The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 10.1348 Friday, 30 July 1999.
Date: Thursday, 29 Jul 1999 18:20:38 -0500
Subject: Bears I Have Known
Melissa Aaron and others have been interesting in comments about how the
Bear Scene might have been done in Sh's time. One possibility is what
was done in the production of WT that starred Ian McKellen as Leontes in
1974 (unless I am remembering some other WT). Bear was a shaman who
wore a long robe and a bear mask carved totemically for a headpiece. He
took Antigonus by the arm and led him gently off into the wings. Later
the shaman came out as Father Time with the bear totemhead under one arm
and an hourglass in the other hand. A rousing success; as an emblem of
"tempus edax rerum", the doubling linked the two parts of the play, the
two generations, the things dying and things newborn, winter and
spring. Time (Sh's source was called *Pandosto: Or the Triumph of
Time*) is where the play is focused.
A quite different, very mimetic bear was my first role in a Shakespeare
play. They rented a very realistic grizzly bear costume made of nylon
and insured it for $750, and this was in the mid-nineteen-sixties, so
multiply by about 4 to get $3000 in our dollars. Open red mouth, very
awesome fangs, about 7' tall when erect (I saw through two holes in the
neck.) The Antigonus was built like a linebacker, but was not one.
Very gentle spirit with a bushy red beard. He and I were told first day
of rehearsal to try blocking our scene. Director adopted it with a few
touches of his own. Antigonus put Perdita down on the stage
stage-right, a realistic doll swaddled, and then delivered his lines
about Hermione over the footlights with his back to the baby. Bear came
out of the wings stage right on all fours went up to baby and snuffed
it. Audience gasped. Antigonus sensed something behind him and instead
of rescuing the child or running for his life he turned around and went
up behind the bear who was still snuffling with his back to the audience
and gave the bear a mighty kick in the butt that left me bruised after
every performance. The audience stopped the show with wild laughter.
Before it died down the bear reared up on his hind legs for the first
time and attacked Antigonus claws first. Claws were about twice the
length of an adult's fingers. Audience gasped. Antigonus screamed and
ran all the way across the stage and into the wings stage left. Bear
lumbered in hot pursuit. Audience gasped. Antigonus screamed from the
wings as the bear got him and the theater was as silent as a tomb for a
count of about 3; and then Antigonus put two fingers down his throat and
uttered a belch that reverberated off the walls of the theater. I have
never seen anyone able to do this since. Audience reacted with wild
laughter. Stopped the show every night. This bit of byplay mirrored the
play as a whole. Alternation between laughter and horror, between
tragedy and comedy. I have seldom played a Sh. role that I enjoyed
more, but under those lights the bear costume was like a steambath.
Thanks for bearing with me.