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Archive for the ‘Theater’ Category

Loves-Labours-Lost
Love’s Labor’s Lost — Peter McGovern (who sings with a voice worthy the first actor who played this role — and Feste too) — just of one of the many strange images in this production

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Love’s Labor’s Won — the key ritual moment made torturous

Dear friends and readers,

I might not have noticed that the Folger Shakespeare Library offered an HD screening of a paired production of Shakespeare’s Love’s Labor’s Lost and Love’s Labor’s Won (Much Ado About Nothing re-named as an act of faith by Christopher Luscombe, the director of both), had I not over four weeks spent well over an hour (I wish it had been longer) watching, listening and reading a Future Learn course, Much Ado About Nothing, sponsored by the Shakespeare Trust Birthplace, the Royal Shakespeare Company also in Stratford, England, and the University of Birmingham on Much Ado About Nothing in Performance. (See my blog outlining this course, scroll down.) The same cast, the same set based on Charlecote Park, the same time, just before (LLL) and just after (LLW) World War One.

The underlying thesis of the course was that a “dark” interpretation of Much Ado About Nothing, one which gives as full weight to the Claudio-Hero story, the malevolent action of the depressive betrayer, Don John, as to the Beatrice and Benedict witty courtship, makes much more sense of the whole play. I noticed as with Josh Whedon’s production of MAAN in his own home on film, the Dogberry and Verges story took on resonances which were not snarkily condescending towards lower class people, and instead brought out how these ordinary townsmen found out the sinister plot, reported it, and their nervous (perhaps depressive) leader, Dogberry, lived in his own agon of continually corrosively self-flagellated pride. Nick Haverson played Costard and Dogberry. Michelle Terry was both Rosaline and Beatrice; Edward Bennet, a fully-felt enactment of Berowne and Benedict.

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The drive around the park (Love’s Labor’s Lost)

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Opening match-set between them in Much Ado About Nothing (aka Love’s Labor’s Won)

I’ve also watched the Shakespeare Re-Told production-film of MAAN where I missed Shakespeare’s lines very much (despite great acting by Damien Lewis especially as Benedict and Billie Piper as a believable angry Hero) and felt view that a “dark” interpretation makes the play “right” or come alive is inadequate.

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Love’s Labor’s Lost. The two times I’ve seen LLL every effort was made to make it hilarious, and in one case they succeeded brilliantly with the play within a play (rather like the Pyramus and Thisbe play inside Midsummer Night’s Dream). This production did not go for this kind of comedy at all, and indeed not much humor except the occasional exposure of absurdities, people spying on one another, found out and the like. Rather it was a dance of figures in a leisured landscape.

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The secondary gentlemen vowing their abstinence, the secondary ladies sauntering through the grounds

Yet there was no strain in bringing out the darker threads in the talk of the play. They seriously presented the poetry as arising from illuminated enthralled visions of love. Given the talent of Peter McGovern, songs were added — all highly longing and erotic, and meditative. I began to wonder how the other productions had managed to be funny.

The play’s wordiness came out a lot: its puns, its mockery of language. In the present US atmosphere and mass media (epitomized by the many PBS costume dramas where characters hardly have a long utterance lest the audience grow restless) this does not please. (Hilary Mantel and Peter Straugh’s Wolf Hall is a recent exception.) I saw empty seats after the break, even though the break itself had had a 10 minute fascinating film by the theatrical designer who showed us how he used the choice of Charlecote Park to make his stage settings. He seemed to want to bring the proscenium stage back.

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For me the result was a revelation: the acting and the four young men opening themselves up to charges of softness, open vulnerability, in short the “feminine” projected an undercurrent of eroticism towards their unknown targets (after all they have hardly seen the French princess and her ladies) not contained by the heterosexual relationships. The men were so (if you will) unashamed of their depths of feeling and softnesses — they were not afraid lest they not be perceived as manly. Jane Smiley suggests this fear limits the kind of male characters we can have on screen.

The play made me want to reread early criticism of this play which argued it was made for a group of young male aristocrats, which included Southampton, who was perhaps an erotic target or lover (?) of Shakespeare. Not working to make it hilarious (you have to work at such effects) brought out its “queerness” in the original sense of the term. Why have four young men vow not to have sex, not to be with any women for three years (not to eat much or sleep much either); why this symmetry which is so artificial. Why the emphasis after false performative erotic behaviors? I wondered what modern “theoretical” and queer studies or the new historicism makes of this play. Surely that sexuality is constructed as well as really impelled by appetite and vision.

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Unwanted women — whether goddesses or huntresses

I felt exhilarated by something that had been revealed by the turns from patterned behavior to visions to deep sadness. The sets and costumes with their strangeness, fairy tale elements, references to war fit well too.

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Love’s Labor’s Won: After all I was a wee bit disappointed perhaps because I was expecting too much. The talk of the actors, the designer, the director, script writer had all been so intriguing about the dark currents and unappreciated veins of comedy, I forgot that they couldn’t get beyond the text of the play. Individual actors could pull out of lines new sources of emotion; but there is a limit as they have to reach to its darknesses beyond what the language lets us.

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A normative scene as the nurses and returning soldier scenes fade from memory

You cannot cut the wry satiric highjinks which seem somehow are out of kilter with the driving force of Don John and the way the Hero-Claudio story was pulled out as well as some currents in Beatrice and Benedict. I began to think of all the many melancholics in Shakespeare’s plays. Usually Shakespeare empathizes. Not here. But what is Don John given to do? Very little. He is lame in this production — from the war?   The actor played an excellent game of billards. It may be Luscombe has overinterpreted a somewhat confused “problem” play

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Wonderfully timed comedy as the chief of the watchman takes it upon himsef to tell Leonato that Hero was wrongly shamed

Several of the actors brought something new to the play, especially Michelle Terry. She lent depth and a sense of the past she had had with Benedick to her part. She would sound sudden notes of self-controlled desperation. She is not conventionally pretty, not quite a “jolie laide” in the way of say Jodhi May and I fear that will limit her career, the parts she is permitted to play.

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The wedding terror

Nick Haversham playing Dogberry turned the part into one of an anguished man hurt over how everyone despises him — and yet it was his (or his silent partner, making me think the same actor must’ve played Sir Andrew Aguecheek to this characters Toby Belch in TN) persistence that brought the criminals to light.

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Love’s Labor’s Won — Nick Haverson as the sensitive Dogberry

Luscombe’s directing brought out how the deceit practiced by Don John to shatter his enemies is a mirror of the other deceits to manipulate Benedict and Beatrice and to punish Claudio too. Don John has no trouble persuading Borachio to masquerade with Margaret as Hero (rather improbable). How different is this from the deceit swiftly practiced on Benedict and Beatrice by their respective friends to break down their pride. The manufactured ending is based on more masks and more deceits. But since everything is swept under the rug at the close when Claudio is forgiven by Hero and Beatrice forgets whatever her past experience with Benedict was, this parallelism loses its significance. I wish I could have compared the other dark versions of this play discussed in Future Learn and look forward to seeing the Shakespeare Re-done version of MAAN with Damien Lewis as Benedict and a non-passive Billie Piper as Hero.

I loved the new seeming 1920s kind of music, and the settings from World War One as the play opened and then ended were very effective. There were many references to death in both plays, in Love’s Labor’s Lost the death of the French king, the funeral like structures in the play,

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In Much Ado, men are not to be trusted; at the drop of the slightest excuse, they humiliate and (Leonato too) threaten to kill women. They are more loathe to kill one another:

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Again death: the supposed death of Hero, Beatrice’s wanting Claudio dead, the funeral service all led to group mourning. Then the grieving over World War one and all those deaths, all those gone? But then the getting together of the couples and especially Beatrice and Benedict.

NearEnd

What was it we were to feel? The play does call for dancing at its close and the actors dance away.

DANCE

It seemed to me the paired plays enriched my understanding of Love’s Labor’s Lost more they did Much Ado About Nothing. Bringing them together suggested that this “problem” aspect of Shakespeare’s plays, deep melancholy and visionary undercurrents are not something that starts after Romeo and Juliet (Twelth Night can be played as deeply bitter), or around the time of the great tragedies (as who could laugh at All’s Well’s that Ends Well, and the intertwined rage, desperation, hypocrisy, sexual crises of Measure for Measure), but are there from the very beginning.

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The set ourside Charlecote Park: Love’s Labor’s Lost

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The set inside Charlecote Park: Love’s Labor’s Won

I should say how I hope more of these RSC productions come to the Folger on the HD screen.  If I lived closer I would go to their poetry readings and lectures regularly. The trip is an hour and fifteen minutes for me (car, walk, train, walk again and then reverse it).

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I had arrived early and saw an unusually good exhibit about the discovery of the Longitude: Ships, Clocks and Stars.

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Much to my surprise the Folger had on loan all four of Harrison’s time pieces: the cumbersome first three with their pendulums and complicated works. Beautifully shiny gold. How could he have thought such a machine could withstand an ocean storm. And how super-careful the two institutions had to have been to send the clocks across the ocean. And then Harrison final transformative insight into a stop watch was shown by having in the exhibit the exquisitely beautiful one made by Harrison himself. There were other pictures of people I’d read about but never seen an image of, interesting maps, educational explanations about the problem of finding the longitude, the attitudes of the learned astronomers. I barely had time to get in as the play began.

Intermission: There is a public relations young woman who greets people at the door and tries to make everyone feel “at home.”  Another new idea is to set up a separate wine bar downstairs; this makes for shorter lines and I was able to drink my whole glass of wine each time before half way through the intermission and get back in in time for the interviews with the director and set designer. The second time I met and talked to a friendly French woman and she was taking the Metro too so my trip home so I did not feel bleak and lonely the way my trip home usually does.

Ellen

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The Flying Dutchman, WNO
Eric Owens as the Flying Dutchman

Dear friends and readers,

Are you someone tired of over-produced plays, movies, operas? This opera has one set, a proscenium arched rectangle which serves as backdrop for ships, the port, houses, places for dancing, and ghostly sequences. Are you tired of scenes where you are continually distracted from the characters’ personality, situation, engagement with other characters? This production leaves you to experience for lengths of time the central psychological state of each character alone and as they are in contact with others all aria long, framed by occasional eruptions of the male and female choruses. You are given a chance to savor the characters’ and the music.

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Christiane Libor as Senta

OTOH, if you are tired of symbolism, of 21st century interpretations of older material, this production will not serve as a relief. For me the quiet use of costume, prop, and pictures (set designer Giles Cadle), not to omit the racial composition of the cast to suggest that the Dutchman is not just some Gothic Wanderer, male outcast wandering amid seas, but a cynosure of the black slave of last century and the exploited and destroyed and angry and brooding black man of today made the production more meaningful.

Owens’s performance a few years ago as Alberic the dwarf in a kraken rage intended to evoke black men’s rage was repeated here — only he is not in a rage so much as as profoundly melancholy and in need. The use of red (=blood) ropes to entangle him was part of this. The drawing that Christiane Libor as Senta is so taken by reminded me of so many depictions of black men in the 19th century either as slaves or sharecroppers or stage minstrels:

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With Oscar Wilde (“contradiction is the bugbear of little minds” said he or something like that), I don’t mind contradiction. So somewhat startlingly to me who have endured so many outrageously masculinist (not to use a worse word) Wagnerian operas, as we neared the ending where Christian Libor as Senta dressed in fire-engine red is about to board the ghost ship, to follow her dutchman about for life, out came a row of whorish (from their make-up and centuries of stereotypical wigs, outfits, leering expressions, exposed breasts) frightening-looking women. They reminded me of the women imprisoned forever in Bluebeard’s Castle in the recent HD Met production of of Iolanthe & Bluebeard’s Castle. Instead of being asked to condemn Senta for her sudden withdrawal from the Dutchman, we were asked to identify with her justifiable fear. The words in the surtitles of her change-of-heart aria to Erik, whom she had been engaged to before her father was seduced by the Dutchman’s gold and had deserted, referred to her long knowledge of Erik and how much affection they had known:

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Jay Hunter Morris as Erik dressed as white southern gentleman (might have been a slave-trader from his costume)

I heard someone remark on how Senta’s father (Daland, sung by Peter Volpe) would have seemed to someone in the later 19th century acceptable and understandable, and how we saw him today as absurd, naive, over-bearing, a fool to give his daughter away like this; as with the HD Met opera, this one production attempted to address this shift in values on behalf of a women’s autonomy, and in a similar spirit. Only this heroine was strong and would not become a hag accused endlessly of infidelity. This did not quite work as the feminist interpretation of Iothanthe and Bluebeard’s Castle did not work because neither are true to the opera’s libretto or music.

This opera is about a deep longing for death, for surcease; this is Tennyson’s poetry longing for rest from too many of the world’s demands and imprisonment. The Dutchman longs to die again and again and is death he says. At the close of the opera, dressed all in white, Senta flings herself into the waters to drown. She is so distraught at the Dutchman’s fate she wants to join him in death itself now too. I cannot find any photos of this scene so will refer to the reader to expressionist drawings of this final moment of the opera:

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A couple of people around me agreed the opera was “well-sung.” There was no intermission so no let-off in build-up. A woman nearby declared it “perfect in every way.” No more detail than that. It was directed by Stephen Lawless and there are two different conductors listed. For myself I admit I thought some of phases of the male and female choruses dull (as obvious as Oklahoma in early versions): too much simpering sentiment over women cooking and sewing and admirable manly males.

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A typical choral scene of men

The Flying Dutchman, WNO
Women with spinning wheel in front

It required patience somehow for me to sit through some of it.

Nonetheless I felt good I had gone when I read in my playbill that this production was modeled upon or similar to the one done at Glimmerglass in summer 2013. I went because Jim had bought tickets for he and I to see a Flying Dutchman at Glimmerglass during the later part of the second week of August 2013. He had bought for a concert as well as Camelot. He also got two lovely rooms for us in a boarding house by a lake. We never went. By that time the cancer had metatasized into his liver for over a week and he could hardly walk from one room into another. He knew by the last week of July he would not make it but did not know why. I can’t replicate what we would have known, nor bring him back to enjoy what he would have been engaged by. But I went partly on his behalf, in his place even if I am now half a person.

I suspect he might not have liked this production that much. When we went to a recital by Owens, he said Owens could not let himself go enough, not allow himself the inherent variety that was in him because of his black identity and memories. Had to remain noble. It was probably the symbolic direction because in Porgy and Bess Owens was remarkably many-sided and brilliant.

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I recommend going if you live nearby or if the production moves to where you live, or if it’s aired, turning on the TV or your computer to watch.

Ellen

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One of Renee Fleming’s stand-up numbers: it’s of a magical child who has left the singer: “how could you leave me alone” the refrain – stop and click and listen ….

Dear friends and readers,

When today while Yvette and I were watching the HD opera broadcast of the latest new HD production, Lehar’s The Merry Widow, starring Fleming as Hanna, I recalled to mind one night years ago. Jim and I were in a live audience somewhere and had been listening to a live act on stage of male rock-n-roll well-known singers; they ceased, and Pavarotti came on stage and began to sing. It was startling, just felt like he was knocking you off your seat. Jim began to laugh aloud so superior were they to all this noise, microphones and all. We were in the first row, and I may have imagined it but I thought he caught Pavarotti’s eye for a moment.

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Fleming early in the first act — in the later scenes her many changes of costumes included no widow’s weeds

So too after I don’t know how many minutes of trivial supposed funny dialogue (some of which thudded badly or was not pointed enough, especially between Sir Thomas Allen as the count, and Mark Schowalter as the winking perhaps gay servant, Njegus), and Fleming was brought on. Kelli O’Hara (playing the count’s perhaps unfaithful wife) was just pathetic in comparison, her voice one reedy stream, until towards the middle of the third act she came out with a can-can costume amid the chorus of Broadway dancers and did a powerful effective wry playfully sexy number

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What depth of feeling was pulled out of this production (and there was some) was mostly the result of Fleming’s songs, Fleming’s singing when she intones “The Merry Widow Waltz” and “Off to Maxim’s” her voice vibrates with alluring trembling trills. She just outdistanced them all. I fell to crying three times, real crying, the yearning for romance, and the lied refrain “how could you leave me alone” just entered into me.

Somehow the love story between the two aging principals, Nathan Gunn as Danilo and Fleming does start to move us gradually — alas Fleming’s face and neck are starting to show her age and she is uncomfortably stiff when dancing just a little or being pulled back to be kissed; Gunn is none to lithe. The waltz music helped — on the way home Yvette began to hum or sing the musical line; how lovely her voice sounded.


A finer rendition than anything in this production: Placido Domingo (he sings with delicacy) and Ricio Martinez, Rio, 2014

Towards the end of the second act the rousing dance numbers begin, some by the men in a kind of mock chorus: what is it that makes women so strange — and yes, not to be trusted (that stereotype duly trotted out). Gary Halvorson, the director for live cinema (never mentioned in any of the increasingly hyped interviews), took all the right shots. It was fun to watch the stage change from a garden to Maxim’s while the curtains remained open — through keeping our attention on the dancers as all around them the props and settings moved.

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Susan Stroman, whose origins as a Broadway choreographer were repeated too often (as well as her and everyone else’s endless awards), nonetheless deserved credit for the risqué nature of the dancing which was suggestive as well as exhilarating.

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The production’s hard-working dancing grisettes — in 19th century France grisettes were also hard-working women, sometimes milliners, or seamstresses who made ends meet by quiet prostitution on the side (it paid for your lodging)

At its best moments this operetta is a slightly heavy-handed but effective comedy with occasional brushes with romance that can still, just, reach us.

So, mark another highly conventional opera done traditionally for HD (“embalmed” said one critic). I remarked to Yvette that we were told before the broadcast began 37 school districts from around the US were watching. Before the intermission, the lack of any actuating believable emotion made for tedium. But after well-timed performances and “mistakes of the night” kind of humor also kept things going. Perhaps they could have used a bit more stylization. It’s too much to hope for re-thinking and making it contemporary (which they might have done in a European house — who knows?)

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I also thought (once again) of Downton Abbey. Was this not the same kind of pastiche, pastoral of upper class life, where hardly anyone can be seen doing anything transgressive for real, though they are all running about as if they are about to; where we are told the characters need huge sums of money because their “country” is threatened by bankruptcy, but far from deprivation, all there is in sight is luxury. In the house on camera shots, Yvette spotted the dress circle seats she and I had occupied while we saw the Death of Klinghoffer — at considerable more expense and effort.

It is grating how each time a hostess begins her major spiel for money to an HD audience, she emphasizes that no matter how wonderful the experience of this broadcast, it is nothing, NOTHING, to being in the house. The obtuse tastelessness and dishonesty (for the movie experience is in some ways far better and interesting, except for the irritating false upbeat pseudo-depth talk in most of the interviews) of this is matched by the reality of opera as an elite entertainment; if occasionally it crossed your mind (as it did mine in this production) to wonder about the parallels between street life in Austro-Hungarian cities in 1905 to street life today in New York or other cities across the US, it became harder to push the thought away. Capitalist bourgeoisie at play. Satieted rhythms in the songs.

When I cry at these movies for real, I find the people near me get uncomfortable quickly. People can bear very little reality. I could go on about the falseness of this stereotype of the merry widow. But Lehar was not a fool, and the story concerns a very young woman, a farmer’s daughter, poor, married off to a very old man who died on the honeymoon. If she marries, her fortune reverts to her husband. And in life in the 19th century widows often could not control who would inherit their money. So no possibility of grief? and yet these haunting lyrical lines recur starting at the end of the first act.

I’ll be teaching the Poldark novels and film adaptations (now we’ve got two!) this coming March at the Oscher Institute of Lifelong Learning at American University, and browsing the catalogue discovered a course in the Met opera seasons (apparently given regularly) where the practice is to watch those Met operas available on DVD not made into HD broadcasts (this year The Death of Klinghoffer, called “controversial”). Discussion then includes HD broadcasts as a comparison plus local operas (complete with a few guest speakers). An effort is made to discuss those operas not broadcast: I hope it is not on behalf of the idea that we must see the opera live to experience it most wonderfully as after all they are going to be using DVDs but rather to look into the choices and the different kinds of presentations HD-broadcast leads to.

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Kelli O’Hara and the dancers during rehearsal — seen in a previous HD-opera as part of an intermission

Ellen

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Derek Jacobi as Alan Turning being interviewed (1996 Breaking the Code, directed by Herbert Wise, script by Hugh Whitmore)

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Victor McLaglen as Gypo Nolan (1935 The Informer, directed by John Ford, script by Dudley Nichols)

Dear friends and readers,

While I bought in New Year’s Eve quietly, alone with my cats, I watched two films: both unexpectedly great: Breaking the Code, a 1996 90 minute British TV film, based on Andrew Hodges’s 1983 biography of Alan Turning, and John Ford’s The Informer which was so powerful, a piece of German expressionist art turned to popular movie account I was astonished.

You can watch all of Breaking the Code on line instead of (wasting your time) seeing The Imitation Game:

I hope you took the hour and one half out. If not, here are a few notes which perhaps might tempt you. Instead of presenting Alan Turing as a kind of (freakish) autistic person never getting long with anyone after a brief youthful friendship in school with a young man who died of TB, Derek Jacobi plays a complex man who has a number of relationships, but is unable to fulfill himself as centrally part of his life because of the cruelties of the anti-homosexuality of English culture, the lack of understanding of a sensitive unconventional mind.

Breaking the Code is set mostly in the 1950s. There are flashbacks to the 1930s in school (a young Blake Ritson plays the friend who died from TB) and then to 1940s when Turing is hired (no atmosphere of paranoia or heroism; no justifications of murdering people to protect the “enigma code,” no silly team of a few men saving the world who also happen to be spies); in the 1996 film we see a slow building of relationship with his immediate boss (who is not crazily hostile, but half-sympathetic, played by Richard Johnson), and the woman he engaged himself to who did love him and he loved (played by Amanda Root), but he did not want a sexless or false-front marriage. I found very touching the depiction of Jacobi as a homosexual man trying to find companionship and the lack of dignity and threat, the sordidness and contempt of what he had to endure in the one person he could find to spend time with him.

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I could understand deeply how someone brought up in the 1950s looking at homosexuality might say I don’t want to be that, I don’t want to know that and hide away. He is seen having an affair on Corfu (where he could have some safety). Equally gripping was the way he was treated in 1951. Pinter plays the M16 person who begins to have Turing monitored and put pressure on him after the trial: yes for national security it’s said. As we look at the desk where he slowly he gathered the drugs he used to kill himself we have a sense of how this came from a process across his life. Prunella Scales is brilliant as his genteel mother who has no understanding of her son and repeats the world’s cant to him but loves him; Alun Armstrong as the relentless narrow police officer (he reprised a verision of this as Inspector Bucket in Andrew Davies’s mini-series Bleak House).

Here is an account of the staged play and the awards it won. Herbert Wise’s work includes I, Claudius; High Whitemore many different stints writing one-time plays for British TV, and 1970s to today’s mini-series (including Stevie [Glenda Jackson as Stevie Smith], A Dance to the Music Of Time, recently The Gathering Storm.

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Then I turned my attention to a novel, by Liam O’Flaherty, DVD, a redigitalized The Informer with a feature describing the filming (means, cost, people involved, goals, first reception), George Bluestone’s famous essay comparing the book and film (Novels into Films). Unfortunately this film is not on the Net, but a thorough defense and explication of in lucid terms (it has been attacked) is:

A Ford Crucible by Blake Lucas. It’s long interested me as an exploration of a role once regarded as abhorrent to all people fighting oppressive gov’ts, tyrannies, wars (when E. M. Forster said he hoped he’d betray “his country” before his friend”), informing for monetary or other rewards on friends, colleagues, family to powerful people. The opposite of the today reviled and hounded-down and punished “whistleblower.”

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I was deeply moved by McLaghlen’s performance of a non-thinking hulk of a man driven by poverty, a desire to stop his girlfriend from selling herself on the streets as a prostitute, a momentary blindness to all the consequences of his act (not just the immediate murder of the man he informs on, but the results on the organization of which they are part, the man’s family) and unawareness of his own feelings. Yes the movie is a lot more sentimental: in the novel the characters are far harder, selfish, his girlfriend is treacherous, the man he informs on a treacherous murderer himself; to make the movie more widely appealing Ford turns ordinary people into exemplary heroes and heroines, but this does not detract from the central fable of the awakening of this man’s remorse and the relentlessness of others around him to his act. The use of fog, of mist, the black-and-white interfused medium of the few streets, and rooms and archetypal direction is daring — Gypo Nolan is a sort of Frankenstein monster rejected by all a seething and bewildered humanity. He cumulatively gains dignity and forgets what he has done because it is too unendurable.

Since this past summer when I began once again to watch American-made movies from the 1930s to 40s, I have been so startled at how many were superb, not because of the Hays Code but in spite of it. These were pre-1950s, pre- the successful attempt of reactionary and rightist groups in the US to remove all pro-social feeling, all history from a working class point of view honestly represented. This is tale of Irish people as they seek, violently, crudely, to achieve political independence. O’Flaherty’s Famine, a novel set in the the 1840s is part of this history, and John Ford and Dudley Nichols committed to making films of integrity and intelligent art.

On one of my listservs, a member argued how important it is to pay more attention to how history is rewritten. What is erased and subsituted. Look at the difference between The Imitation Game and Breaking the Code, at The Informer versus Zero Dark Thirty.

Ellen

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Bakerswifeemily-blunt
Emily Blunt as the Baker’s wife going it alone …

The way is dark
The light is dim
But now there’s you, her and him.
The chances look small,
The choices look grim,
But everything you learn there
Will help you when you return there.
— from the Choral Into the Woods

Dear friends and readers,

Jim loved Sondheim’s musicals, and I’ve just spent an hour or so perusing my and Yvette’s Christmas gift to him one year, the tall beautifully bound, Look, I made a Hat! (covering the years 1981-2011),

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most of which is by Stephen Sondheim, and contains full and partial accounts of many musicals (not all produced, some just in the idea stage, some extant just as a coupe of songs, a costume design), but for Into the Woods enough of the dialogues, most of the songs, and thinking and ideas behind the stage productions to enable the reader to re-enjoy and understand what he or she has just seen and heard.

Of Into the Woods Sondheim begins by writing that the first act is farce and the second tragedy. As many people know by now, the matter consists of at least 6 folk and fairy tale figures conceived as ordinary people who (like Six Characters in Search of an Author) must enact quests, all of which require them to go into the woods where they collide with one another, and do not exactly live happily ever after by the end. Many may not know Sondheim and James Lapine also saw the characters as “first achieving their goals, and then dealing with the consequences of what they did there.”

They did not follow Bettelheim’s Uses of Enchantment: Sondheim says this book is cited as their source by many people because it’s so well-known. Sondheim seems to dislike Bettelheim’s book and refers to Bettelheim’s terrible behavior at his aslyum. He says what James (who wrote the book) was interested in: “the little dishonesties that enabled the characters to reach their happy endings;” he was “sceptical about the possibility of ‘happy ever after'” (so could not be a Bettelheim person as Bettelheim justified the cruelty of the tales by the happy endings, which he insisted children believed in).

James’s play, Twelve Dreams, shows he was drawn to Carl Jung; they talked to a Jungian psychiatrist; learnt all the tales they chose were known in versions virtually around the world. The exception is “Jack and the Beanstalk” which seems to be a British Isles folk tale. Sondheim much preferred Grimm versions to those of Perrault (and says Disney and US school vesions come from the French). The gimmick was to mash the tales together. Sondheim gives Lapine credit for the elegance of the interweave. They ended up giving 3 midnights for the Baker and his wife to supply the witch’s demands before she’d give them a child:

The cow as white as milk,
The cape as red as blood.
The hair as yellow as corn —
The slipper as pure as gold.

As to himself (he writes the lyrics and music, the core of all opera), he sees the result as a musical about parents and children, about their relationships. Songs are about the experience of learning and gently ironic about what’s learnt. Sondheim remarks that the Baker and his wife are a contemporary urban couple trying to survive and to have a baby. What remains in my memory from Disney’s version is the Baker’s wife seeing Rapunzel’s hair rushing madly to the tower to wrest it, climb up and scissor it off. So Disney captures a current US obsession one finds in married women (they must become mothers).

The photos chosen are from a 2011 production done in Regent’s Park, London. The pages include sample scores, and handwritten notes and songs first written out in fairish copies reproduced. One of the photos is so large but scrumptious because of the park setting; the witch’s outfit is superb. There were no children in any of the parts; adults give the roles more depth.

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“Our Little World:” Rapunzel and her mother-witch clinging and rocking

Onto this year’s Disney movie: I didn’t need to read the the songs and dialogues and outline to recognize that Sondheim and Lapine’s stage play had been changed well beyond the needs of a film. the movie is directed by Rob Marshall, and the credits for writing are to James Lapine. There is a name given to someone else for the screenplay on the film credits, but it does not appear on IMDB. So like a translator a central person responsible for the movie is not named — perhaps he worked his screenplay from Lapine’s to Disneyfy it, and then they collaborated?

When we got out of the theater, Yvette recounted to me all the many literal large literal changes: while on stage and in the movie the baker’s wife (Emily Blunt) and Jack’s mother both die, in the movie Rapunzel (Macknzie Mauzy) does not kill herself after having a nervous breakdown from those years in the tower, but rather has a short episode of PTSD and is rescued by one of the princes.

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The Disney film Rapunzel is at least not altogether well

In the movie the evil witch (Meryl Streep) self-destructs rather spectacularly; in the play she lives on. Each of the changes has the effect of making for more (however serendipitious) justice and less misery. The play is further disneyfied by an over-production that overpowers, prettifies, drowns out the striking moments of exceptional embodiments of some of the characters (e.g., Johnny Depp as the wolf capering into nothingness) and the singing and acting of the lyrics smooths out to make neutral witty lyrics that mock heterosexual romance.

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Promotional still of Johnny Depp as the wolf, and Lilla Crawford as Little Red

As I watched the movie reminded me of our last year’s time with the Disney Saving Mr Banks: two child stars at the center; the anguish of frustrated husband-hero (here the Baker, James Corden, last year Mr Banks).

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At Regent’s Park an adult actor played Jack

There was not one seat unfilled in the auditorium (and yet the movie was playing on two screens) of this house meant for a mass audience I don’t usually sit among so the laughter at inanities further got in the way, not to omit an opening nerve-wracking full half-hour of tremendously noisy, flashing trailers for action-adventure fantasies and crude teenage sequels.

Nonetheless, not all disquiet could be removed, and this masterpiece retains some of its power and intense vivacity: by the middle of the second hour, I was sufficiently intensely engaged that I was surprised by grief when Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) burst into the song lyrics of “No one is alone:”

Sometimes people leave you
Halfway through the wood
Others may deceive you.
You decide what’s good.
You decide alone.
But no one is alone …
Cinderella to the Baker (in original version sung to Little Red who suddenly misses her grandmother)

Jim has left us halfway through the wood. At the moment of that song, of the plangent music, I was reminded of how strangely filled with his absence the world everywhere now is, the very air I see registers he’d not there by its color, wherever I go I wish what even this fairy tale wouldn’t grant, wipe away death, the past year and one half and return to the comfort of his presence. He would not have liked this movie adaptation but would have gone for the sake of the day’s togetherness.

I began to cry and Yvette & I held hands. She felt and knew too. This is not the only passionate adult number. There’s the witch’s sudden appeal to Rapunzel, “Stay with me:” “Don’t you know what’s out there in the world? … Stay at home … Who out there could love you more than I? …

Stay with me
The world is dark and wild
Stay a child while you can be a child …

Or the “Agony” of the two princes (Cinderella’s and Rapunzel’s, Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen). What can have caused this “disdain”? or her vanishing? Not every thing in life revolves around love and human need for company. Jack’s mother (Tracey Ullman) worries about starving; Jack (Daniel Hutttlestone) is attached to his cow:

Exclusive... Tracey Ullman Films "Into The Woods"
Jack is fonder of the cow than his mother

The “indecisive” Cinderella (the wittiest moment of the whole experience) does not trust to anyone, “The skies are strange/The winds are strong.”

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She realizes her dress and shoes are stuck in sticky-pitch the prince has laid across the steps to halt her nightly flights

Even the plucky Little Red is not unflappable. Indeed the the sky’s air is filled with a fearful giant who stands for whatever you want. Sondheim’s characteristic staccato rhythms keep interrupting with aphoristic fragments that linger in the mind: “how do you say to a child who’s in flight./Don’t slip away and I won’t hold so tight.” “Children will listen,” and the lyrics from the musical’s secondary big and repeating number, are justly famous:

Careful the spell you cast,
Not just on children.
Sometimes the spell may last
Past what you can see
And turn against you.

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The five characters left to leave the wood and live together at the close: Baker, new baby, Cinderella (who doesn’t mind some cleaning she suddenly says), Jack and Little Red

There is much sheer situation comedy too: the vexed characters argue at cross-purposes, accusing one another of being at fault.

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The Baker attempts to reason Little Red into giving up her red cloak

As to romance, it seems Chris Pine is a new heart-throb (Disney people know what they are doing when they cast roles):

INTO-THE-WOODS-Chris-Pine

It’s significant to note that there is not one African-American actor on the screen who is visible — except perhaps fleetingly in non-speaking walk-on roles.

I thought Disney ruined Streep’s ability to perform when her aging face was transformed into a youthful mask of such thick wrinkle-free flesh it was clear they didn’t want anyone to identify her as a 50+ year old woman who has some realities of aging. Can’t have that. Of all the performers she seemed least able to overcome the Disneyfying all around her. Maybe she was trying too hard.

Still, especially if you’ve never seen the musical before, or haven’t seen it for a long time (my case), I recommend going, perhaps on off-hours and with a determined attempt to come in just as the actual movie is starting (avoiding attached trailers).

Like so many people in my area (and as far as I could see from the TV news across the US), Christmas day has become a day to go to a movie. The parking lot of our local huge 12 screen movie-house was filled by the time Yvette and I left at 3:30 pm.” Two movies were sold out: The Imitation Game (I do mean to go by myself next week) and Unbroken. If the holiday is still centered in the family, the family no longer spends the whole day home together. Probably wise. Hard to say how many do this as the roads were fairly empty. The streets quiet. I like the quiet of the streets, few people about, later in the day in pairs or little groups or alone, walking with pets.

It may be becoming commoner to do “a Jewish Christmas:” She and I went to an Chinese restaurant I remember going to nearly 30 years ago (not on Christmas), a small one which has Peking duck and well-cooked other dishes at a reasonable price; and while we didn’t need a reservation, by the time we left (after 5 pm) there was a 20 minute wait for a table. We enjoyed talking of the movie afterwards: Yvette has a good memory and regaled me with the details of a production she said she, I and Jim had seen some years ago at Mason University and we talked of the individual actors’ careers and performances.

In the evening my cousin just my age (woman, like me, many years married) phoned me and I was good hour on the phone with her catching up. A planned tentative Boxing Day with my other daughter, Caroline, at the National Gallery (the museums in DC on the day after Christmas are most of them open and crowded with shows mounted for just this holiday time) did not come off today. Among other things, I had the time wrong: Georgian Cinema begins January 12th. But the place will have this unusual early film exhibit, which I will go to in a couple of weeks.

I will ever remember the summer the Kennedy Center allowed Eric Schaeffer to take over the place with his direction of some 8 Sondheim musicals. How Jim, I and Yvette went to 6 (at a high price). How at the end of the summer, the day of the last performance of A Little Night Music (the last of all the performances), there were acts going on all over the building, some seemed spontaneous. How Jim loved best Passion and A Little Night Music and Merrily We Roll Along (not enough well known, a bitterer one about the cost of a successful career whose gimmick is to tell the story backwards). Jim nonetheless wanted to see them all and if any came into our area, or we were in any place where one was showing, he’d choose it as one of the theatrical events we’d go to.

As I read the book last night I found myself regretting I had not sat down and read it with him, nor the one I bought him the year later for Christmas, Finishing the Hat (covering the years 195-1981),

finishing-the-hat

more and earlier musicals told of, younger photos of him, with an essay on Rhyme and Its Reasons, which I will today.

I regret all the time I spent at my computer, on the Net, and not with him. I feel an irony in that I deluded myself I had company, made myself not so alone by my time here; well here I am condemned to do it for life, or until I can’t any more when I’m too old. Like some fairy tale.

Once in a while he’d say “you don’t pay attention to me,” half-teasing. I have to tell myself if he had wanted me to spend more time with him, he’d have asked for it and because he had a way of putting things that compelled my immediate assent if the utterance was serious, I would have. Sometimes I think he didn’t want me all that close. Anyway that’s what I tell myself (the little dishonesties the characters tell themselves in the tales) in this great absence I must live with everywhere and all the time.

Ellen

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VivienLeigh
Vivien Leigh as Blanche DuBois (1951 Kazan/Williams Streetcar Named Desire)

Dear friends and readers,

Another announcement of a publication. (Rest assured very soon this will stop and I will return to our regularly scheduled programming mostly about films and books.) I’m happy to say my review of Nora Gilbert’s Better Left Unsaid: Victorian Novels, Hays Code Films and the Benefits of Censorship is now published on-line in Cercles: Revue pluridisciplinaire du monde anglophone

Better Left Unsaid, reviewed by Ellen Moody

Those who read this blog more than occasionally may recognize a few of the films I’ve written blog reviews of: Preston Sturges’s Miracle of Morgan’s Street, Cukor’s Philadelphia Story and Gaslight, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. I’ve been enjoying myself mightily watching (and re-watching) a selection of the films covered by this book and also reading for the first time (Thackeray’s Catherine: A Story) and rereading (Bronte’s Villette) a selection of its Victorian novels, not to omit material on actresses and other people centrally involved in film-making.

The book is significant because aspects of its thesis, its assumptions may be found in many recent and older publications. Perhaps among the more interesting of the secondary books I read was the collection by Kucich and Sadoff called Victorian Afterlife (about historical fiction too), and some of the individual screenplays and books on these films; also James Chandler’s The Archeaology of Sympathy comparing 18th century sentimental novels with (among other film-makers) Capra.

I would not have thought comparable Austen’s Mansfield Park with Cukor’s Gaslight:

BergmanGaslight
Ingrid Bergman as Paula Alquist readying herself virtuously for bed (1944 Cukor/John Van Druten Gaslight).

I also liked following trails away from the main movies and books under consideration; one of these I’ve seen before included a commentary on the famous scene between Rod Steiger and Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront where in the make-believe cab seat we and Charlie Malloy (Steiger) are made to feel Charlie’s terrible betrayal of Terry Malloy (Brando)

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(Kazan/Schulberg, 1954 On the Waterfront)

I wish I had made more time to develop separate blogs on these books and films but do urge my readers to read and to watch or re-watch these books & films.

itsaWonderfulifeforblog
See some Christmas commentary coming out of It’s a Wonderful Life this year – Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey pleading with the inexorable banker to give him more time (it’s the banker who has been able to steal the money George had been saving to pay his debt).

Ellen

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FolgerJuliusCaesarTW.5
Haunting presences which fill stage again and again

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The soothsayer (Nafessa Monroe)

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Central presences: Brutush (Anthony Cochrane) and Cassius (Louis Butelli)

Dear friends and readers,

If you are anywhere near the DC area, you’ve got five days left to see this stirring and visionary production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar directed by Robert Richmond with its striking stage design by Tony Cisek, costume Mariah Hale, lighting Jim Hunter. As Kate Havard writes (for once this is an accurate description), this is a dramatization of Shakespeare’s play which speaks home to us in 2014 as about war’s futility and cruelty, the ambition of self-blinded men, the destruction of a republic (however ill led by a vain man, aka Caesar played vaingloriously by Michael Sharon), with hooded figures everywhere. People on the watch for surveillance and ambush. The costumes of the war scenes in the second half were those of WW1, the gassing of populations was invoked (this has been a year of memorials of 1914), but the highlighting (rightly) of the aka-47 (killed more human beings than any other) invented first in 1945/6 shows that the reference is universal. had they the courage, Brutus should have been dressed as an Arab (bin Laden would have shocked, but what say you to one of the leaders of the Arab Spring in Egypt), with Mark Anthony in Western garb, or vice versa.

The women are minor or secondary presences who plead with their men to keep away, and the solution was to choose actresses who looked alike and like the soothsayer

portia
Portia (Shirine Rabb)

Calpurnia
Calpurnia (Deidra LaWan Starnes)

who turn turn up as women in the chorus as destroyed as well as easily led and suffering people.

It is at the same time a testament to the vitality and intelligence of this production, the play is still centered on a relationship as the text is: that between Cassius and Brutus, with Brutus, the conflicted hero-villain whose later grim thoughts anticipate Macbeth’s:

CassiusBrutus

Brutus

I’ll remember to my dying day, my father saying to me when I was around 10 and we had gone to see this play somewhere or other and he had read it afterward, how brilliant and astonishing was the scene between Cassius and Brutus where the Cassisus says, hurt, petulant, “What cold to me,” and Brutus replies when accused of not liking Cassius as his friend anymore, “I do not like your faults.” How human, how real the utterances, my father said. The slow awakening of Brutus to what is evil, the deterioration of this pair’s relationship, their individual noble suicides are kept intact. Perhaps Mark Anthony is made corrupt too quickly; in the play Anthony does care for Caesar, is angered, even if we quickly see what he admired in Caesar was not his republicanism as Anthony pricks off who to kill and who to bribe. As a character he was more sidelined than usual, since his indignation and modicum of idealism was not believed in:

MarkAnthony
He seemed too much a tough guy (who one could see in Titus Andronicus)

But the touching boy-like sleepiness and innocence (to Brutus) of Lucius (William Vaughn) is kept, and his loyalty to Brutus, so human nature’s better potentials are here too, though the overall effect is nihilistic. The actors playing the tertiary roles were effective here, especially Maboud Ebrahimzadeh as Casca/Messala.

The production did remind me of last year’s Richard III in its use of straight-forward traditional large gestures and symbolic staging, both had highly theatricalized acting. When the lights were on, this set was beautiful in its grey marble.

The last time I saw Julius Caesar was at the 14th Street Shakespeare company (many years ago now), and it was just saturated in blood. The imagery of the play does call for it; this production kept blood to a discreet minimum. I understood that, but thought the substitution of the leafs from red poppies had the unfortunate effect of somehow valorizing the hideous slaughter of WW1; I know that was not meant but recently I’ve watched a profound Future Learn MOOC on “Trauma and Memory” in World War One, one which focused on those who survived, just, wounded horribly, on those hardest hit (millions) by the loss of family members and friends, and whole neighborhoods decimated. I’m just not keen on these fields of beautiful poppies. But it’s a small flaw.

The exhibit in the Great Hall linked in: it was about a pair of scholars who undecoded some manuscripts said to prove that Bacon and not Shakespeare wrote the plays, and as context, there were cases showing the history of codes for surveillance, and one showing how kings and queens in the Renaissance used codes for spying on one another and communication.

This staging made me recall the famous MGM production on film, and I rewatched (a YouTube), James Mason as a more sensitive Brutus, John Gielgud a humane Cassius, Marlon Brando a noble Mark Anthony, Deborah Kerr Portia, and Greer Garson Calpurnia as again interchangeable, with Louis Calhern as an arrogant Caesar, directed by Joseph Mankiewicz. It was far more personal, more hopeful.

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Mason as a much softer sensitive Brutus

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Gielgud as Cassius frantically hurt, angry at Brutus

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Brando as a seethingly dignified Anthony

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The two women, Kerr and Garson again made interchangeable

Still time to make it there.

I’m continuing to watch and listen to Bate’s Shakespeare and His World, another fine MOOC, well worth reading the plays for and watching more than once. To these two blogs: Weeks 1-3; Weeks 4-8, I add here another commentary on the final week of Jonathan Bate’s Shakespeare and his World

Week 10, 12/3/2014: This was a concluding week in which Bate attempted to account for the transformation of Shakespeare into a much respected playwright, but one among his fellows to his present domination and ubiquity, something not far off from idolatry; he moved from how popular Shakespeare’s plays were in his era, to the later 17th century when Shakespeare held his own, however adapted into the 18th century, the first serious editions, lives of Shakespeare by Rowe, Pope, Theobald, Johnson. Here he did pause to go over a few of the adaptations of the era. The clincher or turning point was Garrick’s Jubilee in which he brought together the continuous stage traditions and these editions, and the reading of Shakespeare (the sonnets had begun to be paid attention to) into a outward public series of ceremonies at Stratford which became a site de memoire. He hastened over the 19th century to our own time and wandered among shelves to show us how many languages Shakespeare is now translated into.

Watching this spurred me to write about the Julius Caesar presently at the Folger here in DC, a play much played over the century.

There was a 300 word assignment in which we were asked to write about a creative text coming out of Shakespeare (a post-text) and how it reflected some of the themes of the course. I was tempted to write but did not spend enough time on it. I cut down my blog on Shakespeare Restored and talked about how interesting it was to see these adaptations had some merit. Also that I had wished he had gone over Shakespeare’s sonnets as in these we feel we reach this remarkable man’s mind and presence, seen in his open vulnerability, candor: it’s this self that has made these plays what they are.

Ellen

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