Iphigenia and The Opposition of Mars

Supremely Strong AresI’ve been thinking about Mars for the past few months. Not the planet, though. I’ve been thinking about the god (Ares, to be more specific).

I’ve just closed a production of Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis. One of the things I love about the play is that it subverts any reductive position you try to take on war. And unlike the traditional war play that focuses only on the men in charge who send our youth into battle, Iphigenia turns our focus to the youth themselves who heed the call and willingly offer their lives.

Is that a good thing? It’s a complicated question. Any thinking person has to be grateful that at certain points in history these young people have done just that. Was it right for Iphigenia? That depends on one’s cultural sense of honor. For Falstaff, probably not. But for Iphigenia, maybe so. Again, it’s complicated. For me it’s clear that there are times when tyranny must be fought, and we owe a great debt to the men and women who do the actual fighting.

So where is Ares in all of this? For most of my life I’ve thought of Ares as a quick-tempered, belligerent warmonger––the way he is portrayed in pop culture. But in working on Iphigenia, I’ve found something different.

I decided to have two choruses in the play. The first chorus was the one in the script, a chorus of women of Chalcis. I added the second chorus, a chorus of Greek soldiers. The main function of the second chorus was to be a visual representation of how Agamemnon allows the massive Greek army to get into his head and fill him with fear. But at one point in my production, this second chorus chanted Homer’s Hymn to Ares.

The Ares of the hymn is brave and ready, but he is also wise and slow to battle. He is a martial artist. His philosophy is peace, and so he understands when the rare occasion arises that peace can only be won through war.

Ares is indeed a god who teaches courage and preparation when it’s time to fight. He is a protector, an ally of order. (Tyranny may be orderly, but it is itself disorder.) However, for the most part, Ares is a god who understands war so well that he is able to steer his supplicants away from its horrors.

It’s appropriate then that last night, after I had locked up the theater, and as I walked to my car, I was thinking about how Ares, the god of war, could also be called a god of peace––that, in a sense, his nature is in opposition to his stewardship. Then I looked up and saw what they call the opposition of Mars, brilliant and “supremely strong.”


Supremely strong Ares,
golden-helmeted chariot-rider,
tough-hearted, shield carrying
guardian of cities,
bronze in armour, brave of hand,
the tireless, spear-sharp
rampart of Olympos,
father of war-winning victory,
the ally of Themis.

You are a tyrant to the rebellious,
a leader to the most just,
you carry the staff of manhood,
you whirl your disc of bright fire across the sky
among the seven tracks of the constellations
where blazing horses bear you forever
beyond the third orbit.

Hear me, helper of mortals,
whose gift is the courage of youth.
From high above, shine down upon our lives
your gentle light and your warrior’s power,
so I may drive away bitter cowardice from my head
and subdue my soul’s beguiling impulse,
so I may restrain the shrill rage in my heart
which excites me to charge
into the chilling din of battle.

Rather, blessed god, give me the courage
to stand my ground within the safe laws of peace,
shunning hostility and hatred
and the fate of a violent death.

–Homer (translated by Jules Cashford)

William Shakespeare: 400 Years of Life After Death



This morning, I admit, I feel more like Duke Senior than Hamlet. I enjoy my weekly ritual of yard work, the quiet, the smell of water on the garden soil. Like the Duke, I find “tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, / Sermons in stones, and good in everything. / I would not change it.”

I’m glad the celebration in which I took part happened yesterday. I’m glad today––the actual day––is restful and contemplative.

As I read about the various celebrations happening throughout the world, I feel very connected. I see myself in others’ love for and dedication to the truly astonishing plays and poems of this un-universitied actor from Stratford on Avon.

I know the jealous and the ignorant have long thrown around words like “bardolotry,” but these people have not really looked at the work––not deeply. There is nothing in the world like the body of work written by William Shakespeare. I spend as much of my free time as possible reading poems, plays, and novels, and so I know excellent writing abounds. And I also know that one thing that ties so many of the great writers together is the way they often quote or talk about Shakespeare. He looms. Four hundred years after his death, he still looms.

Right now I am directing Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis, and I have not been surprised to find a phrase here or a line there that is clearly influenced by Shakespeare. I see this often in English translations of ancient works. In this way, Shakespeare continues to improve stories that came before him. I can’t help but think he is somewhere smiling about that.

Waterford Final Scene of Reversed Roles Hamlet

Hamlet, 2012

Perhaps the most thrilling part of this celebration is to see the way Shakespeare is already alive in another generation. I love to see my children and my students fall in love with him as they play his characters. I love to see his words in their mouths like flames on their tongues. Though they do not yet fully comprehend the flame, the pleasurable burn of it will likely never be quelled.

Appropriately, this entire year has been set apart by Shakespeare lovers as a year of celebration. I will add my voice this fall with the first of three plays about Shakespeare, The King’s Men. (The other two are called Sycorax and Kempe.) The King’s Men will be my small offering, my mask on the Dionysian altar. THE KING'S MEN ANNOUNCE

Four hundred years ago today, the man who wrote the greatest meditation on death set out for that undiscovered country. The shakey signature on his will leads me to believe that he knew it was coming. I wonder: as he contemplated death, did he perhaps consider revising some of Hamlet’s words? Or did he think them through and decide they still rang true?


To be or not to be––that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And, by opposing, end them. To die, to sleep––
No more––and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to––’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep––
To sleep, perchance to dream. Aye, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. There’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
Th’ oppressor’s wrong, the poor man’s contumely,
The pangs of disprized love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveler returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment,
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.

Southern Utah Yorick

Mooing for Barta Heiner


photo credit: arts.byu.edu

In the past couple of weeks I’ve seen many expressing their love for Barta Heiner, who is retiring from the BYU Theater Department this year. I want to add my voice to theirs.

Last week I saw her perform the lead role in Mother Courage and Her Children. Her performance was excellent, full of power, grace, and––most of all––that Barta connectedness. I was proud to be one of her children.

Barta taught us about acting in the traditional ways, yes, but she also taught us about acting simply by talking about acting. She taught us to be connected by really connecting while talking to us about connecting. She taught us about accessing emotional truth by accessing emotional truth while talking about emotional truth.

After one class with Barta you knew you were working with not just a great teacher, but a real artist.

Barta was an example of graciousness and tolerance, without ever wavering in her personal convictions. She was always kind, and yet she could swiftly and firmly cut through the bs that is common to young actors. In one rehearsal she told me my technique was exactly as it was supposed to be, and to stop it. “It’s only the soul that matters now,” she said. This remains one of the most important lessons I have ever learned.

Barta is also great fun. When I was a senior at BYU, I was playing Lopakhin in a production of The Cherry Orchard, directed by Barta. Barta and Chekhov: I thought I had arrived. I so wanted to do well and impress her. (I still want to do well and impress her.) As we were working one day, I was having trouble connecting my blocking with my acting. She listened to my concern and then asked, “Do you feel like you want to move?”

Now, in case you aren’t familiar with The Cherry Orchard, near the beginning of the play Lopakhin walks in on a conversation between Varya and Anya, and, feeling awkward, lets out a moo and then exits. So when Barta asked if I wanted to move, what I heard was “Do you feel like you want to moo?”

I was surprised by the question. But I thought, well, he does moo earlier on: maybe that’s just his thing. Again, I really wanted to do a good job for Barta, so I took her question about mooing very seriously. Sweat began to form on my forehead as I tried to figure out how mooing would solve the problem I had posed. Barta, meanwhile, was looking at me as if to ask, “Was it really that difficult a question?”

Finally I said, with more than a little desperation, “You want me to moo?” Barta burst out laughing. “MOVE! I said does it make you want to MOVE!” We have laughed at this memory many times since.

But I would have done it. I would have mooed for her. I still would. Anytime. I am so blessed and fortunate to have been taught by a master. I love her so much. I look forward to witnessing her next performance.

Where My Bones Shall Be Thrown

grammy5-blog480We closed a production of Twelfth Night last night. And today its excellent songs linger in its wake: O Mistress Mine, Come Away Death, and The Wind and the Rain. When we talk about Shakespeare, we usually talk about his plays and poems. But his lyrics are rarely discussed.

Shakespeare was an excellent lyricist. That might seem like a given, since he was such a good poet, but in Shakespeare’s time, as in ours, the poem and the song were not the same thing. Great lyricists are often middling poets and great poets middling lyricists.

In times like ours and Shakespeare’s, to be both a poet and a lyricist, one must understand that a poem is the voice against silence and the lyric is the voice against percussion and/or tone. You choose different words when you are placing the voice against silence––the solitary voice is the music. The words have to work in a different way than they do when you place them against percussion or tone.

And while it is true that specific music affects word choice, it’s also true that the fact that there is music at all affects word choice. So Shakespeare’s songs continue to work even though they are given different music for different productions.

Come Away Death

Come away, come away, death,
And in sad cypress let me be laid;
Fly away, fly away breath;
I am slain by a fair cruel maid.

My shroud of white, stuck all with yew,
O, prepare it!
My part of death, no one so true
Did share it.

Not a flower, not a flower sweet
On my black coffin let there be strown;
Not a friend, not a friend greet
My poor corpse, where my bones shall be thrown:

A thousand thousand sighs to save,
Lay me, O, where
Sad true lover never find my grave,
To weep there!


2015 Theatrical Report

It was another great year of theater. Thanks to all who helped make it happen.


I finally directed my first production of the great American play. It was a beautiful experience. Daily Life. Love and Marriage. Death and Dying. Saints and Poets.

Our Town Poster Starry Night2


I loved this lesser-known ghost story from J.M. Barrie. It is dramatic, comedic, and genuinely spooky.

Mary Rose Poster


I had the privilege of directing this show for Pinnacle Acting Company. It was great fun. We did the play in Commedia masks. I’ll see about getting production photos from Pinnacle, but here are a couple of great pics of my Dromios.

Comedy of Errors Banner

The Comedy of Errors




Tara and I took a group of our theater students to England this summer. It was a wonderful trip. We spent half our time in Stratford, and the other half in London. We saw ten plays. (Production photos are from The Royal Shakespeare Company, The Royal National Theatre, The Bear Pit, Shakespeare’s Globe, Wyndham’s Theatre, and Regents Park Open Air Theatre.)

photo 4


Sting & Honey produced a staged reading of my play Sleeping Beauty’s Dream, as a fundraiser. It was hosted by the inimitable Valentiners. A great day. We will be staging the play July of 2016. It will be our first annual theater for young audiences piece.

Sleeping Beauty's Dream Fundraiser Invitation

created and directed by Javen Tanner

This was our eighth year performing this Nativity. It continues to “thrill, silence, and still me.” (photos: Samantha Kofford Photography)

TWELFTH NIGHT starts next week. Happy new year.

Start With a Murdered Dog

…while we have and occasionally use the capacity to let art veer toward and partake of that awe in the religion from which it was untimely ripped, so we also have the capacity to pervert these impulses toward the dramatic, to oppress and to enslave each other. (Please note that as we exercise these impulses, we do not say we wish to “oppress and enslave”––we say we want to “help, teach, and correct.” But the end is oppression.) –David Mamet


Royal National Theatre production photo

I recently saw The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. I read the play some time ago, and thought it was just ok. But when I learned that the movement directors of this production were the guys from Frantic Assembly, I knew I needed to see it. Their production of Lovesong had a lasting impact on me. They really understand how to take a script and make it into theater.

The show was excellent. I recommend it.

I saw it with a group of my students. I often speak to them about understanding the difference between ritual and propaganda, since so much of the art world they experience is really just pamphleteering for some issue or other. It’s not often I get to simply sit and experience a piece of contemporary ritual with them.

There’s a lot of talk about how art leaves us with things to think about. But that’s actually not what great art does. (That’s what propaganda tries to do, though it usually only succeeds in telling you what to think. While ritual opens the mind, propaganda directs the mind and calls that directing “opening.”). Great art leaves us with what Samuel Beckett calls “profounds of mind.” And as he points out, these profounds of mind are not thoughts. Thought is a familiar, daily experience. Profounds of mind are more rare. They feel different than thoughts, but they are not emotions. They are of the mind without exactly being thought. They tend to occur not only when the heart is in a state of vulnerability, but when the mind is as well. They are not arrived at. They bloom. Curious Incident left me with profounds of mind.

The play afforded this experience without a message. There was no agenda. No moral. No pitch. No supposedly unanswered questions (which conveniently have only one acceptable answer). No trite exposé. No false conflict set up to give the illusion of two sides of the argument. No attempt to teach, or nudge the audience toward a particular worldview. No horrific meddling by some ludicrous centralized beneficence.

Just ritual. Just depth and humanity.

Ritual opens the heart. It leaves the heart raw and vulnerable. And in that state, the heart is ready to listen and love. Ritual is more powerful than any propaganda. Theatrical ritual will make the world a better place more effectively than any play about making the world a better place.

It’s important to understand that theater––real theater––is ritual. Western theater came from Dionysus worship in Ancient Greece. When it all but disappeared during the dark ages, its re-emergence came through the churches of Catholic/early Protestant Europe. But it’s not religion that matters. It’s the act of ritual. It’s the act of telling stories with our voices and bodies, not to arrive at some tidy conclusion, but to arrive at a moment of transcendence, a moment of contact with the intangible part of what it is to be human.

And, yes, ritual is difficult. Sometimes exquisitely difficult. Propaganda is easy. Shamefully easy. That is why most of what we see is propaganda. Ritual requires the artist to let go of prejudice––not just the prejudice we see as bad, but all prejudice. Propaganda is, by definition, prejudice. Ritual requires the artist to understand what Keats meant when he wrote about Negative Capability, the artist’s ability to disappear from the offered piece.

How does one do that? Well, that’s the same question as “how does one create art,” since Negative Capability is at the core of artistic creation. But that’s another, very involved blog post––or book, for that matter. Suffice it to say it’s mostly hard work and letting go. Curious Incident started with a murdered dog. Give that a shot.

When the play was done, I didn’t have to say anything. The students and their red-rimmed eyes knew what had happened.

Some of them will go on to study theater in college, where they will likely be told it is their moral duty to make propaganda, to become political worker bees. And some of them will buy into it.

But some of them will take to heart experiences like seeing Curious Incident, let those experiences carry their understanding of ritual forward, and become artists.

Shakespeare Lost and Found

Don Quixote Picasso

Picasso: Don Quixote

Today is Shakespeare Day, and the big news in Shakespeare right now is that Lewis Theobald’s play Double Falsehood may actually be Shakespeare’s lost play Cardenio, which he wrote with John Fletcher.

Shakespeare has long been connected to Cardenio. We know that his company performed Cardenio in 1613, right before he retired. And in 1653, thirty seven years after Shakespeare’s death, publisher Humphrey Moseley registered the play and attributed it to William Shakespeare and John Fletcher. Fletcher was indeed Shakespeare’s writing partner near the end of his career. (Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen are both Shakespeare/Fletcher plays.)

Cardenio itself is based on a section of Cervantes’ Don Quixote. Thomas Shelton published an English translation of part of the book in 1612, and scholars who compare these things say that when you read Theobald’s Double Falsehood, you can see that Shelton’s translation is the main source for the play. (The names of the characters are changed in Double Falsehood. It’s probable that Theobald did this, and not Shakespeare and Fletcher, since the Shakespeare/Fletcher play was called Cardenio, and Cardenio is a character in Don Quixote.) But think of that: Shakespeare and Fletcher wrote a play based on a part of Don Quixote, which was performed just one year after Don Quixote was published in English, and during Cervantes’ lifetime. By the way, there are some really cool parallels between Shakespeare and Cervantes, right down to their appearance.

Enter Lewis Theobald, 1727. It’s important to understand that Theobald is, to this day, a respected scholar and critic. Generally, he is not seen as a charlatan. But when he presented Double Falsehood and claimed it was his own improvement of manuscripts he had found of a lost Shakespeare play, naturally everyone wanted to see those manuscripts. When he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, produce them, his claim was considered to be a hoax. Double Falsehood was thought to be just a play by Lewis Theobald, based on the Cardenio story, written in a style like Shakespeare’s. Some believed he did have manuscripts, but that they were later Restoration era rewrites, and not originals––and fairly recent stylometric studies seemed to support this.

So the big question for Theobald has always been: if you had manuscripts––even Restoration era copies––why on earth would you not display them? It’s hard to believe that, for someone like Theobald, the temptation to be someone who has produced a great work of art would be greater than the desire to be the guy who found those manuscripts. A find like that is what Shakespeare scholars dream of. It would have been the kind of achievement that led to canonization in the world of Shakespeare studies. And as a Shakespeare scholar, Theobald would have been discerning enough to know that Double Falsehood would never measure up to a work like, say, Hamlet, any more than does The Two Noble Kinsmen.

But now, in the light of recent research from the University of Texas at Austin, there are only more questions for Theobald. The researchers claim that through statistical, psychological, and stylometric evidence, they are certain that Theobald’s Double Falsehood was written by Shakespeare and Fletcher––mostly by Shakespeare. They also claim that there is no strong evidence that any of it was written by Theobald, that if Theobald did anything other than change the character names, his “improvements” were minute. If these researchers are right, that means Theobald actually had manuscripts containing a play written mostly by Shakespeare. And then he chose not to make that find his crowning achievement as a Shakespeare scholar. That is mindboggling.

See, it was originally thought that he lied about having the manuscripts at all, because he couldn’t produce them. Now it seems that he did have them, and that he may well have destroyed or hidden them. Did he destroy those manuscripts so he would never be found out? Could someone who cared as much about Shakespeare as he did even do something like that? Even if he thought they were Restoration rewrites?

Theobald had a bit of a tangle with Alexander Pope. In his Shakespearean work, Pope was known to have rewritten some of Shakespeare’s lines. Theobald corrected Pope’s work in a very public way. But did Pope’s reworkings give Theobald the idea for his own supposed reworking of Shakespeare, Double Falsehood? Theobald was the better scholar and critic, but if he could pass off a Shakespeare play as his own, he would also be the better poet. Alas, I would love to blame this on Pope, since he is on my list of historical figures I’d like to punch, but Pope never destroyed or hid a manuscript of a lost Shakespeare play.

The good news is that Cardenio may have been found, hiding in plain sight all these years.

Happy Shakespeare Day.