Saturday, May 22, 2010

Alvina Krause: More A Midsummer-Night's Dream

For twenty years (1945-1964) Alvina Krause produced nine plays in ten weeks each summer with her Northwestern University student company at The Playhouse in Eagles Mere, Pennsylvania. Each Sunday after a production closed, Krause posted a hand-written critique.
Following is a critique of A Midsummer-Night's Dream from the 1962 season.

You achieved success--tremendous success. But at what a cost! And so unnecessary a cost! A cost due to the fact that you ignored--even fought--what you knew about Shakespeare. You brought your fuddy-duddy high school ideas; you were like stupid people who do not go to Shakespeare, or who go unwilling, because he may be Shakespeare, but he is stuffy. Thank God we sent them away as Elizabethan audiences must have left: laughing, chuckling, even punching each other in the ribs, still smiling at each other and at strangers, amazed, not quite believing; in love with the theatre and a new playwright. That's what Shakespeare will always do if you trust him, give him half a chance.
In future, avoid mistakes by remembering that:

Shakespeare is a master showman. As Rogers and Hammerstein, Kaufman and Hart, know what people like, so Shakespeare knows how to appeal to everyone from groundlings to Francis Bacon. And he has endured for 300 years--we don't know that our contemporaries can match that record in popular appeal. You may trust his sense of showmanship; he has something for all: that love of clowning, love of magic, that romanticism which pushes out the boundaries of the world in all directions to the limits of the imagination; in short, that love of real theatre innate whether you are eight or eighty. You achieved this eventually: who laughed loudest, children or their parents? Who were most enchanted, the eight year olds or the bankers, doctors, lawyers? Even the teenagers succumbed completely to this master showman, once you stripped him of the trappings of "idolatry" which Shaw rails against.
Wednesday night you were still shackled by ingrained conventions or fears or unbelief. Thank God you knocked them into a cocked hat and abandoned them forever--I hope! Begin your next production with the knowledge that Shakespeare is a showman. Trust him! Tragedy or comedy he writes for the theatre and for red-blooded people who love theatre whether they know it or not. What a pity our production of M.N.D. cannot tour the country!

Elements of Shakespeare's good showmanship to be embodied by actors:

Exuberance, love of living, vitality.
These can be expressed only by totality of body activity, by strong, free, follow-through movement.
Manuella developed great beauty of movement, complete follow-through, grace without affectation; a joy to watch.
Kate is full of Shakespearean love of life; she makes the curved line of movement realism springing from space and garments and inner spirit.
Barbara is on the way to this achievement: exits and entrances were beautiful; she has not yet made it integral enough to follow through continuously; still lets movement break at the waist line.
Vance did a nice job of sending us soaring into the sky, off the earth.
Kovara has a marvelously flexible body and uses it with imagination and wonderfully stimulating effect on the audience.
The empathic response of the audience is part of the total delight in Shakespeare: unconsciously they run, leap, dance, spin with the movement on stage--if that movement is right, free, spontaneous and vigorous. Frank has not yet quite achieved it; he has the idea, made progress, but it has not yet become integral, organic, total--in walking, he does not stride from the hips with a strong pull and a strong push off. Work on leaps that turn into a walk, walk that turns into leaps, turns. Work with Tom while you have the chance.
Titania and the fairies were delightful in movement; had style without being "stylized", freedom in form, amazing in variety of movement within a pattern, in individuality within a group. Nancy's frustrated Moth was particularly fascinating in its suspended reversals; Susan an excellent contrast in directness of attack, in certainty. Ellen's wind-tossed, gyrating Pease Blossom could fill a stage with movement all by herself. Costumes, movement, used with imagination filled the stage with enchantment and the auditorium too: it seemed they might float down from the fairy ring above the audience. The total movement of the production corroborated Tom's scenic idea and seemed to extend out and over the foot lights: amazing empathy.
Remember it always: Shakespeare has no boundaries, no proscenium limits, no ceiling; thoughts and feelings and music overflow the stage, bounded only by horizon and sky. You captured this admirably. Next time don't work so hard at it.

Another element of Shakespeare's showmanship is: something for all.
He reaches the groundlings in us, the aristocrats in us, the poets, the philosophers. Trust him: every sequence has its individual appeal and note that none excludes the others. Theseus has a Shakespeare mind in a huntsman's body. Frank was doing pretty well with the mental philosophy; his tongue needs more music: tongue and body more fluidity. Lovers, very romantic lovers, indulge in good vigorous name calling on an earthy level.
Among the dumb, inarticulate mechanics is Bottom: man with a dawning imagination; man growing to articulateness; man with creative impulses and instincts. Bob wasn't quite able to realize the fullness of Bottom's capacities. He came closest in rehearsal one day when he first realized the magnitude of Bottom's dream: the dawning of mind and creative impulses in dumb humanity; too big to be articulated, more boundless than Bob made it. The possibility was there, but Bob did not let it play through as he did that day in rehearsal when he himself felt chills at man's capacity to dream. His was a fine Bottom: believable, understandable; the actor in every human being responded totally to him. We laughed at him with great affection.
Now the artisans realize how stupid they were to make clowning so difficult; there is little to say about them. They became real clowns once they stopped being afraid to play the situation. Each became endowed with a single dominant character trait; armed with the right character prop, each responded to the realities of the situation.
Striglos' playing of the scroll Saturday night was masterly clowning: improvised yet within a framework. Keep focus on the main action and let the situation play is a sound rule. Marc has an especially alert mind ready to respond, and this is the basis for the improvisatory quality all comedy must have. Striglos would not trust his mind to respond, shut off responses when they came. All good comedians are quick on the trigger, they have no fears, they lay themselves wide open to stimuli, knowing that they can and will respond. Once Bill started doing this, he was excellent. Now he could play it for weeks and it would be fresh and stimulating.
Phil was slow getting the image of his role, although Shakespeare indicates it clearly: "-ling" means "little"--little tailor not quite all there. Phil's tendency is to turn his roles into himself--perhaps not consciously. The difficulty comes when pieces won't fit together, when Phil and the character are at war with each other. In the end, in this case, pieces dovetailed pretty well. Particularly in the final scenes, playing Moonshine, he was effective in his clowning in character. In early scenes, character could have been more solid.
Chris' best performance was Friday, I think. His well-planned business came off as improvisation, it seemed to happen spontaneously. Saturday night was still very good, but reactions were not so spontaneous, so alert as before. Chris did a good job of playing opposites; he found them early and put them in play, let them develop.
Chamont had difficulty in reaching the one level of concentration state. In the moments when he did, he did some good clowning. At other moments, an intelligence entered in, an amusement, which did not quite fit the stolid dumbness of Snug who is an opposite, absolute opposite, to Bottom who could even roar with imagination. Wiping fuzz out of his mouth was a nice imaginative piece of business. A little note of fastidiousness entered in, however, which made it less incongruous than it might have been.
All in all, the artisans wound up as a superlative group of clowns, playing logically and realistically and brilliantly. Don't make it so hard next time.

In the magic of words Shakespeare is a showman too.  He reaches every ear.
For those who love beautiful verse there are the Oberon passages: beautiful in sound and in imagery. Vance spoke them well. He is a little afraid of the rhymes--unnecessarily so; his transitions from the sustained note to the didactic command could sometimes be sharper--short sounds made more brittle and sharp, but Vance speaks to both ear and mind very well indeed.
It's in sharp distinction of long and short sounds that you all need work. You have begun to sustain full vowels pretty well, but your short vowels are not distinct enough: short a, u, e, o are muffled, not well articulated and consonants are not definite, do not divide syllables crisply.
This was Niki's trouble. She was beginning to achieve it. Titania is a spitfire; this quality is expressed vividly and most articulately in language. To add vocal effusions as dramatic outpourings adulterates the meaning. Always start with the words as written, speak them as they are written, they give you the key to character. Titania spits and hisses: consonants are crisp, vowels are short. Niki's histrionic gift took her away from the words for a long time. In the end she came to a vivid Titania, almost as Shakespeare created. But train your ear to hear sounds accurately and your tongue to articulate them swiftly, deftly and with brilliance.
Ellen needs the same sort of work. Her fairy was perfect in every way but vocal articulation.
This, too, is the one flaw in Kovara's Puck: clarity of short sounds and consonants in the swift passages; tip of the tongue articulation. In all other respects he created a Puck long to remember. Puck, the mischief maker, was brilliant comedy: alert mind functioning in an expressive body; the mystic elements were not quite so completely assimilated, but they were present and they touched us; we believed in Puck.
Kate has an excellent sense of language. She still needs to balance resonances when she goes into the upper register; her high tones get thin. Sing up the scale, speak up the scale, keeping tones supported as you go up. Kate's Shakespeare is excellent kinesthetically.
Barbara needs voice work. She has a splendid comic sense and brilliant grasp of content. Friday was her best performance because vocally the truest. She made the mistake of starting with effusive artificial tones--why, I don't know. Shakespeare uses such effects only for people he does not like--Le Beau of As You Like It. In all romantic characters, play against the effusive. As Barbara discovered, Helena uses concrete words for concrete images, and her mind is most logical and realistic. When Barbara began to play these aspects, comedy developed. She is still handicapped by an upper register which lacks support of open throat resonance; she needs to open her mouth two fingers in width in order that vowels may be full and open; work on short, distinct s sounds. Acquire speech that is adequate to express your real abilities, Barbara. Work with Judy--both of you will profit by it.
Judy's Hippolyta was stunning, and the low, full voice was most effective. It was not totally assimilated, not completely easy and "natural" but it is good progress. Keep that fullness in all registers now.
Reimold's bright tones are good to hear always; he needs to work for freer physical expression: it will relieve tensions. Mike makes a good Elizabethan, speaks the language with ease, plays with ease.

Work on your diction and trust Shakespeare. You are actors he would like.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Alvina Krause: A Midsummer-Night's Dream

I have enjoyed your blog ddowns.  maybe you'll topic the mechanicals in a future post?!

The writer will soon direct young people in a production of A Midsummer-NIght's Dream.
I thought I'd let Alvina Krause respond to this question in two postings. 
This first post is notes she wrote to us when we were working on the mechanicals for class, which she conducted in her home in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania. 
The subsequent post will be notes to a production of MND performed at her summer theatre in Eagles Mere, Pennsylvania.
I italicize words she underlined in her handwritten notes.

Always start your initial work with questions. Ask the right questions and the creative mind will take off in the right direction. You tend to start off with generalizations about characters you are playing.  The result may be an interesting characterization--which will take the play nowhere, or take it in the wrong direction. Always begin your questions with the play itself. The title is a good beginning.
Why is it called "A Midsummer-Night's Dream"?
Why are the "mechanicals" in "A Midsummer-Night's Dream"?
Each scene in a play is a movement in the direction of the end. Where does the mechanicals scene take the play?
What has this scene to do with Puck's "What fools these mortals be"?
What characteristics must each person have to take the scene and the play to its inevitable conclusion?

Such questions should direct you as you formulate and determine characterizations. Unless you are guided by such questions, the Bottom-Titania scene will come off as utterly ridiculous, ludicrous without being true comedy.
Why does Bottom not realize he wears an ass's head?
Why does he succumb to Titania? 
The logic of fantasy.

Shakespeare is having a glorious time with "Love is blind"--How do the "mechanicals" lead to this scene? Why is it inevitable? You all over-looked the fact that Shakespeare's common people are exactly that--"common"--totally unimaginative, totally literal in every sense. He gives them no flights of fancy. A lion is "roar" not a noble beast. Pyramus: a sword--
Do not let your imaginations take off and endow them with gentleness and romantic, humanistic qualities. 2 X 2 = four, not a magical number that sets the imagination going--simply "four"

Fit the characters to their names--Peter Quince is a quince--bitter, biting--quince. No apple qualities, no peach qualities, etc.--just quince--No human thoughtfulness, consideration, etc.--just quince--Name names, give directions and that's that. Add no motivations other than: Perform Pyramus, Thisbe--meet at such and such a place.
The drama itself is your master plan. Make all the pieces fit into the whole. Ask the questions that will lead you to the inevitable final curtain.

What is comedy?
Clarify your ideas.
A little man, a frail woman, slips on a banana peel. You don't laugh. A fat man slips on a banana peel, you roar with laughter. Why? Both are real falls--Why--
Bottom, Titania--a ridiculous scene, silly Shakespeare--What makes it glorious comedy?
Why is Bottom unaware of the ass's head?
He isn't drunk. He is not goofing off. Then why?
Try the creative "if".  "If" I had a huge hole in my pants, "if" I did not know it----?
Arrive at the reality of fantasy. If the audience cannot identify with this scene, these characters, they will not laugh at the tricks you may pull.
Titania is under a spell, true, but people in love are under a spell.
 "If" you couldn't see the hole in the trousers when everyone else did, "If" you could not perceive the fool under the good looks--etc.-- 
Begin with realism.

What you learn here about comedy will carry over to all comedy if you learn it. I can only open your eyes: you must do the rest.

Cut out extraneous business. Achieve focus through pointed, timed business.
Go straight to the end of the lines with a punch at the end. Do not tack on business at the end. Arrest then move.

Why is the presentation of the play for the Prince comic rather than ludicrous? Because they give the play exactly as they would patch a roof--
Learn to ask the right questions.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

How to Read a Play: First Thoughts

A friend suggests that I write about How to Read a Play.
There are lots of books on the subject, most with some variation of How to Read a Play in the title. And since I recoil from the notion of a step-by-step how-to schematic approach to a subject like this, I thought I would just post ideas from time to time in the hopes of helping readers find their own ways of thinking about it.

An Initial Idea:
Every story casts How Real Life Happens into a particular story telling form.
In the linear narrative forms (short story, novel), there’s a direct cause-and-effect logic to the words that compose sentences that create paragraphs. One word (If) leads to another (you), which leads to a sentence--If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth--and then on to a paragraph, and so on to building whole passages and chapters, all leading cumulatively to the end of the story--Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody--and ultimately, to a sense of the meaning of it all.

Readers often approach a play text with the same expectations they have when approaching a text of narrative fiction: They expect a logical linear verbal narrative. But that isn’t the storytelling form of plays, even those written for publication. (e.g., Ibsen and Shaw--more about that at another time.)
Stories told in the form of theatre put real people doing real things in recognizable environments in front of an audience. It’s a narrative, but it’s four-dimensional: It’s actually happening in front of you in/over time. And the dialogue part of the text of a play is a record of only the literal words spoken as part of the much more complex vocal/oral component of all that is happening in the story of the play. (Try this: record a charged, dramatic interchange between you and someone else; transcribe from the audio the words spoken; give the transcription to another person and ask them to tell you what's happening--or to enact what they think is happening. It is instructive how unlike the original experience the enactment can be when the reader has only the bare words that were spoken as keys to reconstructing a complex human interaction.)
Essential to reading a play is being able to see and to hear real people doing real things in a real environment in front of you. (“Real” doesn’t necessarily mean “realistic”, another topic for another time.)
Reading a play is not so much like reading a novel or a short story as it is like reading the score of a symphony or an opera and hearing the music while you read. In a play, "the music" is not just the words people speak, but rather also all that is happening beneath/beyond/besides the words. 
The novelist provides all such essential information; the playwright does not. So the reader of plays must.

Readers of plays tend to start by asking: Who are these people? What are they talking about? What do they mean by what they’re saying? How do they feel about this and about one another?
I want to suggest starting with a simpler more fundamental question: What’s happening here? (What's the "music"?)
All the elements of The Text help you to focus on What’s Happening:
*The title of the play
*Brief descriptions (unless it’s Shaw or O’Neill--more about that another time) of the locations and the people who are in those locations 
*The words people say to one another
*Occasional suggestions of how they say these words
*Occasional suggestions about things they do while they say the words
Learn to let all those textual elements guide your reading towards “What’s Happening”.

A caution: As you read a play for the first time, avoid trying to figure things out. Forget the high school and college analysis of literature courses that insist you regard every word as a clue to unlocking the mystery, solving the puzzle, finding the meaning, discovering what the play “is really about” and earning yourself an A+ (one reason I reject the step-by-step approach to How to Read a Play). Just read the play. Read freely. Regard the first reading as similar to reading the blurb of a novel or checking the contents page of a book, the introduction, chapter titles, etc., to get an overall sense of the movement of the book. Read the play without effort. Feel no anxiety about passages that don’t make sense immediately. If you have only a vague idea about what’s happening, that’s okay. Just read on. Let it play upon you. Get a feel for the story. A sense of what’s happening. A feel for the people who are living behind the words they are speaking.
Your main goal: 
  1. What’s happening at the start of the play? What’s the situation?
  2. What does it all get to? What's the situation at the end?
  3. What happens along the way?
What's happening at the start?
A country road. A tree.
Two homeless guys. One sitting on a mound trying to take off his boot. The other comes in.
“Nothing to be done.”

What does it get to?
“Well? Shall we go?” 
“Yes, let’s.” 
They do not move. 

What happens along the way?
If you read easefully, some passages are clear, some less so, but you’ll see/hear two old tramps doing stuff on a country road while they wait for Godot to come. In each act, two other men come by for a while and spend time with them.
So: What happens?
En Attendant Godot (While Waiting for Godot), the tramps do some stripped-down versions of things we all do: They eat, they sleep (fitfully), they reminisce, they complain and argue, they fuss over their clothes, they socialize with others, they do exercises, they piss, they wonder about religion, about tomorrow. They pass the time while they wait for the big payoff to come, at which time they expect they’ll be happy and fulfilled.
Once you've got the story sketched out, exploring individual passages in finer detail becomes easier and more easily rewarding.

Let’s try another one:

Three Sisters
(The title is always a good place to start.)
What happens?
Act One:
On the fifth of May, people gather in the main public room of the Prozorov house to celebrate the youngest sister Irina’s name day. (Lucky for us, the first speech is also one of those “here are a few things you should know” speeches.) As guests arrive, we get to see a little of what they are like and what their relationships with one another are. Finally, one of the guests, Natasha, gets Andrei, the brother of the family, to propose to her.
Act Two:
One evening the following winter, people gather in the main public room of the house for a pre-Lenten celebration. The new mother Natasha gets her husband Andrei to tell them all to leave before the celebration even begins. The act ends with Natasha blind-siding Irina with the news that Irina must give up her bedroom for Natasha’s new baby. Irina will have to share her sister Olga’s room.
Act Three:
People gather long after midnight in Irina’s and Olga’s shared bedroom as a fire destroys part of the town. Natasha initiates an abusive confrontation with Olga and then threatens her with constant such confrontations unless Olga moves downstairs to the floor where the renters live. 
Both Irina and Andrei have what-has-my-life-come-to meltdowns.
Act Four:
People gather in a chilly autumn morning outside the house as the soldiers leave town. None of the sisters lives in the house anymore. Natasha is inside with her lover and daughter while outside husband Andrei pushes their son in a baby carriage. Everyone gathers here because the soldiers will be passing through on their way out of town. Irina’s fiancĂ© is killed in a duel and in the end the three sisters cling to one another as the military band plays in the distance.

So: What happens?
Townie Natasha marries into the family and takes over the house.
In the meantime people fall in and out of love; they have affairs; they gamble and drink and complain and argue; they long for a time and place where they might be happy and fulfilled. 

Are you intrigued?
If yes, read it again. This time perhaps follow more closely the story arc of each of the characters. Bring the knowledge of what you now know happens throughout the play right to the beginning:

The middle sister Masha is sitting/half-resting on a divan dressed in black with her hat on her lap. She’s reading a book. She’s bored and angry. She doesn’t plan to stay long. She came early just to get away from her dry pedant of a husband.
Olga, the oldest, dressed in the blue uniform of a teacher, stands, perhaps paces, as she writes in her students’ notebooks. In charge of the party, she’s trying to get caught up on school work before everyone arrives. She is aware of Masha's mood and of Masha's unhappiness in her marriage.
Irina stands lost in thought and dressed in white. On the threshold of adulthood, she can’t wait to start life, to start working, to meet a magnificent man, to marry.
And so on. 
As each new person comes in, note the effect it has on all the others. Act One becomes “Here are a few things you need to know about the people of this house and their relationships with others”. The play story kicks into full gear when Andrei proposes to Natasha.

You work toward as detailed an understanding of each sequence of a play as I describe in the posting on the nunnery scene of Hamlet; but first you read for story, for understanding of the thrust of what happens throughout the course of the whole play. It's an outgrowth of Aristotle's dictum: the most important part of a play is its plot.
I love getting a new play and bursting my way through it just to see what I will understand of the story, how much I'm aware of what happens, what's clear to me, what's vague, and what I will have to do some real work on in order to understand. 

Readers have difficulties with plays, I think, because they put all their attention on the dialogue. Instead of focusing on what people are saying, focus on what they are doing and on what is happening to them.
The great cellist Pablo Casals once told a student, You’re playing the notes when you should be playing the music. Apply his idea to play reading: Read the text not for the dialogue, not for the logic and emotion of the conversations, but rather for what’s happening to the people. 
Read the notes so they can help you hear the music.
Read to experience the drama.
Everything else will come after.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?: Honey

About playing Honey in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf:

I've been thinking of the play like this: In the face of incontrovertible evidence that the world is not what you expected, that being born human is a cruel cruel fate and that life will ultimately kill you only after it's maimed and castrated you utterly... How do you proceed?  You laugh, you drink, you tell stories...

How do you make Staving Off the Existential Dread into a positive action based in another person?  Are you hoping for collusion in your delusion? Recruiting collaborators for your particular fantasy? And for Honey in particular, how do you not make her the "simp" she's said to be?  What are the defensive and offensive strategies of a "mouse"? What are its advantages?  

It's 1960. Pre pill. Pre Roe v. Wade. Pre lots of things for women. (See Mad Men. Imagine it without its illuminating contemporary perspective on gender behavior.)
What that implies may be harder to deal with for a contemporary actress playing Honey than for one playing Martha. And it's possible that a director who wants to address contemporary issues by updating attitudes a little will put some of that energy into the characterization of Honey. 
Honey’s fear of pregnancy and the way she deals with it spring immediately to mind as stuck a bit in the time period. But there it is and you have to confront it: She doesn't want to go through with birth. She can't tell Nick. She finds ways to deal with it appropriate for the times and for her social class.

One of the most shocking things about Martha when the play appeared was how direct and unapologetic she is. Tennessee Williams put women on stage for the first time as sexually passionate human beings. (Okay, for the first time since Euripides. Well, okay, maybe Shakespeare with Cleopatra. Okay, they're all played by men anyway.) But Williams' women spoke the lyrical, poetic, indirect language of the Southern Lady. 
Albee put Martha on stage with language no woman--and very few men--had ever spoken there. And certainly never anyone from the "educated classes". 
Martha smashed through all the "women's wiles" stuff and the conversational indirection that women were obliged to master. She said things that women not only shouldn't say, but things they had to pretend they didn't even think let alone know about. 
Martha struggles with the social and professional strait-jacketing of women, but she is wrestling and swearing and punching her way out without even being aware of the greater social implications of her actions.

Honey serves as a dramatic/thematic opposite to Martha. She’s not trying to wrestle and swear and punch her way out of anything. Honey has ambition but it is ambition for Nick's career. (Note the different relationship she and Martha have to this same situation.)  
What's most important to her? To see to it that Nick becomes the youngest departmental chairman the college has ever had--and someday the president of an Ivy League university. And so far, she's been pretty successful as the power behind that throne. 
She's the one who insists they go to George and Martha's after-party party. She knows it's important for Nick's positioning in departmental gamesmanship. I'll bet she bought a power tie just for tonight and she made him wear it.  
But she gets in way over her head with G and M. She can't possibly drink as much as they do; she can't possibly play the Manipulate Others games as well as they do. And she isn't remotely as smart and savvy as they are. 
And neither is Nick.

A contemporary actress might rather view Honey's mousy simpiness as the result of inadequate preparation for playing in the big leagues than as inherent simpy mousiness. We all have experience with people who seem like simps more for the way they act in social arenas they're ill-equipped for than for actual ingrained simpitude. 
Improvise determining aspects of Honey's early family life and social and cultural background--the play gives lots of clues. Pay attention to the roles women fulfill (daughter, wife, mother, homemaker) and the ways they must function in them. 
Not so much a simp, Honey becomes a rather ordinary woman who, through a combination of learned social maneuverings and blindered denial and escape tactics, has pursued her life goals and maintained the image of wife and potential mother her particular world expects. She has been living her life in the minor leagues and up to now she has managed fairly well. 
I'll bet the New Carthage College faculty wives don't see Honey as simpy but more small-town middle-Americany naive with tiny hints of way minor league Lady Macbeth--not the only faculty wife they know with that last characteristic.
Put her at this particular party on this particular night with this particularly extraordinary couple, however, and she can't possibly hold her own. She ends up acting in a way that, to George, makes her "sort of a simp in the long run". 

I've always believed that an actor can play any character with utter conviction so long as the character exists in a play whose themes the actor can support without reservation. I imagine playing a weak-willed, cowering, simpering, limp-wristed, self-hating, faggoty wimp of a man who vigorously supports parental abduction of gay children to send off to homosexual-reeducation-and-lesbian-curative camps--so long as he's in a play with themes I embrace. 
In Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? one of the major themes lurking subterraneanly is the need for society and culture to recognize how much the world loses by not championing all of the capacities for substantive contribution that women possess. If you play Martha, you demonstrate those powerful capacities more or less directly; if you play Honey, you demonstrate the crippling, stifling effects of societal corseting--perhaps more poignantly in a female character who has little if any awareness of this reality. 
But if both actresses are motivated by a concern that culture and society truly recognize and truly value all people for their fundamental abilities without being blinded by such factors as gender, then it doesn't matter which character you play.

p.s. I regret any disappointment you may experience from my not dealing with Staving Off Existential Dread.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Hamlet: The Nunnery Scene

Hamlet. What’s your take on the nunnery scene?

There are books that detail famous and influential stage productions of Hamlet and there are videos of decades of film and television versions. Read them and watch them, looking for elements common to all as well as for illustrations of how and why they differ from one another. As with all truly great plays, no one interpretation of Hamlet can account for all its implications and resonances.

Here’s my take on the so-called nunnery scene:

First: What’s the play getting at? (See the previous blog post) Note the title: The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.
It is not only Hamlet’s tragedy, but it’s the tragedy of the entire polity of Denmark.

Find lines that rise above plot and point toward theme:
Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.  (Washington, DC?  Find the world of the play alive in your own world.)
There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
The rest is silence.

For me Hamlet is about a sane young man of integrity and intellect and compassion thrust into a world mad with corruption and deceit. What must an intelligent, decent, caring young person do to survive in a world where the rules change constantly and from which ethical anchors have disappeared?
What happens to a world that fosters such rottenness?
The play suggests forces exist that ultimately will bring order to the world, but meantime people must suffer.

The elemental conflict of the play, then, is those who live by expedience and corruption versus those who want to right wrongs and to live ethically.

Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark, embodies an idealistic belief in integrity and ethics. Upon his father’s death he rightly expects to become King of Denmark. But the court “freely goes along” with giving the crown to the king’s brother. (In my world, the Supreme Court of the United States of America hands the presidency to the guy who didn’t win the election.)
Claudius, the new King of Denmark, embodies the forces of corruption, deceit, and manipulation of the populace. (In my world former Vice President Cheney.)
In Hamlet’s personal life, his mother abandons mourning the death of his father and immediately marries his father’s brother. (The abhorrence Hamlet feels at this we may find in our response to the sexual abuse of children by Roman Catholic priests. And the Vatican’s method of dealing with abuse is how Hamlet sees Denmark’s response to the marriage.)
Not to mention he discovers his uncle killed his father and his father's ghost commands him to revenge the murder.
There’s something rotten in the state of Denmark.

Who are the Hamlets of today’s social and political worlds?

Ophelia is a young person who lives in ignorance of the corruption around her. She has been brought up with blinders on. She is intelligent and loving, but she knows nothing of the harsh secular realities of her world. She has been taught to seek the counsel of her father whenever she is confronted with big issues.
In the world of Hamlet an innocent unaware of the world’s corruption and deceit can escape the brutalities of that world only by madly floating away into oblivion.

Where do you find Ophelias in contemporary America?

Ophelia relies on Hamlet and her father for her stability. When those two anchors are taken away, she can’t survive. And before she dies, her mind loosens from its moorings. Her ending, I think, suggests where she must needs begin and her initial appearances in the play must point inevitably to her end.
When Hamlet confronts her in her bedroom and does some very weird and frightening stuff, what does she do? She runs immediately to her father for explanation and counsel.
The last words of the first scene she appears in are hers spoken to her father: I shall obey, my lord.
I was in a production of Hamlet in which the actress playing Ophelia created a young woman of fiber and independent spirit who begrudgingly and even resentfully spoke that last line. When it came time for her to appear with lots of flowers in her hands, singing slightly off-key and wandering about the castle in madness, it made no sense. There had been no cumulative experience of the inevitability of this moment, no awareness of what Corruption was snuffing out of the world with Ophelia’s death.

If Ophelia is the embodiment of purity and innocence in a corrupt world, then each of her scenes dramatizes a stage in the spoiling and ultimate wiping out of that purity and innocence. Even in the nunnery scene, it is Ophelia’s relationship to the corruption of the world around her and not her personal romantic relationship with Hamlet that is the focus of what happens to her.
She is told to keep Hamlet here so that her father and the king can observe his behavior. She is given a prayer book to justify her presence in this isolated place. (A nice irony.)
What does she pray for here in this corridor? She hasn’t seen Hamlet since he burst into her closet and her father assured her that he is going crazy. What is she praying for in the moments before he comes in?

The tragedy is Hamlet’s not Ophelia’s and so our focus, and our greatest sympathies, must be with him. His fight to the death is with the corruption of the world—even in this encounter with Ophelia.
The last time we saw him is only one scene earlier, when he bounds out at an energized highpoint: The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.  
And then, he is sent for.
Surely he comes bounding into this corridor energized for a major confrontation with the King of Corruption. 
And what does he confront?
An empty hall, perhaps a sputtering candle in a wall sconce. Shadows.
What this provokes in him isn’t just a soliloquy of intellectual abstraction. Nor is it just emotional turmoil. It’s a profound still moment of thought leading to a grave, even tragic, realization for so young a life. It comes from deep in his soul, it unfolds in his mind, and through his voice it extends far out into the cosmos. His thoughts must be verbalized because they must reach out far enough to give him the perspective he needs to understand objectively what his thinking is leading to.
We all know the exhilarating relief, especially in our youth, of discovering finally what we can do to overcome a monumental impasse in our lives.
And then the world throws its indifference or its hostility at us and we are slammed back to ask the question: Why do I bother? What’s the point? Who cares anyway? What difference does it make?
‘To beee (sustain it)’ is not simply ‘to exist’.‘To be’ is ‘to live’ and ‘to live’ is to do, to act, to take continued challenging action throughout a productive constructive life.
‘To BE’ is to engage in enterprises of great pith and moment.
Early in my teaching life I found myself walking along the lakefront near campus so that my thoughts might lift out over the lake and reach up into the far night sky. I was struggling with the question: To continue doing this or to walk away from it. To BE (to teach, to teach the way I knew I must) or not to BE (to cease agonizing over it, perhaps even to abandon it). That was the question. To do whatever it takes to push the limits of my teaching and my learning, to struggle against the forces of indifference, even hostility, and by opposing, end them; or to sit back and to settle in, to resign myself to the way things were; and thus to be content until retirement.
To die; to sleep. No more.
At that moment of youthful tumult, it really was a consummation devoutly to be wished.

Hamlet closes in on a tragic conclusion to his thinking, comes near to making a tragic decision about what to do.
And then he sees Ophelia.  ohmygod, how long has it been?
What exactly does he see?
Is she kneeling? walking? Is there a halo of candlelight in her hair? Her head is bowed over her prayer book. Delicate fingers turn a page. It’s a stirring image: the entire world isn’t a corrupt pigsty. There still exist grace and purity and beauty.
It just might save his soul.
Nymph, and she looks up, her huge eyes teary with care, with prayer, in thy orisons be all my sins remembered.
What does he need her to say? to do? What does his tormented soul hope she’ll say and do? Perhaps her hand will reach out and touch his; perhaps her voice, the voice of her heart, will touch his heart with understanding of his torment.
What does he get?
A perfectly trained, convent-educated (fold your hands, walk slowly, lower you eyes), Polonius-taught (a modest young lady answers the Prince with civility not familiarity) little clear tinkling bell of a voice speaking the polite platitudes of civil discourse: Good my lord, how does your honor for this many a day?
She might as well slap his face.
And he would like to shout: I’ll tell you how your honor has been doing for this many a day: he’s hit bottom so hard he was thinking he might just as well kill himself, but, hell, why go into all that!
Instead, he answers even more civilly, more formally, than she: I humbly thank you. Well, well, well and he turns to leave.  (I think the well, well, well is as if your girlfriend, having not seen you for days and days--actually having refused to see you for days--instead of saying, Oh God, what’s been going on? They’re saying you’re crazy, I’ve been worried sick, says, [Your Name], Oh, good afternoon, how have you been?, and you feel such a scalding fury that after a cold Thank you for asking, there’s still enough hot energy in you to spit out, Fine, fine, fine, before you turn on your heel and walk away.)

Panic hits Ophelia. And he's being deliberately curt and cruel. And her task is to keep him here. What to do? Perhaps an unconscious look toward the arras—Father, help!—before, hardly thinking, she reaches for—are they letters? were they in the prayerbook? on her person somewhere? or perhaps it’s a locket she’s wearing?—she hears herself saying, partly to answer his curt jabs, partly in panic to keep him here, My Lord, I have remembrances of yours that I have longed long to redeliver.
The word ‘remembrances’, flooding through his brain, pulls him back to face her. And he answers sharply, Not me, I never gave you a damn thing, and turns again to leave.
Poor Ophelia. She’s not used to thinking on her feet, to making decisions and taking action on her own without checking with her father. Yes, you did! she says. Her heart racing, she can’t believe what Hamlet has said; she wants to run to the arras and cry out for Polonius to help, to stop this, to tell her what to do. Meantime, she is saying things she learned in her Young Maiden’s Handbook with even more formality than before. And finally, she thrusts the tokens at him with There, my lord.

It is at this moment that the scene wrenches from poetry to antic muscular prose. Literally. Something huge has to happen to create this breach. Something cracks irrevocably here. And for me it cannot be triggered simply by her giving back some love tokens to him. This moment must arise from the deepest thematic currents of the play and draw its lifeblood there.
It is at this moment, I think, that Hamlet, who has been dumbfounded by what Ophelia is saying, realizes that Polonius is behind the arras. (It's been in the back of his mind: after all, he was sent for, asked to come here to meet with--who?) It is at this moment that Hamlet is struck with the realization that they have gotten to Ophelia utterly (It starts days ago when she refuses letters from him and won't agree to see him--and he breaks into her room unannounced and stares at her long and hard); it's confirmation that that’s why she’s been acting the way she’s been acting, that there’s dirt on her heart, that her hands are not clean. Great great grief for her wrestles with a nearly uncontrollable rage at them for getting to her, for using her, corrupting her.
What it is that sparks his realization must be something more significant to the play than Polonius’s making a sound and Hamlet hearing it or Polonius moving behind the arras and that catching Hamlet’s eye.
For me, the realization that they aren’t alone and that this is a set-up must come directly from Ophelia.
There, my lord is the last line of iambic poetry in the scene. And then come three iambic beats of silent action to complete the line.
There, my lord as she thrusts the tokens toward him.
  1. She inadvertently, almost imperceptibly, looks toward the arras for help, for assurance, before checking herself.
  2. Hamlet sees it, follows her look.
  3. He looks back at her as he realizes that he’s been set up and that she’s a pawn.
Ha, ha! gasped in shock, in disbelief, sadness, rage.
And the scene takes off with a frightening potential for violence. All that violent energy is already in him and now it surges through him pushing for release in violent action. He drives relentlessly, directly to Where is your father? albeit through the grief/rage of his realizing that she has agreed to be used by them. She tries to maintain civil protocol in the face of his growing rage.
(I’m not convinced by versions that have him discover Polonius is behind the arras only the instant before he asks her where is her father. It’s just too huge a realization for him to act on it so quickly. And his behavior toward her after his ha, ha! is too extreme to be touched off simply by her returning his letters or trinkets.)
Where is your father?
And helplessly, fearfully, Ophelia lies—for the first time in her life—and Hamlet goes nuts. (And by the way, she has not been instructed to return these things. Days ago Polonius tells her only to refuse further letters and visits. But now she has been told to keep him here and when he makes to leave, I think she panics and does the first thing that comes to mind.)
He can barely stand in one place. He’s pulled in all directions.
He wants to unsheathe his rapier and gut whoever's behind the arras (Why doesn’t he just race over to the arras and yank it aside?) He wants to run out of the corridor and storm into his mother’s room (Something in him is pulling to do just that as he spits out, You jig, you amble, you lisp, you paint your face etc.—to Ophelia!). He might grab Ophelia—or worse--as she is the one human being here in his presence on whom he can focus his rage at the whole world.
His several false exits indicate, I think, that there is so much potential dangerous anger in him that, even as he tries to get out of the room, he is ripped back to unload more of the rages that have built in him since even before the play began. And the more he unloads the more he might do violence and so he pulls himself away.
Very little of this has to do directly with Ophelia. But with her capitulation to her father and the king, some final stopper has been pulled out and she is the one there before him to get the brunt of it all.
And finally, he does do something violent—does he actually strike her? Does he throw her to the floor?—and the horror of realizing that he has crossed a major line is what propels him finally/actually to bolt from the room.

The potential for violence in this encounter must be amped up long before Ophelia says O, help him you sweet heavens! And notice that she never says, Help me, I fear for my safety. Throughout, her concern is for the agony Hamlet is experiencing. His rage is not rage at her, though at any moment it might provoke behavior that could hurt her.
After he bolts, her words are of fear and concern for him, not herself. Though she is of ladies most deject and wretched, it’s because she has seen the magnificence that is Hamlet blasted with ecstasy and quite quite down.
I recognize that it is hard in today’s world to accept that our sympathies must stay with Hamlet even at this moment, but I think that’s what’s happening and that’s how we are meant to experience it. If it is Hamlet’s tragedy, then ours and Ophelia’s greatest concern must be for his torment. Whatever pain anyone else is experiencing, even if it is directly caused by him, we must feel that his pain is tragically more profound, more significant. And I believe that if it is done honestly and within the context of a production that dramatizes the greater concerns of the play, the nunnery scene will further move the action inevitably toward The rest is silence and to Horatio’s tale
Of carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts,
Of accidental judgments, casual slaughters,                             
Of deaths put on by cunning and forced cause,
And, in this upshot, purposes mistook
Fall’n on th’inventors’ heads.

Someone should do Hamlet out of concern for our country now rather than just for love of the role.