"You know it is the feast of Lupercal": February Traditions Then and Now

Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar opens on a holiday — but a holiday no one in Shakespeare’s England any longer celebrated. Unlike Twelfth Night, Shrove Tuesday, Whitsuntide, or any other liturgical holiday of the Christian calendar, the Lupercalia was something no one in Shakespeare’s audiences would have had personal experience with, and we are even further removed from it today. But what correlations does it have to Tudor-era traditions and to our modern late-winter festivities? More than you might immediately guess.

Abbi Hawk, Gregory Jon Phelps, and Benjamin Curns
in Julius Caesar, 2013. Photo by Pat Jarrett.

So what is this strange Roman festival? Plutarch discusses the Lupercalia, held February 13th-15th, in his “Life of Romulus,” the first of his Twelve Lives. He describes it there as the Romans celebrated it early in the Republic, as a feast of purification, but also as a memorial to the she-wolf that suckled Romulus and Remus after their exposure in the wilderness. He gives the following description of the ceremonies:

… the priests slaughter goats, and then, after two youths of noble birth have been brought to them, some of them touch their foreheads with a bloody knife, and others wipe the stain off at once with wool dipped in milk. The youths must laugh after their foreheads are wiped. After this they cut the goats’ skins into strips and run about, with nothing on but a girdle, striking all who meet them with the thongs, and young married women do not try to avoid their blows, fancying that they promote conception and easy child-birth. …

A certain Butas, who wrote fabulous explanations of Roman customs in elegiac verse, says that Romulus and Remus, after their victory over Amulius, ran exultantly to the spot where, when they were babes, the she-wolf gave them suck, and that the festival is conducted in imitation of this action, and that the two youths of noble birth run “Smiting all those whom they meet, as once with brandished weapons, Down from Alba’s heights, Remus and Romulus ran.” And that the bloody sword is applied to their foreheads as a symbol of the peril and slaughter of that day, while the cleansing of their foreheads with milk is in remembrance of the nourishment which the babes received. But Caius Acilius writes that before the founding of the city Romulus and his brother once lost their flocks, and after praying to Faunus, ran forth in quest of them naked, that they might not be impeded by sweat; and that this is the reason why the Luperci run about naked. 

The Lupercalia had, by Caesar’s time, also grown to incorporate an earlier festival called the Februalia, which was more strictly a purification ritual having to do, it seems, with spring cleaning and washing. The name of the month February (Februarius to the Romans) derives from this holiday. Perhaps in recognition of the connection, the strips of goat flesh used during the Lupercal were called februa. The Lupercalia was so popular that it hung on as a tradition in Rome long after the advent of Christianity. In 494 CE, the Pope finally took measures to halt the pagan practice (telling the wealthy men of Rome that they should go run naked in the streets themselves if they liked the holiday so much), transforming the Lupercalia into the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary — better known as Candlemas.

Shakespeare gives a fairly faithful rendition of the Lupercalia in Julius Caesar. Antony enters “for the course” (though presumably, in 1599, not naked or clad only in a goatskin loincloth — but if anyone knows of a production of the show that has had Antony appear in the historically-accurate altogether, I have a purely intellectual curiosity about such a staging). Caesar himself gives the audience a brief run-down of the ritual and its significance to the Roman populace:

CAESAR
[to Calphurnia]
Stand you directly in Antonio’s way,
When he doth run his course. Antonio.

ANTONY
Caesar, my lord?

CAESAR
Forget not, in your speed, Antonio,
To touch Calphurnia; for our elders say,
The barren, touched in this holy chase,
Shake off their sterile curse.

Though most of the events of the day occur off-stage, the narration of them closely resembles what Plutarch has to say about them. Antony, though consul at the time, did run with the luperci priests on that day (and earned criticism from the conservatives for what they saw as action too undignified for his rank). Shakespeare’s greatest aberration is that he conflates several days into one, merging the 44 BCE Lupercalia together with a series of triumphs that Caesar celebrated following his defeat of Pompey and Cato. The incidents involving Murellus and Flavius un-decorating Caesar’s statues and involving Antony attempting to give Caesar a crown both occurred on the Lupercalia of 44 BCE, a month before Caesar’s assassination. This was also the first day that he wore the purple toga of the Dictator-for-Life in public, a visible signal of his power that would have been unmistakable and tremendously significant for the Romans. By conflating this day with his triumphs — during which a Roman general was literally considered a god on earth — Shakespeare presents us at the top of the play with an image of Caesar at his utmost pinnacle, possessing more power and authority than any Roman man before him ever had.

The Capitoline Wolf, honoree of the Lupercalia

As with most cultural transmission, historians have trouble drawing any direct links between the Lupercalia and other social and religious  holidays, but there are a cluster of similarly-timed, similarly-themed festivals at this time of year. St. Valentine’s Day, Chinese New Year, Candlemas, Imbolc, and even Groundhog Day all speak in some way to rebirth and to the turning of the year, as the first hints of spring begin showing themselves (at least to those of us in temperate climes of the northern hemisphere). The sacred animal attached to the holiday was a goat for the Romans, a lamb for the Britons, a badger or a bear for the Teutons, and a groundhog for modern Americans. Each, in some way, either deals with weather prognostication or with ideas of nourishing milk and fertility (and some, like the lambs, cover both).

There is an interesting juxtaposition of the themes of purification and the themes of mating and fertility present in the various holidays celebrated at this time of year. The Lupercalia itself, thanks to the melding of traditions from the Februalia, mixed cleansing aspects and the sweeping of ashes with the ideas of conception and safe childbirth. The Celtic and Teutonic festivals of Imbolc all relate to the earth’s renewed fertility at this time of year, as visible by the lambing of ewes and the mating rituals of various animals. Though Candlemas, an answer to the Lupercalia, focuses on purification, another Christian holiday, St. Valentine’s Day, focused initially on marriage and now on love of all kinds (read about its history and development on the Intern Blog). St. Valentine’s also took on some of the connotations of mating in the animal world. As Shakespeare tells us in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, St. Valentine’s is traditionally when “woodbirds begin to couple.” Mardi Gras/Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday, which together mark the dualism of excess and indulgence contrasted to sobriety and spiritual purifying, often fall during this time of year as well, or else fairly early in March — and the incorporation of ashes into a religious purification ritual is something that Ash Wednesday shares with the Februalia.

The major instigation behind all of these holidays seems to be things, whether human or animal, floral or vegetable, natural or spiritual, in potential, not yet come to the full flourishing of the spring that we’ll celebrate in March and April with holidays like Easter, Ostara, Earth Day, and Arbor Day. These celebrations focus more on mating and pregnancy, less on birth (or rebirth). We clear away the snow and dead earth in preparation for flower buds and fresh plantings. Warmth and growth aren’t quite back yet — but we know they’re coming, and that is itself cause for merriment.

Whether or not any of these myriad traditions inherit from each other, there certainly seems to be something in the air at this time of year that affects the bent of human thoughts. Perhaps it’s just that, by mid-February, halfway between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox, the buzz of Christmas has long since worn off and the grey of winter seems too dreary to endure, so we’re all eager to hurry it on its way. Whether you’re sending Valentines this week, smudging ashes on your forehead, sweeping the dust out of your home, or looking forward to swapping out winter wools for spring sundresses, you’ll be part of traditions that stretch back not just hundreds but thousands of years.

Now, if you feel the best way to get in touch with your cultural ancestry this week is to run naked through the streets, it’s certainly not my place to judge (though your neighbors and local police department may feel differently). But, if you’d like to celebrate less ostentatiously (and with less potential for arrest, frostbite, or potentially-damning Youtube videos), come to the Blackfriars Playhouse this week to see Julius Caesar or one of the other shows of the Actors’ Renaissance Season.

"Not Amurath an Amurath succeeds, but Harry Harry": Political Rhetoric in Inaugural Speeches

Last week, America engaged in one of its grandest celebrations of the power of democracy: an inauguration ceremony. Amid the pomp, parading, and pontificating, I started thinking about transfers of power and assertions of the right to rule in Shakespeare. How do various rulers express themselves, what does a ruler’s first speech tell you about his or her intentions, and how can actors use that information on the stage?

I began with a rhetorical analysis of President Obama’s 2009 and 2013 inaugural addresses. (A note on attribution: While I am aware that the President employs speechwriters, since I don’t know how much of this might have been their work and how much was his input, I shall err on the side of treating the speaker as I would a character). What sticks out to me the most is that President Obama is a man who appreciates the Rule of Three. Tricolon, the repetition of words or syntactical structures in series of three, is a powerful device. The human brain likes sets of three, though the precise neurological reasons why this may be the case are indistinct. Three is enough items to define a series and show some sort of progression from start to middle to end, which may provide the brain’s reasoning powers with satisfaction (especially in persuasion or in comedy). It may also relate to human memory storage, as three seems to be  an ideal number for the brain to hang onto. President Obama uses this structure many times in both inaugural addresses. Examples often come in threes — “through Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall;” “from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia to the quiet lanes of Newtown” — as do predicates to a single opening subject: “We have always understood that when times change, so must we; that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges; that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.”

President Obama’s 2009 Inaugural Address

The President also has an interesting relationship with polysyndeton, the repetition of conjunctions, often buckling it together with the tricolon. When he speaks of the hardships the American people have faced in recent years, he often injects more conjunctions into his sentences: “these men and women struggled and sacrificed and worked;” “none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires and crippling drought and more powerful storms.” He also uses this when he talks in broad strokes about what the future will need (“We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil”) and when appealing to America’s plurality (“what binds this nation together is not the colors of our skin or the tenets of our faith or the origins of our names”). Using polysyndeton in this way underscores the tricolon, making the listener hear each unit separately. While it can often be a device which indicates a speaker’s lack of control over his words, President Obama’s employment seems deliberate. He seems to invoke it when he most wants to appeal to a sense of larger community, to the things that bind the entire country together, rather than those things which affect particular regions or groups. The expansiveness of the device mirrors the expansiveness of his message.

He also seems to appreciate anaphora, the repetition of beginning words, phrases, or structures — often in threes, as with “Together, we determined; Together, we discovered; Together, we resolved.” In his 2013 address, he begins many successive paragraphs with “We, the people,” invoking one of the most recognizable phrases related to our government and one which emphasizes the collective nature of the American populace. In what was probably the climactic paragraph, he used “our journey is not complete” five times, each with a predicate addressing a different challenge facing American citizens today. He also employs judicious use of epanorthosis, addition by correction, generally at the end of paragraphs, to strengthen a point already made or to add evocative details. That epanorthosis often blends with anadiplosis, repeating the last word or structure from the end of one phrase at the beginning of the next, a technique which chains thoughts together in a way that allows them to build and expand while still retaining a strong connection to the initial message.

President Obama’s 2013 Inaugural Address

The specific words which the President repeats are also significant. The Wordles of both speeches show, unsurprisingly, the repetition of words like “America,” “nation,” and “people.” What I find to be the interesting difference are the two words with the largest change between 2009 and 2013 — “new” and “must.” President Obama’s 2009 speech keyed in on the differences between what he offered and what the past eight years had been, as well as on the implications of America electing its first black President. “Newness” was a big deal in 2009. Now, in 2013, his message has shifted somewhat. “New” is still there, but smaller, while “must” has grown to be the largest and most-repeated word, outstripping even “America” and “nation.” The greater focus is on action — on what he believes America must do now to move forward. Other repeated words like “journey” and “requires” echo this shift from imagination to deed, from optimism to practicality, from the first step of a process to an effort begun but not yet completed.

So what is the ultimate synthesis of all of these devices? President Obama, in his inaugural addresses, speaks to the “united” part of United States, employing rhetorical figures which expand rather than those which narrow. He uses far more devices of repetition and addition than of omission; devices of direction tend to build or to create contrast, not to disrupt expected syntax structure; his devices of substitution mostly involve a typically political use of the passive voice, not a reliance on metaphors or symbolism. (See the OCS’s Roads to Rhetoric for more information on these categories). The overall effect is expansive and inclusive. His adherence to the Rule of Three not only creates harmony for his listeners’ brains, it also allows him to provide details in a meaningful way, calling on the experience of as much of the audience as possible and thus drawing them in to his message.

Despite the many transfers of power in Shakespeare’s plays, he rarely gives us a speech of the inaugural sort. More often, when a new king takes the throne, we next see him in conversation — either with his peers, his family members, or with dissolute characters that he needs to do terrible things for him. Only a few characters make public addresses, either to the court or the commons, immediately following their OCSension to the throne (and obviously, there are a few key differences between our method of choosing new rulers and the methods that typically occur in Shakespeare’s plays).

One of the most overt examples of this kind of speech in Shakespeare is, itself, a kind of second inauguration. In Henry VI, Part III, Edward IV does not give a big speech when he first takes the throne from Henry VI, but he does address the court when he wins it back after Henry’s brief reclaiming. The speech (left) is somewhat flowery, full of metaphors for his own party and for their vanquished foes. He arranges a series, listing those he has conquered. The series decreases in number, from threes to twos, but increases in nearness to himself, as he moves from those not directly related to him to his cousins Warwick and Montague. Edward provides each set of foes with a vivid descriptor of bravery and honor. Should an actor color these descriptions with pride, with regret, or with some combination of the two? Shakespeare leaves the choice of why Edward feels compelled to list his fallen enemies to us. Does he mark out these deaths because he feels secure now, or is he remembering how tenuous his hold on the throne has been? Is he more reminding himself or his audience?

He then abruptly turns personal, addressing himself not to the court at large but to his son in particular. Whether or not the conversation becomes private at this point or not, however, is a determination for an actor and a production. Edward could as easily be using the address to his son to underscore his own line of succession, demonstrating to all observers that he has reclaimed the throne not just for himself but for his dynasty, as he could be offering young Ned private advice. Is the shift in focus more personal or more political? Shakespeare leaves that open for our interpretation.

Perhaps the most famous political evader in all of Shakespeare is Claudius in Hamlet. Sarah and I frequently use him and his first public speech as king as an example of how Shakespeare uses rhetoric to demonstrate that a character is being deliberately difficult. Claudius comes to the throne under circumstances that would be awkward even if he weren’t a murderer: marrying his dead brother’s wife, leapfrogging over said dead brother’s legitimate son, and doing it all with unseemly haste. So when it comes time for Claudius to address his court, he does his best to bury the lead:

CLAUDIUS
Though yet of Hamlet our dear brother’s death
The memory be green, and that it us befitted
To bear our hearts in grief and our whole kingdom
To be contracted in one brow of woe,
Yet so far hath discretion fought with nature
That we with wisest sorrow think on him
Together with remembrance of ourselves.
Therefore our sometime sister, now our queen,
Th’imperial jointress to this warlike state,
Have we, as ’twere with a defeated joy,
With an auspicious and a dropping eye,
With mirth in funeral and with dirge in marriage,
In equal scale weighing delight and dole,
Taken to wife.

Claudius’s full text from Hamlet, 1.2

It’s no wonder that students take a look at that and panic, and I imagine Claudius’s courtiers would have been just as bemused by his linguistic acrobatics. I encourage students to untangle sentences like this when they encounter such disordered syntax (hyperbaton in general, or anastrophe, if only two words are inverted), to put them back together in the order that makes the most syntactical sense — and then to ask why Shakespeare, who was perfectly capable of writing simple sentences, chose to have a character speak in this fashion instead. In this case, that exercise would yield you something like “Discretion hath fought with nature so far that we think on Hamlet, our dear brother, with wisest sorrow together with remembrance of ourselves, though the memory of his death be yet green, and (though) it befitted us to bear our hearts in grief and (for) our whole kingdom to be contracted in one brow of woe. Therefore we have taken to wife our sometime sister, now our queen, the imperial jointress to this warlike state, as it were with a defeated joy, with an auspicious and a dropping eye, with mirth in funeral and with dirge in marriage, weighing delight and dole in equal scale.”

Even untangled, it’s a bit of a mess, but flattening out the kinks does help you to see exactly what Claudius has done, especially in the second sentence, where he moves the subject (“we”), verb (“have taken to wife”), and object (“our sometime sister, now our queen”) as far away from each other as possible and also puts them in the wrong order. By the time any listeners have ironed out what he said, he’s on to the next part of his speech, concerning a potential invasion by Fortinbras of Norway. It’s an impressive dodge, though not quite the sort of thing you’d hope for in a politician’s inaugural speech.

King Henry’s full text from Henry IV, Part 2, 5.2

Another semi-public speech has the ruler addressing the matter of his deceased predecessor, though less scurrilously than Claudius. In Henry IV, Part 2, the title character dies, allowing his son, Henry V, to take over. Father and son had a contentious relationship (in Shakespeare, at least, less so in history), but Henry didn’t murder him, so he has nothing to hide in this first speech. Henry’s challenge is rather to assert his authority when for so many years he has allowed both his family and the public to think of him as a wastrel. Now is the time to “pay the debt [he] never promised” back in Henry IV, Part 1. Similar to President Obama, Henry takes a few moments to set out what he intends, and he uses tricolon to do it: “And with his spirit sadly I survive, / To mock the expectation of the world, / To frustrate prophecies and to raze out / Rotten opinion, who hath writ me down / After my seeming.” We also see an example of polysyndeton in this speech: “Let us choose such limbs of noble counsel / That the great body of our state may go / In equal rank with the best govern’d nation; / That war or peace or both at once, may be / As things acquainted and familiar to us.”

Henry uses a lot of hyperbaton and anastrophe, but not in the way Claudius does, to tangle his meaning. The disorder rarely extends out of a single line or clause, and the irregularities are simple to understand and to unravel, unlike Claudius’s deliberate verbal entanglements. These inversions are of the pattern that Dr. Ralph Cohen has suggested are indicative of an education in Latin (a syntactically unfixed language, where adjectives generally follow nouns and verbs their objects), generally used in Shakespeare by rulers or by clergymen. They express formality, education, and high status; Henry begins with fewer of them and more of his old conversational tone, peppered with oaths and parentheticals, but as he transitions further into King Mode, he uses hyperbaton and anastrophe to signal both his awareness of his new status and his capacity to fulfill it.

Yet even with this intention, the erstwhile cheeky Prince Hal can’t seem to keep from messing around with people. In the first section of this scene (right), he addresses his brothers — several of whom have been more dutiful sons than he, the heir, had been. What’s most interesting to me in this segment are the frequent reversals. Look at all the times Henry begins a clause with “Yet” or “But.” Each of those marks a shift in focus, as Henry moves from telling his brothers to grieve, then not to grieve, then back again. Is this genuine conflicted emotion on Henry’s part, or is he yanking his brothers’ chains? It depends on the sort of Hal the production wants. He then moves on to mess with the Lord Chief Justice, feigning anger and resentment against him because the Justice brought the law down on Hal’s head in his younger days — only to perform a heel-face-turn after the Justice explains himself, commending the magistrate’s sense of duty and impartiality. The prince’s pranks were written in larger and cruder strokes, but Henry the King retains an impulse to manipulate people into corners to see how they will react (as we see further in Henry V, when he similarly tricks the soldier Williams). How much Henry is enjoying this is something the actor can use those “yets” and “buts” to show. The frequent diminutives, turning his proper name “Henry” into the informal “Harry,” play into this as well, undercutting his authority even as he asserts it. How much of an invitation to formality is this? He can call himself Harry, but how well would he take it from someone else, even one of his brothers? And how does it play different from when he calls himself Harry in front of his troops in Henry V? Those answers depend on the Henry in any given production, but the rhetoric devices in play indicate that, from the start of his reign, Henry seems determined to keep others on their toes.

Shakespeare also gives us one interesting female example of the assumption of power, and that in a comedy: the Princess-turned-Queen in Love’s Labour’s Lost. Her speech is not public in a grand proclamation sort of way, but nor is it entirely private. She addresses it largely to the King of Navarre, deferring his declarations of love until a more fitting time, but there are both nobles and commoners present as well, to witness her first moments as a sovereign monarch. She uses some of the same devices as Henry, particularly with regards to hyperbaton and anastrophe (“Your oath I will not trust”; “There stay”; “Change not”), but she also uses epizeuxis, immediate repetition, twice (“No, no” and “Challenge me, challenge me”). This forcefulness may be necessary to exert her will against a fellow monarch’s. Perhaps Navarre is trying to interject, but her repetition prevents him. Perhaps she has to reinforce these things for herself.

Whether a head of state has been democratically elected, taken a throne by force, or inherited it from a predecessor, his or her first official speech in office can bear great weight as the first chance to influence the public or to display newly-assumed power. What a ruler chooses to display — or to conceal — in that first public speech can provide a lot of character information about that figure (whether real or fictional), and examining the rhetoric of those speeches can help reveal those clues.

Adventures in Dramaturgy: Rehearsals – Special Effects

Just because the Blackfriars Playhouse is a theatre which embraces Shakespeare’s staging conditions doesn’t mean that we don’t use technology in our shows; it means that we use technology that would have been available to Shakespeare and his company, and in many cases, those techniques can produce dazzling effects. Watching the 2013 Actors’ Renaissance Season troupe rehearse Julius Caesar allowed me to see the wonderful resourcefulness and creativity that goes into creating a spectacle on the Blackfriars Playhouse stage.

Dan Kennedy and Rene Thornton Jr.;
photo by Jay McClure

I talked in my last blog post about the traffic patterns backstage, and those patterns are particularly important during the storm scene in Julius Caesar — which actually crosses over parts of four scenes, from 1.3 through 2.3. Even when only two or three characters appear on-stage, every actor in the troupe has something to do, either creating special effects or preparing to enter — or, very often, one and then the other, in rapid succession. It puts me in mind of a swimming swan: the surface image may be polished and serene, but underneath the water, there’s an energetic whorl of action. Conversations during the storm creation process then depended largely on who could be where when and for how long. Alli Glenzer, for example, is creating a visual effect using the Rose Window, which is a bit of a hike from the stage, and so she had to figure out how much of the storm she could create that effect for in order to leave her enough time to make her entrance in 2.1. Who could take over the thunder sheets so that Ben Curns could get downstairs for his entrance in 2.2? How long should the ocean drum keep going before it becomes distracting? Is this “thunder and lightning” cue long, short, or medium? The troupe had to negotiate all of these considerations to form a coherent scene.

Many of the special effects also demonstrate the benefit of a repertory troupe. While putting the storm together, I heard John Harrell say, “Remember what we discovered last year, about the bass on the piano?” He set to work re-creating that sound, and Friday night, I heard another audience member commenting on it as part of the soundscape. Other influences came from recent productions both in Ren Seasons and Summer and Fall Seasons, from The Tempest, from Dido, Queen of Carthage, from The Roman Actor. Conversely, for the battle noises in Act Five and the flourishes throughout, the troupe consciously chose not to use the same effects they have been using in the past. For four years now, the Ren Season has featured the three Henry VI plays and Richard III, and those plays have used similar soundscapes, creating a coherent thread throughout the tetralogy: identifiable trumpet calls for coming and going, the clashing of swords backstage accompanied by shouts to create the alarums. For Julius Caesar, the troop decided to use different musical cues for flourishes and to keep up a military stomping backstage during the battle scenes. The effect is striking, invoking the lock-step precision of the vast Roman legions without ever needing to see more than a few soldiers on-stage. The march took a lot of practice, though, and as Alli Glenzer pointed out, several scenes’ worth of stomping gave her character Strato a perfectly good reason to be falling asleep while Brutus is trying to find someone to assist his suicide. When the soldiers in 5.5 enter tired, the off-stage needs of the show have informed their on-stage performance in an unexpected way.

Ronald Peet, Chris Johnston, and Grant Davis; photo by Jay McClure

Almost all Shakespeare plays call for more sound cues than I think most of us are aware of when we just read the play, and it isn’t just for the “big” moments like storms or battles. All of those stage directions for flourish, sennet, tucket, alarum just sort of fade into the background. As I sat watching our troupe walk through the cue-to-cue Julius Caesar on the Thursday afternoon of their three-day rehearsal process, I became consciously aware of just how much has to go on back-stage to make the story on-stage make sense. In order for Cassius to say “the clock hath strucken three,” someone has to be upstairs striking a chime. Before Brutus can tell Lucius to see who’s at the gate, someone has to knock. Almost every scene has some such requirement, and at the OCS, none of those noises are electronically-generated or automated. Music forms part of the soundscape of the play as well, both during the pre-show and interlude and within the play itself. Julius Caesar opens with “Clap Your Hands” by The Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band, a wonderful piece which calls for clapping, stomping, and cheering from the audience, setting the mood perfectly for the jubilant chaos of the first scene. As Lucius in 4.2, Ronald Peet plays Aimee Mann’s “Wise Up” as a “sleepy tune,” and the lyrics (“It’s not what you thought when you first began it,” for example) perfectly suit Brutus’s increasingly difficult situation.

Not all of the special effects in Julius Caesar are auditory in nature or occur from off-stage. While in many plays, you can get away with leaving blood out of murders and battles, in this play, the text calls too much attention to the viscera. At least in Caesar’s assassination, the audience needs to see the red run. While some productions in recent decades have chosen to stylize the blood, using cloth or ribbons, our actors opted for liquid. It makes sense with the text, since Shakespeare makes so much of the ability of blood to transfer visibly from Caesar’s corpse onto various hands and daggers. In order for those “purpled hands” to “reek and smoke,” in order for Antony to shake all those “bloodied fingers,” the audience needs to see what a mess an assassination makes. Our Caesar, Ben Curns, worked with Costume Manager Erin West to create a trick shirt — identical to the white dress shirt he wears throughout the rest of the role, but in which he can conceal six blood packets, one for each conspirator. In Shakespeare’s day, these blood packets might have been actual bladders filled with pig’s blood procured from the local butcher’s shop. Today, we use a laundry-friendly syrupy solution.

Chris Johnston, Sarah Fallon, Ben Curns, Grant Davis,
and John Harrell; photo by Jay McClure

The effect when all six blood packets pop is delightfully gruesome, but getting all six to pop took some practice. It adds an additional level of difficulty to the combat of that scene — already tricky, given the number of people involved. Each of the actors not only has to be exquisitely precise about how they place their hands and daggers, but they have to find a way to squeeze, smack, twist, or otherwise puncture the blood packets, and they only have a brief second or two in which to do so. The picture at left shows what happened during the first attempt, when several of the cast members had trouble. By Saturday night, however, they had it — all of the packets popped to great effect, allowing Ben to clutch at his supposedly spilling guts, then touch René Thornton (playing Brutus), leaving a visible streak on his face. The conspirators had plenty of blood to bathe their hands in, and the scarlet sheen glinted off of their daggers. It makes their exit a more striking image, and I realized, from a practical standpoint, why Shakespeare might specify that they exit “waving [their] red weapons o’er [their] heads” — it keeps them from touching any doors or curtains before they have a chance to wash up. Caesar lay bleeding on the stage for several minutes more, and when Antony and a servant dragged him off at the end, a vivid smear trailed behind him.

These special effects under the creative constraints of Shakespeare’s staging conditions illustrate clearly the blend of practicality and theatricality that dictates production at the OCS all year, and which drives shows during the Ren Season in particular. The actors are looking for simple answers to their problems, yes, but without sacrificing impact to the audience. Sitting in the rehearsal room during the building of the storm, I could feel the actors’ excitement building over the discoveries they were making and the solutions they were building. There was a current of satisfaction as it came together, with several of the actors commenting on how very “cool” the effects were. This is part of why we, in OCS Education, encourage teachers to explore the value in Shakespeare’s technology. Sometimes the challenge of working as Shakespeare’s company would have yields results that are all the more impressive and more satisfying.

Adventures in Dramaturgy: Rehearsals – Taking Shape

Julius Caesar is now up on its feet, and as dramaturg, I bore witness to the orchestrated frenzy that put an entire show together in three days of rehearsal. For any readers unfamiliar with the OCS’s Actors’ Renaissance Season, it is the time of year when we employ some of Shakespeare’s rehearsal conditions in addition to the staging conditions that we embrace year-round. Our actors direct themselves, determine their own schedules, plan their own music for the preshow and interlude, pull their costumes from our stock — and do it all in a fraction of the rehearsal time as the shows in our Summer and Fall Seasons. Since we began the accelerated start-up and short rehearsal time for the first show of the Ren Season in 2009, that first show has typically been a popular comedy that our actors are familiar with and can put up quickly (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Twelfth Night, The Comedy of Errors, and Much Ado about Nothing). This year, the actors take a crack at Julius Caesar in the first slot, a show which was last performed by the 2006-2007 touring troupe, and which has not been part of a Summer and Fall Season since the opening of the Playhouse in 2002. This choice thus provided a few extra challenges for the troupe: a historical tragedy, complete with multiple fights, suicides, and an assassination involving a minimum of seven participants, and a show that the OCS has not put on since 2007.

Alli Glenzer, Dan Kennedy, and Ben Curns; photo by Jay McClure

Time is at a premium, particularly for the first show of the season. The troupe had eight hours Tuesday, eight hours Wednesday, and four hours Thursday before their first dress rehearsal, followed by another four hours to tweak and clean up on Friday before the first Pay-What-You-Will preview Friday night — and after opening weekend, there’s no respite, as they held their first read-through of The Country Wife Sunday evening. Scheduling becomes hugely important. For this show, one actor (René Thornton, playing Brutus) volunteered to take charge of plotting things out — and then made adjustments based on what the rest of the troupe thought necessary. As a sample, here’s the schedule for the first day of rehearsal:

10-10:45 – Morning Meeting
10:45-12 – violence – suicides, Caesar kill, Cinna the Poet, Act 5 skirmishes
12-12:30 – 1.1
12:30-1 – 1.2 A and C
1-2 – 1.2 B and D (stage) – music (Tyson)
2-3 – lunch break
3-3:30 – 2.1 C and D (stage) – 1.3 A and C (Tyson)
3:30-4:15 – 2.1 A and B
4:15-5 – 2.2 A (stage) – 4.2 B (Tyson)- 2.4 (lobby)
5-5:15 – 2.2 B
5:20-7 – 3.1 A-D

So that was the first half of the play, shot through in eight hours. The morning meeting was longer on the first day than any other, simply because it was the beginning of the season. The entire production team — including Artistic Director Jim Warren, Associate Artistic Director Jay McClure, Costume Shop Manager Erin West, Properties Manager Chris Moneymaker, and dramaturg yours truly — had some notes to give to start things out. They also started throwing together a music list on the whiteboard, knowing that music rehearsals during the Ren Season can often be catch-as-catch-can, and that the earlier they had some ideas to start on, the more prepared they could get by Friday.

This schedule also points to what the issues of largest and most pressing concern often are: the most complex scenes, with the most bodies on stage and with more elaborate blocking needs. Anything involving combat takes additional time to choreograph so that it will be both safe and entertaining. Ben Curns took responsibility for fights for this show and had already blocked some things out in his head, but they still needed to set aside a lot of time for the actors involved to learn the movements — and for adjustments to occur.

Sarah Fallon, Ben Curns, Rene Thornton Jr.; photo by Jay McClure

As I watched the rehearsals, the phrase I heard over and over again was: “That’s a shape.” The actors would invoke this phrase when they had gotten to the end of a scene with something workable, usually in regards to the blocking. The scene wasn’t finished, it wasn’t perfect, but it had a shape — a general outline, an idea of who needed to be where when. Hearing that phrase over and over again got me thinking about the ways in which shape and place matter, both on-stage and off-, during the Ren Season.

Often, more time goes into rehearsing entrances and exits than into the meat of the scene itself. (This only works, of course, because OCS actors are already well-trained in textual matters, and it’s part of the reason all members of ARS troupes are veterans of the Blackfriars Playhouse). Julius Caesar features a lot of group entrances and a lot of scenes with between 6 and 12 bodies on stage. Looking at that schedule for the first day shows that: 1.1 only has four characters on stage, but the audience is involved as well, one actor had to change into a costume from the pre-show, another had to get downstairs after playing music, and the actors had to negotiate props on top of it. 1.2 involves a ceremonial entrance and exit Caesar and his train, off-stage shouting, a flurried re-entry of all the characters who just went off, and their final exit. It also involves a long conversation between Brutus and Cassius, but, while René and Sarah Fallon worked that on their own, the most stage rehearsal time went to choreographing those group entrances and exits. 2.1 involves all of the conspirators coming to Brutus’s house — another mass entrance, with specific costume and prop needs — as does 2.2, and 3.1 is the largest scene in the play, with the most characters entering simultaneously, several exits and re-entrances, and, of course, the assassination of Caesar. (1.3 through 2.3 also involve a storm, but more on that in another blog post). And that’s just Day One — the second half of the play features the famous plebeian mob and a whole lot of combat.

It takes a lot of work and communication to make all of that run smoothly — and actors won’t always nail it on the first try. Some of those entrances they re-worked Friday afternoon, after the dress rehearsal, and some they tweaked along the way. The flow on-stage isn’t the only problem, after all, and some issues only became apparent during the dress. Grant Davis and Ronald Peet, for example, realized that they needed more time after their exit in 1.1, so on Friday afternoon, they worked with Alli Glenzer and Dan Kennedy to figure out a way to hustle them off-stage faster, giving them more time to change. Other problems are architectural in nature, examples of the space itself influencing the work. Greg Phelps, as Antony in 3.2, only has about two lines to get from the balcony down to the stage, and he has to be there in time for the plebs to notice him and crowd around him. The plebeians had to test out a few different ways of delivering their lines in a way that gave Greg enough time to get down the stairs. Altogether, they probably spent more time on 3.2 than on any other scene in the play. The timing of the plebeians’ responses and movements has to be so precise in order to work the way they were hoping for, and as a further complication, many of the lines sound so similar or provide repeated cues. “Wow. That’s a lot of ‘will’s,” Greg observed in the middle of one sequence where he heard the word “will” from the plebs eight times, correctly cuing him only twice out of the eight. Finding the right rhythm for the scene took quite a bit of time, effort, and reiteration, but the resulting shape drives the audience along an exhilarating path.

Greg Phelps, Tracie Thomason, Abbi Hawk, and Grant Davis;
photo by Jay McClure

Blocking is a concern off-stage as well. Traffic patterns backstage can be as complex as those on-stage. Especially during Act 5, which involves a lot of rapid entrances and exits, skirmishes, and dragging dead bodies off-stage, I heard the actors discussing who could be in the discovery space or not at which times. But beyond that, the space in the rest of the theatre matters as well. As anyone who has ever taken a Playhouse Tour knows, the actors and production team arrange props and costumes methodically backstage. Chris Moneymaker had to remember to move the ARS props-gathering table away from the area of Tyson inhabited by the Tempt Me Further tour until they head back out on the road, to avoid any collisions or mix-ups.  I heard John Harrell refer to the “band corner” — a section of the downstairs area set aside during this time for instruments and music rehearsals. All of these little considerations build together into the background flow of the play, the moving pieces that the audience never sees but which are absolutely critical to a smooth performance.

Throughout the rehearsal process, what struck me most was the blend of communication and organization that makes the Ren Season run. These actors work well together and share a common language, making them a well-oiled machine — even though this precise troupe has never worked together before. Sarah and Dan are returning after seasons away from the OCS, and Ronald, Grant, Abbi Hawk, and Tracie Thomason were all here in 2012 but are new to the Ren Season. The OCS embraces the ensemble nature of theatre and performs in repertory year-round, but the Ren Season brings all of the necessary components into sharper focus. The result is a season unlike any other, full of its own special (and sometimes frenetic) energy.

OCS Education in 2013

As we wrap up another great year at the American Shakespeare Center, we’re gearing up to offer even bigger and better programming in 2013 (and beyond). Here’s a sneak peek at what we’ll be bringing you over the next twelve months:

  • The No Kidding Shakespeare Camp: London Edition: This adventure is something we’ve been wanting to do for several years now. Dr. Ralph Alan Cohen, drawing on his experience founding JMU’s Studies Abroad program and leading overseas trips for many years. This program will focus on Shakespeare’s London and the theatrical joys of the modern city. Highlights will include the Globe Theatre, the Museum of London, the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, Regent’s Park, walking tours of important neighborhoods, a day trip to Oxford, and visits to some of London’s finest pubs. Registration is now open, and we would love for you to join us next summer.
  • From Class to Cast: 2013 Summer Teacher Seminar: With NKSC heading overseas, we’re expanding our Summer Teacher Seminar to a three-day adventure in the mechanics of putting together a play in your classroom. From cutting, doubling, and casting to costume considerations to the language work that forms the basis of all of the OCS’s productions, we will walk teachers through some techniques to get Shakespeare’s plays up on their feet and into their students’ bodies.
  • The 7th Blackfriars Conference: Our biennial celebration of Shakespeare, his contemporaries, and the early modern theatrical world will take place 23-27 October 2013. The gathering will honor George Walton Williams IV and will include keynote addresses from Russ McDonald, Ann Thompson, and Peter Holland, among others. Registration and Abstract Submission are now open.
  • Conferences: Members of OCS Education will make appearances at the Shakespeare Theatre Association conference and at Shakespeare Works When Shakespeare Plays at UC-Davis in January, at the Shakespeare Association of America conference in April.
  • Even more new and improved OCS Study Guides: In 2013, our Lulu offerings will expand to include Othello and The Merry Wives of Windsor, with mini-guides on All’s Well That Ends Well and Henry IV, Part 1. I’ll also be updating As You Like It and Romeo and Juliet with some fresh new activities.
  • More Education Artists — meaning more programming for you: Sarah and I spent a week in December training and auditioning new Education Artists, and once they are settled in, they’ll be helping us out with workshops, Little Academes, Educational Residencies, Leadership Programming, and much more. Together, we will welcome colleges from all over the country to the Blackfriars Playhouse, including old friends from James Madison University, the Federal Executive Institute, Grove City College, the University of South Dakota, Indiana Wesleyan, and International Paper. Remember, we also take this show on the road with Leadership Programming in Germany and more residencies on the books in 2013.
  • A plethora of pre-show entertainment: Our Dr. Ralph Presents Lectures and Inside Plays Workshops will begin again in just a few weeks with insights into the plays of the Actors’ Renaissance Season. Join us select Wednesdays and Thursdays throughout the year at 5:30pm to brush up your knowledge of old favorites or to get an introduction to unfamiliar works. Podcasts of these lectures and our Actor-Scholar Councils will also be available to further enhance your play-viewing pleasure.
  • Slightly Skewed Shakespeare: The 2013-2014 Staged Reading series will feature works that are familiar yet off-kilter, almost-but-not-quite the Shakespearean plays you love and recognize. Join us for the First Quarto of Romeo and Juliet, the forgery Vortigern and Rowena, Nahum Tate’s infamous adjustment of King Lear, and the anonymous history The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth.
  • OCS Theatre Camp: This year’s campers will explore Pericles, As You Like It, Richard II, The Taming of the Shrew, John Fletcher’s The Wild Goose Chase, and Ben Jonson’s Volpone. Registration is now open.
  • Student Matinees: In 2013, we’ll be offering nine titles: Julius Caesar and Henry VIII in the Actors’ Renaissance Season, Twelfth Night and Love’s Labour’s Lost in the Spring Season, Romeo and Juliet, All’s Well That Ends Well, and Troilus and Cressida in the Fall Season, and A Christmas Carol in the Holiday Season, with a special preview of Spring 2014’s Othello.
A very happy New Year to you all — we look forward to seeing you at the Blackfriars Playhouse in 2013!

Cakes and Ale: Christmastide and Twelfth Night in Early Modern England

While modern culture in the West has extended the holiday season backwards to Thanksgiving (and, at least judging by many big box retailers, all the way to November 1st), our medieval and early modern ancestors instead pushed the celebration later, into January. The four weeks before Christmas, during which we now haul out the holly and deck the halls, were the season of Advent, distinct from Christmas and bearing a rather less celebratory feel. Advent was a time of preparation — specifically, preparation for the Second Coming of Christ, while thinking about his first visit to the earth. Most of December, therefore, was liturgically a time for spiritual contemplation and solemnity. Fridays and Saturdays during Advent were times of fasting and abstinence, and some traditions extended this self-denial to the entire season. The Christmas season did not properly begin until Christmas Eve, and it culminated in Epiphany Eve, or Twelfth Night.

The Twelve Days of Christmas that we all know from the carol were originally all feast days belonging to specific saints, beginning with the Feast of St. Stephen (think of Good King Wenceslas going out to visit the poor) on December 26th. Other honorees during this time included St. John the Evangelist, St. Sylvester, an early pope, and, pertinent for enthusiasts of English history, St. Thomas Becket, whose martyrdom in 1170 (as OCS patrons who saw The Lion in Winter this past fall may remember) was considered such a horror that ecclesiastical authorities kept the commemoration of his death on the day it took place, rather than moving it outside of Christmastide, as would have been common practice. Other days commemorated Jesus’s circumcision and naming, which, while not as obviously celebratory, are interesting because they point toward the idea of Jesus as a living human, subject to the same customs as other Jewish males of his era. Prayer during Christmastide was joyful rather than somber, and the two weeks from Christmas Eve to Epiphany Eve were a time for rest from labor, for feasting, and for revelry. Gift exchange took place either on New Year’s Day or on Epiphany itself, mimicking the visitation of the myrrh-, frankincense-, and gold-bearing Magi.

Most of Twelfth Night’s traditions were food-and-drink-related, with fruits, cakes, and wassail particularly popular gastronomical focuses. January 5th was the day to eat and drink everything that had been prepared during the Christmastide season, as well as the last day to enjoy the festive decorations. The tradition of taking down Christmas decorations on Epiphany, January 6th, persisted into colonial America, and many still observe it to the modern day, considering it unlucky to leave decorations up any longer. Some of the traditions of Twelfth Night have, over the centuries, drifted into other holidays. Several early modern sources describe the baking of a Twelfth Night cake with a bean, a pea, or a penny inside of it. Whoever found the errant item in his slice would be proclaimed king for the day — a tradition with roots in the Roman festival of Saturnalia, but which has since become attached instead to Mardi Gras celebrations on the eve of Lent. In some countries, the season of Epiphany was also the season of Carnival, which may explain the tradition’s unmooring from Twelfth Night and getting stuck onto Mardi Gras instead. The extension of celebrations throughout the winter also makes logical sense for agricultural societies, where there was less work to do in the cold, barren months, and when people may have had greater need for good cheer.

Stephanie Holladay Earl as
Olivia in 
Twelfth Night.
Photo by Michael Bailey.

So what does any of this have to do with Shakespeare’s play? Certainly a production could choose to set Twelfth Night during Twelfth Night, but nothing in the play necessitates that association. No dialogue refers to the holiday or gives any indication of the season, and the secondary title, What You Will, seems more appropriate both for the content of the play and as a sly bawdy joke in the same style as the other “festive” comedies, Much Ado about Nothing and As You Like It. The title might indicate that the Chamberlain’s Men originally performed the play on Twelfth Night, but the earliest recorded performance isn’t until Candlemas, February 1st, 1602. Was there an earlier performance that went unrecorded? Perhaps, and plays were certainly popular entertainment at court during Christmastide – but we don’t know for sure. There are a few thematic similarities between the events of the play and the traditions of the holiday, but you have to squint and tilt your head a little sideways to see them. Toby and Andrew’s cheerful inebriation would certainly fit with Christmastide celebrations, but it hardly seems a holiday-only indulgence for them. Viola’s cross-dressing and Malvolio’s determination to turn from steward to lord might be seen as reflecting the up-ending of social order that attended some Christmastide traditions such as the bean-finding or the Feast of Fools, but the connection is tenuous, particularly given those themes’ prevalence in other plays as well. The criticism of Malvolio’s revel-hating ways (“Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?”) may bear some relevance to the Protestant tendency to pull away from the festivals that they saw as tainted by Catholic idolatry, but that religious trend did not become pronounced for a few more decades, peaking under the Commonwealth’s outright banning of the Christmas holidays, and so it seems a more general indictment of Puritan hypocrisy. The threads of connection may be present, but they’re definitely frayed. If nothing else, though, the title of Twelfth Night has helped to keep the idea of the holiday more prominently in the public consciousness than it might otherwise be.

At the OCS, we carry the spirit of celebration with us year-round, with performances at the Blackfriars Playhouse 52 weeks a year — Advent, Christmastide, and Epiphany all included. Our Holiday Season shows, A Christmas Carol, The Santaland Diaries, and The Twelve Dates of Christmas continue through December 28th, and on the last weekend of the year, you can catch our Tempt Me Further shows before they head back out on the spring leg of the tour: Love’s Labour’s Lost, The Duchess of Malfi, and, of course, Twelfth Night. Then join us January 4th as we open our 2013 Actors’ Renaissance Season with Julius Caesar. Whatever and however you celebrate, we at the OCS hope that you have a lovely holiday season. Cheers!

Adventures in Dramaturgy: The Packet

I recently completed one of my Big Projects for the year, and it was one that was a little new and different for me — a dramaturgy packet for use in the Actors’ Renaissance Season production of Julius CaesarI was excited to tackle it, since Caesar is a pet favorite play of mine. I have a strong classical background in addition to my early modern training, which made dramaturging this show a natural fit for me. The interpersonal contortions of loyalty that surround the assassination of Julius Caesar make this period of classical history particularly fOCSinating. Revisiting my old Roman buddies was (as anyone who passed my desk while I was working on the project could attest) a giddy delight for me. 

The primary challenge with creating packet for the ARS is figuring out how much of which information to present. Everything needs to be streamlined for maximum efficiency and useful for the actors — playable information, not details that have no bearing on the production.
So, however interesting I may find the nuances of the Roman political system or maps of the city in the first century BCE, those are not things that are as likely to help the actors. On the other hand, a brief explanation of the cursus honorum, the sequence of term-limited political offices a Roman man would aspire to hold, can provide helpful information about status in the same way that the more familiar ranks of English nobility can, if I present it in the right way. I settled on an annotated diagram (right, original from vroma.org), depicting not only the levels of offices, but which characters hold which offices at the time of the play, and which offices they’ve held before. Hopefully this will help to translate the relative power dynamics into terms that the actors can use on stage. Relationships are also important; several actors have mentioned in conversation or in podcasts that knowing who was related to whom helped during the Henry VI plays, so I created a family tree for the important members of the Roman elite. As it turns out, nearly all the major figures in Julius Caesar are connected through blood or marriage as well as politically, causing Sarah to refer to the play as “really the world’s worst family reunion.”

There are also ways in which Julius Caesar gives me a little more leeway to provide historical information than some other plays might, because Shakespeare adheres more nearly to his sources (mostly Plutarch) here than he does almost anywhere else. Compared to his English histories, Julius Caesar is practically a documentary. For that reason, I’ve done a lot with those original sources, pointing out scenes and lines that seem to come straight out of Plutarch or Appian, but I’ve also included some of the corollary information that doesn’t make it directly into the play, but might still be helpful — like popular perceptions of Cassius’s character or the chaos of the assassination scene. Consider this description from Plutarch’s Life of Brutus:

As Caesar entered, the senate rose in his honour, but as soon as he was seated the conspirators surrounded him in a body, putting forward Tullius Cimber of their number with a plea in behalf of his brother, who was in exile. The others all joined in his plea, and clasping Caesar’s hands, kissed his breast and his head. At first, Caesar merely rejected their pleas, and then, when they would not desist, tried to free himself from them by force. At this, Tullius tore Caesar’s robe from his shoulders with both hands, and COCSa, who stood behind him, drew his dagger and gave him the first stab, not a deep one, near the shoulder. Caesar caught the handle of the dagger and cried out loudly in Latin: “Impious COCSa, what doest thou?” Then COCSa, addressing his brother in Greek, bade him come to his aid. And now Caesar had received many blows and was looking about and seeking to force his way through his assailants, when he saw Brutus setting upon him with drawn dagger. At this, he dropped the hand of COCSa which he had seized, covered his head with his robe, and resigned himself to the dagger-strokes. The conspirators, crowding eagerly about the body, and plying their many daggers, wounded one another, so that Brutus also got a wound in the hand as he sought to take part in the murder, and all were covered with blood.

Compare that to 3.1 of Julius Caesar:

CAESAR
Are we all ready? What is now amiss
That Caesar and his senate must redress?
METELLUS CIMBER
Most high, most mighty, and most puissant Caesar,
Metellus Cimber throws before thy seat
An humble heart,–
CAESAR
I must prevent thee, Cimber.
These couchings and these lowly courtesies
Might fire the blood of ordinary men,
And turn pre-ordinance and first decree
Into the law of children. Be not fond,
Thy brother by decree is banished:
If thou dost bend and pray and fawn for him,
I spurn thee like a cur out of my way.
Know, Caesar doth not wrong, nor without cause
Will he be satisfied.
METELLUS CIMBER
Is there no voice more worthy than my own
To sound more sweetly in great Caesar’s ear
For the repealing of my banish’d brother?
BRUTUS
I kiss thy hand, but not in flattery, Caesar;
Desiring thee that Publius Cimber may
Have an immediate freedom of repeal.
CAESAR
What, Brutus?
CASSIUS
Pardon, Caesar; Caesar, pardon:
As low as to thy foot doth Cassius fall,
To beg enfranchisement for Publius Cimber.
CAESAR
I could be well moved, if I were as you:
If I could pray to move, prayers would move me:
But I am constant as the northern star,
Of whose true-fix’d and resting quality
There is no fellow in the firmament.
The skies are painted with unnumber’d sparks,
They are all fire and every one doth shine,
Yet in the number I do know but one
That unassailable holds on his rank,
Unshaked of motion: and that I am he,
Let me a little show it, even in this;
That I was constant Cimber should be banish’d,
And constant do remain to keep him so.
CINNA
O Caesar,–
CAESAR
Hence; wilt thou lift up Olympus?
DECIUS
Great Caesar,–
CAESAR
Doth not Brutus bootless kneel?
COCSA
Speak, hands for me.
           They stab CAESAR.
CAESAR
Et Tu Brute? ———– Then fall, Caesar.

This comparison shows how close Shakespeare’s version of the scene is to the historical record, but also how much he leaves to the actors to choreograph. Would his original company have been familiar enough with Plutarch’s version of events (and Appian’s, and Suetonius’s, and Nicolaus of DamOCSus’s) to fill in the gaps? I don’t know. It’s as possible that they did as that they didn’t. Our actors may find some details helpful or inspirational but others irrelevant or impractical. My job is just to present the information so that they can make those choices — and I know I can’t wait to see how they handle this moment.

Of course, Shakespeare being Shakespeare, he still takes some liberties. Between 3.3 (Cinna the Poet) and 4.1 (the Second Triumvirate in action), he jumps several years and an entire war that occurred as Antony and Octavius struggled for control of Caesar’s legacy. Why does Shakespeare do this? I’m not sure. It certainly helps to focus the action more on Brutus and Cassius, augmenting the idea that this is really Brutus’s tragedy, not Caesar’s, and it blunts some of the political complexities of the situation. So how much do the actors need to know about what happens during that interlude? I’ve tried to summarize as succinctly as possible, including links to the (vast wealth of) information in Plutarch, should any of the key players involved in those dynamics be interested in exploring that further. Mostly what they need to know, however, is that Antony and Octavius are only tenuous allies, with plenty of bad blood already between them.

Another problem with any history play is how much background information to give on events that occur before the play begins. How much do the actors need to know about Caesar’s conquests or his war with Pompey? By the time the play opens, after all, Caesar has already subjugated Gaul and Pompey is already dead. Pompey never appears on stage, even as a corpse, but many characters do refer to him, from the first scene onward. Murellus berates the commoners for cheering the man who “comes in triumph over Pompey’s blood” when previously they had cheered Pompey with equal fervor. The conspirators and Antony clearly tell us that Caesar dies in Pompey’s Theatre, at the feet of Pompey’s statue, even though no statue would exist on a bare stage like that of Shakespeare’s Globe or our Blackfriars Playhouse. These details, I think, mean that Pompey has some lingering, ghost-like relevance in the play — relevance that Shakespeare’s actors and audiences would likely have been more aware of, since the Roman greats were more common reading then than they are today. Similarly, some information on Caesar’s conquests may help to explain why he was such a big deal, why the conspirators hated him so much, and whose allegiances shifted away from Caesar over time. But, again, I don’t want to overload with details that really have no bearing on the events of the play — so summary again becomes important.

After determining what information I wanted to provide, I had to figure out how to present it in a way that maximized its usefulness for the troupe. After a few introductory sections, the bulk of the guide is a scene-by-scene breakdown of questions that the play raises. The lovely Miriam Burrows furnished me with the idea to create a secondary table of contents, listing information by character rather than by topic. I also listed the relevant characters at the top of each page in the scene breakdown, and the bibliography includes annotations for each character. I hope that this system of cross-referencing will help the actors get to the information they need quickly, without bogging them down in information that has no direct relevance for them.

Some dramaturgy packets, especially if they need to help design teams as well as actors, will include extensive image galleries with information about costumes, settings, character appearances, and previous productions of the play. These details have less relevance at the OCS, particularly in a Ren Season production. While I did include a short image gallery in the packet itself, I decided to place the bulk of visual information on a Pinterest board. This not only cuts down on the length and file size of the packet, it also allows me a little more freedom with what I include: original Roman frescos, sculptures, and mosaics; pictures of modern re-enactors; maps and landscapes; and a few screencaps from HBO’s Rome (because I just can’t help myself). Some of the actors may not be interested in this sort of visual inspiration, but it may help others, especially when they go to pull costumes. Even if they don’t go the traditional toga-route, the colors and fabrics may still help them when they start thinking about what clothes will best communicate their characters to the audience.

Rehearsals for Julius Caesar start on New Year’s Day, so my next Adventure in Dramaturgy will be sitting in the room while the actors work, ready to answer any questions that may come up on the fly. I’m already planning out ways to pre-load my dashboard with the major sources and pertinent links in order to maximize my usefulness to our troupe. Check back in January for my thoughts about sitting in on rehearsals, and be sure to come see Julius Caesar and the other shows in our always-exciting Actors’ Renaissance Season.

Adventures in Dramaturgy: Patterns in History

Having completed this year’s Study Guides, I am now neck-deep in dramaturgical work — and happy as the proverbial clam about it. Dramaturgy is particularly important when the play is itself a historical one, not only for the context of the history depicted, but also for the early modern context in which the author was writing. The actors need to know how their characters relate to each other, what the story of the play covers, and what conflations, adjustments, or flat-out errors there might be in the playwright’s version of events, but it may also be helpful to know what societal and cultural conditions the playwright might have been reacting to — or contributing to. Knowing what broader conversation the play might have been a part of in its own day can help actors to tell the story most effectively to a modern audience.

The past two weeks, I have been working simultaneously on the packets for the upcoming Actors’ Renaissance Season’s Julius Caesar and for the Staged Reading of Edmund Ironside. Though these both involve similar kinds of research pertaining to historical events, primary documents, and chains of cause-and-effect, they’ve been quite different experiences for me based on my level of familiarity with the periods involved. As I am half a classicist, researching Julius Caesar has been a dream — going back to Plutarch, Appian, and Suetonius is like visiting old friends, and since I mostly have the storyline set in my memory, compiling the packet has been more a task of confirming my sources and pulling juicy quotes out of them.

Researching Edmund Ironside, however, drew me into a period of history I did not previously know that much about: the late-10th and early-11th century, in the decades leading up to the arrival of William the Conqueror. Even in my medieval history courses in undergrad, it’s something that tends to get skipped over between the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of the Plantagenets. We get a brief nod to the various invading tribes, a mention of Alfred the Great “unifying” England (though it had an appalling tendency to fall right back apart again), and then we skip merrily on to the Norman Conquest. The Danelaw was something I had seen on maps but never really understood, and the transmission of the crown remained incredibly murky. I had a lot further to go on my own knowledge of the background to this play before I could convey any of it usefully to actors.

Primary sources from this period are few and far between, so I couldn’t jump to those as readily as I could for Julius Caesar, and even secondary sources are less easy to get one’s hands on. I found I was able to rely on two excellent podcasts: The History of England and Rex Factor (both of which I can highly recommend to any English history enthusiasts). Leaning on their guidance, I was able to sort out this series of events leading up to the events of Edmund Ironside:

  • Edgar the Peaceful of the House of Wessex reigns over the Kingdom of England for sixteen years. He re-conquers the Danelaw, a section of England long held by the Danish, and manages to unite England under Anglo-Saxon rule. 
  • Upon his death, his nobles quarrel over which of his sons, Edward or Aethelred, should succeed. Though Edward was older, he was possibly illegitimate and Aethelred’s mother was perceived as Edgar’s “true wife”. 
  • Edward manages to seize power and is crowned by two archbishops. His reign is marked by famine and “manifold disturbances”. 
  • Edward gets himself murdered in 978, for reasons that are unclear. It is possible that Queen Aelfthryth, Aethelred’s mother, helped in the plot. 
  • Younger brother Aethelred takes over, possibly only about 12 years old at the time. 
  • In 980, Danish raiders start raiding the English coast. 
  • Over the next decade, they win more territory and crush the English armies at the Battle of Maldon in 991. Aethelred then begins paying Denmark tribute. 
  • Aethelred marries Aelgifu, daughter of the Earl of Northumbria. They have ten children; the most important son will be Edmund, later called Ironside, third-born. 
  • Peace lasts for a few years, but in 997, the raiding starts up again, and in 1001, a large Danish fleet lands in southeastern England.
  • In 1002, Aethelred orders a massacre of all Danes in England – despite not having control of nearly a third of the country at that time. The King of Denmark at this time was Sweyn Forkbeard, and his sister was killed during the massacre, prompting his full-scale invasion of England. 
  • Aethelred marries Emma of Normandy (linking the English throne for the first time to the Dukes of Normandy). They have three children: Edward, Aelfred, and Goda. 
  • Over the next several years, the Danes re-establish the Danelaw, and in 1013, they overwhelm the English entirely, forcing Aethelred into exile in Normandy. 
  • Sweyn dies suddenly in 1014. 
  • Danish lords immediately swear allegiance to his son Canute (though only in England; his older brother Harald became King of Denmark), but the English noblemen begin work to restore Aethelred. 
  • Aethelred launches a counter-offensive against Canute and his allies, and within two months of his father’s death, Canute withdraws from England to avoid open war. 
  • In 1015, Aethelred’s son Edmund Ironside rebels against his father and sets himself up in control of the former Danelaw – where the people had come to hate both Aethelred and Canute equally. 
  • Canute goes on to conquer most of the rest of England. 
  • Edmund rejoins his father to defend London shortly before Aethelred dies in 1016. 
  • Edmund and Canute declare open war.

Not to spoil something that happened nearly a thousand years ago, but Canute eventually prevails. Twenty years later, however, control of the English crown ended up reverting back to the Saxon descendants of old Aethelred, simply because they ran out of qualified Danes. The dynastic victory was short-lived, however; Edward the Confessor (an overly pious and weak-willed king who would set the form for Richard II and Henry VI) did not have issue of his own and failed to specify an heir. The Saxon Earls of Wessex seized control based off of an ambiguous gesture the dying king may or may not have made, supposedly indicating Harold Godwinson as his heir. Edward had feared that family’s power, however, and had not liked Earl Godwin personally, and so had spent much time cultivating relationships in Normandy, where he had grown up in exile. Duke William felt sure that Edward had intended the crown for him — and thus began the invasion which marks the start of English history as most of us know it.

At the heart of all of this is a succession problem — something that plagued the English time and again. We tend to look back at history through a filter, and what several centuries of more-or-less unchallenged succession have taught us is that the oldest son of the king gets to be king when Dad dies — and if there’s no son, then it’s the oldest daughter. Simple and straightforward. But this wasn’t always the case, and the English had to spend a few hundred years sorting out how their succession would work. The Germanic tradition, which caught on in much of Europe following the collapse of the Roman Empire, was to divide property more or less equally between all of one’s sons, and to dower daughters accordingly, so that they would take property with them to their husbands. This splitting, recombining, and sub-splitting of property is how the Holy Roman Empire ended up its hundreds of kingdoms and fiefdoms, and how the prolific French kings were frequently ending up with more Ducs-royales than they knew what to do with.

In English succession, well into the 15th century, might tended to make right. The tradition capped off by Henry Tudor had its roots here, centuries earlier. English law’s ambiguity on this matter had led to trouble again and again: Aethelred and Edward the Confessor created similar problems to those of Henry I (when his male heir died unexpectedly and he tried to leave the kingdom to his daughter Matilda, his nobles rebelled and chose his nephew Stephen instead, leading to a decades-long civil war), Henry II (you can see his troubles on-stage in The Lion in Winter), Edward III (his male heir died, and no one quite seemed certain if it should pass to his young grandson or to an adult, capable son), Henry V (died young, leaving his 9-month-old son King, with a host of bickering uncles ready to fight for control), and Henry VIII (had trouble conceiving a male heir, had to change the entire course of English religion in order to get one). The cycles repeat themselves in almost alarmingly similar patterns.

As Elizabeth Tudor entered her dotage with no direct heir-apparent, the future of England was again uncertain, as it had been so many times in the past. The English populace was restless, and not without cause, particularly for those who knew their history. During this period, a spate of plays crop up dealing with previous iterations of the succession crisis, perhaps reflective of London’s mood towards the end of the 1590s. Edmund Ironside fits in nicely to the set, focusing not only on the importance of designating a clear heir, but with the added bonus of using patriotic themes to emphasize the need to pick one without too many troublesome continental entanglements. It’s interesting to me to be looking at these plays and these historical cycles now as an American. We may not have issues of primogeniture or hereditary succession to worry about, but we’re definitely currently concerned with the succession of control of our government.

This Sunday, October the 28th, you can see two succession-oriented plays on stage at the Blackfriars Playhouse: come for the 2pm matinee of King John and stay for the 7:30pm Staged Reading of Edmund Ironside. The Staged Reading is Pay-What-You-Will and open to the public, so we hope to see you there!

"Some to the common pulpits and cry out": Political Rhetoric (Part 1)

Every four years, it becomes a really great time to be a rhetoric geek.

My head got turned to this topic by an article from the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Affairs detailing the differences in structure between Michelle Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention last week and Ann Romney’s speech at the Republican National Convention the week before. As measured by the Flesh-Kincaid readability levels, Ann Romney “set a record for delivering a speech written at the lowest grade level in convention history by the wives of presidential nominees,” speaking on a 5th-grade reading level, while Michelle Obama broke the record for highest grade level in a spousal convention speech, above the 12th-grade level. Flesh-Kincaid mainly measures by words in a sentence and syllables in a word, looking at those complexities to determine readability. Despite this higher difficulty level, however, Mrs. Obama received rave reviews of her speech, even from conservatives. Though pundits and audiences alike gave both women favorable ratings, Michelle Obama’s speech seems to have had broader appeal, in spite of — or perhaps because of — its greater complexity.

Looking at Wordles of the two speeches reveals that the higher rating for Mrs. Obama seems to come from longer sentences and more complex sentence structure, not necessarily more difficult or more polysyllabic words. Both speeches have accessible vocabulary, and, as is so often the case with political speeches, they share a lot of key words between them. Ann Romney and Michelle Obama both also have idiosyncratic verbal tics that slip into their sentences — for Mrs. Romney, it’s “just;” for Mrs. Obama, “you see.”

Ann Romney’s speech at the RNC, 28 August 2012
Michelle Obama’s speech at the DNC, 4 September 2012
In addition to the lower Flesh-Kincaid rating, Mrs. Romney’s speech is also rhetorically simpler. She uses a lot of repetition — not in of itself a bad thing. Devices of repetition can be hugely significant and, when used skillfully, immensely persuasive. But Mrs. Romney failed to structure her repetitions in a fruitful way. They come either at rote, simple anaphora at the beginning of successive phrases, unmatched with any devices of direction like auxesis or chiasmus that could drive a persuasive point, or else they come at random, entirely devoid of pattern. This method of structuring a speech actually fights against the brain. If you intentionally break a pattern, the brain will latch on to the “one of these things that’s not like the other;” if you never set a clear pattern to begin with, however, the brain will spend a lot of energy trying to figure it out or to force one — and that can be subconsciously frustrating. The brain likes harmony, and when devices of repetition set it up to expect a pattern but none emerges, that discord can create negative emotions rather than positive ones.

Her devices of addition also create a similar problem. While doing the markup of Ann Romney’s speech, I sometimes found it difficult to find the end of a parenthetical phrase. The delineation between main thought and sidebar was not always clear. That lack of distinction is something else that challenges the brain in a non-productive way; when it has to work too hard to untangle a sentence’s syntax, it stops listening to what meaning those words are actually conveying. That can be an effective speaking technique if (like Claudius in 1.2 of Hamlet), you want to obscure your main point — but it’s hardly the goal of a speech at a national political convention. A little like Quince in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Mrs. Romney at points gives the impression of a speech that is “like a tangled chain; nothing impaired, but all disordered.” Where Mrs. Romney’s speech succeeds is in arranging contrast. Many of her arguments follow a “not this, but this” structure, which can be particularly persuasive in a political context, since it pits one set of ideas (and ideals) neatly opposite another.

Mrs. Obama’s speech uses many of the same devices, but structured with a more clearly delineated system of rise and fall. She uses isocolon (parallel structure) and auxesis (the arrangement of a series) to particularly good effect several times. Her devices of addition tend to be in the form of superlative descriptors rather than tangential parentheses. She uses anaphora, but in a more condensed format than Mrs. Romney does. Ann Romney began a series of paragraphs with “You know” and then “I want to talk to you about,” but these paragraphs were of uneven length, often with other matter in between, weakening the effect of the repetitive device. Michelle Obama, on the other hand, tended to use shorter sequences closer together, as when she said, “Every day, the people I meet inspire me. Every day, they make me proud. Every day, they remind me how blessed we are to live in the greatest nation on earth.” In this way, Mrs. Obama links the anaphora together with tricolon, the power of three, and with auxesis, building from one idea to the next to the greatest. These devices, particularly when yoked together, give the brain a sense of harmony to appreciate, subconsciously making the listener more receptive to the speaker’s ideas. Mrs. Obama also uses more rhetorical questions than Mrs. Romney, giving the audience greater opportunity to enter into a dialogue, even if only imagined, with her — another tactic that draws a listener in and creates a kind of alliance. Mrs. Obama’s greatest rhetorical weakness is probably an over-reliance on polysyndeton — excessive conjunctions, particularly at the beginnings of sentences. It’s another way of verbalizing a pause, and it tends to be more noticeable when looking at the speech on paper than when actually listening to it.

The differences between these two speeches made me think of Brutus and Antony in Julius Caesar. After killing Caesar, Brutus enters to explain his actions to the plebeian mobs. It is the only point in the play where he talks in prose rather than in verse. Prose and verse do not always point to a class difference — in plays such as As You Like It, high-status characters often speak in prose — but in Julius Caesar, the split is fairly distinct, with the commoners speaking in prose and the aristocrats speaking in verse. Brutus talks to the plebs on their level. Antony, on the other hand, doesn’t talk down to the plebs — he stays in verse and uses elegant language, but he does so in such a way that renders the increased complexity ultimately more persuasive.

Out of curiosity, I ran Brutus’s and Antony’s speeches through a Flesh-Kincaid analysis. Brutus comes in at a mid-7th grade reading level, Antony at a high-9th. (Both are above the play’s average of a mid-6th grade level). What I like about this analysis is that it demonstrates something phenomenal about rhetoric: it’s not just the words, but also the structure in which you place those words that matters. Check out the Wordles for each speech:

Brutus’s eulogy, Julius Caesar, 3.2

Antony’s eulogy, Julius Caesar, 3.2

Neither character uses terribly difficult vocabulary. Antony’s higher grade level comes more from longer and more complex sentences than from polysyllabic words. Yet something about Antony’s speech grips an audience more, despite the higher difficulty and the verse structure. His rhetoric allows him to bring the audience along on a point, rather than badgering them as Brutus does, and so we are more likely to feel “on his side.” He doesn’t have to talk down to us to be one of us.

As a side note, the analyzer I used also provided some suggestions for improving readability, advising me to look at altering the following phrases,which made me think about what beauty of language and what persuasive power might be gained or lost by restructuring for easier comprehension:

“Hear me for my cause, and be silent, that you may hear: believe me for mine honour, and have respect to mine honour, that you may believe: censure me in your wisdom, and awake your senses, that you may the better judge”
“The question of his death is enrolled in the Capitol; his glory not extenuated, wherein he was worthy, nor his offences enforced, for which he suffered death.”
“You all did see that on the Lupercal I thrice presented him a kingly crown, Which he did thrice refuse: was this ambition?”
“When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept: Ambition should be made of sterner stuff: Yet Brutus says he was ambitious; And Brutus is an honourable man.”

There’s also an appeal to pathos, another, less quantifiable aspect of rhetoric, in Brutus’s and Antony’s speeches that I heard reflected in Ann Romney’s and Michelle Obama’s. Pathos is the appeal to emotion. This appeal involves the speaker knowing his audience and what will appeal to them on a personal level. Values, morals, fears, and affections may all play a part in a pathetic appeal. At its most basic level, pathos is when a speaker makes the argument all about the audience, rather than about objective fact or about himself. Brutus and Ann Romney both appeal to the red button words — for Brutus, “honor,” “valor,” “wisdom,” “love;” for Mrs. Romney, “America,” “moms,” “hard work,” and, again, “love” — by way of getting to their audiences’ hearts. Consider the following selection from Brutus’s speech:

As Caesar loved me, I weep for him; as he was fortunate, I rejoice at it; as he was valiant, I honour him: but, as he was ambitious, I slew him. There is tears for his love; joy for his fortune; honour for his valour; and death for his ambition. Who is here so base that would be a bondman? If any, speak; for him have I offended. Who is here so rude that would not be a Roman? If any, speak; for him have I offended. Who is here so vile that will not love his country? If any, speak; for him have I offended. I pause for a reply.

And now this selection from Ann Romney’s:

I don’t think there’s a woman in America who really expects her life to be easy. In our own way, we all know better! And that’s fine. We don’t want easy. But these last few years have been harder than they needed to be. It’s all the little things — that price at the pump you just can’t believe, the grocery bills that just get bigger, all those things that used to be free, like school sports, are now one more bill to pay. It’s all the little things that pile up to become big things. And the big things — the good jobs, the chance at college, that home you want to buy, just get harder. Everything has become harder.

The appeal in each speech is broad, designed to reach as many people as possible. The speakers hit the points that they believe matter most to their audience, and they do so in a way that makes it all about that you, the listener, rather than about the speaker. On the surface, this technique seems like it ought to be an effective tactic. It feels inclusive, and it demonstrates that the speaker knows what the audience cares about.
So why is it that the method taken by Antony and by Michelle Obama seems to generate greater emotional response?

Look at this selection from Antony’s speech:

If you have tears, prepare to shed them now.
You all do know this mantle: I remember
The first time ever Caesar put it on;
‘Twas on a summer’s evening, in his tent,
That day he overcame the Nervii:
Look, in this place ran Cassius’ dagger through:
See what a rent the envious COCSa made:
Through this the well-beloved Brutus stabb’d;
And as he pluck’d his cursed steel away,
Mark how the blood of Caesar follow’d it,
As rushing out of doors, to be resolved
If Brutus so unkindly knock’d, or no;
For Brutus, as you know, was Caesar’s angel:
Judge, O you gods, how dearly Caesar loved him.
This was the most unkindest cut of all;
For when the noble Caesar saw him stab,
Ingratitude, more strong than traitors’ arms,
Quite vanquish’d him: then burst his mighty heart;
And, in his mantle muffling up his face,
Even at the base of Pompey’s statua,
Which all the while ran blood, great Caesar fell.
O, what a fall was there, my countrymen!

And now this from Michelle Obama’s:

I loved Barack just the way he was. You see, even back then, when Barack was a Senator and presidential candidate, to me, he was still the guy who picked me up for our dates in a car that was so rusted out, I could actually see the pavement going by in a hole in the passenger side door. He was the guy whose proudest possession was a coffee table he’d found in a dumpster, and whose only pair of decent shoes was a half size too small. But see, when Barack started telling me about his family, now that’s when I knew I’d found in him a kindred spirit — someone whose values and upbringing were so like mine.

Though the subject matter is vastly different, the approach is similar: draw the audience in with specific moments, rather than broad subjects. Antony talks about what he remembers, but links it to the audience’s observations, and then he draws an explicit picture of Caesar’s death for those who were not there to see it. Mrs. Obama begins with her personal recollections, so specific that they could belong to no one else, then moves into more abstract values only once she has that grounding. Personal anecdotes, more than sweeping generalizations, tend to strike a greater emotional chord — even if those generalizations are the red button words that people tend to key in on. Brutus wasn’t wrong to mention honor and valor, any more than Ann Romney was wrong to mention America and motherhood. But where Antony and Michelle Obama outstrip their opposite numbers is in the details — in making the subjects of their speeches (Caesar and Barack Obama, respectively) more personal and relatable to all of their listeners, no matter how removed or lowly. Antony and Michelle Obama evoke pictures of minute details rather than painting with a brush so broad as to remove the scenery entirely. Even at her most specific, Ann Romney refers to periods of life, things that could have happened at any time or in any place, rather than giving the sense that she has one moment crystalized in her mind. Pathos works more effectively when the audience can feel a speaker’s passion, and specific details enhance that sense, while generalizations obliterate it, but it also gains persuasive power when mated with that touch of ethos, the personal credentials and evidence of experience. Blending the two appeals together buttresses one type of persuasion with the other, and this multi-faceted approach often has the ability to reach more people with greater potency.

I’m thrilled that the election cycle draws greater attention to eloquence and elocution. You don’t have to perform a Flesh-Kincaid analysis on every speech you hear. You don’t have to do a R.O.A.D.S. markup (unless you’re like me and it simply amuses you to do so). You don’t even have to own this awareness of rhetoric to know what it is that you like about one speech and what fails to grab you about another. But knowing rhetoric will help. As I tell students (of all ages) every time I lead our Sweet Smoke of Rhetoric workshop, this awareness, even on a basic level, will just plain make you smarter. It makes you a better writer and speaker, but it also makes you a better listener, and that may be even more important on a day-to-day basis.

I love rhetoric, and as I said at the top of the post, election years are an excellent time to have that fOCSination. We listen more acutely during this time than is usual, and the media draws more attention to how politicians get their points across, because good ideas alone won’t carry the day — a candidate must be able to express those ideas in a way that appeals and persuades. So in honor of this, I’ll be posting an ongoing series of Political Rhetoric posts. Next up, hopefully: How much of President Clinton’s famous charisma is rooted in his rhetoric? How does that help a politician work a crowd? We’ve already seen a bit from Antony, but I would like to look at some of the great speakers of the history plays: Buckingham, Talbot, Henrys IV and V, Richards II and III. Who uses rhetoric to connect with the audience, and who ends up isolating himself?

OCS Theatre Camp and the Four Little Words:

Camper:   Um, excuse me? I think I may have a spondee?
Asst. Director:   Spondee? Spondee? Really? That sounds serious; you should put something on that.
C:   Ha, ha! I see what you did there.
AD:   What, my using your question to create epizeuxis?
C:   Epizeuxis? Epizeuxis?
AD:   See, I totally just got you to turn ‘epizeuxis’ into an epizeuxis. 
C:   Epizeuxis, epischmooxis!
AD:   Well, now that is not epizeuxis, epizeuxis is an immediate repeat, epishmooxis indeed! Now, how do we feel about epanorthosis?
C:   Bless you.
AD:   Nice one. But what I was going to say –
C:   Don’t start, I know what epizeuxis and epanorthosis mean, I’m just choosing to ignore you.
AD:   Touché.
C:   Now seriously, if I do have a spondee what do I do with the rest of it?
AD:   Well, I hear that if you slap a pyrrhic on a spondee it will clear the whole thing up in a matter of days. But, careful, now, that could just be an old wives tale.
From the 2012 OCS Theatre Camp Production of A King and No King.
Photo Courtesy Pat Jarrett.

C:   Funny…O, you mean…hey, that might actually work.

AD:   Why don’t you try it several ways and see which you think is best and go with that.
C:   But I want to get it right.
AD:   I can’t write you a prescription – ‘Take two trochees and call me in the morning.’ It’s your performance, so, you look at the clues, you try them out, and you then decide. Make it yours – that’s what makes it right
C:   I’m not used to that.
AD:   Welcome to camp! Give yourself a chance. I think you’ll find you have all the tools you need and that if you do your homework, commit to your choices, and believe in yourself, you’ll be great.
C:   Okay. I mean, thanks. I mean…so, you’re not going to tell me?
AD:   You are going to tell you. You are smart, funny, talented…by the time the show opens you will know that you are smart and funny and talented and will also be bold and confident and brilliant. And that, my friend, is…
C:   My cue to go try it?
AD:   Well, I was going to say ‘polysyndeton’. But, yeah, go try it, try ’em all! You can totally do this.
C:   Okay, I’ll give it a try!
That exchange is not, in fact, regarding treatment of an infectious disease, but about how to pronounce a line of verse. And, it is a typical back and forth between student and staff here at the OCS Theatre Camp for teens. Yes, we do spend a lot of quality time learning rhetoric, scansion, and other terrifying things. Yes, we design our curriculum with the goal of helping students explore language in a way that will help them to do better in their English classes, their AP tests, their college applications, and their performance skills. And it, in fact, does do all of that. But that is not the primary objective of our work here at the OCS Theatre Camp. 
I like to kick off each session by introducing students and families to what I believe are the four hardest words for students to say in any of Shakespeare’s texts and reassure them that by the end of camp they will be able to say all four. They are, in OCSending order: o, alas, alack, and I. Why, are these the most difficult to say you ask? Well, try them. You, yes, you, try them – it’s way more fun than you might imagine and not at all embarrassing. Really.
You can do it, just start with ‘O.’ Try to say the full word, don’t swallow it, really pronounce the whole thing. Let’s do it together: ‘O.’ Now try: ‘O for a muse of fire’. Now try it out loud. Don’t shorten that ‘O.’ Really say it like you mean it. See, that was a bit embarrassing at first, but, once you stopped worrying about the embarrassing feeling it was a cake walk. Nicely done. 
If you survived that, and I’m sure you did, try ‘alas.’ It’s okay if that one feels a bit silly when you start, just try it again. Remember now, out loud, do them all out loud.  ‘Alas.’ Now try: ‘Alas, how fiery and sharp he looks.’  It’s much easier if you really say ‘alas’ before you go on to the rest of the sentence. It’s counter-intuitive, I know, but it works, so resist your inclination to pretend it isn’t there.  Also, that one happens to be from a comedy, so really make a big deal of it, for comedic effect. It’s okay to feel silly here since you are, in fact, trying to be silly.  ‘Alas, how fiery and sharp he looks.’ Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha! That was great. And I’m totally laughing with you, not at you, because, after all, you made it funny. Well played. You may have noticed that if you just go for it you feel a lot less silly because you are trying to be silly and then you sound downright serious and everyone will respect you for it. Neat trick, huh? Good job!
From the 2012 OCS Theatre Camp
Production of Henry VI, Part 1.Photo Courtesy Pat Jarrett.

Now, moving on to the really ridiculous one. Try ‘alack.’ Don’t forget the ‘ck’ sound at the end there. It’s more important than you might think, as it gives you the chance to separate that word from what comes after it. So, try it again, ‘alack.’  It’s one of those words you say when something has really given you pause, so take the time to allow the realization to set in as you say: ‘Alack the day’. If any line is going to make you look around and see if anyone is listening, it’s that one. It tends to make everyone a bit self-conscious. But, let’s just work through it together, and soon you will be glad you committed to it fully. ‘Alack the day.’ Now try the whole line: ‘She’s dead, deceased, she’s dead, alack the day.’ You can’t quit the exercise now! Just trust me, we’ll go there together. The only way to deliver that line and not feel like a real jerk is to completely give yourself over to it. Just embrace that word ‘alack’ like it is your life line – because it is. It is what keeps you tethered to the audience. If you skipped quickly over that ‘alack,’ the audience would not see your character realize how the world has changed for her forever. You see, here, you are the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet. You’ve discovered that Juliet is ‘dead’ and have told her mother and now, on this line, have told her father. After ‘alack the day,’ the Nurse does not successfully connect with another onstage character until Juliet’s parents, Paris, and the Friar have exited. Then she has one line to the musicians, and you never see her again. The Nurse goes down her own rabbit hole of despair, and if the actor wants the audience to journey down that hole with her, it happens through the way she communicates ‘alack the day.’ So, spew all of the vitriol you can at Juliet’s dad by telling him three times of her demise, remind him of the part he played in her death, then really take in what it means for you, the Nurse, that she is gone. ‘Alack the day’ is the gate that holds back the flood of lamentation that follows, so hold on to every word as you say them. ‘She’s dead, deceased, she’s dead, alack the day’. See, now you don’t feel silly at all. Now you feel like a character that has the power to fully connect with the audience and have them journey with you. Well done.

Now, those three little words originally appeared daunting, but turned out to be very powerful when you wrapped yourself fully around them. What made them daunting was that you don’t typically use them on a daily basis. So why would the word ‘I’ be clustered with those three? Most people use that one every day. Well, let’s just try it in a line: ‘Now I am alone. O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I.’ Here is a moment where you have to open yourself up to the audience in a vulnerable and honest way, and Shakespeare makes sure that you do because the line is constructed without a single contraction. You can’t cheat and say ‘I’m.’ You have to say ‘I am’ and ‘am I.’ Now, when was the last time you yourself said the word ‘I’ in a vulnerable and honest way without a contraction? Exactly. Imagine for a moment that you are in an educational system that has to teach to the test. There is a right answer – your teacher, your school, your school district all get paid based on your ability to get that answer right. Imagine that you are living in a world where the expectations are incredibly high. Media bombards you every minute of the day to remind you what you are supposed to do, to be, to become. Imagine that you are somewhere between 13 and 18 years of age. Now, to that whole quiet room of actual people who are staring at you, waiting for an answer, and yes, the lights are on so you can see them all waiting, please say, ‘Hello, I am’ and then say your name. When was the last time you did that? No cheating – when did you really do it, with no contractions, no shortening or speeding up of words, no apologetically dipping of your head. You can’t hide the word ‘I’ by speeding into the contracted ‘m.’ You have to say the whole word ‘I,’ then say ‘am’. Try it now, out loud, ‘Hello, I am’ and then your name. Yep. That’s that difficult one. Try: ‘Now, I am alone.’ Welcome to life as a typical teenager. 
Here at the OCS Theatre Camp our number one priority is helping our students embrace the remarkable person that each one of them already is. We do it through collaborative work. We ask them everyday to teach their peers, to learn from one another, and to become comfortable with the idea that world holds endless possibilities for each of them. By exploring the rhetorical devices that are in every line of text, the students gain confidence in their ability to structure their own arguments in order to engage with anyone they meet in any situation. They analyze literature better and, as a result, write better essays that are well-worded, concise, and critical. They learn to ask why. They learn to explore many choices and that the one they choose is right because they chose it. They learn that each song, each dance, each scene is always better when they fully participate in it. They learn that their fellows rely on them and that they are necessary. In performance they are vulnerable and honest and brave. They learn that the world is a better place with them in it. But, most importantly, here at OCS Theatre Camp, they learn to say the word ‘I,’ to play the very best role in the world, that of being themselves and reveling in the performance every single day. And they are brilliant at it. 

To learn more about attending Theatre Camp or having our Educational Residency team come to your school, please follow this link: http://www.americanshakespearecenter.com/v.php?pg=76