I have the grimmest memories of being taught Shakespeare. It happened in a high school in Ontario in the ’sixties. I’m sure that my teacher meant well. It was on the curriculum, and what could she do? It started with Romeo and Juliet, in connexion with which we were taken to see a movie. This was also called “Romeo and Juliet,” directed by Franco Zeffirelli, and starring Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey. Tell the truth, I fell in love with the actress — for hours; days maybe. But then I’ve always been a fool for women. We were taught not the play, but the movie; then as we moved on to The Merchant of Venice (I think it was, I wasn’t paying much attention) we were taught not the play, but “what it all means.” I can only bear that when the teacher has some notion of what it all might mean, herself.
My interest focused curiously enough not on Romeo, nor Juliet, nor any of the powers at play in Verona, but on Friar Laurence, and his charitable if somewhat naive efforts to prevent bad things from happening. Shakespeare here and elsewhere had the nerve to present Catholic monks and nuns in a good light, after they’d been scoured from the English landscape. Pay attention, and know anything at all about his times, and one will see that he has consistently reversed the “stereotypes” promoted in Elizabethan England. There, as here today, the traditional practitioners of religion were satirized for corruption and hypocrisy. In Shakespeare, instead, the monks and nuns scramble about trying to fix one mess or another that the worldlings have created for themselves, and somehow reconcile them with Our Lord. We see plainly who the real Christians are, and who are not. And if we want real hypocrisy and corruption — we find for instance Angelo, in Measure for Measure, with his parade of fake asceticism, and lines to echo those of contemporary “reformers.”
I mention that play as extremely topical, in light of recent events at Rome. Also, because it was once taught to me as an exposé of religious life, when it is — shriekingly — the opposite.
But by that point in my life (age fourteen) I was already a Shakespeare votary, and no high school teacher could kill my enthusiasm for him, much as she might (unwittingly) kill it in everyone else, by making a drudgery of the subject. The basic clew was missing among the pedagogues, as it still is: that this subject teaches itself. It needs only a stage, only to be pronounced, for the “music” in verse and prose to begin explaining all the words. The less prepared a student is to resist Shakespeare, the faster he will succumb to the charm. This has been tested: even before audiences in India with little knowledge of English in any dialect; or in Germany a long time ago, where English strolling players took Shakespeare when London theatres had been closed. The story of Shakespeare’s conquests, in English and a hundred other languages, is one the English themselves have hardly understood, and exhibits to my mind the truth of Kipling’s: “What do they know of England, who only England know?”
David Warren, “Teaching Shakespeare”, Essays in Idleness, 2015-01-19.
May 21, 2016
January 30, 2016
People who oppose Soviet-style collective farms, government subsidies to agriculture, or public ownership of grocery stores because they want the provision of food to be a private matter in the marketplace are generally not dismissed as uncivilized or uncaring. Hardly anyone would claim that one who holds such views is opposed to breakfast, lunch, and dinner. But people who oppose government funding of the arts are frequently accused of being heartless or uncultured. What follows is an adaptation of a letter I once wrote to a noted arts administrator who accused me of those very things. It articulates the case that art, like food, should rely on private, voluntary provision.
Thanks for sending me your thoughts lamenting cuts in arts funding by state and federal governments. In my mind, however, the fact that the arts are wildly buffeted by political winds is actually a powerful case against government funding. I’ve always believed that art is too important to depend on politics, too critical to be undermined by politicization. Furthermore, expecting government to pay the bill for it is a cop-out, a serious erosion of personal responsibility and respect for private property.
Those “studies” that purport to show X return on Y amount of government investment in the arts are generally a laughingstock among economists. The numbers are often cooked and are almost never put alongside competing uses of public money for comparison. Moreover, a purely dollars-and-cents return — even if accurate — is a small part of the total picture.
The fact is, virtually every interest group with a claim on the treasury argues that spending for its projects produces some magical “multiplier” effect. Routing other people’s money through the government alchemy machine is supposed to somehow magnify national wealth and income, while leaving it in the pockets of those who earned it is somehow a drag. Assuming for a moment that such preposterous claims are correct, wouldn’t it make sense from a purely material perspective to calculate the “average” multiplier and then route all income through the government? Don’t they do something like that in Cuba and North Korea? What happened to the multiplier in those places? It looks to me that somewhere along the way it became a divisor.
Lawrence W. Reed, “#34 – ‘Government Must Subsidize the Arts'”, The Freeman, 2014-12-05.
November 2, 2015
Anthony King looks at Macbeth as a PTSD sufferer:
Although the descriptions are graphic, Shakespeare’s play itself includes few on-stage battle scenes. Only at the very end does Macbeth actually fight on stage, a last stand in which he kills the young Siward (his last victim) and is in turn killed by MacDuff. For the rest of the play, all of Macbeth’s violence is set off stage, described but never seen. The audience imagines his violence — they do not witness it.
Justin Kurzel’s striking new adaptation of Macbeth, released on October 2, 2015 to critical acclaim and starring Marion Cotillard and Michael Fassbender, represents a cinematographic inversion of the original. In his film, battle predominates. The film begins with an extended combat sequence. Macbeth and his army are gathered on a bleak moor as they prepare for battle against Macdonaldwald’s army, unseen in the dense fog. The camera pans across the black-striped war-painted faces until, initiated by Macbeth, the host issues a war cry and plunges toward their enemies, who appear spectrally in the distance through the murk. In ultra-slow motion, the two armies clash and brutal fighting follows. Most notably, one of Macbeth’s boy soldiers, on whom the camera dwells tellingly before the battle, has his throat cut during the fighting and bleeds out darkly on screen. Eventually, Macbeth charges Macdonaldwald and slashes him to the ground. The scene is followed by a long sequence in which the dead are gathered and prepared for cremation, including the boy soldier, whose image haunts the rest of the film.
Macbeth’s apparently fearless heroism and remorseless violence is on display throughout these sequences. Yet the sequences highlight an aspect of Macbeth’s character normally absent from adaptations of the play and presumably from the original play, but highly relevant to a 21st-century audience. Macbeth is a combat veteran and, despite his courage, he is plainly severely traumatized by his war experiences. Kurzel and Fassbender construct him as a victim of PTSD, and he displays the classic symptoms of this perturbing condition.
November 1, 2015
Terry Teachout wrote about Danish comedian/pianist Victor Borge back in 2005:
I doubt that many people under the age of forty remember Victor Borge, the comedian-pianist who died in 2000 at the miraculous age of ninety-one. He was a star for a very long time, first on radio, then TV, and Comedy in Music, his 1953 one-man show, ran for 849 consecutive performances on Broadway, a record which so far as I know remains unbroken. From there he went on the road and stayed there, giving sixty-odd concerts in the season before his death. Borge spent his old age basically doing Comedy in Music over and over again, which never seemed to bother anybody. I reviewed it twice for the Kansas City Star in the Seventies, and loved it both times. His Danish-accented delivery was so droll and his timing so devastatingly exact that even the most familiar of his charming classical-music spoofs somehow remained fresh, as you can see by watching any of the various videos of his act.
It’s hard to imagine that there was a time when so popular a comedian started out as a serious musician, much less one who became popular by making witty fun of the classics. Such a thing could only have happened in the days when America’s middlebrow culture was still intact and at the height of its influence. Back then the mass media, especially TV, went out of their way to introduce ordinary people to classical music and encouraged them to take it seriously–which didn’t mean they couldn’t laugh at it, too, as Borge proved whenever he sat down to play.
Borge’s act resembled a straight piano recital gone wrong. He’d start to play a familiar piece like Clair de lune or the “Moonlight” Sonata, then swerve off in some improbable-sounding direction, never getting around to finishing what he started. Yet he was clearly an accomplished pianist, though few of his latter-day fans had any idea how good he’d been (he studied with Egon Petri, Busoni’s greatest pupil). He usually made a point of playing a piece from start to finish toward the end of every concert, and I remember how delighted I was each time I heard him ripple through one of Ignaz Friedman’s bittersweet Viennese-waltz arrangements, which he played with a deceptively nonchalant old-world panache that never failed to leave me longing for an encore. Alas, he never obliged, and in later years I found myself wondering whether he’d really been quite so fine as my memory told me.
October 12, 2015
I don’t know about you, but the first embedded video here at Open Culture sounds much more “Irish” than modern “English” to me:
As we highlighted a few days ago, recent findings by South African scientists suggest that William Shakespeare may have smoked pot, possibly composing some of his celebrated plays while under the influence. Their research is sure to spark controversy among Shakespeare scholars and historians alike, but it’s certainly a more interesting controversy than the tired debate about whether Shakespeare wrote his plays at all. Perhaps even more interesting than Shakespeare’s drug of choice for lovers of his language are debates about what Shakespeare’s plays might have sounded like to his original audiences. In other words, high or not, what might Shakespeare, his actors, and his audience have sounded like when they spoke the language we call English.
Of course they called the language English as well, but we might not recognize some words as such when hearing Shakespeare’s accent aloud. On the other hand, it might be surprising just how much the Bard’s original pronunciation sounds like so many other kinds of English we know today. In a post two years ago, we quoted Shakespearean actor, director, and writer Ben Crystal on Shakespeare’s original pronunciation, which, he says, “has flecks of nearly every regional U.K. English accent, and indeed American and in fact Australian, too.” Hearing Shakespeare’s English spoken aloud, Crystal remarks, is hearing a sound that “reminds people of the accent of their home.” You can test this theory, and hear for yourself the sound of Shakespeare’s English with the video and audio highlighted here, showcasing Crystal’s performance of the plays in original pronunciation (OP).
September 20, 2015
The chastity belt was a device invented to preserve the chastity of Crusader knights as they rode off to defend the Holy Land. The chastity belt was an in-joke in theatre performances from the early fifteenth century onwards. One of these two statements is closer to the truth than the other, as Sarah Laskow explains that most of what you’ve heard about the chastity belt is false:
What was the chastity belt? You can picture it; you’ve seen it in many movies and heard references to it across countless cultural forms. There’s even a Seattle band called Chastity Belt. In his 1969 book Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask), David R. Reuben described it as an “armored bikini” with a “screen in front to allow urination and an inch of iron between the vagina and temptation.” “The whole business was fastened with a large padlock,” he wrote. With this device, medieval men going off to medieval wars could be assured that their wives would not have sex with anyone else where they were far, far away, for years at a time.
Yes, it sounds simultaneously ridiculous, barbarous and extremely unhygienic, but … medieval men, you know? It was a different time.
This, at least, has been the story that’s been told for hundreds of years. It’s simple, shocking, and, on some level, fun, in that it portrays past people as exceeding backwards and us, by extension, as enlightened and just better. It’s also, mostly likely, very wrong.
“As a medievalist, one day I thought: I cannot stand this anymore,” says Albrecht Classen, a professor in the University of Arizona’s German Studies department. He set out to reveal the true history of chastity belts. “It’s a concise enough research topic that I could cover everything that was ever written about it,” he says, “and in one swoop destroy this myth.”
Here is the truth: Chastity belts, made of metal and used to ensure female fidelity, never really existed.
However, there is a small but thriving trade providing modern day chastity belts to eager BDSM fans, and they’re available in both male and female designs. I nearly described that as “equal opportunity”, but I guess “equal frustration-of-opportunity” is more like it. Feel free to Google image search those if you like, but be prepared for a fair bit of NSFW images if you do.
August 1, 2015
In Vice, Milo Yiannopoulos discusses the long-lost-then-found early Ayn Rand novella Ideal, which Rand reworked into a play:
According to Michael Paxton, who directed the world premiere of the play in 1989, Ideal gives readers an insight into Rand’s state of mind in the early 1930s: Her first novel, We The Living, had been rejected by publishers for being “too intellectual,” and the writer was struggling with odd jobs, having recently moved to the United States.
“It examines the artist’s process,” Paxton told me from his hotel room in North Carolina, where he was set to give a talk at the Ayn Rand Institute’s Objectivist Summer Conference. “How do you be an artist and live in the world at the same time? It’s amazing how, once you’ve lived a little in the world, you can really understand these characters and the issues they’re dealing with — not being understood, thinking the world doesn’t care whether you live or die.”
His assessment is not universal. Perhaps predictably, the New York Times hated the play when it premiered off-Broadway in 2010, concluding that, “the show’s clumsy mix of long bursts of theory and a laborious plot would test the endurance of even Alan Greenspan, a famous Rand admirer and veteran of long, boring meetings.”
As a play, Ideal went unperformed for 60 years after its writing, and was never seen on stage in Rand’s lifetime, though Paxton says that may have something to do with its practical demands: The play has 37 characters and tons of set changes. But he thinks it’s worth the effort: “What’s surprising about the play is that it has a lot of humour, and a lot of satire in how it makes fun of organized religion. It’s subtle, and very funny.”
The good news is the new edition also includes the entire play script. So you can gather 37 of your closest right-wing nutcase allies — or lefty culture jammers, as you prefer — and stage it yourself to find out.
Ideal the novel, which Rand herself set aside as unsatisfactory, is less polished than the stage version, and, despite flashes of Randian flair, there is evidence that the author was still struggling to find her voice. Readers familiar with The Fountainhead will recognize the seeds of that work in this early effort. Thankfully, though, Ideal is not one of those works of juvenilia that ought to have remained lost.
Rand’s critics, often humourless literalists, will find plenty in Ideal to gnaw on: There’s the classically Randian was-it-rape-or-wasn’t-it sex scene and a blisteringly heartless remark after a death that will have fans sniggering and detractors drumming up all the manufactured fury they can muster. And, yes, Rand’s writing can be a bit… much.
But profound, existential loneliness, coupled with a Buffy the Vampire Slayer–esque sense of ordained personal greatness is why so many cheerleaders for capitalism relate to Rand’s lead characters, from Gonda to The Fountainhead‘s Dominique Francon.
May 2, 2015
An older article from Lesley McDowell at The Independent, discussing the relationship between Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett:
When Mary McCarthy said of Lillian Hellman, “every word she says is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the'”, a certain attitude was fostered. Not only to the celebrated playwright’s experiences in war-torn Spain during the 1930s or before the House Un-American Activities Committee during the 1950s, but also to her personal life. Hellmann, this attitude said, was a myth-maker of the worst kind. She couldn’t be trusted to tell the truth, not even about those she loved. So what if she wrote in her memoirs that crime writer Dashiell Hammett, with whom she lived on-and-off for 30 years, was the most important person in her life? “Did anyone ever see them together?” queried Gore Vidal.
Writers make myths out of people’s lives, especially their own. And when writers become embroiled with other writers, the opportunity increases ten-fold. It was to Hammett, the pulp magazine writer turned detective novelist, that she always owed a debt, Hellman insisted. The completion of her first play, The Children’s Hour, in 1934, just four years after they met at a Hollywood party, was all thanks to “help from Hammett.” She “worked better if Hammett was in the room.” Yet Hellman’s words about this crucial relationship have been doubted too. Perhaps it didn’t help that she wrote in her 1969 memoir, An Unfinished Woman, “what a word is truth. Slippery, tricky, unreliable. I tried in these books to tell the truth…I see now, in re-reading, that I kept much from myself, not always, but sometimes.”
Lillian Hellman was married to a writer, Arthur Kober, when they wound up in Hollywood in 1930. Kober had a script-writing job and Hellman was a script-reader. She was 25, bored in her five-year marriage and had writing ambitions. When she met Hammett at a party, he was 36 and famous, the bestselling author of Red Harvest and The Maltese Falcon. Different accounts of their first meeting don’t help Hellman’s case for truth-telling, but there is a nastier undercurrent to those who doubted Hellman’s version of the subsequent relationship.
Hammett was extremely handsome and rich, thanks to his books. Hellman was never a pretty girl, and had a forthright manner that scared people. Some doubted Hammett’s interest in her: why should such a successful writer take up with an unattractive nobody?
January 27, 2015
David Warren explains how he deduced that William Shakespeare was probably a Catholic:
Long before I became a Catholic, I realized that Shakespeare was one: as Catholic as so many of the nobles, artists, musicians and composers at the Court of Bad Queen Bess. I did not come to this conclusion because some secret Recusant document had fallen into my hands; or because I subscribed to any silly acrostic an over-ingenious scholar had descried, woven into a patch of otherwise harmless verses. My view came rather from reading the plays. The Histories especially, to start: which also helped form my reactionary politics, contributing powerfully to my contempt for mobs, and the demons who lead them. But with improvements of age, I now see an unmistakably Catholic “worldview” written into every scene that is indisputably from Shakespeare’s hand. (This recent piece by another lifelong Shakespeare addict — here — will spare me a paragraph or twenty.)
That our Bard came from Warwickshire, to where he returned after tiring of his big-city career, tells us plenty to start. The county, as much of Lancashire, Yorkshire, the West Country, and some other parts of England, remained all but impenetrable to Protestant agents and hitmen, well into Shakespeare’s time. Warwick’s better houses were tunnelled through with priest holes; and through Eamon Duffy and other “revisionist” historians we are beginning to recover knowledge of much that was papered over by the old Protestant and Statist propaganda. The story of Shakespeare’s own “lost years” (especially 1585–92) has been plausibly reconstructed; documentary evidence has been coming to light that was not expected before. Yet even in the eighteenth century, the editor Edmond Malone had his hands on nearly irrefutable evidence of the underground commitments of Shakespeare’s father, John; and we always knew the Hathaways were papists. Efforts to challenge such forthright evidence, or to deny its significance, are as old as the same hills.
But again, “documents” mean little to me, unless they can decisively clinch a point, as they now seem to be doing. Even so, people will continue to believe what they want to believe. In Wiki and like sources one will often find the most telling research dismissed, without examination, with a remark such as, “Against the trend of current scholarship.”
That “trend” consists of “scholars” who are not acquainted with the Bible (to which Shakespeare alludes on every page); have no knowledge of the religious controversies of the age, or what was at stake in them; show only a superficial comprehension of the Shakespearian “texts” they pretend to expound; assume the playwright is an agnostic because they are; and suffer from other debilities incumbent upon being all-round drooling malicious idiots.
Perhaps I could have put that more charitably. But I think it describes “the trend of current scholarship” well enough.
Now here is where the case becomes complicated. As something of a courtier himself, in later years under royal patronage, Shakespeare would have fit right into a Court environment in which candles and crucifixes were diligently maintained, the clergy were cap’d, coped, and surpliced, the cult of the saints was still alive, and outwardly even though Elizabeth was Queen, little had changed from the reign of Queen Mary.
The politics were immensely complicated; we might get into them some day. The point to take here is that the persecution of Catholics was happening not inside, but outside that Court. Inside, practising Catholics were relatively safe, so long as they did not make spectacles of themselves; and those not wishing to be hanged drawn and quartered, generally did not. It was outside that Queen Elizabeth walked her political tightrope, above murderously contending populist factions. She found herself appeasing a Calvinist constituency for which she had no sympathy, yet which had become the main threat to her rule, displacing previous Catholic conspirators both real and imagined. Quite apart from the bloodshed, those were interesting times, in every part of which we must look for motives to immediate context, before anywhere else. Eliza could be a ruthless, even fiendish power politician; but she was also an extremely well-educated woman, and in her tastes, a pupil of the old school.
Indeed the Puritans frequently suspected their Queen, despite her own Protestant protestations, of being a closet Catholic; and suspected her successor King James even more. A large part of the Catholic persecution in England was occasioned by the need to appease this “Arab spring” mob, concentrated in the capital city. Their bloodlust required human victims. The Queen and then her successor did their best to maintain, through English Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, the mediaeval Catholic inheritance, while throwing such sop to the wolves as the farcical “Articles of Religion.”
The question is not whether Shakespeare was one of the many secretly “card-carrying” Catholics. I think he probably was, on the face of the evidence, but that is a secondary matter. It is rather what Shakespeare wrote that is important. His private life is largely unrecoverable, but what he believed, and demonstrated, through the media of his plays and poems, remains freely available. He articulates an unambiguously Catholic view of human life in the Creation, and it is this that is worth exploring. The poetry (in both plays and poems) can be enjoyed, to some degree, and the dramatic element in itself, even if gentle reader has not twigged to this, just as Mozart can be enjoyed by those who know nothing about music. But to begin to understand as astute an author as was ever born, and to gain the benefit from what he can teach — his full benevolent genius — one must make room for his mind.
December 12, 2014
Tracy Morgan looks at a British holiday tradition that didn’t seem to travel to the rest of the empire:
An actor in drag endowed with enormous boobs stands alongside an actress in male britches. Every year they tell the same jokes, flirtatiously sing silly tunes, bring a good-over-evil narrative to life and comment on everything — except much about Christmas. Yet theatergoers consider it a great holiday tradition, because nothing says Christmas to Brits quite like cross-dressing slapstick, screaming children and sexual innuendo.
British pantomimes run from late November through mid-January, and the question is not are you going, but which panto are you seeing? “For many people, a trip to the theater to see the pantomime is as big a part of Christmas as roast turkey dinner,” says Simon Sladen, assistant curator of modern and contemporary performance at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. ’Tis the season for the goodies to take the stage to cheers while baddies slink into view amid boos. A man plays the leading dame, and a woman often plays the starring male role, retelling classic fairy tales like Cinderella or Jack and the Beanstalk with a comedic twist. Chants from ticket holders include “Oh, yes it is” to “Oh, no it isn’t,” or the classic “It’s behind you!” to warn those on stage of imminent danger.
I’d always wondered where those phrases came from…
Unlike its silent namesake, these colorful productions — aka pantos — are a mishmash of very verbal theatrical genres, from Italian commedia dell’arte’s slapstick to the medieval mystery plays and the Everyman play’s morality. Pantomime, which originally meant “imitator of all,” is “reflective of the world around it,” says Sladen, referring to how it incorporates contemporary political and cultural jokes, modern music and fashion. Members of the audience are meant to see aspects of themselves in the characters and identify with their struggles and successes.
September 23, 2014
September 5, 2014
In the New Statesman, Tracey Thorn laments that she’s lost an excuse for not doing live performances herself and loses herself in the performance at the Hammersmith Apollo in London:
Six straight songs and then, just as we are relaxing, the stage transforms, and the drama begins: a multi-sensory performance of “The Ninth Wave”, the suite of songs that forms side two of The Hounds of Love (1985). There’s Kate on screen in a life jacket, apparently slipping away from us, singing “And Dream of Sheep”, one of her most beautiful songs.
I should probably write this somewhere more formal – my will, perhaps – but in case I forget, let me say here that I would be happy for you to play this song at my funeral. I weep as she sings it, partly because I’m imagining my own funeral, but also because we are witnessing a struggle between life and death, where a drowning woman yearns to be saved, to return to her beloved family. “Let me live!” she cries a few songs later. Overwhelming and exhilarating as they are, all the special effects – Kate in a tank, a helicopter search beam strafing the audience – are in the service of the songs and the story.
Why is it so moving? Well, because when finally she is brought back it is not just the fictional heroine, but Kate herself who has survived the years, and those cold seas, and returned to us. The two strands, family love and audience love, intertwine as she shows us how both mean so much to her. “D’you know what?/I love you better now,” she sings, as the first half ends and we wipe our tears.
Part two is calmer, more reflective, consisting of one side of the recent album Aerial (2005). Reprieved from death, she now revels in the simple, sensuous pleasures of life. Birdsong on a summer afternoon. The setting of the sun and the rising of the moon. In more conventional hands this could be merely decorous and pastoral, even a little twee, but somehow she has found a way to transform contentment into euphoria. The mood is hypnotic, rhythmic and trancey, and the stage dazzles with images of light and flight; less genteel garden party, more full-on midsummer rave, it could be the ultimate blissed-out headliner of a blistering, sunny Glastonbury.
And her singing voice, which I so worried about? It is a thing of wonder, any youthful shrillness replaced by a richer, occasionally gravelly tone, and with a full-throated power unbelievable in someone who has so rarely sung live. All I can think is that she must have been practising, on her own in a barn somewhere, for the past 35 years. Practising, planning, waiting for all the stars to align – her own desire, the cast of collaborators, the right time and place – in order for this to happen. And it is an ecstatic triumph, a truly extraordinary achievement.
May 9, 2014
Jon, my former virtual landlord sent along an interesting link:
An introduction by David and Ben Crystal to the ‘Original Pronunciation’ production of Shakespeare and what they reveal about the history of the English language.
April 26, 2014
Of all actors, the most offensive to the higher cerebral centers is the one who pretends to intellectuality. His alleged intelligence, of course, is always purely imaginary: no man of genuinely superior intelligence has ever been an actor. Even supposing a young man of appreciable mental powers to be lured upon the stage, as philosophers are occasionally lured into bordellos, his mind would be inevitably and almost immediately destroyed by the gaudy nonsense issuing from his mouth every night. That nonsense enters into the very fiber of the actor. He becomes a grotesque boiling down of all the preposterous characters that he has ever impersonated. Their characteristics are seen in his manner, in his reactions to stimuli, in his point of view. He becomes a walking artificiality, a strutting dummy, a thematic catalogue of imbecilities.
There are, of course, plays that are not wholly nonsense, and now and then one encounters an actor who aspires to appear in them. This aspiration almost always overtakes the so-called actor-manager that is to say, the actor who has got rich and is thus ambitious to appear as a gentleman. Such aspirants commonly tackle Shakespeare, and if not Shakespeare, then Shaw, or Hauptmann, or Rostand, or some other apparently intellectual dramatist. But this is seldom more than a passing madness. The actor-manager may do that sort of thing once in a while, but in the main he sticks to his garbage. […]
It is commonly urged in defense of certain actors that they are forced to appear in that sort of stuff by the public demand for it that appearing in it painfully violates their secret pruderies. This defense is unsound and dishonest. An actor never disdains anything that gets him applause and money; he is almost completely devoid of that aesthetic conscience which is the chief mark of the genuine artist. If there were a large public willing to pay handsomely to hear him recite limericks, or to blow a cornet, or to strip off his underwear and dance a polonaise stark naked, he would do it without hesitation and then convince himself that such buffooning constituted a difficult and elevated art, fully comparable to Wagner’s or Dante’s. In brief, the one essential, in his sight, is the chance to shine, the fat part, the applause. Who ever heard of an actor declining a fat part on the ground that it invaded his intellectual integrity? The thing is simply unimaginable.
H.L. Mencken, “The Allied Arts: The Cerebral Mime”, Prejudices: Second Series, 1920.
March 24, 2014
Emma Pierson does a bit of statistical analysis of some of Shakespeare’s plays and discovers that some of the play names are rather misleading, at least in terms of romantic dialogue:
More than 400 years after Shakespeare wrote it, we can now say that Romeo and Juliet has the wrong name. Perhaps the play should be called Juliet and Her Nurse, which isn’t nearly as sexy, or Romeo and Benvolio, which has a whole different connotation.
I discovered this by writing a computer program to count how many lines each pair of characters in Romeo and Juliet spoke to each other,1 with the expectation that the lovers in the greatest love story of all time would speak more than any other pair. I wanted Romeo and Juliet to end up together — if they couldn’t in the play, at least they could in my analysis — but the math paid no heed to my desires. Juliet speaks more to her nurse than she does to Romeo; Romeo speaks more to Benvolio than he does to Juliet. Romeo gets a larger share of attention from his friends (Benvolio and Mercutio) and even his enemies (Tybalt) than he does from Juliet; Juliet gets a larger share of attention from her nurse and her mother than she does from Romeo. The two appear together in only five scenes out of 25. We all knew that this wasn’t a play predicated on deep interactions between the two protagonists, but still.
I’m blaming Romeo for this lack of communication. Juliet speaks 155 lines to him, and he speaks only 101 to her. His reticence toward Juliet is particularly inexcusable when you consider that Romeo spends more time talking than anyone else in the play. (He spends only one-sixth of his time in conversation with the supposed love of his life.) One might be tempted to blame this on the nature of the plot; of course the lovers have no chance to converse, kept apart as they are by the loathing of their families! But when I analyzed the script of a modern adaptation of Romeo and Juliet — West Side Story — I found that Tony and Maria interacted more in the script than did any other pair.
All this got me thinking: Do any of Shakespeare’s lovers actually, you know, talk to each other? If Romeo and Juliet don’t, what hope do the rest of them have?
Update, 28 March: Chateau Heartiste says that this study shows that pick-up artists and “game” practitioners are right and also proves that “Everything important you need to know about men and women you can find in the works of Shakespeare”.