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.
I loved this lesser-known ghost story from J.M. Barrie. It is dramatic, comedic, and genuinely spooky.
THE COMEDY OF ERRORS
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.
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.)
Blithe Spirit: Very bad
The Seagull: A disgrace
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time: Incredible
Love’s Sacrifice: Excellent
The Merchant of Venice: Excellent
The Jew of Malta: Absolutely perfect
King John: Astonishing
American Buffalo: Excellent
The Beaux’ Stratagem: Excellent
SLEEPING BEAUTY’S DREAM: A STAGED READING
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.
THIS BIRD OF DAWNING SINGETH ALL NIGHT LONG
created and directed by Javen Tanner
This year I directed four plays and one staged reading. Last year I directed seven plays, and I went the entire year without directing Shakespeare. Three of the four plays I directed this year were Shakespeare plays, and the one non-Shakespeare, This Bird of Dawning Singeth All Night Long, gets its title from Hamlet. The pendulum swings.
March: State of the Union. This was a staged reading of my friend Erik Orton’s play.
May: The Taming of the Shrew
September: The Winter’s Tale. Of the plays I directed this year, this is the only one in which I acted. I played Leontes and The Shepherd.
November: Prosopon: An Evening of Blank Mask Theatre. This is not one of the plays I directed this year. The show consists of five blank mask pieces created and directed by my students. It was excellent.
December: This Bird of Dawning Singeth All Night Long. This was our fifth year performing this Nativity piece. There were some big changes this year. I was very pleased with it.
The Odyssey is up next for Waterford, and Sting & Honey’s next show will be Hedda Gabler. Here’s to a great 2013.
In celebration of Shakespeare’s birthday, the fine people at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust have asked bloggers to write about how Shakespeare changed their lives.
Here it goes.
A few years ago I was asked to take part in a panel discussing A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The panel consisted of two PhDs and myself (MFA in acting from The Old Globe). I was to be the creative voice in the discussion. Despite the fact that I had understudied one production of Midsummer and played Oberon in another, I allowed myself to get inordinately nervous about the whole thing. The other men were older; they were professors; they had written books. I was in my early thirties; I acted in and directed Shakespeare’s plays. I knew I was qualified to be there, but my guts teemed with insecurity.
Everything was fine, of course. The conversation was easy and enlightening. But about halfway in, something extraordinary happened. One of the men made a tangential comment about the unsatisfactory forgiveness scene in The Two Gentlemen of Verona. It was just a quip. If I hadn’t been paying close attention, I might have missed it. But I did hear it, and it led to an epiphany: I had an insight into Shakespeare’s plays that this man might never have. As an actor, I understood the final scene of Two Gents because I had played Valentine. I knew why and how Valentine forgives Proteus because it was my job to do it. Each night, during the run of the show, I had to stand there, raw, under the weight of the violence he attempted to inflict upon Sylvia and the betrayal he had enacted upon me. And then I had to forgive him. Which meant I had to create a character capable of that forgiveness. Each night, in the midst of all that hurt, I had to say the words “Then I am paid.” Each night, I had the privilege of feeling the way mercy bursts forth and flows when the stakes are that high. I had never delivered a paper on Valentine. But I had been Valentine.
Of course, I didn’t say any of this. But my contribution to the discussion became more robust as the obvious came into sharp focus: when discussing art, the artist’s perspective is particularly valuable. This was the moment I realized I did not need the permission of the academic and/or critical worlds to discuss––indeed, to do––my work. I say realized, but I mean finally felt, finally understood, finally believed.
Academia is appendant to the the art world at best. It’s not the other way around, as so many aspiring artists learn while in college. I realize this might sound obvious, and, yes, we all know it intellectually. But most young artists receive their first training in a hyper-critical, overly-academic world. It’s like having the grotesque beast-child of Harold Bloom, Kenneth Tynan, and that freshman film major that thinks he knows everything about every piece of art ever created constantly breathing down your neck. You might be surprised by how many young playwrights reflexively refer to Aristotle, only to produce yet another mediocre play. But while Aristotle is available as an occasional prescription, Shakespeare is ever-present as structural scripture. Prescriptions are set; scripture can be interpreted in many ways.
I changed my approach. I no longer wasted time reading every scholar’s point of view on a forthcoming character or play. I knew how to create a character. I knew how to direct a play. It turned out I was the expert––the artist, who actually acts, who actually directs, who actually creates. The characters got better. The plays got better.
I even changed the way I used director’s notes. I only wrote them if I felt they were actually useful to the audience. Other than that, I simply found poems that helped set a particular tone. Here’s an example from a recent production of Pericles:
No one believes in the calm
of the North Wind after a time
of rage and depression.
No one believes the sea cares nothing
for the shore or that
the long black volcanic reefs
that rise and fall from sight
each day are the hands
of some forgotten creature
trying to touch the unknowable
heart of water.
This fragment of poetry came to mind after repeatedly hearing Marina deliver her lovely line, “When I was born, the wind was north.”
Around this same time, I had been thinking about the inscription on Shakespeare’s coat of arms: Non Sanz Droict. Not Without Right. It seemed so insipid for the world’s greatest writer. I knew the history, and perhaps why Shakespeare wanted to use it, but becoming a gentleman certainly wasn’t novel within his circle of friends. Was it a request from his father? I didn’t know, but it just didn’t sit right. I almost fell in with those who believe he abandoned it at the outset. But then there was that pesky joke in Ben Jonson’s Every Man Out of His Humour. I found it unlikely that even a man with an ego the size of Jonson’s would use a joke that the vast majority of the audience wouldn’t get. I believed Shakespeare must have used the inscription, at least for a time. But why?
Then it occurred to me that the direct translation we have all learned was probably not the actual sentiment of the phrase. I did some searching and quickly found that others felt the same. Of all the similar suggestions out there, this one stood out: Of My Own Merit. This was the William Shakespeare I had come to know: the man who did not need the safe harbor of the “university wits,” and so quickly abandoned their style; the man who constantly defied the rules of dramatic structure, and so let loose the greatest plays in history; the romantic among classicists; the writer and speaker of that gutsy alternate epilogue in Henry IV, Part II; the man who knew he needed nobody’s permission to do his work.
Non Sanz Droict became my motto, my slogan, my mission statement, my credo. That’s one way Shakespeare changed my life.
I’ve been reading through some of my Charles Wright collections lately. Back in the late 90s I was writing a paper on his poetry, and I decided to call him. He was nice enough to answer a few questions. We discussed his poem The New Poem. He said that during the Vietnam War everyone was talking about how art would change things, and how poetry would change the world. And then he said this: “But, Javen, poetry will not change the world.” Initially, this was like a cynical fist in the gut to the young, idealistic college student I was. But I would eventually come to understand that the use of art as a vehicle for message-mongering is the real act of cynicism.
All things in the end are bittersweet–
An empty gaze, a little way station just beyond silence.
If you can’t delight in the everyday,
you have no future here.
And if you can, no future either.
And time, black dog, will sniff you out,
and lick your lean cheeks,
And lie down beside you–warm, real close–and will not move.
Stone Canyon Nocturne
Ancient of Days, old friend, no one believes you’ll come back.
No one believes in his own life anymore.
The moon, like a dead heart, cold and unstartable, hangs by a thread
At the earth’s edge,
Unfaithful at last, splotching the ferns and the pink shrubs.
In the other world, children undo the knots in their tally strings.
They sing songs, and their fingers blear.
And here, where the swan hums in his socket, where bloodroot
And belladonna insist on our comforting,
Where the fox in the canyon wall empties our hands, ecstatic for more,
Like a bead of clear oil the Healer revolves through the night wind,
Part eye, part tear, unwilling to recognize us.
The New Poem
It will not resemble the sea.
It will not have dirt on its thick hands
It will not be part of the weather.
It will not reveal its name.
It will not have dreams you can count on.
It will not be photogenic.
It will not attend our sorrow.
It will not console our children.
It will not be able to help us.
The movie Anonymous will be released tomorrow. Apparently it has been pulled from its original wide release, and will now only show in two hundred and fifty theaters. The official reason goes something like this: people don’t seem to know what the movie is about, and so interest is low. (This might have something to do with the title.) Also, early audience surveys suggest most people simply don’t care.
But I care. The movie is Shakespeare related, and so I’m part of the conversation. I act in Shakespeare’s plays. I direct his plays. I teach a class on Shakespeare. Every year I set aside the month of June to read nothing but books about Shakespeare. Shakespeare is one of my life’s passions.
Now in case you don’t know, Anonymous is a rehash of the old conspiracy theory that claims Edward de Vere was the true author of Shakespeare’s plays. The contention is that a country bumpkin like Will Shakespeare could not possibly have written works of such towering genius. The works must have come from a university educated, well traveled aristocrat. Enter Edward de Vere, the seventeenth Earl of Oxford––the most popular candidate among conspiracy theorists these days. (In reality, he is just one of seventy seven other candidates suggested since Delia Bacon first questioned the authorship in the late 1840s––230 years after Shakespeare’s death.)
At this point I’d like to make it clear that I am not afraid of people seeing Anonymous. In fact, I encourage it. I think it will be good for people to see first hand just how absurd the conspiracy theory is. Rather than convert anyone to the Oxfordian cause, I’m confident it will lead many Oxfordians to the light.
Now where was I? Ah yes: Though Edward de Vere was suggested as a candidate by Delia Bacon, it wasn’t until 1920, when J. Thomas Looney published his book Shakespeare Identified, that he began to take his place as the poster boy of the authorship question. And, yes, you read that right: Looney. Other defenders of the conspirator’s faith include George M. Battey and Sherwood E. Silliman. So for those of you keeping score, that’s Looney, Battey, and Silliman. What does this prove? Nothing really––except maybe that God believes Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare’s plays.
Like all the others, the Edward de Vere theory is dead on arrival. Edward de Vere died in 1604. That’s close to a decade before Shakespeare stopped writing. Macbeth, King Lear, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest, and several other Shakespeare plays were written after 1604. I have listened to more than one de Vere supporter say with a straight face that de Vere planned it that way. He had all these plays sitting around and had his co-conspirators release them over a given number of years. And he was such a genius that he referenced events that happened after his death. Not only did he know the gunpowder plot was going to happen, but he also knew the gunpowder plot conspirators would be labeled “equivocators.” Genius indeed.
Another immediate problem for de Vere supporters is that Edward de Vere wrote plays and poems to which he signed his name. There goes the idea that he couldn’t let people know he was a playwright. None of the plays survive, but we know they were comedies. So, apparently, he wasn’t worried about people thinking he wasn’t a serious aristocrat. De Vere supporters then claim that the “Shakespeare” plays were too politically controversial for de Vere to be identified with. Really? Then why wasn’t Shakespeare arrested and beaten on a weekly basis?
De Vere’s poems, on the other hand, do survive. Unfortunately for de Vere supporters, they are nothing but uninspired drivel. This is not just my opinion. Everyone seems to agree––even the conspiracy theorists. They explain this by saying that the poems are the product of his youth. But we know some of them were written when he was about forty years old. When Shakespeare was forty he had already written Hamlet.
You can read a few of Edward de Vere’s poems here. You can find Shakespeare’s poems and sonnets all over the internet. Here’s one. Read some de Vere. Then read some Shakespeare. You’ll feel embarrassed for de Vere. It’s like reading a Hallmark card poem, and then reading, well, Shakespeare.
The conspiracy just gets more and more absurd. And the movie is, apparently, quite unashamed of this. Edward is shown to be the illegitimate son of Queen Elizabeth, but they (mother and son) have sex, and Elizabeth gives birth to Southampton. I’ll stop there, but it gets even dumber than that. I have read a couple of de Vere supporters lament that the movie delves into this part of the theory. They wish it would have simply focused on “Shakespeare” being a pen name for de Vere. What they don’t understand is that these ridiculous fantasies are the direct result of that simple idea. Because when the pen name idea is confronted with very basic facts, the conspiracy theory must then spin into further absurdities to cover its baseless bases. This is how all conspiracy theories work.
I want to backtrack a moment and address the idea that Shakespeare’s plays were politically controversial. In the movie, the de Vere character says: “All art is political, otherwise it would just be decoration. And all artists have something to say, otherwise they’d make shoes.” This is not just a gross misunderstanding of Shakespeare’s genius, it is a gross misunderstanding of art and the artistic process. Consider the words of the poet John Keats:
“…at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.”
Negative Capability. The ultimate achievement of vulnerability, allowing the artist to surrender prejudices, and therefore disappear from, or get out of the way of, a work of art. Keats says Shakespeare possessed this quality enormously. I would say no other artist has possessed as much of it. Ironic, then, that the writer of Anonymous creates a de Vere character that holds the exact opposite view of art. Of course he does. The uninspired mind always believes the message is paramount in art, because the uninspired mind can’t conceive of an experience beyond the message. Messages in art are usually reductive and insipid, and Shakespeare had little use for them.
Don’t believe me? What’s the message of Hamlet? Or King Lear? Or A Midsummer Night’s Dream? Don’t know? Don’t worry. Nobody knows. Not one single person. But, you ask, what about all the books and theses and essays on subversive this-and-thats in such-and-such-a-Shakespeare-play? Every claim about the social, political, religious, or sexual perspective of William Shakespeare derived from his plays or poems can be countered with the opposite view also derived from the plays or poems. As soon as you think he sides with Catholics, he lampoons them, but as soon as you think he’s a Protestant, he skewers them. Well then, he must be an atheist. Not so fast: God is now central to the resolution of the play.
Look at Henry V, for example. Was it written in subversion of the war in Ireland, or does it celebrate England’s God-endorsed military might? It seems capable of doing both quite beautifully. But if it is essentially celebratory, does that mean Shakespeare supported Elizabeth or Essex? If it means he supported Essex, did he disapprove of Elizabeth, or did he just support England? (When he performed Richard II at the behest of Essex––and, by the way, the movie changes this to Richard III––did that mean he supported the attempted coup, or was it just because he had no choice in the matter?) But if Henry V was essentially subversive, does that mean Shakespeare was against Elizabeth, or Essex, or England, or just war? And on and on it goes. There is simply no answer. Henry V reveals nothing about Shakespeare’s personal convictions about the war in Ireland or even war in general. Because Shakespeare gets out of the way, you can take from the play what you will. That’s what great artists do.
I do not mean to suggest that Shakespeare wasn’t interested in politics or current events. On the contrary, I think he was immensely interested in them. Many of plays contain clear references to current events. But he was no miserable writer of political tracts pretending to be art. He did not package nice little messages for us. Shakespeare was writing for our guts and our souls. If that’s just decoration, then give me decoration any day.
One last question for de Vere supporters: why? In a time when the majority of published plays were published without the playwright’s name, why on earth would you bother to attach another’s name to your work? If the secret was so important, wouldn’t the chances of discovery go up exponentially by letting another (or others) in on it? Of course they would. If the genius behind the works of Shakespeare wanted to keep his identity a secret, he would have simply kept his name off the plays. He would have left them––say it with me––anonymous.
In the end, all conspiracy theories are born out of fear. The Shakespeare authorship conspiracy theories are no different. For what structure and safety can there be in a world where the man who wrote Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Measure for Measure and Twelfth Night came from the country, was not university educated, and was concerned with money and social status? Shakespeare refuses to conform to our ideals. True, his grammar school experience was probably better than yours and mine when it comes to the use of words, but that doesn’t account for what he accomplished. The simple fact is he was a true genius. He had an astonishing gift. He was––and, at this point in history, still is––the best. Apparently nothing is more unforgivable than that.
So for the anti-Shakespearians out there, let me sum up:
Shakespeare was Shakespeare. He came from a small town in Warwickshire, called Stratford upon Avon. His father, a glover by trade, was the high bailiff (mayor) of Stratford. Shakespeare never went to college. He got a girl pregnant when he was still a teenager. They got married, had two more kids, and then Shakespeare went to London. He was an actor, a playwright, and a poet. He seems to have been the first person to realize that Aristotle was not a playwright, and therefore his observations on dramatic structure were not sacred––or even necessary. If you tried to take his theatre, he’d take up arms against you. He was a savvy businessman, and he made a lot of money in his adult life. He’d loan you money and collect interest on it. If you didn’t pay, he’d take you to court. He was a celebrity in his own time. He was better than any writer you’ve ever read. Deal with it.
Update (July 2013): I recently read the new collection of essays Shakespeare Beyond Doubt, edited by Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells. The essays address the authorship issue from several different angles, including collaboration, stylometrics, Elizabethan grammar school, the Elizo-Jacobean theater scene, and many others. I recommend it. It’s well worth the read.