The clever reader will notice that my last blog post was from February 2019, nearly two years ago, so my absence from this site cannot be attributed to the covid-19 pandemic that ignited the now cliché “dumpster fire” that was Anno Domini 2020. No, it’s had much more to do with the fact that, simply put, I had nothing to say. Or, rather, nothing to say that I felt like sharing. It wasn’t just my blog either. I haven’t revised the novel I worked on so painstakingly. I’ve barely even written in my physical, personal journal, which has been a matter of habit for decades. I suppose I’ve been on retreat for the last two years or so, very much engaged with the people who are physically in my life and intimately connected to me, but approaching society at large — and social media — with a permanently raised eyebrow.
2020 didn’t help much.
And let’s face it, 2021 isn’t off to a very auspicious start, but after sitting out awhile, I feel like putting my toe in the water to check the temperature, and maybe I’ll dive back in.
My goal, if I can see this through, is to write about books and wine and theatre and art just as before, with a special emphasis on my own creative projects and what they mean to me, why it is I feel compelled to write and produce and make them.
The difference with this go around is that there will be a lot of focus on knitting. I can’t tell you how many miles of yarn I’ve shaped into garments while in lockdown, but I can tell you that, whereas my desire to write diminished in the past year, it was replaced by a desire to make things by hand and to revisit an art form I learned how to do fifteen years ago, but have only now begun to inch towards mastery.
The desire to make things led to a desire to show them off to people who would appreciate them. In order to do this, I created an instagram account (@knitphen) almost exclusively dedicated to following people involved in the fiber arts. Interactions with other knitters, crocheters, dyers and makers of all sorts really pushed my skills forward and made my stance towards social media soften a bit. So here I am, back at it on the blog, with a focus on sharing and growth, inspiring and being inspired by others.
Be sure to read/look at the previous entry if you haven’t already. It explains my purpose with this post. As before, page numbers refer to the First Scribner trade paperback edition, 2003. All photos, unless they are mine, were pulled from the internet, so if one belongs to you and you would prefer that I remove it, just let me know and I will.
Paris & Other Parts of France (& Europe)
[Bill] wrote that Vienna was wonderful. Then a card from Budapest: “Jake, Budapest is wonderful.” (76)
Vienna, Austria. In German it’s called Wien, and sausages (and people, and anything really…) from Wien are called Wieners — which is where we get the word. Wonderful!
Budapest, Hungary. Incidentally, the first city outside the US that I ever traveled to. Wonderful!
At the juncture of the Rue Denfert-Rochereau with the Boulevard is a statue of two men in flowing robes. (78)
One of these robed gents is an architect. Not the father of pharmacy as Bill says.
“Is she really Lady something or other?” Bill asked in the taxi on our way down to the Ile Saint Louis. (82)
There are two very important islands in the River Seine in Paris. The first is the Ile de la Cité, upon which sits Notre Dame cathedral along with the marker that is the cartographic center of Paris (ie. all distances from Paris are measured from that exact point) and many other important buildings. Behind Ile de la Cité is the Ile St. Louis, which is somewhat more residential and is, in fact, one of the most expensive neighborhoods to live in in Europe. It is in the foreground of this picture.
We walked along under the trees that grew out over the river on the Quai d’Orléans side of the island. (82)
The Quai d’Orleans side of the Ile St. Louis. (I think…this is from our school trip in April 2015)
We walked on and circled the island. The river was dark and a bateau mouche went by, all bright with lights, going fast and quiet up and out of sight under the bridge. Down the river was Notre Dame, squatting against the night sky. We crossed to the left bank of the Seine by the wooden foot-bridge from the Quai de Bethune, and stopped on the bridge and looked down the river at Notre Dame. Standing on the bridge the island looked dark, the houses were high against the sky and the trees were shadows. (83)
This is a view from a bateau mouche on the Seine (bateau is French for boat). The building in the back to the right is the Musée d’Orsay, an art museum dedicated to Impressionist art (and one of my most favorite museums in the world).
“Say, there’s plenty of Americans on this train,” the husband said. “They’ve got seven cars of them from Dayton, Ohio. They’ve been on a pilgrimage to Rome, and now they’re going down to Biarritz and Lourdes.” (91)
Rome, Italy. “The Eternal City.” All roads lead here, and it wasn’t built in a day.
Biarritz. Swanky French beach town.
Lourdes, France. In 1858 a peasant girl had visions of the Virgin Mary here, and the place subsequently became an important site of pilgrimage, in particular for those suffering from diseases that have no cure, for Lourdes is most famous for its number of miraculous healings (thousands of them).
The train stopped for half an hour at Bordeaux and we went out through the station for a little walk. (94)
Bordeaux is a charming small city on France’s southern Atlantic coast. It’s one of the most important wine-growing regions in France, which is probably the most important wine-growing country in the world. Which would make Bordeaux the most important wine region in the world.
Bayonne is a nice town. It is like a very clean Spanish town and it is on a big river…We went out into the street and took a look at the cathedral. (96)
Bayonne, France. Note the cathedral in the background.
We past lots of Basques with oxen, or cattle, hauling carts alnog the road, and nice farmhouses, low roofs, and all white-plastered. In the Basque country the land all looks very rich and green and the houses and villages look well-off and clean. Every village had a pelota court and on some of them kids were playing in the hot sun. There were signs on the walls of the churches saying it was forbidden to play pelota against them, and the houses in the villages had red tiled roofs… (97)
The Basque people, by some estimates, are part of the oldest culture in Europe. Their language, Euskara (or Basque), is unrelated to all other languages in Europe; that is, it’s not an offshoot of Latin (like Spanish, French and Italian) or German (like English and Dutch). Some believe it goes back as far as the stone age, but its origins are unknown. it tells us that the Basque have been in the area for a very, very long time.
Then we crossed a wide plain, and there was a big river off on the right shining in the sun from between the line of trees, and away off you could see the plateau of Pamplona rising out of the plain, and the walls of the city, and the great brown cathedral, and the broken skyline of the other churches. In back of the plateau were the mountains, and every way you looked there were other mountains, and ahead the road stretched out white across the plain going toward Pamplona. (99)
Is that not gorgeous?
At the end of the street I saw the cathedral [of Pamplona] and walked up toward it. The first time I ever saw it I thought the facade was ugly but I liked it now. (102)
We sat in the Iruña [cafe] for a while and had coffee and then took a little walk out to the bull-ring… (105)
The Cafe Iruña, interior
If you have your meal or your drink at the bar of the Iruña, you can drink with Hemingway’s statue!
We’re going trout fishing in the Irati River… (108)
The Irati River. Dramatic.
As we came to the edge of the rise we saw the red roofs and white houses of Burguete ahead strong out on the plain, and away off on the shoulder of the first dark mountain was the gray metal-sheathed roof of the monastery of Roncesvalles. (114)
Burguete. Red roofs and white houses, just as Hemingway described.
This isn’t related to Hemingway, but one of the most important stories from the Middle Ages, “The Song of Roland”, tells of the Battle of Roncesvalles. In the story, Charlemagne’s army is facing the Saracens and suffers its only major loss, one that would have been worse had Roland (Orlando in Spanish/Italian) not blown his horn and warned his fellow knights. This story laid the framework for the concept of chivalry and knighthood in Europe. This picture shows Roland/Orlando’s death at Roncesvalles.
In the evenings we played three-handed bridge with an Englishman named Harris, who had walked over from Saint Jean Pied de Port and was stopping at the inn for the fishing. (130)
St. Jean Pied de Port
Most of the places mentioned in the Spanish section of the book are part of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. This is an ancient pilgrimage route from the Pyrenees at the border of France and Spain to the Atlantic Coast. Originally those who walked the Camino did so for religious or spiritual purposes, and many still do, but many others hike or bike the roughly 500 miles because it’s a stunningly gorgeous walk! Because people have been doing this for centuries, there are many hostels and places to stay along the way for pilgrims. When Hemingway mentions that Harris walked over from St. Jean Pied de Port, he’s implying that Harris was probably walking the Camino.
They’ve never seen a desencajonada. (136)
For the following quotations, see the videos below:
At noon of Sunday, the 6th of July, the fiesta [of San Fermin] exploded. (156)
Before the waiter brought the sherry the rocket that announced the fiesta went up in the square. It burst and there was a gray ball of smoke high up above the Theatre Gayarre. (157)
People were coming into the square from all sides, and down the street we heard the pipes and the fifes and the drums coming. They were playing the riau-riau music, the pipes shrill and the drums pounding, and behind them came the men and boys dancing. (157)
The afternoon was a big religious procession. San Fermin was translated from one church to another. In the procession were all the dignitaries, civil and religious. (158-9)
[Pedro Romero, the matador] was the best-looking boy I’ve ever seen. (167)
Hemingway based the character of Pedro Romero on the young toreador, Cayetano Ordoñez. He was right; he wasn’t bad looking.
“No. I can stay another week. I think I’ll go to San Sebastian.” (232)
San Sebastian. Looks like a good vacation spot, no?
Something that helped me to get through The Sun Also Rises this time around (my third attempt…) was to read it as a travel book. In the years since my second attempt at the novel, I’ve had the good fortune to travel to Paris several times. Those trips really helped me to visualize and enjoy the beginning of the book (which, in my opinion, is the most difficult part) much more. While I can’t bring students to France merely for the sake of enjoying a single work of literature (#teachergoals…), I can replicate here in this blog post what I did the entire time I was reading the book: pull out my phone to look up images of the places Hemingway name-dropped.
In other words, I used my smart phone to…you know…make myself smarter.
Hemingway is famous for following his early mentor Ezra Pound’s diktat eschewing adjectives. He describes scenes with action mostly, but does do an awful lot of name-dropping of places. I can’t imagine he expected his audience back home in the States to know what the places he named looked like. His intention was probably to say “This glamourous place with this sexy foreign name exists, and I’ve been there, and aren’t you just so jealous?” He might not have been quite that arrogant, but it is true that his writings for the Toronto Star and the writings of other American expats in Paris did much to contribute to Paris’s (and France’s…and Spain’s…) romantic allure, which thereby led to increased tourism that over-saturated the city with Americans and Brits, and caused the original expat community to shudder and look for the next great hipster beehive.
Anyway, I digress (was that last sentence a wee too judgy?). My point is this: We don’t need a ticket on the QEII and a million dollars and two months of time to follow in his footsteps the way his original audience would have; all we need is Google.
So this post will try to illustrate as much of the book as possible in order to help students develop a mental picture of the setting. Page numbers refer to the First Scribner trade paperback edition, 2003. All photos, unless they are mine, were pulled from the internet, so if one belongs to you and you would prefer that I remove it, just let me know and I will.
PARIS (Book One)
We had dined at l’Avenue’s and afterward went to Café de Versailles. (14)
I’m sick of Paris, and I’m sick of the Quarter. (19)
(NB: “The Quarter” refers to the neighborhood of Montparnasse that was the hub of the American expat scene in the 1920s, not to the Latin Quarter (as I mistakenly thought)
This is a view from the Montparnasse Tower that was not there during Hemingway’s day. Too bad for him.
Then I sorted out the carbons, stamped on a by-line, put the stuff in a couple of big manila envelopes and rang for a boy to take them to the Gare St. Lazare. (20)
Gare St. Lazare. (Gare is French for train station. Paris has quite a few.)
We went out to the Café Napolitain to have an apéritif and watch the evening crowd on the Boulevard. (21)
We turned off the Avenue up the Rue des Pyramides, through the traffic of the Rue de Rivoli, and through a dark gate into the Tuileries. (23)
The Joan of Arc statue where the Rue des Pyramides meets the Rue de Rivoli
The ferris wheel in the Tuileries, which is the giant park in front of the Louvre Museum that runs along the River Seine.
Your humble blogger in front of the Louvre Pyramid.
The dancing club was a bal musette in the Rue de la Montagne Sainte Geneviève. Five nights a week the working people of the Pantheon quarter danced there. (27)
A bal musette (i.e., A dance club)
The taxi went up the hill, passed the lighted square, then on into the dark, still climbing, then levelled out onto a dark street behind St. Etienne du Mont, went smoothly down the asphalt, passed the trees and the standing bus at the Place de la Contrescarpe, the turned onto the cobbles of the Rue Mouffetard. (33)
The Church of St. Etienne du Mont
Panorama of the Place de la Contrescarpe
We were sitting now like two strangers. On the right was the Parc Montsouris. (35)
“Café Select,” I told the driver. “Boulevard Montparnasse.” (35)
I went out onto the sidewalk and walked down toward the Boulevard St. Michel, passed the tables of the Rotonde, still crowded, looked across the street at the Dome, its tables running out to the edge of the pavement. Some one waved at me from a table, I did not see who it was and went on. I wanted to get home. The Boulevard Montparnasse was deserted. Lavigne’s was closed tight, and they were stacking the tables outside the Closerie des Lilas. I passed Ney’s statue standing among the new-leaved chestnut trees in the arc-light. (37)
La Closerie des Lilas (Hemingway used this particular cafe as his office. Waiters in France will never make you get up and leave.)
Le Dome, a major cafe in the American expat scene. Hemingway hated it; too gossipy.
La Rotonde, another major expat cafe.
Ney’s Statue in Montparnasse near Closerie des Lilas. Marshal Ney was a military commander during the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars.
The horse-chestnut trees in the Luxembourg gardens were in bloom. (43)
Le Jardin du Luxembourg
From the Madeleine I walked along the Boulevard des Capucines to the Opéra, and up to my office. (43)
The Madeleine is a church that is built to resemble a Greek temple. It’s incredible.
I took this photo inside the Madeleine, August 2015
The famed Paris Opera House
Inside the Opera
As a Drama teacher I’d be remiss not to point out that the Paris Opera is where The Phantom of the Opera takes place.
At five o’clock I was in the Hotel Crillon waiting for Brett. (48)
The Hotel de Crillon. Not too shabby!
Inside the hotel, where Jake was supposed to meet Brett.
It was three days ago that Harvey had won two hundred francs from me shaking poker dice in the New York Bar. (49)
Finally we went up to Montmartre. Inside Zelli’s it was crowded, smoky, and noisy. (69)
My grandmother, Mary, in front of the iconic Sacre Coeur church atop Montmartre. Montmartre is a hillside neighborhood famous for attracting artists an bohemians the generation before Hemingway.
And there you have it: The Sun Also Rises, Book One.
As a bonus, and unrelated to the book, here are a few shots of my students in Paris (April 2015) as well as videos of myself in France (July 2014 & August 2015; video credits to Gabino).
In October of this year, my choir — MasterVoices — will present the New York premiere of Ricky Ian Gordon‘s opera, 27,about the literary and intellectual salons held at the home of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas in the years between the world wars. Hemingway and Fitzgerald are characters. So are Picasso and Man Ray. It should be a heady romp of an opera!
Because the opera is so literary, I decided it would be fantastic if I could bring my College Bridge Senior English class to see it, but this posed a challenge: How in the world would 12th graders ever truly appreciate the work without some knowledge of all the key players? Or, for that matter, how would I?
See, I’m somewhat poorly-versed when it comes to the Lost Generation. I know all the big names of the era that any self-respecting English major should know, but I haven’t ever spent much time with them. I read “The Old Man and the Sea” in 7th grade twenty-five years ago and remember very little of it beyond the fact that I disliked it. I tried to love Hemingway by reading The Sun Also Rises on two separate occasions but found the book to be a tiresome chore. I’ve never been gaga about Gatsby like a lit-lover is supposed to be, and I think I opened up Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons once while in college, read a single poem, shuddered, then promptly returned to it to its shelf in the library. Thus ended my time with the Americans in Paris in the 1920s. To me they seemed purely hedonistic and self-absorbed, and really self-important. I didn’t have much of an interest.
And I might have left them there, sitting on the shelf and continuing to accrue accolades from everyone but me, but for three things: this upcoming Ricky Ian Gordon opera, as I’ve said, and Joyce and Woolf. They’re of the era and of the ilk, more verbose than their American counterparts and a thousand times more cerebral and difficult…and yet I adore them. As an Irishman and a Brit, there might be an argument for the difference of their literary output, but, most things being the same, I ought to be able to find something worthwhile in their American peers, right? So it occurred to me that the only reason I ever came to love Joyce and Woolf in the first place was due to my professor, Richard Hood, who provided rich, detailed background to their lives and times that gave their writing a context and a point of approach. He made their writing feel vital to a young twenty-something in the late 1990s, a fact for which I’m deeply grateful and now need to replicate for my own students.
I never had that with the Americans in Paris — I’ve never read them in the context of a class — but if I’m going to enjoy performing in an opera about them, and if I’m going to provide my students with a richly satisfying educational experience, then I’d better damn well get studying and teach myself so that I can pass the knowledge on.
Which is what I’ve been doing. First, I made a third attempt at The Sun Also Rises, and this time I finished it. I won’t say it’s become my favorite book or that Hemingway’s genius dripped from the pages in any obvious way, but I really did like it — so that’s a start. I’m currently reading Everybody Behaves Badly: The True Story Behind Hemingway’s Masterpiece, The Sun AlsoRises by Lesley M. M. Blume,a book that seems to have been released to coincide exactly with my interest in the subject matter; it came out at the beginning of last month, just as I was piecing together my course of study. Blume’s book has acutely sharpened my appreciation for and interest in Hemingway.
Anyway, in the days and weeks to come, I plan to post my explorations of the works I read in a way that is meant to be shared with my students, but will hopefully be of interest to any reader who stumbles across my blog. I’m coming at this with an open mind, yes, but, more importantly, with a humble mind. My previous encounters with the Lost Generation writers have left me feeling dismissive of their talents, but this time around my thought is, “You know what? They are beloved for a reason.” Rather than try to trash them, I’m going to try to see what it is that others see, and I’m going to share this experience with my students.
And with you. So if you’re reading this and you have any reading suggestions for me, please feel free to pass them on in the comment section. Otherwise, keep checking in for updates!
***Apropos of nothing, here’s a video of my aforementioned professor, Richard Hood, playing the banjo as he’s wont to do. A man of many, many talents; he not only taught modernist literature, he toured the country (world?) with his bluegrass band, led humanitarian trips to Haiti and moved me cross-country from Ohio to California. Hemingway may or may not be a genius, and Stein probably isn’t (not really…), but Hood sure as hell is!
When I was in high school I had a recording of Loreena McKennitt singing W. B. Yeats’ poem “The Stolen Child,” only I didn’t realize that it was a Yeats poem. In fact, I didn’t know who Yeats was at the time.
A few years later I was in college (Denison U., Class of 2000!) and idling through the library. I found a copy of poems by Yeats — and had heard of him, albeit only nominally, by that point. As I was acquainting myself with his work, flipping through the pages, I came across this poem. I only half remembered the Loreena McKennitt song, so as I read I had this sense of knowing the poem as a distant, unplaceable memory. It was 1996, so the internet was in its infant stage and there was probably no way for me to search the lyrics to find the connection anyway. So it stuck in my brain for about a month until I happened to play the McKennitt CD.
My face lit up with a smile. The poem and song found me.
They’ve been in my head of late because of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Our production will make use of the changeling Indian Boy mentioned in the text but not (usually) seen. Why does Titania really take him in? What would Oberon do with him? What is life like living with the faeries? What is it like to be a stolen child?
Is the world really less full of weeping with the faeries…?
My nephew in Connecticut.
The Stolen Child by William Butler Yeats
WHERE dips the rocky highland
Of Sleuth Wood in the lake,
There lies a leafy island
Where flapping herons wake
The drowsy water rats;
There we’ve hid our faery vats,
Full of berrys
And of reddest stolen cherries.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.
Where the wave of moonlight glosses
The dim gray sands with light,
Far off by furthest Rosses
We foot it all the night,
Weaving olden dances
Mingling hands and mingling glances
Till the moon has taken flight;
To and fro we leap
And chase the frothy bubbles,
While the world is full of troubles
And anxious in its sleep.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.
Where the wandering water gushes
From the hills above Glen-Car,
In pools among the rushes
That scarce could bathe a star,
We seek for slumbering trout
And whispering in their ears
Give them unquiet dreams;
Leaning softly out
From ferns that drop their tears
Over the young streams.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.
Away with us he’s going,
He’ll hear no more the lowing
Of the calves on the warm hillside
Or the kettle on the hob
Sing peace into his breast,
Or see the brown mice bob
Round and round the oatmeal chest.
For he comes, the human child,
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than he can understand.
Our Drama Club’s first outing with Shakespeare has been full of nothing but positive surprises. I’m sure it’s a honeymoon and road blocks are ahead, but you know what? I’ll take it.
At our first rehearsal my objective was to disabuse the students of their fears: Shakespeare is not scary, and you can figure out what the words mean without any help from me.
To do this I employed a few tactics learned at the Globe this past summer.
This first strategy, however, was my own. I provided them with a Shakespeare Cheat-Sheet to familiarize them with some language basics. Elizabethan syntax still resembled its parent French and was largely Romantic in character. More than half of our cast is Latino, and the other half has learned Spanish in school, so I drew comparisons between Usted(es)/tu/te and you/thou/thee. Their usage is nearly identical – if you know how to tell the difference in Spanish, you know how to tell the difference in Elizabethan English. Similarly, if you know when to use I/me, then you know when to use thou/thee.
Scene Study: Change It Up
After dealing with the language speed bumps, we got to the good stuff. I gave them a scene from the play where Demetrius tries unsuccessfully to shake Helena off his tail in the woods outside Athens. (Full disclosure: this entire activity can be found in Fiona Banks terrific resource, Creative Shakespeare.) It’s a brief exchange where each character speaks about four times, but each of their objectives is very clear. The students performed the scene five different times in five different ways with five different partners and were asked after each rendition what they discovered about the characters and their own performance. After we debriefed the fifth performance, I asked them to summarize the scene for me, line by line, which they were able to do with clarity and precision.
It’s important to note here that I hadn’t told them anything about the scene (and even though they had their scripts, very few – if any – had read the entire thing all the way through). I didn’t prep them by explaining the situation the characters were in, and I didn’t need to: they figured it out all on their own.
This is the bane of every English teacher’s experience with Shakespeare: trying to figure out how much to tell the students. When you are only reading the texts, it’s so much easier to just tell the kids what’s going on rather than wait for them to pick through it. But when you get them on their feet and get the text in their bodies, so much of the meaning reveals itself. And the students learn, and you don’t feel like you’re just showing off.
Status: Who’s Who…and why…
The Great Chain of Being (1579)
Our third activity during the first rehearsal was a status “game” (also detailed in Creative Shakespeare). While it’s meant to get the students thinking about the status of certain characters in relation to other characters, they can’t help but observe the game’s relevance to their own lives.
The instructions are simple: each student gets a card, but they can’t look at it – they hold it up for others to see. When everyone has a card, they begin to walk around the space and react to each other based on their perceived status. At first, no one knows what their status is, but very quickly they understand if they are a person of high status or low, and once they come to that realization you can see how their movements change. Those with royal cards walk confidently, and those with aces and deuces begin to slump along dejectedly. Not surprisingly, once they understand their status, they also begin to treat others differently.
The insights they shared regarding group dynamics were deep and personal. I don’t know the degree to which it will shape their performances, but it definitely allowed them to walk out of rehearsal feeling like something profound and different is happening with this production. Likewise, the idea that Shakespeare is somehow too erudite and out of their reach is quickly melting away.
I just started a more substantial blog post about the experience of directing A Midsummer Night’s Dream so far, but I’ll be honest: I’m tired. So it’s coming, but here’s a teaser — it’s been a really incredible learning experience for both the students and myself, and I have a lot to share.
But until then, here’s a photo of me wearing the cowl I knit for Titania.
Nothing was more shocking to the ears of twenty-five English teachers than to hear that we could — and should — edit Shakespeare’s texts to fit the needs of our students.
“Enough; hold, or cut bow-strings.” Bottom: Act 1, scene 2
To many an English teacher, the Complete Works of Shakespeare may as well be a sacred text. To make matters worse, we were all Americans, which is to say we’re far more likely than the Brits to be overly sentimental, and our general attitude is that the students should rise up to Shakespeare: He should never stoop down to them or us.
But British Shakespearean experts from no less an institution than the Globe Theatre were telling us to make edits! What is the point of making your students bang their heads against something they have no ability to comprehend; you may as well just give them a brick to hit themselves with.
Furthermore, we were assured, we have never seen a production of Shakespeare that wasn’t cut (barring Branagh’s Hamlet, of course). Every director makes cuts. They’re necessary for the audience’s comprehension. They’re necessary for the flow and the aesthetics of a particular production. They’re necessary to get the audience out of the house before the theatre management charges the company overtime.
And as a teacher, they’re necessary to help kids come to love writing that the twenty-five of us admired enough to apply for scholarships and crowdfunding grants in order to study Shakespeare at his home theatre.
Having said all that, I didn’t think I would actually ever have the gall to chop up a Shakespeare play. But, well, today I did.
I’m about to lead my drama club through A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and I needed it to be as accessible as possible for them. I had bought an edition that had already been edited for a younger audience, but two things stopped me from using it. The first was that it required permission from the editor in order to use the script. Now, it was nice of them to edit the thing, but it’s still Shakespeare’s work, and it’s still very much in the public domain, so the idea of paying royalties irked me. Furthermore, I saw Shakespeare the actor playing Ned Stark from Game of Thrones in my head, and he said, “If the demands of your time and your audience require you to chop up a script, then you have to chop it up yourself. You can’t let somebody else do it for you.” (Incidentally, this is the second time the work of George R. R. Martin has been referenced in one of my Shakespeare posts; apparently I see them linked somehow…)
All in all I cut a good ten pages out of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and you know what? Our production is going to be better for it.
There are certain rules that the Globe follows — as I imagine the RSC and other prominent Shakespeare entities do as well. I followed them, too:
It’s not our job to change the story. That’s been done, and the man most famous for doing so gave his name to the process of revising with a political or moral agenda: bowdlerizing. Don’t do it. No one will like you.
3. Don’t make cuts that would disrupt the rhythm or rhyme.
Pretty important, really. You’ve gotta keep those elements that make Shakespeare ‘Shakespeare!’.
4. Always think about your audience.
This was the most important criteria influencing my decisions with the text today: I needed the text to be comprehended by my actors, all of whom are under 18 and have limited experience with Shakespeare, which will also be true for their mostly student audience. Because I want both the audience and actors to remember this as a truly positive experience, I also needed it to be short enough for their 21st century attention spans; the goal is to build them up so that they have the stamina for a four-hour Branagh Hamlet, but you can’t start there.
Here are some of the particular realizations I took away from this exercise.
First, there is an excessive number of allusions to Greek mythology, and they go far beyond the basic knowledge of the Olympians that most of my students do possess. I didn’t cut all references to ancient lore because some of it is needed for color, but it’s clear that Shakespeare expected his audience to know the names he was dropping, and this generation isn’t the same. They won’t be charmed the way Shakespeare’s original audience was by referencing Philomel in a lullaby; they’ll try to understand for about one second, and then they’ll be bored. Which isn’t to say that others would react the same way; I certainly wouldn’t, but I’m not acting in this performance, nor am I the intended audience. Some classical allusions needed to go.
There are also several instances where Shakespeare has the characters tell the audience what’s going to happen before it happens. Perhaps in his era where one went to hear a play (the word audience does, after all, imply a group of people listening…) it was necessary to do this in order to reinforce the storytelling. But today we’re so used to watching things happen that it feels unnecessary to have Oberon dictate exactly what Puck will do as he dabs the eyes of the lovers with the magical elixir just moments before we see Puck do it. If anything, my students are more likely to comprehend what they’re seeing visually before they comprehend it aurally — hearing about it after seeing it might be beneficial, but it isn’t as necessary to include before. Same with the “Pyramus and Thisbe” dumb show; I’m sure it can be fun to stage, and there certainly are historically interesting reasons to include it, but for my kids — no. It got cut.
And then there were the occasional bits that just felt extraneous (do we really need Philostrate?), so they met with the axe. But for the most part, the text is still there, still so clearly recognizable that only the most studious devotee of the play would be able to pick out what was cut.
Most importantly, the students will still find the play to be very challenging and (I hope) deeply rewarding. The prospect of mounting this production has some of my actors bubbling with excitement while others shy away in dread. My hope is that it will be challenge enough for the go-getters and approachable enough for the wary.
As for myself, I’ve skinned my first Shakespeare and it wasn’t as bad as I thought.
All hail, great master! Grave sir, hail! I come To answer they best pleasure, be’t to fly, To swim, to dive into the fire, to ride On the curled clouds. To thy strong bidding, task Ariel and all his quality.
~The Tempest, I.iii
It’s been four months since my Summer of Shakespeare ended, and my days have been nearly Bardless since then. For three weeks in July I ate, slept and dreamt Shakespeare with an incredible team of colleagues, directors and coaches as part of Teaching Shakespeare Through Performance at the Globe Theatre. As a teacher and director, it was the most exciting and engaging professional development I’ve ever had; as a lifelong student of literature and theatre, it was thrilling to explore Shakespeare’s works in such depth and in as authentic a context as one can hope to achieve in the 21st century. We were all incredibly sad when it ended, but, as Shakespeare reminds us in many a play, our time on the stage of life is brief and the moments that shape it are even briefer — which is part of what makes every minute so precious and our need to make the best of our time here so crucial.
There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Believe me, love — I’ve remembered.
That’s why I’m so pleased that a new season of Shakespeare is about to begin, and unlike my three week Summer of Shakes, this Winter/Spring of Shakespeare will be a season of indefinite length, like a George R. R. Martin winter (Winter is coming, but it shall not be a winter of discontent!). It begins in two weeks when the drama club I direct at PACE High School will begin work on A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This will be my first time directing a Shakespeare play, something I’ve wanted to do for years now, but never felt competent enough as a director until my experience at the Globe. This means I’ll be teaching the play to my 12th graders in drama class, and hopefully creating lessons for the rest of the grades at school to make the play approachable for all the students.
I also have an intrepid crew of thespians who are participating in the English-Speaking Union’s National Shakespeare Competition. Between now and February when we hold our school competition, I’ll help nine contestants develop their monologues into strong, stand-alone performances. One of them will go on to compete regionally, and from there, if chosen, he or she will represent New York in the national competition. At the moment we have a grand assortment of characters chosen by the students: Petruchio, Gertrude, Desdemona, Isabella, Viola and a few Richard IIIs. I can’t wait to see what the kids do with them!
Additionally, my English class studies whichever Shakespeare play BAM happens to offer through their fantastic education program. This year in April we’ll go once more unto the breach with the highly-acclaimed RSC production of Henry V. I’m taking it upon myself to study the whole tetralogy (Richard II, 1 Henry IV, 2 Henry IV and Henry V) and the Hundred Years War more broadly in order to teach the play from a place of deeper understanding.
(And there’s one other very exciting Shakespeare prospect on the horizon, but I’m not at liberty to share it until it’s official. So stay tuned!)
Suffice it to say, I’ll be steeped in Barddom from now until at least May, and I plan to blog quite a lot about all of it. I want to document my students’ responses and insights to their work with the plays and parts, share my own thoughts (and, likely, frustrations) as a director, and my questions as a reader.
The winter of content has begun! And like Ariel to Prospero in the quote above, I’ll be rendering my services unto the Gentleman from Stratford as a teacher, a director, a coach, a writer — whatever he needs me to do, I’m his willing acolyte.
So you’ll have to excuse me now; I have a lot of fulfilling, life-affirming work to do.
Reader Hampshirehog pointed out that I neglected to mention Samuel Johnson’s cat, Hodge, in the previous post. I confess this was out of ignorance rather than willful neglect; as I stated in the post, my knowledge of Johnson prior to my visit to his house was practically nil. I definitely wasn’t aware of the significance of his cat.
But I’ve done my homework now and learned why Hodge has a statue dedicated to him in the courtyard outside the house, and Hampshirehog is right: it’s worth mentioning. Johnson’s love for his cat further illustrates what I wrote about him being ahead of his time.
Apparently it was not common to keep cats as pets in London at the time, but Johnson had a fondness for the felines who lived in the neighborhood.
His biographer, Boswell, noted the following:
Nor would it be just, under this head, to omit the fondness which he showed for animals which he had taken under his protection. I never shall forget the indulgence with which he treated Hodge, his cat: for whom he himself used to go out and buy oysters, lest the servants having that trouble should take a dislike to the poor creature. I am, unluckily, one of those who have an antipathy to a cat, so that I am uneasy when in the room with one; and I own, I frequently suffered a good deal from the presence of this same Hodge. I recollect him one day scrambling up Dr. Johnson’s breast, apparently with much satisfaction, while my friend smiling and half-whistling, rubbed down his back, and pulled him by the tail; and when I observed he was a fine cat, saying, “Why yes, Sir, but I have had cats whom I liked better than this;” and then as if perceiving Hodge to be out of countenance, adding, “but he is a very fine cat, a very fine cat indeed.”
This reminds me of the ludicrous account which he gave Mr. Langton, of the despicable state of a young Gentleman of good family. “Sir, when I heard of him last, he was running about town shooting cats.” And then in a sort of kindly reverie, he bethought himself of his own favourite cat, and said, “But Hodge shan’t be shot; no, no, Hodge shall not be shot.”
Hodge shan’t be shot; no, no, Hodge shall not be shot.
So not only did Johnson have a modern person’s love for his kitty, he bought oysters for Hodge specifically, and because that act would strike others as odd, he didn’t make his servant – Francis Barber, a former slave – buy them because it would be beneath his station to do so. Johnson allowed the eccentricity to be his own. A charming anecdote indeed!
Today Hodge’s statue is a popular point of literary pilgrimage. He’s shown atop Johnson’s Dictionary overlooking a few oyster shells. Visitors will frequently leave coins in the shells for good luck and to pay tribute to Hodge and his quirky, fascinating master.
Every new detail I learn about Johnson makes me more intrigued.
Thanks, Hampshirehog, for bringing this to my attention.