Saturday, July 26, 2008

Tiptoe Through the Sonnets in Stratford

Tom Hunter and I witnessed the latest of the attempts made in Stratford, Ontario to find some kind of flesh on the bones of the poet/playwright William Shakespeare. There just has to be a way to make some kind of “real” person out of these plays and poems! Ah, if only they could see the answer staring them in the face!

In recent years, Stratford has put on “Elizabeth Rex” about how Shakespeare met Queen Elizabeth in a barn the evening before the execution of the Earl of Essex and “Shakespeare’s Will” about Anne Hathaway’s recollections of life with William while reading his will after his death. The latest offering in these “speculative biographies” is “There Reigns Love”, a seemingly random stroll through the Sonnets devised and performed by acclaimed British actor Simon Callow (not to be confused with Simon Cowell of American Idol fame).

Mr. Callow has been presenting the work of John Padel, thereby saving it from the oblivion it may well deserve. But then again, who knows? John Padel was a psychoanalyst who in 1980 wrote a book called New Poems by Shakespeare. He (like many others before him) decided that the Sonnets, as published in 1609, could not be in the “proper order”. He was able to rearrange them into various tetrads and triads that would finally tell the “real story” that the sonnets reveal. He was promptly lambasted by virtually every Shakespearean scholar of all persuasions and his work has been all but forgotten (until resurrected by Mr. Callow)

This is the story of how William Shakespeare of Stratford was commissioned by Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke to write a series of sonnets for her son William Herbert (oh, the “W.H.” in the dedication of the sonnets!) on the occasion of his 17th birthday in order to urge him to marry and have children. Having done that, Shakespeare then proceeded to develop an intense “emotional attachment” to William Herbert, writing him a further 72 sonnets, arranged into 18 tetrads, for his 18th birthday. More sonnets were then written to him.

Then, perhaps anticipating Cyrano, Shakespeare decided to introduce “Mr. W.H.” to his mistress (with whom Shakespeare was having some kind of love/hate relationship) in order to “jump start” the young man’s seeming reticence about the opposite sex. Well, that plan worked too well, it appears, as the young man (Fair Youth that he was) began to take Shakespeare’s place in the affections of this Dark Lady. More sonnets on this topic ensued.

Finally, Shakespeare was forced to accept the situation and content himself with his inevitable failure with this young man, and “get on with his life”.

It’s a wonderful story. Maybe it’s true. Maybe it’s not. I’d say, not.

I was really dreading going to see this production, feeling that I would have to cringe throughout the whole thing. However, I actually found it very enjoyable. Mr. Callow performed the sonnets extremely well with great emotion and gestures and I couldn’t help “getting into the story”.

Although Padel managed to rearrange all 154 sonnets into the “proper order”, we were only treated to a performance of 66 of them (neatly arranged into 33 in each act of the performance) interspersed with some commentary by Simon Callow to “explain things”. I have the list and order of the sonnets which were presented available if anyone is interested in it.

To his credit, Mr. Callow did mention distinctly at the beginning of the performance that the whole thing is speculation and hypothesis. This is in distinction to the other two attempts by the Stratford Festival (which I mentioned at the beginning of this post) to find a “life” for Shakespeare, in which the speculative nature of the works was buried in the notes provided in the program book.

Of course, once the performance is on, the audience can quickly forget about this “disclaimer” and end up leaving the theater with the satisfying notion that they now understand Shakespeare the man.

The performance began with Mr. Callow reciting sonnet 129 and then explaining how this was the sonnet he wrote to secure the commission by the Countess of Pembroke. He then went on (I’m paraphrasing here), “Maybe. Who knows? Scholars have been arguing this for years. In fact, I could hear the scholars cringing even as I read that last sonnet.” At this point, Tom Hunter decided to test the theory we had heard about earlier that day during a Meet the Festival session that the actors on stage are fully aware of what happens in the audience. Tom proceeded to clap (softly) on hearing about the scholars cringing. The theory is true. Mr. Callow was momentarily distracted, but quickly recovered. Maybe he didn’t expect anyone to be listening that carefully to what he was saying.

After the performance, a small portion of the audience stayed behind for the Q and A session with Mr. Callow (including Tom and I although I did perceive that Mr. Callow avoided looking in our direction during this session [well maybe that was because there were only four audience members left on our side of the theater with most of the other people over on the other side]).

This Q and A session was very informative. We discovered that Mr. Callow does not necessarily believe in the story that John Padel has “uncovered”. Mr. Callow simply says that it seems obvious that there IS some kind of story contained in the sonnets and that John Padel’s story is the most complete elucidation of a possible story that he (Callow) has come across.

Later in the Q and A, Mr. Callow said that, when doing his presentation he is not sure if he is supposed to be “Simon Callow, William Shakespeare, or some other person who had the experiences written about in the sonnets”. Unfortunately, neither Tom not I was able to ask him to further explain this enigmatic comment.

The mystery of the sonnets lives on!

Sunday, July 20, 2008

All's Well at Michigan Shakespeare Festival

Dear Oberon,

I am pleased to report that a merry troupe of Oberoners spent an entertaining Saturday at the Michigan Shakespeare Festival at Jackson Community College in mid Michigan. The plays, All’s Well That Ends Well and Julius Caesar, were well done and exemplary of the festival’s high standards, but the highlight of the day had to be dinner with our guest, John Neville-Andrews, University of Michigan theater professor and Artistic Director of the Festival.

Mr. Neville-Andrews provided the group with stimulating observations about the festival and the direction of Shakespeare’s plays. He emphasized the need to understand all that can be known about the author of the works and encouraged us to keep him informed of our activities, including the Hamlet Project. We feel that, now that we have had a chance to become acquainted with him, that we have gained a new friend.

Mr. Neville-Andrews was in fact the director of All’s Well, a production that tosses out old shibboleths that the play is a problem comedy or that it is a dark comedy. He, instead, has accepted Shakespeare’s challenge to frame the play more correctly as it was intended. He chose to set it in Regency England for precisely that reason, because it was a time open to new ideas about personal relationships and gender roles. He views it as a social comedy in the mode of Ibsen, Chekhov and Strindberg, recognizing of course that Shakespeare preceded those dramatists by hundreds of years. He even felt confident enough to send the audience home with a song in their hearts with a 50s tune crooned by Carmen McRae. The beginning (you must see it yourself) and the ending of this production certainly demonstrate that Mr. Neville-Andrews is not afraid to go somewhat over the top.

With all of that, Mr. Neville-Andrews correctly goes to the heart of Shakespeare. In the program, he writes:
View the characters in the play as vulnerable, emotional human beings, with wants, needs, strengths, and weaknesses, and the play comes alive.

It is this kind of innovative yet relevant thinking that has characterized Festival productions, especially those of Mr. Neville-Andrews. The lack of that thinking in traditional theater has steered other directors away from this play.

Oxfordians would provide an additional perspective, of course, which we did at dinner, suggesting that understanding connections between Oxford’s life and the works carrying the pen-name William Shakespeare deepens our understanding of the work and adds another dimension to the genius we find there. Traditional critics have spent much time, for example, on the play within the play in Shakespeare but have resisted any attempt to learn about the play outside the play, Oxford’s experiences filtered through the literary media of poetry and drama to create and express the truths of an intensely realized life.

Mr. Neville-Andrews concludes his director’s notes with the observation:
George IV’s situation mirrored so closely the events in All’s Well That Ends Well.

It may be that the Elizabethan years might actually provide an even better setting for this play than the Regency period since the events in the play mirror even more closely the situation of a certain 17th Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere.

We will spend some time demonstrating that proposition in coming posts. Please stay tuned. You are invited to offer your thoughts on this matter, especially those of you who have seen Mr. Neville-Andrews’ production.

Also, we have a rare chance to compare productions, since this play which is so infrequently boarded, is being offered simultaneously in Stratford, Ontario. Richard Joyrich and I will be bringing you news from Stratford soon about their version of All’s Well. I am hoping only that the Stratford version is as insightful as that staged by John Neville-Andrews and the Michigan Shakespeare Festival.

Warmest regards to all,
Tom Hunter
Oberon Chair

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Theil comment on NPR


I sent a note to NPR thanking them for the authorship story they ran last week and giving my take on the issue. Today on the Morning Edition show -- July 10, 2008 -- they read comments from some letters on the topic and mine was one! What a thrill!

To hear the broadcast, go to Letters: Shakespeare, Physicians, Credit, Kindle and click on LISTEN NOW to load stream and hear the commentary.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Free Shakespeare in Buffalo, NY

Our friend Robin Y. saw a great King Lear for free at a Buffalo, NY park last week. This annual Shakespeare festival in Buffalo that started in 1976 is free to the public and draws crowds second only to New York City's Central Park Shakespeare in the Park free festival. The Buffalo, NY event has something else in common with New York's festival -- the park where the Buffalo festival is held was designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, just as Central Park was an Olmstead design. In fact, Robin says Buffalo boasts several Olmstead parks. Their Shakespeare festival takes place in the Olmstead design called Deleware Park, in Buffalo, NY. Here is what they say about the venue on their Shakespeare in Deleware Park website:

Our festival takes place in a historic park designed by Frederick Law
Olmsted, father of landscape architecture, and the nation's foremost parkmaker. Behind the Park's rose garden stands our grand Tudor-Style stage on a sweeping hill of green. In this beautiful setting under the stars, Shakepeare's stories live on to explore the truths of the human heart; tragedy, jealousy, foolishness, passion, laughter, and love.
King Lear is onstage Thursdays - Sundays through July 13; Merry Wives of Windsor runs July 24 - August 17.

P.S. The Buffalo Olmstead Parks Conservancy will hold an Olmstead Gala on July 18.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

NPR story on authorship

Tom Hunter heard this story on National Public Radio's "Morning Edition" program this morning and forwarded the information to Oberon membership:
Who wrote Shakespeare's plays? by correspondent Renee Montagne.

The broadcast is full of great information including a link to the full text of Mark Twain's 1909 publication, "Is Shakespeare Dead?" at the Electronic Text Center of the University of Virginia. The author quotes scholar Diana Price and provides a link to Chapter 1 of Price's book Shakespeare's Unorthodox Biography published by Greenwood Publishing Group in 2000.

There are also links to related NPR stories. The Price chapter is housed on the site of Public Broadcasting System's site for its Frontline program on the authorship -- a Marlovian point-of-view titled, "Much Ado about Something" that aired in 2003. The transcript to this program may be downloaded free of charge from the PBS site.

A free transcript is also available of Frontline's 1989 broadcast of "The Shakespeare Mystery" -- an Oxfordian take on the authorship question that introduced Charlton Ogburn Jr's passionate advocacy of Oxford to many viewers almost 20 years ago.

This Shakespeare Mystery site hosted by PBS features updates, links, a reading list and more on the topic of authorship.