The King (and Time) and I

We saw The King and I last night at the San Diego Civic Theatre. It was a great show, evocatively staged and powerfully performed. But I also found it uncomfortably dated. The “Buddhist prayer” routines had me squirming in my seat, and the “happy ending” of Siam adopting Western habits of deference put me in mind of Shylock’s forced conversion. The difference is that today, the last few scenes of The Merchant of Venice are often played as ambivalent or even negative, but the ending of The King and I is positively bubbly.

I wondered if my reaction was a 21st-century response to a mid-century musical or perhaps Rodgers and Hammerstein. But South Pacific addressed issues of racism (“They Have to be Carefully Taught”) in the same ways that The King and I reinforced them (“Western People Funny”). And, of course, 400+ years on, Shakespeare’s plays continue to be relevant.

Perhaps the problem with modern plays lies in licensing restrictions. The King and I can’t be set in any time or place other than Victorian Siam. But what if it could? It’d be an interesting idea to set it in, say, the White House of any recent presidential administration – take your pick. Suddenly the condescension, the almost willful misunderstandings between various sides, the search for a rational way forward, shifts from being a time capsule to being scathingly relevant. Imagine setting The Sound of Music, with its pivotal cross-border flight, in today’s world.

The genius of Shakespeare may lie in the constant reinvention of his plays. Modern plays, with few exceptions, stagnate, frozen in time, with an audience primed for passive viewing instead of engagement. Maybe that’s why I love seeing Shakespeare’s plays: they’re always new.

Bargain Shakespeare From eBay

Shakespeare videos

A couple weeks ago, eBay offered a rare site-wide 20% off coupon. So, I shopped for Shakespeare. I was hoping for a Norton Third Edition in four volumes, but instead filled my cart with used DVDs.

I bought The Merchant of Venice, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), and Shakespeare’s An Age of Kings, all for about $20 after the coupon.

I’ve seen this 2004 production of The Merchant of Venice with Al Pacino as Shylock, and feel it’s well worth owning. As I recall, Jeremy Irons is superb in the thankless role of the titular merchant, and the backdrop of ethnic venom is horrifyingly current. It’s also worthwhile for Mackenzie Crook’s kindlier Launcelot Gobbo. I have said in the past that I dislike this play, but it’s grown on me, perhaps because of its increasing social relevance. It’s a dystopian play for dystopian times.

As for The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), I saw this show live more than 30 years ago and remember enjoying it. I’ve studied and seen a lot more Shakespeare since then, so it may be even funnier to me now.

Which brings me to the BBC’s landmark 1960 series Shakespeare’s An Age of Kings. This 5-DVD set was on my Amazon wish list for some time, so to find it used for a third the price was a happy score. I’ve come to love the history plays. They combine high stakes, complex relationships, and acute observations of human behavior with a dash of real events. I once watched all the BBC TV Shakespeare history plays in order, an epic experience I’m eager to repeat because it was so rewarding. Age of Kings is nearly as epic, with 15 60-minute episodes, each adapting roughly half of one of the history plays from Richard II to Richard III. It covers nearly 90 years and seven kings (although only five get a full treatment from Shakespeare). I’m partway through Henry IV. So far, although I’m occasionally distracted by the mid-century style of Shakespearean acting, I’m also quite satisfied with the editorial choices.

In all, some great ways to veg out with Shakespeare on a hot summer afternoon!

History vs. History Plays


How many people, I wonder, become interested in history through history plays, films, novels, or TV shows?

My older son, who was an avid Hamilton fan years before the show came to town, credits his A in high school U.S. History to the Hamilton soundtrack and the novel Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter. So pop culture versions of history definitely carry academic weight, even if one unfortunate side effect may be to believe that Abraham Lincoln lives on as a vampire and that Alexander Hamilton was a democrat.

My own gateway to the past was Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, which led to a lifelong interest in medieval history – the socioeconomic medieval, as opposed to romantic medieval (e.g. Disney fairy tales or Medieval Times dinner theater) or political medieval (e.g. Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones).

But the political gateway was there, in the form of Shakespeare’s Richard III which I ate up in any iteration over the decades. The thing that fairly recently pushed me over the theshhold was watching BBC-TV’s 1981-2 productions of Henry VI Part 1, Henry VI Part 2, Henry VI Part 3, and Richard III. Directed by Jane Howell, they’re a dystopian sequence of plays set on an ever more-ruined stage.note 1 Suddenly, the connection became clear between the socioeconomic and the political, between the story and the history. I promptly immersed myself in everything I could find about medieval history, starting with Dan Jones and Helen Castor, then moving on to scholarly articles, studies, and theses. Natalie Grueninger’s website On The Tudor Trail turned me onto Alison Weir, a novelist-cum-historian whose Tudor-oriented view of the Wars of the Roses complements Jones’ more Plantagenet-oriented view of events.

And threading through the whole era are Shakespeare’s history plays, stretching back to King John, then skipping ahead to sweep continuously from Edward IIInote 2 to Richard III before jumping to Henry VIII. Even considered as a biased, romanticized view of history conceived as mass entertainment, and acknowledging the compression of time (which even Shakespeare acknowledgesnote 3) and outright invention, it’s often amazing how accurately the plays parallel – and are informed by – actual historical events. I think an understanding of history helps make better sense of the history plays.

That puts me in opposition to those who argue that historical knowledge is of little use in portraying a character in a history play, and there are many eminent Shakespeareans who do. Surely a historically accurate documentary approach would have done little to help Hamilton become a cross-cultural box office smash.note 4

However, I think it improves the fictional Richard II if the portrayal is based on a king who, as a boy of 14, single-handedly outfaced an organized army of peasants. I think the villain in the minor Henriad (or, as I call it, the Margaret tetralogy) is clearly the pious, weak Henry VI, an opinion on the king with which many historians would agree. And, I think it increases the drama to know that the Duke of York’s claim to the crown followed established rules of primogeniture, and isn’t just an attack out of the blue by an arrogant wanna-be backed by a junta of henchmen.

Even non-history plays gain depth from historical context. For instance, in Macbeth, I think it adds a layer of moral complexity to consider that automatic hereditary kingship wasn’t standard operating procedure in Scotland when Duncan named his son heir to the throne.

Importantly, I don’t think this works in the other direction. Shakespeare’s history plays are nothing remotely close to being a primary or even secondary source for medieval research. However, I do think Shakespeare’s history plays have historical value because they mark the spot at which Elizabethan and Jacobean audiences would have understood – and been led to understand – their national mythology. As early modern documentation goes, actually, I think they are primary sources, all the more so because they were ginned up for public consumption.note 5

So, between history and history plays, I come down firmly on both sides.

Notes

1. This was done again recently in a three-part Hollow Crown series that, despite big budget visuals, utterly failed to live up to the bar set by the earlier, meatier, films. Go back up


2. People who know more about such things than I increasingly attribute the formerly anonymous Elizabethan-era play Edward III to a collaboration between Shakespeare and Thomas Kyd. One could push the series of history plays one king further with Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II. Go back up

3. Henry V 1.1.28-31 Go back up

4. And yet … I must say that some of the most dramatic revelations in Hamilton were fundamentally truths well told (to quote advertising giant Harry McCann), such as the Reynolds affair. But I digress. Go back up

5. I’ve always believed that advertising archives are the most-accurate source of primary information about historical public perceptions and social norms, because they reflect, not some academic wishful thinking or politically biased report, but what was actually present as a widespread, culturally embedded, commercially viable belief. Go back up

Hamilton in San Diego, Opening Night

We took the family to see Hamilton, the mega-hit musical about the life and times of one of America’s founding fathers. We have two season tickets to the San Diego Civic Theatre (which we bought specifically to see Hamilton), and we bought two more tickets during the subscriber-only early purchase period. It’s a good thing we got our tickets when we did, because the run was quickly sold out.

Our season ticket seats are in the mezzanine, and the two additional seats were a few rows from the back wall of the balcony. But here’s an easy way to get front-row views from any unobstructed seat in the house: binoculars!

From where we sat, binoculars were essential given the number of people on stage through most of the show – without them, it would have been very, very hard to tell which one of them was singing. It even might have become hard to identify characters after costume changes.note 1 With binoculars, the view was like being suspended somewhere above the third row of orchestra seats, well forward of the loge.

Hamilton is 99% through-sung, like Phantom of the Opera (or, indeed, opera itself). The energy was electrifying from start to finish, and the relentless forward thrust made it feel shorter than its run time. The show has its setpiece villain (a greasily feline Aaron Burr) and setpiece fool (a delightfully megalomaniacal King George III). And, like Shakespeare’s history plays, Hamilton takes egregious liberties with actual events, including what I’d consider the disservice of depicting Hamilton as sitting out much of the Revolutionary War as a writer for General George Washington, when in fact he was a respected combat commander well before Washington rose to power.note 2

It’s all in good fun, though, and there are clever nods to everything from Pirates of Penzance to Macbeth. The historical Hamilton would have known Shakespeare, of course, but not Gilbert & Sullivan.

I enjoyed the colorblind casting, which sent its own message about today’s America. After all, even history plays reflect more the times in which they are performed than the times in which they are set.

I also appreciated the bringing to light some of Hamilton’s many flaws. In this era of omnipresent media, today’s leaders seem to fall far short of the bar set by our idolized (and idealized) forefathers. It reminded me that men of power, at least, haven’t changed much.

Finally, I loved the bringing to life an era of vast possibility. It was truly a New World. The sheer, manic optimism that created this nation is beyond comprehension.note 3 Yet, possibilities still exist to remake the nation anew. If Hamilton turns just one more high school student into a historian or political leader, that’s a great result. As an aside, my older son, a high school senior and an early Hamilton devotee, insists that his A in history was due more to to Hamilton and Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter than anything else. So there you go.

Which neatly brings me to my bigger point: Nations are built on mythology, not history. By creating a uniquely American history play, Lin-Manuel Miranda has woven himself into the very fabric of the United States, past, present, and future. His mythological Alexander Hamilton co-exists with the historical Alexander Hamilton in the same uneasy way Shakespeare’s heroic Henry V co-exists with the historical, and much less-likeable, Henry V. In both cases, one is a living work of fiction, the other is a dead rich white guy from the ruling elite.

And therein lies the rub. We’re still basically telling the story of the American white elite. By contrast, the musical Allegiance told the story of ordinary American families of Japanese descent who were rounded up en masse and shipped off to remote camps during World War II.note 4 My family had the privilege of seeing its world premiere at The Old Globe in San Diego in 2012; it reached Broadway three years later. Yet, despite the backing and presence of charismatic TV/movie/meme star George Takei, the show received mixed reviews and closed after its initial four-month run. Other recent plays about the historical experiences of American minorities, such as Alfredo Ramos’ The Last Angry Brown Hat, about Chicano political awakening in the 1960s and ’70s, just haven’t gotten the mass traction.

Here’s a case in point: Miranda’s previous award-winning musical, In the Heights, is set in modern-day New York City, in a predominately Hispanic-American neighborhood. But it relies on a deus ex machina in the form of a winning lottery ticket to bring its story to a happy ending. The idea that anyone can get lucky is apparently more salable than the idea that ethnic minorities can get ahead through their own intelligence, talent, and drive.

Here’s another case in point: in Hamilton, the line “Immigrants – we get the job done” is met with “applause and cheers every single night.”note 5 It’s arguably the play’s Big Idea. Yet, it appears nowhere on the licensed merchandise. You can buy “My shot” mugs, A. Ham and A. Burr baseball caps, and logo sweatshirts. But the commercial side doesn’t follow the script. Instead it reveals the truth about America today: people may applaud the sentiment, but they won’t bring it into their homes and they won’t wear it in public.note 6

In 1927, Jerome Kerr and Oscar Hammerstein II delivered a breakthough message about racial prejudice through Show Boat, a frilly song-and-dance musical set during the post-Civil War Reconstruction era. 31 years later, Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun showed a generation of theater-goers a slice of the mid-century urban Black American experience, confronting issues of ethnic identity and entrenched socioeconomic racism. Today, in Hamilton, perhaps color-blind casting and a few verbal zingers represent the limit of what can become a mega-hit American history play.

So, like all good history plays, Hamilton shows us how far we’ve come. And how far we still have to go.

Notes


1. This is where I appreciate William Shakespeare’s audience-friendly craftsmanship in writing. Generally, his characters continue to be identified by name throughout the play. That really helps keep things straight. Go back up

2. The artillery company Alexander Hamilton raised – or, more accurately, stole from the British in a daring raid – in the summer of 1775 and commanded through 1776 evolved into the 1st Battalion, 5th Field Artillery Regiment. It is still in active service. We make a big deal of George Washington crossing the Delaware River to attack a German garrison attached to the British at Trenton on Christmas Day 1776, but Hamilton was also there, sick as a dog but right up at the front, personally managing his big guns to support the assault and wreck the Crown forces’ counterattack. Go back up

3. Two excellent books that capture the exuberance of our founders and their outrageous vision are Founding Brothers by Joseph J. Ellis and The Day the American Revolution Began by William H. Hallahan. Go back up

4. My grandfather was a Japanese-American businessman and entrepreneur who through the 1930s created the largest wholesale nursery in the West. As a result of his proven executive ability, he was among the first rounded up at gunpoint soon after Pearl Harbor, along with other civic leaders; his family was later relocated to Poston Camp I, where he later joined them. My mother spent her high school years in crude, shared barracks surrounded by barbed wire, gun towers, and armed soldiers. My father, too, was imprisoned as a high schooler; his family was sent to Heart Mountain in Montana. So, yeah, more than a bit of a connection there. That said, the American Revolution is a more universal theme than the experience of American ethnic minorities, and the team that wrote Allegiance, while incredibly talented, were no Lin-Manuel Miranda – who else is? Go back up

5. Rory O’Malley (who played King George III), quoted in “At Long Last, ‘Hamilton’: Megahit Musical Lands in San Diego This Weekend” by James Hebert, San Diego Union-Tribune, 3 Jan. 2018, Night+Day section, pp. 6–8. O’Malley went on to say that this line, and the audience’s consistent reaction to it, was his favorite part of the play. Go back up

6. I’ve fairly recently got up the guts to use my Executive Order 9066 canvas shopping bag from the Japanese American National Museum when I go to the grocery store. Only one person has ever commented on it, but it has gotten a few long looks. I would gladly wear an “Immigrant 3G – Still getting the job done” t-shirt, although I’m afraid it would also remind me that, compared to my grandfather, I’m something of a slacker. Go back up

Amazon Warehouse Deal Year-End Close-Out Books

Right after Christmas, Amazon had a year-end Warehouse Deal close-out with additional discounts on refurbished, open box, and returned merchandise. So, while the rest of the world shopped electronics and stuff, I went hunting books.

Here’s what I found: Alexandra Shepard & Phil Withington’s Communities in Early Modern England (2000), Jonathan Bate and Dora Thornton’s Shakespeare: Staging the World (2012), and Samuel Schoenbaum’s William Shakespeare: A Compact Documentary Life (1987). My total, including a 2” binder I needed, was less than $20. Any one of those books would have cost that much – such a deal!

Amazon Warehouse Deal bargain books, front covers.
My finds in the Amazon year-end Warehouse Deal close-out sale. All this and a binder for under $20!

These Amazon Warehouse Deals were one-offs, so you can’t find them now. You might find the same titles in different conditions, and of course you could always buy them new.

I’ve had mixed luck with Amazon’s in-house Warehouse Deals. Once I bought a mechanical keyboard that, despite the “inspected” tag, had a permanently jammed space bar and missing pieces. Fortunately, returning it was easy, and Amazon even paid the return shipping.

Communities in Early Modern England was rated Used – Very Good, with a note about a small wrinkle/bend on back cover. I had to look twice to see it. The Schoenbaum was rated Used – Good, with notes about medium wrinkles/bends and cuts/scratches on the front cover, and medium wrinkled/bent pages. I think it’s graded accurately, and am well satisfied with my purchase. The big hardcover book was a surprise, as I’d expected a paperback. It was rated Used – Like New. But, the sleeve is more than a bit ripped, and the front cover and flyleaf has broken apart from the first interior signature. Still, at $3.40 for this particular copy, I’m content to believe that the condition rating was a keystroking error on someone’s part. A little tape, and it’ll be fine for my purposes albeit too heavy to read in bed.

Amazon Warehouse Deal books, backs
That middle book was listed as “Like New,” but for $3.40 I’m OK with it.

Taken all in all, I’d say Amazon’s warehouse deal books are a little worse for the wear compared to what I typically receive from other online sellers of used books (including those that sell through Amazon), but the knock-down prices and free two-day shipping made it worthwhile.

The one I’m most excited to dig into is Shepard & Withington’s Communities in Early Modern England. It’s a scholarly collection of interdisciplinary essays exploring three aspects of community: networks, place, and rhetoric. Work intervenes, though, and as this is purely recreational reading I’ll have to wait a bit before wading in.

Arden Shakespeare Performance Editions: a quick review

Arden Shakespeare Performance Editions
Arden Performance Editions: a brand-new series with a different approach.

I had the incredible good fortune to win a set of all three volumes in this just-released series from Arden Shakespeare! As you can see, they are A Midsummer Night’s Dream (edited by Abigail Rokison-Woodall), Hamlet (also edited by Abigail Rokison-Woodall), and Romeo and Juliet (edited by Paul Menzer).

Arden Performance Editions are published by Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare. The series general editors are Michael Dobson and Abigail Rokison-Woodall from the Shakespeare Institute, and veteran actor Simon Russell Beale. This team has a unique blend of skills, with Dobson anchoring the academic end, Beale the performance end, and Rokison-Woodall bridging both worlds as an actor turned academic specializing in Shakespearean verse speaking. Together, they’ve created a series that reboots the way Shakespeare’s plays are printed. In addition to these three titles, Macbeth, Much Ado About Nothing, Othello, and Twelfth Night are in preparation.

The books are designed around performance. So, play text and stage directions are on the left, notes are on the right, and there’s lots of white space for annotations – even the line spacing is generous. Act/Scene/Line index numbers in the upper left corners make it easy to flip to the desired part of the play. The concise notes include definitions, pronunciation, syllabic accents and elisions, and selected textual variations.

Arden Shakespeare Performance Edition sample interior spread showing ample white space for notes
Allegedly Abraham Lincoln’s favourite soliloquy from Hamlet. Note the Act/Scene/Line index number in the upper left corner and the scanning guide for line 31.

I quickly came to love having notes at the same eye level as the text to which they relate. It’s significantly quicker and easier to glance to the right to get a meaning, than to constantly look up and down between text and a dense pile of notes on the bottom of the page. With these books, even note-dependent reading can continue virtually uninterrupted, making them ideal for following a recorded performance or reading aloud. This is a great example of design enhancing functionality.

The introductory material includes performance-specific notes on the variant texts and certain key issues, such as, in Hamlet, the placement of the “To be or not to be” soliloquy, and, in Romeo and Juliet, Juliet’s age.

Although the books in this series were created for actors and directors, their sheer vivacity and user-friendliness makes them ideal for students and teachers too. They add just enough information to bring the language to life without getting bogged down in details. And, the academic material in the introductory sections seems written to stimulate further thought rather than to provide in-volume pedantic minutae; bullet points hit the highlights and serve up examples.

Arden Shakespeare Performance Editions are large paperbacks
The Ardens are big, well-made paperbacks.

The books themselves are oversized paperbacks, and the ample white space that makes their pages so inviting also adds bulk. Here’s a comparison Hamlet to Hamlet. The Bantam fits into jeans pockets; the Arden takes up much of a laptop case accessory pocket. Aside from most of the text, the two editions have little in common, and I will refer to both extensively. I have to say, though, that of the two, the Arden Performance Edition is by far easier to read, annotate, and use. I think it will be my go-to copy for day-to-day use.

Arden Shakespeare Performance Editions
Arden Performance Edition Shakespeare titles as of December 2017.

A huge thank you to Arden Shakespeare – first, for sending me this wonderful prize package, and second, for producing this fantastic new series!

Romeo and Juliet at The Old Globe

The Old Globe, in partnership with University of San Diego, offers the Shiley Graduate Theatre Program, a two-year MFA course in classical theatre. It admits only seven students per year, selected from applicants nationwide. This was the first time I’ve seen an MFA performance at The Old Globe.

The Old Globe is a campus of three theatres. Romeo and Juliet was performed in the most intimate of them, the in-the-round Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre. The closeness to the actors added to the sense of immediacy as the play unfurled rapidly almost within arm’s reach.

I liked the way the play was divided, with a boisterous, joyfully bawdy first half and a second half heavy with foreboding. The intermission came at the announcement of Mercutio’s death offstage, a great way to stage the turning point.

Most productions set up Mercutio and Tybalt as opposites: a funny, street-wise Mercutio facing off against an icy, ornately cultured Tybalt. This one offered a refreshing change: Mercutio and Tybalt were paired punks, a smoldering love/hate coupling emphasized by Tybalt being a tattooed young woman. They danced with each other, erotically, at the Capulet’s party, a heated reflection of Romeo and Juliet.

But if Mercutio and Tybalt echoed each other in dress and behavior, their weapons were characteristically unique: Mercutio wielded a katana, Tybalt a matched pair of long daggers. The pivotal duel was a gleeful, sexually charged power play on both sides until Romeo got in the way. Mercutio’s death seemed accidental, with Tybalt looking on in horror before fleeing. As the lights closed the first half, there hung in my thoughts a hint of edgeplay gone terribly wrong. And, as the second half opened, Tybalt returned as if going to the gallows, and her defense against Romeo’s furious attack seemed half-hearted.

Creating a Mercutio-Tybalt relationship made Tybalt’s death at Romeo’s hands much more believable. I’ve always had to suspend disbelief that Tybalt, an acknowledged expert fighter, could lose to Romeo. But, if Tybalt was indeed Mercutio’s lover, her willingness to follow him in death neatly foreshadowed the deaths of the principals.

It occurs to me that I’ve spent all this time discussing Mercutio and Tybalt, and none on Romeo and Juliet. That’s because Romeo and Juliet can be little more than lovesick teenagers mooning over each other, whereas this Mercutio and Tybalt had bite. After all, which pair is more interesting, Claudio and Hero or Benedick and Beatrice? Yup, there ya go.

I’ve seen Romeo and Juliet live at least twice before, both excellent but conventional productions, and own two versions on DVD (BBC Shakespeare and Baz Luhrmann). This live production showed how performance choices can remake the story afresh. We all know the play and how it ends tragically, but the creative team managed well the trick of making me feel like everything might come out OK after all. That, I think, is the key to Shakespearean tragedy in performance: giving real glimmers of hope before it goes dark for the last time rather than an inevitable glide to black.

Globe for All Twelfth Night

Every year, as part of its relatively new Globe for All program, The Old Globe performs a Shakespeare play for free at various community venues. Twelfth Night is the third Globe for All performance our family has seen.

The venue we attend, at the San Diego Central Library, uses the Shiley Special Events Suite on the 9th floor – the roof – of the downtown library. This floor is set up as a miniature campus, with individual buildings set in a open rooftop space. The Shiley Special Events Suite is a standalone structure with a back-of-the-house catering area fronted by a soaring open space with floor-to-ceiling windows providing panoramic views and lashings of natural afternoon light.

Because the performances use community spaces, the staging is created around the absence of a stage in the traditional sense. At the Central Library, the stage was set square in the middle of the room with rows of chairs on each of the four faces. Each corner was left open for entrances and exits. Props were arrayed on tables on three sides, with the fourth side having the prompt/call book, and all the costuming and prep took place in full view of the audience, although behind the opposite bank of seats.

Before the show started, the play’s director took the stage to do a quick warm-up/survey of the audience, including some fun audience participation bits to get people into the swing of Shakespearean language in performance.

For those unfamiliar with the plot of Twelfth Night, here’s a six-sentence version. Viola and Sebastian are twins of minor nobility, indistinguishable except that one is a woman and one is a man. They are separated in a shipwreck in which each thinks the other has died. Stranded in a hostile country, Viola disguises herself as a man named Cesario and enters the service of the local Duke Orsino, who uses Cesario to deliver messages of love to Olivia, a local countess. Olivia refuses Orsino, but falls in love with Cesario, which is bad because not only is Cesario in fact Viola, but Viola has fallen in love with Orsino. A major subplot involves the gulling of Olivia’s arrogant steward Malvolio by her chambermaid and houseguests. Unbeknownst to anyone, Viola’s twin brother Sebastian arrives in town and much chaos ensures before the twins are reunited and the couples sort themselves into traditionally gender-appropriate pairs.

The play was done in modern dress, but the text was Shakespeare’s. The set was simple: two chaise longues with an elaborate drinks cart between them, a slightly extravagant patio chair, a brace of potted plants, a floor mat indicating water, and another floor mat indicating a boardwalk or perhaps a dock. Illyria was set on the U.S./Mexico border, a trenchant update.

To emphasize the bicultural nature of the story, several lines were spoken in Spanish, some throw-away lines and other key lines that were either understood in context or essentially restated in English. The musical interludes were particularly outstanding, making full use of several performers who could play guitar and sing as well as act. A few PG-rated lines and actions were included, but they were done in ways that put them more in the potty humor class; the small children in the audience were as tickled as the adults. And, in a fun revision, the fencing duel was rendered as a boxing mismatch between a towering but cowering Sir Andrew and a petite but reluctantly game Viola/Cesario.

Because the play was performed in daylight and in the round, the action and actors were far less isolated than in conventional stagings. Audience members in the first rows found themselves made part of the play as actors interacted with them, hid behind them, ran through them, or even asked for help with a particular prop, all of which made the story come even more to life.

If there was any loss it was that the streamlined interpretation gave short shrift, in varying degrees, to secondary characters: Malvolio became more bumptious, Sir Toby Belch more depraved, Sir Andrew more vapid, and Feste more yobbish, all as suited a performance focused on Olivia and Viola’s parallel journeys to love.

The great gain, in these Globe for All performances, is that they are followed by a question-and-answer period in which the audience can engage with the actors and the play.

The Globe for All program deserves kudos for bringing live Shakespeare into the community and making it free and easy for everyone to experience. Twelfth Night continues for five more performances, including two final shows on Sunday, November 19, at The Old Globe’s rehearsal space inside Balboa Park’s House of Charm. That’s the week San Diego schools are off for Thanksgiving break, so there’s no school the next day and no excuse for not taking the kids!

My personal Shakespeare weekend

It wasn’t intentional; in fact, both were last-minute things. But, I ended up seeing seeing two of Shakespeare’s plays in one weekend. That’s not quite a festival, but it’s more than I usually get to see.

On Thursday, I learned that A Midsummer Night’s Dream would be closing Sunday at San Diego City College, so I got tickets for Friday night’s performance and we made a big family night out of it. Although I’ve seen a few productions on DVD and streaming, this was my first time seeing it live.

The production set the action in a wharfside New York alley circa 1953. Theseus was the CEO of the slightly seedy Athens Insurance Company, and Oberon and Titania beatnik leaders. “The Boy” was an encyclopedia of beatnik knowledge.  Few other changes were needed: Hermia, Helena, Lysander, and Demetrius remained establishment youths; Puck retained his mysterious, magical qualities; the rude mechanicals remained solidly working class.

The cast of mostly young theater students was energetic, and their enthusiasm was infectious. Any scholarly Shakespearean depth that was diffused in delivery was more than made up for in sheer joie de vivre. It’s a fun play, and fun is the way to play it.

The set design was exceptional for its detail and depth, and the director encouraged everyone to take pictures of the stage and post them online as part of the theater department’s promotional efforts. I especially liked the wire-frame donkey’s head fitted to Bottom, which conveyed the right impression while allowing the audience to see Bottom’s facial expressions. Theseus/Oberon was doubled but Hippolyta and Titania were played by different young women, which lent a frisson of infidelity to the alpha male/s. Jazz music and dance numbers rounded out a thoroughly entertaining performance. Well roar’d, well run, well shone, and well played San Diego City College cast and crew!

Then I found out that Sunday was the final day of on-demand streaming of Cheek by Jowl’s production of The Winter’s Tale, a recorded livestream from the Barbican Centre in London. So, Sunday afternoon I settled down to watch. I’d seen it live at The Old Globe a few years ago.

Cheek by Jowl delivered a minimalist, yet exquisitely engineered stage on which performances simmered to explosion. In a stroke of genius, Leontes’ son and heir Mamillius was played as a precocious child perhaps on the autism spectrum, which seemed connected to Leontes’ inexplicably intractable delusion and later unyielding self-abuse. Leontes’ own position on that same spectrum was the neatest explanation I’ve seen for his behavior. Another sweet twist: the appearance of Polixenes and Camillo in disguise at the sheep-shearing festivities in Bohemia was echoed by the doubling of Hermione/Dorcas and Paulina/Mopsa.

While the live audience stretched their legs for the interval, the recorded livestream had an interview with the founders and directors of Cheek by Jowl, Nick Ormerod and Declan Donnellan. One key takeaway came from Nick Ormerod, talking about the minimalism of the set (in stark contrast to the City College production): “The essence of the theatre is in the imagination of the audience.”

And here’s rather longer excerpt from Donnellan, about Shakespeare’s writing:

I don’t think that he was some genius who spent hours and hours and hours, sweating, sweating, sweating; it doesn’t feel like that way to me. It feels like he was somebody who wrote fast … it was intuitive. And every now and then, when there are some laborious stretches in Cymbeline, when you feel he has maybe sweated a bit over something. But it’s not very often. But at his greatest, you know, it comes burning off the page.”

This production of The Winter’s Tale came burning off the screen, a powerful show that I feel privileged to have seen.

And that was my personal Shakespeare weekend, half shared with family and the other half savored on my own. Perfect!

Literary MOOCs: FutureLearn and Hillsdale College

I’ve taken Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) since their early days. I audited online classes back when the videos were grainy classroom lectures, shot from the back of the hall and accompanied by sound that cut out when anyone coughed, dropped a pen, or even rustled loudly.

Things have come a long way since. Over the years I’ve taken dozens of courses for business and pleasure through Coursera, Udemy, FutureLearn, Shaw Academy, and Hillsdale College. Recently, I found myself simultaneously taking a class on Hamlet and The Tempest from Hillsdale College and a class on Robert Burns from the University of Glasgow on FutureLearn, and was struck by the differences.

FutureLearn courses are divided into weeks, which are subdivided into multiple units, sometimes 20 or more, that you take in order. Units can consist of short videos, readings, activities, or quizzes. Hillsdale College courses are divided into weeks, with each week getting a single lecture of 40-50 minutes and a Q&A video that goes up to an hour or so, plus a quiz.

Of the two, FutureLearn courses are by far more interactive. The FutureLearn platform has a discussion forum attached to each unit, so each small piece has a digital space in which to explore it further. With courses having hundreds or thousands of participants scattered all over the globe, forum activity is constant and there’s a lot of back-and-forth within a diverse community of learners. I find I learn as much from interactions with fellow learners, many of whom have a high level of expertise in the subject, as I do from actual course content. And, course mentors and educators occasionally answer questions or clarify key points. The level of academic discussion is both voluminous and pleasantly high, at the high school to college level.

Hillsdale College has a single forum for the whole course. The activity level, reflecting enrollment, is many orders of magnitude lower than that in FutureLearn. The instructors do not seem to participate in the forum, so questions go unanswered unless a fellow learner replies with an answer. Discussions among learners can happen, but conversations develop slowly, if at all. Hillsdale is a politically right-leaning, Christian-based liberal arts college that attracts a fairly conservative population in its online courses, so the sparsely utilized forum can feel dominated by discussions of Shakespeare’s works in that light. Despite excellent course content, pitched at the high school to college level, I found the academic level of discussion to be relatively basic.

FutureLearn courses are augmented by on-location filming, activity-based modules, peer-assessed writing assignments, and links to resources outside FutureLearn. Production standards are excellent. Video transcripts are available online and as PDF downloads, and most videos have accurate closed captioning available. Video and audio files can be downloaded, as can other course materials.

Hillsdale College’s course is comparatively low-tech: a talking head lecture-style video with few visual aids followed by a filmed Q&A segment and an online quiz. That said, the professors are engaging and easy to listen to for extended periods, and the lectures jam-packed with great insights. Production and audio quality are good to excellent, but subtitles/closed captions are not available on all videos, nor are transcripts available. However, lectures and the Q&A segments can be downloaded as audio files.

The quizzes are similar but different. Hillsdale College lets you retake quizzes, recording only your highest score as you go along. FutureLearn gives you up to three tries to answer every question (usually multiple choice out of four) and if you complete at least 90% of the course, attempt every quiz question, and score an average of 70% on quizzes, you may qualify to buy a Certificate of Achievement (a relatively new offering) instead of a Certificate of Participation.

Although both courses are offered by legitimate, accredited institutions, neither course offers college credit or professional CEUs. Hillsdale College offers no digital badges or certificates for completing its courses. FutureLearn offers certificates only to learners who pay; certificates are delivered digitally (for use on online and social media) and via mail. Some FutureLearn courses, though, do offer academic credit.

FutureLearn recently made a major change, in most cases limiting free access to course content and in some cases requiring fees to take certain tests and receive a certificate. Those who sign up for classes for free get access to the course, course materials, and quizzes for the duration of the course plus two weeks; those who pay a course fee, either upon registration or by upgrading, get access to the course, course materials, quizzes, and tests for the foreseeable future, and in some classes they’ll get an additional final exam that, when passed, results in a certificate. FutureLearn also recently began offering certificate programs and degrees, mostly related to information technology.

In contrast to FutureLearn’s scheduled and time-limited approach, Hillsdale College’s courses offer the flexibility of starting or dropping in at any time. Think of them as streaming lectures, with quizzes attached to check your understanding. The current Hillsdale College online course catalog includes courses on Great Books: Ancient to Medieval, Great Books: Renaissance to Modern, and a new course on Mark Twain (currently running and not yet completed for streaming). At any given time, FutureLearn offers at least a couple literature courses covering different periods and genres. They are available to join any time during the run of the course, but interaction with other learners drops off precipitously if one starts after the first week or falls much more than a week behind.

I thoroughly enjoyed both online course experiences. The Hillsdale College online course was more of a solo spectator venture, like watching an educational program; the FutureLearn course was more of a social experience, with lots of engagement with other learners. Both have their place.

Online learning is the future of education. I look forward to many more years of learning online – and even one day developing a course of my own!