Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Stop Wondering Already

Oh all right. I'm seeing Jude Law's Hamlet this weekend.

But only because I'm getting comped in by the producers. They seem to think that a positive review from me might help business.

The last time I gave a play a positive review was when I saw Marlowe's The Maid's Holiday. Bets thing he ever wrote. Two days later it got censored, a week later all its copies were destroyed, and today only Marlowe scholars know the name of it.

That's what a positive review from me will do to a play.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

In Case You Were Still Wondering

Everybody keeps asking me when I’m going to see Jude Law’s Hamlet.

I have no intention of seeing Jude Law’s Hamlet, or anybody else’s Hamlet for that matter.

I will not see another production of Hamlet until somebody actually does the play I wrote, as opposed to the play that a bunch of stage-illiterate professors have created from the various drafts of what I wrote.

Monday, November 2, 2009

In Case You Were Wondering

Everybody keeps asking me if I’ve seen Jude Law’s Hamlet.

The answer is: “No.”

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Twelfth Night in the Park: Part 2

During the intermission, I do an interview with an entertainment reporter from New York 1. This is the complete transcript:

INTERVIEWER: So -– have you met Anne Hathaway?
ME: Are you kidding? I married Anne Hathaway!
INTERVIEWER: I meant this Anne Hathaway.
ME: Ah. No. Not yet. But I did send her a note backstage.
INTERVIEWER: Really! Can I ask what you wrote in the note?
ME: Of course you can.
INTERVIEWER: So, uhm, uhh, what did you write in the note?
ME: I’m not telling.
INTERVIEWER: Was it a poem?
ME: Why would I write her a poem?
INTERVIEWER: Because you’re a poet.
ME: No, I’m an actor.
INTERVIEWER: But you wrote in blank verse.
ME: Blank verse is not poetry. Blank verse is dialogue.
INTERVIEWER: So what kind of dialogue would you like to have with Anne Hathaway?
ME: Something actor to actor.
INTERVIEWER: Actor to actor then –- if she asked you, “What do you think of this production?” what would you say?
ME: I would say, I love outdoor theatre. But I’m biased. I spent most of my professional life performing outdoor theatre.
INTERVIEWER: You mean writing for outdoor theatre.
ME: No, I mean performing. The writing was just a way to make more money. Acting was what I did seven days a week. Well, all right, six. They didn’t let us perform on Sundays, unless we got a special license.
INTERVIEWER: What else do you like about tonight’s production?
ME: The fact that all the actors are in the same play. You’d be surprised at how rare this is. The live music. The singing. I love Orsino and Viola singing along to “Come Away Death.” I love it because it fits the mood. I love it because it says something very specific about each character. I love it because it says these characters share something between them, whether they know it or not. And I love it because it’s what we used to do when we created or assigned parts in a play. We said “What can you do?” and staged the scene to highlight to the talents of each actor. Which is what Dan Sullivan is doing tonight. You have actors who can sing in the cast? Then find a way to get them singing. Makes me want to write more songs.
INTERVIEWER: And Anne Hathaway's performance?
ME: I still have a hard time seeing women play the female parts in my plays. But I think she's doing a wonderful job.
INTERVIEWER: Is there anything you don’t like about the play?
ME: The fact that my son never lived to see it. He was a twin. He and Judith.
INTERVIEWER: So you wrote the part with him in mind?
ME: Oh yes. I wrote it with my son in mind, and I wrote it for his uncle Edmund to play.
ME: My brother Edmund.
INTERVIEWER: He was an actor?
ME: He was a very good actor. Who knows how far he would have gone, if he hadn’t died of the plague? Actually, I know how far. I wrote the part of Edmund in Lear for him. In the first draft he was called something completely different. Can’t even remember now what it was. But after he died? It was always Edmund.
INTERVIEWER: And you wrote Sebastian for him?
ME: Of course. Same way I wrote Antonio for myself.
INTERVIEWER: So you acted in the original production of Twelfth Night?
ME: Oh yes. All the sharers did.
INTERVIEWER: And you played Antonio?
ME: I always played the Antonio parts. This play, Merchant of Venice, . . .
INTERVIEWER: You played Antonio in Merchant of Venice?
ME: You're having a hard time with this, aren't you.
INTERVIEWER: That’s a rather large role for you, isn’t it?
ME: Not as large as Iago.
INTERVIEWER: You played Iago?
ME: Well of course. If you wrote Iago, wouldn’t you want to play him?
INTERVIEWER: I’m sorry, I’m having a hard time with this.
ME: I know, I know -- everybody says I was a writer first and an actor second. Everybody meaning a bunch of old men who think that I scribbled those plays to be read rather than performed, and revised, and ad-libbed around, and generally treated like, oh, the written equivalent of a trampoline. I didn’t write plays for them to be read; I wrote them for actors to perform.
INTERVIEWER: So what other parts did you play?
ME: Prospero, of course. Buckingham. Jacques. The Friar in Romeo & Juliet. Don Pedro in Much Ado. Banquo in The Play We Don’t Mention. Claudius.
ME: And the Ghost of Hamlet’s Father.
INTERVIEWER: So, if you were doing Hamlet tomorrow, say, would you cast Anne Hathaway as Ophelia?
ME: “Cast.” Oh yes, that thing you do now where an actor gets jobbed in to play a part. We never did that. We assigned parts. Or else the parts were written with the actors in mind.
INTERVIEWER: So who was Ophelia written for?
ME: Lauren Ambrose.

And this is what gets broadcast later that night:

INTERVIEWER: So -– have you met Anne Hathaway?
ME: No. Not yet. But I did send her a note backstage.
INTERVIEWER: Really! Can I ask what you wrote in the note? Was it a poem?
ME: I’m not telling. But I think she's doing a wonderful job.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Twelfth Night in the Park: Part 1

June 20, 2009. To the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park to see the Public’s Me-In-The-Park production of Twelfth Night with that young actress who has my wife’s name. Because it is Father’s Day weekend, I take the Da as my plus one, which does not go as badly as I feared, or as well as I hoped. But it never does. At least this time he doesn’t give me a lecture about the plot, as he did last year during Hamlet. “I never got that pirates shite,” he said. “Why pirates? And why don’t we see them? If you’re going to have pirates, then show them to us.” “Yes, Da.” “Aren’t you the one who’s always saying, Don’t tell us -- show us?” “No, that’s Ben, Da.” “Ben?” “Ben Jonson, Da.” “Ah, Ben. How is Ben?” “He’s good.” “Is he here tonight?” “No, he’s probably at The Dead Poet. He thinks any play with pirates in it is a mouldy tale.” “I like pirates,” says the Da. “Pirates are fun. Not many plays out there which wouldn’t be better off with a crew of pirates in ‘em.” “Not many, Da,” I said, and mentally made a note to give him Captain Blood for his birthday.

When tonight’s play begins (with live music; well done, Daniel Sullivan) the Da, as usual sits there with his arms across his chest, now and then reacting with a harrumph or a grunt or a wry grin and a shake of his head, which is the closest he ever gets to admitting that he wants to laugh at one of my jokes. I know all this and yet I am still looking for him to do something different whenever he sees one of my plays. I keep hoping for a conversation, even though I know that this is a man who does not string more than five words together at a time unless he is under the influence of either anger or drink. Or talking about pirates. I do not know why, after several centuries, I still look for his approval. But I do. It’s the opposite with the Mum. When I took her to see Mary Stuart on Mother's Day, I was the one with my arms folded across my chest, and she was the one walking on eggshells because she could tell I was jealous of the translation.

So I try to ignore the Da and appreciate the actors, which is only made difficult by an intense little man in the third row who appears to be mouthing all the lines along with the actors, and shaking his head now and then at a missed word or anything remotely resembling an ad-lib. Whereas I am enjoying every little ad-lib and bit of business because I wish I’d thought of it first. The company is extremely talented. There is more music than in most productions, and more harmonized singing, with both Viola and Orsino joining in on the songs. It makes me wish I had written them a duet. And (yes) it is extremely odd to see a woman with my wife’s name playing a part I wrote with my daughter Judith in mind. But she is quite good for someone who has learned to act in front of a camera instead of an actual audience, and while her Viola is neither as funny nor as vulnerable as it could be (there is a reason she’s always making jokes about her cross-dressing, Anne dear) she is certainly better in the part of Viola than Julia Stiles was a few years ago. Or for that matter Sam Gilburne, for whom I wrote the part. You can guess at his strengths and limitations during his scene with Olivia, which was written for the other Sam, Sam Crosse (as was Rosalinde; as was Gertrude).

Thinking of those long-dead boys makes me think of how much the play has changed since the original version, the one just titled What You Will, in which there was no Malvolio subplot, but a cross-plot romance in which Sebastian married Olivia, Viola married Antonio, and Leonato wound up alone (because someone must always end up alone). There was much more confusion between the twins in that version, which meant much more for my brother Edmund to do as Sebastian. But then Elizabeth wanted a play to honor that pompous fool Don Virginio Orsino, so I cut the cross-plot to shreds, changed Leonato to Orsino, added Toby and Andrew and Malvolio, and gave Sam Gilburne a little more to do by creating Maria as a double-part with Viola. (So odd to see them on stage together in modern productions.) That took all of two weeks to write and rehearse, and by the time it was over, the play had turned into another Midsummer, where the chief company actors got the small beer parts and the groundlings in the company got the meat and potatoes, which fit the Twelfth Night occasion well.

This production is very much in that vein, with the weight coming down heavily on the Malvolio side of the scales. And because the actors are so good, I cannot help but rewrite the play in my head with them in mind. Raul Esparza is too strong to be wasted as Orsino; we need to see more of him, and in this script Orsino disappears for the theatrical equivalent of days. I would beef up his part, and cut the foolery between Toby and Andrew, most of which is clever references to topical events of 1600, such as that stinker about the lady of the Strachy marrying the yeoman of the wardrobe. (Memo to self: nothing dies faster than a topical reference. Better yet: memo to Stephen King.) I don't even remember who was the butt of that joke; all I do remember is that it got the biggest laugh of the day when we did it in front of Elizabeth. It reminds me of all the references to Lord Strange's Men in Love's Labor's Lost. Talk about the funniest play in history. Not a single in-joke was lost the first time we did it. It was like an industrial for the Elizabethan nobility But now? Nobody within twenty miles of me even knows who Lord Strange's Men were. Well, possibly that little man in the third row who's mouthing all the lines. He probably knows. He probably even knows who the lady of the Strachy was. Which means he’s one of those bardolaters who thinks I was a poet first, an actor tenth, and a crowd-pleaser last of all. I have the intense desire to go up to him during intermission, and give him a heart attack by telling him that, if I was writing this play now? I’d be making Britney Spears jokes. (And memo to self or not? You know I would. I would be making bad puns on her last name for days.)

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Matinee for the Misbegotten

5/24/09. To the St James with Eugene O’Neill to see the final performance of Desire Under The Elms. O’Neill warns me that there will be too much of one and not enough of the other, and based on this era’s preference for set declaration over emotional declarations, I assume that I will be watching very little Desire under a forest of Elms. It turns out to be the other way around. The set is Early Director’s Statement. There are no trees anywhere, only rocks, and several boulders hanging from the flies by knotted lengths of anchor ropes. Even the house is hanging over everybody’s head, which is to blatant symbolism what fourth-stage cancer is to the common cold.

The play begins with two yokels shifting a cart of stones from off right to stage left, which makes no mining sense at all. Shouldn’t they be taking the rocks away and clearing the land? But no. That would be realistic. And realistic is not on the menu tonight. We are dining on symbolic. Today’s main course will be an interpretation, not a play. This is only slightly less painful than watching (a) a production of As You Like It where the royalty are all Nazis and the forest dwellers are resistance fighters; or (b) Rebecca Hall in anything. Oh well. At least it’s not set in a jail.

And then the actors start shouting at each other, and jail is exactly where I feel like I am. Especially since the play is performed without an intermission. We are four lines into the thing and everyone is screaming casual remarks like “Hello” and “How are you?” to let the audience know that this is a play about PASSION, GOD DAMN IT. It’s like listening to John Barrymore through a bullhorn. After two minutes of this, my ear drums cover their own ears and curl up into a fetal ball of pain and yell: “You try and figure out what they’re saying--we can’t!”

Poor Eugene is beside himself. He so rarely gets produced, and when he does, his plays are rarely done well. Ten minutes in, he’s halfway through a flask of whiskey and muttering about the Tony Awards.

O’NEILL: I’m Eugene Fucking O’Neill and my play didn’t even get a nomination. Not one. A play about Beethoven’s ghost got nominations, for Chrissakes. I could write a play about Beethoven’s ghost during a two-day bender. And if I did, Moises Kaufman would ask my actors what it was about, tape record their answers, and then write his own play—and it would STILL be twenty times better than the piece of crap he DID write.

It doesn’t take long for Gene to become titanically inebriated. Every time he exhales, fumes of whiskey curl out from our box seat like the animated tendrils of cartoon perfume, lifting up people in the orchestra by their noses and making them sigh with pleasure. It is the only sound of happiness for the first thirty minutes of the play. By that time, O’Neill’s muttering has grown to an audible grumble. “Why do they do this?” he says loud enough for Brian Dennehy to hear. “Why do these God damn actors all equate anger with shouting? Shouting is not anger. Shouting is a TECHNIQUE!” “Not the way I shout!” yells Dennehy. Which is what I think he said. Hat I actually heard was “NAA THAA AY EYE OW!”

O’NEILL: What? What did you say? I can’t understand a misbegotten thing you said!
DENNEHY: You’re drunk, O’Neill.
O'NEILL: And you were a better ACTOR when you were drunk.
DENNEHY: Come down here and say that.
CARLA GUGINO: Brian, please, it’s the author.
CARLA GUGINO: Oh, go take your shirt off.
DENNEHY: I don’t give a damn if it’s the author.
DENNEHY: Nobody tells ME he can’t understand a word I say.
O’NEILL: What?
DENNEHY: I said, nobody--
O’NEILL: What?
DENNEHY: I said, --
O’NEILL: ENUNCIATE, you feckless coffee-drinker.
DENNEHY: What do you know about enunciating, you long-winded Mick?
O’NEILL: What the hell are you even doing on this stage?
DENNEHY: Come down here and say that.
O’NEILL: You’re a dumb ex-cop who only did one good movie.
DENNEHY: And you’re a beat-me-over-the-head-with-the-obvious hack whose best play never got performed in his lifetime.
O’NEILL: Come up here and say that !

It's at this point that Dennehy picks up one of the stage stones and throws it at O'Neill's head. O'Neill ducks and throws his empty flask at Dennehy. The flask hits Dennehy in the chest at about the same time the stone bounces off the wall behind us and lands on an old woman who's been asleep since the play began. She jumps up with a yell and her flailing arms whack the head of a producer type in the row in front of her, rearranging his perfectly white toupee so that it looks like a jaunty sailor cap. He starts yelling, the old woman starts yelling, O'Neill and Dennehy continue yelling, and when somebody in the balcony yells for everybody to shut up, Dennehy tosses a stage rock at him, too, and that's when the afternoon turns into the Irish version of the end of Hair, with everyone storming the stage not to dance, but to fight.

This is when I leave. I've seen this happen enough times before to know that the riot police will be called in and arrest everybody, after which O'Neill will wave his Nobel Prize and offer to buy everybody drinks, after which they will all adjourn to The Bucket Of Blood and drain the place of cheap whiskey (unless Dennehy stays on the wagon, in which case he'll drain the place of cheap tonic water), after which O'Neill will tie the director and the actors to a row of chairs and perform the entire play himself (including stage directions), after which he'll untie them and buy them more drinks and they'll all sing Sondheim numbers until they pass out.

DARK LADY: Sondheim numbers?
ME: Oh yes. O'Neill loves them. He's even turned one of his plays into a Sondheim musical.
DARK LADY: You're joking. Which one?
ME: Long Day's Journey Into Night Music.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Merchant of Venice at BAM

Continued from here and here.)

5/14/09. As the lights come up for intermission, the following conversation takes place behind me:

FIRST WOMAN: We’re going home.
MAN: Honey?
FIRST WOMAN: I am so confused. I’m going home.
SECOND WOMAN: What’s wrong?
FIRST WOMAN: I don’t know what’s going on! I’m completely lost and it seems like a waste of time.
SECOND WOMAN: It’s artistic license.
FIRST WOMAN: It’s a license to confuse.
SECOND WOMAN: Like Double-Oh Seven?
FIRST WOMAN: Like Double-Oh What The Fuck.
MAN: What does the program say?
SECOND WOMAN: It’s very dark in here, I can’t read the program.
FIRST WOMAN: You shouldn’t have to read the program to understand what you’re seeing. I don’t understand what I’m seeing. Why jail? I don’t get it. It works against the play.
I have no clue what’s going on. As much as the actors are brilliant, it’s a waste of time. The interpretation obscures the play.

I can’t resist; I turn around and offer a correction over my shoulder:

ME: The alleged interpretation.
FIRST WOMAN: Yes! Thank you! Even the author admits it! The alleged interpretation! Is it saying anything about mercy? Is it saying anything about justice and vengeance? No -- all this play is saying is, “I am the balls -- I’m directing Merchant of Venice like it’s an episode of Oz.”
ME: We never had directors back then, you know. Just stage managers.
FIRST WOMAN: Like Peter Quince in Midsummer’s?
ME: [nodding] Exactly. Just somebody who tells the actors when to enter and exit. The rest was up to us.
FIRST WOMAN: Well that couldn’t have been easy.
ME: It was a lot easier than this.
FIRST WOMAN: I’ll bet. [Standing up; to Second Woman:] Let me know how it ends.
MAN: You mean we’re going?
FIRST WOMAN: Of course we’re going. This is one of the dumbest things I’ve ever seen in my life. [To me:] No offense.
ME: None taken.

“Well you should take offense,” says the Dark Lady as they walk out. She’s sitting with her arms crossed and her head down, like she’s preparing to gore a matador. “‘Artistic interpretation.’ It’s artistic bollocks, is what it is. It’s a director jumping and down saying ‘Look at me! Look at me!’ Why do they do that?” I shrug. “In my experience, it’s part of the job description,” I say mildly. But the DL is still fuming. “Well you know what? If it was his job to make me sit here for two hours saying to myself ‘What’s that pain in my heel? Oh—right-it’s a shoehorn,’ then he should be promoted.”

I have to agree with her. It is quite possibly one of the most misguided interpretations of Merchant that I have ever seen. It is set entirely in a prison, where the Christians and the Jews go at it like the Aryan Brotherhood versus the Crips and Bloods. Which makes for (a) some interesting byplay between the prisoners and the so-called guards, which becomes totally confusing when (b) the play switches to Belmont, and instead of it being somewhere outside this Venetian jail (a country club prison maybe? Where the Wall Street types hang out and have lesser restrictions and more freedom?), it’s just another cell block on another floor. Why would you need three thousand ducats to bribe a guard to get you access to a different part of the same jail? And if you’re actually asking that question while the scene is happening, doesn’t that mean the interpretation is a total failure?

Well, not total. Everybody tries to make Merchant realistic, when it has more in common with Pericles than it does with Measure for Measure. It’s a fairy tale –- three fairy tales, in fact –- and it’s always been misunderstood. Even when I played Shylock, it was misunderstood. Nobody ever wants it to be about the story –- they want it to be about the character. It’s the Jew play. Shakespeare’s Jew play, as opposed to Marlowe’s Jew play. (Fucking Marlowe. I’ll never get out of his shadow.) It’s the same with Hamlet; the same with Falstaff. Like the character is more important than the story. That upsets me a great deal more than a production which replaces Denmark with Venice in the phrase “Denmark’s a prison.” Making Shylock the center of attention has ruined the play from the beginning. By the time I finished rewriting it in ’96 to make Shylock more rounded, Kempe wasn’t speaking to me and Burbage insisted that we trade roles and I play Bassanio so he could do Shylock. I said no, but I was outvoted. So Shylock became another Humpbacked Dick, and I did Bassanio about as well as Claude Rains would have done Errol Flynn if they had switched roles in Robin Hood -- and Gus Phillips, between his scenes as Antonio, could be heard muttering in the wings, “Now if we could only get rid of those fooking fairy tale subplots.”

But the Shylock in this production does not tower over everyone else. Because it’s all about the director’s interpretation, and not “Anti-Semitism: Pro or Con -– Discuss,” this Shylock is that rarity of rarities: just another actor in an ensemble piece, who has his part to play and plays it without doing the Full Pacino, which is an Italian meal consisting of three courses of scenery followed by scenery a la mode. This Shylock is just another potentially violent prisoner, which is the only refreshing thing in an otherwise confusing evening.

During intermission, a good quarter of the audience has decided to go home and watch the equivalent of bear-baiting (aka American Idol) rather than the second half of my play, which is a pity, because this is the part where the director throws up his hands, cries: “I don’t get this God damn jail thing either!” and just stages the play, period. Which is why it works much better than the first half. If you ignore all the prison cells. And the moments where Portia calls out “Oh jailer!” to Gobbo-doubling-as-Balthasar. And the final scene, which should have taken place as far from Alcatraz as possible.

“It’s the fucking Shylock Redemption,” says the DL as we leave. “All it’s missing is Tim Robbins and a Rita Hayworth poster.” I roar with laughter; Roz is one of the few people who can always make me laugh out loud. Which means of course that I have to top her joke, because I can never let anyone have either the last word or the last laugh.

“In such a night,” I say, “Did Shaxpere’s Jew get twenty-five-to-life, For crimes against artistic truth, which put, The shiv in shivah.” Roz snorts, which is as close as she ever comes to admitting that I’ve said something she thinks is clever. “I can’t believe you’re making jokes about this,” she says. “My dear Roz,” I reply, “when you’ve seen Measure for Measure staged in Auschwitz? You learn to take things with a grain of salt, and not a pound of flesh.” “You’re much more merciful than I am,” says the DL. To which I refrain from telling her, “If this is true, then it is not my nature, but my experience that makes me so forgiving. You too could be this way, my sweet, if you but put yourself in someone else’s place.”

4/30/09 continued: Three Blind Bards

(Continued from here.)

“Where should I begin?” I ask, dreading the answer. “Let’s start with Chapter 18,” says Homer. I turn to page 307 and begin to read.

"Chapter 18. AFTER MACHIAVELLI. “‘Shakespeare’s writing career may have begun in 1589, as he waited for the Lambert case to come before the Lord Chief Justice’s court at Westminster.’ Oh bollocks.” "Something wrong, Will?" asks Homer with a smile. “What’s the Lambert case?” asks Dorothy Milton. I ignore Homer and answer Dorothy. “A lawsuit between my father and the Lambert family over a piece of property my other used to own,” I say, not wanting to go into the details of a complicated lawsuit which was incredibly important in 1589 and now only memorable because John Shakespeare’s son Will was involved in it. “And is that when you started to write?” Anne Milton asks. “I was writing almost the moment I became an actor,” I reply with some peevishness, “and I was an actor for a good three years before any of my work was good enough for Lord Strange’s Men to perform. To think that I started writing because of that damned Lambert lawsuit, --” “Can we continue?” Homer says mildly, clearly enjoying my burst of temper. “Oh most assuredly,” I reply, and pick up where I left off.

“‘It was probably some time earlier that year -- to judge from a topical allusion to the assassination of the Duke of Guise, leader of the Catholic faction in the French civil wars of religion -- that Christopher Marlowe’s hugely popular Jew of Malta had its premiere. Shakespeare was probably not in the cast, but he was certainly at some point in the audience.’ Jesus wept,” I cry, “if you take the word probably out of the English language none of these books would ever get written. And how can an actor see another actor’s plays when he’s performing in a rival play across town? Send his twin brother?” I take a deep breath and continue reading. “‘His Aaron in Titus Andronicus is a part written in response to Marlowe’s Ithamore, and his Shylock in The Merchant of Venice is his answer to Barabbas the Jew, with the play’s resolution achieved through a courtroom instead of a boiling cauldron and a bloodbath.’” And then I emit a wordless scream of frustration. “My ‘answer to Barabbas the Jew?’ Ignorant fecking coont. I had nothing to do with it at all. It was because of Marlowe. Marlowe and that bloody fool Lopez.”

"Ah yes -- Lopez," says Milton. "Lopez?" asks Anne. And Milton proceeds to tell her about Doctor Roderigo Lopez, a Spanish Jew who was Elizabeth's personal physician, and how Essex hates him so much that he accused the poor trusting fool of trying to poison the Queen at the behest of the King of Spain. In December of '93, he was on top of the world; one month later he was arrested, two months later he was convicted, and on the 7th of June in '94 he was hanged, drawn and quartered, to the laughter and delight of the watching crowd. And what was also getting a lot of laughter and delight was Henslowe’s revival of poor dead Marlowe’s Jew of Malta during all this. It was so successful that Gus Phillips and the rest of the sharers said,“We need a Jew play!” “They’re cleaning up at the Rose!” “Nobody wants to see shrews tamed any more!” “We need a Jew play, Shakebags!” (That from Will Kempe.) And then they started thinking of ways to top Marlowe's grand finale, in which his Jew is boiled in a cauldron. "We want a boiling scene." "No -- something bigger!" "Draw him and quarter him!" "Stick a spit in him and roast him!" "No -- even better -- crucify him!"

I sat there listening to my brother Christians devising new and exciting tortures for the Jew in whatever play I wrote, and I said nothing and made notes, as I always did whenever we had those meetings, and then I used some of their dialogue for the Christians in the Shylock scenes when I finally wrote the play. But because they were so insistent on a play about revenge, I wrote a play about mercy; and because they were so insistent on making it topical, I threw together three hoary old folk tales as the plot: the pound of flesh story, the caskets whopper, and the ring gift howler. Then because they took it so seriously and I could have cared less, I titled it The Merchant of Venice, as if it was about Antonio. They were not happy. "You play the Jew," they said, and immediately advertised it as The Jew of Venice. And the rest is history, or at least it would be if the facts had survived. The play, with its three silly plots, was an even bigger success than R&J, or at least it was until Doctor Lopez watched his intestines being cooked in a brazier before his dying eyes. By the autumn of '94, the Rose was doing The Venetian Comedy, The Massacre at Paris, Cutlack, and Palamon and Arcite; we were doing Shrew, Two Gents, Hamlet and Humpbacked Dick; and I was making notes on how to make Shylock more sympathetic (because if I was stuck playing him then I was going to make God damn sure I had something to play besides a cartoon), which meant reducing Lancelot Gobbo's part by two-thirds to make room for the changes. Which succeeded in doing two things -- it won me the undying hatred of Will Kempe, who played Gobbo, and it totally ruined the play.

After Milton explains all this, or as much if it as he knows, I read some more from Chapter Eighteen of The Soul of The Age (which barely has half a dozen mentions of Merchant in its index) until I hear Homer sigh. “Nobody writes to be read aloud any more,” he says sadly. “I’m doing the best I can,” I protest. “Oh it’s not you,” he says, “not even the best actor in the world could save writing like this. It’s the writer. He’s writing to be read in the classroom, not sung in the court, or the courtyard. Doesn’t any writer sing any more?” “Well,” I begin, “if you’d just let me bring in my copy of Burgess’ biography,” but Homer cuts me off the moment Burgess’ name leaves my lips. “Poor John here probably doesn’t even know what we’re talking about. You never had your works spoken aloud, did you, John?”

It’s a good thing Homer is blind, because the glare from Anne and Dorothy would scale the sight from hundred-eyed Argos. “As a matter of fact, they were,” Milton says mildly. “I couldn’t write Paradise Lost, so I dictated it. Had it read back to me. Made changes.” “Had it read back to him again,” said Anne. “Made even more fucking changes,” said Dorothy. “Have you ever heard a three-year-old boy practice on the piano?” said Anne. “Wrong note after wrong note after wrong note?” said Dorothy. “False start after false start after false start?” said Anne. “That was me,” Milton said proudly. Dorothy rolls her eyes; Anne gives him the finger; and I think wistfully of my own daughters. "I never knew that," Homer says. "How could you not know that?" Milton replies. "Everybody knows that. The life of Milton is an open book. Too open," he says with a sigh. “I would kill to have someone write a worshipful biography of me.” Homer grunts in agreement. “I would kill to have someone write a fictional biography of me,” he says. “And that is the only biography I ever get,” I say. "The grass is always greener," says Homer. "Not when you're blind it isn't," says Dorothy.

And I reflect on the fact that both these men are jealous of something I have which they don't, something I think is worthless and beneath me. Which, if they had it, would make them supremely satisfied. Or would it? I wonder. Are we not all blind to what we have, until we see it through someone else's eyes? Is not value measured as a slight thing on our own personal scales until we see how weighty it is in the world's scales? And if we do change our opinion, does that not mean that we have come to worship the opinions of others more than our own? Perhaps that is why I have never valued my own biographies. I worship something different, something more personal. So my disdain for these so-called lives of mine? My dismissal of them, my condescension? Chalk it up to Will’s God. As opposed to God’s will.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

04/30/09 - Homer's Nod and Milton's Fall

To the Andra Moi Ennepe Museum to perform my bi-weekly charity audiobook work for Homer. I wonder with trepidation which biography of mine he will have me read to him today. Whatever it is, I’m sure the chapter he chooses will be designed to get under my skin like a poisonous tick. I swear he has one of his sons read these travesties beforehand and pick out just the right passages that will turn me into a frothing angerbeast. He never wants me to read the biographies that come close to the truth –- it’s always the ones that should be filed in the Fiction aisle. Does he have me read from 1599: A Year In The Life Of William Shakespeare? Does he hand me a copy of Shakespeare The Player? No --- he wants to hear every word of Will In The World, which had me cursing like an Irishman after every other sentence. “I am amazed,” Homer said after the first ten minutes of this. “I didn’t think a book could ever be published in America that had so many instances of the phrase ‘ignorant fecking coont’ in it. No wonder it’s a best seller.”

The ignorant fecking coont whose book the Bard of Chios wants me to read to him today is Jonathan Bate, who has just published a book called Soul of the Age. "I hear it's excellent," says Homer. "Of course, if they wrote my biography it'd have to be titled Soul of Western Civilization, Bitch. Because, you know, I am." I agree with him verbally, all the while shaking my head "No." "Let's start then," he says. But first he apologizes for missing my birthday party. He always misses my birthday party. Ben says it’s because he’s jealous that I get a huge celebration and he doesn’t. “If the world knew my birthday, I would have to rent out a small country every year for the party,” Homer insists, before telling everyone when his birthday is. (It’s November 24th, which makes him a Sagittarius. Or as he calls it, a Centaur.) “And that’s the real date,” he adds when he mentions this to me. “Not like April 23rd. The 23rd isn’t even your actual birthday,” he points out, “it’s just the day people like to think is your birthday because it was the date you died.” And he’s correct, of course -- my actual birthday is April 22nd. “You should say something about this,” Homer muses. “You get so angry when your biographers get the facts of your life wrong, that it always surprises me that you do nothing to correct this atrocious error. You really should say something.” “I suppose so,” I say. But I never will. Personally I like the fact that the man the world thinks of as William Shakespeare has a different birthday than Will of Stratford. There is precious little of Will the glover’s son in Will (The Bard of Avon) Shakespeare, and since I long ago conceded to the world the ownership of the latter, everything associated with the former has become more and more precious to me. It’s like having a secret identity, except that in my case, Clark Kent never once shows up in any panel of the story.

“So,” Homer says, still talking about my birthday, “how many candles again?” We go through this every time. “545,” I say. Homer shakes his head. “Still counting those extra hundred years.” “I lived them,” I reply. “Technically,” he says. “We only have your word for it, Will. And personally, I’ve always thought that treating something as real which cannot be proven as fact is a sign of senility.” “How odd," I reply. "I’ve always thought that the Trojan Horse fit that definition as well.” Homer says something that sounds like “Touche!” but probably means “Up yours” in ancient Ionic Greek.

At that moment, there is a cough from behind us, and we turn to the door of Homer’s suite to see old blind John Milton standing there. “Can I join you?” Milton asks. Homer mouths the words “Can we stop you?” as I say, “By all means -- come in, John.”

He takes a step forward, and his two daughters appear, one on each arm. Together they gently guide Milton into the room and point him directly at a leather chair, which Milton hits head on. He yells “Whoa!” as he topples over, and hits the floor in an arm-waving leg-pumping heap. It is a pratfall that Buster Keaton would have envied. “What the hell was that?” he mutters as he gets to his feet. “Sorry, Daddy,” say his daughters in unison. Milton waves their apology away. He’s long ago resigned himself to the fact that this is their way of paying him back for all those years when he dictated Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained to them. “It is a kind of justice,” he says, “and I will take my punishment gladly. Besides, it’s not like they can actually hurt me, being a thing immortal like yourself. That’s yours, Will,” he adds, as if I didn’t know. He is always saying things to people as if they didn’t know them. I once heard him lecture Einstein on relativity. After about five minutes, Einstein left the room, came back with a tape recorder, recorded himself saying “Uh huh,” “Mmm,” and “You don’t say,” set each phrase to run every thirty seconds or so, pushed the Play button, and left the room with both of Milton’s daughters, who looked quite flustered (and quite happy) when Einstein brought them back thirty minutes later. Milton was still talking. “I think your theory is very solid,” he was saying as Einstein and the girls entered. “Oh very solid,” said Einstein. “Solid and firm,” said Milton’s daughter Anne. “And infinitely long,” said his daughter Deborah.

“So what are we hearing?” asks Milton. “Soul of the Age, by Jonathan Bate,” says Homer. "So many biographies,” says Milton with exaggerated wonder in his voice. “How many are there now, I wonder?” he asks. “I have no idea,” I reply. “But in fact it is an actual number,” Milton says. “In just the same way that there is an actual number which represents the amount of atoms in the universe, there is an actual number which represents the total of Shakespeare biographies which have been published since 1616.” “The biography number is probably larger,” says Homer. “Oh, only by one or two,” Milton concedes. “Are we listening to a book,” I ask, “or are we debating how many Bardographies can dance on the head of a pin?” “Oh book, book, by all means,” says Milton, and I proceed to read.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Sonnet 155 (The Ajax Sonnet)

I am Odysseus in the halls of hell
And all you ghosts but one will chat with me:
You, Ajax, whom I loved. You know too well
What I am, how my half-lidded eyes see.
I stole the armor that was rightly yours.
You killed yourself in protest on your sword.
And now you turn your back on me –- out roars
Your silence –- eloquent, piercing, but Lord!
What is a suit of armor to a hero?
He needs no armor but his honor’s soul.
Armor is cheap; self-made, its cost is zero
And self-made armor’s best when it’s made whole.
Sulk not, sweet Ajax, with your white plume gone.
Worse men than you have died with armor on.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Birthday Party at The Mermaid

4/24/09. Birthday party at The Mermaid, where everyone who was anyone gathers round a cake in the shape of the Globe Theatre. There are actually 545 candles on it, and Will Kemp makes a couple of Globe Fire jokes which I ignore, as I ignore him. The good thing about being the guest of honor is that all I have to do is stand still and everyone will come to me. The bad thing is that everyone comes to me. There is no escape from people like Kemp and Burbage, who continue to act as if all is forgiven when everyone knows it never will be. This is their way of making me the problem. They’ve moved past it, they have achieved closure, whereas poor Will, he’s still stuck in the past, still rankled over old wounds, no wonder they don’t heal, the man picks at them every morning when he wakes up. Closure. I’d like to close a coffin lid on the two of them. But I do not, because I am a gentleman. Even if I did have to pay for the privilege.

The party is not memorable, but these gathering never really are. It’s the usual people with their usual followers saying all the usual things to each other. Byron is there with a boy, Burbage is there with a chorus girl, Shaw is there with a chip on his shoulder, and as for my own personal entourage, Anne is hanging on my arm like a shoulderbag, the Dark Lady is shooting verbal arrows from a corner banquette, and the Butterfly is flitting into the reach of every other man in the room but always just out of reach of me. Think of sunshine peeking out from behind a cloud. Oh look –- there’s light! There’s warmth! Oops -- sorry -- you noticed me, so I have to slip behind a cloud again. I mention this to Dante and he comes up with a new circle in Hell just for her.

It is a typical theatre party, in its typical five-act format, to wit:

Act One: Who’s Coming?
Act Two: Who’s Here?
Act Three: Who’s Not Here?
Act Four: Who’s Leaving With Who?
Act Five: Where Are We Going Next?

We do my cake during the intermission between Acts Three and Four. As the candles are lit, Clerrihew works the room repeating his latest gems to the drunken amusement of everyone but the people he is lampooning.

Here lies the Body of Samuel Shepard.
Of characters his plays are peppered.
They speak like Utah in October
(At least they did when Sam was sober.)
But as for storylines, this glade
Has the only plot he ever made.

The so-called plays of Suzan-Lori Parks
Should all be used for fertilizing parks.
Look on her works, good writers, and despair!
But wonder not why they’re done everywhere:
It needs but nine small words to tell the tale:
She’s black, a woman, and she went to Yale.

Then, just before I blow out my candles, he gets to me:

Here lies the corpse of Billy Shakes,
A guy who always got the breaks:
Kit Marlowe knifed before his time,
Bob Greene a stroke while in his prime,
Tom Nashe the plague, Tom Kyd the rack.
This is the way you raise a hack
From last place to the top position –-
Just murder all the competition.

This gets universal laughter, the loudest of which come from me. It is always wise to laugh at jokes which come perilously close to the truth. I wonder how much Clerrihew knows. He is phenomenally perceptive when it comes to chinks in a man's armor, but I cannot believe he knows the truth behind Marlowe's death or why Tom Kyd was really tortured on the rack. No one does. Well, that's not true. I do. And Chekhov. But then Chekhov knows everything.

By the time Act Five is done, the Dark Lady has left in a huff, the Butterfly has flapped off with Ethan Hawke, and Anne has waited for the two other women in my life to leave before disengaging her arm from mine with all the care of a doctor removing an IV line, kissing me on the cheek with her dry-as-paper lips, and bidding me good night with the pleased smile of a farmer who has protected his chickens from a couple of hungry raccoons. Now only the usual diehards are left, doing their usual shtick. Auden argues politics, Shelley argues religion, and Byron argues the necessity of publishing as much as possible, an argument that becomes moot the moment Emily Dickinson opens her mouth. Keats blushes at Mina Loy, Ted Hughes leaves the room when his two ex-wives start sharing suicide stories, and Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Hardwick throw drinks at each other, kiss and make up, throw dishes at each other, have make-up sex on the bar, and beat each other over the head with wine bottles till their car arrives. By the time I leave, I see Ginsberg and Whitman fighting over Chatterton, Brecht trying to make a point to an empty room, and Neruda weeping.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Not a day over 544

4/23/09. Today I am 545. I celebrate this natal aberration with a breakfast interview conducted by a smug young pup from The New Yorker, who asks all the usual questions (what’s the correct spelling of your name, who was the Dark Lady, what about that second-best bed, are you a Catholic, are you gay, what are you working on now) to which I give the usual answers (William, Diana Rigg, you should have seen the third-best bed, nobody really is, are you kidding I’m effervescent, and a lawsuit to retrieve back royalties). Then he asks me to rattle off 25 Things You Don’t Know About Me, and I direct him to Harold Bloom, who knows more about me than I do, and is not afraid to say so to homeless people on the street. “I can particularly recommend his last three books,” I say. “Shakespeare Was A Poet, Not An Actor!, Hamlet Is A God Damn Poem, Not A Play! and Didn’t You Hear Me? I Said ‘Shakespeare was Not A Fucking Actor!’ Okay? "

After a liquid lunch, I spend a leisurely afternoon watching the Andy Warhol Macbeth, Orson Welles’ Macbeth, Scotland PA, and Throne of Blood. Not because I want to; because I have to. As many people during the last five centuries have surmised, the play is indeed cursed, and I am cursed with it. Not only is every production of The Play We Don’t Mention doomed to disaster, but while I am alive, I am constrained to attend every opening night whenever and wherever it is produced. Starting about 90 years ago, this grew to include movies as well. I have no idea how this came about, any more than I know how theatre tickets magically appear in my mailbox, along with plane tickets, hotel reservations, and (when needed) a passport under the name of Edward de Vere. I tried to explain this to Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh in ‘57 when we were throwing around the idea of doing Dunsinane (Exclamation Point), and the two of them ended up writing a song based on Coleman’s reply: “Witchcraft.” When they asked me for details, I could only tell them what I told everyone from Cole Porter to Kurosawa: “I am constrained by a geas laid upon me by the three Isobells -- Isobell Cockie, Isobell Gowdie and Isobell Ogg –- to e’er be wife to endless life until the grife that I did pour on MacBeth’s head be nae more said upon the spread of England’s shore. Until that day aine must I stay and watch the play forevermore.” As to why those three stanzas have such power over me, I dinna ken and kenna say. And there are only certain circumstances surrounding the curse which I am allowed to speak or write about. The time and place are two of those, though they can be deduced when I tell you that the original version of The Play We Don't Mention was twice the length of the Folio version, which combines the revision in which I inserted the Gunpowder plot allusions and the cut version I created (for my usual fee) for the touring version of 1607. Where is the original version now, you ask? Along with a great many other treasures, it went up in smoke and sparks during the curséd Globe Fire, an event which also burned away every last interest I have in writing plays for anyone, let alone the damned King’s Men. (Perhaps I will do that 25 Things list after all; God knows the events after the Fire would probably fill up half of it.) (And can I just say, what a relief it is to write the word “God” and not have some snippy censor immediately changing it to “Heaven?”)

There were a lot of “heavens” in the full version of MacBeth, but nothing heavenly at all in most of these film versions, the watching of which is an object lesson in all the different ways The Scottish Play in its abbreviated form is only slightly less successful than the construction of the Tower of Babel. The Warhol makes me laugh until I get a migraine. The Welles puts me to sleep. Scotland PA reduces everything to the level of a city comedy. (I despise city comedy; the one time I was asked to write one, I made it so topical that it was censored by that pinch-souled mental hunchback Tilney, who made Dick Cheney look like Falstaff.) Only Throne of Blood makes me happy, perhaps because feudal Japan is to modern Tokyo what medieval Scotland was to Tudor England: a murky, messy castle full of shadows and spiderwebs. (I much prefer the movie’s Japanese title, 蜘蛛巣城.) Of course, this is the one version of the story which the Dark Lady cannot stand. Her current favorite is the Patrick Stewart atrocity which played on Broadway last year, the one that felt so long it added another 500 years to my life. But then we never agree on anything, which is yet another instance of the truism that all things travel in threes, including deaths, running gags, and women who don’t agree with me. Pun always intended.

And all three of those women will be at The Mermaid tonight for my party.