No doubt you have seen this headline from The Onion, one of their best: “Unconventional Director Sets Shakespeare Play In Time, Place Shakespeare Intended.”
In recent years, the young director Arin Arbus (the daughter of the recently deceased actor Allan Arbus, whose fist wife, the photographer Diane Arbus, was the younger sister of Howard Nemerov) has been demonstrating, through her brilliant, critically acclaimed productions of Othello, Macbeth, Taming of the Shrew, and Much Ado about Nothing--all at Theater for a New Audience--that Shakespeare unadorned by heavy directorial concepts still has what it takes to reveal to us our humanity like nothing else in the theater. (Whew! I should probably go back and break up that endless sentence!)
The point is that the plays work. They are reliable box office—people love Shakespeare!—and as dramas (if left alone to do their thing) they never miss. It is always worthwhile hearing a production of Shakespeare, no matter how amateurish or mean. As long as one can hear the words, the play will take care of itself. I find something new every time. Even shallow productions take you deeper.
Several years ago, my sister Katie (an educator and co-author of a wonderful book called Practice Perfect, on the importance of practice in any significant achievement) directed a phenomenal production of Macbeth at the San Francisco public school where she was teaching. There was a kind of Road Warrior feel to the mise en scène—instead of fighting with swords they fought with led pipes (and occasionally someone would get conked!).
I’ll never forget Lady Macbeth coming out in an evening gown, with a glass of red wine in her hand, and slurring her way though “That which hath made them drunk hath made me bold.” There was some slight issue with her remembering her lines, but it still knocked my socks off!
This week I cuaght a delightful (and often funny) dress rehearsal of Romeo & Juliet, by my daughter’s grade-school class. Despite numerous technical glitches (a bad dress means a good opening!), the show was both delightful and eye-opening. First, I was struck by how well the comic tone worked, right up until the play becomes tragic. This seemed just the right touch, and I remembered seeing a brilliant and hilarious hippy-monk Friar Laurence at Columbia University a while back that was side-splitting and also scary in how his touchy-feeliness opened the way to destruction.
Hearing my daughter’s production (she was one of three Nurses; I think there were at least four Juliets), I caught some of Shakespeare’s lines that I hadn’t paid much attention to before and whose music reminded me of the Sonnets.
I had known about a connection between R&J and the Sonnets before—the play contains a number of sonnets and sonnet fragments. Anthony Hecht gets at it very nicely (as well as at the connection to Love’s Labour’s Lost), in his introduction to the New Cambridge Shakespeare Edition of The Sonnets, edited by G. Blakemore Evans:
In the 1870s Walter Pater [in Appreciations] argued that some parts of the early play Love’s Labour’s Lost resembled the Sonnets: “This connecxion of Love’s Labour’s Lost with Shakespeare’s poems is further enforced by the actual insertion in it of three sonnets and a faultless song.”
Robert Giroux, in his book The Book Known as Q: A Consideration of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, calls LLL “the sonnet play.” In fact, as Hecht points out, the play only contains two sonnets that follow our current definition of the form. Hecht continues:
[Giroux] would have done better to have cited Romeo and Juliet, which employs far more sonnets, as well as sonnet fragments. Indeed, Shakespeare seems in that play to have counted upon his audience’s familiarity with some aspects of the sonnet form, and with that form’s association with amatory verse.
So true! By which, of course, Hecht means, for example, the first exchange between the lovers, in which their dialogue takes the form of a sonnet:
If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle fine is this,--
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.
Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
For saints have hands that pilgrims' hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers' kiss.
Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?
Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.
O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do;
They pray, grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.
Saints do not move, though grant for prayers' sake.
Then move not while my prayer's effect I take.
Here's a couplet from my daughter’s production that caught my ear, when Juliet says:
My only love sprung from my only hate!
Too early seen unknown, and known too late!
These lines reminded me of how many rhymed couplets there are scattered through the play! They also reminded me of how the argument moves in many of the Sonnets, in particular through chiasmus (or crossing of terms), as in Sonnet 129:
Enjoy'd no sooner but despised straight,
Past reason hunted, and no sooner had
Past reason hated, as a swallow'd bait
On purpose laid to make the taker mad;
Mad in pursuit and in possession so;
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.
All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.
Also: The repetition of the word “will” in the scene, in Act III, between the Capulets and Paris reminded me of Sonnets 135, 137 and 143, in which Shakespeare puns on his own name:
So thou, being rich in 'Will,' add to thy 'Will'
One will of mine, to make thy large 'Will' more.
Let no unkind, no fair beseechers kill;
Think all but one, and me in that one 'Will.' (135)
Ah, well. I may be just makin' these smaller connections up. But it's true that I did remember, out of the blue, the general sonnet connection, as I was listening. The Sonnets' music just rang out from the play.
At any rate, as I say, it’s always rewarding to hear a Shakespeare play, even out of the mouths of babes!
For a free production in NYC this summer (for which, unlike the Public, you don’t need to wait in line), check out New York Classical Theatre’s The Tempest, which has been announced for late summer. (First up, in May and June, is their production of The Seagull.) I've seen several of thier site-specific shows, and they were all really solid, including a fine Hamlet in the World Finacial Center and a Twelfth Night in Central Park.
G'bye BAP! Thanks for a great week!