Shakespeare and the Globe-al Affair

All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players. As You Like It, Act II Scene VII.

in two days, on April 15th, it is William Shakespeare’s birthday. So here’s wishing him a happy birthday.

It was a brand new world the Elizabethans were creating. It was only a hundred years or so since Gutenberg gave them the printing press and inexpensive books to read. It was a little less than one hundred years since the Tudor Henry defeated Richard on Bosworth Field and ended the Civil War the English knew as the Wars of the Roses. It was only three quarters of a century or so ago since Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses on a church door, virtually ending the dominance of Rome over Christianity. It was only in 1588 that England defeated a Spanish Armada and began its rise as an European sea power. And under Good Queen Bess the arts flourished. Especially music, dance, poetry and theater.

Sure there was plague every few years. Sure it was a hierarchical society. Sure there were still fears that the Pope’s agents would assassinate the queen. But there was such optimism in the air that anything was possible for the English. The sixteenth century was a good one for England. By its end, London was the largest city in Europe.

By the time Shakespeare’s first play appeared on stage in 1590, it had been less than a century since Columbus proved that the planet was round. Not flat as everybody believed. That was a big deal. As big as what Wilbur and Orville did at Kitty Hawk. Maybe bigger.

Ships would not fall off the earth when they went far out to sea. There were no sea monsters to gobble up ships and their sailors. First Magellan, then Sir Francis Drake circumnavigated the globe. In 1580, Drake and his Golden Hind returned from his three years at sea with stories and riches. He brought back enough booty that the Queen’s share doubled her annual income for that year. Anything was possible.

The only thing to compare with the attitude of the English was the feeling Americans had after defeating Germany and Japan in 1945. Anything was possible. Even putting a man on the moon.

A reflection of this “anything was possible” attitude was the theater. The first playhouse in England was built in Shoreditch, London by James Burbage in 1576. It had a very original name. It was called The Theater. Until then, plays were performed by wandering troops of actors in guildhalls, in local nobles’ halls, in inns and at festivals and fairs. By the 1590s, there were a number of theaters in London like The Curtain and The Rose. And in 1599 Shakespeare and his fellow players of the Chamberlain’s Men opened The Globe.

There were an amazing group of dramatists to excite London audiences. William Shakespeare, Thomas Kyd, Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, John Fletcher, Francis Beaumont and Thomas Middleton. Of all the rivalries, it was the one between William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe that excited audiences the most. It was like watching Picasso and Braque’s competition with cubism in the early twentieth century. It was like seeing Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams battle it out on Broadway in the late forties and the fifties.

Creativity was in the English air and London was the place to be. Only Marlowe’s premature death caused the Elizabethans to pause, then continue with some of the greatest drama in the history of Western Civilization. And it wasn’t just a drama for the court and the upper classes as it was in Moliere’s France. The theater was for every class in society from the blacksmith and the baker to the Queen of England.

The Globe was appropriately named to give the English a sense of the wide world Drake and others were beginning to reveal. For the price of a ticket, a Londoner could leave the plague, the violence and the crime of London behind and step into a different world. Walking into the large round building that held up to 3000 people for a performance was an adventure. All that was required of the ticket holder was a few hours time and an imagination.

During the performance, the stage had no scenery. It might have a large wooden chair that was a throne. It might have a table and chairs for an inn. It might have a log for a forest. This is why Shakespeare’s plays use dialogue and prologues. To help the audience imagine the scene with prologues such as the opening of “Romeo and Juliet”.

Just listen to the Chorus in the Prologue of “Henry V”.

O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!

Or we get the weather in “Hamlet” with such dialogue:

Hamlet: The air bites shrewdly; it is very cold.
Horatio: It is a nipping and an eager air.

In “The Tempest”, we get a shipwreck in a storm:

Master: Boatswain!
Boatswain: Here, master: what cheer?
Master: Good, speak to the mariners: fall to’t, yarely, or we run ourselves aground: bestir, bestir.
Exit

Enter Mariners

Boatswain: Heigh, my hearts! cheerly, cheerly, my hearts! yare, yare! Take in the topsail. Tend to the master’s whistle. Blow, till thou burst thy wind, if room enough!

Just from the dialogue we get the sound and fury of the storm these men are dealing with. Then in Act 1, Scene 2, we get further evidence of how bad the storm was:

MIRANDA
If by your art, my dearest father, you have
Put the wild waters in this roar, allay them.
The sky, it seems, would pour down stinking pitch,
But that the sea, mounting to the welkin’s cheek,
Dashes the fire out. O, I have suffered
With those that I saw suffer: a brave vessel,
Who had, no doubt, some noble creature in her,
Dash’d all to pieces. O, the cry did knock
Against my very heart. Poor souls, they perish’d.
Had I been any god of power, I would
Have sunk the sea within the earth or ere
It should the good ship so have swallow’d and
The fraughting souls within her.

With only dialogue, the actions of the actors, the colorful costumes and a few sound effects, the Elizabethans created in their imaginations the courts of kings, the forests of fairies, the streets of ancient Rome and Greece, castaways on an island and the battle scenes of great conflicts.

For Shakespeare’s audience, the Globe was truly a whole new wonderful world. And they loved it.

Uncle Bardie’s Movie of the Week: What Happens Backstage Never Stays Backstage

Once a week on Monday, Uncle Bardie shares a movie with his Readers he gives a big two thumbs up. It will simply be a short excerpt or a trailer. From time to time, a reflection on the movie will appear below the video. So pop some popcorn and give yourself a treat. This week’s movie is “Noises Off” (1992):

When I was writing the section on Hamlet’s interaction with the actors, another wonderfully, comic play on film came to mind. Peter Bogdanovich’s film of of the play, “Noises Off”, is any theatrical director’s nightmare. That is to say that the farce probably occurs more than you’d like to think.

While we’re saying, “It’s a hit”, the director and the actors most likely are saying, “I will never, under any circumstances, work with those people ever again.” And they say it adamantly to themselves as they reveal in interview after interview, “This was such a wonderful company. I have never, in my long career, worked with such delightful people.” Then they are asked, “So you would work with these people again?” Their response, “At the drop of a hat.” All the time, cursing under their breath.

Michael Caine is the director of the cast from hell. It’s the dress rehearsal for the opening in Des Moines. Carol Burnett can’t get her lines right, even though she is being encouraged by John Ritter. It’s those darn sardines. And the newspaper. And the telephone.

Then there’s the problem with the doors. They don’t open and close the way they should. And there’s the actor with the drinking problem. And more sardines. One minute they are there and the next they are missing, and then they are back again. And the actor who needs an explanation why he will take the groceries into the study. Unfortunately the sardines and the newspaper is stuck to his hands. Plus it’s hard to do a quick change without a dresser. There are more problems with this production than there were with the Titanic. Wonder if the Titanic had problems with sardines?

“We’re two lines away from the end of Act 1,” the director encourages the actress to do the two lines, hoping against hope that the gods will put him out of his pain and soon. And, oh, the stage manager, Julie Hagerty, is pregnant with the director’s baby.

In Miami, Carol Burnett breaks up with John Ritter and locks herself up in her dressing room. Carol went out the previous night with Christopher Reeve, listening to all his problems. Christopher Reeve is dating Marilu Henner, so there’s nothing between Carol and Christopher.

That isn’t the way John Ritter sees it.  Then the curtain rises for the matinee. John Ritter is about to make Christopher Reeve’s life hell during the performance. And the drunk gets hold of the wine that the director meant for the blonde, Nicolette Sheridan. What’s worse is the drunk can’t keep his pants up.

As you can imagine, the performances backstage are much more hilarious than what is going on onstage. It’s amazing how much those darn sardines get around.  It’s enough to make a director turn to the bottle himself. One thing is for sure. One should not bring a cactus backstage in times like these.

Then it’s on to the final horror. Cleveland.

Hamlet and the Speakeasy

I can counterfeit the deep tragedian;
Speak and look back, and pry on every side,
Tremble and start at wagging of a straw,
Intending deep suspicion.
Richard III Act 3 Scene 5.

Act 3 Scene 2. Every actor in the world wants to be the director. With one exception. Michael Caine. Sir Michael knows an easy road when he sees one. He learned during his working-class odd-job early life not to make waves. Directors make waves. Partially because it’s their job to piss people off, especially actors and producers. Partially they can’t help themselves.

Now here’s Hamlet. Right up front he wants to piss the actors off. By telling them how to do their job. Here he’s telling them to speak the speak and speech the speech. As if they don’t know how to speak the speech and speech the speak. They ought to. They have done it something like one thousand and fifty-four and a half times.

That half time is stretching it a bit. This visiting acting troupe hadn’t done a good job at the halftime celebrations of the Superbowl between the Martin Luthers and the Torquemada Inquisitors. They did a bit on the Ninety-five Theses. They called it the Ninety-six Thesis because it was the thesis that the Martin Luthers left out. This thesis claimed that Jesus was six feet seven and had played pro basketball for the Nazareth Carpenters. That went against the Church’s teaching.

According to the Church teaching on Jesus’ basketball career, the Good Lord was seven feet tall and had played for the Bethlehem Cradles. The Church had stained glass to prove it. They had Jesus’ contract for forty-five shekels for his rookie year. He played three games, then he was out for the season. He had injuries in his two palms. Something about splinters. Basically it put him out for good. Jesus never played pro basketball again. A little touch football with His Boys but never anything pro. As they say, everybody has a cross to bear and that was His.

Except for that screw-up, this acting troupe had standing room audiences at all its performances. Now here was the Hamster, an amateur, trying to tell them how to do their job. But he was paying the bill, so they let him do his thing. They just didn’t listen and went about their acting biz the way they always did. Professionally.

Hamlet must have thought he was William Shakespeare. Had Hamlet lived it is very likely that he would have gone to London and started his own theater troupe. Now that would have been a hoot. Not.

Hamlet was so good at tragedy he could have been the next Chris Marlowe. When it came to comedy, it was an ix-nay on that. From the evidence we have seen in the play so far, all Hamlet could do was sad, really sad. He would have made “The Massacre at Paris” look like a children’s play.

The Elizabethans would have run from his plays, barfing. ‘Course that would have made him even more popular since the Elizabethans loved to barf. Francis Bacon wrote three treatises on the subject. Queen Elizabeth, for whom the era was named, had contests at court to see who the best barfer was. Leicester won them hands down. Guess that was why he was the Favorite-in-Chief.

Hamlet would have been the one that all those scholars think was The Bard. Alas, it was not to be. But Hamlet still made his mark anyway. Thanks to Horatio, his story became the most popular in all the world. Folks as far away as Cathay would get a taste of it. It would be seen by more audiences than any other drama, except The Game of Thrones. So Hamlet can take his bow.

Now Hamlet gets the chance to produce, direct, and playwright. Who knows? He may even have played the ghost. Just like William the Playwright played the ghost but not the lead. Oh, that’s right. There isn’t a ghost in the Gonzago play. But no worries. Hamlet has written a part for himself. He will Olivier this little tragedy the actors perform. Talk about Multiple Personality Syndrome. Hamlet was a regular Orson Welles. A Mr. Multiple Personality.

Hamlet and the Knock-knock joke

You know Shakespeare invented the knock-knock joke. In  Act 1 Scene 1, “Hamlet” begins with “Who’s there?” Made me wonder if “Hamlet” was one long knock-knock joke without a punch line.

You know, in those days, there were not any knock-knock jokes going around. Until:

Barnardo: “Knock knock.”

Francisco: “Who’s there?”

Barnardo: “Eliza.”

Francisco: “Eliza Who?”

Barnardo: “Eliza Bet You Can’t Be Queen.

Francisco: “I may not be Queen but I sure can sing.”

Barnardo: “Sing?”

Francisco: “Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?”

Okay, you didn’t get it. Shakespeare did, and so did Freddie Mercury.

This “Who’s there?” asked by Francisco, the guard on the turret, sets the whole mood and theme of the play. The play is about who is who and what is what and getting it all sorted out.

Do you have a favorite knock-knock joke?