August Blogroll: New News Edition

Dear readers,

Yesterday, I rewarded a day of syllabi- and lesson-planning with an afternoon trip to Powell’s bookstore here in Portland. It was completely brilliant, as famed and expected, and I managed to pick up a few gifts for friends and a little something for myself. While I can’t believe I still haven’t found a free moment to read James Shapiro’s award-winning The Year of Lear yet—having loved his 1599—I did discover an anthology I didn’t realize he had edited: Shakespeare in America: An Anthology from the revolution to Now (Penguin Library of America, 2013). With a forward by former President Bill Clinton, who has been much in the news of late with forthcoming election, I was reminded of the several Shakespeare-centered news stories the circulated this summer.

Brexit Book Deal

London Mayor Boris Johnson, who we thought would become Prime Minister after the Brexit debacle this summer (thankfully not!), signed a book deal to writer a Shakespeare biography back in late 2014. He received a £500,000 advance for the biography, to be part of the 400th anniversary celebrations. Why any book agent thought a Churchill pop-historian was suited for the job—not to mention the fact that the market couldn’t possibly sustain another one of these—is anyone’s guess. This past July, shortly after pulling out of the PM race he also shelved the project, currently (and ego-manically) titled Shakespeare: The Riddle of Genius. The last thing we need is one more white man showing us what a genius he is because he can mansplain the “genius” of Shakespeare.*

The Curtain Squared

Late in spring, some of the initial findings at the MOLA excavation site of the Elizabethan amphitheater known as the Curtain began to make headlines. Some of the stories are quite goofy and implausible, such as original artifacts from Romeo and Juliet  and so on. The big news is that the theatre was thought to have been designed like the three other major excavations underway—in a round or semi-round shape with access to a thrust stage on three sides. Not so! The Curtain was in fact a rectangle! Holger Syme explains the implications in excellent detail, with comparison charts, in his “Post-Curtain Theatre History” post.


Speaking of Holger, he found himself in the middle of a strange media blitz when a few outlets caught whiff that he had posted nearly 500 live-tweets in response to some very dated, stodgy, and largely inaccurate scholarship. (I.e., More mansplaining of Shakespeare’s genius by  certain Sir to one’s own brilliance.) After he posted the #1Lear responses to Storify in early June, it blew up in masthead articles at Inside Higher Ed, Times Higher Education, Verge, The Guardian, The Telegraph, and The Times, among others. While two white men fighting over a dead white guy’s play about a king could seem farcically navel-gazing on the surface, as a scholar in the field what Syme is critiquing is incredibly important: there is a very dated form of scholarship that willfully neglects archival data for effusive “human condition” arguments that validate a certain set of privileges and assumptions. I look forward to his forthcoming LA Review of Books piece on the experience.

Happy reading!

December 2016 Update:

In the last several months, the #1Lear debate took some interesting turns via the Los Angeles Review of Books:

  • Syme’s initial piece, “The Text is Foolish: Brian Vickers’s ‘The One King Lear,'” was published 6 September here.
  • Vickers’ “A Response to Holger Syme” ran on 6 November here.
  • Syme’s final piece, “‘King Lear’ at the Stationers, Again: A Response to Brian Vickers,” ran 18 December here.

*What biographies do I actually like as a Shakespearean? Put these two together and I think you have the most measured account of the man called Shakespeare’s life and times:

  • Holland, Peter. William Shakespeare. Very Interesting People. Oxford University Press, 2007.
  • Shapiro, James. A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599. Harper Perennial, 2006.
A theatre-history haul from the main branch of Powell’s in downtown Portland.

“Mirthful comic shows”: Original Practices, Richard III, and the Curtain

“The worm of conscience still begnaw thy soul!”
—Queen Margaret, I.iii

My brain is abuzz with all I have learned this past weekend at the inaugural Blackfriars X Southwest conference in Austin, Texas. The event was housed at a unique venue on Lake Austin, the Curtain playhouse, which is run by the troupe known as The Baron’s Men. Built by an eccentric patron some decades ago, the venue is a recreated space akin to the Rose theatre with a longer thrust and a capacity of nearly 300 when counting groundlings. It is part of that generation of recreated venues that followed the Shakespeare festival in Ashland, Oregon, but came up before we had discovered the remains of the actual Rose and Globe playhouses in Southwark. So this Curtain is part of the American imaginary of Shakespearean theatre and participates in its cultural conscription rather than as museum theatre.

Baron’s employs some “original practices” (OP) elements (as Mark Rylance called them) in their space, as outlined by director Joe Falocco before a recent performance of Richard III. They emphasize universal lighting, relatively bare-stage dramaturgy, and a balcony architectural feature in order to enable a more active and participatory experience for playgoers. The space itself is situated at the bottom of a gravel path in a park, appealing to a more rustic and informal experience. Many of my fellow patrons brought their own box-wine complete with spout and were more than happy to hiss and halloo in response to different moments in the play. OP stagings, as you might see at the American Shakespeare Center in Virginia or Shakespeare’s Globe in London, try to make the most of bawdy humor and take explicit direction from the text—what I call elsewhere dramaturgically sympathetic reading. The same emphasis was true of this production. For example, careful casting meant a bald actor playing Lord Hastings makes the most of the line “my hair doth stand on end” in response to Queen Margaret’s prophetic curses. Acknowledging the limits of doing the last in a tetralogy of plays, the troupe appended some of Margaret’s material from 2 Henry VI based on a performance tradition going back to the early eighteenth century.

Richard (Andy Bond) woos Lady Anne (Taylor Flanagan).

Richard III as a play and as a historical figure has been in the media a great deal over the last few years. There has been the Kevin Spacey performance of the role that led up to his House of Cards series, in which the lead is similarly Machiavellian. There was the rather amazing discovery of the king’s body and royal re-interment in 2012. (The short documentary of the discovery, Richard III: The King in the Car Park, is really amazing and, fortunately, available as VOD.) The reinterment caused quite a stir, resulting in a legal battle over the manner and placement of the body. Many were upset over the reverence and eventual royal carriage funeral (which turned into a major televised event, a grotesquely “mirthful comic show”) given to a centuries-dead king who was inarguably a tyrant, not to mention murderer of kin and children. Such debates make a staging of Richard III especially timely in that it gives audiences a chance to consider the political problems produced by the War of the Roses.

Richard III (Andy Bond) employes his audience.

The standouts of the Baron’s production were Andy Bond as Richard and Leanna Holmqvist as Queen Margaret. Both tapped into a royal charisma typically reserved for Gloucester which made the production an interesting balance not only in terms of gendered rulers, but also to what extent leadership is ultimately performative. The entire production did not revolve around Richard’s ability, as can often happen. He was marked only by a limp and lean to suggest a short leg but none of the other physical aberrations with which the historical figure is famous. In these ways—in gender and ability—both performers amplified and seemed to be attempting to counteract that ways in which they both are a “slave to nature” as they try to marshall political power. Emphasizing the precariousness of the crown and its quick movement from one to another were three excellently timed crown drops: with the killing of a king, the crown was made to roll, but not off the stage, but would stop on its side in the foreground as a beautiful dramaturgical image of Shakespeare’s “hollow crown” analogy from other plays.

Richard (Andy Bond) and Richmond (James Byers) are visited by ghosts before battle.

Many recreated theatres today are affiliated with a university, company, or festival. The Curtain and its Men are not, and so have a freedom in both their artistic goals and the manner in which they present their plays. With additional academic trappings, the environment of a Baron’s play is something between a national park hike and Medieval Times™. Audiences were far more convivial, comfortable, and I suspect feel less of the pressure to perform a kind of learned, conscientious, and attentive set of behaviors linked with high art. Neither high nor low, Baron’s invites its audiences to merely be a part of the moment—a thing possibly all that Margaret and Richard could have ever asked.

  • The Baron’s Men’s William Shakespeare’s Richard III plays at the Curtain playhouse in Austin through April 16, 2016.
  • Want to learn more about OP? A great place to start is Jeremy Lopez’s article, “A Partial Theory of Original Practice,” in Shakespeare Survey 61 (Nov 2008): 302-17. 
  • See the video below for the initial BBC news report of the discovery of Richard III’s remains.