A Servant to Two Masters (& One Man Two Guvnors) – Footnotes

A Servant to Two Masters (& One Man Two Guvnors) – Footnotes

A Servant to Two Masters (& One Man Two Guvnors) – Footnotes

The Footnotes to our episode on A Servant to Two Masters and One Man Two Guvnors include a cast list of Commedia dell’Arte characters, notes on the harlequin’s hunger and cross-dressing for power in a patriarchal world.

The Commedia Characters
The cast list of a Commedia dell’Arte production consisted of the same stock characters, whose costumes, characteristics and part in the plot were consistent and readily recognisable by their audience. The main stars were:

The zanni: a clown or servant character. The Harlequin being one version. Truffaldino / Francis in our plays.
• He has a strong survival instinct
• Lives in the moment
• Has a poor ability to plan
• Is emotional rather than rational
• Is faithful, but plays a part in breaking up or restoring relationships
• Is stupid but also scheming and manipulative
• Is always hungry – see below for more on the origins of the harlequin’s hunger.

The Vecchi:  Pantalone – Pantaloon / Charlie, and Il Dottore, Dr Lombardi or Harry Dangle
Pantalone:
• Traditionally a wealthy and greedy old man. A Master, representing money.
• An old fool, with a large ego, self-absorbed, who becomes the butt of tricks.
• Because of his wealth he has the leisure time to meddle in other characters’ lives.
• Usually the father to one of the lovers.
• Usually single or a widower.
• Central to the plot – starts the play.
Il Dottore:
• the decadent erudite (doctor or lawyer)
* a foil to Pantalone.
• Pompous – loves the sound of his own voice
• Spouts ersatz Latin or Greek.

Inamorati: young lovers: Clarice and Silvio, Pauline and Alan
• Over-dramatic in everything they do, but completely sincere.
• Plot of the play revolves around their love and the obstacles that are put in their way before they are finally united. They are in love with the idea of love.
• Obstacles include the parent’s desire for another outcome.
• Selfish and childish.
• Reliant on assistance from the Zanni or servants to help them fulfil their destiny, because they are conceited but not wise or experienced enough in love or the world to succeed on their own. The servants act as go-betweens and speak on their behalf.

Colombina: – Smeraldina and Dolly
• Meaning “little dove”, A comic servant
• She is often the Harlequin’s mistress; her costume complements the Harlequin’s.
• She is down-to-earth in character
• She can always see the situation for what it is.

Il Capitano:
• A braggart, soldier who often has no real rank and makes up stories of military heroism.
• Cowardly, amoral
• Accepts assignment from Pantalone, while playing off all opportunities.
• No direct equivalent but Silvio and Alan display some of the puffed-up but toothless bravado.

Prima Donna
Literally the leading lady. The leading female character in the Masters group of characters (as opposed to the servants).

Harlequin’s hunger
In the podcast we talked about the fact that the Harlequin character is commonly characterised as consumed with hunger. In general the character reflected a time when the peasant population could not take the over supply of food for granted. In fact the origin of the Harlequin character is even more specific than that, because he was usually attributed with being a peasant from the particular province of Bergamo, as Truffaldino declares in A Servant to Two Masters. During the 15th century the people of Bergamo were facing a famine due to cheaper imports from Greece after their region was conquered by the Venetian army. They flooded in to the cities such as Venice, offering themselves for whatever work they could find and eeking out a living in anyway they could. The Commedia audience would certainly have recognised themselves in the character of the hungry servant in search of work and food.

A woman in a man’s world
When we talked in the podcast about the female perspective that Goldoni offers in A Servant to Two Masters we focussed initially on Smeraldina as a spokeswoman for her sex in the patriarchal world of 18th century Venice. But Beatrice also presents a suggestive symbol of the potential power of women in a man’s world. As a character she is certainly a force to be reckoned with, having the initiative and courage to pursue her plan to secure the dowry and rescue her lover. Let’s not forget that in the course of doing so she also gets the better of Silvio in a sword fight.

It is telling of course that she achieves her success by dressing and behaving as a man. Her independent strength and spirit is foreshadowed early on when Brighella recalls that in Turin she “often dressed like a man to go riding”, and when at the end of the play Florindo expects her to revert to type and “pop yourself into a blouse and bodice”, she defies him, preferring to retain her manly attire. I think we can take this as a literal indication of who will be wearing the trousers in their relationship.

The idea that the only way that women could succeed in a man’s world was to behave like a man was echoed for our time in One Man Two Guvnors when Dolly predicts that “in twenty years’ time there’ll be a woman in ten Downing Street, … and she won’t be doing the washing up. Then you’ll see exactly what women can do. You’ll see a more just and fair society. The feminine voice of compassion for the poor will be the guiding principle of government, and there’ll be an end to foreign wars.”  Knowing irony of course. As it happened Mrs Thatcher’s power was deemed by some to have been achieved by her mimicking macho postures rather than revolutionising political values. And it could be argued that many still thought that Hillary Clinton’s ambition betrayed her sex. Perhaps we still await a world where it is not necessary to dress and behave like “the cock of the midden” to progress, to quote the wise servant Smeraldina again.

 

 

 

 

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?
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030 – Escaped Alone by Caryl Churchill

030 – Escaped Alone by Caryl Churchill

Caryl Churchill’s stunning play Escaped Alone presents an ordinary scene of four women of a certain age chatting over tea in a suburban garden. Of course not all is as tranquil as it appears, for each of the women harbour dark personal anxieties, and from time to time one of them steps away from the garden to share news with us about apocalyptic disasters that have struck the world. Produced at the Royal Court in 2016, Churchill’s vision of a world overcome by collective disaster has proved to be extraordinarily prophetic. Joining me to explore our first Churchill play is Professor Elaine Aston, author of a monograph on Caryl Churchill as well as the editor of the Cambridge Companion to Caryl Churchill.

029 – A Taste of Honey by Shelagh Delaney

029 – A Taste of Honey by Shelagh Delaney

Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey caused a sensation when it appeared at the Theatre Royal Stratford in 1958 because of its frank portrayal of a working-class, single mother and daughter, as well as its bold representations of a mixed-race relationship and a young homosexual as a central character. Delaney sent her first play to the renowned director Joan Littlewood who helped develop it into an historic production which went on to the West End and Broadway. Professor Nadine Holdsworth helps us to explore the enduring power and relevance of the play.

028 – Girl from the North Country by Conor McPherson, music and lyrics by Bob Dylan

028 – Girl from the North Country by Conor McPherson, music and lyrics by Bob Dylan

Girl from the North Country is an extraordinary collaboration between the playwright Conor McPherson and the musician and song writer Bob Dylan. The result is a magical work where McPherson’s portrait of families struggling to survive in Depression America is transfigured into an uplifting theatrical experience by the ravishing period arrangements of Dylan’s songs.
The play opened at the Old Vic Theatre in London in 2017 to a rapturous response and reviews, and was followed by runs in the West End and New York.
This is a very special episode, first because I am privileged to talk with none other than the play’s author Conor McPherson, and secondly because we have also been given kind permission to include several extracts from the original cast recording of the music from the first London production.

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A Servant to Two Masters (& One Man Two Guvnors) – Footnotes

Medea – Footnotes

Medea – Footnotes

The Footnotes to our episode on Medea include further observations on the danger a woman like Medea represented to the men of ancient Athens, and the emotional experience Greek tragedy exacts.

A dangerous woman
During our podcast Edith Hall described the society in ancient Athens as one where women lived very circumscribed lives, restricted largely to their domestic dwellings and duties. Any threat to the stability of marriage and its purpose of perpetuating the male line was especially feared. It is no wonder therefore that Medea’s unrestrained energy and courage were distrusted, even feared. Her independence of mind and her intelligence mark her out as a serious threat, as she herself opines sardonically to the  women of Corinth in the chorus:

Women of Corinth
Don’t teach your daughters to think for themselves,
They’ll encounter nothing
But suspicion and mistrust.     
 And:

No man in his right mind
Should teach children to be clever.
No point in being cleverer than the next man.
People don’t like it.

Kreon believes that Medea is a witch, with dark and magical powers. In fact as it turns out, he was not far wrong. As Edith pointed out, there was also a general view propounded by Aristotle that women were less capable of ethical thought than men, and must therefore be controlled and contained, else left ungoverned they may wreck havoc in the civil life of the city.

Medea is also feared because she is not Greek. She is from an “uncivilised place”, as Jason describes her homeland, and when he discovers what she has done to their children he rages that:
No Greek woman would have done it.
Yet instead of one of them I deigned to marry you.
An animal, not a woman,
A savage, some prehistoric monster.

The play is therefore a cautionary tale for the men of ancient Athens, to beware immigrants – xenophobia is a Greek word after all – and even more, an unfettered woman.

Helen McCrory at the National Theatre
Photo: Tristram Kenton

Aristotle marble bust
Roman copy 2nd century BCE

Suffering and Catharsis
Aristotle may not have got it right about the ethical capacity of women, but his ideas on what defined dramatic tragedy are more enduring. In his Poetics he suggested that suffering was an essential ingredient of tragedy, and that as an audience we must feel both pity and fear: pity for the sufferer and fear that it could happen to us. On both counts Medea succeeds. We certainly feel Medea’s anguish, and while we may remain confident that we would not kill our own children, we do recognise the misery and rage that can overcome our reason when we have been deeply hurt. As Edith has said about the play: “It looks suffering and human misery directly in the face – it is unflinching.”

How are we able to watch such terrible agony? Aristotle would point to the act of catharsis, by which we purge our own emotions through vicarious engagement with the drama. While we are emotionally drawn in to the suffering we are witnessing, we are simultaneously still conscious of the artifice of theatre, which makes it just about bearable to watch a mother murder her own children on stage. In fact as Edith pointed out paradoxically this may also make it harder to watch. We have no power to intervene to help the characters on stage who are suffering or in peril. This is the sweet torture of great drama.

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 …
030 – Escaped Alone by Caryl Churchill

030 – Escaped Alone by Caryl Churchill

Caryl Churchill’s stunning play Escaped Alone presents an ordinary scene of four women of a certain age chatting over tea in a suburban garden. Of course not all is as tranquil as it appears, for each of the women harbour dark personal anxieties, and from time to time one of them steps away from the garden to share news with us about apocalyptic disasters that have struck the world. Produced at the Royal Court in 2016, Churchill’s vision of a world overcome by collective disaster has proved to be extraordinarily prophetic. Joining me to explore our first Churchill play is Professor Elaine Aston, author of a monograph on Caryl Churchill as well as the editor of the Cambridge Companion to Caryl Churchill.

029 – A Taste of Honey by Shelagh Delaney

029 – A Taste of Honey by Shelagh Delaney

Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey caused a sensation when it appeared at the Theatre Royal Stratford in 1958 because of its frank portrayal of a working-class, single mother and daughter, as well as its bold representations of a mixed-race relationship and a young homosexual as a central character. Delaney sent her first play to the renowned director Joan Littlewood who helped develop it into an historic production which went on to the West End and Broadway. Professor Nadine Holdsworth helps us to explore the enduring power and relevance of the play.

028 – Girl from the North Country by Conor McPherson, music and lyrics by Bob Dylan

028 – Girl from the North Country by Conor McPherson, music and lyrics by Bob Dylan

Girl from the North Country is an extraordinary collaboration between the playwright Conor McPherson and the musician and song writer Bob Dylan. The result is a magical work where McPherson’s portrait of families struggling to survive in Depression America is transfigured into an uplifting theatrical experience by the ravishing period arrangements of Dylan’s songs.
The play opened at the Old Vic Theatre in London in 2017 to a rapturous response and reviews, and was followed by runs in the West End and New York.
This is a very special episode, first because I am privileged to talk with none other than the play’s author Conor McPherson, and secondly because we have also been given kind permission to include several extracts from the original cast recording of the music from the first London production.

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A Servant to Two Masters (& One Man Two Guvnors) – Footnotes

Consent – Footnotes

Consent – Footnotes

The Footnotes to our episode on Nina Raine’s play Consent include observations on the ritualised performance of barristers in the courtroom, the resonances of Greek tragedy in the characters’ modern-day dramas, and the epistemology of intent or how they don’t know why they do what they do.

Not listened to the episode yet? You’ll find it here.

Performing in the courtroom
There is a disturbing scene in Consent where we witness Edward’s cross-examination of the rape victim, Gayle, during which he seeks to put her behaviour and character on trial. He focuses on how much she had to drink, why she allowed her attacker to stay overnight, and refers to the fact that she’s previously visited a psychotherapist. The approach is all designed to discredit the victim and divert attention from the actions or guilt of the attacker. It is unsettling to watch, as much because for the interrogator it is clearly a calculated, cold-hearted performance, in stark contrast to Gayle’s genuine emotional distress.

Of course we know that the court room has its own ritualistic processes, but Nina reminds us how powerful and perverse these can be in this scene, and in her dissection of the barristers’ technique when Edward and Tim share some of their tricks of the trade with Zara. Their interview tactics include careful employment of open and closed questions to establish the point that they wish to make, or boxing a witness in with unreconciliable choices. The fact that the men are helping to teach the actress Zara how to appear credible in her fictional role as a lawyer, cleverly reinforces the idea of the courtroom as theatre and the principles as performers, perhaps in fact at the expense of the truth.

Ben Caplin as Edward
Photo: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Medea by Henri Klagmann 1868

Greek Tragedy
There is an amusing and intriguing exchange early in the play when Zara reveals that she is currently rehearsing a Greek tragedy. Although the world of the 21st century metropolitan couples is miles and centuries away from ancient Greece, their flippant references to features of Greek drama set off some satisfying resonances with the contemporary drama we see enacted. As in Greek tragedy, the women are victims of often brutal treatment by their men and find themselves on the moral high ground: “The men are shits and the women are insufferable because they’re so holier than thou”. And Zara’s warning “before you mistreat your women, remember what they’re capable of” forecasts the vengeance that Rachel and Kitty unleash when they are wronged. Tim’s definition of Greek tragedy as “two opposing characters holding two relative but mutually destructive truths” precisely encapsulates the conflict at the heart of the marital rape. A principle that Jake echoes when he acknowledges to Edward and Kitty that “There’s a world in which you’re both telling the truth.” Or put more simply, for contestants in the courtroom or marriage: “It’s two people thinking they’re right.”

The epistemology of intent
This is phrase that I’ve borrowed from Michael Frayn who cited it to describe one of the themes in his play Copenhagen, and I think that it could be used to characterise the problems the characters in Consent have in understanding their own behaviour. Virtually all of the characters display a lack of consistency and clarity about their feelings and motives for their actions, as Kitty recognises: “I’m astounded by the lack of insight, the way people don’t even see what they’re doing even as they’re doing it.” She herself embarks on the affair with Tim and unexpectedly finds herself emotionally overwhelmed. She is almost bewildered by her own behaviour, resigned to accepting that “You can’t legislate for human behaviour.” Similarly Zara’s own judgement seems unreliable when on first meeting she declares unequivocally that she just “doesn’t fancy” Tim, only to surprise us subsequently by falling for him. Underlying many of their irrational impulses is of course the mystery and power of sexual attraction, as Jake pointedly puts it: “it’s impossible to communicate the pheremonal semiology of sexual attraction.”

Rachel propounds “Is there anything that doesn’t stem from a sexual motive”.  Their behaviour certainly seems to indicate that its power overrides the rational management of their actions. Tim cannot account to Edward for the reason that he continues his affair with Kitty: “When you boil an egg the structure of the molecules change. The egg doesn’t know why. It just becomes a boiled egg.”  Edward doesn’t grant, however, that our consciousness really abdicates its moral awareness – we cannot escape the voice inside our head, although it is capable of creating its own justifications. And ultimately Edward himself is proof of the limits of our consciousness to comprehend our own motives. When Rachel challenges him on his anger and aggression toward Kitty: “Ed, this is crazy. You’re rational. You’re intelligent.”, it’s Jake who pinpoints the irrational sources within us: “If you’re hurt enough, you become stupid.”  Sexual violence may be an expression of rage or frustration; frustration at a lack of control, and aggression an attempt to exert control.

The characters in the play frequently demonstrate a lack of understanding of each other, but most tellingly also of themselves. When Jake says “I look back at myself and I don’t know who the person was who did those things”  he could have been speaking for all of them.

 

 

 

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 …
030 – Escaped Alone by Caryl Churchill

030 – Escaped Alone by Caryl Churchill

Caryl Churchill’s stunning play Escaped Alone presents an ordinary scene of four women of a certain age chatting over tea in a suburban garden. Of course not all is as tranquil as it appears, for each of the women harbour dark personal anxieties, and from time to time one of them steps away from the garden to share news with us about apocalyptic disasters that have struck the world. Produced at the Royal Court in 2016, Churchill’s vision of a world overcome by collective disaster has proved to be extraordinarily prophetic. Joining me to explore our first Churchill play is Professor Elaine Aston, author of a monograph on Caryl Churchill as well as the editor of the Cambridge Companion to Caryl Churchill.

029 – A Taste of Honey by Shelagh Delaney

029 – A Taste of Honey by Shelagh Delaney

Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey caused a sensation when it appeared at the Theatre Royal Stratford in 1958 because of its frank portrayal of a working-class, single mother and daughter, as well as its bold representations of a mixed-race relationship and a young homosexual as a central character. Delaney sent her first play to the renowned director Joan Littlewood who helped develop it into an historic production which went on to the West End and Broadway. Professor Nadine Holdsworth helps us to explore the enduring power and relevance of the play.

028 – Girl from the North Country by Conor McPherson, music and lyrics by Bob Dylan

028 – Girl from the North Country by Conor McPherson, music and lyrics by Bob Dylan

Girl from the North Country is an extraordinary collaboration between the playwright Conor McPherson and the musician and song writer Bob Dylan. The result is a magical work where McPherson’s portrait of families struggling to survive in Depression America is transfigured into an uplifting theatrical experience by the ravishing period arrangements of Dylan’s songs.
The play opened at the Old Vic Theatre in London in 2017 to a rapturous response and reviews, and was followed by runs in the West End and New York.
This is a very special episode, first because I am privileged to talk with none other than the play’s author Conor McPherson, and secondly because we have also been given kind permission to include several extracts from the original cast recording of the music from the first London production.

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A Servant to Two Masters (& One Man Two Guvnors) – Footnotes

Shook – Footnotes

Shook – Footnotes

My Footnotes to our episode on Shook include more observations on our prejudices against people from different classes or circumstances, parenting as empathy, and the heartbreak of long-distance childbirth.

“I’m always going to be a problem to people like him”
Cain perceptively encapsulates the wariness we feel about people from different classes of society who we know little about and dismiss or fear. He is referring to the prison governor who he rightly assumes lives in a separate world to him and his fellow inmates. It is not just the practical problem of having to lock offenders away to protect ourselves that Cain is describing; it is a much wider general attitude that amounts to social prejudice:
“And he’s telling me I’m the problem? Thinking he’s better than me. I’m always going to be a problem to people like him, innit. Nothing I ever do is right. Where I live is a problem, what music I listen to is a problem,what I wear is a problem. Whenever we have kids, it’s a problem….They should just fucking come clean and admit they just don’t like us and that’s why they locked us up in here.”

Who among us has not made judgements such as these about people from other social classes or circumstances. It is all too easy to disparage, even write off people who are not like us. What we see in Cain, Jonjo and Riyad are complex human beings, who certainly have flaws and who have done harm to others, but who also have talents and inherent goodness. Cain again challenges Grace and us to consider who is “good”. When Jonjo asks Grace if her son Alex is good, she replies “pretty good”; but Cain realises that the question is deeper than that, because he knows that it is difficult to say of them that they are “pretty good”. Their badness has not been trivial – “robbing people, hurting them” – and from a young age. The implication I think is that somehow their lack of goodness is inherent or an inevitable function of the failures of character or behaviour in their families or class. As George so rightly says in our conversation, our view of these boys also stands for our views more generally of others who are less privileged, and is not limited to confirmed criminals. The positive power of the play, however, is as George says that “it makes us care about people that normally we would cross the road to avoid”, which is the beginning of true empathy.

 

Photo: Kiran Mensah – Evening Standard

Josef Davies as Jonjo

“Parenting is empathy”
We talked a lot about parenting in the podcast, including the inescapable impact that our upbringing or our behaviour as a parent has on our own or our children’s lives. We also talked about the boys’ instinctive desire to be good parents; hence their taking part in the course, despite Riyad’s proclamation that parenting can’t be taught. He contradicts himself however when he sensibly suggests to Grace that parenting skills should be taught in school, along with other practical life skills, like “how you’d get a flat…or vote”; especially “in case you ain’t got no one to show you.”  The lack of parenting role models does of course have a huge practical impact on the lives of these boys.

When Sam said during our conversation that “parenting is empathy” he also identified the emotive meaning of being a parent, and the emotional cost to these boys who have not benefited from it. Grace explained that for all of the practical skills she tries to impart, parenting ultimately boils down to being there when “they come to you to make it better”. And Cain speaks for all of us when he tells Riyad that by the time parents are responsible for looking after teenagers they’re all “just making it up as they go along.” So what parenting finally is is learning to care for someone else, and most poignantly what these boys crave is to learn how to love and to be loved. This is vividly expressed in the final image of Jonjo cradling the baby at the close of the play: the lifeless doll substituting for the real baby he won’t be able to touch and the comfort he himself has been denied.

Long-distance childbirth
Riyad reveals his innate empathy when he describes being at the birth of his son. He contrived to delay his entry to prison in order to be there for the birth, and despite the “screaming and all that”, he was overwhelmed by the exultant moment when he hears “those little lungs…Crying out for you.” He also displays empathy for the effort of the mother in her labours when he counsels Jonjo that his supporting role is to “tell her it’s all good”. There is no more graphic or heartbreaking symbol of the isolation of these incarcerated fathers than the vision Riyad presents of Jonjo being ‘allowed’ to listen on the phone to the birth of his child when the time comes, and to tell his girl “it’s all 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 …
030 – Escaped Alone by Caryl Churchill

030 – Escaped Alone by Caryl Churchill

Caryl Churchill’s stunning play Escaped Alone presents an ordinary scene of four women of a certain age chatting over tea in a suburban garden. Of course not all is as tranquil as it appears, for each of the women harbour dark personal anxieties, and from time to time one of them steps away from the garden to share news with us about apocalyptic disasters that have struck the world. Produced at the Royal Court in 2016, Churchill’s vision of a world overcome by collective disaster has proved to be extraordinarily prophetic. Joining me to explore our first Churchill play is Professor Elaine Aston, author of a monograph on Caryl Churchill as well as the editor of the Cambridge Companion to Caryl Churchill.

029 – A Taste of Honey by Shelagh Delaney

029 – A Taste of Honey by Shelagh Delaney

Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey caused a sensation when it appeared at the Theatre Royal Stratford in 1958 because of its frank portrayal of a working-class, single mother and daughter, as well as its bold representations of a mixed-race relationship and a young homosexual as a central character. Delaney sent her first play to the renowned director Joan Littlewood who helped develop it into an historic production which went on to the West End and Broadway. Professor Nadine Holdsworth helps us to explore the enduring power and relevance of the play.

028 – Girl from the North Country by Conor McPherson, music and lyrics by Bob Dylan

028 – Girl from the North Country by Conor McPherson, music and lyrics by Bob Dylan

Girl from the North Country is an extraordinary collaboration between the playwright Conor McPherson and the musician and song writer Bob Dylan. The result is a magical work where McPherson’s portrait of families struggling to survive in Depression America is transfigured into an uplifting theatrical experience by the ravishing period arrangements of Dylan’s songs.
The play opened at the Old Vic Theatre in London in 2017 to a rapturous response and reviews, and was followed by runs in the West End and New York.
This is a very special episode, first because I am privileged to talk with none other than the play’s author Conor McPherson, and secondly because we have also been given kind permission to include several extracts from the original cast recording of the music from the first London production.

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The page you requested could not be found. Try refining your search, or use the navigation above to locate the post.

A Servant to Two Masters (& One Man Two Guvnors) – Footnotes

The Glass Menagerie – Footnotes

The Glass Menagerie – Footnotes

Our Footnotes to The Glass Menagerie include Tennessee Williams’ innovative ideas about lighting as an element of what he called his “plastic drama”; the endearing ambiguity of the character of Jim, the gentleman caller; the infinite distance of memory; and the explosive times the play was written and set in.

The Lighting
Tennessee Williams includes a lengthy paragraph in the Production Notes that preface the published text of The Glass Menagerie with observations on the use and importance of the lighting in the staging of the play. It starts with the statement: “The lighting in the play is not realistic. In keeping with the atmosphere of memory, the stage is dim. Shafts of light are focused on selected areas or actors…”. This approach to the lighting is all part of his deliberate intent to create a non-naturalistic form of theatre, which suits both the content of this play and his artistic method of imparting meaning. For the former the design expresses the flickering, subjective quality of Tom’s memory, which is the source of all that we see. The method represents his meaning in that Williams states that his purpose in his writing is to convey a “picture of my own heart” – an emotional truth. He conceives that this can be achieved by creating what he called ‘sculptural drama’, which is a more three-dimensional, sensory theatrical experience, that is not reliant solely or primarily on the words, but also on striking visual images and evocative music. The imaginative use of light can engender a “mobile, plastic quality to plays of a more or less static nature.”  

The lighting in this play is certainly central to our understanding of its emotional truth and to the beauty that enraptures us. As Williams points out, for example, “the light upon Laura should be distinct from the others, having a peculiar pristine clarity such as light used in early religious portraits of female saints or madonnas”, or he might have added of the light that reflects off the figures of the glass menagerie itself. The candlelight that illuminates the climactic love scene between Laura and Jim evokes the dream-like softness of their fleeting moments of romance.

I imagine that this play must be a joy for lighting designers to work on!

“Time is the greatest distance between two places”.
Tom’s final speech takes us back to the beginning, reminding us that “this is a memory play”, and that there is a great distance back to our past. Tom’s memories are full of pain and regret; regret that he cannot fix the past, especially for his sister Laura. The guilt he feels about his abandoning her haunts him – his memory won’t let him go. “I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be”.  He seeks any diversion that will allow him to escape the memory of her: “anything that can blow your candles out”. His final plea “Blow out your candles, Laura” is to ask her to finally leave him alone.

All of the characters in the play fail to bridge the distance to their past in a way that allows them to truthfully connect with their present. Amanda’s memory of her romantic past is overshadowed by the reality that she chose the wrong man with disastrous consequences. Laura has a false memory of herself at school, over estimating the notice that others made of her disability, tragically inhibiting herself. The whole memory play affirms the impossibility of our accurately reconstructing our past. As Williams tells us memory is “non-realistic”; it is “seated predominantly in the heart”.

The gentleman caller
The character of Jim, the gentleman caller, stands out in the play for apparently being from a different mental landscape than the members of the Wingfield family. As Tom describes it, he is “an emissary from the world of reality that we are somehow apart from”; “a nice ordinary young man” as the playwright succinctly puts it in the character notes. In simple terms he does largely represent the outside, material world: an all-American high school success, focussed on self-improvement and conventional career ambitions; an advocate of the American dream built on “Knowledge!…Money!…Power!”.

However, Jim’s program has not gone to plan so far. He hoped that he “would be further along” by this time. And this is what gives Jim the depth as a character that impels his connection with Laura. His sense of disappointment is the common ground he recognises in Laura. As Williams said “If you write a character that isn’t ambiguous you are writing a false character, not a true one.”  Jim is not just a cipher for the American Dream or ‘normal’ world. He does in fact connect the Wingfield characters to the real world, not just by his presence, but by showing us that “everyone has problems”, as he puts it. The Wingfields are not the only freaks living with illusions and self-doubt; we are all freaks.

His culpability in his raising and dashing Laura’s hopes is also all the more compelling for being ambiguous. His impulse to reach out to help her is clearly genuine, as are the feelings he responds to. As John said so convincingly in our conversation, “he falls in love”. And we are shown by contrast that his relationship with his fiance, the prosaically named Betty, is one of contrivance rather than passion. But he is at best self-centred and naive in his setting out to try to make an emotional connection with Laura, as suggested by his ironic claim that he “can analyze people better than doctors…I can sure guess a person’s psychology”. He does have some intuition of Laura’s pain, but he underestimates the stakes and quickly gets in over his head. Do we blame him for lacking the nerve or integrity to change the course of his life with Laura? Probably not. In the end I think we cannot but join Amanda in wishing him luck. He is just another unicorn without a horn.

Kate O’Flynn as Laura and Seth Numrich as Jim
in John Tiffany’s production in Edinburgh in 2017
Photo: Johan Persson

 

 

The play in its time
As we learn from Tom the play is set sometime around 1938-9. He makes specific references to Picasso’s painting of Guernica, painted in 1937 following the indiscriminate bombing of the town by Nazi war planes allied with General Franco in the Spanish Civil War, and to Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler in September 1938. At the time the play premiered in 1944 Tom would have been speaking to the audience from the vantage point of the war that followed from these events, and which America was now engaged in.

Tom’s references to Guernica and Chamberlain carry some moral judgement, his implication being that America and the Allies were fatally complacent in their responses to Hitler or Franco. At the same time he is telling us that it is art, such as Picasso’s, that draws attention to the truth. Tom refers somewhat elliptically to the explosive changes in the world that the characters don’t see coming, although of course the audience will know what he means when he concisely and poetically identifies the impending change as being “caught in the folds of Chamberlain’s umbrella.” The cataclysmic world changes that Tom describes are aligned with his own youthful urge for adventure. The war is somehow “compensation for lives that passed like mine, without any change or adventure.” A time when “adventure becomes available to the masses”, as he says to Jim.

It’s a naïve idea about war as adventure, indicating perhaps the depth of Tom’s desire for change in his life, and in the society around him. Williams himself propounds an idea of himself, Tom and the artist as exceptional individuals who will distinguish themselves from the masses and lead more truthful and energetic lives. His view of the masses as stuck in their impoverished lives for lack of initiative is suggested in the description he gives of the Wingfield’s tenement building:
“It is one of those vast hive-like conglomerations of cellular living units that flower as warty growths in overcrowded urban centers of lower middle-class population and are symptomatic of the impulse of this largest and fundamentally enslaved section of American society to avoid fluidity and differentiation and to exist and function as one interfused mass of automatism.”

But has Tom’s bid for adventure, to distinguish himself, succeeded? In fact he “didn’t go to the moon”…he only “left St Louis”. The picture we get is of his drifting, swept along “like dead leaves”. In fact as he addresses us in 1944 he is wearing a sailor’s uniform, and as he tells us “nowadays the world is lit by lightning”. Perhaps he is about to find the adventure he seeks.

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?
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030 – Escaped Alone by Caryl Churchill

030 – Escaped Alone by Caryl Churchill

Caryl Churchill’s stunning play Escaped Alone presents an ordinary scene of four women of a certain age chatting over tea in a suburban garden. Of course not all is as tranquil as it appears, for each of the women harbour dark personal anxieties, and from time to time one of them steps away from the garden to share news with us about apocalyptic disasters that have struck the world. Produced at the Royal Court in 2016, Churchill’s vision of a world overcome by collective disaster has proved to be extraordinarily prophetic. Joining me to explore our first Churchill play is Professor Elaine Aston, author of a monograph on Caryl Churchill as well as the editor of the Cambridge Companion to Caryl Churchill.

029 – A Taste of Honey by Shelagh Delaney

029 – A Taste of Honey by Shelagh Delaney

Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey caused a sensation when it appeared at the Theatre Royal Stratford in 1958 because of its frank portrayal of a working-class, single mother and daughter, as well as its bold representations of a mixed-race relationship and a young homosexual as a central character. Delaney sent her first play to the renowned director Joan Littlewood who helped develop it into an historic production which went on to the West End and Broadway. Professor Nadine Holdsworth helps us to explore the enduring power and relevance of the play.

028 – Girl from the North Country by Conor McPherson, music and lyrics by Bob Dylan

028 – Girl from the North Country by Conor McPherson, music and lyrics by Bob Dylan

Girl from the North Country is an extraordinary collaboration between the playwright Conor McPherson and the musician and song writer Bob Dylan. The result is a magical work where McPherson’s portrait of families struggling to survive in Depression America is transfigured into an uplifting theatrical experience by the ravishing period arrangements of Dylan’s songs.
The play opened at the Old Vic Theatre in London in 2017 to a rapturous response and reviews, and was followed by runs in the West End and New York.
This is a very special episode, first because I am privileged to talk with none other than the play’s author Conor McPherson, and secondly because we have also been given kind permission to include several extracts from the original cast recording of the music from the first London production.

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A Servant to Two Masters (& One Man Two Guvnors) – Footnotes

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf – Footnotes

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf – Footnotes

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is such a rich play that we have a lots of Footnotes to supplement our episode on the play. These include more on the origins and meaning of the famous title; some play-by-play analysis of George and Martha’s battle; the symbolic contrast between history and biology which George and Nick represent; the absence of model parents, or children at all; the thrill of the play’s language; and the censors who took offense at this “filthy play”. 

The title of the play
It is one of the most memorable titles in dramatic history; but it wasn’t Albee’s original title. He was several months into writing the play before he adopted the phrase “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” as a recurring symbolic refrain, and he added it as a sub-title. Up to that point his working title was Exorcism, which suggests that he had a clear vision of one of the themes of his play: that through the course of the action the characters would be purged of the illusions that they have preserved in their relationships. In the end he named the third act The Exorcism, during which of course George and Martha expressly exorcise their imaginary son. The final title of the play not only has a magical musical rhythm, it also summons several meanings, lampooning the pretensions of academia, and suggesting the psychological demons that afflict the characters. Albee’s intuitive arrival at his final title highlights his artistic process whereby the play develops organically, as he said that the quotation was adopted by the characters during “the thinking-as-opposed-to-writing part of working on the play.”

The battle of George and Martha
In the same way as one relishes analyzing the blow-by-blow of sport, there is a rich record to review in the to and fro of George and Martha’s epic battle. The central mesmeric challenge of the play is to decipher the underlying truth of their relationship through all of the nuance and ferocity of their struggle. As we agreed during our conversation on the podcast, their initial exchanges are fabulously funny, partly because of the dazzling sharpness of their repartee, but also because we feel that at some level they too are enjoying the fight as a game. As George reassures Nick: “Martha and I are merely…exercising…that’s all…we’re merely walking what’s left of our wits”. The conflict they incite together is performative – a means of simultaneously addressing and avoiding the truth, testing what is real or not, but without facing the consequences.They are picking at the scabs of their unhappiness, daring themselves to see if they could survive the open wounds.

There are shocking, exposed moments when it feels like the game has gone too far. As onlookers it is difficult to decide when they have crossed over the line. When Martha starts to tell Nick and Honey about George’s unpublished book, he pleads with her to stop, but the game continues:
Martha: What’s the matter George? You given up?
George: No…No. I’ve just got to figure out some new way to fight you, Martha.

And when Martha thinks George has gone too far in tormenting Nick, and he angrily points out that she has been relentlessly humiliating him, she declares:
Martha: YOU CAN STAND IT!
George: I CANNOT STAND IT!
Martha: YOU CAN STAND IT! YOU MARRIED ME FOR IT!
He has needed her provocation to push him, and the more he failed to succeed the harder she has had to press, even though she says “it’s not what I’ve wanted” , and she’s now “gotten tired whipping you.”

By the end of Act 2 they have reached a point where the “whole arrangement” has “snapped”, and they declare “total war”.  One of the ways that Martha attacks is through her overt seduction of Nick. As we discussed in the podcast, there is a strong sense that Martha is sexually dissatisfied with George. She reacts angrily when he twice rejects her overtures to him in the first act. The second occasion follows George’s prank of shooting the parasol from the gun. She finds this arousing, but he rejects her advance. The gun becomes a sexual metaphor, Martha turning provocatively to Nick “I bet you don’t need props”. When she finally presses her suit with Nick, she is further frustrated and humiliated by George’s lack of response – he reads a book, pretending indifference, daring her to go through with her seduction. In the face of his failure, she is left with no option. Her sexuality is her only weapon, so she carries on hopelessly with her affairs. The fact that Nick is unable to consummate the sex is a fitting statement on the futility of Martha’s general strategy to find solace through sex elsewhere.

In the to and fro of George and Martha’s battle, the advantage swings back and forth. For most for the first half of the night Martha is on the attack, relentlessly humiliating George, He counter attacks through his persecuting Nick and Honey, before intensifying his assault in “bringing up baby”. Initially Martha seems beaten down, not willing to play this game, but she rises in anger and they slug it out on equal terms in a scene of ritualistic, poetic intensity and imagination. “We’re going to play this one to the death”. Finally she is beaten. At the end of the play she is exhausted and fragile. George must try to lift her off the canvas; she cannot walk unaided. Once rested will they start the fight again? Maybe. Maybe on different terms. As Albee said, who knows.

History vs Biology
There are a number of ways in which the characters of the two men, George and Nick, are set up in contrast. Not only do they find themselves as sexual rivals when Martha turns her attention on Nick, but they also stand for contrasting values in the framework of themes in the play. George represents the traditional social establishment of America, being native to New England, where the country was founded. He resides in the rarefied, protected habitat of the university campus; albeit also now a complacent, decadent, even sterile environment.

Whereas Nick is from the mid-West, the frontier of the country. He represents a youthful ambition and ruthless sexual confidence, propelled by physical vigor. His ambition is unencumbered by obeisance to established social hierarchies or concern for anyone other than himself. He is the modern science of biology, whereas George is history, the drag of the past. The analogy extends to the theme of gender and reproduction, about which both couples are so preoccupied. George refers frequently to biologists working with chromosomes to create the perfect man, for example. There is of course much sparring between Martha and George about how much of a man he is, including compared to Nick who is proud of his physique. And the references to the biological creation of life cannot but resonate with both couples’ inability to conceive.

Despite the old-fashioned sterility of George himself, the balance of the debate between science and history perhaps swings in his favour when he imagines supermen that will be created through genetic engineering, we cannot but be reminded of the Nazi eugenics. In this respect George’s argument that the knowledge of history and the principles of civilisation must be retained to inform our management of the future makes reassuring sense. Ultimately however all of George’s wordy arguments feel like nothing more than hot air in the face of the personal desolation and isolation of the characters’ lives.

Model parents
As we touched on in the podcast it is difficult not to trace the play’s preoccupation with parents and their children, or lack thereof, back to Albee’s own unhappy adoption. He himself admitted that he “was aware of some connective thematic tissue” with his own experience. Albee said many times that he did not feel positively attached to his adoptive parents, and there is certainly a lack of positive parental role models in the play. Martha has an unhealthy fixation on her authoritarian father. George may or may not have killed both of his parents. Honey’s father was a charlatan, possibly even criminal, priest. And we know nothing of Nick’s parents, which is a telling lacuna in itself, for he is a character without roots or allegiances.

More central to the play is the fact that both couples are childless and deeply disturbed to be so. Albee’s adoptive parents were unable to conceive, as are George and Martha. George and Martha invent their imaginary son, as by analogy Albee was the result of his adoptive parent’s scheme to adopt and try to mold him. Infertility is also connoted in Honey’s “hysterical pregnancy”. She is terrified of the physical process of pregnancy and childbirth, to the extent that she may had abortions that she has kept secret from her husband. Honey is in fact childlike, too “slim hipped” and immature to be a mother. At one point she is “rolled up like a foetus” on the bathroom floor, sucking her thumb. The prospect of Nick and Honey successfully conceiving in the future also seems slim. There is a suggestion that all is not well in their sexual relationship – Nick is only too willing to respond to Martha’s overtures, or to reveal that he plans to “plough a few pertinent wives”. After the revelations of the evening we sense that the future of their relationship may be even less secure than George and Martha’s. 

The language of the play
The dialogue in the play has an exhilarating fluency, which feels natural if also heightened in intensity and intelligence. There are moments when the language becomes almost surreal, where the dialogue is stuck repeating words or phrases in a musical rhythm, most obviously of course in the recurring refrain of the title. Other examples include Honey reduced to shouting “violence” or “dance” repeatedly, or the focus on the specific detail of the “tiles” of the bathroom floor that Honey is lying on, or the onomatopoeia of the door “bells”. In one short burst George, Nick and Martha between them repeat the word “ice” seven times in as many lines. These repetitions reflect the other-worldly state they are locked in by their drunkenness as well as the intensity of the dynamic. One of the most poetic moments in the writing is Martha’s description of the ice cubes in their drinks being made from their tears, and then her jiggling the glass “clink, clink, clink”. Albee likened his writing to composing music, for which he clearly had an exquisite ear.

The play also contains several majestic longer monologues, in which the speaker takes the time to unfurl a story in vivid images: George’s tale of his drinking with his young friends in the bar, leading to the story of the boy killing both of his parents; or Martha’s description of her “Lady Chatterley” affair with the gardener at her college; and finally the horror of George’s description of their son’s car crash. All of these have a dream-like quality, raising a question over their reality, but also captivating us in the way dreams or great writing can.

“A filthy play”
The Pulitzer prize jury labelled Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf a “filthy play”. It is not clear whether they had in mind the obscenity of the language or the graphic ugliness of the behaviour on show, or both. It is likely that they were offended by the language. Albee’s first draft of the play contained numerous “fucks”, “motherfuckers”, and “shits,” but when initial readers reacted with alarm suggesting that it would be hard to get it produced, he replaced all these with watered-down equivalents such as “screwed”, “hell” and “crap”. In fact he restored some of these in a production he directed himself in 1976.

The play ran foul of the censor when it was first produced in London in 1964.  Albee explained to those unfamiliar with the British censorship regime that the role of the Lord Chamberlain “was to make plays safe for the Royal Family, if they ever went to the theatre.” The Lord Chamberlain requested pages of changes to the obscenities, although they allowed “Hump the Hostess” to remain because “hump” was used in Shakespeare! The producers told the actors to ignore the requested changes, which they largely did.

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 …
030 – Escaped Alone by Caryl Churchill

030 – Escaped Alone by Caryl Churchill

Caryl Churchill’s stunning play Escaped Alone presents an ordinary scene of four women of a certain age chatting over tea in a suburban garden. Of course not all is as tranquil as it appears, for each of the women harbour dark personal anxieties, and from time to time one of them steps away from the garden to share news with us about apocalyptic disasters that have struck the world. Produced at the Royal Court in 2016, Churchill’s vision of a world overcome by collective disaster has proved to be extraordinarily prophetic. Joining me to explore our first Churchill play is Professor Elaine Aston, author of a monograph on Caryl Churchill as well as the editor of the Cambridge Companion to Caryl Churchill.

029 – A Taste of Honey by Shelagh Delaney

029 – A Taste of Honey by Shelagh Delaney

Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey caused a sensation when it appeared at the Theatre Royal Stratford in 1958 because of its frank portrayal of a working-class, single mother and daughter, as well as its bold representations of a mixed-race relationship and a young homosexual as a central character. Delaney sent her first play to the renowned director Joan Littlewood who helped develop it into an historic production which went on to the West End and Broadway. Professor Nadine Holdsworth helps us to explore the enduring power and relevance of the play.

028 – Girl from the North Country by Conor McPherson, music and lyrics by Bob Dylan

028 – Girl from the North Country by Conor McPherson, music and lyrics by Bob Dylan

Girl from the North Country is an extraordinary collaboration between the playwright Conor McPherson and the musician and song writer Bob Dylan. The result is a magical work where McPherson’s portrait of families struggling to survive in Depression America is transfigured into an uplifting theatrical experience by the ravishing period arrangements of Dylan’s songs.
The play opened at the Old Vic Theatre in London in 2017 to a rapturous response and reviews, and was followed by runs in the West End and New York.
This is a very special episode, first because I am privileged to talk with none other than the play’s author Conor McPherson, and secondly because we have also been given kind permission to include several extracts from the original cast recording of the music from the first London production.

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