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.

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?

Book Review: Interred with Their Bones, by Jennifer Lee Carrell

Interred with Their Bones is a Shakespearean twist on The Da Vinci Code, and if you approach the book with that firmly in mind, you’ll probably find some enjoyment in it. It is, however, one of those books where you can only apply but so much logic to it before the entire structure collapses under the weight of sensibility.

The book’s plot structure follows a little too neatly in the Da Vinci path, involving many of the same character tropes and narrative devices. We open, after a brief and vague historical flashback, with Kate Stanley, director of the Globe’s Hamlet, meeting for the first time in years with her estranged and eccentric mentor, Roz Howard. (If you’re enough of an early modern history geek to be quirking an eyebrow at those names, rest assured: yes, everyone in the book labors under similarly referential nomenclature). Roz has some terrible secret to impart and a quest to set Kate on, but before she can reveal the details of either, she is found dead in the aftermath of a fire (not, as the book jacket would have you believe, at the Globe itself, but in an auxiliary building). Kate feels obligated to pick up Roz’s trail of bread crumbs. As she follows them, more dead bodies start piling up around her, and she ends up fleeing with the police on her trail, a device which feels even more strange in this book than it does in The Da Vinci Code. Kate has no real reason to distrust the police, no reason not to clear herself from culpability before embarking on her quest, and so her actions just seem bizarre and inexplicable. It gives the drama of the plotline a false echo, and it’s one of the threads that a reader has to avoid plucking at in order to avoid a total collapse of the narrative. Still, with thrillers, you do sometimes have to make plausibility allowances, so this element may not prove troublesome to all readers.

Part of what hindered my enjoyment of this book, which I could otherwise have consumed as mere Da Vinci Code-esque fluff, is that it disturbs me, as a scholar, how much this book not only entertains anti-Stratfordian opinions, but implies that very serious people in the Shakespearean world would not only hold those opinions, but hold them strongly enough to commit all sorts of heinous crimes to prove them true. I started to recoil as soon as Carrell broached the topic, and eventually, that aversion colored my reading of the text pretty strongly. I now know how art historians and theologians alike must feel about Dan Brown. (One of last summer’s interns, Natalie, wrote about this aspect of the book on the Intern Blog). Despite the pitfalls of exploring of the “controversy,” the book is actually at its best when traipsing through historical possibilities — the inventions linking Cardenio to Catholic plots via Cervantes and Jesuits are reasonably entertaining and provide some profitable fodder for exploration. I could cheerfully entertain all of that, if not for the liberal allowance suggesting that any of it might be true. The jet-setting aspect of the book, volleying from London to Harvard to the Southwest to Spain (and ricocheting back and forth between some of those a few times) is a fun diversion, and Carrell does an admirable job of painting her landscapes.

One of the critical failings in this book, unfortunately, lies in its protagonist and narrator. Carrell presents Kate as though she is a big up-and-comer in the Shakespearean field, a director that a Patrick Stewart/Ian McKellan type would refer to as “that brilliant American child.” Kate, of course, demurs from this description, but nonetheless, the whole thing smacks of Informed Ability. Kate is an superlative scholar and director because Carrell tells us that she is, rather than showing us. This trait in of itself wouldn’t be so bad, except that, for such a prodigy, Kate has some pretty credulity-stretching gaps in her knowledge — and one of them is the fundamental underpinning of the mystery, the fact that Shakespeare wrote a lost play entitled Cardenio, something that Kate is apparently unaware of until well into the book. The first-person narrative also hampers the book, partially because Kate’s head is not quite a well-developed enough place to spend four hundred pages in, partially because it accentuates that gulf between her reputation and what she actually knows. First-person narration creates a trap for a writer: if the audience needs to know something, either the narrator knows it and tells it, which can come off as preachy, or the narrator doesn’t know and has to find out in order for the audience to find out, even if it’s something the narrator should already know — or shouldn’t need quite as much hand-holding to figure out. Interred with Their Bones manages to fall into both pits multiple times at different points in the story.


Interred with Their Bones was adequate summer-read entertainment. If you’re in a place where your mind can let go and indulge freely in a suspense romp, as mine was when I read it at the beach, then by all means, pick this up. The pace clips along well enough to keep a reader engaged, and if the plot turns are occasionally predictable, sometimes that’s what you’re looking for out of light summer reading. If you’re looking for heavier fare or exceptionally solid writing, though, you may want to look elsewhere, as this book doesn’t hold up well under much scrutiny.

No Kidding Shakespeare Camp Begins

This morning, OCS Education began our third year of the No Kidding Shakespeare Camp for adults. I had not, initially, intended to blog about the camp at the beginning of the week. I thought I would wait until the end, make a wrap-up post, include some pictures, and that would be that.

But then something struck me, just here in the first few hours. As the campers arrived, I realized how many of them I know already — because they’ve come to the first two years of camp, or to Teacher Seminars, or to the Blackfriars Conference. Of the nearly-thirty campers, at least half are familiar faces. We started off with an informal brunch, to let everyone settle in and mingle a bit before diving into lectures. I saw people sitting together, chatting amiably like old friends, and I know that they met here. It really is like camp is when you’re a kid — you may only see these people once a year, but when you do see them, they’re friends. And it happens so fast — already today, our new campers are chatting with the group, laughing at shared jokes, and making new friends. We’re really starting to build a community with this camp, as well as our other events, of people with shared experiences and shared joy. As a result, they’re not just colleagues with a mutual interest anymore; they people who come here become real buddies. Watching that happen, and getting to be buddies right there with them, is a great experience.

When the introductions began, so many of the campers said things that made my heart swell. “This is my indulgence for the summer.” “I begged my family to let me take this week.” “This is my treat to myself every summer.” Many of the first-time campers are here because of our shows, and at least two of them said, “I thought I hated Shakespeare until I saw it here.” Another camper is here because our touring troupe had reached her. Another makes a six-hour trip several times a year so that she can see every show, and she jumped at the chance to spend a full week here.

I love that. Statements like those are the reason why we do the work that we do. Hearing one testimonial like that can make frustrating weeks completely worth it. Hearing a dozen of those testimonials in a row just about bowled me over. I love that this thing we’ve started, a Shakespeare camp for adults, has become a real vacation. These people are taking time off of their jobs and away from their families for a week because they really want to. It’s an incredible validation of our mission, “to recover the joy of Shakespeare,” to make it something that is a rollicking good time, rather than an academic tonic. I love that our shows are good enough to make people want more. Seeing a production, for some of our audience members, just isn’t enough — they want to dive in, get their hands on the text themselves, learn more about how our actors make their magic. Because of this draw, the camp achieved its optimal number of participants last year, in only its second summer of existence, and we’ve met that goal again this year. I’m so glad that we can provide this experience for all of these Shakespeare enthusiasts, and I can’t wait to see how the program, and our friendships, will keep growing in the future.

"I am not what I am": Shakespeare and Gender Fluidity

The thing about being active in social media, in fandoms, on the Internet in general is that it exposes you to a broader spectrum of humanity than most people encounter on a day-to-day basis — and it means that a lot of minority groups get greater exposure on the Internet than they do elsewhere. A lifelong citizen of the web, I’m always learning new things from new groups of people. Because I’m politically interested and active, a lot of the things I learn have to do with civil rights, and because of the nature of current politics, a lot of those rights have to do with sexual attraction and gender equality, in some way or another. I’ve noticed a trend, in the past few years, of increasing awareness of people who do not conform to the socially projected binary system: people who are neither male nor female, but somewhere in between; people who are not cisgendered, whose mental, emotional, psychological identities don’t match with their biological organs; people who are neither heterosexual nor homosexual, but bi-, or pan-, or asexual, or who are still figuring that out. It’s a big wide world out there, and there are all kinds of people in it — but just because we didn’t hear as much about these people before doesn’t mean they suddenly started existing in the past few years. These ideas have been around for centuries, even millennia — and Shakespeare had something to say about them, albeit in a different language than we use today.

Five years ago, I don’t know that it would ever have occurred to me to use the terms “gender fluidity” or “sliding scale of human sexuality” (and I hadn’t even heard the term “cisgendered,” which is still new enough that it has yet to make it into the OED) — particularly not in a Study Guide aimed for teachers of high school and college students. And yet, in an activity I’ve been preparing for the Twelfth Night Study Guide, I’ve done just that. Viola gives me a great in — and so does Antonio, and so does Olivia, so do Orsino and Sebastian. In “Perspectives: Gender and Behavior,” I ask teachers to lead their students through an exploration of the gender dynamics in the play. The activities involve looking at the stereotypical presentations of male and female, both in appearance and behavior, examining how Shakespeare invokes these markers in the plays with cross-dressing heroines, and then exploring how the gender confusion creates emotional conflict . As with all our Study Guides, the main focus of the activity is practical — how do we stage this? How do costumes affect the presentation? How can an actor play against his or her biological gender or usual presentation of gender? But, as this is the Perspectives section, I also take a moment to broaden the scope — to explore the social issues the play raises, particularly in modern performance, and how those issues may resonate in students’ lives. And so part of the activity looks like this:

  • Give your students Handout #5A: Suit Me Like a Man. This handout provides the text of the scenes from five Shakespeare plays where the heroine makes the decision to dress as a man:
  • Discuss:
    • What do Shakespeare’s cross-dressing heroines point to as the markers of mOCSulinity versus femininity?
    • What information does Shakespeare convey about how his (male) actors playing female characters will present mOCSulinity?
    • All of these heroines have help in assuming their disguises. Julia and Portia ask their waiting-women; Rosalind has Celia for a comrade; Viola asks the sea captain; Imogen takes the suggestion from Pisanio. How do these relationships pertain to the social anxiety surrounding cross-dressing? Is it different for Viola, who asks a man for help? For Imogen, the only one among the five who does not have the idea herself, and cross-dresses at a man’s suggestion?
    • Further Exploration: Look at Shakespeare’s sonnets for more commentary on the comparison and confusion of gender (particularly Sonnet #20). What continuing relevance do these poems and the gender-bending heroines in the plays have in the modern world, as we begin to consider more frequently ideas of gender identity, gender fluidity, and the sliding scale of human sexuality? How is the social anxiety expressed in the plays and poems like or unlike modern social anxiety around the same topics?

It would be easy to write about Twelfth Night without directly addressing these issues — to keep it locked safely in a very narrow interpretation of historical context, to ignore the potential homoerotic implications, to pass over what attention the play can draw to the fluidity of gender assignation and the possible impermeability of identity. I could skip over that. I could avoid what is still, in this country and across the world, a highly controversial topic.

But I don’t want to do that. Because I don’t know who’s in the classrooms that will be using these materials. I don’t know if there will be a girl studying Twelfth Night who has just figured out that she likes girls, or a boy who’s discovering that he likes boys, or boys and girls, or neither. I don’t know if there might be a student of either gender who has never felt right in his or her body, has never identified with what biology provided. I don’t know if there’s someone who, like Viola for much of the play, feels stuck somewhere in the middle. I don’t know who they are. I don’t know if they get support at home or from their friends, or if they’re dealing with it all in silence and isolation. I don’t know how often they hear that they’re sinful, or sick, or monstrous. And so I don’t want to close doors for them. I want to give teachers the tools explore these ideas where they live in Shakespeare’s works, rather than skimming past them.

Being a teenager is hard enough. Being a teenager who feels profoundly different from his or her peers is even harder — particularly when that difference, in so much of our country, can make you a target for prejudice, ridicule, and abuse. I like the idea that Shakespeare might be able to help, in some small way — to let those teenagers know that, even four hundred years ago, someone was questioning the stability of gender identity. More than one someone, really — Kit Marlowe’s homoerotic themes are hardly subtextual, women writers were challenging society’s gendered expectations of them, and Italian artists frequently explored androgyny and blurred gender lines in paintings and sculptures. The topic was out there in the early modern world, and students should get to know that. Even that long ago, in a world we often perceive as so much more rigid than ours, some people were pushing the boundaries of what it meant to be a boy or a girl, and some were interrogating the nature of sexual attraction. Real people, not so unlike the modern readers, were exploring alternatives to the prescribed norm, questioning their own emotions and desires, and expressing that through art. So this is why I include the discussion topic in the Twelfth Night Study Guide. If Shakespeare can reach across the centuries and help just one student struggling with these issues of identity, then that makes it worth raising the issue.

Book Review: I, Iago, by Nicole Galland

I, Iago skillfully retells Shakespeare’s Othello as the Tragedy of Iago, following the famous villain through the course of his career and explaining just how he came to be the mastermind orchestrating the downfall of a proud general and all those connected to him. In doing so, Galland fills in some of the gaps of Shakespeare’s narrative, showing us how Iago came to be who he is and chronicling the circumstances that change him from a loyal friend and subordinate to a scheming, vindictive meddler.

The book divides into “Before” and “After,” meaning before and after the point where the play Othello begins, and each half is quite interesting in its own way. In “Before,” we get the development of Iago as a person. Galland’s research serves her well here — early modern Venice springs to life in vivid detail, particularly with regards to its military and political matters. We meet Iago as a young man, and he explains that he has always been known as “honest Iago” — not a compliment in Venice, where the ability to quibble, to flatter, and to evade has far more value than blunt truth. Iago lacks subtlety, always speaking his mind, and taking decisive action rather than weighing the consequences beforehand. He is boyhood friends with Roderigo, though he disdain’s the other boy’s weakness and lack of gumption; they grow apart as they grow older, with Roderigo following his family’s mercantile endeavors. Though Iago has scholarly leanings, his family’s prerogative forces him into the military, where he excels, first in the artillery, then in the army. Along the way, he woos and wins Emilia, the only woman he’s ever met with whom he can tolerate much conversation, and their marriage is a blissfully happy one. When Iago meets Othello, there is instant camaraderie; they meet at a masked ball during Carnival, and the circumstances echo their characters. Neither man can hide what he is, though Othello more obviously, thanks to his skin tone. Iago, on the other hand, suffers that inability in his character. Throughout the book, we see him incapable of wearing a mask, both literally and figuratively — in every Carnival scene, he ends up discarding his vizor, and his ungoverned tongue and open expression display his blunt opinions at every turn. The two men sense a commonality between them, a lack of patience with the artifice and genteel dishonesty of Venice. Iago comes to think so highly of Othello that there’s nothing he wouldn’t do for him, including helping to conceal his epileptic fits from the Venetian Senate. He follows Othello to war, to disastrous ruin on Rhodes, and to the altogether different battleground of patrician dinner tables and courtly galas. There, in the household of Brabantio, Othello meets his undoing: a girl named Desdemona, enraptured with the idea of him. Iago counsels him against the courtship, explaining that no Venetian patrician would ever let his daughter marry outside of that narrow caste; Othello pretends to give up the infatuation, but in fact corresponds with Desdemona in secret and eventually planning an elopement — and since Othello has little more talent for deceit than Iago, Iago has little trouble uncovering the scheme.

In the “After” section, we watch this character, whom Galland has rendered quite likeable, fall. Othello betrays Iago’s trust, giving a coveted lieutenancy to the less-qualified Michele Cassio as a reward for assisting in his covert courtship of Desdemona. Emilia is, to Iago’s eyes, inexplicably supportive of the deceitful romance, and therefore complicit. Feeling wounded and discarded by those he most loved and trusted, Iago’s bitter hurt prompts his plans for revenge.

I call this book the Tragedy of Iago because it tracks his rise and at least partially self-constructed fall in a way that renders him both likeable and pitiable. Galland makes a wise choice, spending the first half of the book on events we never see in the play, because it gives the character a more solid background, particularly in regard to his relationship with Othello. In Shakespeare’s play, the audience hears of their association and implied friendship, but we never truly get to see it; we know from the start that Iago is working to ill ends, because he tells the audience so in barest terms. In I, Iago, the friendship is palpable, heart-warming — and so Othello’s betrayal of Iago has a real emotional effect. When Othello begins to shut Iago out in favor of Cassio, the reader is privilege to Iago’s pain and bewilderment. We also get new motivation for Iago’s actions — jealousy and revenge play their parts, and no mistake, and Iago freely admits that he wants to hurt his friend for hurting him, to disgrace the usurper Cassio, and to remove Desdemona from the picture (though he does not intend to do so through her death). That isn’t the total of what’s going on in Iago’s head, however; when he sees how easily Othello can be roused to dangerous passions, he starts to harbour deep concerns about the general’s ability to serve in the position of honour and responsibility with which the Venetian Senate has placed him. He worries, too, about Othello’s judgment; a man who will pass over more qualified men in order to hand positions to panderers, after all, demonstrates an ethical lapse. Iago never claims to be operating only for the common good, in removing a potentially dangerous commander from his post — but since that lines up neatly with his desire for revenge, why not work for both?

The dual nature of the tragedy is most obvious in the moment when things spin past Iago’s ability to control them. His words have an effect far greater than he expected, as Othello proves so easily inflamed where his wife is concerned.  The subtler tragedy is that turning Iago from honesty to deceit. He has to learn that trait, a talent foreign to him from birth, and it’s terrible to see him do so — to see a good man corrupted by an unfair world. Iago becomes almost drunk on it, overindulging, swept up by his newfound power, pushing limits to see how far he can take his lies before they become too improbable — and astonished when that barrier never seems to impede him. He learns deceit from those who deceived him, and since we have the juxtaposition of his stalwart honesty in the “Before” section, the transformation is all the more calamitous.

The book is best when it’s not trying to out-clever itself. The moments where I grimaced were when Galland was cramming in bits from other Shakespeare plays that didn’t quite belong — having Iago banter with whores and his military comrades by using lines from Measure for Measure and As You Like It, much of his courtship with Emilia coming straight out of Much Ado about Nothing– because they were jarring, discordant. The tenor was so different from the story she’d been telling that it seemed an odd digression. Initially, this made me nervous for the second half of the book, which covers the plot of Othello, but Galland actually handled the dialogue there quite smoothly. We hit the major points and get the biggest quotes without much interference, but most of the conversations are taken out of verse and into more natural prose in a way that doesn’t seem forced or awkward. The story does rather hurtle itself through the climax and denouement, however, and while that is perhaps appropriate, given how circumstances spiral out of Iago’s control, I could have done with a little more fulfillment, since we had so much build-up to the crucial moments.

This book leaves me wanting the story from yet more angles — Emilia’s, for instance. We only ever see her through Iago’s eyes, and though it’s clear she’s an intelligent and independent woman, she remains only an object throughout this novel. Because everything is first-person narrative, we lose her in the moments when Iago’s not there — which are some of her finest moments in the play. We never really get to know what she’s thinking, and as Iago begins on his plot of vengeance, he distances himself from her, both because he wants to protect her and because he no longer quite trusts her — which has the effect of removing her from the reader as well as from himself. This book is definitely the story of men; Emilia and Desdemona are intriguing, but peripheral, and since Iago never understands either of them, the reader doesn’t get that opportunity, either.

Overall, I, Iago is an entertaining and thoughtful adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello. The prose is well-constructed, the historical research thorough, and the characters well-drawn. Galland explores the story from an intriguing angle and creates a more three-dimensional world, situating Venice and its characters in the larger world. Whereas Shakespeare narrows in, focusing his scope tighter and tighter until it fits in a single bedroom, Galland allows us to see how this tragedy ripples outward. I think most Shakespeare enthusiasts will find a lot to like about this book, and if there are also some points to criticize — well, most of us enjoy that, too.

Julius Caesar: Adventures in Dramaturgy, Pt 1

In my capacity as Academic Resources Manager, I deal with a lot of text. I prepare sides and scripts for workshops and lectures, and I insert the text for relevant scenes into our Study Guides. This process always involves some editorial judgment calls — looking back to the Folio, determining how much of the scene to include, deciding whether to trim some bits out of the middle to narrow an activity’s focus, etc. It’s been a long time since I cut a full script, however. The last time was in 2006, when I directed Romeo and Juliet in undergrad — and I knew far less about textual studies then than I do now. I’m going to be serving as the dramaturg for the 2013 Actors’ Renaissance Season Julius Caesar, and as part of that process, I’ve also taken on the responsibility of cutting the script.

The thing about Julius Caesar is that you don’t have to cut a lot. The play runs 2438 lines in the Folio, the only early modern version that we have (I got off easy, not having to compare to any quarto editions). We aim for about 2300 lines for a show, with the goal of a two-hour production. I knew going in that I was probably going to want to trim slightly more than that, however, for a few reasons. One is that this is going to be the first show in the Ren Season, so it certainly can’t hurt to trim down what the actors have to tackle in those first three days. Another is just to tell a tighter story; there are lots of moments in Julius Caesar that, while certainly not unplayable (particularly with such talented actors as the OCS is fortunate to have), aren’t always as gripping as they might be. Shakespeare spends a lot of time showing off his Plutarch, but some of those references may seem obscure or downright bizarre to a modern audience. My inner Latin geek appreciates them; my practical side can trim them without suffering too great an attack of conscience. Finally, knowing that this is going to be the most-played school matinee of the artistic year, I knew I wanted to streamline the text for maximum appeal, to key in on the relationships that define the play, the overlap and tension of those political friendships.

The trouble, though, is that there’s just so much good stuff in this play. Take Cassius, for example, who talks more than anyone except Brutus (possibly only because he dies before Brutus). At first glance, you would think that the play could do with a lot less of him and not suffer terribly. So much of what he says, however, is such delicious language. He’s a spitfire, choleric and quick-tempered, but no less eloquent for that temper; rather, it seems to fuel and fire him, leading him to cram his speeches with vivid detail, incisive observations, and inventive structure. Cassius is also useful as a contrast to Brutus, not just as a matter of character, but rhetorically as well. Cassius has a complex elegance in his speech which Brutus utterly lacks; in order to get through to Brutus, Cassius has to try different tactics, and it’s always the least sophisticated one that elicits a response. Cassius is, in many ways, far, far cleverer than Brutus; it shows in his political canniness (as in his desire to do away with Antony as well as Caesar, recognizing an inevitable threat, and in his awareness of military realities in Acts 4 and 5), and it also shows in his use of words. Shakespeare’s language clearly juxtaposes Cassius’s political astuteness and practicality with Brutus’s blunt honor and intractable morals. This dynamic is not only interesting but critical to the operation of those relationship dynamics that so interest me — and yet, I know, those long speeches are where attentions will be most likely to wander. So I had a challenge: to balance the need to cut something with the desire to preserve all the character information that the language provides.

Then there are the minor characters. Could I cut that line from Decius Brutus or Metellus Cimber? Well, sure. The play would lose nothing imperative. But then that pretty well excises his reason for being in the scene; I don’t want to make a character extraneous, and I don’t want to rob an actor with a smaller track in this play of a potentially juicy moment (and since Brutus, Cassius, and Antony thoroughly dominate the line count, there are a lot of smaller tracks).  So, how to balance this? How to keep the sensation of a bustling Rome, crammed with ambitious men and craven followers, while still making cuts that will help the production to present a clear and focused story? Or how about a character like Portia? Certainly, I could trim some of her speeches down — but she really only gets the one scene to connect with the audience. I couldn’t bring myself to butcher those moments, but to justify keeping all of that intact, I had to find something else to sacrifice elsewhere.

I ended up taking a very surgical approach to the text, trimming from within speeches rather than hacking out large sections in their entirety. A line here, a line there — it adds up, and eventually, I had cut over two hundred lines, but never more than a few at a time. Occasionally it hurt my rhetorical soul a bit, to excise some repetitions or additions — but that was the choice I had to make. If the rhetorical form was crucial to the moment, to the character’s persuasive approach, I kept it, but if it seemed extraneous, if the character had already made his rhetorical point, I could consider it for the chopping block. Consider the following:

CASSIUS
You are dull, COCSa,
And those sparks of life that should be in a Roman
You do want, or else you use not.
You look pale, and gaze, and put on fear,

And cast yourself in wonder,
To see the strange impatience of the heavens:
But if you would consider the true cause
Why all these fires, why all these gliding ghosts,
Why birds and beasts from quality and kind,
Why old men fool and children calculate,
Why all these things change from their ordinance,
Their natures and pre-formed faculties,
To monstrous quality; why, you shall find
That heaven hath infus’d them with these spirits,
To make them instruments of fear, and warning
Unto some monstrous state.

That anaphora (repeated beginnings) in the middle is an interesting structure, and there’s no denying that it adds something to this speech. But, this is something Cassius does almost every time he has a speech of more than ten lines, so it’s not as though it is an unusual device or one which makes a unique point; we’ll hear the same device elsewhere, and the audience will still know that Cassius is given to repetition and to over-emphasizing his point. Those lines also have some nice evocative language — but, we’ve had plenty of descriptions of the strange portents in this scene already, and we’ll have more in 2.1 and 2.2. By cutting this, we’re not losing anything we don’t get elsewhere. On the other hand, in the following:

CASSIUS

And why should Caesar be a tyrant then?
Poor man, I know he would not be a wolf,
But that he sees the Romans are but sheep:
He were no lion, were not Romans hinds.

I had initially marked that final line for cutting, but I ended up putting it back in. In some ways, it’s redundant. The audience hears the predator-prey analogy and understands it; why do we need a second iteration? Because, I think, there’s a critical symbolic difference between a wolf and a lion. The second analogy, then, is almost corrective — Cassius grudgingly granting Caesar the association with a nobler animal, but only by comparison to the other craven Romans. The first analogy could then read more like, “I know he would not be a predatory, but that he sees the Romans are but prey,” whereas the second reads more, “He were no great and powerful man, were not Romans weak and yielding.” The connotation is different, and so I retained what originally seemed a redundancy. We also hear about a lion stalking the streets and a lioness whelping in the streets, and so I think it’s important to retain that association of the lion with Caesar.

The largest change I made was for purely practical reasons: our Ren Season has twelve actors in it, and the opening of 3.1 calls for fourteen characters to be on-stage simultaneously. Thirteen enter together, as per the Folio stage direction:

–then, only ten lines in, Publius speaks, though he has no written entrance. So, I struck Lepidus for that scene (he never speaks and no one refers to him) and I combined the characters of Publius and Popilius into one figure. That necessity led to a little creative cutting and line reassignment, but it seems to work. Our actors will still have a challenge to untangle, though, as that still leaves twelve characters entering simultaneously at the top of 3.1, plus someone to conduct the Flourish — and two of them will have to change from having been Portia and Lucius in 2.4.

Before I sent the cut script off to Artistic Director Jim Warren and Associate Artistic Director Jay McClure, I gathered a few of my friends to do a read-around of the text. With only five people in the room, I anticipated we’d be doing a lot of talking to ourselves, but that actually wasn’t the case as frequently as I’d expected. Because Brutus, Cassius, and Antony control so many scenes, most characters end up reacting to one of them rather than to each other. Just doing that read-around taught me a lot about how the various scenes function. Hearing the cut text aloud was helpful; I actually ended up highlighting more lines that I think I could cut, if we needed an even shorter script — if someone wanted to do a 90-minute version, for example, I think I would have no trouble at all getting it there. I gave Cassius a few lines back after this read-around, I snipped a few lines elsewhere to compensate, and I now have some good ideas about what else we could trade off if someone wants other lines back in. I feel quite positive about it, on the whole; I don’t think I slaughtered any sacred cows, and the surgical approach means that, hopefully, most audience members won’t notice the omissions at all.

So, we’ll see how it turns out. Once Jim, Jay, and at least one actor have looked at it, I’ll get the final comments back, and then I’ll start preparing the cue scripts. That process will be a whole other adventure with this play, and one which presents some fOCSinating possibilities (for which I feel I should probably apologize to our eventual Antony in advance). But that, Dear Readers, will be another blog post.

A Belated Happy Birthday to Shakespeare

With apologies for the delay, here is my contribution to the Happy Birthday Shakespeare project. Last year, I gave you all the full story of my experience with Shakespeare; this year, it’s about growth. In the twelve months since the big guy’s last birthday, we’ve had another season of summer camps, we hosted the 6th Blackfriars Conference, and we held our first week-long Leadership Seminar. Personally, I completed another round of Study Guides, I presented at the Blackfriars Conference, and I participated in my first panel at the Shakespeare Association of American conference. It’s been a big year.

In some ways, it’s actually a little appropriate that I’m finally getting around to wishing Shakespeare a happy birthday today, as today is also the birthday of Sarah Enloe, the OCS Director of Education — the phenomenal woman who holds this department together. She’s a veteran of the UT-Austin theatre studies program and the Mary Baldwin College MLitt/MFA program, she taught theatre arts at the high school level in Texas for five years, and in 2003, she won recognition as teacher of the year and an NEH fellowship to study with Shakespeare & Co. At the OCS, Sarah directs programming in the areas of College Prep, Research and Scholarship (including facilitating the OCS’s partnership with Mary Baldwin College’s Masters in Shakespeare and Performance Program), Personal Renaissance, and Educator Resources — a near-superhuman effort, really, doing the work of several people in one body (and, to the best of my knowledge, without opening any holes in the space-time continuum in order to fit more hours into her day). She’s the one who picked me out for this fantastic job that I hold, and she’s been an incredible mentor over the past two years.

This spirals around to one of the things I find so great about Shakespeare: the amazing ability his works have to inspire people. Something about these plays lights a fire in so many people, and so many of those people then feel the compulsion — the imperative need — to share that joy with others. Once you strip away the fear, once you get past that initial pushback, it can really be quite easy, if you use the tools that Shakespeare gives you — as we observed during the Leadership Seminar. Shakespeare’s plays are just that — they’re for playing. Pull them apart to find the clues, dig through the obfuscation of the intervening centuries to recover layers of meaning, — approaching his texts as plays, as living and breathing things, is both so instructive and so enjoyable. In the past year, I’ve seen the lights go on in so many heads, from nine year old students to urban professionals to septuagenarian retirees. It never fails to reinvigorate me. Our company is filled with people who feel that same fire. It has to be; you can’t do this kind of work, with this kind of intensity and this kind of infectious energy, if you don’t absolutely love it.

So today, I’d like to thank Shakespeare and Sarah both for their incredible ability to inspire me and others. Happy birthday to you both!