Posts Tagged ‘theater’

Pleb Summer: Free Shakespeare

Thursday, July 27th, 2017

It’s summertime, which means it’s time for trips to the beach house, a cross-country road trip, or travel to exotic vacation destinations.

But for those of us who can’t spare the time or the money to make a getaway, it’s PlebSummer! We’re posting this summer about summer for the rest of us.

One of the best things about spending the hotter months in New York City is the opportunity to see free Shakespeare. An institution for over 60 years, Shakespeare in the Park, produced by The Public Theater and preformed in Central Park, is perhaps the best-known production. This annual summer series is not only free, it often features universally acclaimed actors. Past productions have included Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, James Earl Jones, and Denzel Washington.

However, Shakespeare in the Park is not the only company to preform the Bard for free in this fair city – Hudson Warehouse and Shakespeare in the Parking Lot also offers the public a chance to experience Shakespeare at no cost. A longer list of some of these free productions is available here:

Free Shakespeare extends beyond the five boroughs. Odds are if you Google your hometown and “free Shakespeare” you will come across a production nearby. You can also visit where they offer a large list of productions (some free, some not) across the world, sorted by play! You can view that list here:

So get out there and go watch a man talk to his ghost dad, or some teenagers who hang out with a monk. It won’t cost you a dime.

April is the Cruelest Month: Theater of Cruelty

Tuesday, April 21st, 2015

In honor of the opening line of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, this April we are celebrating cruelty on the PhLog.

Today we’re posting about Antonin Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty.

French actor and dramatist Antonin Artaud wanted to create a form of theater that would radically break with existing theatrical conventions. Artaud disdained productions based on established forms and literary texts, and felt that theater was pacifying audiences when it instead needed to challenge them. Artaud thought theater shouldn’t be an escape from the world, but a place where mankind’s deepest fears are exposed and presented viscerally in front of a terrified audience. Artaud wanted the audience to suffer, and felt that every element of theater should increase a sense of danger for the audience.

Artaud wasn’t necessarily a sadist though. He wanted audiences to confront the terrifying darkness inside themselves, not for the sake of suffering itself, but in order to become liberated from repressions. Cruelty wasn’t an act of violence to Artaud, but rather a way to “wake up” a sedated society. Technical elements such as sound, design, props and lighting would be used to replace text. Language would be replaced by shouts and screams, since Artaud thought language was an insufficient medium to express trauma.

By assaulting the audience’s senses, theater could reach the unexpressed emotions of the unconscious. Artaud wrote that “theater has been created to drain abscesses collectively,” and this is what he aimed to achieve (figuratively) with his Theater of Cruelty.

Artaud in "Les Cenci."

Artaud in “Les Cenci.”

Artaud only managed to stage one production with this approach, and, as you might imagine, it didn’t run very long. However, Artaud’s theories, mapped out in his book The Theater and Its Double survived him, and although probably impossible in practice, inspired the great European avant-garde theater of the 60s and 70s and continue to influence directors today.

Month of H8: Nearly Forget About It

Friday, June 20th, 2014

June is a big month in the life of Henry VIII. He was born on June 28th, his first wedding was on June 11, and he divorced his fourth wife on June 24th. In his honor we’re publishing blog posts inspired by his life and times.

Hey, did you know that Shakespeare wrote a play about Henry VIII? It’s true! It’s called Henry VIII. It’s not one of his most well-known plays, so if you haven’t heard of it, it’s not necessarily your fault. It’s most notable attribute is having more stage directions than any of Shakespeare’s other plays. If you’re not a theater person or a Shakespeare scholar, you’ll probably forget about that fact.

Henry VIII was the play that burned down the Globe Theater (a cannon used for special effects set the roof on fire), so maybe people just wanted to forget it.

In honor of this nearly-forgotten play by a famous playwright, here are some other nearly-forgotten works of art by great artists. None of them burned down a theater.


Salvador Dali painted an impressionist painting? Why yes, he did. Granted, he was six years old at the time, but it still counts. Ironically, it’s also one of the few paintings of the “modern” period of which no one has ever grumbled “my kid could do that.”


Ludwig van Beethoven is known for his nine great Symphonies, his virtual invention of the Romantic piano sonata, his stirring concertos and string quartets, and even for his one opera Fidelio. But how many of his songs have you heard?

It turns out he wrote dozens. Songs in English, German, Spanish, Italian, French, even Polish. Irish folk songs, German art songs, it appears he tried his hand at all of them. None of them really stuck.


Sure, James Joyce wrote three classic novels and that amazing collection of short stories, but he also wrote a play? That’s right, Joyce’s play The Exiles is occasionally produced, but mostly as an example of why novelists should not write plays. (The plays of Henry James, Kurt Vonnegut, Mark Twain and Charles Dickens could also serve this purpose.)

How about this: someone should put on a stage production of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII with songs by Beethoven and backgrounds by a 6-year old Salvador Dali! (We can leave Joyce out of it.) Then we could forget the whole thing.

A Shortness of “Breath”

Tuesday, June 17th, 2014

On June 17, 1969, the musical review, Oh, Calcutta! opened on Broadway.

Originally, the show’s Prologue was Samuel Beckett’s Breath, which had a one-page script and ran about 40 seconds. Beckett took the piece out of the show when he found out the director, Kenneth Tynan, had cast naked people; the sketch was to feature no people at all – only lighting cues, a stage “littered with miscellaneous rubbish,” and (the sound of a) breath.

Oh, Calcutta went on without Breath.

There was probably plenty of breathing already.


Shakespeare and Pals: Who Really Wrote What?

Tuesday, May 7th, 2013

This is part 6 in a series of entries about playwrights other than Shakespeare during the “Shakespearean” era.

The Elizabethan theater world was highly collaborative. There was not a sense of copyright or ownership of creative material like there is today. Writers shared, borrowed, and stole from each other on a regular basis. They wrote scenes for each other’s plays, they wrote entire plays together, and they acted in each other’s plays.

Shakespeare started his career working with other writers. Titus Andronicus, one of the most popular of Shakespeare’s plays in his lifetime, is considered to have been written with George Peele. And Peele and Thomas Nashe probably also worked on Henry VI, Part 1 and may have written as much of this play as Shakespeare did.

Later in life, Shakespeare collaborated with the younger playwright John Fletcher on Henry VIIIThe Two Noble Kinsmen and the lost play Cardenio.

Shakespeare’s As You Like It was based on Thomas Lodge’s play Rosalynde. And his Winter’s Tale was most likely inspired by Robert Greene’s play Pandosto.

Know that line from Macbeth: “double, double, toil and trouble?” Probably written by Thomas Middleton.

Shakespeare acted in Ben Jonson’s breakout play Every Man in His Humour.

Thomas Kydd and Christopher Marlowe were roommates.

Frances Beaumont and John Fletcher wrote exclusively together for several years and were known to share everything – even women.

John Fletcher wrote a highly regarded sequel to Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew called The Tamer Tamed.

Thomas Dekker and John Webster wrote the successful satire Westward Ho. Not to be outdone, George Chapman, Ben Jonson, and John Marston responded with their own satire called Eastward Ho. Webster and Dekker replied with Northward Ho.

We’re used to studying writers in contrast to one another. But the act of writing in Shakespeare’s time was much more flexible. Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights were dedicated to creating exciting and moving plays for their patrons and the general public, and doing so required a lot of hands. Shakespeare wasn’t a lonely man in a room with a bunch of parchment and a quill pen, like the way we tend to imagine our classic writers. He became Shakespeare through his engagement with this vibrant and active culture.

Shakespeare and Pals: Shakespeare’s Greatest Rivals

Thursday, May 2nd, 2013

This is part 5 in a series of entries about playwrights other than Shakespeare during the “Shakespearean” era.

There were many great playwriting talents besides Shakespeare in Shakespeare’s day, but two are often mentioned more than others: Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson.

These two playwrights are intimately associated with Shakespeare, and were of such talent that many Shakespeare deniers claim that one or the other of them was the true author of Shakespeare’s plays.


Christopher Marlowe was born the same year as Shakespeare, but his career as a playwright preceded the Bard’s. Marlowe was the preeminent playwright in London when Shakespeare began his theatrical career. By the quality of his limited output, it is possible that Marlowe, had he not died at the young age of 29, would have gone on to be an even greater playwright than Shakespeare. Marlowe was one of the first English playwrights to write in blank verse, and many of his plays, such as Edward II and Doctor Faustus continue to be some of the more commonly-performed non-Shakespeare plays from the period.

Marlowe was also one of the more fascinating of the Elizabethan playwrights, and they were a uniformly fascinating bunch. Marlowe was an avowed atheist, which was a very dangerous position to take at that time. Marlowe’s roommate, the playwright Thomas Kyd, was in fact tortured by the police over some heretical tracts found in their lodgings, which Kyd claimed belonged to Marlowe. Marlowe is also believed to have been a homosexual, although sexual mores of the time were more elastic than ours are. Most interestingly, Marlowe may have been government spy, and his murder, which according to the coroner’s report, was the result of an argument over a bar bill, could in fact have been a political assassination. What is definite is that for some reason his killer was allowed to walk free.

NPG 2752; Benjamin JonsonBen Jonson was eight years younger than Shakespeare and was highly regarded during the heyday of Shakespeare’s career and beyond – he survived the older playwright by 21 years.

Jonson’s great achievements were in comedy, especially the subgenre of city comedy, in which he satirized contemporary London life. Satire was a dangerous business in England at the time; censorship was rife, and besides having some of his plays banned, Jonson was jailed for “lewd and mutinous behavior” for having written the play The Isle of Dogs. The censors did their job very well in this case, since no copies of this play have been found to exist.

Like his contemporary Marlowe, Jonson was no stranger to violence and shocking behavior. Jonson was kicked out of the royal court for unruly behavior, and killed a fellow actor, Gabriel Spencer, in a duel. He escaped execution by pleading benefit of clergy, in which he gained leniency by reciting a bible verse, forfeiting his goods, and being branded as a felon on his thumb.

William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson had a great rivalry, and were known to denigrate each other’s work. They must have eventually reconciled though, because Shakespeare became the godfather of Jonson’s son and the two ate and drank together at Shakespeare’s house a few days before Shakespeare’s death in 1619. And Jonson was instrumental in publishing the first folio of Shakespeare’s plays in 1623, and wrote its loving introductory poem, To the Memory of My Beloved the Author, Mr. William Shakespeare, and What He Hath Left Us.

Shakespeare and Pals: The Revenge Play

Monday, April 29th, 2013

This is part 4 in a series of entries about playwrights other than Shakespeare during the “Shakespearean” era.

The most popular play of the Shakespearean era was not written by Shakespeare, but by Thomas Kyd. His play The Spanish Tragedy set the pattern for a whole sub-genre of plays that would dominate the stage for the next 50 or so years: the revenge tragedy.


The Spanish Tragedy was a huge hit, enjoying performances long after Kyd’s early death in 1594, and was performed more often than any of Shakespeare’s plays during his lifetime. It was also popular in continental Europe, especially in Holland and Germany, where it became was the best-known English play of its time.

The influence of The Spanish Tragedy cannot be overstated. The play includes insanity, murder, suicide, conspiracy, and ghosts, all elements that would appear in lesser and greater plays of the Elizabethan and Jacobean era. They all show up in Hamlet, for example.

Speaking of Hamlet, is has been theorized that one of Thomas Kyd’s lost works was a version of Shakespeare’s great play – written approximately 15 years earlier. Kyd may have also written the anonymous play King Leir, about 10 years before Shakespeare wrote his King Lear. So we may owe a lot of Shakespeare to Thomas Kyd.

Shakespeare and Pals: ‘The War of the Theatres’

Wednesday, April 24th, 2013
Clowning around on the Elizabethan stage

Clowning around on the Elizabethan stage

This is part 3 in a series of entries about people other than Shakespeare who were writing plays during the “Shakespearean” era.

 In 1599, playwright John Marston, in his play Histriomastix or The Player Whipped, satirized fellow playwright Ben Jonson by poking fun at his sense of pride.

Jonson responded by brutally satirizing Marston’s use of wordy dialogue in his play Every Man Out of His Humor.

And this, as they say, was war. Or, at least, what became to be known as “The War of the Theatres.”

Between 1599 and 1602, Marston and Jonson underwent a great feud through a series of plays. Thomas Decker and Thomas Middleton got in on the act too. They skewered each other’s work, their writing methods, and even their personalities on stage before the London public. Shakespeare is thought to have alluded to the war in Hamlet:

Rosencrantz: Faith, there has been much to do on both sides; and the nation holds it no sin to tar them to controversy: there was, for a while, no money bid for argument unless the poet and the player went to cuffs in the question.

Hamlet: Is’t possible?

Guildenstern: O, there has been much throwing about of brains.

Some have suspected that this “war” was a publicity stunt, but most historians believe that the competition and personal rivalries were very serious indeed.

Although it was short lived. Jonson and Marston apparently made up, since they wrote Eastward Ho together in 1605. However, Marston got the last laugh: Eastward Ho enraged King James with its anti-Scottish sentiment, and while Marston evaded capture, his old foe Jonson went to jail.

Shakespeare and Pals: The University Wits

Monday, April 22nd, 2013

Part 2 in a series of entries about people other than Shakespeare who were writing plays during the “Shakespearean” era.

The University Wits transformed the English stage in the 1590s, just before Shakespeare’s career began. They were university educated and were the literary elite of their day. Members included Christopher Marlowe, Robert Greene, Thomas Nashe, John Lyly, Thomas Lodge, and George Peele.

The group likely looked down at the young non-university-educated William Shakespeare. As evidence, University Wit Robert Greene is most remembered not for his plays, but for his early reference of the young Shakespeare as an “upstart crow” in his pamphlet Greene’s Groats-Worth of Wit.

The University Wits were a raucous bunch, but they brought a coherence and real intelligence and dramatic power to English theater. They had a fondness for heroic themes, and created epic works for the stage.

But they definitely were rowdy. Thomas Nashe received notoriety through his poem informally referred to as “Nashe’s Dildo.”


Thomas Nashe as a jailbird

Robert Greene claimed to have married a well-off woman and to have abandoned her after spending a considerable sum of her money. He lived as a notorious rascal and died from what Nashe called a “banquet of Rhenish wine and pickled herring.”


Robert Greene writing in his funeral shroud.

George Peele married a lady with some property which he quickly dissipated. And Christopher Marlowe was an atheist and a spy, and met an untimely end that we’ll get into in a later post.

These writers most definitely influenced Shakespeare. Thomas Lodge’s Rosalynde was the source for Shakespeare’s As You Like It, and Falstaff is believed to be specifically parodying John Lyly’s ornate language, when, as he says as he plays the part of Hal’s father in Henry IV Part 1:

Harry, I do not only marvel where thou spendest thy time, but also how thou art accompanied. For though the camomile, the more it is trodden on, the faster it grows, so youth, the more it is wasted, the sooner it wears. (Act 2, Scene 4, lines 403-7)

William Shakespeare and pals

Friday, April 19th, 2013

We tend to view William Shakespeare as writer above all others. What we don’t think about so often is that if there hadn’t been a Shakespeare, his time would still have produced great theater, and perhaps several of the playwrights who are concealed by his shadow would have had their day in the sun.

As it is, the world of Elizabethan theater existed well before our modern concept of an author. These playwrights collaborated, stole from each other, and acted in each other’s plays. Whether they were addressing the same subjects, mocking each other’s style, trying to one-up one another, or even writing a sequel to another author’s play, they were constantly engaged with each other’s work. It’s more accurate to say that the Shakespearean world created Shakespeare than to say that the culture of Shakespearean England was created solely by the Bard of Avon.

In our next several posts we’ll be writing about some of the lesser-known playwrights from the time of Shakespeare. They were certainly an interesting bunch, and we’d like to encourage you to read some of their plays. Many of the ones that survived are available online. And dramatists, take note! It’s been a long while since we’ve seen a good production of The Honourable History of Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay or The Battle of Alcazar or Women Beware Women.

"Shakespeare and His Friends at the Mermaid Tavern," painting by John Faed, 1851. The painting depicts (from left in back) Joshua Sylvester, John Selden, Francis Beaumont, (seated at table from left) William Camden, Thomas Sackville, John Fletcher, Sir Francis Bacon, Ben Jonson, John Donne, Samuel Daniel, Shakespeare, Sir Walter Raleigh, the Earl of Southampton, Sir Robert Cotton, and Thomas Dekker.

“Shakespeare and His Friends at the Mermaid Tavern,” painting by John Faed, 1851. From left in back: Joshua Sylvester, John Selden, Francis Beaumont. Seated at table from left: William Camden, Thomas Sackville, John Fletcher, Sir Francis Bacon, Ben Jonson, John Donne, Samuel Daniel, Shakespeare, Sir Walter Raleigh, the Earl of Southampton, Sir Robert Cotton, and Thomas Dekker.