Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Mixing History and Drama to Create Richard III

Before Richard, Duke of Gloucester, kills Henry VI in Henry VI, Part Three, the prescient king predicts the devastation that Richard will inflict in his relentless pursuit of the throne, saying “And thus I prophesy, that many a thousand,/Which now mistrust no parcel of my fear…Shall rue the hour that ever thou wast born” (5.6.37-44). Henry’s prophecy proves true in Richard III, the final of Shakespeare’s plays in the tetralogy illustrating the War of the Roses, during which Richard, a deformed, duplicitous, yet sometimes masterfully charming villain, creeps into power with cunning malevolence, leaving a string of murdered kinsmen and supposed allies in his wake. First performed in 1594 by the Lord Chamberlain’s men with famed Elizabethan actor Richard Burbage in the titular role, Richard III was a great success that drew large audiences, earned five quarto publications during Shakespeare’s lifetime, and solidified Shakespeare’s reputation as a playwright who excelled in dramatizing English history.
            In composing Richard III, Shakespeare carefully appeased royal egos and drew from historical and literary sources. By depicting Richard III as a man who is both physically and morally defective, even evil, Shakespeare perpetuated what scholars call the Tudor Myth, which emphasized the legitimacy and morality of the Tudor Dynasty. Queen Elizabeth was the granddaughter of Richmond, who, in defeating Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field, became King Henry VII, the founder of the Tudor Dynasty. Queen Elizabeth’s lineage and the expectation that playwrights would appeal to her worldview demanded that Shakespeare make the moral difference between the virtuous Richmond and the villainous Richard as clear-cut as possible in his play. Shakespeare drew from literary sources for Richard III that facilitated his depiction of a loathsome character; Thomas More’s History of King Richard the Third, Edward Halle’s The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Famelies of Lancastre & Yorke, and Raphael Holinshed’s The Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland all provided details about the physical and psychological makeup of a wickedly ambitious man. 
          Modern historians note that the historical Richard III, whose remains were found in parking lot in Leicester, England in 2012, was no doubt corrupt and criminally inclined but was also a strong administrator and organized leader. The enduring perception of Richard as a consummate villain with no redeeming qualities is in a large part due to Shakespeare’s portrayal of him, which illustrates the power of Shakespeare’s plays to influence the way we think about historical figures.

            The elements of the Richard III that Shakespeare invented without relying on other sources demonstrates that he was primarily a dramatist, not a historian, and that he knew that captivating plays should not be limited by absolute historical accuracy. Despite the fact that the historical Queen Margaret died in exile before the events of Richard III, Shakespeare used her presence in the play and her curses and prophecies to incorporate the themes of revenge and just punishment that were crucial to the three parts of Henry VI. Delving into ideas of psychology and performance, Shakespeare emphasized Richard’s inherent theatricality, linking him to the character of Vice from morality plays and Elizabethan interpretations of clowns as heralds of dark comedy. Shakespeare crafted scenes like the one in which Richard woos Lady Anne, despite having killed her father-in-law and husband, to force the audience to question what characteristics can attract people to a villain. Like all of Shakespeare’s plays, it is ultimately the inventiveness, truth, and power of the language the characters speak that makes Richard III so compelling, suggesting that the lasting appeal of the history plays is Shakespeare’s ability to bring historical figures, and all their hopes, fears, and ambitions, to life onstage.

submitted by Samantha Smith, ASC Education and Development Coordinator 

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Lady Shakes: Celebrating Women in Traditionally Male Shakespearean Roles

The talented women of the Atlanta Shakespeare Company performed, directed, and produced scenes from Shakespeare on Monday for the second annual Lady Shakes, an event created by Artistic Associate and Special Events Coordinator Dani Herd.  Think of great Shakespeare roles and you will likely think of male roles like Hamlet, King Lear, Richard III, and Romeo.  Casting women to play male roles is an increasingly popular artistic choice, as evidenced by the decision to cast Mary Ruth Ralston as King Henry VI in the three parts of Henry VI at the Shakespeare Tavern Playhouse last fall.  Lady Shakes gives female artists the opportunity to tackle traditionally male roles, continuing a tradition that was begun by pioneering women in the 1700s.

Beginning in the eighteenth century, many well-known actresses played male roles in Shakespeare’s plays.  Sarah Siddons, who was famous for her portrayal of Lady Macbeth, played Hamlet to great acclaim in 1775.  Kitty Clive followed suit, also playing Hamlet and earning praise from Dr. Samuel Johnson, who commended her performance as being even better than that of David Garrick, one of the most famous Shakespearean actors of the eighteenth century.  More than fifty actresses appeared as Hamlet between 1775 as 1911, including Sarah Bernhardt, who was the first actor to portray Hamlet on film in 1900.  Other actresses took on the roles of Romeo, Iago, Othello, Richard III, Shylock, and Hotspur.  While women playing male characters was not the standard in productions of Shakespeare’s plays from the eighteenth to twentieth century, the consistency with which actresses took on male roles demonstrates that it was an important theatrical trend. 
Choosing to perform male Shakespearean roles allowed actresses to tackle parts that were often more complex and better regarded by critics than traditionally female roles, but women appearing as men challenged patriarchal assumptions about the place of women on the stage.  Concern over the growing trend of actresses taking on male roles is evident in “Women in Male Roles: Long List of Prominent Actresses Who Have Yielded to That Ambition,” an article that appeared in The New York Times on February 12, 1911.  The reporter described women who played male roles as “usurping man’s place on the stage,” suggesting that the author saw actresses who played Hamlet or Romeo as challengers of male dominance of the stage.  The reporter also expressed confusion about the allure of certain male characters to actresses: “One can understand how the roles of Hamlet, Romeo, Prince Hal and other youthful heroes might appeal to actresses, but it is hard to discover why any of them should wish to play the crooked-back Richard III, with all his ugliness and all his malignity.”  This comment implies that a character’s virtue and physical attractiveness should be the most crucial factors in deciding whether a part is suitable for a woman to play.  The article, which notes that many attempts by actresses to play male parts were “lamentable failure[s],” demonstrates the criticism aimed at women who chose to play male roles in Shakespeare in the early twentieth century.  However, it is in part because of such derision by male critics that attempts by actresses to play male roles during this time were so crucial.

Women have come a long way since 1911, and female Hamlets, Lears, and Caesars have appeared on stages and film screens across the world and have been met with admiration by critics who now recognize the artistic value of women playing traditionally male characters.  From New York to London to Atlanta, when women take the stage in male roles they continue the legacy of Sarah Siddons and challenge the audience to question gender biases and more closely analyze interactions between characters.

Photography provided by Sarah Beth Moseley

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Shakespeare Made No Error in Adapting Sources for The Comedy of Errors

Antipholus (Andrew Houchins)

Shakespeare wrote The Comedy of Errors, his earliest comedy and shortest play in 1594, and he showed great skill in incorporating elements from other literary sources while making creative changes that made his play more compelling and entertaining.  

For this play, which was first performed as the final entertainment for an evening of merriment for a group of lawyers at Gray’s Inn, Shakespeare drew primarily from the Roman playwright Plautus’ play, Menaechmi.  Despite Ben Jonson’s claim that Shakespeare knew “small Latin and less Greek,” Shakespeare certainly read the entirety of Menaechmi in Latin because there was no English translation available in England in 1594.  The preface to Menaechmi explains that a merchant from Syracuse took one of his seven-year-old twin boys on a business trip abroad but was tragically separated from him during a festival.  The merchant died from grief over his lost child, but the boy was found by a trader and raised in Epidamnum.  The surviving twin boy, still living with his mother in Syracuse, was renamed Menaechmus to honor his lost brother.  The plot of Menaechmi centers on the confusion that is created when Menaechmus of Syracuse comes to Epidamnum to search for his lost twin.  Menaechmus is perplexed when he arrives in Epidamnum and is greeted warmly by the townspeople, and he is delighted but befuddled when he is embraced by two women claiming to be his wife and mistress.  Meanwhile, Menaechmus of Epidamnum is immensely frustrated that his friends and family, who have all been interacting with his long-lost twin, believe he is mad.  Menaechmi’s influence on The Comedy of Errors is evident in the plot of the two separated Antipholi, their experiences in Ephesus, and their reunion.

Egeon tells the story of the twins!
However, Shakespeare showed his incredible skill in choosing what to take from another literary sources and what to create himself in his additions to the Menaechmi plot that make The Comedy of Errors the hilarious, madcap, and touching play that it is.  Shakespeare drew on the use of identical slaves in Plautus’ play Amphitruo in adding to the Menaechmi-inspired plot two identical twin slaves, both named Dromio.  Shakespeare’s decision to name both slaves Dromio was his own invention, and his choice led to the amusing moment in which the two Dromios are situated on opposite sides of a door, both protesting that they are the rightful Dromio.  Dromio of Syracuse announces he is “The porter for this time, sir, and my name is Dromio” (4.1.41-42), to which Dromio of Ephesus replies “O villain, thou hast stol’n both mine office, and my name” (3.1.43-44).  Shakespeare also changed the setting for the play from Epidamnum to Ephesus, which is a city that Shakespeare’s audience would have associated with exorcism, cults, and sorcery.  The audience’s knowledge of Ephesus would have let them appreciate when Dromio exclaims “This is the fairy land: O spite of spites!/We talk with goblins, owls and sprites” (2.2.189-190).  Finally, Shakespeare added a touching element to the play by adding the characters of Egeon and Emilia; their reunion at the play’s conclusion makes the reassembled family complete.   
Dromios reunited

To learn more about Shakespeare’s sources for ASC’s next play, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, check back on this blog during the play’s opening week.  To read more about sources for The Comedy of Errors, take a look at the introduction to The Comedy of Errors in the second edition of The Norton Shakespeare, from which the information in this blog comes.  To see our Suzi-recommended production of The Comedy of Errors, contact the box office at 404-874-5299 or purchase tickets on our website at www.shakespearetavern.com.  

Posted by Samantha Smith

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

A sneaky interview with Laura Cole on Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus

Luara Cole returns to the stage to reprise her role in Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus.  Along with being the Education Director at the Atlanta Shakespeare Company, she is an actor around Atlanta and Off- Broadway!  Check out this quick interview as she talks about being a part of this year's production.

1.     What is your name and who do you play in Doctor Faustus?
I am Laura Cole and I play Mephistopheles and all the other characters besides Faustus (No joke, there are a few) 

2.     How long have you worked at the Shakespeare Tavern Playhouse?
This is my 22nd season as an actor here!

3.     Is there a moment in the show that resonates with you?
I love doing every moment of this show, but when Mephistopheles speaks about how compelling or beautiful humans are (he ISNT human but a fallen angel) I really enjoy those moments- he’ll never be human but is still stuck in Hell anyway.

4.     What is it like performing in the round as opposed to regular staging?
It is sometimes a challenge to keep all the audience in mind at every moment but most of the time I am thinking about them anyway so it isn’t too hard.

5.     What is different about this production as opposed to the last time you did it?
Hummm. That is a loaded question for me- I am almost 8 years more experienced, so that is a big difference in outlook, energy, shape.  The most obvious is a different actor as Faustus.  I love both my Faustus’ so it has been a joy both times!

6.     Is there something you want the audience to leave with after the performance?
I hope they enjoyed the swiftness of the story and the varied ways we tell the tale!

7. Who are these sound demons I hear about? Other Tavern actors in cloaks, that utilize all our sound sculpture knowledge in creating live sound effects as the play happens.

8. You start the show and end the show with candles.  What does that symbolize? Lucifer, bringer of light, is what I think first, and then for me there is an opportunity to be enlightened by science and knowledge that doesn’t work out in the end.

An Interview with Chris Kayser on Doctor Faustus!

We at the Atlanta Shakespeare Company are proud to have Chris Kayser with us in the title role in Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus.  His previous Tavern credits include As You Like It, Coriolanus, Murder in the Cathedral and Salome.  Chris spent 25 years as a Resident Artist at Georgia Shakespeare.  He has also been seen for many years as Scrooge at the Alliance Theatre in A Christmas Carol.  Other theaters where he has performed include The Horizon Theatre, Theatrical Outfit, Theatre du Reve, Actors Express and many others.   Here is a quick interview with him on the experience!

How long have you been in the Atlanta theatre scene? 
 I was born in Atlanta and I have been working in the theater here for over 40 years.

Is there a moment in the show that resonates with you?
The many moments of doubt that Dr. Faustus has are universal, I think.  Have I chosen the right path?  What is the cost of that choice?  What have I left behind?

What is it like performing in the round as opposed to regular staging?
You must keep the whole audience in mind at all times.  You have to keep moving, to spread your focus around the whole 360 degrees.

You start and end the show in complete darkness.  What does that symbolize for the character?
What Faustus doesn’t realize is that his choice is already made—that he is mired in an endless cycle where he begins and ends…in hell.  The darkness symbolizes that very well.

Is it hard as an actor to begin and end in darkness?
Technically, no it’s not hard to begin and end in darkness.  One gets used to that over the course of a career

Is there something you want the audience to leave with after the performance?
I would hope each audience member might leave thinking about what hell might be for them.  I want them to consider their own choices.  I hope they’ve been entertained.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Celebrating Christmas in Shakespeare’s Day

This December, our theatre has been filled with the sounds of Christmas music as our actors perform ASC’s version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.  Our production illustrates the Cratchit family having Christmas dinner, and you might wonder, as you sit in the Shakespeare Tavern Playhouse, how people in Shakespeare’s day celebrated Christmas.  French scholar Francois Laroque wrote a very informative book, Shakespeare’s Festive World: Elizabethan Seasonal Entertainment and the Professional Stage, which explains how Shakespeare’s contemporaries celebrated Christmas.  In the Elizabethan era, Christmas festivities often began on the twenty-first of December, Saint Thomas’ Day, which ushered in nearly four weeks of celebrations.  The majority of the Christmas celebrations were held during the twelve days of Christmas, which began on Christmas day and extended to Epiphany on January sixth, and people enjoyed various celebrations on Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve, and the eve of Epiphany.

Some traditions in the Elizabethan era were not that different from modern traditions.  Before Christmas Eve, people decorated their homes with holly and ivy.  Christmas trees did not gain popularity until the nineteenth century in England, but people in Shakespeare’s day brightened their houses for Christmas by burning a large piece of wood called a Yule log or Yule block.  On Christmas Eve, people sung Christmas carols, which in the Elizabethan era included festival songs.  Christmas Eve was a time to visit neighbors and join in village or communal celebrations.  As people celebrated with their neighbors, girls brought a wassail-bowl, or a large jug of beer and roasted apples, to each house, and actors called mummers performed plays about Saint George or Old Father Christmas.  The time between Christmas and Epiphany was filled with religious and secular celebrations.

Even Christmas songs from Shakespeare’s era were not that different than they are today.  George Wither’s song “Christmas Carol,” written in 1602 encourages merriment and holiday cheer:

 “So, now is come our joyfulst feast;
Let every man be jolly;
Each room with ivy leaves is drest,
And every post with holly.
Though some churls at our mirth repine,
Round your foreheads garlands twine;
Drown sorrow in a cup of wine,
And let us all be merry.
Now, all our neighbours’ chimnies smoke
And Christmas blocks are burning...” (Laroque 149).

Happy holidays!

Submitted by Samantha Smith 

Monday, November 28, 2016

An Introduction to the Wars of the Roses By Samantha Smith

In Henry VI, Part One, the Earl of Warwick responds to the scene in which nobles picked roses in the Temple Garden to represent their allegiance to the House of Lancaster or the House of York with this prescient prediction: “And here I prophesy: this brawl today,/Grown to this faction in the Temple Garden,/Shall send, between the red rose and the white,/A thousand souls to death and deadly night” (2.5.124-127).  His prediction proves true for both the nobles and the common people as the events of the three parts of Henry VI unfold.  As civil discord grows into organized conflict, Somerset, the Duke of York, Prince Edward, and King Henry VI all die, while the commoners’ lives are interrupted and sometimes destroyed by the civil war, as highlighted in the poignant scene in Part Three when Henry observes the lamentations of a son who unwittingly killed his father and the cries of a father who unknowingly killed his only son. 

In Part Three, Henry rightly describes the conflict as “civil war” (1.1.197) but the series of battles depicted in Parts Two and Part Three had another name: the Wars of the Roses.  Historically, the Wars of the Roses lasted from 1455-1485 and were a series of conflicts over succession to the English throne that were eventually resolved in the foundation of the Tudor dynasty with coronation of Henry VII and his marriage to Elizabeth of York.  Scholars are quick to point out that the Wars of the Roses were more than just a clash for power among the nobility, but, for the purposes of understanding the three parts of Henry VI, we will focus on the struggle between the House of Lancaster and the House of York. 

The quarrel between the Lancasters and the Yorks began in conflicts between the grandsons of King Edward III, who ruled England from 1312-1377.  Edward III had seven sons; the first, Edward, Black Prince of Wales, the third, Lionel, Duke of Clarence, the fourth, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, and the fifth, Edmund of Langley, Duke of York, are crucial to the rise of the conflict that led to the Wars of the Roses.  John of Gaunt’s son, Henry Bolingbroke, deposed Edward’s son, Richard II, and became Henry IV, the first Lancastrian king of England.  Henry IV’s son was the famous King Henry V, whose son was King Henry VI, whose death brought the swift end of Lancastrian control of the crown.  While Henry V was admired for his achievements in conquering much of France, some people viewed all the Lancastrian kings as usurpers.  Many people, including Hall, whose Chronicles Shakespeare relied on in writing Henry VI, viewed the deposition of Henry VI as punishment for his grandfather’s sins in keeping with the message of Numbers 14:18 that promises God will “[visit] the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation.” 

Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York, traces his claim to the English throne through his mother, the granddaughter of Edward III’s third son, Lionel, Anne Mortimer, who married her cousin, Richard, Earl of Cambridge, the son of Edward III’s fifth son, Edmund of Langley.  York’s claim to the throne rests on the perceived illegitimacy of Henry VI’s claim because of his grandfather’s usurpation of King Richard and the assertion that the descendants of Edward III’s third son should take precedence over the descendants of the fourth.  The Earl of Warwick explains York’s thought process: “Henry doth claim the crown from John of Gaunt/The fourth son, York claims it from the third./Till Lionel’s issue fails, Gaunt’s should not reign;/It fails not yet, but flourishes in thee/And in thy sons...” (2.2.54-58).  In Henry VI, as in history, the Yorks initially triumph; Henry is killed and Edward IV becomes King.  The Wars of the Roses officially concluded after the reign of King Richard III and his death, when Henry Tudor, whom Henry VI predicts “will prove our country’s bliss” (4.6.70), was crowned Henry VII in 1486, establishing the Tudor dynasty and ushering in a new age of stability and intellectual and artistic advancement associated with the Renaissance.

For an overview of the Wars of the Roses, including all of the facets of the conflict not covered here, check out Martin Dougherty’s 2015 book, The Wars of the Roses: The Conflict That Inspired Game of Thrones