Saturday, June 8, 2019

My Own Private Dramaturge

Calvin G. Thayer & Toni K. Thayer
circa 1985
My wife’s grandfather, Calvin G. Thayer, was a professor of English at Ohio University. When he died in 2004, his widow, Mary, thought it was only appropriate that we take his theater books. The collection included a large if incomplete set of hardbound Arden edition Shakespeares.

These baby-blue covered books have proven invaluable to me in the time since, as I have returned to them, again and again, for assistance in my work in education, and in directing the plays of Shakespeare.

Students of Shakespeare know Arden editions to be extremely helpful in understanding text, as they include footnotes on every page, sometimes so many notes that they take up more space than the text itself.

These copies, however, are unique in that they include Calvin G.’s handwritten notes in the margins, and it is his particular wry insight and commentary which made him the man he was, and remains on the pages of these volumes.

During the process of rehearsing for King Lear, as directed by Eric Schmiedl for Beck Center for the Arts, he was my own personal dramaturge. As I studied my lines for the role of Earl of Kent, often I would find CGT's cramped hand, commenting in one way or another on the proceedings.

The King banishes Kent for standing up to him in court, insisting Lear “revoke (his) gift” or change his sudden decision to punish the princess Cordelia. Instead of leaving the kingdom, however, Kent chooses to disguise himself and remain available to assist the ageing monarch.
KENT: Now, banish'd Kent,
If thou canst serve where thou dost stand condemn'd,

So may it come, thy master, whom thou lov’st,
Shall find thee full of labors. (I.iv)
In red ink CGT writes, “Why does Kent love his master?” He then answers his own question in green ink, quoting Sonnet 116:
Love is not love.
Which alters when it alteration finds …
"Why does Kent love his master?"
Sonnet 116 is one of the few Shakespearean sonnets you can quote in a marriage ceremony (and I have) because it is one of the few expressions of pure, unconditional love to be found in them. You love because you love, and situation does not change that fact.

Why does Kent love Lear? Because he does. Understanding this informed my entire performance, including and especially Kent’s outburst in the first scene.

Kent is also a verbally aggressive character, and his hatred toward the servant Oswald (one who felt confident enough in the new power structure to be dismissive of Lear) leads to this hearty exchange:
KENT: Fellow, I know thee.

OSWALD: What does thou know me for?

KENT: A knave; a rascal; an eater of broken meats; a base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited, hundred-pound, filthy, worsted-stocking knave; a lily-liver'd, action-taking, whoreson, glass-gazing, superserviceable, finical rogue; one-trunk-inheriting slave; one that wouldst be a bawd in way of good service, and art nothing but the composition of a knave, beggar, coward, pander, and the son and heir of a mongrel bitch;one whom I will beat into clamorous whining, if thou deny the least syllable of thy addition.

OSWALD: Why, what a monstrous fellow art thou, thus to rail on one
that's neither known of thee nor knows thee!

KENT: What a brazen-fac'd varlet art thou, to deny thou knowest me!
Is it two days ago since I beat thee and tripp'd up thy heels before the King? (II.ii)
Kent goes on. CGT writes,“One of the few truly satisfying passages in the play.” He underlines satisfying, which I take to mean (because he surely believes the play as a whole to be a great work) that it satisfies, that it feels good.

"King Lear" at Beck Center for the Arts
Photo by Andy Dudik
In our production Eric has done a tremendous job streamlining the text; he abridges it, yes, but also takes liberties with where lines fall and in what order. While it is greatly enjoyable to hear a fine actor vent Kent’s spleen in its entirety, this is not that show. My line as delivered goes like this:
KENT: A knave, a rascal, and eater of broken meats; a base, proud, shallow, lily-livered glass-gazing son of a mongrel bitch that I tripped up and beat before the king.
Purists will take issues, and that is what purists do. For me, I find the line at present to be immensely satisfying.

Speaking of edits, in Act II, scene iv, Lear discovers Kent shamed, languishing in the stocks (for having assaulted Oswald) and demands an explanation. In the unexpurgated  tale, which Eric had lightly edited, Kent tell of how he had gone to deliver letters from the king to his daughter Regan.

It’s a bit wordy, describing how Kent had kneeled appropriately, but had been ignored, how another servant had arrived, one from Goneril, who had received proper attention, and how Kent had waited patiently while everyone was rude to him.

This little drama is new to the audience, as it is a scene that Shakespeare didn't actually choose to dramatize. CGT comments,“I suppose we must take his word for it.”

Kent then goes on to describe the issue at hand, his altercation with Oswald, and imagining myself sitting on the floor, feet in stocks, whining about that other event, the one we haven’t even seen, and I suggested to Eric we cut it and stick to the stuff we’re already familiar with.

Yes, I am an actor who actually suggests saying less. I suppose you must take my word for it.

Finally, I had a note of my own. Near the end of the play the king reconciles with Cordelia, in prison, accepting responsibility for his actions:
LEAR: When thou dost ask me for blessing, I’ll kneel down
And ask of thee forgiveness. (LEAR V.iii)
Shakespeare says almost the exact same thing in Hamlet, only this time to son is reconciling with the mother:
HAMLET: And when you are desirous to be blest,
I'll blessing beg of you.
(HAM III.iv)
I don’t know why, but I always have such difficulty getting my young actors to understand what that means, and why it’s important, and at that moment in the play. I am grateful to know how much more clearly it is stated in Lear, and that I can use that in the future.


One last story about Calvin G. If you have seen or read my play I Hate This (a play without the baby) you know we named our first born son Calvin, and that was in honor of my wife’s grandfather. Following the very first performance, sixteen years ago, a local poet came up and asked about the name, because it was too much of a coincidence. Calvin Thayer-Hansen? Did we know Calvin Thayer, the English professor? And of course, we did.

This man went on to explain how he had been a pre-med student at Ohio University, and took a class his freshman year in medieval literature. Calvin Thayer was his professor, and saw in him something other than medicine. Calvin recommended him to the honors tutorial college. He took CGT’s Shakespeare History class, and was his advisor on his honors paper -- the subject, none other than King Lear.

Thanks to Calvin G. Thayer we may have one fewer doctor in the word. But we do have internationally-renown poet, performer and educator Ray McNiece.

Beck Center for the Arts presents "King Lear" directed by Eric Schmiedl, now through June 30, 2019

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