Macbeth – Footnotes

Macbeth – Footnotes

Macbeth – Footnotes

The Footnotes to our episode on Macbeth include observations on the unnatural, propulsive pace of the play, and on the origins and interpretations of Shakespeare’s three ‘weird’ sisters.

“…’Twere well it were done quickly.”
The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge called Macbeth Shakespeare’s “most rapid” play, and as Emma and I discussed in the podcast, the action certainly flies along. There is a very deliberate sense that events are running out of control, for at each stage in the plot the Macbeths act precipitously. The idea of time running ahead of them is established from the start – the announcement that the King and his company will stay with them catches them by surprise – Macbeth barely has time to get home before they are due to arrive and they can’t but be hastily prepared to host the court. Duncan staying with them immediately after they’ve learned of the witches prophesy also presents them with an unexpected opportunity; one that they’ve not had time to consider and which they must act on that very night.

In their acting to kill Duncan they obviously disrupt the normal sequence and pace of succession. When Duncan bestows his favour on Macbeth in making him the Thane of Cawdor, he tells him “I have begun to plant thee, and will labour/To make thee full of growing”. This would be the natural time scale, where Macbeth’s progress would be nurtured over time

Macbeth’s need to act fast is not only a practical one, it is also psychological. When he steels himself to do the deed quickly, he expresses the reflexive instinct not to want to look too closely at the fact of what he is doing. Indeed this urge to avoid thinking about his actions only accelerates: “From this moment/The very firstlings of my heart shall be/The firstlings of my hand. And even now,/To crown my thoughts with acts, be it thought and done.” His evil thoughts do not bear examining or arresting: “Strange things I have in head, that will to hand/Which must be acted, ere they be scanned.” 

Macbeth recognises the moral failure of his actions from the start – he cannot look clearly at himself for this would be to take responsibility: “To know my deed, ’twere best not know myself.” His disavowals suggest that he is trapped in a form of self-created trance. In one of her lectures on the play, Emma cited a mock modern court case that put the Macbeths on trial for murder in which they pleaded ‘diminished responsibility’ in their defense. Was Macbeth in the grip of a temporary madness? Or perhaps even of the controlling power of the witches?

After the relentless frenzy of Macbeth’s actions, Shakespeare suggests at the end of the play that the natural pace of time will be restored, when Malcolm proclaims that he will act judiciously “in measure, time and place.”

The winds of time
James McArdle and Saoirse Ronan
Almeida Theatre 2021
Photo: Marc Brenner
The three weird sisters in Orson Welles’ film of Macbeth, 1948

 

Suspected witches kneeling before King James, Daemonologie (1597)

 

The witches at The Globe theatre, 2010
Photo: Tristram Kenton

 

The three sisters at the Almeida theatre, 2021
Photo: Marc Brenner

 

The weird sisters
In the cast list for Macbeth as it appears in the First Folio edition published in 1623 the witches are identified as ‘First Witch’, ‘Second Witch’ and ‘Third Witch’, and also collectively as “three weird sisters”. In the main source that Shakespeare used for the story of Macbeth, Holinshed’s Chronicles from 1577, Holinshed describes the “weird sisters” as “goddesses of destiny…endowed with knowledge of prophesy”. At that time the word ‘weird’ meant something different to our connotation of strange or bizarre; rather it denotes fate or destiny, a force that is inescapable.

Shakespeare’s sisters are certainly endowed with a gift for prophesy, which suggests that Macbeth’s future is predetermined. Their power does not necessarily equate to their directly controlling Macbeth’s behaviour, unlike the role of the three Fates in Ancient Greece and other mythologies, who controlled humans to ensure that balance and order in the world was maintained. The Fates generally do not act with any malicious or evil intent, but to maintain stability. So why do Shakespeare’s witches seem to mislead Macbeth into his fate? By urging him to be “bloody, bold and resolute” because “none of woman born shall harm Macbeth”, for example, the Sisters help lure him into the very acts and arrogance that will destroy him.

Shakespeare’s figures owe more perhaps to the popular image of witches in his time, and in particular to the belief championed by none other than the King himself that witches were instruments of the Devil who must be hunted out and punished. James VI’s three-volume work Daemonologie, first published in 1597 and reissued when he became King of England in 1603, sought to educate Christians on the existence and practices of witches, and also contained an extract from the famous North Berwick Witch Trials of 1590 over which James presided. The account of the trial enumerated the motives and methods used by the accused witches, including one woman who confessed to having attempted to assassinate the King by casting a spell to sink his ship. The North Berwick witches were tortured and executed.

Shakespeare’s witches employ the kind of ritual practices described in the account of the North Berwick trials, including direct quotes from the witches’ testimonies. Banquo recognises the potential malevolence of the witches when he warns Macbeth that they may be “instruments of darkness” that could mislead them. As Emma suggested in our conversation, however, it is possible that the metropolitan audience at the Globe theatre in London in 1606 would have viewed these figures with more skepticism. The Shakespearean critic A.C. Bradley went as far as to say that the sisters are simply “old women, poor and ragged, skinny and hideous, full of vulgar spite”. He does grant that they may be the recipients of some limited supernatural powers, in particular the gift of prescience. As we’ve suggested prescience can easily be equated with pre-determination, and the witches seem to be part of a larger world view in Shakespeare and this play that believes that our actions are mapped out by greater powers, whether for good or evil. Lady Macbeth seems to suggest that these kind of forces are at work propelling Macbeth’s advancement:  “fate and metaphysical aid doth seem/To have thee crowned withal”.

By Bradley’s reckoning, however, even with the power of prophesy the witches are “an influence, nothing more”. Their words provoke feelings and thoughts in Macbeth that are already there. This leads modern interpreters to portray the witches more as hallucinations or psychological projections, elaborating on Banquo’s doubt that the figures they have seen may not have been real: “Were such things here as we do speak about?/Or have we eaten on the insane root,/That takes the reason prisoner?”

The witches represent the latent lust for power within Macbeth. Rather than an external power, evil is internal in human beings – what Bradley labels “the evil slumbering in the hero’s soul” – which doesn’t require much provocation to unleash it. This interpretation clearly fits more easily into our modern understanding of man’s independent agency, compared with ideas of demons and devils. Nonetheless our enjoyment of the witches comes from an apprehension that that all of these possibilities for their role in the play are imaginable together. We will forever be exercised by questions of what powers there are beyond our own, what the sources of evil are, and the indefinable scope of our own imagination and impulses.

The Texts
If you are interested in buying the play text or other related books, we’d be delighted if you choose to purchase them by following the links below. We will earn a small commission on every book you purchase, which helps to keep the podcast going. You will also be supporting an independent bookseller. Thank you.
Suggest a play
We’re always open to suggestions about plays to talk about, so if you’d like us to discuss a favourite of yours, please email us at plays@theplaypodcast.com. Let us know why you think we should cover it, and if you know anyone who’d be excited and qualified to talk about it with us (even yourself if modesty permits!).
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038 – Macbeth, by William Shakespeare

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Our Country’s Good – Footnotes

Our Country’s Good – Footnotes

The Footnotes to our episode on Our Country’s Good include observations on the parallels with the play-within-the-play, The Recruiting Officer.  

The Recruiting Officer
There is an additional richness in Our Country’s Good that comes from the parallels between its story and themes, and those in the play-within-the-play, The Recruiting Officer. The Recruiting Officer presents a satirical portrait of society in the country town of Shrewsbury, focussing particularly on the activities of several army officers whose mission is to recruit local men to serve in the army. Along the way officers don’t mind enjoying the hospitality of the local ladies, who in turn are seeking to recruit partners of their own. Although the play is a comedy of love and deception, like Our Country’s Good it also has serious things to say about social class, women’s position and prospects, and the realities of military service.

The many specific parallels between the plays begin with the simple fact that the Royal Marines sent to establish the colony in Our Country’s Good are of course recruits themselves. In fact a number of them do not appear to be happy that they have been selected for this challenging mission. By contrast to The Recruiting Officer, which is set in 1706 when the army were buoyed by a recent victory over the French, these officers have just suffered an historic defeat in America. It’s safe to say that morale is not high in the camp here. The fate of the convicts is also not dissimilar to the way that petty criminals were often impressed into the army – many are victims of trumped up charges or excessive sentencing.

Somewhat ironically the marines in Our Country’s Good express concerns about the specific choice of the play that the convicts are to perform. Ross and Tench, for example, are fear that the immorality of the officers on display in The Recruiting Officer could encourage insubordination or worse  in the company. The officers’ objections may partly be based on their understanding that The Recruiting Officer was notoriously candid in its references to sexual relationships, including overtones of homosexuality in the army, which may of course been too close to the bone for the service men.

Their assumptions about the immorality of the theatre may also stem from the historic view that actresses were commonly associated with being prostitutes – a connection which Major Ross makes about the prospect of the convict women being in the play: ‘Filthy, thieving, lying whores and now we have to watch them flout their flitty ways on the stage.”  Reverend Johnson underlines the point when he observes that his wife would certainly not entertain the idea of acting in a play: “My wife abhors anything of that nature. After all, actresses are not famed for their morals.” When the Reverend seeks reassurance from Captain Clark that The Recruiting Officer is a play that promotes marriage, there is further irony in the captain’s partial answer: “They marry for love and to secure wealth”, his failing to mention the other less salubrious behaviour of the officers.

The two plays literally overlap when characters in Our Country’s Good quote lines directly from The Recruiting Officer, and we cannot but draw parallels between the characters and the roles that they are playing. When Ralph and Wisehammer rehearse Plume and Brazen’s contest over Jack Wilful, for example, they are also enacting their own rivalry over Mary. When Arscott quotes Kite’s great speech about his being born a gypsy where he learned “canting and lying”, Dabby exclaims “That’s about me!”. The overlap is most strikingly felt in the magical scene on the beach where Ralph and Mary act out the exchange between Plume and Silvia dressed as Jack Wilful, when the force of their attraction all but overwhelms them and Silvia asks him to say “what usage she must expect under his command”. Ralph and Mary yield to the power inherent in the speech and consummate their love.

Our Country’s Good finishes with the opening speech of The Recruiting Officer. It’s a rousing, theatrical speech which promises a triumphant performance, triumphant simply because of the collective energy and purpose that have made it happen against the odds.

 

The Recruiting Officer
Donmar Warehouse 2012
Photo: Johan Persson

The Recruiting Officer
NYU Grad Acting Class 2014  
Photograph: Ella Bromblin

 

 

The Texts
If you are interested in buying the play text or other related books, we’d be delighted if you choose to purchase them by following the links below. We will earn a small commission on every book you purchase, which helps to keep the podcast going. You will also be supporting an independent bookseller. Thank you.
Suggest a play
We’re always open to suggestions about plays to talk about, so if you’d like us to discuss a favourite of yours, please email us at plays@theplaypodcast.com. Let us know why you think we should cover it, and if you know anyone who’d be excited and qualified to talk about it with us (even yourself if modesty permits!).
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036 – Hamlet by William Shakespeare

036 – Hamlet by William Shakespeare

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Macbeth – Footnotes

The Recruiting Officer – Footnotes

The Recruiting Officer – Footnotes

The Footnotes to our episode on The Recruiting Officer include observations on the multiple meanings of its title and the extraordinary story of its first production in Australia in 1789.

The Recruiting Game
There is at the very least a twin meaning in the title of The Recruiting Officer. We first assume that it refers literally to Captain Plume, or perhaps also collectively to Kite and Brazen, as the officers who have arrived in town to recruit local men for the army. Of course the officers are also open to recruiting women for their pleasure, if not to marry. In fact as Plume confesses, he often achieves both goals by targeting the women to get through them to their male acquaintances, as he does with Rose in pursuit of Bulloch and Cartwright.

It is also true that the women in the play are out to recruit, in their case long-term romantic or economic partners. Silvia’s mission is to recruit Plume; Lucy seeks to enlist Brazen; Rose will be happy to snare either Plume or Jack Wilful. The parallels between the recruitment games of the sexes come together of course in the figure of Jack Wilful himself, or herself. Plume believes that he is recruiting another man for his army, while also inadvertently advancing his and Silvia’s matrimonial negotiations.

And the twin meanings of the recruitment game are further articulated in the use of military language to describe the campaigns of love: Melinda is likened to Helen of Troy, requiring a ten-year siege to win, and when Worthy laments that he was “forced to blockade” when his “general advance” on her was repulsed, Plume urges him to “redouble his advance”.  The reciprocal metaphors are also used:  Plume is “married” to the regiment, and finally of course Plume settles down to marry Sylvia and to “raise recruits” of his own – their children –  who will perhaps become another generation of ‘recruiting officers’ as the cycle continues.

Nancy Carroll and Ffion Edwards in The Recruiting Officer
Donmar Theatre 2012.
Photograph: Johan Persson

 

 

 

 

The First Fleet’s production of the play
One of the extraordinary stories in the history of The Recruiting Officer is that of its being performed by a group of convicts in the newly-founded settlement in New South Wales in 1789. The ‘First Fleet’ carrying 1,400 people on eleven ships set sail in 1787 to establish the penal colony at Botany Bay under the command of Captain Arthur Philip. As the Governor in Chief of the new colony Philip was an unusually enlightened leader, for he saw that in the future the convicts would have to be constructively assimilated into the new settlement. Perhaps this vision inspired his initiative to stage their unlikely dramatic production. The performance was timed to honour King George III on his birthday on 4th June 1789.

The choice of The Recruiting Officer as the play for the convicts to perform seems appropriate to the circumstances of the colony. The Royal Marines sent with the convicts to establish the outpost colony were themselves recruited to this challenging mission, and the convicts were of course selected for their part in the venture in the same way that petty criminals were often impressed into the army.

The story of the convict production of the play was re-told in Thomas Keneally’s novel of 1987 The Playmaker. The Artistic Director of the Royal Court Theatre in London at the time, Max Stafford-Clark, was planning a new production of The Recruiting Officer when he came across Keneally’s novel. He was inspired to commission playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker to adapt the story into a new play that could run alongside their revival of The Recruiting Officer. Wertenbaker’s wonderful play Our Country’s Good premiered at the Royal Court in 1988, almost exactly 200 years after the extraordinary original performance.

Click here for our follow-up episode on Our Country’s Good!

The Texts
If you are interested in buying the play text or other related books, we’d be delighted if you choose to purchase them by following the links below. We will earn a small commission on every book you purchase, which helps to keep the podcast going. You will also be supporting an independent bookseller. Thank you.
Suggest a play
We’re always open to suggestions about plays to talk about, so if you’d like us to discuss a favourite of yours, please email us at plays@theplaypodcast.com. Let us know why you think we should cover it, and if you know anyone who’d be excited and qualified to talk about it with us (even yourself if modesty permits!).
Plays suggested for discussion by our Guests and Listeners - which gets your vote?
  • Add your own suggestion
You might also be interested in …
038 – Macbeth, by William Shakespeare

038 – Macbeth, by William Shakespeare

Macbeth is a tragedy of love, ambition and betrayal, propelled by relentless energy and shocking violence, and infused by an air of the supernatural. Professor Emma Smith from Hertford College, Oxford, joins us to explore Shakespeare’s notorious ‘Scottish play’.

037 – Blue/Orange, by Joe Penhall

037 – Blue/Orange, by Joe Penhall

Joe Penhall’s explosive and unsettling play Blue/Orange addresses issues of mental illness, racial prejudice and interpersonal power. I’m delighted to be joined in this episode by the playwright Joe Penhall and by James Dacre, the director of the 20th anniversary production of the play.

036 – Hamlet by William Shakespeare

036 – Hamlet by William Shakespeare

Arguably the world’s most famous play, The Tragical History of Hamlet has all of the elements of great drama: a revenge thriller, a tragic love story, political intrigue, wondrous poetry, philosophical insight, but most of all a uniquely brilliant but flawed hero. Greg Hersov, director of the new Young Vic production, helps guide us through the almost infinite enchantments and challenges of the play.

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The 2020 Theatre Diary – March

Before the theatres went dark this month I was lucky enough to see Caryl Churchill’s A Number at the Bridge, and spend more than seven hours in thrall to Robert Lepage’s Seven Streams of the River Ota at the National. Plus, some thoughts on what we miss when there is no theatre.

The 2020 Theatre Diary – January

The 2020 Theatre Diary – January

The January roundup included both classic plays, such as The Duchess of Malfi, Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters, as well as recent musicals Dear Evan Hansen and Girl from the North Country

Macbeth – Footnotes

Leopoldstadt – Footnotes

Leopoldstadt – Footnotes

The Footnotes to our episode on Tom Stoppard’s majestic play Leopoldstadt include observations on the origins of its title, the metaphoric resonances of the child’s game, Cat’s Cradle, and how Gustav Klimt’s art is an apt choice to help paint the play’s story.

The title of the play
In our conversation Patrick revealed that Leopoldstadt had not been the original working title of the play, but it was an appropriate title. The checkered history of the Leopoldstadt area of Vienna certainly reflects the historical vicissitudes of Jews in Austria. It’s association with the Jews goes back to 1625 when Jews were banned from living within the city walls, and huddled together in a ghetto on the other side of the Danube. They were evicted again in 1669 by Emperor Leopold 1, and the site of their synagogue was cleared to make way for a church dedicated to St Leopold. The area was named Leopoldstadt by the Christian population in gratitude to the Emperor.

After Emperor Joseph issued his Edict of Tolerance in 1782, Jews began to return to Leopoldstadt, although they were still generally banned from the city itself for another century. By the late 19th and early 20th century the area was again associated with the Jews, particularly following the first world war by the poorest people. 

In the Reichskristallnacht pogrom of 1938 the area was once again the focus of persecution when six synagogues and thirty-one prayer houses were destroyed. Today, the Leopoldstadt area of Vienna is no longer Jewish: following the 20th century wave of expulsions only 3% of the population is Jewish.

So the origin of the name Leopoldstadt represents a bitter irony in its association with the Jews of Vienna. The title of the play is a short-hand for targeted discrimination, but it is also a definition of community; a place where people of a kind live together whether by choice or necessity. It’s history also testifies to the way that the identity and interpretation of a place and people can change almost arbitrarily through the currents of history. As the play itself asserts, it is important not to forget the realities of the past that can be lost or obscured over time.  

Emperor Leopold 1st 1640-1705

 

 

The Leopoldstadter Tempel – the largest synagogue in Vienna
Destroyed on Kristallnacht 10 November 1938

 

 

 

 

Cat’s Cradle
The string game that Nathan and Leo play with Ludwig in 1938, and which they remember together when they meet again in 1955 is not only a poignant  personal touchstone; it also has metaphoric resonance in the themes of the play. In typical fashion Stoppard gives us a few clues to these thematic reverberations, such as Ludwig’s observation that there seems to be “no rhyme or reason” in the progress of the game, but in fact “each state comes from the previous state”, as do the events that follow in the flow of history. There is actually a pattern in the game, a mathematical order that is hard to discern underneath the apparent randomness, as the mathematics professor likes to believe there is in nature, despite the chaos of the world they are living in.

Ludwig also points out that the knots in the string in the game “always stay the same distance from each other”, because they never cut the string – a metaphor I think for the fixed links in the family tree that cannot be broken. The individual knots are “not allowed to show up anywhere they like”, just as Leo cannot disown his ancestral origins no matter how far away he travels.

The Cat’s Cradle is a small but glinting example of Stoppard’s art, in that it adds beauty and emotional depth to the personal stories, at the same time as it elaborates on the largest questions in the play.

Gustav Klimt
In the play Gretl is having her portrait painted by none other than Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), one of the founders of the Viennese Seccesion movement and most famously the painter of The Kiss (1907). His work is renowned for its symbolist imagery as well as for its eroticism, which adds an appropriate  frisson to Gretl’s choice of artist. Klimt painted a number of portraits of women from the highest ranks of Viennese society, including two illustrious portraits of Adele Bloch-Bauer,  the wife of wealthy Austrian industrialist Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer. Bloch-Bauer who was one of Klimt’s most important patrons, and a respected member of fin de siecle Viennese society. Although Adele’s portraits post-date Gretl’s sitting, they may have partially been a model for the story of her painting. Like Hermann Merz, Bloch-Bauer was Jewish, and in 1938 he fled Austria and his art collection was subsequently seized by the Nazis. After the war the Bloch-Bauer portraits became the subject of a long-running dispute over their ownership, which was only finally resolved in 2006 when the family reclaimed and sold them.

As we learn in the last act of Leopoldstrasse, Gretl’s portrait was also the victim of Nazi pilferage, and Rosa is embroiled years later in a determined battle to recover it from the Austrian state. The fate of the painting is symbolic not only of the lost possessions and lives of the Jews, but of the erased identities of the individuals of the past, one of the running themes of the play. As Nathan tells us, the painting was originally titled “Portrait of Margarete Merz”, but it now hangs in the Belverdere gallery in Vienna known only as “Woman with a Green Shawl”.

There is another reference to Klimt in the play, specifically to his paintings of ‘Philosophy’, Medicine’ and ‘Jurisprudence’, which he was commissioned to produce for the great hall of the University of Vienna. The paintings were greeted by outrage because of their allegorical imagery which many deemed pornographic, and they were never displayed at the university. The painting of ‘Philosophy’ has been described as illustrating an idea prominent at the time that the “purposeful progress of history was ultimately governed by incomprehensible and uncontrollable cyclical forces of nature.” A meaning that sounds particularly fitting for the cycles of persecution and devastation that we witness repeated in the play and over the history of the century. Are these uncontrollable, destructive forces part of our fundamental character as human beings? As Ernst says about the meaning of the paintings: “The rational is at the mercy of the irrational. Barbarism will not be eradicated by culture.”  As if to highlight his point, a postscript to the story is that Klimt’s three university paintings were deliberately destroyed by the Nazis on their retreat from Vienna in 1945. Barbarism indeed.

 

 

 

Adele Bloch-Bauer I (1907)

 

 

Philosophy (1900, 1907)

 

 

The Texts
If you are interested in buying the play text or other related books, we’d be delighted if you choose to purchase them by following the links below. We will earn a small commission on every book you purchase, which helps to keep the podcast going. You will also be supporting an independent bookseller. Thank you.
Suggest a play
We’re always open to suggestions about plays to talk about, so if you’d like us to discuss a favourite of yours, please email us at plays@theplaypodcast.com. Let us know why you think we should cover it, and if you know anyone who’d be excited and qualified to talk about it with us (even yourself if modesty permits!).
Plays suggested for discussion by our Guests and Listeners - which gets your vote?
  • Add your own suggestion
You might also be interested in …
038 – Macbeth, by William Shakespeare

038 – Macbeth, by William Shakespeare

Macbeth is a tragedy of love, ambition and betrayal, propelled by relentless energy and shocking violence, and infused by an air of the supernatural. Professor Emma Smith from Hertford College, Oxford, joins us to explore Shakespeare’s notorious ‘Scottish play’.

037 – Blue/Orange, by Joe Penhall

037 – Blue/Orange, by Joe Penhall

Joe Penhall’s explosive and unsettling play Blue/Orange addresses issues of mental illness, racial prejudice and interpersonal power. I’m delighted to be joined in this episode by the playwright Joe Penhall and by James Dacre, the director of the 20th anniversary production of the play.

036 – Hamlet by William Shakespeare

036 – Hamlet by William Shakespeare

Arguably the world’s most famous play, The Tragical History of Hamlet has all of the elements of great drama: a revenge thriller, a tragic love story, political intrigue, wondrous poetry, philosophical insight, but most of all a uniquely brilliant but flawed hero. Greg Hersov, director of the new Young Vic production, helps guide us through the almost infinite enchantments and challenges of the play.

Recent Posts
The 2020 Theatre Diary – March

The 2020 Theatre Diary – March

Before the theatres went dark this month I was lucky enough to see Caryl Churchill’s A Number at the Bridge, and spend more than seven hours in thrall to Robert Lepage’s Seven Streams of the River Ota at the National. Plus, some thoughts on what we miss when there is no theatre.

The 2020 Theatre Diary – January

The 2020 Theatre Diary – January

The January roundup included both classic plays, such as The Duchess of Malfi, Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters, as well as recent musicals Dear Evan Hansen and Girl from the North Country

Macbeth – Footnotes

Happy Days – Footnotes

Happy Days – Footnotes

The Footnotes to our episode on Samuel Beckett’s timeless play Happy Days include observations on the power of Beckett’s theatrical imagery, as well as the indeterminate nature of time in the play.

Installation artist
When I asked Lisa Dwan about the striking visual tableau that we see on stage in Happy Days, she described Samuel Beckett as an “installation artist”. The visual settings of his plays are extraordinarily arresting. They are simple, yet mysterious and powerful. The lone tree in the otherwise empty place where Vladimir and Estragon wait for Godot, or the room with the windows set high up in the wall, two dustbins and a single throne-like chair in Endgame. We are aware that these particular locations are part of a larger world, but the characters do not have any agency to change or exit their self-contained space. Their constrained circumstances prompt many questions – what is in the world beyond? How have they arrived in this situation? How do they practically survive without the usual necessities?

In fact it is notable how quickly we put aside such questions and accept the status quo of the world we are witnessing. We understand very quickly that the space that the characters occupy is a metaphoric one. As Lisa observed, Beckett’s landscapes reflect a “psychological state”. We experience directly the state of existential uncertainty and enquiry the characters do, and we also understand that there are no rational explanations for what we are seeing. We accept that any answers are going to be unknowable, and we simply adapt to the circumstances we are presented with, as the characters do.

In stripping back the physical world to a minimum Beckett also imbues it with a sense of existential challenge, so that what we witness and experience is essentially consciousness itself. How we respond to psychological pressure, doubt, or fear. As Lisa so succinctly put it, Beckett was “putting the mind on stage”.

Lisa Dwan on the set of Happy Days
at the Riverside Studios

 

 

Diane Wiest as Winnie
photo by Gerry Goodstein

 

“The old style”
Throughout the play Winnie refers obliquely to how life was in a time before as being in “the old style”. Although she never explains explicitly what occurred to separate her from the past, we understand her reference to be describing a world and a life that we would recognise as normal. She describes her first dance, her wedding day, and even an encounter with a man in a tool shed.

Winnie suggests that time passed differently in “the old style”, where the definition of a ‘day’ was not signalled by the ringing of the bell: “Not a day goes by, to speak in the old style”. Linear time as we know, and it used to be for Winnie, no longer seems to apply. There does not appear to be any sunset; the weather never changes; nothing grows; and in fact Winnie suggests that things that she removes from her bag will reappear again tomorrow. Time is an artificial construct of the old world and a way of thinking: “May one still speak of time? Say it is a long time now, Willie, since I saw you. Since I heard you. May one? One does. [smile] The old style!”

Yet we do have a sense that Winnie’s time is running out. The earth has risen to engulf her up to her neck. “Ah well, not long now, Winnie, can’t be long now, until the bell for sleep.”  And of course the title of the play refers to transient, subjective and limited time. In the end Winnie exclaims: “Oh, this is a happy day, this will have been another happy day!…After all….So far.” Ambiguous, inevitably.

The Texts
If you are interested in buying the play text or other related books, we’d be delighted if you choose to purchase them by following the links below. We will earn a small commission on every book you purchase, which helps to keep the podcast going. You will also be supporting an independent bookseller. Thank you.
Suggest a play
We’re always open to suggestions about plays to talk about, so if you’d like us to discuss a favourite of yours, please email us at plays@theplaypodcast.com. Let us know why you think we should cover it, and if you know anyone who’d be excited and qualified to talk about it with us (even yourself if modesty permits!).
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Escaped Alone – Footnotes

In our Footnotes to the episode on Escaped Alone I’ve shared some background on my experience filming the play with our local theatre group, as well as some further thoughts on Caryl Churchill’s uncanny prescience.

Filming Escaped Alone during lockdown
I am privileged to be a member of the play selection committee at my local amateur theatre club, and during the past 18 months it has been very difficult to plan future productions in our theatre. We decided that one way we could continue to make theatre happen in some form would be to stage a play in the theatre without an audience, and film the result for presentation online. We knew that with various lockdown restrictions in place we would have to choose a play that we could mount while complying with the legal and moral criteria in place. This meant choosing a title with a small cast – we might be limited to having no more than six people together during rehearsal for example; and that also required a relatively simple single set, and minimised the physical interaction within the cast. We selected Escaped Alone firstly therefore because with its cast of four sitting fixed in their garden chairs throughout it could be practically staged maintaining social distancing.

There were a number of other equally compelling reasons that we wanted to do Escaped Alone: the play offered four wonderful roles for older women, a fact that is probably unique on the stage; it also displays all of the challenging power as well as the humour characteristic of Caryl Churchill’s wonderful language; and finally, because of the extraordinary prescience of its vision of a world overcome by collective disaster. The play speaks to our fears about the future of the planet, as well as our personal anxieties, for example when isolated by age or the pandemic, while also offering some salvation in the strength of our community, as friends, neighbours or open-minded theatre goers.

When it came to staging the play our director, Daniel Wain, had the vision to realise that we had an opportunity to film the play not just as a record of a single theatrical performance, but as a film in its own right. This meant that we could shoot the production in multiple takes and with different camera angles and perspective, rather than as a single run-through. We hoped that this would  provide additional detail and texture to the dynamics between the characters, as well as an enhanced focus on the intense personal monologues that each of the women deliver. It also offered an opportunity to suggest a particular interpretation of Mrs Jarrett’s role as the messenger or narrator in the form of the play.

After weeks of rehearsal with the text via Zoom, in our gardens and finally in the empty theatre, we were ready to film. We spent a day constructing the set, and setting up the lighting, sound and camera infrastructure; followed by four long, intense days of filming to complete the 124-page shot list. The cast were phenomenally patient and professional, delivering funny, deeply moving performances, often many times over! It was an enormously rewarding, collaborative experience, which felt like an appropriately resilient and communal response to the challenge of the pandemic. One that we hope is also true to the spirit of Caryl Churchill’s prophetic play.

Teddington Theatre Club’s film of Escaped Alone will be broadcast online for five nights from 02-06 September 2021. Click here for more information and to buy tickets to watch.

The cast on set for Teddington Theatre Club’s film production of Escaped Alone

 

The Handmaid’s Tale

Prophesy
Elaine joked during our conversation in the podcast that if Caryl Churchill writes about something happening in the future in a play, that event will come to pass! It is impossible not to be struck by Churchill’s prescience in the pictures she paints in Mrs Jarrett’s monologues of a world overcome by environmental disasters, as well as by the violence and anarchy that may ensue when mankind fights over scarce resource, or law and order has broken down under the pressure of extreme events. Although the language or images she uses may seem too surreal to be true at times, the detail is so close to what we know that it feels that it could happen, or already has.

It reminds me of the extraordinary reality of another prophetic writer, Margaret Atwood, who famously said about her novel The Handmaid’s Tale that it contained nothing that hadn’t already happened somewhere in the world.

As Elaine also suggested Mrs Jarrett is like the messenger in Greek drama who brings truth the characters do not want to hear. I was reminded of the sooth-sayer Tiresias from Oedipus Rex and Antigone, for example, who despite his physical blindness is able to see and tell us unpalatable truths. Caryl Churchill is a sooth-sayer of sorts I think.

The Texts
If you are interested in buying the play text or other related books, we’d be delighted if you choose to purchase them by following the links below. We will earn a small commission on every book you purchase, which helps to keep the podcast going. You will also be supporting an independent bookseller. Thank you.
Suggest a play
We’re always open to suggestions about plays to talk about, so if you’d like us to discuss a favourite of yours, please email us at plays@theplaypodcast.com. Let us know why you think we should cover it, and if you know anyone who’d be excited and qualified to talk about it with us (even yourself if modesty permits!).
Plays suggested for discussion by our Guests and Listeners - which gets your vote?
  • Add your own suggestion
You might also be interested in …
038 – Macbeth, by William Shakespeare

038 – Macbeth, by William Shakespeare

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037 – Blue/Orange, by Joe Penhall

037 – Blue/Orange, by Joe Penhall

Joe Penhall’s explosive and unsettling play Blue/Orange addresses issues of mental illness, racial prejudice and interpersonal power. I’m delighted to be joined in this episode by the playwright Joe Penhall and by James Dacre, the director of the 20th anniversary production of the play.

036 – Hamlet by William Shakespeare

036 – Hamlet by William Shakespeare

Arguably the world’s most famous play, The Tragical History of Hamlet has all of the elements of great drama: a revenge thriller, a tragic love story, political intrigue, wondrous poetry, philosophical insight, but most of all a uniquely brilliant but flawed hero. Greg Hersov, director of the new Young Vic production, helps guide us through the almost infinite enchantments and challenges of the play.

Recent Posts
The 2020 Theatre Diary – March

The 2020 Theatre Diary – March

Before the theatres went dark this month I was lucky enough to see Caryl Churchill’s A Number at the Bridge, and spend more than seven hours in thrall to Robert Lepage’s Seven Streams of the River Ota at the National. Plus, some thoughts on what we miss when there is no theatre.

The 2020 Theatre Diary – January

The 2020 Theatre Diary – January

The January roundup included both classic plays, such as The Duchess of Malfi, Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters, as well as recent musicals Dear Evan Hansen and Girl from the North Country