Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for the ‘Theater’ Category

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

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

Written by nevalalee

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”

Written by nevalalee

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.

Hamilton in Camelot

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John F. Kennedy and family

A few months after her husband’s assassination, in a famous profile published in Life magazine, Jacqueline Kennedy said to the journalist Theodore White:

When Jack quoted something, it was usually classical, but I’m so ashamed of myself—all I keep thinking of is this line from a musical comedy. At night, before we’d go to sleep, Jack liked to play some records; and the song he loved most came at the very end of this record. The lines he loved to hear were: Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot…There’ll be great presidents again, and the Johnsons are wonderful, they’ve been wonderful to me—but there’ll never be another Camelot.

As others have pointed out, despite its self-conscious air of candor—”I’m so ashamed of myself”—this was a deliberate attempt to create a new myth. After the interview, Sorenson dictated a draft of his copy over the phone to his editors, who were standing by to run the article in the magazine. At first, they indicated that the reference to Camelot should be cut, but Mrs. Kennedy, who was standing nearby, signaled to White to keep it in. Much later, White expressed regret over his role in the legend’s creation, describing it as “a misreading of history.” But few of the myths that we make for ourselves are entirely true, or accidental.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Camelot myth, and how it applies to Barack Obama. It seems fairly clear that one of Donald Trump’s first priorities will be to roll back most of his predecessor’s signature achievements. He can’t unkill Osama Bin Laden, but he can take back just about everything else. Some of it will be to fulfill his campaign pledges; some will be to appease his supporters on the right; and some, I think, will simply be because it’s easier to destroy than to create. Trump is highly unlikely to deliver on even a fraction of what he has promised, but it’s possible to give an impression of action from the blunt, unthinking negation of policies that were the product of years of negotiation and compromise. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to prepare ourselves for the systematic reversal of most of the progressive agenda from the last quarter of a century. Trump may only be able to hang onto his majorities in the House and Senate until the next midterm election, but two years is more than enough to undo the work of twenty. This means that Obama’s legacy is less likely, as once seemed possible, to resemble that of a president like Roosevelt, who left a permanent impact on our ideas of government and its obligations, than that of Kennedy, who symbolizes nothing so much as unfulfilled potential. Obama was in office longer than Kennedy, did far more, and wasn’t silenced by a bullet. But as time passes, I have a hunch that his presidency will feel just as much like a dream.

President Barack Obama

But even that dream is worth preserving. Trump can take away almost everything, but I refuse to let him take away what Obama meant to me—an emblem of class, elegance, humor, and empathy that often felt too good to be true even in the moment. He wasn’t perfect. It took him a while to get the hang of the office. But on the whole, it was a balancing act that embodied everything I wanted a man to be. Trump may imperil the future, but it would be just as tragic if he reached backward to poison the past. You could argue that the myth of Camelot actually damaged the progressive movement in America: it made the ideals of liberalism seem like something unattainable, casting them in magical or nostalgic terms that could never be replicated, or as a matter of style rather than of hard choices. That’s a fair point, and at a time when so much real work remains to be done, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to romanticize Obama into something that we won’t see again. But Jacqueline Kennedy—who, notably, later became a very successful editor in her own right—understood that an alternative myth was necessary to keep her husband’s memory from being overwhelmed by its horrific end, as well as to nurture more practical goals. And if turning the Obama administration into something like Camelot is what I need to freeze those precious, fragile emotions against the day when I can use them again, then I’ll do it. And I’ll be as deliberate about it as possible.

Of course, Obama’s musical wasn’t Camelot, but Hamilton. I’ve been listening to Hamilton practically nonstop for the last few months: my daughter likes to hear it at bath time, and one of its discs always begins to play whenever I start my car. Not surprisingly, my reactions to it have served as an index to my feelings about this election. There were times when I listened to it with a sense of triumph, mixed with a vague fear that it would turn out to be tragically premature: “Immigrants—we get the job done!” And it’s hard for me to even think of Hamilton’s closing lines:

Legacy, what is a legacy?
It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see
I wrote some notes at the beginning of a song someone will sing for me
America, you great unfinished symphony, you sent for me
You let me make a difference, a place where even orphan immigrants
Can leave their fingerprints and rise up…

Even before the election was over, it was impossible to listen to “One Last Time,” sung by Chris Jackson as George Washington, and not think of Obama. Its resonance now is more bittersweet than I imagined it would be. I’m content, just barely, with allowing him to go home to his own vine and fig tree. But he’s still here. And like Arthur, the once and future king, Obama—or what he represents—will return one day. It’s only a matter of time.

Written by nevalalee

November 10, 2016 at 8:51 am

The importance of pretense

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Thornton Wilder

The history of the theatre shows us that in its greatest ages the stage employed the greatest number of conventions. The stage is fundamental pretense and it thrives on the acceptance of that fact and in the multiplication of additional pretenses. When it tries to assert that the personages in the action “really are,” really inhabit such and such rooms, really suffer such and such emotions, it loses rather than gains credibility. The modern world is inclined to laugh condescendingly at the fact that in the plays of Racine and Corneille the gods and heroes of antiquity were dressed like the courtiers under Louis XIV; that in the Elizabethan age scenery was represented by placards notifying the audience of the location; and that a whip in the hand and a jogging motion of the body indicated that a man was on horseback in the Chinese theatre; these devices did not spring from naïveté, however, but from the vitality of the public imagination in those days and from an instinctive feeling as to where the essential and where the inessential lay in drama.

The convention has two functions: 1. It provokes the collaborative activity of the spectator’s imagination; and 2. It raises the action from the specific to the general. This second aspect is of even greater importance than the first…The stage continually strains to tell this generalized truth and it is the element of pretense that reinforces it. Out of the lie, the pretense, of the theatre proceeds a truth more compelling than the novel can attain, for the novel by its own laws is constrained to tell of an action that “once happened”—”once upon a time.”

Thornton Wilder, “Some Thoughts on Playwriting”

Written by nevalalee

October 16, 2016 at 7:30 am

The long and the short of it

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Dorothy Comingore in Citizen Kane

One of the greatest compliments that we can pay to any story is that it seems shorter than it actually is. It’s obviously best for a narrative to be only as long as it has to be, and no more, which means that the creator needs to be willing to cut wherever necessary. (Sometimes it’s even better if these time or length limits are imposed from the outside. I’ve always maintained that Blue Velvet, my favorite American movie ever, was tremendously improved by a contractual stipulation that forced David Lynch and editor Duwayne Dunham to cut it from three hours down to two. And as much as I’m enjoying the streaming renaissance on Netflix, I sometimes wish that the episodes of these shows were shorter: without a fixed time slot, there’s no incentive to trim any given installment, and a literal hour of television tends to drag toward the end.) But it’s nice when a movie, in particular, grips us so completely that we don’t realize how long we’ve been watching it. I still remember being so absorbed by Michael Mann’s The Insider that I was startled to realize, when I checked my watch after the screening, that it was two and a half hours long: I would have guessed that it was closer to ninety minutes. And you only need to compare the experience of watching the original cut of Seven Samurai with, say, four episodes of the second season of True Detective to realize that three and a half hours can be something very different in subjective and objective time.

But there’s another storytelling trick that deserves just as much attention, which is the ability to make a short work of art seem longer. I’m not talking about the way in which even a twenty minutes of a bad sitcom can seem interminable, but of how a story can somehow persuade us that we’ve lived through a longer and more meaningful experience than seems possible to encompass within a limited timeframe. On some level, this is an illusion that you encounter in most narratives of any kind: with the exception of the rare works designed to unfold in real time, we’re asked to believe that the relatively short period that it takes to physically view or read the story really covers days, weeks, or months of action, and occasionally much longer. Many biopics, for instance, ask us to go through an entire lifetime in a couple of hours, and the fact that the result is usually so unsatisfying only indicates how hard it is to pull this off. But it has a greater chance of succeeding when it uses our perceptions of time to convince us, in a pleasurable way, that we’ve seen and felt more than could be packed into a single sitting. We could start with Citizen Kane, which is exactly a minute short of two hours long—which, like Blue Velvet, probably reflects an attempt to meet a contractually mandated length. Yet more than any other movie, it feels like a full picture of a man’s life, and the fact that it asks us to assemble Kane’s story from the fragments of other people’s memories offers a very important clue as to how this kind of thing works.


Because one of the best ways to create a subjective impression of length is through contrasts: the alternation of big and little, loud and soft, fast and slow. I got to thinking about this while listening to “Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down),” which is one of the two or three best songs in Hamilton. It’s as epic a number as you could imagine, and it leaves you feeling as if you’ve lived through an unforgettable experience, but it lasts just four minutes. In his notes in Hamilton: The Revolution, Lin-Manuel Miranda explains how it works:

Part of the inspiration for the structure of “Yorktown” is what I call the “Busta Rhymes soft-loud-soft technique. On countless songs, Busta will give you the smoothest, quietest delivery and then full-on scream the next verse. It makes for a delightful tension and release, and it’s entirely vocal. Same here. “I have everything I wanted but I can’t die today / We’re going into battle / Here’s what my friends are doing / Hercules Mulligan!” Thank you and God bless you, Busta Rhymes.

It isn’t hard to see why this kind of alternation creates an impression of length, in the much same way that we find with the experiments with chronology in Kane. With every transition, the listener has to readjust, and the mental effort of these regroupings draws out our perception of time passing. The switching costs of moving from one moment to the next allow the story to do with a juxtaposition what would otherwise require a pause. As the old proverb says, a change is as good as a rest.

And this phenomenon emerges from something fundamental in how our brains are wired. As the neurologist David Eagleman says about the perception of time in everyday life:

When our brains receive new information, it doesn’t necessarily come in the proper order. This information needs to be reorganized and presented to us in a form we understand. When familiar information is processed, this doesn’t take much time at all. New information, however, is a bit slower and makes time feel elongated.

In other words, it takes a while for the brain to process new information, leading to a subjective impression of extended time. It’s why travel or a change of scenery can make our lives seem to slow down, and why we’re advised to use surprise or variety to keep the days from turning into a blur. The real challenge for artists is to combine different kinds of time within the same narrative. A movie or book that consists of nothing but action will quickly become boring, and so will a string of talky interior scenes. If you can speed it up and slow it down in the right proportions, the result, at its finest, will make you feel as if you’ve lived a rich, fulfilling life over the course of two hours. Hamilton does this beautifully. So does Kane—and you could even argue that the best reason to use a nonlinear narrative, rather than as a gimmick, is the ability it presents to treat time as a tool. You’re not just painting a picture; you’re asking the audience to assemble a puzzle. And it helps to use different kinds of pieces.

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