The wonderful Mary Murphy reveals Three Secrets, a cat and mouse game, a radio play I wrote for Arts Express on the Pacifica Affiliates across the country.
Click on the triangle above to hear it as broadcast today.
The wonderful Mary Murphy reveals Three Secrets, a cat and mouse game, a radio play I wrote for Arts Express on the Pacifica Affiliates across the country.
Click on the triangle above to hear it as broadcast today.
photo: Joan Marcus
Corn. After a long war against the Volscians, the hungry Roman peasants demand the release of the captured stores of corn. The victorious general Caius Marcius, later crowned Coriolanus, finds the revolting peasants revolting; he mocks their demands even as they agree to crown him Emperor. All they ask of him in return is that he say a word or two in support of the common people. But the narcissistic Coriolanus refuses to repeat niceties as any usual politician would; finally, all the various political factions find him so intractable and so obstinate that he is exiled. In bitter resentment, Coriolanus offers to lead the opposing Volscian army to victory against Rome, only to fall in crushing defeat.
It’s with some trepidation that I attend a Shakespeare play that I’m not already familiar with, but in Dan Sullivan’s recent excellent Public Theater production of Coriolanus at the Delacorte, the story line was always crystal clear, and each scene unfolded understandably even to these virgin ears.
It’s a play that has an obvious double in Julius Caesar: the Roman setting, the questioning of the godliness of the Emperor, the fickleness of the public, the perfidy and two-faced nature of professional politicians, the arrogance of the powerful, and the persuasive power of words. In terms of language, there are passages in Coriolanus that are the equal to anything in the Shakespeare canon, and characters that are as rich and complex as any that Shakespeare has written. And yet the play is not frequently performed in modern times. The Public Theater’s last production of Coriolanus was forty years ago. What is it about Coriolanus that makes it so … unpopular?
Perhaps because, as Dan Sullivan’s production suggests, the play is a remarkably uneasy and bleakly nihilistic tale. It’s an indictment of society’s glorification and morbid fascination with all things military, including the worship of military heroes, and the fetishization of them as a separate breed. There’s no easy patriotism, no stirring celebration of valor as in Henry V. Here, war is horrible, brutal, thoughtless, and accomplishes nothing; worse, each class in society is more self-serving and deluded than the other. It’s a play with not one hero. No one remains unscathed, the audience can applaud no one.
Which is not to say that the acting ability of some in this production is not heroic. The excellent actor Jonathan Cake’s approach to the role is to treat Coriolanus as an elite, highly trained specialist in the art of war who believes that the rest of society is incapable of understanding him. “You can’t handle the truth!” is always burning inside him, a hair’s breadth away from the surface. Cake reproduces the speech patterns we’ve come to associate with an Oliver North or a Navy SEAL. He could have come from a television ad that extols, “The Few, The Proud, The Marines.” It’s the persona of the man who thinks that in his ability to kill—and therefore to lead—he knows something that the rest of society is afraid to admit to itself: that nothing, nothing at all matters, not corn, not the trappings of power, not royalty, not politics. One thing and one thing only matters: the power of might, the power of the sword, the power of murder and death. It is only from that ability to kill that all other power flows. And it is that knowledge, that absolute certainty, that leads to the contempt of Coriolanus for everyone else.
Coriolanus was written around 1608, in the latter part of Shakespeare’s career. Shakespeare, like Coriolanus, had always been suspicious of the fickle rabble, and as Shakespeare settled more and more into his bourgeois life, it made sense that he would become even more intolerant of them. It’s not surprising that an Elizabethan playwright would have a love-hate relationship with the common folk—he’s got to put bottoms into seats, or stiffs into the standing pit; if he fails to do that, then he’ll have as Hamlet says, a play that was “never acted, or if it was, not above once, for the play I remember pleased not the million…” And the peasants aroused to rebellion in Coriolanus were not just some far-off problem for the Romans; rather, A.L. Rowse reports that contemporaneous with Shakespeare’s later years there had been a peasant uprising in the English Midlands fueled by —wait for it—the price of corn.
And so Coriolanus is exiled. In about five years after Coriolanus‘s opening, Shakespeare, too, will himself become an exile, although in his case, self-imposed, leaving London for the big house, New Place, back in Stratford–Upon–Avon, some 100 miles from his theatre. He was a man of the theater who had gotten his hands dirty in London as playwright, actor, director, producer, financier—a man who had had his hand in all phases of the theater. The old legends had it that he had begun as a stable boy for the theaters; literally someone knee-deep in theater shit since his teen years. But now he must have been beginning to think of retirement. He’s come off a string of hits. He’s tired? Maybe. But I get the feeling of something else. What if this: what if for some reason he is in effect exiled from his own theater company? Maybe he thinks he’s entitled to more money or more shares in the theatre corporation that he and the others founded. Maybe he goes off in a huff because the rest of his company can’t get along with his dictatorial ways anymore. Maybe there are “artistic differences.” Maybe he feels disrespected the way Coriolanus feels disrespected. After all I’ve done for you. In this view, Shakespeare becomes what Coriolanus becomes—a talented bitter man who has done great service and who, betrayed by a fickle public, goes into exile.
This is all speculation of course. But that aspect of Coriolanus’s personality more than anything else stands front and center in this play: the disrespected man of action. What Coriolanus can’t see is that war is a monster that eventually swallows up everyone and everything. The business of making oneself a servant of war, a wager of war, is no guarantee that it won’t destroy everything for all time. Like theater, war is all encompassing.
In the end, in Sullivan’s production, the victorious soldiers of Volscia are as unpredictable as the Roman rabble: with Coriolanus’s dead body in front of them, they unexpectedly disobey their own general, Aufidius. They refuse to take up the body of Coriolanus as a respected fallen enemy general, as Aufidius commands them. Instead, the ragged soldiers seem to realize that Aufidius has more in common with his enemy, Coriolanus, than with themselves. They are sick to death of other people taking their power and using it in the name of war and aggrandizement. No, they will not listen to their general, and if Aufidius looks uneasy at the end of Dan Sullivan’s production, it’s because he knows that he may soon be the next to go.
In many of Shakespeare’s plays you see the old order restored, and the rightful heirs coming back to the throne, or the forces of good becoming the new line of royalty. But in Coriolanus there are no forces of good, and we see no glimmer of redemption. And maybe that’s why Shakespeare had to sell his story as a Roman one, safely distanced from his Jacobean reality: the leaders are no good, the public is no good, your patriotism is no good, your hero generals are no good, it’s all a pile of wreckage and ashes. Better to go back to Stratford, make out your will, and figure out who’s going to get that second-best bed.
Mary Murphy keeps you hanging on the line in her performance of my short comic sketch “At The Sound Of The Tone,”
Click on the triangle above to hear the sketch as broadcast today for Arts Express radio on WBAI 99.5 FM NYC.
The entertaining magician and mentalist Gary Ferrar (whose grandfather was a lion tamer) talks with us about his new show of mental illusions called “Nothing Here Is Real.” As a bonus, he performs a mindreading effect directed at yours truly on the air.
You can listen to Gary’s interview and mentalism effect, as broadcast today on the Arts Express radio program on WBAI 99.5 FM NYC, by clicking on the grey triangle above.
If you ever done any theater improv, you know that the art and craft of making things up on the spot is a tricky one to master. The imperative is always to deal with what is happening in your environment at that very moment—to accept what’s in front of you and then embellish and extend. It’s always tempting to speed ahead in your mind, rather than trust that if you just follow your way from moment to moment to moment, you’ll get to where you need to go.
It was with delight that I read the following about musical improvisation in Anita O’Day‘s autobiography High Times, Hard Times (a wonderful portrait of a giant of jazz song). The parallels to theater improv were immediately recognizable. I had never heard anyone talk about musical improvisation the way she does. In the following paragraph she writes about how she learned to improvise on a melody by being committed to staying in the moment, and using any cues in her environment she could at that fleeting instant to spur her imagination:
“I saved ‘Oh, Lady Be Good’ as an encore. At the point where the bridge comes to the second chorus, i needed an idea from somewhere. I saw a polka dot blouse. So I developed that chorus as a bagful of polka dots. To keep the version going, I searched for ideas. Where was I going to get my inspiration? I looked around the room and that gave me the idea of singing the structure of the room—long wall, short wall, long wall, short wall. That gave me the frame for the chorus. I turned to the band. Five men. So I put it into five rhythm. Anything that I could get an idea from, I put to work to fill out my time on the stand. I did it that way because technically I was not knowledgeable about music. I needed to get the thought behind the sound going, and I took it from wherever I could get it. In all, I did twelve choruses of “Oh, Lady, Be Good!” and when I finished the place exploded. People shouted, stampeded, applauded, whistled, stood on their chair and cheered. It was the response you dream about…”
Thought and action at the speed of sound. Just thrilling.
The wonderfully versatile singer, actor, and songwriter Nellie McKay spoke with us a while back, following her engagement at Birdland in New York City. You can listen to the interview as broadcast yesterday on the Arts Express radio program on WBAI 99.5FM NYC by clicking on the little triangle above.
In 1998 the acclaimed playwright and director David Hare took on his most challenging theatrical task to date: to act for the first time since he was in grade school. Granted, he would play himself in his own play, Via Dolorosa, but doing so would not only require him to tread the boards for the first time, but also to hold forth on stage alone for a full ninety minutes.
Fortunately, Hare kept a written diary from the first day of rehearsal, on to performances in London, and then to the final curtain on Broadway, a hundred performances later. I say “fortunately” because it is a wonderful read about learning to act by someone who had been in the theater all his professional life, but who finally had to come to grips with a craft he knew little about from the inside.
As such, it’s quite different from most texts about acting. It’s full of quirky insights about the joys, frustrations, and struggles of learning to act, told contemporaneously as he wrestles with each day’s rehearsal or performance. It’s one of the best books I’ve read about acting and the theater because it takes the reader on the actor’s journey as it unfolds performance upon performance. In Hare’s previous playwrighting and directing work, he had collaborated with some of the greatest actors of the English stage, so throughout the diary Hare reflects on what he has learned from those performers, but also what he has had to sort out each day for himself.
It’ a funny, profane book and Hare is a cranky, boozy character who names names and is ruthlessly honest about himself and his colleagues. I’ve excerpted some of my favorite comments about theater from the book below. An essay could be written about each individual excerpt, but I’ll be quiet now and leave you to enjoy and mull over them yourself.
[On receiving direction at the first rehearsal from director Stephen Daldry]: “I am confused by a mix of feelings brought on by direction about something I understand better than anyone else in the room, i.e writing, and something I do worse than anyone in the room, i.e. acting.”
“The slower people speak, the harder they are to understand. Dialogue is rhythm, and there is some scientific rhythm which I believe corresponds to the natural pace of activity in our brains.”
“I have always had a problem with assistant directors. . . What the fuck does the assistant director do, except wield power without responsibility? In the arts, opinion is cheap. Only people who are risking something on the outcome have the right to shape the performance.”
[Hare directed Anthony Hopkins in King Lear; Hopkins said]: “I know I’ve got the performance worked out for the nights when the juice is there. But what worries me is that I still don’t have it for the nights when I don’t.”
[Ingmar Bergman said]: “It’s part of a director’s duty to be in a good mood at work.”
[After a seemingly unresponsive matinee performance] “I came off swearing …that they [the audience] were the worst bunch of motherfuckers I’d ever encountered. I walked back to a solid wall of cheering, almost the best reception I had ever had. Stephen [the director] told me it was the best show he’d seen. What do I know?”
“As soon as you achieve a particular way of doing anything you can at once see the charms of doing its opposite.”
“There are two kinds of directors…I call the two types editors and interventionists. Crudely, interventionists possess a vision of the work towards, which they are, at all times working….Editors, to the contrary, work pragmatically, looking all the time at what they are offered, refining it constantly, and then exercising their taste to help the actor give of their best…Neither kind of director is necessarily superior to the other.”
“Doing it ‘better’ doesn’t seem to make it any better. Is the greater part of an actor’s effort directed to a five percent improvement which no one notices anyway? Is it the thing itself which people respond to and are all our obsessive efforts around just on the margin?”
[Mike Nichols who Hare directed in The Designated Mourner said]: “Only the very greatest actors can convince you that other people’s words are their own, and that there is nothing at all between you and their feelings.”
[Harrison Ford who was being considered for a part in a Hare film, said]: “When I’m offered a part, then I’m aware that I bring a certain amount of baggage with me, in terms of how the audience views me. So the first thing I question is whether the baggage is going to be helpful to the picture or not.”
“The play is not the play. It is the interaction between the audience and the play.”
“[Voice coach] Patsy Rodenburg, from London, describes to me the frustration of regularly auditioning young actors who arrive to see her, well turned out, presentable, competent, assured. Yet they lack the element that would make sense of their chosen profession. They do not convince you of their need to speak.”
Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie in a great, funny send-up of a Shakespeare acting class.
The two of them were poking fun at a popular British television series of the 1970s where director John Barton and the young actors of the Royal Shakespeare Company, like Ian McKellen, Ben Kingsley and Judi Dench, were put through their paces.
You can reference a clip from that series here.
Thanks to YouTuber CineLad
It’s always a pleasure to welcome the Annual Shakespeare’s Birthday Sonnet slam. This is the 9th slam produced by director and Shakespeare scholar Melinda Hall, (you can listen to an interview I did with her a few years ago where she talks about, among other things, who Shakespeare was), and this year introduces a change of venue. Usually the slam is in the center of Central Park, outdoors at the Naumburg Bandshell. But if you’ve dropped by in the last few years, you may have noticed that the bandshell is in a precarious state with pieces of roof falling and stones from the stairs getting dislodged. Just as Shakespeare moved his company in the winter from the naked elements of the Globe Theatre to the more protected clime of the indoors Blackfriars Theatre, this year we now go to the cozy environs of Riverside Church’s 9th floor lounge. You can see in the picture above that it looks a lot like a Shakespearean stage. While it’s true that we will not get the traffic of curious passersby, it looks like we may actually have chairs in this space for the audience to sit in, which would be a treat.
I just got my randomly assigned sonnet number this week and the luck of the draw has given me sonnet #27. It’s probably the most straightforward sonnet I’ve been assigned to over the years:
Weary with toil, I haste me to my bed,
The dear repose for limbs with travel tired;
But then begins a journey in my head,
To work my mind, when body’s work’s expired:
For then my thoughts (from far where I abide)
Intend a zealous pilgrimage to thee,
And keep my drooping eyelids open wide,
Looking on darkness which the blind do see:
Save that my soul’s imaginary sight
Presents thy shadow to my sightless view,
Which, like a jewel hung in ghastly night,
Makes black night beauteous and her old face new.
Lo, thus, by day my limbs, by night my mind,
For thee, and for myself, no quiet find.
I’ve talked several times before about how I go about analyzing a sonnet. Last year’s sonnet had a very similar conceit concerning day and night, light and dark, but there is much less involved wordplay in this one. Often when I’m faced with an unfamiliar sonnet, I feel like I have to wrestle it to the ground to get it to reveal its secrets to me. That fight results in a kind of tension in the performance that reflects the prior struggle with the meaning, syntax, and meter. But this time, especially since this sonnet is so accessible to a modern audience, my goal will simply be to relax and let the sonnet and the words do the work. In a way, I want to see how little I can do and yet still be effective, if that makes any sense.
The 9th Annual Sonnet Slam will take place Friday April 26th from 1-4pm at Riverside Church, 9th Floor. Use the 91 Claremont Avenue entrance. It’s free and it should be a lot of fun. Or better yet, sign up to read a randomly assigned sonnet. You can find the information here.
Angela Lansbury in one of her signature roles at the 1975 Tony Awards.
About two-thirds of the way through the clip, Lansbury gets surprised by a guest dancer. Don’t miss it. The look on her face is wonderful. (If you don’t recognize who it is, I’ll post his identity in the comments.)
Thanks to YouTuber kotlicek
If you haven’t seen or don’t remember the classic scene from the the movie Spartacus about the leader of a Roman slave rebellion, click on the very short video below, so that the rest of this makes sense:
More videos at Improv Everywhere
Dick Van Dyke and the eloquent Sharon Lerit from the Broadway stage production of Bye Bye Birdie dance up a storm.
Van Dyke learned years later that the producers had wanted to fire him out of town, but Gower Champion had fought hard to keep him. Van Dyke and the show made it to New York and hit it big.
Thanks to YouTuber lee a
Department of Self-Referential Videos Department.
The original Broadway cast of Bye Bye Birdie—including the fabulous Paul Lynde— singing the Ed Sullivan song—on The Ed Sullivan Show.
Thanks to YouTuber lee a
Jean Simmons’ wonderful turn as the Salvation Army worker who just had her first drink in Frank Loesser’s Guys And Dolls. And, of course, Marlon Brando, in one of the oddest casting decisions for a movie musical, as the leading man, gambler Sky Masterson.
Thanks to YouTuber ZSy264
Richard Burton playing Hamlet, “To Be or not to be,” and “Get thee to a nunnery.”
There are aspects here of Burton’s performance that could be criticized but there’s no doubt he had the voice, emotional sensibility, intelligence and nobility of character to be a great Hamlet.
“For he was likely, had he been put on,
To have proved most royally.”
Linda Marsh as Ophelia
Thanks to YouTuber tvclassics
John Barrymore chewing up the scenery in this no-holds-barred performance as the crook-back’d Richard, Duke of Gloucester, on the eve of gaining the Crown as Richard III.
This is from Henry VI, the prequel to Richard III, which details Gloucester’s rise.
Thanks to YouTuber erfv102012
And don’t forget to enter the Fourth Annual Shalom Blog Magic Contest. It’s fun and easy with great prizes. Read the details here:
Deadline coming up, now’s a good time to enter.
Here’s our radio version of the little sketch, Gun Shy, as broadcast yesterday on WBAI, during the Arts Express radio program. Many thanks to The Mighty Arts Express Players, composed of Pearl Shifer and Mary Murphy, and thanks again to Prairie Miller for all the encouragement.
Click on the triangle to listen.
In 1972, Groucho did a one man show of reminiscences at Carnegie Hall called An Evening With Groucho. In this short clip, he shares what happened when he encountered the magician Harry Houdini.
Click on the grey triangle to play.
Thanks to https://archive.org
My friend Alan who is a prolific playwright asked me if I’d like to write a very short three-minute curtain raiser for his new play reading. I said yes, having no idea at all what I would write. As it happened, the Parkland school shootings and the government response were still on my mind, so out came this merry little sketch.
Mother in the breakfast room; two children ages seven and eight (should be played by adults) offstage.
Mother: Justin, c’mon you’re going to be late to school.
Justin: (off) I’m coming.
Mother: You, too, Mercy, the school bus is going to be here any moment.
Mercy: (off) I’m coming. Give me a chance. (Justin enters with backpack on hand)
Mother: Look at you. Your hair’s a mess. And what about your sweater?
Justin: Yes, Mom. I have it.
Mother: And did you remember about your homework?
Justin: Really, Mom, you don’t have to remind us about every little thing. (Mercy comes down with her backpack in hand)
Mother: Can’t you get yourself together a little earlier so you don’t have to rush each morning?
Mercy: I’m sorry I was just packing up my backpack. We have a lot of equipment for our new class. And it’s so lame, they make us drag everything back and forth.
Mother: What class is that?
Mercy: Oh, the target class.
Mother: Target class?
Justin: It’s a new required class we have to take in school. We have to be able to kill 65% of potential intruders in order to pass the class, graduate, and go on to middle school.
Mother: How do they know if you’ve done that?
Justin: Well, a wound in one limb counts as a score of 30%, an eye counts for a score of 25%, for a kill you obviously get a 100.
Mercy: Well, unless someone else hits the guy first, in which case you only get 50% for an assist. It’s so unfair. So the thing to do is, if you can’t get a clean kill, try to mix and match so that it adds up to over 65%.
Justin: So two eyes and you pass.
Mercy: No you idiot, that doesn’t add up. That’s only 50—25 and 25.
Justin: I’m not good in math. It’s not my fault. My math teacher only has one eye. She was mistaken for an intruder.
Mother: Well all right, put on your backpacks. Wait a second. What’s that you got in there?
Mercy: Just a gun.
Mother: Oh. Okay. And what’s that?
Mercy: That’s another gun. Hi-powered, semi-automatic.
Mother: All right. (to Justin) You’re looking very guilty young man. And what’s that ?
Justin (ashamed looking down at the floor) Gum.
Mother: Gum? Gun or Gum?
Justin: Uh, Gum.
Mother: Oh my gosh. What is wrong with you? Hand that over young man. You should know by now you’re not allowed to chew gum in school. It’s not allowed. It’s really disrespectful to the teachers and staff. Didn’t I bring you up right?
Justin: I’m sorry. I just couldn’t…
Mercy: Ooh I’m telling.
Justin: Be quiet, you.
Mother: I am really, really so disappointed in you, Justin. Wrigley’s Spearmint. The most deadly flavor. In my day, you know what we did with students who brought gum to school? (pause) We shot them. Of course we were only allowed to graze them in my days. Old-fashioned I suppose, but the world has moved on. I guess you can’t stop progress. I don’t know what we’re going to do with you, Justin.
Mercy: (reluctantly) Ohhh…I guess you can have one of mine. But not the AR-15. Just one of the handguns.
Mother: That’s really kind and unselfish of you, Mercy. Maybe I did bring you kids up right after all. (Sound of bus horn honking) Okay here’s the bus. (kids run off) Don’t forget your lunches. Love ya. And children—No chewing in class! Knock ‘em dead!
Yesterday, WBAI broadcast my interview with actor/playwright/essayist Wallace Shawn on the Arts Express radio program. You can listen to his provocative discussion of privilege and denial by clicking on the grey triangle above.
Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students sing “Seasons of Love” from the play Rent.
It gave me the chills watching it.
Thanks to YouTuber CBS