Blackfriars Conference 2013 — Colloquy Session I: Staging Choices

Greetings: Charlene V. Smith here, live blogging  from the Tyson Center, Colloquy Session I: Staging Choices, which runs from 2:30pm to 3:45pm. Jemma Levy is the chair for this session and the presenters are Matthew Carter, Annette Drew-Bear, Andrew Harvey, Donald Hedrick, Claire Huber, Claire Kimball, and Angelina LaBarre.

This colloquy is about staging choices; Levy points out that the papers are eclectic, dealing with choices from a number of different angles.

Carter’s paper is about the use of weapons as indicators of characters in Romeo and Juliet, specifically looking at outsiderness and ethnicity. His argument is that since modern audience will no longer recognize the ethnicity attached to stage combat and weaponry, we need to identify these differences in other ways, possibly through costume. Levy asks how using costume to indicate ethnicity is different from what already happens through costume design. Carter suggests that costume designers may need to look more into combat and weapon based visual signifiers. Spanish style fighting was cut-centric instead of stab-centric, for example. Another example: Capulet calls for his long sword, implying an older style of fighting, which an early modern audience would have recognized as inappropriate for the fight. The participants discuss what information an audience may or may not recognize through modern or early modern weapons. Carter says he is convinced that a modern audience is more finely tuned to costume design than weaponry technology.

LaBarre’s paper explores the question of stage management in the early modern theatre through her experience as a member of MBC’s MFA in Shakespeare and Performance 2012-2013 company, Roving Shakespeare. She investigates different terms that were present during the early modern era that may have been equivalent to a modern day stage manager and the responsibilities of these positions. For example, medieval prompters would be placed in the center-front of the stage and would prompt not only lines, but also movements with the use of a guiding stick. Later the stage manager domain shifts to backstage due to greater spectacle and increased technology. Levy points out even today a stage manager’s duties can vary greatly from production to production and director to director, musing that the shifts in terms and definitions historically continue for that position to this day. Hedrick asks about how the hierarchy of these positions have shifted over time. LaBarre points out that the high status of the book keeper in the early modern theatre stems partially from the fact that the book keeper had access to the play’s full text.

Drew-Bear wrote on the staging of evil in Lust’s Dominion (possibly written by Thomas Dekker). Drew-Bear refers to the character of the machiavellian Moor (Eleazar) as a playwright, and LaBarre, connecting to her paper, suggests that he might actually be more of a book keeper. Drew-Bear’s paper explores the metatheatricality of Eleazar and his text. Lust’s Dominion has a play-within in which Eleazar sets up the staging and tells the actors what to do in a pseudo-rehearsal. Drew-Bear points out that Eleazar is quite self-conscious in his use of theatrical terms. Levy asks whether there is an implication that Eleazar is performing the role of villain, as opposed to actually being a villain. Drew-Bear thinks it is more accurate that Eleazar is revealing in the role of villain as opposed to suggesting that he is, at heart, someone else.

Kimball’s paper argues that we should re-embrace The Bloody Banquet as a prime example of Jacobean revenge drama and identifies elements in the play that would be appealing to a modern audience. Kimball is fOCSinated by the fact that this play contains so many theatrical elements and yet modern companies are unfamiliar or uninterested in this play. She loves both the gore and violence, but also the number of staging repetitions that are set up in the play. For example, the play contains a pre-banquet in addition to the titular banquet. Kimball says part of the viability of the play can be found in the title. An audience is expecting to see a bloody banquet, an expectation which is frustrated by the inclusion of a first banquet that isn’t the bloody one. Carter asks how Kimball would recommend situating this play to make it marketable. Kimball suggests linking it with other violent or Jacobean pieces such as Titus Andronicus or The Duchess of Malfi. (As possibly the only person in this room other than Kimball to have read this play, I heartily support her recommendation to stage it!)

Harvey’s paper is on Julius Caesar, arguing that Brutus exemplifies Aristotle’s definition of the Noble Man and is the moral center of the play. With that line of thought, Caesar’s ghost cannot be a manifestation of Brutus’ guilty conscience. Levy asks what journey this leaves the actor playing Brutus and Harvey says he sees the character as static and as one that doesn’t have a journey. As a staging choice, Harvey suggests having Caesar’s ghost come from the trap, indicating to an audience that he is a malevolent spirit.

Hedrick’s paper looks at Henry V’s wooing scene with Katherine as part of a larger work on the arousal of monarchs in history plays. Hendrick questions how arousal might be played. He provides a scale of options: 1. Do nothing physically, using only the language of love. 2. A la Laurence Olivier, saddle up close to your acting partner. 3. Monty Python approach, with a wink wink, nudge nudge to the audience or let the other actors react to or point out the arousal. 4. the Lysistrata method. Hendrick points out that James was against the use of codpieces in costumes. He asks how we point out the possible subversiveness / comic effect of an aroused monarch for a modern audience? LaBarre suggests that both comedy and violence lives in all these choices. Levy asks at what point would an audience member be removed from the play and miss moments as they process a large prosthetic or a naked appendage. Carter points out that the Princess in Henry V is body-centric while learning English, which might suggest something about how she would react to a possible erection.

"In states unborn and accents yet unknown": Caesar’s legacy

It’s been 2057 years since Brutus, Cassius, and between six and sixty other conspirators stabbed Gaius Julius Caesar to death in the Senate’s makeshift meeting-place, a theatre built by Caesar’s friend, ally, and eventual nemesis, Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus. Over two millennia later, the words “Beware the Ides of March” are all over the Internet today. Would it please Caesar to know that his death is still remembered? If he could look back, might he be glad that he was struck down at the height and thus immortalized in story, rather than living on to a natural death, which might have relegated him to a lesser place in history?

Flowers left at Caesar’s grave, 2011;
credit An American in Rome.

I’ve talked before about how the Ides of March retains a strange place in our cultural awareness. As Dr. Ralph Alan Cohen pointed out in a recent lecture, the fact that Julius Caesar was assassinated by his friend Brutus on the Ides of March may be the one historical fact that nearly everyone in the Western world knows. Somehow it permeates, reinforced by all sorts of media — books, TV, movies, song, and theatre. As an example of just how strongly this awareness still resonates, I discovered not too long ago that people still leave flowers at the (supposed) site of Caesar’s grave (or, rather, at the site of his cremation, since most Romans did not inter the bones of the dead as Shakespeare implies). The picture at right shows one example, and Googling “flowers left at Caesar’s grave” yields many more. They change over time — someone takes the old away, making room for the new, and in all of those pictures, the flowers always look fresh and colorful. I would love to take a closer look at some of those notes that get left for him, to know where these people come from, what they have to say to this famous corpse, what drives them to remember his death so many years later.

Considering the longevity of the tale of Caesar’s epic life and death, Shakespeare puts premonitory words in Cassius’s and Brutus’s mouths, just moments after the conspirators perform their savage butchery/noble sacrifice.


Stoop, then, and wash. How many ages hence
Shall this our lofty scene be acted over
In states unborn and accents yet unknown?


How many times shall Caesar bleed in sport,
That now on Pompey’s basis lies along
No worthier than the dust?


So oft as that shall be,
So often shall the knot of us be call’d
The men that gave their country liberty.

For Shakespeare, this was obviously a tongue-in-cheek joke, since his company was acting it over in England, which from Brutus’s perspective wouldn’t be a unified country for nearly a thousand years, in the English language, which, though heavily influenced by Latin, was still centuries and several Germanic, Dutch, Scandinavian, and French invasions away from developing into something Shakespeare would even begin to recognize. For the OCS this season, in yet another nation that didn’t exist either in Shakespeare’s time or in Caesar’s, in a variety of American accents (with one Australian in the mix), the lines have an extra layer of sly knowing painted on them. We’re contributing to the tradition, and at this rate, it seems unlikely that human civilization will ever forget Julius Caesar — or how he died.

If you want commemorate Caesar’s death by learning more about his life, you could do worse than starting with Shakespeare’s version of the story. Despite dramatic license and some imaginative emotional scenes, he adheres pretty closely to his sources, primarily Plutarch’s Life of Caesar and Life of Brutus. You could also look to Velleius Paterculus, Nicolaus of DamOCSus, or Appian. If you’re more a secondary source sort of researcher, I can also recommend the podcast series The History of Rome. Episodes 39-44 chronicle Caesar’s life, but if you’re any sort of classicist, the entire series is well worth a listen. If you prefer the sensationalist take, HBO’s Romeis fantastic entertainment and extraordinarily well-acted. HBO compresses time, conflates characters, takes its own liberties, and gives you a different angle on events than Shakespeare does, but on the whole, it’s actually not that far off from reality, either. The showrunners said they strove for authenticity rather than accuracy, and the result is an exciting political drama that just happens to be set more than two thousand years ago. If you’re looking for a good long read, Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series covers the collapse of the Roman Republic beginning with Gaius Marius, whose martial reforms and political machinations in many ways set the stage for Caesar to be able to achieve what he did a few decades later, and ending with Antony and Cleopatra. Western culture has never been short on either nonfiction or fiction about Caesar and the Roman world — and if you have any good recommendations for me, I’d love to hear them.

"Let each man render me his bloody hand": Blood on the Ides

On the Ides of March last year, I explored the rhetoric of what is possibly my favorite speech in all of Shakespeare: Antony’s funeral eulogy for Caesar, in which he whips the plebeians into a murderous frenzy. As I was last year, I remain a little in awe of the strange cultural phenomenon surrounding this day. Quotes from Plutarch and Shakespeare are everywhere — and I wonder how many people are consciously aware of whom they’re quoting, or if those phrases have so permeated our world that they’ve detached entirely from their original context.

I make my living now with my head in the early modern era, but I’ve always kept one foot trailing in the classics, particularly in this fOCSinating period where the Republic crashed and metamorphosed into the Empire. Fortunately, Shakespeare gives me fertile territory on which to indulge both of my historical obsessions. And I’m not alone — those of us in the Shakespeare world seize on the opportunity that this cultural awareness provides (carpe occasionem?). Twitter is full of our enthusiasm today, and a video on Pursued by a Bear explores the play’s place in the common consciousness as well as providing an interesting analysis the dearth of really good productions of the show.

This year, I thought I’d take a look at a particularly interesting staging moment which precedes the great speech I explored last year: when Antony greets the conspirators just after Caesar’s murder. Two of the most visually striking moments in Julius Caesar are Caesar’s assassination and the subsequent decision of the conspirators to wash their hands in the corpse’s blood. This scene can pack quite a bit of power — especially in a theatre like the Blackfriars Playhouse, where the actors share light with the audience — but it also lends itself to quite a bit of mess. Blood is something that actors and production companies have to negotiate with, deciding how much to use, what kind to use, where to hide blood packets, whether or not it can get on clothing (and if so, how to get it out; if not, how to keep that from happening). Often, productions choose to stylize the blood in this scene, for those very practical reasons. I will always champion the use of live blood, however, because of what happens later in the scene.

Where is Antony?TREBONIUS
Fled to his house amaz’d:
Men, wives, and children stare, cry out, and run,
As it were doomsday.

Fates, we will know your pleasures:
That we shall die, we know; ’tis but the time
And drawing days out, that men stand upon.

Why, he that cuts off twenty years of life,
Cuts off so many years of fearing death.

Grant that, and then is death a benefit:
So are we Caesar’s friends, that have abridged
His time of fearing death. Stoop, Romans, stoop,
And let us bathe our hands in Caesar’s blood
Up to the elbows, and besmear our swords:
Then walk we forth, even to the marketplace,
And, waving our red weapons o’er our heads,
Let’s all cry ‘Peace, freedom and liberty.’

Stoop, then, and wash. How many ages hence
Shall this our lofty scene be acted over
In states unborn and accents yet unknown?

How many times shall Caesar bleed in sport,
That now on Pompey’s basis lies along,
No worthier than the dust?

So oft as that shall be,
So often shall the knot of us be call’d
The men that gave their country liberty.

First of all, this is weird. There is just no getting around that this is a really strange thing to do with someone you’ve just killed. This is not a bit of a historical culture, not something Romans just did when they killed someone. To me, it reads as Brutus coming a little unhinged. Then, think about how deep you would have to plunge your hands into a dagger wound — likely a puncture far more than a rending gash — to get up to the elbow in blood. It’s pretty gruesome, and I think that the more real and visceral the blood appears, the more the audience is going to feel the grotesque aspect of the scene, rather than dismissing it as, “Oh, a thing people just did back then.” Live blood also gives the other actors a lot to work with — physically as well as figuratively — in terms of how much they are on board with Brutus or not. If at least a couple of the conspirators are visibly uncomfortable with smearing themselves up to the elbow in blood, that also transmits some important information to the audience.

Secondly, it’s ambiguous whether or not Trebonius washes his hands in blood along with the rest of the conspirators. He’s on stage at this point, but as someone who did not actually take part in the stabbing, I think there’s justification for not having him join in the literal bloodbath. You could certainly choose to have him wash in blood at this point, but I think there’s more money in having him hold back, because of what happens when Antony — whom Trebonius detained outside the Senate, whom he kept from coming to Caesar’s aid — enters.

But here comes Antony:
Welcome, Mark Antony.

O mighty Caesar! Dost thou lie so low?
Are all thy conquests, glories, triumphs, spoils,
Shrunk to this little measure? Fare thee well.
I know not, gentlemen, what you intend,
Who else must be let blood, who else is rank:
If I myself, there is no hour so fit
As Caesar’s death hour, nor no instrument
Of half that worth as those your swords, made rich
With the most noble blood of all this world.
I do beseech ye, if you bear me hard,
Now, whilst your purpled hands do reek and smoke,
Fulfil your pleasure. Live a thousand years,
I shall not find myself so apt to die:
No place will please me so, no mean of death,
As here by Caesar, and by you cut off,
The choice and master spirits of this age.

O Antony! Beg not your death of us.
Though now we must appear bloody and cruel,
As by our hands, and this our present act
You see we do: yet see you but our hands
And this the bleeding business they have done:
Our hearts you see not; they are pitiful:
And pity to the general wrong of Rome,
As fire drives out fire, so pity, pity
Hath done this deed on Caesar. For your part,
To you our swords have leaden points, Mark Antony:
Our arms in strength of malice, and our hearts
Of brothers’ temper, do receive you in,
With all kind love, good thoughts, and reverence.

Your voice shall be as strong as any man’s
In the disposing of new dignities.

Only be patient till we have appeased
The multitude, beside themselves with fear,
And then, we will deliver you the cause,
Why I, that did love Caesar when I struck him,
Have thus proceeded.

I doubt not of your wisdom:
Let each man render me his bloody hand:
First, Marcus Brutus, will I shake with you;
Next, Caius Cassius, do I take your hand;
Now Decius Brutus, yours: now yours, Metellus;
Yours, Cinna; and my valiant COCSa, yours;
Though last, not least in love, yours, good Trebonius.
Gentlemen all: Alas, what shall I say?

Antony comes in and shakes each man’s bloody hand, one by one, and as he names them, it’s hard to feel that he’s doing anything other than marking them down for retribution. And then, at last, he comes to Trebonius, who did not stab Caesar himself, but who was nonetheless instrumental to the plot, the means by which Antony was not there to defend his friend. So if Antony has just shaken six other bloody hands, his own would be quite smeared with blood by this point — which he then transfers to Trebonius. If his hands have been clean till that point, Antony’s gesture makes a powerful statement: Trebonius is, in his eyes, every bit as guilty, every bit as culpable, and Antony is every bit as determined to take him down. So, while you could have Trebonius engage in the blood-smearing earlier on, I think you get greater payoff from saving it for this moment.

An exploration of this and other staging challenges in Julius Caesar can be found in our Study Guide — and the play will be part of the 2013 Actors’ Renaissance Season. I’m going to be serving as dramaturg for that production, so I’m sure next March 15th, I’ll have something new to share. Until then, cavite idus Martii, everyone!

The Ides of March are come…

You can’t get around the Shakespeare-oriented Internet today without discovering that it’s the Ides of March. The #idesofmarch tag on Twitter is pretty interesting — varying degrees of clever jokes, historical facts, and complete nonsense, with a lot of people saying RIP Caesar and even more saying “Watch out!” or that they hope nothing bad happens today. The Ides of March has become, through a slightly weird cultural association, a bad-luck day, inauspicious, much like Friday the 13th. I wonder what Caesar would make of it to know that, two thousand and fifty-five years later, his death remains so prominently remembered. I also wonder how much Shakespeare has to do with that — Would Caesar’s legacy remain so prominent if not for Shakespeare’s dramatic presentation of his death? Would Plutarch and Suetonius be enough to prick the memories of western civilization? I don’t think we can ever know — You can’t prove a negative, after all. But I was a classicist in a former scholastic life, so I’ve read my Roman historians like any good Elizabethan schoolboy would have done, so I can say this much for certain — Shakespeare certainly told the story in more dramatic and exciting way.

Given the day, I thought it might be a nice opportunity for a mini-lesson on rhetoric. I use Mark Antony’s eulogy for Caesar (or, at least, the first chunk of it) as my standard example for rhetorical exercises, because it’s just so beautifully constructed. It’s genius for the character within the world of the play, and it’s genius for what it tells an actor playing the part. I had the great fortune last week to test out my rhetoric workshop (still very much a work-in-progress) with groups of visiting students from Colorado College and the University of South Dakota. As giddy as I get playing with rhetoric on my own, it’s so much more exciting to bounce ideas off of other people, lead them through what I know, and then see what they find that I didn’t notice.

So. Mark Antony, grief-stricken but already plotting revenge, convinces Brutus and Cassius to let him speak at Caesar’s funeral. Brutus goes first, giving a prose speech where he explains that he killed the tyrant though he loved the man. When Antony steps up, he’s initially fighting a losing battle. He addresses it thus:

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with Caesar. The noble Brutus
Hath told you Caesar was ambitious:
If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
And grievously hath Caesar answer’d it.
Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest–
For Brutus is an honourable man;
So are they all, all honourable men–
Come I to speak in Caesar’s funeral.
He was my friend, faithful and just to me:
But Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.
He hath brought many captives home to Rome
Whose ransoms did the general coffers fill:
Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?
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.
You all did see that on the Lupercal
I thrice presented him a kingly crown,
Which he did thrice refuse: was this ambition?
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And, sure, he is an honourable man.
I speak not to disprove what Brutus spoke,
But here I am to speak what I do know.
You all did love him once, not without cause:
What cause withholds you then, to mourn for him?
O judgment! thou art fled to brutish beasts,
And men have lost their reason. Bear with me;
My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar,
And I must pause till it come back to me.

I wish I had a way to put my rhetorical markup in the blog, but I don’t think the system will support it, so I’ll have to talk you through instead.

The dominant devices in use are those of repetition and those arranging contrast. He repeats key words throughout the speech, reminding the audience both that “Brutus said he was ambitious” and that “Brutus is an honorable man.” What I like is the build; he starts out just repeating words (polyptoton on “grievous”), then he moves into phrases, then, by the end, it’s full lines (diacope and epistrophe). There’s a sort of confidence-building you can see in the way Antony structures his repetitions. But why repeat those words specifically? Well, the very repetition of those ideas forces his audience to call the truth of them into question. Each time he says Brutus is honorable, he’s making the plebs wonder if that is, in fact, the case. That he mates the repetition with carefully seeded rhetorical questions (erotema) amplifies this effect. The focus on honor is also Antony’s way of avoiding blame; no one can accuse him of inciting the people against Brutus if he keeps telling them that Brutus is honorable. What one of the students in our workshop pointed out last week is that the repetition could also be a way of re-hooking the audience if he senses that he’s starting to lose them, to pull them back in. In this way, the rhetoric gives acting clues not just for Antony, but for the plebs as well.

Antony’s devices of direction are sometimes of building force (auxesis), but more often of arranging contrast (antithesis). His either-ors contrast Caesar’s generosity with his supposed ambition. He wants his audience to draw distinctions between what they knew about Caesar and what Brutus said about Caesar, between Caesar’s actions towards the people and Brutus’s claims of ravenous ambition, and then to decide for themselves that Brutus was wrong to kill him. Whereas Brutus had to justify his actions, Antony doesn’t have to justify anything. He simply lays out facts about what Caesar did, what ambition should look like, and what Brutus said, and lets the plebs drawn their own conclusions. This contrast works hand-in-hand with the repetitions, as noted above. By circling around to the same ideas over and over again, he reels the audience in, taking them by degrees away from their allegiance to Brutus.

So, what does this tell us about Antony as a character? What clues does it give an actor? As one of the students in last week’s workshop said, he’s smart. Smart as a whip, in fact. The devices he uses are clever, and all the more so because he’s using them while under emotional duress, grieving for a friend, and with every awareness that the mob could turn violently against him. But Antony keeps it together. He presents his ideas clearly, and the constant repetitions seem to indicate that he knew from the start of the speech where he wanted it to go. He knows how to bring his audience along with him; the rhetorical questions, the contrast drawn by his antithetical statements, and his use of repetition lead the plebs to his way of thinking without his having to tell them directly what to think. They get there themselves, and that’s so much more effective for Antony’s purposes. His thoughts have a distinct and recognizable pattern.

Until the very end of the speech, he seems very much in control of his words, but then he breaks off, overwhelmed by emotion — a device known as aposiopesis. The end of the speech presents choices for an actor: Is Antony truly overwhelmed with passion, forcing him to break off his speech, or is he playing the emotion up to win the pity of his audience? Considering how methodical Antony has been up to this point, I would say that the emotional outburst is a calculation, another way Antony is manipulating the crowd. But an actor could definitely choose to play it differently, to show Antony as more emotional, and to connect his real heartbreak to his desire for revenge that much more strongly. One of the greatest things about rhetorical analysis is that it so often isn’t about finding the “right” answer — it’s about discovering options.

There’s so much I could say about this speech and this play — I didn’t even touch on Antony’s use of metonymy, and of course his address to the plebs goes on for another 130 lines or so, with plenty more rhetoric to pull apart. But all of that will have to wait — fortunately, I get to write a Study Guide for Julius Caesar, and we’re holding a special Teacher Seminar for it in August, so I’ll have plenty of time and plenty of opportunities to keep engaging with these fOCSinating words.