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Long Before “Wonder Woman,” How One Women-Only Show Nearly Went Wrong

Have you heard about the kerfuffle over the Alamo Drafthouse’s all-female screening of Wonder Woman? If not, you’re probably a well-adjusted human who doesn’t spend an inordinate amount of time on the internet (long story short, a respected independent movie theatre scheduled a screening of the upcoming superheroine flick for women only, and some grumpy men complained on social media). For the rest of us, it’s been a reminder of how a relative handful of trolls can cause a ruckus by trying to play on outdated ideas about gender.

But enough about them. The Wonder Woman flap reminded me of an anecdote from Melvina McKendrick’s indispensable Theatre in Spain, 1490-1700, in which another all-female show went very, very wrong. First, let’s provide some context: seating in theatres in Spain was generally divided by gender. Most theatre in Spain’s so-called Siglo de Oro, or “Golden Age,” took place in corrales, theatres constructed in the courtyards of residential buildings in the country’s urban centers. Because of their unique location, the corrales featured some unusual seating arrangements. The main area for the audience was called a patio, where theatregoers could stand and watch the show, much like the “groundlings” at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. There were also bleachers on either side, and, if you wanted a fancier, more private (and more expensive) seat, you could purchase an aposento, basically the equivalent of a luxury box at a modern-day stadium. Since the theatres were built in residential courtyards, this effectively meant that you were paying money to sit in someone’s home and to watch the play out of their windows. There were also a number of special seating areas, including the tertulia, which was reserved for clergymen.

As for women, they were not supposed to attend the theatre unaccompanied, so their seating options were a bit more limited. They weren’t allowed to go onto the patio at all, and they had to have a male family member with them to sit anywhere else. There was one exception: the special second-level gallery opposite the stage known as the cazuela. No men were allowed in here, which meant that unaccompanied women could sit there without fear of harassment or social stigma. That didn’t mean that there wasn’t still trouble: as McKendrick writes, “the women rattled keys against the railings” in the cazuela “and if one of Lope’s [i.e. the famous playwright Lope de Vega] loas [short introductory plays] is to be believed, never stopped talking and laughing.” Lope complained about the women being disruptive, but they had just as much – probably more – to complain of when it came to men pestering them, even in their supposedly safe space. McKendrick notes how men would let off stink bombs or release mice into the cazuela, “and from time to time some bright spark took it into his head to put on skirts and cause consternation by joining the women in the intimacy of their box (there were severe fines for this.”

The worst example of this came in 1656, when King Felipe (Philip) IV planned to open up the royal theatre, or Coliseo, for a women-only performance. This was a nicer, more prestigious venue than the main corrales in Madrid, though still open to the public. However, Felipe wasn’t doing this out of the goodness of his heart. According to McKendrick, the whole thing was meant as a nasty prank (she scolds in an aside that the king “should have known better”); once the performance was underway, he would let loose “over a hundred mice” into the audience. As pandemonium ensued, he and his queen would get to watch and snicker from behind a strategically-placed screen. Luckily, the plan never came to fruition, apparently because someone pointed out that the king’s tasteless joke might have very serious consequences, should any of the women in attendance be pregnant and miscarry in the midst of the rodent-induced panic.

Throughout theatre history, the question of whether or not women may attend the theatre, and with whom, has been a vexed question, and even when the answer is in the affirmative, each theatrical culture often has complex social codes dictating where they’re supposed sit and how they’re expected to behave. Of course, in some cases, they simply weren’t allowed in at all, as with ancient Athens. I supposed it might be some consolation to those currently protesting the Alamo Drafthouse’s decision to know that Western theatre effectively began in a male-only environment (women were barred from the stage as well as the audience). For the rest of us, it’s a reminder that, as valuable as the theatrical past might be to us, there’s a lot to celebrate when we consider how far we’ve come.

Sources:

History of the Theatre, Tenth edition, ed. Oscar G. Brockett & Franklin J. Hildy.

Theatre in Spain, 1490-1700, by Melveena McKendrick. All quotes from p. 192.

The image below is a view of the cazuela (the second-floor gallery) and tertulia (the top gallery) from the stage of the Corral de Comedias in Almagro. It’s the last corral still in existence from the seventeenth century, and it looks more or less the same as it did back when it was first constructed. Photo via Ciudad Almagro (link here)

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It’s been some time

Well, hello there. It’s been nearly two years since I last posted on this blog. Why is that? Simply put: there hasn’t been enough time. I’ve been working as an adjunct, keeping my Twitter and Facebook pages up to date, and, like, actually trying to spend time with my family.

However, I haven’t stopped writing. Indeed, I’ve expanded to launch the Theatre History Podcast, which has so far produced 32 wonderful episodes, which you can find here on HowlRound. I’ve also produced a number of blog posts, feature-length articles, and opinion pieces for outlets such as HowlRound, JSTOR Daily, American Theatre, and WBUR, as well as regular TV and theatre reviews for Critics at Large. I’ll list links to all of those pieces at the bottom of this post.

After two years of chasing after all of that stuff, I’m going to try and revive the blog. You’re probably going to see more posts about pieces that I’ve written or produced for other outlets, rather than original content, but this will give me a central repository for all of the work that I’m putting out there, as well as a place for me to share more personal thoughts and quirky material that’s entertaining and interesting but not substantial enough for publishing elsewhere.

The last two years have been something of an experiment in how to share knowledge and expertise through channels other than the usual ones (i.e. academic journals). I’m more convinced than ever that scholars need to keep doing this if we’re going to reach a critical mass of people. I see a lot about the growing importance of continuing education and lifetime learning, but it’s mostly couched in the context of teaching new technical skills to those who are being left behind by technological change and other economic and social shifts. If we can learn anything from the political turmoil in the United States over the past year, it’s that there’s a critical need for education in other fields, as well, especially when it comes to developing well-rounded citizens who understand and value the things that they encounter in the world around them.

However, I’ve also realized that it’s tough to justify doing all of this work when it’s not bringing in any money. That might sound crass and mercenary, but it’s also a cold, hard economic fact for people like me, who are scrambling from semester to semester to string together classes and, once they’re scheduled, to teach them well. Throw in other, even more important, obligations (did I mention family?) and having time to do unpaid writing begins to feel like a real luxury. I’m not going to even begin to wade into the controversy over how labor in higher education is undergoing drastic changes, but it does strike me that, if we’re going to produce work that’s accessible to a general audience (and therefore useful in our ongoing efforts to convince that audience that higher education is something that’s valuable and worth supporting), there has to be some sort of incentive structure in place to encourage and support scholars to do so.

So to sum up: I’m going to try and go back to periodically sharing quirky stuff from theatre and entertainment history, as well as updates about the Theatre History Podcast and other endeavors of mine. Check back here from time to time to see what’s going on, and, in the meantime, please check out some of the pieces that I’ve written over the past two years.

Links:

Dance Until You Die

Note: this is based off of some of the same material that appears in a chapter that I wrote for the Oxford Handbook of Dance and Theater. It’s substantially different from that chapter, but if you’re interested in that book, you can check it out here.

Antonin Artaud was, to put it mildly, a weird dude. However, somewhere in between the experimentation with peyote, the stint in a mental hospital, and appearing in a number of classic French films, he also formulated some of the most influential theories of the modern theatre. To wildly oversimplify, he wanted a theatre that tossed out rationality, emphasized images over highfalutin’ language, and forced people to overcome societal taboos and confront the cruelty of existence (“so…he didn’t write happy plays, then?” you ask). People thought that he was bonkers while he was alive (and not without cause!), but his ideas inspired much of the most wildly experimental theatre of the 1960s and onwards.

“Oh, you want a language-based theatre that delves into the complex psychology of its characters? OK, have fun with that.” Undated photo of Artaud, via Bibliotheque nationale de France.

One of the ideas that Artaud had involved the idea of creating a theatre that would spread like the plague. This wasn’t the same as some producer saying “We’ll have tweet seats, the show will go viral! I like saying meaningless buzzwords!” No, Artaud actually wanted to create something that would become a sort of artistic contagion, spreading throughout the populace. He was being fairly literal, since, among his other eccentricities, he wasn’t a big believer in the whole germ theory thing – he really thought that disease could spread by mystical, spiritual means (See Stanton Garner’s “Artaud, Germ Theory, and the Theatre of Contagion” in Theatre Journal, 2006).

The concept of theatre-as-plague was just one of Artaud’s many ideas that groups such as the Living Theatre incorporated into their work in the 1960s. Works like Paradise Now (which you can see a trailer for, in all of its 60s [and slightly NSFW] glory, here) aimed to help people break through societal restrictions – like, say, wearing clothes – through an infectious communal experience. This was a pretty positive view of the plague theatre, offering it as an irrational, exuberant experience that would lead to peaceful revolution and a better world.

But there’s a counter-example to this utopian vision, one based in medieval history, and it ain’t pretty.

On July 14, 1518, a Frau (Mrs.) Troffea began dancing uncontrollably in the streets of Strasbourg, in what’s now the far eastern part of France. She didn’t stop for six days. She also wasn’t alone for very long: the next month saw scores, possibly hundreds of people succumb to the same impulse (much of this comes from John Waller’s fascinating The Dancing Plague: The Strange, True Story of an Extraordinary Illness, which is worth checking out for a more detailed version of the story). Nor was this a happy-go-lucky street party. People cried out in fear and pain, unable to stop dancing no matter how much they might want to. Many seemed convinced that they were possessed by demons or other evil spirits. A number of the dancers died, overcome by exhaustion, dehydration, or some combination of related factors.

This wasn’t the first time that something like this had happened. Throughout the Middle Ages, parts of modern-day France, Germany, and the Low Countries had seen outbreaks of spontaneous dancing. As in the case of the Strasbourg outbreak, it wasn’t fun, and it could often be deadly. Waller estimates in his history of the 1518 case that “there could certainly have been several dozen deaths” in Strasbourg before the outbreak ended (Waller 139).

How did this spontaneous dance party from hell get started? Waller points to the possibility that it was a mass state of trance – the dancers caught the bug, so to speak, from seeing others and then became convinced that they couldn’t snap out of it. In other cultures around the world, such as Bali, trance is a totally normal thing, and there are established rituals and procedures for helping people transition into and out of that state. But the dancers in Strasbourg, according to Waller, had no framework for understanding what was going on, and that led to confusion, fear, and oftentimes fatal consequences.

There’s an obvious connection with Artaud, but the implications might not be 100% clear. On the surface, we can see the dancing plague as an illustration of Artaud’s theatre-as-plague concept, albeit a version that went horribly wrong. “Well,” you may say, “it is called the Theatre of Cruelty.” However, it’s the underlying circumstances of the Strasbourg dancing plague that suggest some darker implications for Artaud’s theories.

The dancing plague of 1518, as well as many of the earlier instances of similar events, seems to have been preceded by hardship in the form of natural disasters, outbreaks of actual plague, and peasant rebellions in the countryside. The people of Strasbourg were stressed, and probably deeply frightened about their future well-being. Waller argues that this made for a perfect combination of factors that could convince people like Frau Troffea that there was something seriously wrong, on a spiritual level, with them and their community, leading to the outbreak of mass hysteria that culminated in so many dead dancers.

Accounts of earlier outbreaks of dancing plague often mention that the dancers threatened priests and other religious figures nearby. This makes a certain amount of sense if you consider that many dancers thought that they were possessed by demons, but it might also be read as cover for expressing revolutionary sentiments against the church and other institutions of authority. However, it’s worth noting that, in all recorded cases, the outbreaks calmed down when figures from the religious hierarchy asserted itself and “cured” the dancers. In the Strasbourg case, leading the dancers to a ritual at the nearby shrine of St. Vitus proved the decisive moment in ending the outbreak.

Given this, it seems to me that the dancers weren’t so much expressing an unconscious desire for revolution as they were calling upon more traditional power structures to reassert their efficacy. They don’t appear to have wanted something new; they wanted the old order, warts and all, to show that it was still capable and in charge, and the plague only ended when it stepped up and did just that. For all that we want an Artaudian outbreak of theatre-plague to up-end the establishment, I find it striking that the best historical example that we can find sought to do the exact opposite.

Nor do we need to look as far back as the 16th century to find examples of Artaud’s theories in action that don’t sit very comfortably with us. When he wrote his theories in the 1930s, he was calling for a powerful director to create mass theatrical spectacles that would cause people to overthrow their reason and become part of a big, emotional crowd. As scholars such as Kimberly Jannarone have pointed out, the 30s had plenty of spectacles like these: the problem was that they were all organized by fascist regimes in Germany and Italy.

So Artaud’s demand for spectacles of cruelty (side note: I call dibs on that phrase for my band’s new name) is potentially much more dangerous than we might initially think. Furthermore, it suggests that there are certain aspects of our nature that we probably shouldn’t unleash: it’s all well and good to fight against the tyranny of clothes, but that same impulse can lead you a much darker place.

You Say “Shakespearean” Like It’s a Good Thing…

NOTE: If you haven’t watched Game of Thrones through the most recent episode, then beware that there are SPOILERS. I also discuss plot points in Shakespeare’s history plays, but if you’re worried about being “spoiled” on those, well, I just don’t know what to tell you.

Game of Thrones, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss’s adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire book series, has been dominating conversations about television and pop culture in general for five seasons now. However, many of the reactions to the most recent season of the show have begun to echo some of the criticisms leveled at the books. As this piece points out, much of the early acclaim for the franchise was based on the fact that Martin’s books and their TV adaptation subverted the audience’s expectations in terms of narrative and tone. No mainstream fantasy franchise had dared to be so dark and cynical, killing off virtuous heroes and dealing frankly with sex, violence, and moral shades of grey. However, there’s a growing perception that both the books and TV show have gone to the same well once too often, making the franchise seem more and more like a wallow in misery that tries to keep our interest with cheap shock tactics.

Given the growing ambivalence about Game of Thrones and its source material, it might seem like high praise to say that it echoes the work of Shakespeare. This isn’t exactly a new or controversial position, since countless articles have been making the comparison since the show premiered in 2011. It’s also somewhat true, as the show shares certain features with many Shakespearean history plays, such as a wide cast of characters and plots driven by intricate schemes aimed at seizing political power. However, I’m not so sure that the comparison is a flattering one, given that the last few books and the most recent season remind me in particular of the Henry VI plays. In fact, the similarities between the Game of Thrones franchise and the Henry VI cycle suggest to me that some of the broad parallels between the business of theatre in the 1590s and the television industry of our own time explain many of the creative shortcomings of both bodies of work.

It’s a bit misleading to speak of the Henry VI plays as a trilogy, at least in the sense of the word as we use it today, since there’s some debate over which plays were written when, and in what order. Only Part 1 has an original title that refers to Henry VI, while the other two were initially published under different titles. When the First Folio came out after Shakespeare’s death, it grouped all three together under Henry’s name. Still, all three plays do seem to have been written and staged within a fairly short span of time: there are references to all three in contemporary sources during a time when the theatres were shut down by plague, which means that they would have been written and performed between 1590, when some of their source material was published, and late June of 1592, when the pestilence hit. Furthermore, characters and plotlines carry over from play to play, inviting those audience members who might be familiar with an earlier installment to refer back to its events.

It’s common for those teaching the history of early modern English plays to liken them to today’s television – they were often collaborative efforts, they were produced fairly quickly, and they were considered a disposable art form that lived or died on popular acclaim or the lack thereof. It wasn’t uncommon for especially successful plays to spawn a sequel or two, which suggests that there was some appetite for multi-part storytelling of a sort roughly similar to a show like Game of Thrones.

Premium cable television and Elizabethan theatre are also roughly analogous in terms of their audience. Both are popular mediums, in the broad sense. Although, as Shakespeare scholar Andrew Gurr has noted, only about 15-20% of the population in and around London attended plays very often (Shakespearean Stage, 213), the people who did come represented a decently broad cross-section of upper- and middle-class society. HBO occupies a similar niche in today’s culture: it’s in about 35 million households, and those who don’t have it may be watching specific shows like Thrones via DVDs, piracy, or other means. In both the present-day TV industry and Shakespeare’s theatre, there was an imperative to produce work that would convince an audience with at least some disposable income to invest in a ticket or subscription.

The Henry VI plays are also like Game of Thrones in that they’re based on narratives with which their audience might already be somewhat familiar. It’s too much of a stretch to call the plays straight adaptations, in the way that the show adapts A Song of Ice and Fire. Still, Shakespeare (and his possible collaborators – for simplicity’s sake I’m referring to him as the author) pulled from works such as Holinshed’s historical chronicles and dramatized their events, albeit far more freely than Game of Thrones adapts the books. Even if Shakespeare’s audience hadn’t necessarily read his sources, many of them were familiar with the broad outlines of the story he was telling. Anytime that’s the case, it leads to certain expectations for the work, whether it be a play, TV show, or movie. Audiences are looking for the ways in which that work either meets or subverts those narrative expectations, and playwrights and showrunners alike are acutely aware of that fact, which dictates some of their most important choices in terms of writing and producing the work.

The Henry VI plays share some other narrative characteristics with Game of Thrones, most notably in the fact that their dramatic action spreads out over such a vast array of characters and locations that it leaves both the plays and the show without a firm center around which they can revolve. Although it can be fun to follow the vast array of plot complications, they tend to crowd out meaningful character development and can lead to storylines whose immediate relevance to the larger action isn’t always clear (I mean, seriously, when in the Seven Hells is Daenerys going to get to Westeros, already?). The Henry VI of the plays is a nonentity, starting out as a child king and failing to make much of an impression even once he’s grown up, so you can’t really pin a unified dramatic cycle on him. The action around him jumps between multiple feuds that are undermining the kingdom of England, leaving the realm weak and divided. The conflicts introduced in the first play build throughout the second and third, growing into a civil war that reaps a harvest of corpses, until the future Richard III kills King Henry himself in the wake of a final, decisive battle.

That’s the general arc of the trilogy’s overall plot, but within the individual plays, or even within single acts of those plays, characters tend to come and go so quickly that there aren’t many that we can latch onto and sympathize with, especially if you’re looking for a “good guy” to root for. In fact, Richard of York, who’s a title character in the first published version of Part 3 (the original title was The True Tragedie of Richard Duke of Yorke, and the death of good King Henrie the Sixt, with the Whole Contention betweene the two Houses Lancaster and Yorke – so…hey, maybe Henry VI, Part 3 isn’t such a bad title after all!), doesn’t last past the first act of that play. Perhaps the best example is Act 4 (and yes, I know the act structures were imposed on the text when they were printed, not when they were first performed) of 2 Henry VI, which sees an entire rebellion begin, fall apart, and end while the play’s other plot threads have yet to be resolved. The overall effect sometimes approaches the episodic nature of a TV show, in which an entire discrete dramatic arc can play out within a single installment. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing: Game of Thrones doesn’t do this as much as other shows, but it has at times, and to great effect. The introduction, development, and ultimate demise of the Wildling Karsi took less than half an episode, but her presence helped to make that Season 5 episode,  “Hardhome”, a series best.

I mean, seriously, call it
I mean, seriously, call it “Wars of the Roses: Electric Boogaloo,” *anything* other than this.

As with Game of Thrones, most of the characters in the Henry VI plays aren’t especially sympathetic. Most of the major figures are selfish schemers, trying to grab or hold onto power for themselves while the ineffectual king basically goes around wishing that everyone could have unlimited puppies and ice cream and just, you know, get along. Upstanding characters who actually try to serve the greater good, like Talbot in the first part or Gloucester in the second, tend to end up dead, and often long before the end of the play. Anyone who’s seen their share of noble Starks get offed before a season of Thrones comes to a close knows the feeling. The device of unexpectedly killing off the good guys can provide a sense of thrilling novelty at first, but I don’t think I’m the only one who, after a while, just wants the White Walkers or the Tudors or whomever to just swoop in from nowhere and wipe out all of these awful people, already.

In addition to similarities in terms of plot, both Thrones and the Henry VI plays also share a tendency towards violent sensationalism, which can lead to prioritizing the wow-did-you-see-that moment over more subtle surprises. It also gives the show, in particular, a tendency towards the sadistic. Now, a sadistic scene here or there can work well; as this piece points out in passing, even Lear has that horrific moment where Gloucester’s blinded onstage. But when the viciousness is as sustained as it is on Thrones, or in other lower-tier Shakespeare plays such as Titus Andronicus or the Henry VI cycle, it quickly becomes wearying. Even TV critics who remain positive about the show overall seem unanimous in their desire for Thrones to kill off the despicable Ramsay Bolton, who routinely flays and murders his victims, in what’s become one of the most off-putting strands of the larger narrative.

No one in the Henry VI plays has expertise in making coats out of human skin (at least that we’re aware of – God only knows what little Dickie Plantagenet is doing offstage before he turns into a kingslayer and the future Richard III), but there’s still a pretty ugly streak running through many characters’ actions. The rebel Jack Cade decapitates a noble lord and his son-in-law in the second play and parades their heads through the streets, telling his followers to make the severed heads kiss at every intersection. When would-be king Richard of York is defeated and captured in the third play, he’s made to wipe his brow with a handkerchief stained by the blood of his dead 12-year-old son (whom we saw slaughtered in the previous scene while begging for his life), has a paper crown placed on his head while being taunted by his enemies, and is finally stabbed to death, with a promise that his head will be mounted on the walls of the city of York. Granted, these events are sort of matters of historical record, assuming you accept Shakespeare’s sources as accurate, but he still chose to put these scenes in the script, when they could just as easily have been reported after the fact or glossed over entirely.

Damn, Queen Margaret, that's cold. Like, White Walker cold. 1777 print from the Folger Library.
Damn, Queen Margaret, that’s cold. Like, White Walker cold. 1777 print from the Folger Library.

Less sadistic but no less sensational are the scenes where characters conjure evil spirits to serve their purposes. It happens at least twice, first with Joan La Pucelle in Part 1, then with the Duke of Gloucester’s wife in Part 2. As with the brutal killings that I just mentioned, Shakespeare made a conscious choice to put these scenes onstage, and these events are arguably much less integral to the overall narrative, since they’re one-off events that don’t advance the plot in the ways that supernatural presences in roughly contemporary plays like Faustus or Macbeth do.

We know the character of Joan as Joan of Arc, and fact that she’s depicted in the first play as a whore who uses black magic to oppose the English demonstrates something about the overall tone of these plays, and how they bear yet another resemblance to Game of Thrones. The show has been criticized for wallowing in misery and displaying a cynical view of human nature. I’d argue that the plays do something similar, albeit not nearly to the same degree as the show. In both cases, a kingdom falls apart as the result of many people indulging their worst impulses, with those who try to do right and act for the greater good paying for their efforts with their lives. When the last Henry VI play ends, the title character is dead, the king who sits on the throne has a dubious claim to it, and his evil brother has already begun putting his plans in motion to seize power and destroy all who stand in his way. There’s the promise of Richard III’s eventual downfall for the audience to look forward to, but that’s so far in the future as to be irrelevant when the curtain goes down (figuratively speaking, of course, as there was no actual curtain that had to be raised and lowered in the public theatres of the time).

Good saint gone bad: Joan attempts to conjure some evil spirits in this 1795 print from the Folger Library.
Good saint gone bad: Joan attempts to conjure some evil spirits in this 1795 print from the Folger Library.

Despite the excessive sadism, sensationalism, and plot complications, both Game of Thrones and the Henry VI plays can still be pretty enjoyable. Nor are they bad commercial propositions: as The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare points out, the first Henry VI play (or one of them, anyway, it’s a little unclear) set a box office record for 1592. The plays aren’t done too often today, but they were popular enough that Shakespeare wrote three of them, plus Richard III, which usually stands alone but also continues some of the plotlines from Part 3 and has often been combined with some of the better speeches from that play. We’re mostly left to guess as to what made the Henry VI plays so popular with their audiences, since the Elizabethan era was a little short on bloggers and recappers who could collectively serve as a gauge of plays’ popularity (“What Titus Andronicus Gets Wrong About Chopping People Up and Serving Them In a Pie”), but I wouldn’t be surprised if their sensational qualities played a big role in their success. It is, in my considered scholarly opinion, usually pretty cool to see people conjure spirits and fight battles, even if it’s within the context of a dramatic work that doesn’t hang together especially well. In a similar manner, Game of Thrones has mastered the art of creating moments that spark enthusiastic discussion, whether it’s by the water cooler or on Twitter.

However, the fact that the Henry VI plays (probably) culminated in Richard III points to a final conclusion: at their best, popular forms such as the early modern English theatre or TV in the 21st century can also create something that’s more than just a collection of eye-popping moments. Yes, there are plenty of sensational deaths in Richard, but it also works much more cohesively in terms of characterization, plot, and style, among other elements. People may be talking about Game of Thrones now, and shelling out money for HBO subscriptions because of it, but I’m curious to see if it will be able to transcend its model of giving us shocking moments from scene to scene and instead develop in its final seasons into something of more lasting import.

Beauty and Horror: The History Behind Three Pamphlets

Looking back on the 1930s and the rise of the illustrious Group Theatre, Harold Clurman remembered the allure of the Soviet stage. He recalled in his book The Fervent Years how Lee Strasberg would have a Russian acquaintance read translations of “newly arrived publications about the recent Soviet theatre,” an experience which felt to him and his compatriots “as if some tale from a new Arabian Nights were being told” (The Fervent Years, 91). The Group Theatre’s house playwright, Clifford Odets, sprinkled a few admiring references to the Soviet project throughout plays such Waiting for Lefty, in which the unjustly-fired Dr. Benjamin comments that he has dreamed about going to Russia for “the wonderful opportunity to do good work in their socialized medicine” (Waiting for Lefty and Other Plays, 28). Nor was Clurman’s circle alone in its enthusiasm for the Soviet theatre and the society from which it sprang: Hallie Flanagan, the main force behind the Federal Theatre Project, was just one of the many Americans who brought some of its practices back to this country.

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This fascination in the United States with the Soviet theatre is illustrated by the three pamphlets (a gift from my dissertation advisor) that I’m featuring in this blog post. They advertise the opportunity to take guided tours of the Moscow Theatre Festival (spelled “theater” the first year) in 1933, 1934, and 1935, respectively. On one level, they’re simply fascinating documents of the Russian stage, since the tours encompassed most of the significant theatrical movements in the country at the time. However, a closer examination of the content of these pamphlets (combined, admittedly, with the benefit of historical hindsight) brings to light some more disturbing truths.

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The tour offers prospective travelers a theatre-goer’s dream: the chance to see work by great directors such as Konstantin Stanislavsky, Vsevolod Meyerhold, and Nikolai Okhlopkov, among others. The glossy pamphlets feature fascinating images of many major theatrical figures and, most tantalizingly, production photos from the program on offer. The agendas for all three tours feature many productions at the Moscow Art Theatre, the famous home of Stanislavsky, who by this point had become a revered figure among American actors and directors, even though he hadn’t been at the cutting edge of Russian theatre for years. There were other attractions, too, such as the exoticism of Aleksandr Tairov’s Kamerny Theatre or the vaunted Russian ballet and opera.

Not all of the program was devoted to theatre, at least not directly. The first festival tour, in 1933, lists a lecture by Anatoly Lunacharsky as the initial item on the agenda. Lunacharsky had been the People’s Commissar for Education up until 1929, when he lost the job as a result of Stalin’s consolidation of power. Lunacharsky had a reputation for being pretty tolerant, since he’d done his best to protect edgier artists such as Meyerhold, but it’s still striking to me that the very first thing that the American tourists were scheduled to hear or see was a lecture on the Soviet theatre by the former official in charge of overseeing and regulating that theatre.

There are other items on the three tours’ schedules that don’t immediately relate to theatre. For instance, the agenda for September 9, 1935, is a “Visit to the Museum of the Revolution and other social institutions such as marriage and divorce bureaus, people’s courts and institutes for the protection of mother and child.” It’s pretty clear that there was an obvious motive on the part of Stalin to use these trips for propaganda purposes, and not only in the sense of showing off the theatrical culture of 1930s Russia.

The more that I examined these pamphlets, the more I noticed some details about what had been included on or excluded from the program. For instance, all three pamphlets prominently display Meyerhold’s name and photo, but his eponymous theatre only appears on one of the three tours’ agendas, in 1934. This seems a bit odd, given that he was arguably the single most important director of the Soviet era; the 1933 and 1935 pamphlets’ implied promise that tourists would get to engage with the man and/or his work at some point in their travels seems like false advertising. I should say that I’m no expert on Soviet theatre, so there may be extenuating circumstances that I don’t know about, but I suspect that Meyerhold’s absence from all but one of these tours has something to do with the fact that he was clearly in disfavor with Stalin throughout the 1930s, despite his best efforts to toe the line and create work that was acceptable to the dictator.

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Other prominent theatre artists from the early Soviet period go completely unmentioned in this pamphlets, often for chilling reasons. For instance, none of them mention Vladimir Mayakovsky, the avant-garde poet and playwright who had a major impact on Soviet theatre in the 1910s and 20s but who then killed himself in 1930. Meyerhold’s productions of Mayakovsky’s last plays were a major reason that he remained in permanent disfavor with the authorities throughout the 1930s. Even more out-there, avant-garde artists such as Daniil Kharms, and other members of the OBERIU group to which he belonged, go unmentioned, and understandably so, since Stalin had Kharms arrested fairly recently.

By contrast, many of the productions that are in the pamphlets, while still exciting, are relatively tame. As I’ve mentioned, there’s a lot of stuff from the Moscow Art Theatre on offer. Part of this may have to do with Stanislavsky’s reputation in the United States, as well as the background of the person who led these tours. Stanislavsky was still a theatrical celebrity stateside, as his teachings inspired what would become known as Method acting. This was because most Americans hadn’t really had a chance to see his work until the 1920s, when he and the Moscow Art Theatre had toured with some of their best-known work, even though much of that work dated from 20+ years ago. Oliver Sayler, the leader of the 1930s tours, had been a major player in arranging for the MAT to come over to America in the 20s, so it makes sense that he’d focus on Stanislavsky and his organization.  Much of what’s playing at the MAT and the other theatres in these pamphlets are productions of older plays from the nineteenth century, or even as far back as Shakespeare. Most of the contemporary plays on the programs are in the vein of Socialist Realism, which by this point had become pretty much the only approved style in the USSR.

Socialist Realism can work very well in the hands of a playwright such as Clifford Odets. However, despite his scathing, insightful critiques of the American society, and his occasional praise for the Soviet system, Odets was very fortunate that he got to live and work in the United States, because it allowed him to include all sorts of nuance that wouldn’t have been allowed in the USSR. Eventually, playwrights under Stalin became incredibly restricted in terms of what they weren’t allowed to do: there could be no hint of criticism of the Soviet system, and indeed plays were ultimately supposed to be “conflictless”, since to depict conflict within that system might imply that there was something wrong with it. It’s odd, but one of the things that I’ve taken away from my time reading some of the most representative of these plays is that, for all of the horror and misery inflicted by authoritarian regimes such as Stalin’s, their effect on art is to make it banal and boring.

Under the surface of these plays, though, something far darker is going on. The best example comes from one of the major Socialist Realist plays from this period, Nikolai Pogodin’s Aristocrats, which was performed by Okhlopkov’s vaunted Realistic Theatre for the 1935 tour. It’s a weird play: a comedy (in terms of genre, that is) about likeable petty criminals who become better people through hard labor on a canal-building project. It’s set during the construction of the White Sea Canal, a major project to effectively link the Arctic Ocean to the Baltic Sea.

Aristocrats is an especially chilling piece of propaganda, because it whitewashes a project that led to the deaths of thousands. Anne Applebaum’s book on the gulag cites estimates that about 25,000 people perished building the White Sea Canal (Gulag: A History, 65). Even for those who survived, the reality was bleak: the lovably mischievous criminals of Pogodin’s play were, in truth, often hardened thugs whom the prison authorities used to terrorize and keep in line the political prisoners who formed the main population of the gulag. The canal that so many died to build ultimately proved a white elephant, barely used and eventually falling into disrepair.

As far as I know, there were no more tours after the 1935 one. 1936 marked the beginning of Stalin’s Great Purge, when hundreds of thousands of people would be slaughtered in a paroxysm of paranoia and terror. Among the victims were artists such as Meyerhold, who was arrested in 1939 on bogus charges and shot early in 1940. The repressive atmosphere that silenced and destroyed individuals like him only grew worse, and it wasn’t until long after Stalin’s death that the Russian theatre began to show even a glimmer of vitality again.

The fate of people like Meyerhold, and the hidden history behind plays like Aristocrats, point to what I ultimately find so troubling about these pamphlets: they’re a tantalizing glimpse, for theatre lovers both then and now, of an intriguing period in the development of a particular theatrical culture that helps to elide the horrors of the Soviet era. I can’t help but be fascinated by the images and descriptions of the plays and experiences offered on these tours, and I assume that those who went on these tours felt the same way. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to judge those people for buying into a system that led to the deaths of millions, but I worry that we’re just as susceptible to looking the other way when placed in situations like theirs. We want to believe that cultural events like the Moscow Theatre Festivals of the 1930s offer the hope of greater understanding between nations, but there’s always a risk that they will instead help to cover up the atrocities of those in power.

Back to the Blog

Hi folks, long time no see! This blog has lain dormant for some time, and I apologize for that, but sometimes life intervenes. This time, it took the form of my wife giving birth to a wonderful baby boy, not long after my last post. Now that I’ve finally found my footing as a dad (so. many. diapers.), I’m ready to get back at it.

Aw yeah, Liz Taylor, Thomas Hart Benton, and Paul Newman's steely blue eyes. From my personal collection.
Signet paperback edition of “Streetcar”.

So enough mushy family stuff, let’s talk theatre history. I’ve just got a quick bit for this entry, based on two great paperback covers for a pair of Tennessee Williams’s best-known plays. First and foremost, they’re just cool: I mean, how many plays can boast of having a Thomas Hart Benton painting (more on that in a second) or Elizabeth Taylor (see below) on their cover?

The original Benton painting hangs in the Whitney Museum in New York. It was specially commissioned by legendary producer David Selznick, whose wife Irene produced Streetcar and contributed to its massive success. As the museum’s description notes, it conveys the tense, sexually-charged nature of the pivotal poker night, which lent its name to Williams’s original title for the play.

However, the detail that I find most interesting is the price: up in the top left-hand corner, you can see that this copy sold for 50 cents. Yes, it was a prize-winning play, but as this cover indicates, Signet was marketing Streetcar as a lurid paperback. As Louis Menand writes in this piece, mass-market paperbacks like this one proliferated in the post-war years, as highbrow and lowbrow literature alike were published in affordable editions and stocked “in wire racks that could be conveniently placed in virtually any retail space,” rather than a bookstore. As a way of catching potential buyers’ eyes, works like 1984 got covers that were just as eye-catchingly racy as those for titles like Hitch-Hike Hussy, and a prospective book-buyer might well find them sitting next to one another on one of those wire racks. Given this tendency to use sex to sell books, it’s hardly surprising that the erotically-charged Benton painting was used for the mass-market edition of Streetcar. Benton might be a major artist, and Williams could boast of a Pulitzer, but the ideal customer reaction that the publisher seems to have been looking for here was “Hm, this might be interesti- OH HEY NIPPLES!”

Then there’s this paperback edition of Williams’s later hit Cat On a Hot Tin Roof:

FACT: Paul Newman's piercing gaze could cut through steel.
FACT: Paul Newman’s piercing gaze could cut through steel.

There’s a similar dynamic at play here in terms of sex; why else do you have a lightly-clad Elizabeth Taylor sitting on a bed? But the other notable thing about this is its reliance on the stars of the movie adaptation to catch potential readers’ attention. As Menand notes, part of the reasoning behind the rise of cheap paperbacks may have been to titillate customers into reading a book rather spending their time at the movies instead. At the same time, there seems to be an implicit admission here that movies had come to occupy a more prominent place in the popular culture than theatre. Ben Gazzara, the original Brick on Broadway, apparently just wasn’t going to sell as many copies as Paul Newman.

Both of these paperbacks are representative of the particular time and place in which Williams achieved his greatest successes. Few “straight” plays on Broadway today have the cultural currency that Streetcar or Cat had back then. Clybourne Park and August: Osage County are well-known, but I wouldn’t expect to see copies for sale outside of a regular bookstore. To my mind, this reflects the increasing fragmentation of our culture. A Broadway hit on the scale of Streetcar could dominate the attention of a more monolithic culture in a way that it couldn’t today. That’s not necessarily an entirely bad thing: I’m not the first to note that just about anyone who isn’t a straight, white male doesn’t have much cause to be nostalgic about many aspects of the 1940s and 50s. However, it is arguably reflective of the fact that theatre fandom has become, if not exactly a sub-culture, then only one of many options available to us in terms of art and entertainment.

It’s a Horse, Of Course

Currier & Ives print of racehorse named after Edwin Forrest. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Currier & Ives print of racehorse named after Edwin Forrest. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

We all love our celebrities. But would you name your car after one? Your boat? A fire engine? In nineteenth-century America, theatre fans did this all the time. You can see one example in the picture above, which is named after Edwin Forrest, who’s been called “the first star of the American stage” by biographer Richard Moody.

Mid-19th-century portrait of Edwin Forrest. Courtesy of the Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University.
Mid-19th-century portrait of Edwin Forrest. Courtesy of the Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University.
Caricature of Edwin Forrest in the role of Spartacus. Courtesy of the University of Washington Libraries.
Caricature of Edwin Forrest in the role of Spartacus. Courtesy of the University of Washington Libraries.

Forrest was used to having people name things after him. Historian Bruce McConachie notes that the actor found his name attached to “steamboats, racehorses, fire engines, and locomotives,” amongst other such “objects of power and danger.” (Melodramatic Formations, p. 70-1) You can get a sense of why this was so when you look at the above caricature of Forrest as Spartacus. To put it in technical scholarly terms, dude was jacked.

In fact, many people made fun of Forrest because it sometimes seemed that his muscles were pretty much all he had going for him in terms of theatrical ability. He didn’t make much of a hit when he crossed the pond to England, and the resulting hurt feelings eventually contributed to one hell of a disaster back in New York (I’ll be writing a post about that incident in May, closer to the anniversary of said disaster). Forrest had a bunch of Shakespearean roles in his repertoire, but the roles in which he really seemed to excel were melodramatic ones, like Spartacus (no, not this Spartacus) and especially Metamora, a doomed but heroic Native American chief.

An older Forrest as Metamora, c. 1861. Man, time can be *rough* on an aging actor. Courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library.
An older Forrest as Metamora, c. 1861. When he was younger (the 1820s and 30s), the role brought him fame and fortune, but as this pic shows, man can time be *rough* on an aging actor. Courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library.

At any rate, it was these roles in melodrama, which mostly emphasized displays of Forrest’s rugged physicality rather than his acting ability, that were his bread and butter. Not everyone liked him, but those who did tended to identify with his brand of strong masculinity (to get a good sense of what it was like to see Forrest in his prime, and on home turf, read this reminiscence by Walt Whitman). Fire companies, in particular, tended to support Forrest. These were rough-and-tumble guys, whose methods could be more than a little shady (don’t believe me? take a look here), but they embraced the man who played Metamora as one of their own.

Forrest wasn’t by any means alone in having things named after him – the English expatriate actress Fanny Kemble, who was about as far away from Forrest as one could get in terms of refinement and femininity, had at least a few racehorses here and there named after her. The wider phenomenon, though, is something that hasn’t really survived into our present day. Sure, if you’re ever able to afford a private yacht, you may fantasize about naming it the “Chris Hemsworth” (“BECAUSE HE’S A DREAMBOAT!” you say), but for legal and other reasons (I mean, it’s a little stalker-y, right?), that’s not something people do nowadays.

Perhaps this is the case because celebrity culture pervades our lives so thoroughly these days that we don’t need these points of contact to make us feel that sense of closeness to our favorite actors, singers, or other notables. It also reflects other changes in our society: those fire companies, for instance, were private, volunteer organizations, and they could collectively name their engine whatever they wanted.

So that particular tradition is dead and gone, along with that racehorse named “Edwin Forrest”. Let’s take a moment to reflect on the passing of time, to the accompanying strains of a memorial to another notable horse. Take it away, Andy Dwyer: