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Home :: Archive :: 1999 :: February ::
Re: King John
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 10.0221  Tuesday, 9 February 1999.

[1]     From:   Ed Taft <
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        Date:   Monday, 08 Feb 1999 11:33:21 -0500 (EST)
        Subj:   KJ

[2]     From:   Mike Jensen <
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        Date:   Monday, 08 Feb 1999 17:06:53 -0800
        Subj:   Re: SHK 10.0204 I rise in defense of King John (the play).....


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Ed Taft <
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Date:           Monday, 08 Feb 1999 11:33:21 -0500 (EST)
Subject:        KJ

David Maier and Michael Ullyot are right, in my view, to defend KJ as a
play of considerable worth, whatever its defects. Around 1990 or so,
Deborah T. Curren-Aquino edited a collection of essays on KJ that are
worth reading and that establish, to my mind at least, that there's a
lot to conjure with in this play. Sorry I don't have full bibliographic
information, but I believe it was published by Delaware. Some scholar
more acute than I will no doubt remember the full citation.  Also, again
around 1990, Robert C. Jones published an article on KJ called, if I
remember correctly, "Truth in KJ. It's worth reading too, and suggests
that sophisticated notions of history and politcs underlie and inform
the play in a highly artful fashion. I, for one, am a KJ cheerleader:
"Go.Go, Fight, Fight, Yea, King John!"

--Ed Taft

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Mike Jensen <
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Date:           Monday, 08 Feb 1999 17:06:53 -0800
Subject: 10.0204 I rise in defense of King John (the play).....
Comment:        Re: SHK 10.0204 I rise in defense of King John (the play).....

I was very amused by David Maier's spirited and mostly reasoned defense
of KING JOHN.  As one of those  _Shakespearean geeks_ he mentions, it
reminded me very much of the introductions that grace some of the
published plays.  When a JOHN, a PERICLES, a HENRY VIII is published, it
is often championed by the editor as an underrated play with a defense
for the supposed problems.  If it is unity, they find unity.  If it is
patches of bad writing, they find the best in it.  If it is undeveloped
characters, they point to the ingenious way they are used.  Good fun,
but not always convincing.

I commend David's message for its passion, some of its arguments, and
readability.  I don't find it convincing for a number of reasons.  I'll
mention a few.

When I read or see the play, my subjective response is that it is a
lesser work.  Subjectivity is not the kind of criteria that should
convince another, but a lot of scholars find their subjective response
to the play leads them to the same conclusion, more than with, say,
RICHARD II.  Consensus has a certain force, though you can chalk it up
to fashion.

The few performances indicate that few directors believe in the play.
Fewer imagine a way to rediscover it and put it in the center of the
canon.  And yes, because it is not as well know as others, they would
not expect it to generate great box office.  David may imagine this is
the result of all the misguided folks who undervalue the play, putting
it at a disadvantage.  Could it just be that many agree the play is
second string?

Just about everyone agrees with David that there are some astonishing
linguistic effects in the play.  Most find them to be much less frequent
or sustained than in, say, RICHARD II.  David, do you really think the
language is as rich?  My reason for using RII will appear at the end.

As to citing  _elbow room_, _gild the lilly_, and other phrases as world
class, well, mayhap someday I'll write a wonderful phrase.  That one
ain't it.  Maybe I'll write several.  Maybe they well be in yet another
of those stylistically bland pieces of mediocrity that I find so easy to
get published.  A few good phrases, works, or even speeches do not make
a play great, nor do they make one of my essays great.  It is everything
working together that makes greatness (assuming there is anyone out
there who is not so theory bound that they still believe in great
plays).  I find David's point unconvincing here.

Since he did not see the DC production, I gather, it seems rash, and a
bit too de facto to assume that if viewers were dissatisfied with some
aspects of it, it must needs be the fault of the producers and list
members are wrong to blame the play.

I think that kind of comment is best made by one with experience of the
production, not someone working from theory, a theory which SEEMS to be
that KING JOHN was written flawlessly.  Or does David see flaws he did
not reveal?

It comes across as arrogant.  To let you off the hook a bit, no doubt my
comment about Stephanie Hughes, a comment that I imagine will be
elsewhere on the list today, will also seem arrogant or even sarcastic.
Your comment may not have come from arrogant intent, merely
exasperation, as did my comment about Ms. Hughes.  So I understand how
our words can get away from us.  Whatever the motive, it didn't play
well.  I think all those with experience of the play deserve respect for
their informed opinions.  They have had an experience you have not.
David, if you think about that, I'm sure you will agree.

The next two comments are certainly arguable, but David ought to think
them through.

John Barton, when he directed the play for the RSC in the early 70s,
felt the text needed help.  He tried to make a new play by conflating it
with THE TROUBLESOME REIGN.  It was not a success, but here is one man
whose theatrical savvy I trust who, probably, did not find that the play
stood on its own.

Leonard Rossiter played KJ for the BBC TELEVISION SHAKESPEARE.  His
comment, and this is a paraphrase since I don't have the reference in
front of me, was that Shakespeare had rather let the side down.
Obviously Rossiter worked the text more closely than most of us, but
still found it lacking.  If you know actors, that is rare.

David needn't find these tidy bits compelling.  They are not.  But they
ought to be confronted and answered before they are dismissed.

I certainly agree with David's comments about the mediocrity of much
Shakespeare performance, especially verse speaking in America.  It is
improving.  I hear a difference between now and 10 years ago.  I think
all those festivals and practice, practice, practice have improved
things.  They still have a long way to go.  I need to adjust my
expectations down with most American productions I have seen, even those
with the best reputations.  Again, that is subjective.  They please
many, many more than they displease, so perhaps there is something wrong
with my expectations?  While verse speaking in America seems to be
improving, verse speaking in Britain seems to be slipping.  Will they
meet in the middle someday?

For my own interest, I find the KING JOHN/RICHARD II and ALL'S
WELL/MEASURE FOR MEASURE contrasts fascinating.  One reason for paring
them off like this is that JOHN and RICHARD were written at about the
same time, so were ALL'S WELL and MEASURE written close together, and
that both represent plays were Shakespeare got one right and the other
wrong.  I have seen studies of how ALL'S WELL and MEASURE fit this
scenario, but have only found brief references to how JOHN and RICHARD
do.  Can anyone direct me to a book or article of some depth exploring
JOHN/RICHARD or that consider all four plays?

All the best,
Mike Jensen
 

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