Theater Review: The Rape of Lucrece, at the Royal Shakespeare Company

The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 25.295  Monday, 30 June 2014


From:        Jinny Webber <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>

Date:         June 27, 2014 at 1:46:36 PM EDT

Subject:    Re: SHAKSPER: Lucrece Review


Theater Review: The Rape of Lucrece, at the Royal Shakespeare Company

The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 25.288  Friday, 27 June 2014


I agree with Kirk McElhearn. Camille O’Sullivan’s presentation of The Rape of Lucrece in the Swan theatre in Stratford is moving, powerful, and most unexpected. It closes July 4; if you’re in the area, very worth making the effort. The night I went, the theatre was full, half the audience under 21. They were rapt!





T.S. and Groucho

The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 25.294  Monday, 30 June 2014


From:        Herbert Weil <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>

Date:         June 29, 2014 at 12:48:02 PM EDT

Subject:    T.S. and Groucho


Don’t miss the article on their letters in http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2014/06/the-fraught-friendship-of-t-s-eliot-and-groucho-marx.html


The Fraught Friendship Of T. S. Eliot And Groucho Marx

Posted By Lee Siegel

June 25, 2014


In 1961, T. S. Eliot wrote Groucho Marx a fan letter requesting a photograph of the comic actor and humorist. Groucho enthusiastically complied, and the two continued to correspond until they finally met, in June of 1964, in London, when Groucho and his fourth wife, Eden, went to the Eliots’ house for dinner. So far as I know, Eliot never gave a public account of what transpired that evening. Groucho, though, described the occasion in a letter that he wrote to his brother Gummo the following day.


I am presently finishing up a short critical biography of Groucho and came upon the letters, most of which were published in 1965, in the course of writing the book. After reading them, I sat down and wrote a piece about the two men’s very peculiar exchange, commenting on its unexpected warmth despite their acute differences in temperament. Now that I’ve had time to reflect on the correspondence further, my reading of the tone of the letters has changed.


When I reread the letters for around the fifth time, I became aware of a simmering tension between the two men. One obstacle to writing a book about a comic actor like Groucho is that you unwittingly absorb the enthusiastic, celebratory tone in which many entertainment figures are biographized. The screen persona is so strong that, no matter how scrupulous you try to be, you end up collapsing the real person into the persona that sent you looking for the real person in the first place. And often, with actors, there is barely a real person to be found. When we hear or read the utterances of a celebrity, the words bounce off the public persona and create something like the loud interfering feedback from a microphone. It took me a while to connect Groucho’s words to his actual life.


But this became easier once I realized that the work was much darker than is commonly perceived, and that there was an almost seamless continuity between the life and the work. Groucho was driven by shame about his lack of formal education, having dropped out of school in the seventh grade. He had also been traumatized by catching gonorrhea from a prostitute while on the road at the age of fifteen. Reading his correspondence with his demons in mind, I gradually understood that what appeared to be harmless sarcasm was really a mordant sincerity.


The tension between Groucho and Eliot became suddenly palpable when I reread an exchange they had about the two photographs that Groucho had sent. Eliot assured Groucho that one of them now hung on a wall in his office, “with other famous friends such as W. B. Yeats and Paul Valery.” About three and a half months later, Groucho wrote to Eliot to say that he had just read an essay about Eliot, by Stephen Spender, that had appeared in the Times Book Review. In it, Spender described the portraits on the wall in Eliot’s office but, Groucho said, “one name was conspicuous by its absence. I trust this was an oversight on the part of Stephen Spender.” Eliot wrote back two weeks later, saying, “I think that Stephen Spender was only attempting to enumerate oil and water colour pictures and not photographs—I trust so.”


Could Eliot really have hung a picture of Groucho on a wall next to the two greatest poets of the twentieth century? Was Groucho right to be wary of being condescended to and patronized? Was it disrespectful of him to be so touchy? Was Eliot’s echo—“I trust so”—of Groucho’s stiff, formal language a deliberate dig at Groucho’s affectation or, perhaps, a parody of polite conversation? You begin to suspect that, underneath their respect for each other’s aura of fame, the two men felt an instinctive hostility toward the social type the other represented. Groucho was a pop-culture celebrity, a child of immigrants, an abrasive, compulsively candid Jew. Eliot was a literary mandarin, the confident product of St. Louis Wasp gentry, and an elliptical Catholic royalist given to grave, decorous outbursts of anti-semitism.


In 1934, Eliot published a book of lectures called “After Strange Gods,” in which this passage appeared:


The population should be homogeneous; where two or more cultures exist in the same place they are likely either to be fiercely self-conscious or both to become adulterate. What is still more important is unity of religious background, and reasons of race and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable.


Groucho, a highly cultivated man whose greatest regret in life was that he had become an entertainer rather than a literary man—he published some of his first humor pieces in the inaugural issues of this magazine—could not have been unaware of Eliot’s notorious remarks about Jews. They were loudly denounced in the Times, among other places. So even as he was basking in Eliot’s admiration, he seemed to feel compelled to cause Eliot some discomfort. And Eliot was hardly unaware, in the wake of the Holocaust, of the distress his 1934 remarks had caused. In his book, “T.S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism and Literary Form,” Anthony Julius writes that after the Second World War Eliot, “while unable to break free of an anti-Semitism that had become part of the processes of his thinking, had ceased to be comfortable with his contempt for Jews.”


So even as he was pleased by Groucho’s grateful acknowledgment of his attention, Eliot was anxious to convince Groucho of his good faith toward Jews. (“I envy you going to Israel, and I wish I could go there too if the winter climate is good as I have a keen admiration for that country,” he wrote to Groucho, in 1963.) At the same time, it’s possible that he never lost his unease with the fact that Groucho was so unabashedly Jewish.


In 1961, when the literati were still marvelling over Arthur Miller’s marriage to Marilyn Monroe, and before high and low culture had so thoroughly merged, the idea of a relationship between Groucho Marx and T. S. Eliot would have been the stuff of a never-to-be-written proto-postmodernist novel. But here was Eliot, writing to Groucho to ask him to send along a different photograph than the official studio shot that Groucho had first mailed. Eliot wanted one with Groucho sporting his famous mustache and holding his signature cigar. But Groucho waited almost two years before sending it. Growing impatient, Eliot pointedly wrote to Groucho, in February, 1963, that “your portrait is framed on my office mantelpiece, but I have to point you out to my visitors as nobody recognizes you without the cigar and rolling eyes.” Perhaps Groucho had sensed all along a belittling sentiment behind Eliot’s request for the in-character photograph; nevertheless, he put one in the mail shortly thereafter.


Though Eliot was considered the reigning poet of the English-speaking world, and Groucho his counterpart in the world of comedy—celebrated by the likes of Antonin Artaud—each man seemed to provoke in the other a desire to conceal an essential liability. Eliot seems to have wanted Groucho to consider him a warm, ordinary guy and not the type of stiff, repressed person who disdained from a great height “free-thinking Jews.” He can’t quite bring it off—his acquired British self-deprecation stumbles into an American boorishness. On the eve of Groucho’s visit to London, Eliot wrote, “The picture of you in the newspapers saying that … you have come to London to see me has greatly enhanced my credit in the neighbourhood, and particularly with the greengrocer across the street. Obviously I am now someone of importance.”


Compared to the buried anxieties that Eliot stirred in Groucho, though, Eliot’s strenuous bonhomie seemed like the height of social tact. The font of Groucho’s and the Marx Brothers’ humor was an unabashed insolence toward wealth and privilege. Born at the turn of the century to an actress mother and a layabout father in Manhattan’s Yorkville neighborhood, the brothers turned the tumult of their hardscrabble origins into a universal reproach to the rigidity of social class. The encounter with Eliot brought out Groucho’s characteristic tendency to hide his embarrassment about his origins by pushing them in his audience’s face.


The Marx Brothers were hypersensitive to the slightest prerogatives of power; a person in authority had only to raise a finger to turn them hysterical and abusive. “I decided what the hell,” Groucho said once. “I’ll give the big shots the same Groucho they saw onstage—impudent, irascible, iconoclastic.” They fought with studio bosses and alienated directors and comedy writers. The humorist S. J. Perelman found the brothers to be “megalomaniacs to a degree which is impossible to describe.” There was a tremendous release in watching them utter and enact taboos in the face of power and privilege. That sense of liberation—of something unthinkable and impossible being deliciously actualized—is what makes even their less funny movies enthralling.


But underneath the compulsive truth-telling onstage there was a tremendous insecurity, which often expressed itself through acerbic joking about sex and sexuality. When Groucho appeared on an episode of William F. Buckley’s “Firing Line,” in 1967, an enmity sprang up between the two men almost immediately, with Groucho characteristically going on the attack the minute he perceived Buckley’s air of privilege and authority. At one point, as Buckley was trying to expose Groucho as a hypocrite for not voting for F.D.R. in 1944, Groucho turned suddenly to the moderator and said, of Buckley, “Do you know that he blushes? And he’s constantly blushing. He’s like a young girl. This is a permanent blush, I think.” The Marxes’ preternatural vulnerability to power and authority made them reach for their genitals the moment they ran up against the slightest impediment to their freedom. What Artaud, with a kind of condescending credulity, perceived as the brothers “brimming with confidence and manifestly ready to do battle with the rest of the world” was really a manic compulsion.


The same impulse to unman a social or cultural threat gambols across Groucho’s exchanges with Eliot. “Why you haven’t been offered the lead in some sexy movies I can only attribute to the stupidity of casting directors,” wrote the movie star to the rather dour literary man. Recommending his autobiography “Memoirs of a Mangy Lover,” Groucho wrote, “If you are in a sexy mood the night you read it, it may stimulate you beyond recognition and rekindle memories that you haven’t recalled in years.” He concluded another letter by writing, “My best to you and your lovely wife, whoever she may be.”


Call me hypercritical or unusually dark, but Eliot lived in one of the world’s most intricately coded social environments, and it’s hard not to read his reply to Groucho’s rudeness as a triumph of genteel passive aggression. Two weeks after receiving this last letter, he wrote, “My lovely wife joins me in sending you our best, but she didn’t add ‘whoever he may be’—she knows. It was I who introduced her in the first place to the Marx Brothers films [because she had no idea who you were] and she is now as keen a fan as I am. Not long ago we went to see a revival of ‘The Marx Brothers Go West’ [one of their worst films], which I had never seen before [though I know that it came out over twenty years ago]. It was certainly worth it. [It was certainly not worth it, or I wouldn’t declare that it was.]


Being manhandled in feline, Bloomsbury manner was perhaps too much for Groucho to tolerate. (His ego was permanently injured yet permanently inflated; he wrote his famous line “I do not want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member” in a letter to said club, not because he hated himself but because he actually felt that it was beneath him to belong to the club and expressed himself with characteristic ironic aggression.) Two weeks later, he shifted tack, from reducing Eliot’s individuality to sexual terms to reducing his public persona to his social origins.


Like the elementalness of sex, the elementalness of social origin was another club the Marx Brothers used to beat away social façades. In “Animal Crackers,” Chico accosts a wealthy guest named Roscoe W. Chandler at Mrs. Rittenhouse’s splendid mansion and asks him if his real name is Abe Kebibble. “Nonsense,” Chandler cries in faux-British tones. Chico then asks him if he’s ever been in Sing Sing. “Please!” Chandler says, and he tries to walk away. “How about Joliet?” says Chico. “Leavenworth?” “I’ve got it,” says Chico, “you’re from Czechoslovakia!” Harpo joins them, and Chico says, “Yes, now I remember! You’re Abie the fish peddle from Czechoslovakia!” Chico remembers that Abie had a birthmark somewhere. Chico and Harpo jump all over him, nearly undressing him, until they find the mark on his arm, at which point “Chandler” confesses to being Abie the fish peddle from Czechoslovakia, and in a heavy Yiddish accent offers them money to keep his origins secret.


In response to Eliot’s polite letter, Groucho, who was born Julius Henry Marx, reminded Eliot that his name was Tom, not T.S., and that “the name Tom fits many things. There was once a famous Jewish actor named Thomashevsky. [An actor like you, you Anglicized, Jew-hating phony.] All male cats are named Tom—unless they have been fixed. [You get the point.]” He ends the letter still refusing to acknowledge Eliot’s wife Valerie, and reminding both of Eliot’s less-than-Bloomsbury origins: “My best to you and Mrs. Tom.”


Groucho and Eliot had been promising to visit each other for three years before Groucho finally came for dinner at the Eliots, in June of 1964. According to Groucho’s letter to Gummo—the only existing account of the dinner—Eliot was gracious and accommodating. Groucho, on the other hand, became fixated on “King Lear,” in which the hero, Edgar, just so happens to disguise himself as a madman named Tom. Despite Tom Eliot’s polite indifference to his fevered ideas about “Lear” (“that, too, failed to bowl over the poet,” Groucho wrote to Gummo), Groucho pushed on. Eliot, he wrote, “quoted a joke—one of mine—that I had long since forgotten. Now it was my turn to smile politely. I was not going to let anyone—not even the British poet from St. Louis—spoil my Literary Evening.” Groucho expatiated on Lear’s relationship to his daughters. Finally, Eliot “asked if I remembered the courtroom scene in Duck Soup. Fortunately I’d forgotten every word. It was obviously the end of the Literary Evening.”


During the trial in “Duck Soup,” language is held over the fire of puns, double entendres, and non sequiturs until it melts into nonsense. (Or near-nonsense, anyway: “There’s a whole lot of relephants in the circus,” Chico says at one point.) In the trial scene in “King Lear,” Edgar/Tom protests the Fool’s own nonsense, saying, “The foul fiend haunts poor Tom in the voice of a nightingale.” Perhaps that was Eliot’s inner cry of protest at dinner, too. But Groucho was so defensive in the presence of the “British poet from St. Louis” that he seems to have missed Eliot’s subtle homage to his intellect. Groucho still could not shake the primal shame that was the goad of his comic art as well as the source of his self-protective egotism. “Did I tell you we called him Tom?” he wrote at the end of the letter to Gummo. “Possibly because that’s his name. I, of course, asked him to call me Tom too, but only because I loathe the name Julius.”


If the two men exchanged additional letters between the June, 1964, dinner and Eliot’s death, in January, 1965, none have been found. It is curious that there was no thank-you note from Groucho to Eliot after the dinner. Then again, perhaps it is no surprise, if the dinner convinced each figure that his infatuated expectation that the other man was wholly different from his public persona had no basis in his actual personality. Both men, it turned out—Groucho the flagrant misanthrope and Eliot the restrained one—were those rare figures in whom public persona and private personality aligned.


Lee Siegel is the author of, among other books, two collections of criticism, “Falling Upwards: Essays in Defense of the Imagination” and “Not Remotely Controlled: Notes on Television.” He is a frequent contributor to Page-Turner.


Why Actresses Feel Shortchanged By Shakespeare

The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 25.293  Monday, 30 June 2014


From:        Hardy M. Cook <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>

Date:         June 28, 2014 at 2:34:10 PM EDT

Subject:    Why Actresses Feel Shortchanged By Shakespeare 




Sylvestra Le Touzel: Why Actresses Feel Shortchanged By Shakespeare


Playing Hotspur's wife in Henry IV, I learned how Shakespeare put passion into his roles for women – but not enough lines


By Sylvestra Le Touzel 


Thursday 19 June 2014 03.00 EDT


Inhabiting Shakespeare’s women can be frustrating, not because he lacked insight into the female condition but because he didn’t give us enough space in which to play. “Have you ever felt that one of your scenes is missing?” Elizabeth Bell once asked me as she adjusted Gertrude’s lipstick, rose from her chair and exited with resignation to meet Hamlet in her closet.


In 1991, I was playing Lady Percy, wife of the impetuous Hotspur, in Adrian Noble’s production of Henry IV parts I & II. There are five named women in these plays, and 50 men. For about the first 45 minutes of the play, only male voices are heard. Then in act 2 scene 3 Kate Percy arrives and speaks for 28 lines without pausing for breath. Her outpouring is a challenge to her husband to tell her what’s going on.


While driving to Stratford during the run of the play, I heard on the radio an army wife whose husband was involved in the first Gulf war. She said she and her husband usually argued the night before he left home on a posting, because the tension was just too much. Shakespeare accurately wrote the scenes between the Percys as a passionate argument.


Robert Stephens, playing Falstaff, was returning to the stage after a long absence due to ill health. His rakish body seemed to endow Falstaff with a knowledge of “sack” that was deep, heartfelt and carnal. His listing gait, from an old fall, gave Falstaff the battered determination of the Fighting Temeraire being towed downstream to be broken up.


One Friday we gathered in our Clapham rehearsal room for the final run through. The kettle drums, which had arrived some days before, were positioned at the back of the room ready for the battle. I sat on the floor at the front almost under Adrian’s desk, as if I were a child at primary school on the story carpet.


There were one or two pieces of furniture, some odd costumes and two or three huge flagpoles. Robert had a cape and a battered hat and, thin without the Falstaff padding, he shambled with broken strides across the floor, whacked the tavern door frame almost off its hinges and barked with a voice that could have stripped paint from the back wall.


We watched open-jawed as the magnificent structure of the play unfolded. The kettle drums shook the floor as the men in battle howled and ran across the bare boards. It was an astounding afternoon, inspirational, whether watching or playing we all felt part of an organism we had not known existed.


When we got to Stratford the women were banished, three of us in a tiny upstairs dressing room. Actresses in Shakespeare are in an exceptional position, detached from the action, yet linked to it. We hear the play again and again over the PA; new things strike us, we wonder if Shakespeare understood how it feels to be pushed into a position that seems peripheral. As Henry IV wore on, our talk was underscored by the insistent rumble of drums and the cries of battle.


Actors come to depend on backstage rituals, building patterns and pathways echoing the onstage life of a play. I don’t know how it happened that the men started to come to our room, bloody in their battle dress during breaks in the fighting. There was barely space. They filled the vacant seats then sat on the counters, chain mail among Kleenex and rouge. Rules were observed, weapons had to be left in the corridor.


[ . . . ]


Learning ‘Lear’

The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 25.292  Monday, 30 June 2014


From:        Hardy Cook <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>

Date:         June 27, 2014 at 1:17:48 PM EDT

Subject:    Learning ‘Lear’: When To Hold Back, When to Let Go 




Learning ‘Lear’: When To Hold Back, When to Let Go

By John Lithgow 

JUNE 25, 2014 3:25 PM


John Lithgow, a Tony-winning actor and writer, will be regularly blogging on ArtsBeat as he rehearses “King Lear” for Shakespeare in the Park.


Three days into staging this mother and we’re only up to Act II, Scene 2. This is not to say we are lagging behind. In fact, we’re working at a fairly brisk pace. Last week was all about the textual complexities of the play. Now we’re into the emotional and physical complexities, which take a lot more time.


The great challenge of “King Lear,” especially for an actor playing the king, is modulation. For Lear, the first half of the play contains four titanic temper tantrums of near bipolar intensity, and the second half tips over into dementia, bottomless grief and (spoiler alert) death. In rehearsing these opening scenes, I need to constantly remind myself how far I still have to go, like a marathoner husbanding his resources.


The fact that, at 68, I’m still a little young for the role. I tend to be far too spritely for an octogenarian. Five times now, Dan Sullivan, our director, has reminded me that I’m an old man.


I was wise to have memorized all my words beforehand. Without that I’d be in real trouble. I always tend to race ahead of myself and perform full-out long before I know what I’m doing. This tendency was only amplified by six years on “3rd Rock From the Sun,” a high-energy sitcom with rehearsals always conducted at a pace far over the speed limit.


Even in these opening days on “Lear,” I can’t seem to restrain myself from laying into Cordelia, Oswald, Goneril and Regan in turn, like a crazed rogue elephant. If in the middle of these rages I had to constantly look down at my script, I would have stripped my vocal gears on the very first day. And I may yet notwithstanding.


I am having so much fun with this cast. I haven’t worked with any of them before but many have worked with each other, and all of us are connected by no more than a single degree of separation. In fact, you readers may feel connected to many of them too. Along with their extensive theater résumés, several may have caught your attention in recent films and cable series: Jessica Hecht (Regan) on “Breaking Bad”; Clarke Peters (Gloucester) on “The Wire”; Jay O. Sanders and Glenn Fleshler (Kent and Cornwall) as pungent villains on “True Detective.”


And our Goneril, of course, is Annette Bening, returning to New York theater after a raft of major films, four of which earned her Oscar nominations.


Then there is Chuk Iwuji, an exquisite actor playing Edgar. Most of Chuk’s work has been onstage in England, but he now splits his time between London and New York. Seven years ago I was rehearsing the role of Malvolio with the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford-on-Avon at the same time that Chuk was performing the role of Henry VI. One day, we met by chance in a Stratford tea shop. We ended up chatting for a half hour. He was smart and captivating, and when we went our separate ways we shared the hope that someday we would work together. And as so often happens through the good graces of the theater gods, here we are.


Shakespeare’s Globe: King Lear - Folger Shakespeare Library

The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 25.291  Monday, 30 June 2014


From:        Hardy Cook <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>

Date:         June 27, 2014 at 1:15:54 PM EDT

Subject:    Shakespeare’s Globe: King Lear - Folger Shakespeare Library




Shakespeare’s Globe: King Lear


By William Shakespeare

Directed by Bill Buckhurst

Composed by Alex Silverman


Folger Elizabethan Theatre


Sep 5–21


Weary of his royal duties, King Lear proposes to break up his kingdom and divide it among his three daughters. Shakespeare’s Globe’s King Lear stars Joseph Marcell, well known as Geoffrey the English butler on the hit TV show The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and internationally known as a classical actor and seen in Folger Theatre’s 2007 As You Like It.


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