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Thursday, November 20, 2014

Shakespeare's Restless World; Portrait of an Era, by Neil MacGregor

--Filled with anecdotes and insights, eerie, funny, poignant and grotesque, Shakespeare's Restless World is another brilliant vindication of MacGregor's understanding of how physical objects enter deep into our fore-father's mental and spiritual world.                                                       ---Sunday Times (London)                                                                     
-- Just as he did in A History of the World in 100 Objects, MacGregor repeatedly converts fascinating objects into talismans transporting readers across time and geography. Visually splendid, intellectually stimulating, a must-buy.                                                        
                                                                                    ---Booklist (Starred Review)                                                    
                        Now in Paperback

--What did Elizabethan playgoers eat while watching Hamlet? British Museum Director MacGregor answers this question and many others as he examines twenty objects that illuminate daily life in Shakespeare's England....
Beautifully illustrated, MacGregor's history offers a vibrant portrait of Shakespeare's dramatic, perilous and exhilarating world.
                                                                                       ---Kirkus (Starred Review)
So far, I agree. Fascinating and beautiful. Stayed tuned for a more in-depth report.

Monday, March 10, 2014

I Was Possessed By Edwin Booth (or, a good excuse for any actor)

On a whirlwind 2 day round trip, from Philadelphia to Columbus, Georgia and back again this past weekend, I became possessed by the spirit of Edwin Booth. At least that's the rationalization I came up with for breaking into a spontaneous rendition of Hamlet's famous To Be Or Not To Be soliloquy to an almost empty house at the State Theatre of Georgia Springer Opera House. My daughter knew better. She brought me there suspecting what I might do. She was in the process of giving mom and dad a personal tour of what lately has, seemingly, become her second home. More on that later.

The 700 seat Springer Opera House opened in 1871. And it just happens to be one of the  places Edwin chose to make a re-appearance in his formerly celebrated role as Hamlet on Feb. 15, 1876. He actually quit the theatre for a while after the infamous 'performance' of his brother, John Wilkes at another historic theatre in Washington, D.C.--we all know that story. Anyway, it is said that the Springer Opera House is one of the ten most haunted places in America, and guess who is the most famous Ghost in Residence? Need I say it-- the most celebrated Hamlet of his time, the Edwin Thomas Booth. Here he is as Hamlet:


The fortuitous opportunity for spontaneous hamming on my part occurred because my daughter is currently appearing at Springer Opera House as Fantine in their fantastic production of  
                          Les Miserables, running through March,
as Fantine
after recently completing a First National Tour of   
 The Marvelous Wonderettes for Springer--that's her at the microphone in the pink dress--

as Cindy Lou
a production which landed, finally, on the hallowed stage where Edwin once trod, adjacent to where most of the cast lives in the labyrinth-like set of rooms behind, around, and above the performance platform of this wonderful place. Proud of my little girl, I am. Quite the chameleon, she is. Just what an actor should be. By the way, in the Historical-Shakespearean Spirit of the Springer, and in tribute to Edwin Booth (it's said that one of the reasons he haunts the place is that they've strayed from doing so much Shakespeare over the years), here she is as Pucke in A Midsommer Nights Dreame:

as Pucke

She has also played Helena in the same play. (I said she was a chameleon). Okay, enough bragging. If you're interested in more of what this amazing young lady is doing, simply click this link: www.carlyjmooney.com

What a place to do theatre is The Springer Opera House ! They built theatres 'right' back then. I mean, look at this place. You walk into history as you approach the building itself.

Upon entering, the ornate lobbies--yes I meant the plural--seem to go on forever as you stroll past theatrical portraits and artifacts from bygone eras. Among the many pictures of renowned actors, the halls boast this close to life-size portrait of Edwin Booth:

And there is an original autographed photo of him in one of the many glass cases adorning the hallways.
The cavalcade of actors (many famous for their Shakespeare) who have appeared at the Springer since its opening is stunning: The following list enumerates but a few notables:

Evelyn Nesbit (teenage heart throb of another famous Hamlet, John Barrymore); Jeanette MacDonald; Sydney Greenstreet; Oscar Wilde; Mrs. John (Louisa) Drew, who came to America in support of Junius Brutus Booth, Edwin's father, acted with him in several productions and later ran the Arch St. Theatre in Philadelphia. She was the maternal grandmother of such theatrical personages as John, Ethel, and Lionel Barrymore. (And everyone knows "Drew" Barrymore, John's grand daughter);  Lily Langtry; Agnes DeMille, famed choreographer of the original productions of Oklahoma, Carousel, and Brigadoon, among many others ; Otis Skinner, noted for his Shylock,; Robert Bruce Mantell, fiery Scottish actor, famous for his Macbeth; Ethel Barrymore; Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Drew (Sidney, uncle of John Barrymore); Will Rogers; Mme. Helena Modjeska; Marie Dressler; Gertrude"Ma" Rainey; Ann Sothern; Mary Martin; Tyrone Power; Hal Holbrook...the list goes on.

But perhaps the most famous, maybe because of what seems to be the very strong belief among many that he hasn't quite made his "final exit" into the stage right wing yet, is Edwin Booth.  

Perhaps that's why, as I entered onto the empty stage--last stop on our tour-- from that same SR wing and stopped at the most powerful spot on the stage--USR--I was, shall we say, 'inspired by something' to imagine just where on the stage, way back in 1876, Edwin began what is, arguably, the most famous speech in the English language. Well, of course, thought I...position "A", exactly where I happened to be standing. And then, from memory, it just emerged, start to finish, ringing off the walls and finishing down stage center. No mics needed, folks. Edwin's Hamlet didn't need one.  Just project and pay attention to the rhythms. The acoustics in this theatre are amazing. As I said before, they built them 'right' back then.

..."Soft you now, the fair Ophelia?"...finishing, I turned to look USR, and there she was, a perfect Ophelia if ever I saw one. I hope she does it some day. I'll travel far and wide to see her in that as well.

I don't know if Edwin heard me. I hope so. He was certainly occupying my sub-conscious thoughts enough during the speech, I'm sure. I did it for him--and for my "Ophelia". If he was sitting out there somewhere, he had the courtesy not to stop me. Always the gentleman, they say. Or maybe it was because, as I found out later, his ghost is partial to appearing to those of the female persuasion.  Couldn't be bothered with me, huh Edwin?

Maybe next time I'll try Thisbie's dying speech.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Glee Editions Performance Video Collection

I guess you can tell I don't get around much. --Just found out about News on the Rialto, a notable Shakespeare blog that's been around since February of 2004!

Anyway, thanks to a March 2013 post on News on the Rialto , I discovered this great link to various excerpts from performances of all 37 plays at a website called "Glee Editions Literature Unbound". Featuring anything from the BBC to Bard on the Beach to Bob Jones, 'eclectic' might be an understated description for this collection. There you can sample around 140 Shakespeare videos from stage and film; anything from the RSC to, of all places, Bob Jones University (where, not unexpectedly, you won't hear anything from Dromio of Syracuse in reference to the bogges of Ireland, or the lower regions of Belgia and the Netherlands in his famous exchange with Antipholus in The Comedie of Errors).

As to performers, all the biggies are there, as well as some not so biggies--and some unexpected ones. --Helen Hunt as Viola and Kyra Sedgwick as Countess Olivia in a BBC recorded stage production of Twelfth Night from 1998; Anthony Quayle as Falstaff in 2Henry IV, from 1979 with the National Theatre--interesting stuff. The videos run from just under a minute to over twelve minutes. It's well worth a look--as is the News on the Rialto blog.
 Go have some fun!

Monday, May 27, 2013

On Memorial Day

Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument, Riverside Park, NYC

And for [their] passage,
The Souldiours Musicke, and the rites of Warre
Speak lowdly for [them]...
...Go, bid the Souldiers shoote.

The Tragedie Of
 Hamlet, Prince of Denmarke. 
F1; 5.2.351-3;356

Monday, April 23, 2012

Happy Birthday Mr. S.

Happy 448th birthday Master William! Thanks for making us laugh, cry, and for raising our hackles now and again, not necessarily in that order. Thanks for providing such beautiful Lines for me to work with and teach. Though they doubt your name, "The life yet of [your] lines shall never out."

Vpon the Lines and Life of the Famous
Scenicke Poet, Master William

Those hands, which you so clapt, go now, and wring
You Britaines brave; for done are Shakespeares dayes:
His dayes are done, that made the dainty Playes,
Which made the Globe of heav'n and earth to ring.
Dry'de is that veine, dry'd is the Thespian Spring,
Turn'd all to teares, and Phoebus clouds his rayes:
That corp's, that coffin now besticke those bayes,
Which crown'd him Poet first, then Poets King.
If Tragedies might any Prologue have,
All those he made, would scarse make one to this:
Where Fame, now that he gone is to the grave
(Deaths publique tyring house) the Nuncius is.
                                                    For though his line of life went soone about,
                                                    The life yet of his lines shall never out.

                                                                                                    HVGH HOLLAND.

(A dedication from the First Folio of 1623)

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Steve Jobs: The Shakespeare of our Time? "In short", LOL

In another of the ongoing attempts at The Deification of Steve Jobs by the technology/commercialism worshipers, I found this tidbit in an article by Richard Poplack over at the Daily Maverick  to be particularly funny:

"The sweep of his imagination is illustrated by the caprice of his 313 registered patents: power adaptors, laptop hinges, display cases, operating system configurations, packaging, “graphical user interface methods.

In short, he was the Shakespeare of our time. Five centuries from now, the gasp-inducing sweep of his influence will be contested by humans we can barely conceive of, all using variations of the tools he helped create. No one will believe that one person could do all that he has done."   (emphasis mine)


Even a business-oriented marketing enthusiast like Duane Morin over at Shakespeare Geek,  who was somehow able to wax poetic over Jobs'  'humanities'  bent--  "King Jobs"-- might agree with me on this one.  

Monday, February 13, 2012

Another "Shakespeare Project"--in Chicago

Anyone from "The Windy City" out there? If so, consider going to see this. Help support Shakespeare On Stage. It would be great to hear from someone who sees it. Drop by and tell us what you think. JM


"Of all things living, a man's the worst."

It's a Shakespearean battle of the sexes as The Shakespeare Project of Chicago presents The Bard's boisterous comedy, "The Taming of the Shrew." Spawning countless derivative versions, from "Kiss Me Kate" to "Ten Things I Hate About You," two titanic wills collide as the chauvinistic Petruchio tries to woo the headstrong Katherina. Featuring a veteran cast of Shakespeare Project regulars, the play is directed by former Artistic Director Jeff Christian. 


Saturday, February 25 at 10:00AM, The Newberry Library

Saturday, February 25 at 2:00PM, The Wilmette Public Library

Sunday, February 26 at 2:00PM, The Highland Park Public Library

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Welcome Yule!

I Salute You:
There is nothing I can give you which you have not.
But there is much, while I cannot give, you can take.
No Heaven can come to us, unless our Hearts find rest in it Today:
Take Heaven.
No Peace lies in the Future, which is not hidden in this Present instant:
Take Peace.
The gloom of the World is but a Shadow,
Behind it, yet within our reach, is Joy:
Take Joy.
And so, at this Christmas Time, I greet you with the Prayer
That for you, Now and Forever, the Day breaks, and the Shadows flee away.

from Fra Giovanni's, Salutation to a Friend - 1513
Mar. Some saye, that ever 'gainst that Season comes
Wherein our Saviors Birth is celebrated,
The Bird of Dawning singeth all night long:
And then (they say) no Spirit can walke abroad,
The nights are wholesome, then no Planets strike,
No Faiery takes, nor Witch hath power to Charme:
So hallow'd and so gracious is the Time.
Hor. So have I heard, and do in part beleeve it.

The Tragedie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmarke 1.1.158-65

Friday, November 11, 2011

Pocket Posh William Shakespeare: A stocking stuffer whose time has come!

pocket posh william shakespeare
Pocket Posh® William Shakespeare: 100 Puzzles and Quizzes' by The Puzzle Society is published by Andrews McMeel.

Crossword lover? Like wordsearches? And Shakespeare too? Then you'll really like pocket posh william shakespeare from Andrews McMeel Publishing.

Measuring in at just 6in. X 4in., this little book is chock-full of crossword puzzles, code crackers, and word searches with Shakespearean connections. But here's the thing that's great about it: The "shakespeare parts" are expertly woven into puzzles employing clues for words mere mortals will have no trouble with. Many times, Shakespearean references 'reveal' themselves with work on the rest of the puzzle. So you don't have to be an expert on Shakespeare to have fun with this book. (However, when you're finished with it you just might well be on your way.)

For all of you English teachers -- I can see how pocket posh william shakespeare might easily be used in a classroom setting to have fun and also help familiarize students with Shakespeare's characters and plays.

I gave a copy of pocket posh shakespeare as a gift to an avid crossword puzzler who, upon opening the book for the first time, spent at least a couple of hours doing puzzles without stopping--it's kind of infectious that way.

For it's very small size, pocket posh william shakespeare is a very big book of puzzles; easy to carry with you wherever you go, and a perfect stocking stuffer for the general puzzle enthusiast and lover of Shakespeare alike.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?

by James Shapiro
2010 Simon & Schuster Publishing

When I received a message from the publishers at Simon & Schuster last week, asking if I'd be interested in reviewing Contested Will, (now out in paperback) the one word that kept sounding over and over in my mind was 'timely'. As anyone who might be interested enough to read this account (or anyone who watches television for that matter) will know, this past weekend saw the blossoming of a mighty advertising campaign come to fruition in the grand opening of a film entitled: "Anonymous". Emblazoned in white on black on its billboard, in letters half as large as its title is the message: "Was Shakespeare A Fraud?". I think no other discussion is necessary in attempts to ferret-out the intentions of those responsible for the poster. One thing's for sure: they're not peeking out from behind it. (It should be pointed out that the movie "Anonymous" is nowhere referenced in Contested Will, although Shapiro continues to make known his opinions of its possible negative effects in the educational community.)

I have come late--by choice--to the 'Authorship Debate'. Previously, the only serious consideration I was willing to give the issue was in thinking it to be a terrific waste of time; time that might otherwise be much more productively spent discovering more about The Works themselves, rather than fruitlessly conjecturing about the personal life (or, in this case, lives) of who might have written them--approximately 70 or so to date--put forth as candidates by anti-Shakespeareans. By saying that I avoided the issue, I don't mean that I know nothing about it--just that I have, up to this point, refused to devote any serious time to the "debate". Others, both more and less scholarly than myself, seem to have had feelings similar to my own. James Shapiro has sounded the alarm to 'we ostriches' in his prologue to Contested Will:

"There yet remains one subject walled off from serious study by Shakespeare scholars: the authorship question. More than one fellow Shakespearean was disheartened to learn that I was committing my energies to it, as if somehow I was wasting my time and talent, or worse, at risk of going over to the dark side. I became increasingly interested in why this subject remains virtually taboo in academic circles, as well as in the consequences of this collective silence. One thing is certain: the decision by professors to all but ignore the authorship question hasn't made it disappear. If anything, more people are drawn to it than ever."
(emphasis mine)

The ramifications of casually dismissing the issue--and those who so zealously pursue it-- are brought home in Shapiro's account of meeting with a group of nine year olds at an elementary school to discuss the poetry of Shakespeare. Upon asking if anyone had questions...

"...a quiet boy on my left raised his hand and said: 'My brother told me that Shakespeare didn't write Romeo and Juliet. Is that true?' "

Oxfordian blogger William Ray writes about the film, Anonymous: "This is one of the few instances where the artistic community is going to revolutionize the Western world's educational system." (source-Wikipedia)

As an educator, such crowing about fictionalized 'history' and 'facts' is, to say the least, disturbing to me. Enter, James Shapiro and Contested Will.

Much of Contested Will reads like a detective story, its focus on today's most prominent leading candidates for anti-Shakespeareans, Sir Francis Bacon (Baconians) and hero of the above-mentioned film, Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, (Oxfordians). Those refusing to jump on the bandwagon of any of these anti-Shakespearean theorists, in other words those more willing to depend upon scant but concrete evidence--and not autobiographical fantasy-- that Shakespeare of Stratford did indeed write the works which bear his name, have been dubbed "Stratfordians" by the nay-sayers.

Since the 1800s, much time has been devoted by anti-Shakespeareans to positing theories about 'who' might have written the works. However, Shapiro's interest turns not on the 'what' doubters of William Shakespeare of Stratford have thought, but on the particulars of the 'why' they have thought it, and continue to think it. And he's not afraid to suggest that some of the blame can be left at the feet of worshippers of Shakespeare; 'Bardolators' who, like Oxfordians or Baconians, have attempted to see every move of an author's life as motive to somehow encode his or her personal life experiences and feelings in the Works themselves. Shapiro cautions against the modern idea that ultimately, an author must have experienced, first hand, what he or she writes about.

This also happens to be the starting point and basis of ALL anti-Shakespearean claims: The man from Stratford, a glover's son without a college degree and lacking in the high-born fortune requisite to being a courtier and world traveler could not have possibly written such great theatrical works. All access to books, previous great works--many of which Shakespeare's plays borrow from directly--and the fact that Shakespeare was an actor and shareholder in the company that produced the plays--among many, many other facts Shapiro lists in Shakespeare's defence, seem not to matter to those who seem so willing to zealously embrace negative theory. Shapiro also argues quite successfully against underestimating the power of the imagination; of how life can, but does not necessarily, directly inform art.

In addition to impressive research, it is the psychology of why that Shapiro has thoroughly investigated in Contested Will. The whys are both revealing and surprising in the fealty they seemingly generate from nothing but negativity; that is, until the common ground all of the proponents share is revealed by Shapiro. He promises in his prologue:

"The following pages retrace a path strewn with a great deal [of] fabricated documents, embellished lives, concealed identity, pseudonymous authorship, contested evidence, bald-faced deception, and a failure to grasp what could not be imagined."
It is highly ironic to me that those who wish to dismiss the imagination of Shakespeare are themselves possessors of what can only be described as very healthy imaginations, grounded in the fertile soil of what can many times be described as high-flown fantasy. Shapiro more than ably--and fairly-- supports that idea in his book.

Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? is not only highly recommended reading; in my estimation, the modern methodology of the advancement of anti-Shakespearean theory makes it important reading. You can look for more to come on this blog regarding James Shapiro. As an educator myself, I'd now be remiss in not closely following both this issue and Professor Shapiro's subsequent thoughts on it. JM

--James Shapiro is the Larry Miller Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.--