Monday, July 1, 2013

This is too Long-- Polonius to Hamlet


An improvisation
in two parts
sixteen fragments

                                                                               PART I

   There is little point in being as old as I am unless it makes me the oldest living remnant of this or that. I have claimed to be the oldest living writer about angling in English and the oldest residual of Shakespearean production in Mary Rippon Theatre at the University of Colorado. Those earliest post- war productions of Shakespeare at CU can be remembered in me, “fragments” that they are.

    By virtue, then, of this authority vested in me, I embark on what is certain to be a discursive and altogether anecdotal address to the cloud above us.
    Let me say that my immediate impulse to let this fly is the front-page article in the Sunday Camera for May 26, 2013 to the effect that the Colorado Shakespeare Festival at the university is off and running to what may be fiscal solvency and integration into the greater life of the university.
   I should be glad-- and I am-- but not without a nagging uneasiness, if not worry, about what may be going on beneath this new optimism. The festival’s new management and the new dean of the college are determined to knit the study and use of Shakespeare intimately into the intellectual and cultural mission of the university. That ought to be everyone’s good news. But is that all? Why is it not already so knit?
    There is indeed a subtext to this article, intent as it is on being so up-beat, that has become all too clear. It is that Shakespeare is, in fact, no longer an intimate or central presence in the education and cultural consciousness of our time--and place at the university. We are losing him and must somehow, by some artful or decanal magic, try to work him back into our lives at least here in Boulder.
   If, of course, we can afford it.
   This is cause for real worry, and it’s national, not wrought exclusively in Boulder. Were things as they should be, we should find Shakespeare shot though the life of the whole university, any university; and an annual production or festival should be the expression and celebration of that immense presence.
    Instead, the Dean of the college and the director of the festival must try to set back-fires against the steady demise of Shakespeare in our lives
      If they can afford it.

   Who or what can prevent this loss in our lives? Who will always demand space for Shakespeare? The dean, who is intent, like most university administrators who administrate by being jolly good fellows, will back away from Shakespeare, when the money fails. Alas, the public is no longer apt to demand Shakespeare, and the typical undergraduate on campus today will not miss what she does not know about in the first place. Shakespeare appears to be in steady decline in both the classroom and on the stage.
    Who or what can save Shakespeare from oblivion?
                             Who? The actors!

   The actors know their work; they know their material. And they know that their work and material begin and end in Shakespeare and the unmitigated joy that comes in acting those roles in those plays on stage, any stage, anywhere, any time. The players will keep Shakespeare before us, deans and the public and the box office notwithstanding.

   It works like this:
   Think for a moment of Hamlet, said by some to be the first modern man; think of him caught in a man-trap of unspeakable sorrow. What is the poor guy to do? Kill himself?  Maybe….
   But then, as though on historical cue, here come the players to Elsinore. Hamlet knows them, admires them, and they inspire him with a really bright idea. He asks the leading actor if they can play a classic, The Murder of Gonzago? Of course they can and are at the ready. Hamlet asks if they can add  “some dozen or sixteen lines” that he would “set down” for them…. Of course they can!
   And so, the performance of a classic drama with a bit of contemporary fixing gets performed in order to diagnose and expose, a profound disease in the body politic of Elsinore. And it works.  Our lives are effectively dealt with. 
   That said, imagine some contemporary techy whose start-up has collapsed on him. In his despair he knows of some crazy, left-over performers and an even crazier play he once knew, and could those performers get it up and put it on? Of course they could, they have always had that play at the ready and will blast wide open the evils that have our techy near to killing himself.
   We don’t know Hamlet; we are in him.
   The actors have always had this great stuff to act, are at the ready to act it, crazy to act it and for nothing if necessary, or for the pittance that deans provide them to come to the university to try to live, like sacrificial animals, to serve, asking only to act.
    Actors are too strange for us.
Certainly too strange, with their strange secret life, for deans even to mention at formal occasions to celebrate the Colorado festival. Everybody gets thanked except the actors, they who by far have made the largest contribution and sacrifice to what we are urged to come to see and hear in the theatre. It embarrasses me.
   It is actors acting who will keep Shakespeare going.

    I propose 1948 as the point year in my life at the university. I choose it perhaps because I was a veteran of the wars, returned home in ’45 and to CU-- and, as a rising junior in ’48, got married, and came onto the stage of Mary Rippon as Leontes in Winter’s Tale directed by the festival’s founder, Jack Crouch.
   Summer nights back then, beginning in 1944, saw the production of first a single, then three of the plays in this unique theatre that never was intended to be a proper theatre. The audience was almost entirely local and intimately associated with the university. I mention this because there has been such an immense change in the audience. In those early days there were many more faculty in the audience, fewer young people out on a date under the stars, fewer tourists, and more regular folks just interested in Shakespeare. And it was strictly an amateur actors’ theatre, coming as they did from within the university. There were no corporate sponsors to thank for saving Shakespeare.
    I’m certain that the standard of production back then was not the equal of the professional and pre-professional polish of the actors and the scenography of today. The university was much smaller and more insular. Faculty and students tended to know or at least recognize one another. There was about us, as though from a most distant galaxy, the faintest glow of a medieval quality in our intellectual, cultural life. Dare I call it a brotherhood? The university had not yet given itself over to the somber assurances and grants to the hard sciences. It still risked the arts.
    I venture to think that, back then, the faculty, were richer in general liberal learning than they are in this new day of specialization in the  “research university”. Back then, Shakespeare, whether we knew the plays or not, was assumed to lie at the very heart of any education. And so, there were those teachers of mine, sitting out on those hard stone benches, unassisted by any back support, our esteemed faculty. They had come to watch me make a pitiful stab at Falstaff and to tell me about it afterward. What an honor for me.  And the deans came too. They were a more austere lot back then, in charge of traditions and standards as well as the purse. Few were ever the jolly good fellows of today.

    Our playing space back then was still the original garden structure designed sui generis of native sandstone filling a natural space between two beautiful academic buildings. It was there for its own sake, unintended for anything but its own loveliness. It was a complete work of architectural art in itself, meant for moments of repose, of quiet reflection, an accidental visit that can “give that thought relief”, even eating one’s sack-lunch. It came upon one with Keats’s “fine suddenness” as one walked through one “back stage” arched portal on the way through the place to exit on the other side. It was a daytime, daylight, personal place to discover or go, often just to be alone, and not intended for conventional play-going. It was its own poetry in stone.  
     But Jim Sandoe “discovered” it, and, in a moment of inspiration, thought that it might just work for Shakespeare. He made it work with astonishing success, and no one has dared look back from that big idea --until now.

    Sandoe’s productions and those of directors who followed him swept fully across the actor-busting, vast expanse of the “stage”, from alcove to alcove, front to deep, deep back, rather like panoramas of the plays, rather than as they are today, insistently center focused on the huge raked disc. In those days, with Sandoe and Crouch, the text, the words, the playwright reigned supreme. They insisted on that.

   Any scenic element “built” into the garden, stone and verdant grass theatre was deeply resented by many who attended regularly. I was, I confess, the first to design and have built a “thrust” platform out over the “pit” at center stage. That was in 1961 for my Romeo and Juliet. The lovers died right down center on top of the audience. There were those who thought it a desecration.
   We lacked most everything back then except our devotion to the plays and our audience.
    I think that we must at last admit that Mary Rippon is a lovely but unfortunate performing space. I think there can be no theatre anywhere harder to get into and out of than Mary Rippon. Let alone walk to after finding a  place to park one’s car. And it is the most uncomfortable of theatres-- for all the beauty of the moon and stars.
    Every year the old faithful heads of the audience get whiter and whiter, and stumbling around those stone benches ever more perilous, and the struggle to get out at the end, through those two small doors at the back, simply awful. It was never meant to be. It pains me to say that, in spite of all who have loved this unique theatre-like structure, we have forced ourselves upon Mary Rippon:  this memory of a primordial, archetypal performance space, that was once so beautiful.

    To plead for the actors again, when Louis Jouvet was shown the huge and glittering new “theatre” at the Palais de Chailllot in Paris, he pronounced it “a device to destroy actors”.
   Mary Rippon may not destroy actors, but as a theatre building it will do them no good. It can teach a young actor bad habits as it did me. It is too vast a space into which to try to pitch Shakespeare’s verse. It is a killer, and the recent advent of actors wearing mikes only affirms it.

    And yet, I think it difficult for someone who was not there as I was, sixty-five years ago, to understand what it was like in American university life just after WWII when returning veterans flooded college classrooms-- and theatres.
   The excitement, the drive, the high spiritedness, the craving for more (like actors wanting to act) was everywhere. We wanted to learn, to be told about the world in a way we had not dreamed of before, even when at war.
    In such a light, in such a vein, in such a thrill, my wife and I watched our first Shakespeare ever, Sandoe’s  Henry IV, part I. Much of it swept over our heads. But the gigantic importance of what was going on was unmistakable. It was revelation.
    But now, how do we pitch the plays to people who speak mostly texting English and no longer know anything of Shakespeare? Is the conviviality and immediacy of the social media compensation enough? Will students put down their hand-helds long enough for a lecture or a detailed three-hour performance-- with no shortcuts? Or will they remember, like Hamlet, some old play long enough to call up the ready actors to do them good with it?

       I think, now, that we ought to have left Mary Rippon alone.
    We can only regret that there was not from the beginning a university plan to put visionaries like Sandoe and Crouch in an apt device for performing Shakespeare.
     I must come to an end, the end of this tirade. But how do I end? I wonder…. Certainly, I must say that the Colorado Shakespeare Festival was for me the professional springboard to advance whatever career I had. I am profoundly grateful.
     I believe that the problems the Festival has had over the years are not the fault of managing directors, stage directors, surely not the actors, nor even university administrators. All of them well-meaning and capable. They stem from a theatre facility of wrong design for the use to which we have put it. Over the years, I have been a voice in the wilderness crying out this indictment. Now, I venture to write it down.
    At the same time, I need to say-- and this has become important to me-- that I have of late had to try to understand the work of those who would use Shakespeare far and wide from conventional productions of the plays.  For instance, school kids in Denver can go on a rampage of joy through a holiday of the great dramatist’s words and characters, making them their own, right out in the streets. It makes me want to beg forgiveness for my snobbery. I recognize now that we are in the hands of Shakespeare, and have been all the time. He abides our question and uses us in endless ways of truth.
   He is an enduring dimension of what it is to be human, and he will not be quiet and mind his own business, not with any actors around to act him.
    It is not that we KNOW Hamlet but that we are IN him.

   Perhaps that crazy mix of Denver kids in the streets can save us after all.
 I am glad I have been roused from so long a slumber among the plays more or less strictly performed, to a new understanding that raising hell in the rough with Shakespeare may be another good way to skin his exquisite cat.

                                                       A Plague upon this Howling
                           The Tempest

Part II

     I want to think about Mary Rippon Theatre, that special, almost secret place locked between the wings of Hellems classrooms and Henderson Museum on the University of Colorado campus-- and now obscured under the scenic constructions for contemporary Colorado Shakespeare Festival productions.
    This “garden theatre” was named for the first woman to teach at the university, she who was so influential in its early development, a professor of German and philology, and a dean. Historian Silvia Pettem has shown  her to be one of the great souls of her day. Professor Rippon died forgotten in Boulder in 1935 but was to be remembered in 1939, when this beautiful theatre structure was completed and named for her.
    Another of the greatest of professors in the annals of the university, an international authority on Elizabethan drama and its production, George F. Reynolds was consulted by famed university architect, he of the “Tuscan Rural” inspiration, Charles Klauber, about the theatre’s arrangement.
   That Professor Reynolds was consulted at all caused many to argue that Mary Rippon, because of its multiple acting areas, must therefore be a sort of latter day Elizabethan theatre.  One has only to examine pictures of it as it once was-- or remember it as I do-- to see that it is far more Greek than English, far, far better suited for monumental dramas of Aeschylus than for the intimacies of Shakespeare. Mary Rippon reminds me of the Theatre at Epidaurus. Nothing of London.
    In the design and execution of Mary Rippon, low, stone benches form a large semicircle or auditorium for viewers. Down front in the bowl of the ampitheatre was a much reduced memory of the Greek orchestra, the remnants of a round playing space for the Greek Chorus. Coming down each side, right and left, into the orchestra was the parados, a path of entry to the orchestra, or what we would today call the “pit”. Rising two feet or so above the orchestra and extending far right and left, was the proskenium, the main platform on which the principals enacted the drama. Behind them was an architectural façade, the skene, with its large formal, central entrance in which evidence of the play’s horrors were displayed and big entrances made. Henderson Museum represents this ancient function but is too far back behind the platform to be of practical use. It is, however, still lovely as it glows back there.
    Mary Rippon never was right for Shakespeare, but might have been elegant for Sophocles with his megaphonic masks, enlarged gloved hands, stilted shoes, and “operatic” performance. But it was never tried. From the beginning, only Shakespeare was produced-- from James Sandoe’s 1944 production of Romeo and Juliet until the recent turn to the modern realist plays intended to take the pressure of Shakespeare off the less sophisticated audiences of today.
    And then, it comes to mind, how wondrous it is that Boulder has yet another Greek-type theatre-- this one atop Flagstaff Mountain overlooking Boulder, and built by the CCC (The Civilian Conservation Corps) in 1934, all with federal funds. A good deal smaller and more compact, and beautifully restored by the City of Boulder, it reigns high up there, in the fullest mystery of whatever it means to be a theatre.
     I urge you to believe that there is hardly anything more beautiful than arriving at that empty mountain-top theatre in the still deep dark of the earliest summer morning, sitting quietly on the stone benches, there awaiting the sun to rise as it did maybe 3000 plus years ago when the lighted fires from Troy flashed across the Aegean, in relay back to Argos, the great news that the Greeks were at last victorious-- after ten disastrous years. When King  Agamemnon managed to get home across that fabled water, he at once went to his bath where his Queen Clytemnestra butchered him.
   At our Flagstaff theatre, when the sun first breaks, we may fairly wonder who or what is coming home to us. As there is no skene to block our view, we have the vast and entire Great Plains of North America to search for the first glimmer of the signal-sun to provide us news of the suffering world, of our loved-ones fighting another bad war. Those plains are our own Aegean.  But then, imagine the magnificent sights and sounds of Aeschylus’ drama, the horns, the drums and the tambours… the choral voices.
    Many years ago, maybe 1949, a few of us gathered up there on Flagstaff in an afternoon to see classics Professor Donald Sutherland’s new translation of the Agamemnon acted. Not since has that wondrous theatre been so used. I hope I may be forgiven my impossible longing to produce and direct that play up there on the mountain now. Only, I would insist it that it be done in the Greek way-- at dawn.
     If you do go up to experience this magical space, you must arrive there before even the first possibility of the dawn, in the total dark, and utter quiet in order to watch for the sun’s first crack and to feel that somehow that you made it happen.
    And no one says you can’t have with you a flask of strong coffee.


                                                      Sixteen Fragments

    You may be literally at pains to note that the benches in Mary Rippon are 1½ inches lower than the standard 17 inch chair height. After three hours of one’s knees being pointed, at one’s chin, unhappy stresses and strains flair up in one’s back and rump. The benches look lovely at their low height and were so designed, but one is grateful for anything that raises one a couple of inches.

……Cut on dotted lines here and below……………………………………

    It was wonderful after or during a rain, when the grass became so slippery that actors skidded every which way to try to stay on their feet. The audience was amused by the spectacle as they huddled up and tried to stay dry.

……Stack the Fragments neatly…………………………………………

    One night for Merry Wives, the pit was three+ inches deep in water for our Boar’s Head Tavern scenes and gave my faux Falstaffian boots a good soaking.

…….The largest on the bottom………………………………………...

 The auditorium, the house, whatever you want to call it, of Marry Rippon  was built around a giant old elm tree that lived center among the benches, ¾ of the way back. The same little old lady always got that seat where she could rest her back against the beloved old tree. It died.

…… Fasten securely with a golden paper clip………………………

     In those days when the play was down, the audience rushed up over the stage to exit through those east and west portal arches. They regarded it as their unalienable right to do so and were stubborn about it through several seasons after it was disallowed.

…….And carry to the nearest recycling  bin………………………………

    What have I in common with the great soprano Jessye Norman? you may ask. Well, I saw her in all her majesty, as Dido in Berlioz’  Les Troyens-- I saw her fall, kerplunk, when the great disc of Carthage broke under her on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera. And I, trying to make an entrance to Val Kilmer’s Hamlet on the great Mary Rippon disc, fell, splat, flat on my face. A minimum expectation of actors is that they do not fall down on stage.

……And deposit…………………………………………………………

    During his tenure as producing director of the Festival, Daniel S. P. Yang proposed to remove the stone benches and replace them with modern stadium-type seating. He got nowhere with the idea. You might think we were enamored of our pain.

……Leave quickly……………………………………………………...

   For the “Kilmer” Hamlet, we were given a staircase that even angels would fear to tread. When they appeared on stage at an afternoon rehearsal, our Gertrude went straight to the producing director and complained. She was told to mind her own business and get back on those stairs-- which she did not do. Rather she went to a phone and called Actors’ Equity in New York, of which she was a member, and told them her story. Somehow we never had to go up or down those stairs again. They just disappeared.

……Never to return……………………………………………………

    Jim Sandoe , from the beginning, wanted to play the plays as nearly uncut as possible.
He regarded it as our right to hear all of what Shakespeare had written. And Jack Crouch resisted additional structures built on stage. He loved “his garden theatre”. I was indeed fortunate to have them both as teacher-directors.

……C U’s Greatest………………………………………………..........

Professor George F. Reynolds, the most honored and loved old man of Shakespeare-- he who first got the idea that we could learn a lot about a theatre’s architecture by studying the stage directions of plays played in it and became one of the founders of Modern Shakespearean criticism, came to Mary Rippon, watched our performances, and kept his counsel about what he thought. Though there was a rumor that he did not much like my production of Romeo and Juliet, with a teen-aged Juliet. Too soon, he was gone. There can be few of us left who had the privilege to know him.

……Those stone benches again…………………………………………

A dear friend mine, trying to leave the theatre after a performance of my Hamlet, fell on those benches and broke her arm.

……The theatre’s official history……………………………………

    The definitive work on Shakespeare in Mary Rippon is the dissertation of Lynn Nichols at CU.
 Why doesn’t the university press publish it? He tells an immensely funny and engrossing story that I have forgotten.

……A wonderful time back then……………………………………

Maybe it was 1949 when the internationally distinguished Shakespearean director and producer B. Iden Payne was invited to Boulder to direct Twelfth Night. He, who arguably invented theatre studies as an undergraduate and graduate academic subject in 1913 at the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburg, in his retiring years was given carte blanche to do anything in the world he wanted to do at University of Texas, if only he would be so gracious as to come there. So, because he had become so interested in teaching, her did. He came to that Boulder that summer with an entourage of his own young actors and did a stunning Twelfth night. He also had on his arm a stunning young blonde wife, about whom we speculated intensely.
   We stood around and watched in awe of Mr. Payne. He had no academic credentials., but, anciently connected as he was, he had worked with and directed all the legendary great actors in Britain, and then conquered Broadway. He was really something., maybe 65 or 66 then, but that seemed old indeed to us.
    I’m going on here at greater than fragmental length in order to tell you that some years later, when Mr. Payne was even older and had deigned to go to Ashland, to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, I was there too as a lowly  actor. Mr. Payne brought to Ashland the same charisma and excitement, the same entitlement that we had experienced at CU.  He was old wizened, and a powerhouse of limitless energy. I want it known that I was directed by Mr. Payne in Cymbeline, that he praised me for my work in that final complex scene, and, when he took a role himself, for the last time, I had the great honor to play Don Armado to his Sir Nathaniel in Love’s Labor’s Lost. I dine out on that.

……Stand back, men! You’ll get blood on you…………………..…………

    Back in the early days, perhaps 1950, during the first ever production of Lear in Mary Rippon, and directed by Jack Crouch,  we had been pestered during rehearsals by a wretched little brown dog, of terrier type. He would come to the theatre out of nowhere and run at us from the shrubbery, barking and yapping at our heels. It seemed there was nothing the management could do about it. We came to hate that dog.
   Then for a while it disappeared, only to show up again on opening night. We were in that big Act V, sc. iii  when everybody is on stage, all of us arrayed in the conventional inverted V. I was extreme down left as Kent. And here that dog came running at us again out of the bushes, raising hell.  Out of the corner of my upstage eye, I could see him run at the Captain, a giant of a man who was playing into the scene for all he was worth. With the dog at his heels, I saw him bend slightly, deftly, and grab the dog by the throat and, behind his back, without ever missing and acting beat, wring the dog’s neck. When the dog was still, our Captain tossed the lifeless body back into the bushes behind him from whence the creature had come-- and went on acting.
   And I alone am left to tell the tale.

………The Penuiltimate.……………………………………………………

   I’ve preached, here and there, that, of all the great artists, Shakespeare is perhaps the most conservative. He may here and there point up a “liberal” value, even a call to action, but when the chips are down, for him it’s the old, tried and true, careful, saving way of our fathers and mothers which saves our humanity.
    If this be so, I wonder why it is that our tormented university is not declaring the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, and all Shakespeare studies for that matter, as points-earned in its jejune effort to be the most “balanced”, sweetly “diverse” of institutions….

    Will no one say in public that such is not the business of a college or university, to be balanced?  A university is an almost sacred ground where matters of the mind and the intelligence-- and the heart
-- are always out of balance, necessarily so, where ideas on the edge of the new are struggling for primacy.
     Why don’t those callow regents of the university carefully read their Shakespeare and see what a conservative idea really looks and feels like. Then they might find that the curriculum in the humanities is stuffed with ideas struggling for primacy, one scholar commenting on another, and all of them commenting upon the past, all of them out of balance, to try to understand the world.
      It is in the very nature of a university that in studying the old, it pushes away from it into the new. The matter of a liberal education is to study human suffering that otherwise we would tend to ignore. The study of suffering will generally lead to ideas and arts about how to ease, perhaps avoid it.  Education  cannot help but seek to ameliorate the matter of living the suffering human life, through equal justice, education, physical well-being, and a rich inner life.
   Why, then, doesn’t the university administration declare that it is not in the business of protecting anybody’s intellectual, moral, ethical, or political character, certainly not that of a latter day, faux- conservative for whom the accumulation and protection of private wealth is the measure of all things. Rather let students discover and discuss Winter’s Tale. Act IV, sc iv, lines 79-108. Let them discover there true conservatism, its beauties, its strengths and limitations, and its uses. Let them find it in their Shakespeare.

……Last on the Great Lady……………………………………………

    Upon her retirement in Boulder, Professor Rippon acquired a small brick house on the west side of Broadway in the 2600 block, only three doors north of my maternal grandparents. My grandmother would certainly have known her and have been a welcoming neighbor. I regret that when I was a little boy, before the good professor died in 1935, my grandmother, Lulu W. Hatch (another great lady), did not introduce me to her. Oh then, how I would have lorded it over you, dear reader.
    Had she introduced me, I would have said to the good professor that not too far in the future there would be built on the campus, in her honor, a lovely garden theatre of public resort and that I would grow up to act Shakespeare in it.


                                                             Gordon M. Wickstrom

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