may rub against our more modern, democratic sensibilities, but Shakespeare’s society was anything but democratic. Entertainment was not just entertainment, it was also a way that those in power buttressed that power, and they weren’t going to have some upstart crow of a playwright, nor a gleeking actor undercut their authority. Now, that doesn’t mean Shakespeare didn’t place political messages and moral stands in his plays. He just had to be sly and subversive about it, lest the Master of Revels cut off the offending feet of verse.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

My Year of Shakespeare: Introduction

Art by Trevor Downs, for my play The Drown'ed Book

All my life I have stubbornly studied what I love. I have excluded what others told me were practical pursuits and instead studied literature, plays, films—characters and stories. In that Quixotic pursuit, no author could move and create a stirring of thought in me like the master Bard himself, William Shakespeare.   

As a student, as an educator, and as a playwright, William Shakespeare’s life and work has held particular significance for me. I have been watching, reading, and studying his plays since I was young, and since then I have reveled in his vaulting use of language; his intimate understanding of human nature; his uncanny way of constructing a story; and his complex, psychologically vulnerable, and often hilarious characters. Shakespeare centers his plays on the human: on our relationships, on our thoughts, on our search for meaning in a seemingly meaningless world. Whether its Benedict and Beatrice’s playfully verbal volleys, Imogen’s horror at a beheaded corpse, Marina’s valiant stands against rapists, Richard II’s pitiful journey to self-destruction, Macbeth’s hardening heart, Hamlet’s desperate introspection, or Viola’s yearning for her lost brother, I have been caught up by Shakespeare’s humanist characters and their struggles—not unlike how Prospero and Miranda were caught up by that tempest and deposited on such an enchanted isle of bewitching characters.  

The past year or so, particularly, I have made a concentrated effort to immerse myself in his work and biography (serendipitously on the same year as the 400th anniversary of his death). I made sure to read or view his entire canon of plays and poems, as well as reading biography after biography, trying to make sense of the smattering of clues we have about his life, culture, and context. James Shapiro, Germaine Greer, Stephen Greenblatt, Jonathan Bates, Michael Wood, and so many other scholars and historians have been welcome teachers to help me puzzle out some sort of understanding as to who this mysterious genius was. To the initial chagrin of my students, I portioned out a whole couple of months of my English class this last Fall to focus on Shakespeare, his plays, his history, and his culture. What some of my students first complained about, they later delighted in, as they said my love of the material was infectious and they discovered for themselves why Shakespeare is still, after more than 400 years, a big deal.

All of this Bardophillic focus culminated in a play I wrote about Shakespeare’s last years in Stratford, The Drown’ed Book (written in iambic pentameter verse and pseudo-Jacobean verbiage), which received a staged reading at Utah Valley University on the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, to a wonderfully positive response. It was truly a wonderful climax to my own personal year of Shakespeare.

And yet I’m not done. I’m still hungry to learn more, write more, research more, experience more, understand more of Shakespeare’s life and works. My "search for Shakespeare" will last my entire life. I am still unpacking all that I learned this year, so I'm planning on writing a series of posts here about what I've learned, what I've pondered, what I've theorized, and how I've realized how much I still don't know, all during my Year of Shakespeare. So lend me your ears, I'll be writing about the Bard for a good while to come. 

Friday, January 23, 2015

Renaissance: Reject or Respect?

Sandro Botticelli from his painting
Adoration of the Magi
I have enjoyed teaching my Humanities class immensely. Being able to teach not only my own specializations in theatre, film, literature, and playwriting, but also the visual arts, music, etc., it's just delightful.

In the visual arts section of the class, I focused on Van Gogh, the Impressionists, and the Renaissance. To be able to dig deeper into art history has been fascinating. I've flirted with the visual arts a good deal of my life, but other focuses took priority, so it's felt like I get a second chance to really explore an alternate reality I could have been a part of. With the research I have been doing to teach the class, I feel like I am learning as much as I am teaching, which is always a thrilling place to be as an artist and an educator.

No matter how thrilled I have been learning more about art history, however, I have come to learn that not everyone shares my enthusiasm. In the essay section of the test I administered to my students yesterday, one of them articulately explained how she had "lost all respect" for the Renaissance after learning more about it. Her essay was actually very well argued, with persuasive language, logic, and history to back her up. She criticized the Renaissance for being "godless" (ironically, since most of the world's greatest religious art comes from this period), chipping away at society's morals, and indulging in pagan fancies. She took particular issue with artists like Sandro Botticelli and Donatello, as well as the Medici clan, the most powerful patrons of the Renaissance. Part of this criticism, in part, came from her reaction to a section of a documentary we watched in class about the Medicis from the Empires series produced by PBS (which I highly recommend).

Adoration of the Magi by Sandro Botticelli
Now although I strongly disagree with my student's conclusions about the Renaissance and its worth to human history, I was actually quite admiring of her essay, as it took a strong point of view and backed it up with passion, intelligence, and conviction. We all need people in our lives who will challenge our assumptions and show an opposing point of view. Also, frankly, there is a great deal in the Renaissance that doesn't live up to its ideal of "rebirth," but rather (like any point in history) reveals more than its fair share of the unpleasant underbelly of human nature. This was particularly true with the rise and fall of the Medici family, who had their own fair share of triumphal figures (Cosimo d'Medici, Lorenzo "the Magnificent" d'Medici, etc.) who, through their patronage and power helped push through some of the greatest progress in the arts, architecture, and science in human history; but who also had figures of tyranny and despotism (Pope Leo X, etc.) mar the family's reputation.

Looking specifically at Sandro Botticelli, it's easy to see why strongly religious students like this young woman who wrote the essay may have conflicted feeling about the Renaissance. Although Botticelli did religious paintings, some considered him insincere. If you take in account paintings like Adoration of the Magi,  in which Botticelli paints the Magi coming to adore the infant Jesus and his holy family, then its tempting to see it as pure religious fervor. However, when you know that the multitude of people surrounding Jesus (and who are in the forefront of the painting) are the Medici clan and all their most prominent friends (including Botticelli, who paints himself as part of the Medici's inner circle), then the painting seems less like devotion, and more like sucking up to a powerful patron.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Raising the Book

In William Shakespeare's The Tempest the protagonist-wizard Prospero gives a memorable and stirring speech. After a long exile on a desert island (where he has mastered his magic, raised a daughter, befriended/enslaved/mistreated a monster and a fairy, and lived a painful, imperfect, turbulent, yet enchanted life), Prospero is about to find the freedom from the island he has so long been drifting on and go back to the outside world.

In the speech, Prospero vividly describes the power his magical art gave him, but then declares his intent to give up that same magic before setting on his way home to Naples:
...But this rough magic
I here abjure, and, when I have required
Some heavenly music, which even now I do,
To work mine end upon their senses that
This airy charm is for, I'll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I'll drown my book.
(Act V, Scene I)

Playing Prospero at Utah Valley University
In my undergrad years at Utah Valley University, I played Prospero in a unique and creative production directed at UVU by Christopher Clark. Taking a cue from Jacobean Theatre, Clark separated the bodies and voices of the characters (I played Prospero's body), making it similar to a human enacted puppet show. Due to this fact, as I played out Prospero's movement every night, I was able to listen to the words I was acting out, rather than focus on reciting them. The above speech stuck with me particularly and even before I had been cast in the play. I had long connected with the role of Prospero, despite some of the character's problematic flaws. So these words stuck out to me at this particular juncture of my life, and when I contemplated what I was going to name this new blog.

William Shakespeare wrote this play at the very end of his life (the general consensus is that either The Tempest or A Winter's Tale was his last play), so many read this speech as the great Bard retiring his playwriting and "breaking the staff" of his enchanted words. So I connected with that idea when I have contemplated the last several months of my life, which led away from my blog writing for a period. I took a sabbatical from online writing until recently for a few reasons: