Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Magpie 38

The Magpie prompt this week immediately brought up memories of the greatest graveyard scene ever created in what was possibly the greatest play ever created: the graveyard sequence in “Hamlet.”

You’re probably familiar with the action of the scene, but let’s run through it again.
A couple of gravediggers are doing their thing in Act 5, digging away, and at the same time making jokes. Shakespeare has been criticized by some scholars for mixing humor – or what passed for humor four hundred and some years ago – with tragedy. After all, that’s Ophelia’s grave they’re digging.
But as Quentin Tarantino has assured us, mixing humor with tragedy is often powerfully effective.
Sample of grave-digger humor:
First G-D, to Second G-D: “Who would build the best house? A carpenter, a mason or a shipwright?”
Second G-D (sort of bored): “I don’t know.”
First G-D: “Well, don’t wear out your brains on it. The answer? A grave-digger! The houses he builds last till doomsday!”
Now, come on; that’s not bad – for the sixteenth century. :-)

Anyway, Hamlet and his close friend Horatio come upon the scene. There’s a skull that the G-D has tossed aside. It’s Yorick’s skull.
Hamlet: “I knew him, Horatio!”

The picture of Hamlet with the skull has become one of the best known images of the play. It is clear that the Prince has been greatly affected by what he has seen and learned. In fact, it’s not too much to say that when he learns of Ophelia’s death it’s as though he becomes at least somewhat deranged.
When her funeral procession arrives, Hamlet, for no reason whatever, attacks her brother Laertes, who had always been his good friend.
Laertes: “Lay her in the earth. And from her fair and unpolluted flesh may violets spring!”
Hamlet, leaping forward: “What is he whose grief bears such an emphasis? I loved Ophelia! Forty thousand brothers could not, with all their quantity of love, make up my sum!”
There has always been a question as to whether Hamlet became really a bit insane or was just acting that way. Let’s examine closely what he shouts at this moment of high tension.
Hamlet: “What would you do for her, Laertes? Would you drink vinegar, eat a crocodile? Well, I would!”
The King: “Oh, he is mad, Laertes!”
Eat a crocodile? This is just part of his raving. Hamlet has definitely become unhinged, at least for the moment.
It’s a powerful scene, worth recalling when regarding this week’s Magpie prompt.

Monday, October 25, 2010


“O” as in “The Wooden O”
Right at the beginning of the play “Henry the Fifth,” an actor steps toward the center of the stage and mentions a “wooden O.” This is the wooden O:

It’s Shakespeare’s theatre; it’s made of wood and it’s in the shape of an O. It’s interesting to compare the conditions of theatre-going then, over 400 years ago, with today’s staged presentations.
The place held several thousand play-goers and often it was packed. Why? Because it was such a novelty. There had never been such a thing in Britain before. Earlier theatres, of a sort, had existed; there were presentations that usually had to do with scenes from the Bible, but never before had there been a commercial playhouse dealing with subjects like everyday life, love and death – comedies, tragedies and histories – with human failures and triumphs.
Londoners ate it up.

And it wasn’t expensive. The theatre group, Shakespeare’s company, produced their works for everyone. You could get in to see a play, if you didn’t mind standing, for a penny. However, that wasn’t quite as cheap as it sounds. The average working stiff in those days made just ten of those pennies as a day’s wage, so he would be blowing ten percent of his daily salary to get in.
The members of the audience would drop their coins into a box as they entered – hence, the term “box office.”
As you probably know, the standees were known as “groundlings.” There could be as many as 500 for a performance and they were what we’d call “interactive.” In other words, they kept up a running commentary on what was taking place on the stage and they let the actors know what they thought. Fortified with drinks, food and snacks, they often made life miserable for the thespians. Vendors wandered through the crowd during the performance selling beer, apples, oranges and nuts; hazelnuts seem to have been preferred.
Modern excavations on Elizabethan theatres have found layers of hazelnut shells covering the floors of the sites. At the time, actors complained that as they delivered a great, philosophically nuanced soliloquy, they often had to put up with the rat-a-tat sound of nuts being cracked open.

As I’m sure you know, you can see a play as a groundling in the present-day reconstruction of Shakespeare’s Globe theatre, and a great many folks do, but you won’t get in for a penny.

The Elizabethan playhouse, by the way, was painted in marvelous colors. The performances usually had no, or very little, scenery, but no one minded because no one had ever seen a performance with scenery so they didn’t miss it.
A key point to note about the Globe was its location. The theatre, the plays, the actors, were all regarded by right-thinking Londoners, as well as by the authorities, as not really respectable. So the place had to be outside the city proper. As a result, modern theatre-goers would be a bit shocked if they somehow managed to time-travel back to that era to see a Shakespeare play. The playhouse, the wooden O, would be found in one of the sleaziest parts of greater London, cheek by jowl with whorehouses and other low-class places of entertainment.

For example, the bear-baiting pits. Bear-baiting was a great sport of the day (it was a favorite entertainment of Queen Elizabeth). A chained bear would be set upon by huge mastiffs who would try to tear the bear apart. Some of the bears were famous (and mentioned by Shakespeare in his plays) because they defeated the dogs instead.
It is simply a fact that some actors, delivering the most passionately romantic lines of a play, were often accompanied by the muted roars of the bear-baiting activity taking place next door.

In later years, the company opened a new playhouse, the Blackfriars, which was more like the theatres of our time. It was inside, for one thing; it had a roof and it even had lighting – chandeliers with candles – none of which existed in the Globe. This was an upscale operation. Admission cost more: there were no groundlings and nobody got in for a penny.
William Shakespeare, unlike many other genius artists, was ultimately financially successful. He never got paid much for his plays – a few pounds each, and there was no such thing as residuals – but his share in the theatre operation meant that when he retired to his home town Stratford he was regarded locally as a wealthy man.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Magpie 37

This week’s Magpie prompt brought back memories of a true love of my life, Renee Fleming, one of the greatest American sopranos.

(For some reason, Renee has never responded favorably to my expressions of devotion. Perhaps the fact that she never heard of me had something to do with it…)

At any rate, one of her finest musical efforts was the mirror aria from Massenet’s “Thais.” To understand this scene we must do some quick time-travel back a few centuries.

Thais was an actress who was also a courtesan; in those days they were often pretty much the same thing. I hasten to point out that a “courtesan” was not – or not exactly – a prostitute. The word refers to an intelligent and well-educated woman who lived what we might call today an upscale life, associating with wealthy and powerful men who provided her with both necessities and luxuries in return for, er, companionship.

In her profession, looks were important. They were just about everything. Thais speaks to her mirror.
Dis-moi que je suis belle.
Et que je serai belle eternellement!

Tell me that I am beautiful
And that I’ll be beautiful forever!

Que rien ne fletrira les roses de mes levres,
Que rien ne ternira l’or pur de mes cheveux!
Dis-le moi! Dis-le moi!

That nothing will cause the roses of my lips to fade,
That nothing will dull the pure gold of my hair.
Tell me! Tell me!

Massenet’s “Thais” mixes themes of religious longing with desire and lust, which happens, as you may have noticed, in quite a few other works of this kind. In this instance a monk, a holy man, takes it upon himself to save the courtesan. With his help, Thais feels she can finally find true love, not with men but with God. She becomes disillusioned because the monk, who insists that he loves Thais only in a spiritual way, comes to realize that his concern for her soul is not, and never was, entirely holy.

(I'd suggest you check it out on YouTube, but the sound quality of that system, when it comes to serious music, leaves an awful lot to be desired.)

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


“N” is for “Night”
As in “A Hard Day’s.” :-)
In the field of pop music, an interesting phenomenon has been the development, starting half a century or so ago, of garage bands, small groups of young musical folks, some talented, some not so much – all working away, composing, rehearsing, driving their neighbors crazy – and all looking for their big break.
Of course there are many such groups that keep forming today. Some may become successful, most will not.

All of which is just my way of getting around to the use of the word “night” for N Day. You see, there was also a cluster of young British musical types back in 1964 that you may have heard of, name of the Beatles.
Paul McCartney tells how one special song came about: “The title was Ringo’s. He would come up with these little malapropisms, things he said that were slightly wrong – the way most folks do – but his would sometimes be wonderful, very lyrical. One day, after we had done a lot of hard work, Ringo said: ‘Phew, it’s been a hard day’s night.’”

This, of course, became the title of their movie, but it also had a remarkable life as a song. John Lennon dashed it off in one night. According to the Associated Press report, “At 8:30 in the morning, there were John and Paul with guitars at the ready and all the lyrics scribbled on match-book covers.” It sounds as though they just tossed the recording off effortlessly, but actually there were nine takes before they got it the way they wanted it.
America first saw the single of “A Hard Day’s Night” on sale in July of 1964; five days later it was way up on the charts. Nobody before the Beatles had ever held the number one position in both the United Kingdom and the United States at the same time.
In America they sold a million copies of the song in five weeks.
I remember being in France later and learned that the group was almost as successful there as anywhere else. The problem was, the average French person had a problem with the pronunciation of the name. They called them “les beTULLSS.” It took a while to figure out just who they were talking about. :-)

Music of the Beatles moved from catchy love songs in the early period to profound ballads and social commentary. It’s been decades since John Lennon was killed, decades since the group broke up, but for many the Beatles somehow manage to stay very much alive.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Magpie 36

“Deh, vieni alla finestra, o mio Tesoro,
Deh, vieni a consolar il pianto mio.”
Come to the window, oh my treasure;
Come and dispel all my sadness.

I’d like to call this Magpie “Opera Made Easy.”
Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” is one of the great operas, perhaps the greatest. Many people are put off by the thought that it’s “too heavy,” which usually translates as “too boring.”
But it’s worth some effort to get to know it: it has comedy as well as drama, not to mention the fantastic music, along with a wild, supernatural ending.
I’d sum it up this way: the scene is set in Seville in the 1600s and, surprisingly, quite a bit of it is funny. For example, Don Giovanni is what used to be known as a “rake,” a type we might today call a philanderer, a womanizer, a skirt-chaser – you get the idea. He is pretty well set on his goal, which is to make out with just about every female he sees. His servant, Leporello, doesn’t approve of all this, but he goes along with it; hey, it’s a job.

In the story, a beautiful lady named Elvira has fallen in love with the Don. She is vaguely aware of his philandering, but she can’t resist him. Leporello tries to warn her off. He sings the famous “catalog” aria, a catalog of all the females who have succumbed to Don G’s seductive ways.
“Madamina, il catalogo e questo…”
Little lady, this is the catalog.

Turns out that the Don has indeed “had” an impressive number of women. Leporello sings that there were 640 in Italy, 23l in Germany, 100 in France. But in Spain…
“Ma in Ispagna, son gia mille e tre.”
But right here in Spain, it’s already a thousand and three!
This, understandably, turns Elvira off. She vows to go after Don Giovanni with revenge in her heart.
Later, in the second act, the Don is seen standing under Elvira’s window, singing his “Deh, vieni alla finestra” aria, a ballad of tenderness and gallantry. But it’s all hypocrisy because he’s not interested in Elvira any more – he’s been there, done that – he’s now interested in Elvira’s beautiful maidservant. The girl comes to the window and seems about to be ready to add another number to the catalog when a rabble of peasants, all armed, show up; they’ve been chasing Don G. to punish him for what he has done to their women.
The Don, with the help of ever-suffering Leporello, manages to escape.

However, as you might expect, the libertine gets his come-uppance by the end of the opera.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010


"M" is for "Much Ado"
“Much Ado About Nothing” is one of Will Shakespeare’s best comedies. Why? Well, one of the reasons has to do with two of Will’s best-known characters: Beatrice and Benedict.
I fell in love with Beatrice quite a number of years ago, but it was obvious that she didn’t feel the same about me – she never even answered my emails. :-)
But how could I resist her? Let’s put it this way. Pour together in a cocktail shaker the following ingredients: about 50% Katharine Hepburn, 50% Bette Davis, 50% Carole Lombard, and the other 50%, Lucille Ball. That would be some woman, Ned’s pa?

Katie Hepburn because she marched to a different drummer – (even though she herself did most of the drum-beating).

Bette Davis because she was capable of wittily destroying someone, usually a guy, with a single well-placed, caustic remark.

Carole Lombard because she was full of life and vitality, not to mention the fact that she was quite beautiful.

And Lucille Ball because she was funny.
Shake well and pour. You’ve got Beatrice of “Much Ado.”
You can sum up the play’s situation this way: it appears that Beatrice simply cannot stand Benedict.
Poor Ben. He’s a solid, respectable guy who doesn’t ask too much of life. But Bea has decided to make him a target for her relentless wit. Of course, we know, and Shakespeare knows that we know, when a man and a woman hate each other’s intestines in the early part of a play, the odds-on betting is that they’ll wind up together when the curtain comes down.

(Which is a bit strange because they didn’t have a curtain in a Shakespeare theatre.)
Though she lived four or five hundred years ago, Beatrice was like many modern women – women of intelligence and wit, women who see the absurdity of the world and who have no desire to become some man’s possession, yet who deeply feel the need for love.

You’d never guess that Beatrice, with her mild appearance, could be so lively and amusingly sarcastic.
Those of us who sat there in the audience at the Globe Theatre would have seen that, behind all her wisecracks and cutting remarks, there was an obvious vulnerability. It’s clear that the man she loves is Benedict, but she has been hurt before; she will protect herself by acting as “Lady Disdain.” It’s also clear that Ben, in spite of his own share of wisecracks, could love Bea, if he were only given a chance.
The Governor tells her that Benedict is a fine man. “A man to a man, stuffed with all the honorable virtues.”
Bea says, a stuffed man perhaps, but as for the stuffing…
The Governor explains to all the other gentlemen there: “Benedict and Beatrice, they never meet but there’s a skirmish of wit between them.”
Bea: “Yes, but in our last meeting four of his five wits were off somewhere. He usually has enough wit to keep himself warm and that’s all.”
Benedict arrives and addresses the crowd. Bea: “I wonder that you keep on talking, Signor Benedict, because nobody pays you any attention.”
Her uncle says to her: “Well, niece, I hope to see you one day fitted with a husband.”
Bea: “Not till God makes men of some other mettle than earth.”
Her girlfriends talk about her. “All that carping is not commendable.” “No, and to be so odd, and from all fashions, as Beatrice is, is not commendable. But who dare tell her so?”
Finally, as we knew it would, comes the scene where the feisty couple declare their love for each other.
Their decision to marry is just as wise-crackingly light-hearted as their usual conversations. Ben says he has decided to marry her, but he wants her to know he’s only marrying her because he’s sorry for her.
Bea wisecracks back she’s only marrying him to save his life for she was told he was deathly ill.
Ben stops her mouth by kissing her.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Magpie 35

Jacques Prevert
This week’s prompt took me back a few decades, back to the days when American francophiles were fascinated by the work – the poetry and the films – of Jacques Prevert.
Students of the golden age of French cinema are familiar with his classic motion pictures, “Les Enfants du paradis” – which many claim was the greatest French film ever made – as well as “Le Jour se leve,” “Quai des brumes,” and a number of others, all written by Prevert.

But what brought his work to the minds of some of us old-timers by today’s Magpie prompt was of course his song “Les Feuilles mortes” – “Autumn Leaves” – especially as sung by Edith Piaf and Yves Montand. There were, of course, English versions, but I’ll stick with the original.
Prevert’s poetry holds up well today and is perfect for an October morn.
“C’est une chanson qui nous ressemble,
Toi, tu m’aimais et je t’aimais.”
It’s a song that resembles the two of us,
You, you who loved me and I who loved you.

“Et nous vivions tous deux ensemble,
Toi qui m’aimais, moi qui t’aimais.”
And the two of us lived together,
You who loved me and I who loved you.

“Mais la vie separe ceux qui s’aiment,
Tout doucement, sans faire de bruit.
Et la mer efface sur le sable
Les pas des amants desunis.”
But life separates those who love,
Softly, making no noise.
And the sea erases on the sand
The footprints of lovers who are no longer together.

Jacques Prevert, 1900-1977

Tuesday, October 5, 2010


“L” is for “Love”
My guess is that quite a number of folks will choose this word for “L Day,” so I thought I’d better try to come up with something a bit different.
Okay, how’s this?
We begin with a king – as often happens in a Shakespeare play. You know what kings are like…

When they pose for their portraits they’re often decked out in warlike mode, in full armour, ready to whup the enemy.
But this is about a different king, the King of Navarre, a different kind of king.

He was a king who was an intellectual, a scholar, a man, not to overdo it, of letters. And he came up with a plan, a wonderful idea – at least, it seemed like a good idea at the time.
He gathered three of his best lords-in-waiting around him to tell them of his plan.
I’m not sure just how pleased they were to learn that what the King had in mind was that the four of them were to swear an oath to scholarship. They were all to go off to a sort of retreat where they were to devote themselves solely to the pursuit of knowledge, study and research. Said the King: “Our court shall be a little Academe, still and contemplative in living art.”
However, this would mean fasting – not a very popular idea just for starters – but also, and far more important, they were to avoid any contact with women for three years.
Three years…
That should have allowed them to do quite a bit of homework. :-)
But before the plan could get well underway, politics entered the picture.

The Princess of France arrived to pay a state visit to the King. She arrived, as coincidence would have it, with three ladies-in-waiting, each of whom happened to be beautiful, delightful and charming.
You’ve pretty well figured out what happened next, right?

Each one of the King’s three henchmen quickly forgot about the oath and fell head over teakettle for one of the three ladies-in-waiting – who wouldn’t be doing any more waiting. :-)

And the King, of course, wound up with the Princess herself. The men found themselves using, when speaking with the ladies: “taffeta phrases, silken terms precise.”
All would have been well that ended well, but the ladies were suddenly called back to France. However, they very much wanted to see the guys again so they said they’d be back later. (It was kind of strange, since none of them was from Brooklyn, that they said, in effect, “Wait till next year!”)
And that, friends, was one of Will Shakespeare’s many takes on the word “Love,” from his play “Love’s Labour’s Lost.”
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