Fun with Bill: Teaching Shakespeare Through Performance

To be or not to be?  Well, one thing is for certain: you have to just be and enjoy the moment before you can write about it.

To be or not to be? Well, one thing is for certain: you have to just be and enjoy the moment before you can write about it. (This is one of the walls in the staircase of the Sackler Studios at the Globe.

I believe it was Byron who advised writers never to write about an experience until it was fully past; trying to capture all the beauty and detail while in the midst of it keeps you from living the moment. (How he would hate our modern impulse to document each minute as it happens!)  In this spirit, I wasn’t as efficient a live-blogger of my time at the Globe as I had intended, but in the whirlwind of rehearsals, workshops and the establishment of new friendships with the many inspiring teachers who were part of the programme with me, I found myself too tired by the end of any given day to write very much.

At the moment I’m on the train from London to Paris where a whole new experience will commence, but I wanted to take some time to gather my thoughts and establish a bit of closure on the past three weeks.  (UPDATE: It’s been two weeks since I originally wrote this entry and my time in France is now over, too.  As in London, so in France: I was too immersed in the moment to write about it.)

It seems odd to feel the need for closure. Three weeks is not a long time. I’ve been part of classes with other people in the past for longer stretches of time and not felt more than a twinge of sadness when the inevitable end finally arrived. This was different.

For one thing, as participants in Teaching Shakespeare Through Performance, we arrived as teachers, but soon realized that we were to become actors. I suppose it should have been obvious through the name of the programme, but if you’re going to teach Shakespeare through performance, you’ll have to learn how to perform.

And so we were introduced to our tutors and guides, all of whom have either performed in Globe productions or work with the actors who do on their voices, movement, costumes, etc.  We spent hours in rehearsal building an ensemble that would present abstract scenes that would tie our small group scenes together. Our small group scenes were from As You Like It, and we spent even more hours of rehearsal preparing these.

In this way, we explored Shakespeare’s text and ideas on our feet. There were brief moments of textual analysis when the words were just too dense, but for the most part we made meaning with each other in rehearsal. We figured it out as we went along, moving and laughing the entire time.

Shakespeare, my friend.  (The Chandos Portrait in the National Portrait Gallery, London.  This was the first portrait in the museum's entire collection, the one that started it all.  Appropriate.)

Shakespeare, my friend.
(The Chandos Portrait in the National Portrait Gallery, London. This was the first portrait in the museum’s entire collection, the one that started it all. Appropriate.)

I can’t overstate this: it was so much fun and we learned many new techniques and ideas for approaching Shakespeare. Fun and learning, hand in hand, and with Shakespeare no less — who’d a thought?  We crammed a semester’s worth of study into three weeks and it hardly felt like work at all. In this brief time we spent so many hours laughing together, creating together, discovering together.

So. I can’t remember another 3-week period of my life where I’ve experienced so much personal, professional and artistic growth, all at once, and all derived from the same source, which happens to be the greatest writer in the English language and the stage for which he wrote.  Which is why I need some closure to really solidify everything this experience has meant to me.  The next several blog posts will aim to tackle this.

 

 

 

As You Like It, 2015

ayli

My first experience with As You Like It was in college at Denison University, freshman year, 1996.  We read the play, discussed it, watched the BBC version from the 1970s with Helen Mirren…and that was it.  It didn’t leave an indelible mark on me the way other Shakespeare plays did (except for two lines that have always remained with me: “Men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but not for love,” and the excellent insult, “Sell while you can: you are not for all markets.”).  I was exposed to Measure for Measure at the same time, and that one became a quick favorite that I would read several times in the ensuing decades and see performed in a variety of productions.  Somehow the hijinks in the Forest of Arden didn’t touch me in the same way.

wpid-20150719_204940.jpgA year or so later the Denison Singers performed a setting of Shakespeare’s songs by a Welsh composer whose name escapes me, but the work included “Under the Greenwood Tree” and “It was a Lover and his Lass” from AYLI.  These stuck.  I’ve been singing them in my head periodically ever since, and, in fact, I attempted to keep a Shakespeare blog called “Under the Greenwood Tree” once upon a time.  In any case, despite loving these two songs, I never returned to Arden myself until a few months ago when I learned it would be one of the plays we’d be studying here.

Before I actually reread the play, I read a few essays from Harold Bloom’s very large Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. They weren’t even about AYLI, but in everything I read he found an excuse to talk about Hamlet, Falstaff and Rosalind (AYLI’s heroine) again and again, and in the most unlikely of places (The Bastard in King John, for example, is an early sketch of a character that approaches the complexity of a Hamlet, a Falstaff, or a Rosalind…).  I knew that Rosalind was one of Shakespeare’s major female roles, but I certainly didn’t remember her as being so well-developed and complex.

The production here at the Globe, then, was a revelation.  The plot is still the plot, and it is (endearingly) bizarre, but the staging and the acting made the show uproariously funny — and everyone in our programme agreed.  The scenery, as is the custom here at the Globe, was minimal.  Shakespeare gives the audience the scenery with his words, and unless you can do better than he does, you’re better not to try.  The result is that there is very little stuff to get in the actors’ way, and the emptiness of the huge stage gives them the freedom to play.  And they do!  Touchstone, the cynical clown, had some moments of great physical slapstick that was complimented by his quick tongue.  Our scene director, Pieter Lawman, pointed out that Touchstone is a difficult role to play because much of what he says isn’t very funny on the surface of it.  Finding his humor is a real challenge, but Daniel Crossley spit out his words with a venom and speed accompanied by apt gesticulation: we were in stitches!

Dear Globe and photographer Simon Kane: Please don't sue me for using this photo of the amazingly talented and wonderful Michelle Terry from your excellent playbill.

Dear Globe and photographer Simon Kane: Please don’t sue me for using this photo of the amazingly talented and wonderful Michelle Terry from your excellent playbill.

As for Rosalind, all I can say is that I’m now a lifelong fan of Michelle Terry and I will go to see her in anything she does for the rest of her career.  It was magical.  In her first scene we see her banter with Celia (Ellie Piercy, equally excellent, but whose character plays the straight-man, somewhat, to Rosalind’s unbound trickster).  She’s girlish — and churlish — and then, as her uncle, Celia’s father, banishes her from the land she is so utterly and convincingly strong and independent.  If you were to take Terry’s Rosalind to a karaoke bar, she could sing “I am Woman (Hear Me Roar)” and follow it up immediately with a flirtatious rendition of “I Enjoy Being a Girl,” and the combination would not have seemed ironic.  She was powerful and playful, and, of course, this depiction is not contrived, it’s exactly how Shakespeare wrote her to be.  But somehow I missed it in the reading.

I don’t know how many more times this production of AYLI will be performed, but I don’t think it’s very many as the season is wrapping up on September 5th.  But if you read this in time, and if you are able, you must (MUST!) see it!

(And if you can’t make it….well, mayhaps you can come see me take my turn as Rosalind on the Globe stage on July 24th.  Michelle Terry needs some competition.  Just sayin’…)

 

 

 

Justice & Mercy

Well, we’re a week into Teaching Shakespeare Through Performance and all I can say is, “Wow!”

(Actually, that’s not true — I’ve got a bit more to say…)

I didn’t realize how much I needed this experience.  I’m definitely not burnt out after twelve years of teaching, but I have gotten set in my ways.  I’d change texts from one semester to the next, true, but not always tactics.  When I consider all the things I’ve learned in this week, how much more engaging my lessons will be in September, I feel guilty: I could have been doing such a better job for years now.  I let myself stop growing as a teacher.

But, as Richard II so callously says in the two-and-a-half lines he takes to eulogize his uncle, John of Gaunt, immediately after hearing of his death, “So much for that.”  Not that I mean to be callous, but where will bemoaning my faults get us?  Nowhere.  Let’s move on.

I’ll get into the details of the programme and what I’ve learned, but the first thing I want to do is write about the plays we’ve seen.  At this point, we’ve attended all of the Globe-produced plays that we’re going to experience (still have Richard III tomorrow, but it’s a Chinese touring company — should be amazing, but it isn’t a part of the Globe’s repertoire this season).

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These are the Globe programs. They’re so thorough; excellent teaching resources. British theatres don’t provide programs for free the way American ones do — they cost four pounds — but they’re far more substantial in terms of information. If your brain is still playing over the performance long after the final bow, these will help you as you continue to think about it all. I highly recommend them.

The current offerings are united thematically by the concepts of justice and mercy.  They include:

  • A duke who has allowed the laws to become lax, so he leaves town and empowers a regent who decides it’s high time the laws be enforced as written, even if it means executing anyone caught having sex outside of wedlock.
  • A king, divinely appointed, who has used his land and people as his personal bank account, living extravagantly on the country’s dime until he is called out and punished for it — and learns the true value of his life.
  • A princess banished for the supposed sins of her father, who finds the power in banishment to arrange people, events and outcomes as she likes them to be.

I’ve got quite a bit to say about each one, but I’ll take them one at a time (along with the additional performances I’ve been privileged to see here: The Death of King Arthur, The Beaux Stratagem, and, hopefully, Everyman).  

Let’s get started!

Teaching Shakespeare Through Performance – Day 1

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Fiona Banks, our Course Director, teaching us about the new Sam Wanamaker space.

Today was the first day of our coursework here at the Globe.

Wow.  In this single day I feel like I’ve learned enough to revamp my teaching of Shakespeare and Dramatic Arts to merit the price of tuition…and there are 20 more days to go!  But rather than catalogue the fantastic ensemble-building exercises we learned from Colin Hurley, who recently played in the all-male Twelfth Night/Richard III on Broadway, I want to reflect on the talk given by Patrick Spottiswoode, the Director of Education here at the Globe who worked with founder Sam Wanamaker from the beginning, before they’d even broken ground to build the theater.

According to Patrick, Sam made his name in radio soap operas in Chicago and New York before being offered work in the UK.  He might have returned to live in the US but for the fact that he’d made Sen. McCarthy’s infamous list and his friends told him to stay in the UK for the time being.  Because he listened to them, the UK benefitted from his work at setting up the nation’s very first Arts Center (in Liverpool, I think he said…), and eventually he got the idea to recreate Shakespeare’s famed Globe Theatre.  The project met opposition from all sides: from the political left and right, from the arts establishment folk to the “who-cares-about-Shakespeare?” philistines. Their reasons were many, but among them were the fact that the visionary Wanamaker was an American son of Ukrainian Jews and the chief architect, Theo Crosby, was South African (who were these foreigners to tell the Brits about Shakespeare?).  But they were tenacious, and now it’s here.  The Globe has now been open since 1997 and is now a beloved point of pilgrimage for Shakespeare devotees the world over.

The Heavens of the Sam Wanamaker

The Heavens of the Sam Wanamaker

In a sad twist of fate, neither Sam nor Theo lived to see the Globe’s opening.  They did, however, dream of one day building an indoor theatre that would be a functioning replica of one of the earliest 17th century indoor theatres (the next generation after the open air theatres like the Globe).  That day came last year when the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse opened alongside the Globe.  It’s built according to the oldest surviving plans for an indoor theatre that anyone can find.  There’s no evidence that any theatre was built using those plans prior to now (they seem to have been drawn up but then put aside for whatever reason), but it clearly matches general descriptions of the theatres that existed at the time.

The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is stunning.  In our group of teachers there are several who have been to London many times and some for whom it’s their first visit.  One teacher of the latter group was so moved by the experience of seeing the Globe for the first time that she cried.  I thought, “Awww, bless her!  Wouldn’t it be nice if I could feel that feeling all over again?”  I was at the Globe shortly after it opened and have visited several times since then.

Teachers looking up.

Teachers looking up.

But I’d never seen the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse until today.  I can’t even tell you why it moved me so much, but as soon as we stepped inside I had a feeling of being transported in time, even more than I feel in the Globe.  It’s candlelit and incredibly intimate; much smaller than the Globe — I can only imagine what the dynamic between actor and audience must be like in a space like that.  I won’t have to imagine for long though: not only will we see a performance there, we’re going to be the first teacher group to perform in the space!  Before coming here, I was giddy at the prospect of performing on the Globe stage, and I still am. But I knew nothing of the Sam Wanamaker stage: even if I’d known we’d perform on it, it wouldn’t have meant anything to me.  Now I’m giddy for two performances!

Me getting all weepy.

Me getting all weepy.

So anyway, I cried.  The story of what it took to create the space, from the visionaries who dreamt it, to the plans drawn up 400 years earlier that sat quietly awaiting their day, to the incredible words of Shakespeare that continue to motivate people to dream and build and create and perform…it was too much for me.

I’m proud, excited and extremely grateful to have a moment on these stages and be a part of their stories.

 

The Shakesperience of a Lifetime

So I’ve been a total Shakespeare nerd for the past twenty-plus years and I can prove it.

(And no, it’s not because I used that stupid portmanteau in the blog post title…but it made you groan a little, right? ;))

I won the English award in 9th and 10th grade; the award certificates are lost to time, but I've held on to these beautiful collector's edition of Shakespeare ever since.

I won the English award in 9th and 10th grade; the award certificates are lost to time, but I’ve held on to these beautiful collectors’ editions of Shakespeare ever since.

It began with Romeo and Juliet in Ms. Tyler’s 9th grade English class, circa 1992.  I remember not being able to understand a damn thing, but really feeling smart because I was reading Shakespeare.  At that point in time, the words felt like a magical incantation, and it was a power I didn’t understand…but didn’t all young sorcerers begin with magic they didn’t understand?  Understanding, at that time, was a secondary pursuit.  Foggy meanings cleared up, however, when I presented my first Shakespeare scene: Romeo’s death.  After praising the quickness of the apothecary’s poison, I delighted in giving the audience the most drawn out death scene I could possibly muster.  It was fantastic.

Dedications on the inside (to confirm that I'm as old as I say I am and that I'm not making up "Hold out your cow bowstrings!"

Dedications on the inside (to confirm that I’m as old as I say I am and that I’m not making up “Hold out your cow bowstrings!”)

Things were easier in 10th grade when we took a stab at Julius Caesar, then later made asses of ourselves with A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  The latter in particular opened up the fun of the language.  One of our classmates misremembered Bottom’s last line in Act I, scene ii, and in true Bottom fashion asked us to “Hold out your cow bowstrings!”; the actual line is “Hold, or cut bow-strings,” but the truth of the matter was irrelevant.  We liked our version so much it became a mantra for our English class.

In 11th grade we went to the sinister side of things with Othello, Macbeth and the darkly comic Taming of the Shrew. I played the First Witch that year in our class scenes, and I can still remember Act I, scenes i and iii verbatim. We had so much fun with the project that we decided a photoshoot in the backyard was necessary — and this was at a time when you still needed to buy film, then take it Walgreens to have your photos developed: that’s how serious we were.

12th grade was the year of Hamlet, King Lear and The Tempest — and, because I felt ready, I read Twelfth Night on my own.  I also competed in the Junior League of Cincinnati’s Shakespeare recitation contest, performing Benedick’s monologue from Much Ado About Nothing (the Branagh-Thompson film version had just come out and I saw it in the theater!) and “Sonnet 29” (which is also etched permanently in my memory).

The hurlyburly is clearly overdone.  (circa 1995, age 17)

The hurlyburly is clearly overdone; that “robe” is actually seven black t-shirts strategically arranged. (circa 1995, age 17)

In college, at Denison University, I took “Shakespeare” during my Freshman year and purchased the Pelican Complete Works which has graced my shelves ever since.  In its table of contents I’ve kept track of every play that I’ve read and seen: check marks mean I’ve read it, pluses mean I’ve seen it performed, either live or on film.  At this point in time I’ve read all but six, and I’ve seen a version of nearly every play that I’ve read — most of them live.

When I studied abroad in Bath, UK, during the summer of 1998, I was swamped with work and didn’t have the time to travel that I would have liked, but I did make sure to get to Stratford.  A friend and I stayed the night in a bed & breakfast (first time I’d done that!), visited all the Bardolatry pilgrimage sites, and saw Measure for Measure and Romeo & Juliet at the RSC.  It was perfect.  I worked for the same study abroad program in Bath — Advanced Studies in England — the year after college, and as part of my job we visited Stratford several more times, and I even got to see King Lear at the Globe Theater in London…as a groundling…by choice.  (I wanted the real, gritty Elizabethan experience…)  I even brought my 12 year-old brother and my young cousin to the Globe when they visited.

Pelican Complete Works.

Pelican Complete Works.

As a teacher I’ve taught Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, Richard III, The Tempest — and taken my students to see live performances of each.  In 2010 I traveled with students to London to tour the city; an entire afternoon was spent at The Globe.  It was my first time getting to see the inner-workings of the place, and I was fascinated — and I was glad to see that my students were as well!

With the fool statue in Stratford-upon-Avon.  (circa 1998, age 20)

A motley fool, and a statue in Stratford-upon-Avon. (circa 1998, age 20)

Which is why I am ecstatic to announce that I’ll be getting to know Shakespeare’s theater much more intimately this summer.  I am incredibly proud to tell you that I’ll be taking part in the Globe’s “Teaching Shakespeare Through Performance” program as one of the English-Speaking Union’s British Universities Summer School scholars.  During the three weeks at the Globe we’ll learn the latest techniques for teaching Shakespeare so that his works reach 21st century youth in a way that is much more accessible than the Age of Enlightenment literary exegesis that I grew up with (even though I have very fond memories of those heady early encounters with the texts).  I’m humbled and honored to have been given this opportunity by the English-Speaking Union of the United States’ New York branch, who awarded me a generous scholarship to make it possible.

With my students at the Globe, February 2010 (age 32)

With my students at the Globe, February 2010 (age 32, far right)

This is going to be such a monumental experience that it almost feels like a capstone to my lifelong pursuit of Shakespeare, but I’m only a third of the way through my career as a teacher, so this is really still the beginning.  Hamlet asks what dreams may come during the sleep that is death, and I have no answer.  But in the wakefulness of life, had you told me that I’d spend three weeks studying Shakespeare on his own stage (albeit a replica…), well, this is a dream I’d never even thought to dream — but I’m thrilled that it’s coming true.

Expect to see many, many updates on my Shakespeare experiences on this blog in the weeks and months to come.

 

‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore

With a title like that, John Ford’s play is bound to stick in your mind.  It did mine: I’d never read it, but I’d never forgotten it since I first heard about it in college.  When I saw that it was being produced by the Red Bull Theater company – a group that specializes in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama – I couldn’t pass it up.

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I was stunned; it was phenomenal!  The play is described as being like Romeo and Juliet, except that the star-crossed lovers happen to be brother and sister.  If that sounds farfetched and over-the-top, well it’s just one of several aspects of this production that will raise your eyebrows and drop your jaw.

That said, it wasn’t the premise or the live nudity or the insanely (insanely!) violent ending that shocked me most (although each of those elements did make my eyes open widely).  The most shocking aspect to me was that the dialogue was so easy to follow.  I’m an English/Drama teacher, so I’ve read and watched my fair share of Shakespeare, and while I find it much easier to study than my students do thanks to a lifetime of being exposed to his language, his words are still very challenging.  I’ve watched Shakespeare plays that I haven’t studied and followed along well enough, but having read the plays first seems to make for a richer experience.  I thought it would be the same with ‘Tis Pity since it is also a Jacobean play (albeit later than Shakespeare’s works), but, on the contrary, I don’t think there was a single moment’s confusion.

Why not?

Presumably I can interpret heightened language quicker than I could in the past.  And truly, the actors were so good at their roles that their interpretations brought clarity that could have conceivably been lacking in the written dialogue.

'Tis pity the run of our show is over so soon, sister.

‘Tis pity the run of our show is over so soon, sister.

But the bigger reason, I think, is that the work lacks the poetry and beauty of a  Shakespeare play, a realization that was illuminating.  I haven’t studied too many of Shakespeare’s peers, so it was fascinating to see how Ford’s play made Shakespeare’s genius more obvious.  Don’t get me wrong: I LOVED IT!  But I loved it because it was entertaining, dark, creepy, and sadistically self-indulgent.  I love horror movies, too, for pretty much the same reasons, but Nightmare on Elm Street isn’t a smart Hitchcock thriller.  And ‘Tis Pity isn’t Romeo and Juliet, or Macbeth, or OthelloMacbeth in particular could be just as bloody (or even more so, really), but the violence underscores the deeper thematic and philosophical issues.  In ‘Tis Pity, even the most poetic moments (which tend to be defenses of incest) feel as gratuitous as the sex and violence and Catholic-bashing (by means of the deliciously morally-bankrupt cardinal).  Shakespeare doesn’t usually stoop to the kinds of devices that Ford used.  Ford, in modern parlance, “went there!” with regard to such issues as brotherf***ing and disemboweling in ways that are meant to be showy.  I don’t really have a problem with gratuity in general because it’s usually entertaining and I tend to accept it as such, but it’s also what keeps good art from being great.  The production was great, but the play itself is only good.

Still, if it hadn’t closed the week after I saw it, I would have definitely insisted you go.  New York won’t see its like again for quite a few years.  I’ll be paying close attention to the Red Bull Theater Company from this day on.

Traveling the Sistine Road (of Promise…)

Rehearsals have been underway for Kurt Weill and Franz Werfel’s The Road of Promise for several weeks now.  I can report that the Chorale is in fine voice and really enjoying working with this fascinating piece.  I was trying to think of how to describe it to someone recently, and it was hard to categorize.  It was originally an epic musical in the late 1930s titled The Eternal Road, the origins of which Janet Pascal has chronicled thoroughly here.  From what we’ve learned during the rehearsal process, it was quite possibly the most massive musical ever staged, with seven acres of set pieces, a 100+ person cast, and a length of nearly five hours.   This unwieldiness meant that revivals weren’t likely, so the Kurt Weill Foundation for Music commissioned a shortened version, which is The Road of Promise.

11078082_813690508720931_5446364770332979057_nAs a choral singer, you don’t get the full effect of a piece until you perform it with the orchestra and soloists, and there’s not a recording of this work yet (although there we’ll be: we’re making it!), but here’s what I can tell you.  While it is shorter in terms of time, it doesn’t seem to have lost much in terms of sound.  Weill’s sonic palate was rich and bright in this score, and his phrases are painted in broad strokes.  It’s luscious, even when we only have a piano to sing with; I can only imagine what the orchestra is going to sound like.

The story recounts a number of tales from the Old Testament as a Jewish community huddles fearfully in its synagogue during a pogrom.  Werfel’s lyrics, therefore, have the chorus perform one moment as God’s voice on the wind as he tells Abraham to spare his son, Isaac, and another moment as a choir of trumpeting angels.  Meanwhile, on the ground, you’ll hear us raucously rejoice as we worship the golden calf, pout grumpily as Joseph’s brothers who wish to kill him, and so forth.  It’s gorgeous music that relays profound subject matter, but it’s also quite a lot of fun to listen to.

So as I thought about how to describe it — lush sonic color, Old Testament themes — it occurred to me: this is the musical version of the Sistine Chapel, and I’m not just saying that to be cutesy.  Most operas and oratorios that deal with the same biblical subject matter hone in on a single story to explore in depth, but this work brings as many tales to life as it can in order to tell a much bigger story, which is exactly what the Sistine Chapel does.

So there you go.  I don’t know if anyone has ever described a musical work as ‘Sistine,’ but that’s what The Road of Promise is:

Huge. Breathtaking. Demanding. Gorgeous.

 

(AND tickets are still available!  May 6th and 7th at Carnegie Hall!)

Sonnet 29

This has been in my head for twenty years…never forgot it.

Bill enjoys a warm day in Central Park.

Bill enjoys a warm day in Central Park.

Sonnet 29
by William Shakespeare

When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featur’d like him, like him with friends possess’d,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

The Road of Promise – I

Road of Promise Graphic 400pxNow that the Defiant Requiem is successfully behind us (as you can read here in the New York Times review), it’s time to look ahead to the Road of Promise (May 6 & 7 at Carnegie Hall).  I’m going to have much more to write about it as we immerse ourselves in the work during rehearsals in the coming weeks, but for now I give you this intro video:

 

House of Bard’s: If Shakespeare Had Written About Congress

Shakespeare sat here.

Shakespeare sat here.

I was having a conversation with a friend about House of Cards recently, and I shared with him that I love how deeply Shakespearean it is.  He asked what I meant, and after talking about it for a few minutes, he suggested I write a blog post on the topic.  I hadn’t done so because the subject has already been discussed in the media, and I’m new to the show (the first season is two years old and I only just finished it three weeks ago), so I’m not sure I have anything to say that hasn’t already been said.  However, there may be others out there whose Shakespeare is a bit rusty and who would be intrigued to know a bit more; also, there are probably many of you who’ve noticed connections that I’ve missed, so I’d love to see how long our list of similarities and connections could grow through the conversation.  I’ve only read one article (from The New Yorker) about the Shakespeare-Cards mashup, so if you’ve read more than me and something I write reminds you of someone else’s piece, well, all I can say is that we’re all pulling from the same source material and great minds do think alike.  I also want to say that I’ve only seen Season 1 — so SPOILER ALERT for those who haven’t watched the show; and don’t spoil anything for me in your comments, those of you who’ve seen all three seasons.  Also, I haven’t seen the original British version, so I don’t know the degree to which anything I write below is true for that version.

Characters & Plot.  From the first ten minutes of the first episode, I thought to myself: Sen. Frank Underwood is Richard III and Macbeth all rolled up into one character.  He’s been promised a position of great power (Secretary of State), then he’s overlooked in favor for someone else.  Now, he has a better right to complain than Macbeth: Macbeth was promised the kingship by the witches and not by the king himself, whereas Frank was legitimately led to believe he’d get the position from the President-elect, who later reneged.  Even so, the moment Frank learns that he’s been looked over, he smiles at the President and accepts his demotion outwardly, though thinking, like Macbeth, that his rival for the post is “a step on which I must fall down or else o’erleap, for in my way it lies.”  But Macbeth goes on to say right after that line, “Stars hide your fires; let not light see my black and deep desires.” Frank Underwood would never say that: he’ll deliver a moving eulogy, full of religious imagery, then go on to say he has no belief in God and feels no compunction about it.  He doesn’t need his Lady Macbeth to tell him to “look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent underneath it”: he’s had that routine figured out for years.  Which is why he’s ultimately more like Richard III.

No, really, Claire...I wanna be the Vice President.

No, really, Claire…I wanna be the Vice President.

In 2012 I took my students to the Brooklyn Academy of Music to see Kevin Spacey perform as Richard III.  Admittedly, this was one reason the Shakespearean overtones seemed so immediately obvious: I always look at him on the show and think of him in that role.  We sat in the front row, and at BAM that means your feet are on level with the actors’ feet.  Spacey’s Richard was scary.  He used the entire stage, and at certain moments he was toe to toe with us, which was both electrifying and terrifying.  Watching him play Frank Underwood is similarly thrilling.  Like Richard, he tells you right up front he’s been wronged and he’s going to do bad things to make things right — right for him, that is.  He’ll help you or hurt you if it’s to his benefit, and — help or hurt — it won’t trouble him the slightest to do what needs to be done.  We love Richard and Frank because they are preternaturally confident, and however bad they may be, you never stop admiring their self-assuredness.  As the New Yorker article points out, it’s a real bummer when Richard gets killed; you know that he deserves it if we live in a moral universe, but you think to yourself, “Well, damn.  Now the fun is over.”

Frank’s wife, Claire, is kind of like Lady Macbeth.  She definitely provokes, encourages and helps him towards his greatness because it will mean big things for her as well.  But she’s a fully developed 21st century character; she’s got her own non-profit, her own interests and power plays that sometimes cause her to cross Frank’s interests.  If Frank is one part each of Macbeth and Richard, then Claire is maybe one part Lady Macbeth, but three parts Rosalind from As You Like It: beautiful, witty, scheming and wise.  But that rotten part of her that is Lady Macbeth is enough to spoil the whole apple.  Neither of these characters can have happy endings, but they’ll definitely have exciting ones.

I don't always speak directly to the audience, but when I do, I like to have a sip o' bubbly.

I don’t always speak directly to the audience, but when I do, I like to have a sip o’ bubbly.

Structure and Genre.  Like Shakespeare, the writers of this show love to employ sly, witty, sometimes bitter asides and soliloquies.  Frank — like Richard, Macbeth, Hamlet, Polonius, etc — reveals wonderful secrets during those moments when he looks at the camera to pull us out of the scene and into his mind.  It’s part of his strategy for winning us over, and his look always says the same thing: you know I’m right.  I have been seen clapping my hands with childish glee when he looks aside at us and says…nothing.  Once he’s established his use of the aside, he no longer needs to use it for words.  He just looks, as if to say, “See what I’m talking about?  Tell me I’m wrong.”  And, thus privy to his nefarious plots, we delight in being his confidantes and become complicit in his schemes.  I’m sure there is a bigger meta-metaphor to be developed here, but I’m going to leave it at that.

Is this the face of a man who would murder his brother and nephews, and then trick you into marrying him after murdering your own husband?

Is this the face of a man who would murder his brother and nephews, and then trick you into marrying him after murdering your own husband?

Richard III is one of Shakespeare’s history plays, and these plays are historical insofar as their characters were once real, flesh and bone people, and some of the events of the stories did certainly happen.  But to go to them for a history lesson is to miss the point.  Like our historical Hollywood movies today whose purpose is to tell us (we, the people of the present) as much, if not more about ourselves than the people of the past, so, too, did Shakespeare’s histories function.  Furthermore, his treatment of certain historical characters has been controversial.  Don’t believe me? Check out the website for the Richard III Society; their mission: to “secure a more balanced assessment of the king” since 1924.

House of Cards is only slightly different.  Although its characters are purely fictional and not meant to embody any specific historical figures, its depiction of Washington and the power structure is real-ish, albeit straight out of the conspiracy theorist’s handbook.  And it works for that reason: conspiracy theories are a lot more exciting than plain-Jane, banal, common sense reality.  Although I know there are politicians who do bad things, I doubt that too many have ever been guilty of murder.  Have journalists slept with their sources to get information?  Probably, but I doubt it’s par for the course.  So it’s consistent with a Shakespeare history: it does give us a peek into the world of politics and power, with its egos, its pushy lobbyists and sleepless interns, but we peek at it through gauze and smoke.

Alright, I’m sure there is more to say, but I’ll leave that for you, dear reader.  Where have you seen Shakespeare hiding in the show?