Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for the ‘Theater’ Category

Quote of the Day

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The word “show” suggests that you’re revealing something. It doesn’t suggest finding. And because I do what I do every day, I have to make sure that the showing of things is in itself the seeking for things.

Es Devlin, on the television series Abstract

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May 24, 2017 at 7:30 am

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The right number of syllables

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I remember one of [Groucho Marx’s] lines on my morning show that was widely quoted, and stolen by unknown comedians and by one or two well-known ones. We had discussed the musical Hair for a moment. It had just opened, and because it contained Broadway’s first frontal nude scene with both sexes there was a lot of talk about it. I asked Groucho if he had seen it, and I knew he did not have a prepared answer. I saw the machinery whir for a split second, and he said, “No. I was going to see it, but I went home, took off my clothes, looked at myself in the mirror, and saved seven dollars.” The audience roared, and the line sped round the country and into several nightclub acts. Sitting that close, I could see that the suddenness of the line and the laugh surprised him for a tenth of a second. Then he calmly put his cigar in his mouth and waited out the laugh. The figure he chose for the price of an orchestra seat was of course not the correct figure, but it had the right number of syllables for the joke.

Dick Cavett, Cavett

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May 13, 2017 at 7:30 am

Quote of the Day

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May 10, 2017 at 7:30 am

Quote of the Day

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March 20, 2017 at 7:30 am

The soprano’s hairpins

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Maria Jeritza

Shortly after her debut, [Maria] Jeritza sang her second role—Tosca. She had a bit of stage business, a little scheme of her own, that wowed the audience. During the struggle with Baron Scarpia…she rolled off the couch in his apartment with such reality and yet with such grace that again the audience gasped aloud. And then they oh’d and ah’d as her great mass of gorgeous gleaming golden hair came tumbling about her. Jeritza herself had been preparing for this dramatic moment while singing, touching her hair caressingly now and then, unloosening a hairpin and allowing it to slip to the stage floor. The last few and important pins came out in the struggle with Scarpia, and a shake of the head achieved the wonderful effect at just the proper moment.

I used to watch this performance with the keenest delight, keeping close watch to see the pins slide unnoticed to the floor, and then quickly looking at the faces in the front rows of the orchestra to see if anyone had taken notice—but no one ever seemed to catch on. It was truly an act of legerdemain.

—Helen Noble, Life With the Met

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March 4, 2017 at 7:30 am

The algebra of wrestling

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Roland Barthes

The logical conclusion of the contest does not interest the wrestling fan, while on the contrary a boxing match always implies a science of the future…The function of the wrestler is not to win; it is to go exactly through the motions which are expected of him. It is said that judo contains a hidden symbolic aspect; even in the midst of efficiency, its gestures are measured, precise but restricted, drawn accurately but by a stroke without volume. Wrestling, on the contrary, offers excessive gestures, exploited to the limit of their meaning. In judo, a man who is down is hardly down at all, he rolls over, he draws back, he eludes defeat, or, if the latter is obvious, he immediately disappears; in wrestling, a man who is down is exaggeratedly so, and completely fills the spectators with the intolerable spectacle of his powerlessness…

It is obvious that at such a pitch, it no longer matters whether the passion is genuine or not. What the public wants is the image of passion, not the passion itself. There is no more a problem of truth in wrestling than in the theatre. In both, what is expected is the intelligible representation of moral situations which are usually private. This emptying out of interiority to the benefit of its exterior signs, this exhaustion of the content by the form, is the very principle of triumphant classical art. Wrestling is an immediate pantomime, infinitely more efficient than the dramatic pantomime, for the wrestler’s gesture needs no anecdote, no decor, in short no transference in order to appear true.

Every moment in wrestling is therefore like an algebra which instantaneously unveils the relationship between a cause and its effect. Wrestling fans certainly experience a kind of intellectual pleasure in seeing the moral mechanism function so perfectly…When the hero or the villain of the drama, the man who was seen a few minutes earlier possessed by moral rage, magnified into a sort of metaphysical sign, leaves the wrestling hall, impassive, anonymous, carrying a small suitcase and arm in arm with his wife, no one can doubt that wrestling holds that power of transmutation which is common to the Spectacle and to Religious Worship. In the ring, and even in the depths of their voluntary ignominy, wrestlers remain gods because they are, for a few moments, the key which opens Nature, the pure gesture which separates Good from Evil, and unveils the form of a Justice which is at last intelligible.

Roland Barthes, “The World of Wrestling”

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February 12, 2017 at 7:30 am

“Now show me something else…”

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Richard Burton in Hamlet

In 1964, John Gielgud directed Richard Burton in a famous stage production of Hamlet, in a collaboration that inspired intense interest, record box office, and mixed reviews. (The story goes that Burton and Peter O’Toole had agreed that they should each play Hamlet under the direction of either Gielgud or Laurence Olivier, with a coin toss deciding who ended up with whom.) In the book John Gielgud: A Celebration, we hear of a surprising piece of advice that the director gave to his actors:

William Redfield, the actor playing Guildenstern, revealed that he and others in the cast were alarmed to find that Gielgud as a director didn’t concern himself with “the play’s circumstances but only with its effects.” Gielgud quoted his old mentor Harley Granville-Barker to them in an attempt to encourage them to pace, shape, and color their performance rather than relying exclusively on circumstance and absolute psychological truth. “Granville-Barker once said to me, ‘You’ve already shown me that—now show me something else.’ It was a wonderful direction for me because I tend to be monotonous. After that, I always made sure that each scene I played had a different color, a new shape. Even the lines should change every few moments or so. If I do one line this way, then the next should be that way, and then the next should change and the next. It’s good to keep the audience off balance, you know—always interested—perhaps even a bit confused.”

Gielgud obviously deserves to be taken seriously, but it still comes off as a peculiar piece of direction. It helps, perhaps, to remember the context. In the early sixties, the influence of Brando, Lee Strasberg, and the Method school of acting—which was nothing if not concerned with “circumstance and absolute psychological truth”—was at its peak. What Gielgud is advocating here is a return to the classic British tradition of fakery, in which a few good tricks of voice, gesture, and mannerism go a long way. As Olivier put it: “I’m afraid I do work mostly from the outside in. I usually collect a lot of details, a lot of characteristics, and find a creature swimming about somewhere in the middle of them.” (The two great living masters of this approach are Anthony Hopkins, and, notably, Kevin Spacey, an American who outdoes even his British predecessors when it comes to sheer technical cleverness.) What Gielgud proposes is even more mechanical. In asking that each line reading be a little different from the one before it, he comes precariously close to endorsing the “superficial variety” that the Futurists saw as a feature of the theater of imbeciles:

For instance, to make one act a day, another an evening, another deep night; to make one act pathetic, another anguished, another sublime…Or else have the actors constantly move around from sitting to standing, from right to left, and meanwhile vary the dialogue to make it seem as if a bomb might explode outside at any moment…when actually nothing is going to explode until the end of the act.

Richard Burton and John Gielgud

But it’s important to remember the point of the exercise. Gielgud wants the audience to be “always interested—perhaps even a bit confused,” which is the ideal state for watching a play, particularly Shakespeare. As anyone who has ever seen a bad production of Hamlet can attest, if you aren’t actively engaged by it, all of that rich, overly familiar language has a way of smearing together into one long Elizabethan blur. Gielgud’s approach is designed to keep the audience awake, and also to create the optimum degree of alertness for processing the reversals of the dialogue. Shakespeare uses contradiction as a practical tool: his characters, especially Hamlet, are always questioning and overhearing themselves, and the mood can change drastically within a single line. When Hamlet says “About, my brain!”, he’s only drawing attention to his own rapid twists of emotion and perception. (In many cases, those quick tonal shifts stand for the larger patterns of the drama itself. At the beginning of The Winter’s Tale, when Leontes switches so unexpectedly from warmth toward his wife and friend to icy jealousy, it sets us up for the even greater contrast between the scenes in Sicilia and Bohemia.) But it takes a certain attentiveness for this to register, and Gielgud’s approach amounts to a kind of training for the audience, so that it becomes more aware of the variety in the text itself.

And like all the best theatrical tricks, it ultimately forces the actor and director to go deeper, until they arrive at the same psychological truth that the Method sought from a different direction. Elsewhere, Gielgud listed the essential qualities of a Shakespearean director:

Industry, patience…sensitivity, originality without freakishness, a fastidious ear and eye, some respect for, and knowledge of, tradition, a feeling for music and pictures, color and design: yet in none of these, I believe, should he be too opinionated in his views and tastes. For a theatrical production, at every stage of its preparation, is always changing, unpredictable in its moods and crises.

This kind of flexibility is crucial for finding the truth of a scene, and the remarkable thing about the tonal experimentation that Gielgud encouraged in his actors is that, when honestly pursued, it leads to the exact mindset that he describes above. You can’t be too dogmatic or opinionated when you’ve been conditioned to try something different each time. Not every experiment pays off, but in the process, you’ve turned yourself into a machine for generating variations, and the best ones survive, in a kind of natural selection, to live on in performance. The result, which proceeds from the outside in, looks a lot like what the Method discovered by going from the inside out. And as long as the result is truthful, it doesn’t matter how you got there.

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