4/20/14

Introduction to Akira Kurosawa's Throne of Blood


Many directors of Shakespeare films have not been great film innovators and stylists—they've been stage directors with a deep understanding of the plays. That combination is enough to produce a great Shakespeare movie. But there's another group of directors who have both a deep understanding of the plays and who are also great film stylists and innovators.

At the summit of that group are two directors: Orson Welles and Akira Kurosawa. Welles had directed most of Shakespeare's history plays by the time he was fifteen, and he reread the plays throughout his life. His three feature-length Shakespeare films may be the best things he ever did. He thought, and I agree, that his greatest film wasn't Citizen Kane but The Chimes at Midnight, his mash-up of the Henry plays.

Similarly, Kurosawa's appreciation of Shakespeare began early, when he was an art student, and continued throughout his life. Three of his best films are versions of Shakespeare plays. The Bad Sleep Well loosely follows Hamlet, resetting it in postwar Japan. Ran ("Chaos") is an adaptation of King Lear set in sixteenth-century Japan. And Throne of Blood is a Macbeth adaptation, also set in feudal Japan, that follows Shakespeare more closely than either of the other two films.

4/18/14

Why April 23 Probably Isn't Shakespeare's Birthday

Shakespeare's baptism record. The three "X"s were added later to highlight the entry.
Image from Windows onWarwickshire.
In the Stratford parish register, an entry for April 26, 1564, reads Gulielmus filius Johannes—"William son of John Shakespere." Baptisms in this period followed hard upon birth. Because of high infant mortality and anxiety about the fate of the unbaptized, the gap between birth and baptism was usually a matter of days, not weeks, so Shakespeare might well have been born on April 23.
Funeral monument.   

That's the birthday assigned by the eighteenth-century Stratford curate Joseph Greene and celebrated ever since. But we don't really know when Shakespeare was born.

We can be almost certain that he died on April 23, 1616, the date given on the funeral monument in Stratford's Holy Trinity Church.

The monument, by Gerard Johnson, was commissioned by Shakespeare's family, who would have known both his death day and what he looked like. This makes the monument's bust one of two representations we can be sure is of Shakespeare. The other is Martin Droueshout's engraving in the First Folio, the collected works put together by actors who had worked with Shakespeare; it included poetry by others who knew him, including his fellow playwright Ben Jonson, whose poem praises the engraving. Neither the engraving nor the bust is as accomplished as the Chandos portrait, which hangs in the National Portrait Gallery but which might not be of Shakespeare. The bust is particularly crude, having undergone several restorations.
Johnson and Steevens's
edition of the plays.

The first of these was arranged by Joseph Greene, whose many efforts at memorializing Stratford's most famous son brought him to the attention of London literati, including the Shakespeare scholar George Steevens. Greene gave Steevens the April 23 birthday, and Steevens published it in his and Samuel Johnson's popular 1773 edition of Shakespeare's plays (Corney 4).

Greene had no evidence for his date and may have simply chosen it out of patriotism. April 23 is St. George's Day in England—it's on other days elsewhere—so choosing it made the birthday of the country's greatest writer coincide with the feast day of its patron saint. To paraphrase Shakespeare's Henry V at Harfleur (3.1.44), "Cry, 'God for England, William, and St. George!'"

If Shakespeare was born on April 23, then he's in the same-birthday-death-day club that includes Ingrid Bergman, Machine Gun Kelly, and Caesar's assassin Cassius.

This last fact was curious enough for Shakespeare to use it in Julius Caesar (5.1.71), but, before Greene, no ever mentioned that Shakespeare was born on the same day he died. If he had been, we might have expected someone to note it, which is why April 23 is an unlikely day for his birthday.

3/19/14

The Nocturne Ballet in Max Reinhardt's 1935 Midsummer Night's Dream

Branislava Nijinska never attained the fame of her older brother Vaslav Nijinsky, whose dancing with Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes made him an international sensation. Branislava's career began the same way, dancing for the Russian Imperial Ballet and then the Ballets Russes. In 1921 she became Diaghilev's choreographer and for four years worked with him and other luminaries of the Parisian avant-garde—Cocteau, Stravinsky, Picasso—creating performances that helped make ballet central to modernism.
Portrait of Nijinska
by Man Ray

After leaving the Ballet Russes, she worked for various directors, including Max Reinhardt, whose 1920s and early '30s Berlin productions represented modern theater's sharpest edge. For his 1931 production of Offenbach's Tales of Hoffman, Nijinska designed dances that were performed on a revolving stage in front of three thousand people (Nijinksa 521, "Stupendous Production"). The following year she settled in Paris and formed her own company, which lasted until Reinhardt summoned her to Hollywood to create the dances for his 1935 film of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

3/7/14

Laurence Olivier Cranks Up the Drama of Literature's Greatest Seduction Scene

The pickup artists in Neil Strauss's The Game aren't a patch on Shakespeare's Richard III. In the play's second scene, which takes place at the funeral of a man he murdered, Richard seduces the widow of a man he helped murder.

The scene begins with Lady Anne following her father-in-law Henry VI's funeral procession. She tells the pallbearers to set down the corpse so she can mourn this saintly king, but her laments soon turn into violent curses for Henry's murderer, Richard Gloucester, who with his brothers also killed Anne's husband Edward. When Anne finishes cursing Richard—for the moment—she tells the pallbearers to pick up the coffin. Richard appears and orders them to set it down. As the corpse's wounds bleed afresh—a victim's wounds were thought to do this near his murderer—Anne rages at Richard, calling him a "fiend," a "devil," and a "minister of hell."

 Around 150 lines later, she accepts his ring and agrees to go to his house.

Her seduction is the most dramatic turnabout in a Shakespeare play. Its only real competition is act three, scene three, of Othello, in which the villain turns a loving husband into a monster ready to murder his wife, a metamorphosis that takes more than twice as many lines.

In his 1955 film, Laurence Olivier makes this tremendously dramatic scene even more dramatic by changing its location from the funeral procession of Anne's father-in-law to the funeral procession and grave of her husband, which is in a palace courtyard.

2/27/14

The First Soliloquy in Laurence Olivier's Richard III

Jane Shore's presence in the busy opening scenes of Olivier's Richard III gives us a sense of King Edward's vulnerability—the next scene shows us his brother's strength and determination. At the same time, the scene establishes a powerful sense of intimacy between Richard and the movie audience.



We start with the camera moving toward the palace door, which opens to reveal Richard leaning on the throne. When the door shuts behind the camera, Richard turns and looks at it. He walks forward, limping slightly, blinks a few times, and looks directly at the camera as he begins the play's famous opening soliloquy: "Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this son of York."

2/26/14

Laurence Olivier's Richard III: Titles and Opening Scenes

David Garrick's Heir

Laurence Olivier opens his 1955 Richard III with stirring tympani and trumpets and titles reading "Laurence Olivier Presents Richard III by William Shakespeare With some interpolations by David Garrick Colley Cibber etc." Viewers unfamiliar with English theater history might suppose that Garrick and Cibber were screenwriters and that the title resembles the one that supposedly opened the 1929 Taming of the Shrew with Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., and Mary Pickford: "Written by William Shakespeare with additional dialogue by Sam Taylor." (Erskine 341). In fact, Garrick was an eighteenth-century actor and Cibber an eighteenth-century playwright, and Olivier's reference to them gives us our first hint about the relationship between his movie and Shakespeare's play.

For almost two centuries, from the beginning of the eighteenth to the late nineteenth, the most familiar version of Richard III was by Colley Cibber, a theater manager, actor, and playwright best remembered as the Dunce in Alexander Pope's mock epic.
Colley Cibber,
Workshop of Henry Cheere?

Cibber made two large structural changes to Shakespeare's play. First, he began with Richard murdering the Lancastrian king Henry VI, the penultimate scene in The Third Part of Henry VI, the play that precedes Richard III in Shakespeare's first tetralogy of history plays. Second, Cibber eliminated one of Shakespeare's greatest characters, Margaret of Anjou, who appears in all four plays, beginning (in The First Part of Henry VI) as a young bride and ending (in Richard III) as a kind of living ghost, haunting and cursing the Yorks.

2/19/14

The First Soliloquy in Ian McKellen's Richard III

Ian McKellen begins his 1995 film of Richard III with the Lancasters' defeat and the murder of Prince Edward and his father Henry VI. After an opening title, we see the Yorks celebrating their victory: talking, laughing, dancing, and listening to Stacey Kent singing Christopher Marlowe's "Passionate Shepherd to His Love." As Kent finishes the song, we hear a squawk from another microphone as Richard prepares to speak. He delivers the first couplet—"Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this son of York"—and looks at his brother Edward. The crowd laughs at his wit and applauds his subsequent, triumphant lines.

The mood changes when he says, "Grim-visaged war hath smoothed his wrinkled front" (9). The camera moves closer to his own visage, focusing on his teeth as he talks of frightening his adversaries' souls.

2/18/14

Advice for Reading Richard III and a Summary of the First Two Scenes

Richard III seems complicated because, as the last of a group of four plays, its characters share a bloody past that is unfamiliar to most readers.

But the play isn't as complicated as it seems. In the first half, Richard does everything he can to get the crown. In the second, he does everything he can to keep it. Stay focused on Richard and you won't get lost.

Here's a detailed summary of the first two scenes to help get you started.

2/17/14

George Balanchine's Midsummer Night's Dream

In the second act of Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream, fairies dance and sing a lullaby to their queen. In the third act, Bottom, his head transformed into the head of an ass and deserted by his friends, sings to show he's not afraid. In the last act, he and another clown dance a comic hoe-down, and the fairies dance as their king sings a blessing for the play's newly married couples (the song isn't assigned to a specific character in the 1623 Folio, but most editors follow the Quarto and give the song to Oberon).

George Balanchine
Photograph by Ernst Haas
For centuries, Midsummer's singing and dancing has inspired composers and choreographers. Of the composers, Felix Mendelssohn created the best-known music: an overture written when he was seventeen—what have you done lately?—and incidental music written near the end of his life. Classical music geeks will recognize the overture before its first four chords are finished, and even people who don't listen to classical music will recognize the incidental music's wedding march.

Of the many choreographers who've created dances for Midsummer, the most renowned is George Balanchine. Born Giorgi Balanchivadze in Georgia in 1904, he designed his first dance when he was sixteen—again, what have you done lately?—but didn't create a full-length ballet until over four decades later, after a career that had made him arguably the world's most famous choreographer. He designed his two-act Midsummer Night's Dream in 1962 for the New York City Ballet, using Mendelssohn's incidental music as well as a number of other Mendelssohn works. Balanchine was a skilled pianist and composer and arranged the music himself.
Suzanne Farrell as Titania

A film exists of the New York City Ballet's 1969 performance with Suzanne Farrell as Titania, but it's unavailable on DVD. You can find other performances on the web, including this one by La Scala Theatre Ballet.

2/10/14

The First Midsummer Night's Dream Movie: "So Awake When I Am Gone / For I Must Now to . . . Penelope?"

In 1909 the Vitagraph Company shot the first Midsummer Night's Dream movie in the wilds of Brooklyn, using a forest and the architecture at a waterworks and park entrance (Halio 85). The actor Charles Kent may have directed the film alone or with Vitagraph's cofounder, J. Stuart Blackton. Like many of Blackton's films, the Vitagraph Midsummer is filled with stop-action effects, but Kent, who didn't use ordinarily use these effects, may have adopted them to make the film's fairy scenes more magical.