Friday, June 30, 2023

37 Days of Shakespeare, Day 4: Julius Caesar

Julius Caesar, first broadcast February 11th, 1979
  • Possibly written: It was first performed in 1599, possibly his 19th play
  • What’s it about? Brutus joins a conspiracy led by Cassius to assassinate Julius Caesar, to prevent him from becoming a tyrant. Caesar's right-hand man Marc Antony stirs up hostility against the conspirators and Rome becomes embroiled in a dramatic civil war.
  • Most famous dialogue: Either “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears!” or “Et Tu Brute”.
  • Sources: The main source is Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives. Ben Jonson famously carped that Shakespeare had “small Latin and less Greek.” Instead, he was among the first generation of English speakers to have the classics available in translation, and it turned out that democratizing those works meant that little-educated men of genius could now find them and make more great art out of them.
  • Interesting fact about the play: Shakespeare was never very faithful to history, but he’s a bit too faithful here, because one of the jobs of a writer is to make sure that not too many characters have names that begin with the same letter. This play, however, has an astonishing thirteen characters with “C” names: Julius Caesar, Cinna, Casca, Caius Cassius, Cicero, Caius Ligarius, Calpurnia, Matellus Cimber, Publius Cimber, Cinna the poet, Claudius, Octavian Caesar and Clitus!
  • Best insults: Once again, I can’t do just one:
    • “He’s a tried and valiant soldier.” “So is my horse, Octavius”
    • “A barren-spirited fellow”
    • I am completely baffled by the first half of this insult but I like the second: “He loves to hear that unicorns can be betrayed with trees, and bears with glasses, elephants with holes, lions with toils, and men with flatterers, but when I tell him he hates flatterers, he says he does, being then most flattered.”
  • Best word: Accoutered
  • Best production of this play I’ve seen: The Marlon Brando movie is good, but I have never seen a good production on stage. The worst production I’ve ever seen of any play was a post-apocalyptic version of this one, which included, among other highlights, an interpretive dance to Oasis’s Wonderwall.
  • Notable Names in the BBC Adaptation: Once again, we have Charles Gray (Blofeld in Diamonds are Forever, Rocky Horror Picture Show), this time as Caesar. None of the other actors were familiar to me.
How’s the cast?
  • Gray seems too old and out-of-shape to be a dangerous tyrant, and he’s kind of blank, but Caesar himself is kind of a blank in the play, as I’ll discuss later. Richard Pasco as Brutus and David Collings as Cassius both deliver nicely complex characterizations. Keith Mitchell as Marc Antony seems to lack the cunning the part requires (and that Brando conveyed well).
How’s the direction from Herbert Wise?
  • Alas, after a splendid outdoor production of “As You Like It”, we’re very much back indoors here, with an interminable number of scenes set on every side of a huge Styrofoam rock. Wise doesn’t do a good job making it feel like a real war is going on in the second half, but in the first half, I liked how volatile and chaotic his crowd scenes were. I liked how he wasn’t shy about all the blood, with a very long scene (pictured above) in which the actors are basically slipping around in pools of it. The long night of thunder and lightning was well-conjured and properly portentous. It’s always a lame choice, however, to have the soliloquies done as voiceover, since the poor actor is left with nothing to do.
Storyteller’s Rulebook: Always Let Your Audience Decide

I was surprised to discover that this felt like the weakest of the four plays I’ve looked at so far. It’s certainly far more famous and quotable than Richard II, but that one seemed more morally and emotionally complex, because Richard, unlike Caesar, was a three-dimensional character, a complex construction of flaws and virtues tightly enmeshed together, and we were invited to judge for ourselves whether or not he should be overthrown (which turns out to be a hard decision to make). In this play, we just don’t get enough of the title character.

I think the decision not to show us the scene where Caesar refuses the crown three times is a baffling one. Instead, we just overhear the huzzahs, and then we have Casca arrive and sum up what happened though his own jaundiced POV. The whole rest of the play turns on whether Caesar was being genuinely humble by refusing the crown or just feigning humility to seize power. Let us see the scene and decide that ourselves, as we got to do with Richard. Let us see why Brutus and Cassius would see it one way and Marc Antony would see it the other, and let us contrast that with our own independent opinion on the scene.

I will say that the strongest element of the play is its examination of the volatile madness of crowds, and the masterful scene in which Antony plays his half-cocked crowd like a fiddle is the play’s peak. Ultimately, nobody comes off very well in this play, neither the conspirators nor those who would avenge Caesar. The most sympathetic character is poor Cinna the poet, killed by a mob because he has the same first name as one of the conspirators.

Wednesday, June 28, 2023

37 Days of Shakespeare, Day 3: As You Like It

As You Like It, first broadcast December 17th, 1978
  • Possibly written: Sometime around 1599 or 1600, possibly Shakespeare’s 20th play, so later than the first two we covered.
  • What’s it about? Rosalind is reluctantly living under her uncle Frederick, who overthrew her father, but when he gets pissed at her she runs off to the forest of Arden, followed by Orlando, who loves her and is in trouble because he won a wrestling match vs. Frederick’s favorite wrestler. Rosalind dresses up as a man, Orlando doesn’t recognize her but flirts with her/him anyway, and eventually Rosalind’s father is restored, and everything turns out okay.
  • Most famous dialogue: The “All the world’s a stage” speech.
  • Sources: Thomas Lodge’s Rosalynde, Euphues Golden Legacie, first published in 1590. Lodge’s story is based on “The Tale of Gamelyn”.
  • Interesting fact about the play: Maybe we’re in England, maybe in France (They both have forests of Arden). There are wild lions about. Shakespeare set very few non-histories in England, for some reason, causing some to foolishly speculate that the plays were written by a non-Englishman.
  • Best insult: Too many good ones to limit myself to just one:
    • A world too wide for his shrunk shank
    • Truly, thou art damned like an ill roasted egg all on one side
    • God help thee, shallow man, god make an incision in thee, thou are raw.
    • To cast away honesty upon a foul slut [like you] were to put good meat into an unclean dish.
    • For I must tell you friendly in your ear, sell when you can, you are not for all markets
  • Best word: The word “physic” gets used a lot, as in “I will physic your rankness”. Context clues weren’t helping me there.
  • Best production of this play I’ve seen: Last year the Chicago Shakespeare Theater did a wonderful production that worked in lots of songs by the Beatles. I liked it so much I went twice, once with my wife and then again with my daughter.
  • Notable Names in the BBC Adaptation: Helen Mirren as Rosalind. David “Darth Vader” Prowse as Frederick’s preferred wrestler!
How’s the cast?
  • Mirren is delightful and does a great job with the language, but makes no real attempt to impersonate a man. Couldn’t she have drawn on a pencil mustache or something? And tried a deeper voice? Of course, if she had, all involved would have had to admit that this is a really gay play, filled with scene after scene of a guy getting really sexy with someone he thinks is another guy. By having her just half-heartedly put on pants, everything feels far more heterosexual. As for Prowse, it’s nice to finally hear his voice and fun to see him in a different role. Brian Stirner as Orlando is a little moody, but ultimately fun to watch, and surprisingly convincing in his throws against the much larger Prowse.
How’s the direction by Basil Coleman?
  • We finally go outside, for by far the best production yet. The opening scenes are shot on the grounds of Glamis Castle in Scotland and the forests scenes are shot in actual forests. It all looks gorgeous and feels airy and real. This is what this series should have been: Shooting the plays in actual real-life settings. Instead, most productions were only a little less stagebound than they would have been in the theater. I’ll also give props to the combat, which feels very real and harrowing. The costumes are a little tacky, though.
Rulebook Casefile: Mastering Tone is More Important Than Every Other Aspect of Writing

The plotting of this play is very clunky. Shakespeare is so devoted to his formula for comedies that he has to betray the work he’s done on characterization. Putting Orlando’s brother and Rosalind’s friend together at the last moment just so that everyone can be paired up on stage is totally unjustified and unnecessary. The ludicrous deus ex machina where Frederick has an offstage religious conversion and abdicates is totally unconvincing.

And yet, the play is delightful. Almost every scene is fun. The language is zesty, as shown by the cascade of insults above. The sprightly verbal sparring of the various pairs of lovers prefigures 20th century screwball comedy. The best scenes are those in which the characters just conjecture with each other about the meaning of life and love.

After starting things off with a rousing onstage David-vs-Goliath wrestling match, we get a play chock full of songs, and so many internal rhymes, even when they’re not singing, that it feels like a Moliere play. It’s just a lot of fun. The play sings, literally and figuratively.

If you can master tone, the audience is remarkably willing to ignore all other writing fundamentals. The characters are having fun, the cast is having fun playing them, and the audience is having fun watching them. Who cares how clunky it is?

Monday, June 26, 2023

Episode 43: Writing Every Day with Brock Swinson

Oh my gosh, it’s four weeks in a row of the Secrets of Story Podcast! In this episode, James and I sit down with Brock Swinson to discuss his excellent new book of writing advice Ink By the Barrel! We all agree that writers should write every day and then sheepishly agree that we don’t actually do that. After hearing James and me sing the praises of the book, you can download a free copy of the print OR audio here! There’s no better deal than that!  And check out Brock’s podcast Creative Principles here, where he interviews 436 people about their creative process! 

Friday, June 23, 2023

37 Days of Shakespeare, Day 2: King Richard the Second

King Richard the Second, First broadcast December 10th, 1978
  • Possibly written: 1595. Chambers has it as his 11th play.
  • What’s it about? King Richard II keeps pissing off Lancasters John of Gaunt and his son Henry Bolingbroke. John dies and Harry gets banished, but comes back and overthrows and imprisons the king, making himself Henry IV. Richard is killed in prison in sketchy circumstances and Henry seemingly feels bad.
  • Most famous dialogue: The “this sceptre’d isle” speech.
  • Sources: Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotlande, and Irelande. Edward Hall's The Union of the Two Illustrious Families of Lancaster and York. Samuel Daniel's poem on the civil wars.
  • Interesting fact about the play: Richard actually just starved to death in prison, but that’s not very dramatic, so Shakespeare contrives a big fight and a stab in the back. Basically Shakespeare is stealing the story of Henry II and Thomas Becket from 200 years earlier, having Henry muse aloud that it would be great if Richard were dead, and then feigning horror when one of his supporters decides to make that wish come true.
  • Best insult: Of the Irish: We must supplant those rough rug-headed kerns which live like venom where no venom else
  • Best word: No unfamiliar words in this one.
  • Best production of this play I’ve seen: I’ve never seen it on stage, but the TV version with Ben Whishaw from 2012 that aired as part of “The Hollow Crown” is excellent. I’ll see it on stage in Stratford, Ontario later this year.
  • Notable Names in the BBC Adaptation: Unlike most of the BBC adaptations, this one has a big name cast: Derek Jacobi as King Richard, John Gielgud as John of Gaunt, Jon Finch (Macbeth, Frenzy) as Henry Bolingbroke, Charles Gray (Blowfeld in Diamonds are Forever, the Narrator in Rocky Horror Picture Show) as Duke of York
How’s the cast?
  • Jacobi and Grey are broad, but still excellent. Their performances would be fine onstage, but are a little much for television. Finch and Gielgud, both of whom had worked more onscreen, are more restrained, and come off the better for it. The question with this play is whether or not Richard should be indicated to be gay, and Jacobi has decided to definitely indicate it, but subtly, similar to what Wishaw did many years later.
How’s the direction by David Giles?
  • One should always blame the director when the performances are pitched at different levels. Neither the cast nor the camera move very much, making for a fairly leaden show. The sets and costumes are great. It would have been great to see armies ranged on the field, instead of shooting the war party scenes on sets, but, given the restraints of the BBC’s all-stage ethos, Giles does what he can and creates some sense of scope.
Rulebook Casefile: Every Character Should Pursue Their Self-Interest

This is a play with no one to root for. Richard is feckless, avaricious and arbitrary, and we understand why he would inspire a revolt, but Henry quickly proves himself to be just as much a villain. In the scene where Richard very reluctantly hands over the crown, we feel Henry’s frustration at having to deal with this agonizingly overwrought king, but when Henry then immediately abuses his power against the newly abdicated king we seethe with hatred for him and feel intensely for Richard, who then keeps us reluctantly on his side until the end.

Both men simply pursue their self interest. They are both entirely believable and thus compelling. We tend to empathize (but not entirely sympathize) with each one when he’s on stage, and feel torn in the few scenes they have together. It helps that both are surrounded, when the other is not around, by men who lack their strength of will, so they are able to dominate those scenes, creating anticipation for the scenes in which they will collide.

It’s a great play because it understands the demands of power, and how power can turn you more vicious than you set out to be. It’s a remarkable play for someone to stage who was at the mercy of a fickle queen. The play concludes that monarchs can be replaced when they no longer have the consent of the governed, and they’re fools if they think divine right will protect them. Richard, like Elizabeth, refers to himself in the plural, and we know he’s given up when he finally refers to himself in the singular. Elizabeth never had to do that, but this play indicates that she had a sword of Damocles above her head.

The Tudors did not consider themselves to be Tudors, they considered themselves to be Lancasters. It’s only historians who concluded that they were a different family altogether. These plays support the legitimacy of the Lancasters but not their nobility. Shakespeare called it as he saw it, and let the chips fall where they may.

I talked yesterday about my decision to do the plays in the BBC’s order, but watching this, I found myself wishing I had gone in the order they were possibly written, not caring so much as to whether the histories were in historical order and more caring about the progression of Shakespeare’s views on kingship throughout this career. I’ve never read nor seen the Henry VI plays (possibly the first three plays Shakespeare wrote) and I found myself wishing I had, so that I could see how that first stab at history-writing contrasted with this follow-up, though this was the prequel.

Wednesday, June 21, 2023

37 Days of Shakespeare: Introduction and Romeo and Juliet

Let’s start a new series!

I have two podcasts, but I’ve been tempted to start a third, because I’ve wanted to do a watch-through podcast for the BBC Complete Works of Shakespeare that aired from 1978 to 1985, possibly with a Shakespeare scholar of my acquaintance. But ultimately, I decided that three podcasts is just too many, and I would really be using the podcast as an excuse to watch all of them myself, but I need no such excuse. So, I figured, why not just watch them all and write a blog post about each one?

These plays are long (they’re mostly full text, so almost three hours each) so it’ll take much more than 37 days to get through these 37 days. The current plan is to post episodes every Monday, Wednesday or Friday unless I have something else to post like a podcast episode, in which case I’ll post only two Shakespeare write-ups that week.

So starting today, and continuing for the next several weeks, I’ll examine the complete works of Shakespeare, how the BBC did adapting them, and what writers can learn from them.

Note: I had a hard time deciding in what order to do the plays. Nobody knows for sure what order the plays were written but there are several guesses. Ultimately I decided to do them in the order the BBC presented them, figuring that wiser heads at the Beeb should be trusted to have chosen a lively order. Besides, that way the history plays would be in chronological sequence (but spread out over the course of the series), and I certainly didn’t want to begin this series with Henry VI parts 1, 2, and 3, which may have been Shakespeare’s first three plays. So let’s begin with the series’ first season premiere: Romeo and Juliet.

Romeo and Juliet, first broadcast December 3rd, 1978
  • Possibly written: 1594-1595. Scholar E. K. Chambers puts it 10th in his chronology of the plays.
  • What’s it about? Two teenagers from rival families fall in love, which leads to the death of six people, including each other.
  • Most famous dialogue: Too many to count! Let’s go with “Wherefore art thou Romeo?”
  • Source: Based on an Italian tale written by Matteo Bandello and translated into verse as The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet by Arthur Brooke in 1562, then retold in prose in Palace of Pleasure by William Painter in 1567.
  • Interesting fact about the play: It’s a myth that the balcony was a later addition to the play. Shakespeare himself included no description of how to stage the scene, of course (he never did), but in Shakespeare’s sources, Romeo was climbing up to Juliet’s window, and it would have made sense to replicate that on the stage. The word balcony was coined after Shakespeare’s death, but he was probably picturing something similar to how it’s currently staged.
  • Best insult: Juliet’s dad says to her, “Out, you green-sickness carrion! Out, you baggage! You tallow-face!”
  • Best word: Behooffull
  • Best production of this play I’ve seen: I saw an all-black production in Marcus Garvey park in Harlem that was excellent.
  • Notable Names in the BBC Adaptation: Alan Rickman as Tybalt, John Gielgud as chorus (just a brief cameo), Anthony Andrews (Brideshead Revisited) as Mercutio
How’s the cast?
  • The only way to play it is to have both Romeo and Juliet be almost comically overwrought in their emotions, but the stars sell their emotions admirably and keep us rooting for them, even as we lament their foolishness. Patrick Ryecart as Romeo looks and sometimes acts like a British Michael Cera, so it’s as if Scott Pilgrim turned a little more bloodthirsty. Rebecca Saire as Juliet is really fourteen (in the play the character is on the eve of her fourteenth birthday) and looks it, which shuts down any attempt to sexualize the character and makes it clear what a tragedy this is, caused by the fact that everybody wants to sexualize this young girl, and then she gets wrapped up in that herself. Andrews is great as always and Rickman is already going full Snape at this very young age.
How’s the direction by Alan Rakoff?
  • I thought it was an excellent introduction to the series. It would have been nice to haul the cast over to Italy for some actual outdoor shooting, but this is the Beeb, so it’s all shot indoors in London. But there’s a variety of good-but-minimalist sets that “open up” the material and give a sense of Verona as a full city. The occasionally-mobile video camera keeps it from feeling too stagy. This is one of Shakespeare’s most emotional plays, and those fiery emotions are not smothered by the BBC classiness.
Storyteller’s Rulebook: Have Them Have Another Plan That Gets Upset By the New Opportunity

We’ll start with a tip that made it into my latest book: Romeo doesn’t go to the party looking for a new girl, he goes to win his old girlfriend back. Scenes are always stronger if one or both of the scene partners have something else they’re rather be doing, then get wrenched in a new direction by the events of this scene. We prefer heroes who want something passionately to those who are aimless or passive, even if they want the wrong things and we can see they want it for all the wrong reasons.

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Heroes Should Be Volatile

We want volatile heroes. In actor David Garrick’s 18th century staging of the play, he took out Rosaline because including her made Romeo look fickle and reckless. But that’s the whole point. Romeo isn’t in love with Rosaline or Juliet, he’s just in love with love itself, or rather the thrill of obsession. One can only imagine how quickly he would have thrown over Juliet if he had actually attained her for a longer period of time, probably staying with her just long enough to leave her pregnant before losing interest. His volatile mania, which dangerously resonates with Juliet’s violent rejection of her forced betrothal to Paris, is the heart of the play.

I like the play even though I find neither hero nor heroine remotely sympathetic. Instead, I find them compelling as anti-heroes, Bonnie and Clyde-type psychopaths that are thrilling to watch as they self-destruct and cause the deaths of many around them. The most sympathy I felt in the play was for Juliet’s family when they find her supposedly dead in the morning after she takes poison to simulate death. The cruelty of subjecting her family to that in pursuit of a dude is chilling. Romeo and Juliet are both bad news.

Okay, folks, that’s Day 1! Let me know what you think and come back in two days for Richard II!

Monday, June 19, 2023

Episode 42: Mackendrick's Rules, the Epic Conclusion

Alexander Mackendrick summed up the wisdom that film schools (and MFA programs in general) hand down to writers. Is it helpful or poisonous? In this episode, we finish examining and questioning his 41 rules.

Monday, June 12, 2023

Episode 41: Mackendrick's Rules, Part 2

Yes, it’s another episode just a week after our previous episode! And there’ll be another episode next week and maybe another after that! In part 2 of 3, we continue to explore the storytelling rules of Alexander Mackendrick and use them as a springboard to discuss story in general. Bonus: I posit what’s in the case in Pulp Fiction and completely convince James! (Check out my original breakdown of the list here.)

Tuesday, June 06, 2023

Episode 40: Mackendrick's Rules, Part 1

We’re back! After a long hiatus, James and I return with a new episode per week for the next three weeks at least! The great Alexander Mackendrick (The Man in the White Suit, The Ladykillers, Sweet Smell of Success) finished out his career teaching at Cal Arts and his advice was famously boiled down to 41 rules for storytellers. A while ago, I gave my thoughts on those rules, and now, many years later, I give James a chance to respond, which leads to a rollicking discussion. There was a ton of great material here, so we ended up with our first three-part episode! Enjoy Part 1 this week.
Updated to add: And hey, here’s two videos we mentioned. First is the video James and his kids made, Hat-Chet:
And here’s that one-second film festival I loved, which is, amazingly, still on the internet:  
(Click the V to play it larger on Vimeo.)