Theatre online? Why then the world’s my oyster

It is a bit late in the lockdown to have discovered the wonders of theatre on YouTube. The theatres remain shut and barred, but Shakespeare’s Globe, the National Theatre and others have been putting filmed performances on YouTube. I recently watched the Globe’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, which I last saw at Tollethorpe Hall many years ago (and Tollethorpe productions are always excellent). The National has a good selection too.

It is almost a shock to find that YouTube is not just cat videos and the fortnightly Moggcast.

There is a different dynamic sitting in your own house watching the grand scene, the inns, grand houses and fields of Windsor, first encompassed in a wooden O, then crammed further into a box in the corner of the room. It is done well though. The Globe is a more intimate theatre experience anyway, with the actors playing to the groundlings and often bustling in among them for their exits and their entrances. Coming into my own front room is just the next obvious step. It does not replace the theatre – the roar of the greasepaint, the smell of the crowd, the immediacy with no physical barrier between me and the action, but it is good.

The play? It was done in an energetic, chummy way. The Merry Wives of Windsor needs its own review (yet another task for another day). It is noticeable as the play where the women lead the plot more than any other. Shakespeare, alone among his contemporaries, wrote good parts for women, letting them be real characters, not passing extras with a one-dimensional role. In the Merry Wives the nominal central character is Falstaff – he is the comic turn and in a way the McGuffin – but it is the wives themselves who take the lead, ably assisted by their own comic turn in Mistress Quickly. It is said that the play was written at the specific request of the Queen herself: it shows, and is better for it. The scenes, the quips, the clever women and the befuddled men, the local folklore, the comic Frenchman and comic Welshman (whose best scenes were missed, unfortunately) and all pomposity punctured – only Shakespeare can achieve all that in a play so neatly tied together, and all in my front room and all for free.

I will have to look for more on YouTube if I can get past the cat videos.

The main point though is not to spread culture to the masses, good as that is – it is to remind us of what we have lost without live theatre, while the lockdown closes it. They are suffering and many might not survive – and it is not because of COVID-19, but because of the lockdown. When the theatres open they will bring life to all the pubs and restaurants around them too – they are vital to the local economy, in London’s theatreland more obviously, but all around the country. The limitations of the small screen should whet our appetites to see the real thing. That is the point. I will go back to Tollethorpe when I can. In the meantime though we have the theatre coming into our homes, if we just care to look.

Proud man, Drest in a little brief authority

There is nothing I can ever say on any subject of import concerning mankind which Shakespeare has not said better. All the clashing claims of authority, from state or PC establishment are shamed before his observations, so I can hardly do better than to read to them a passage which has illustrated its own wisdom this last week.

O, it is excellent
To have a giant’s strength; but it is tyrannous To use it like a giant.

. . .

Could great men thunder
As Jove himself does, Jove would ne’er be quiet,
For every pelting, petty officer
Would use his heaven for thunder;
Nothing but thunder! Merciful Heaven,
Thou rather with thy sharp and sulphurous bolt
Split’st the unwedgeable and gnarled oak
Than the soft myrtle: but man, proud man,
Drest in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he’s most assured,
His glassy essence, like an angry ape,
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
As make the angels weep; who, with our spleens,
Would all themselves laugh mortal.

Measure for Measure, Act II Scene II

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If music be the food of love…

On Twelfth Night, the end of Christmas, naturally ones thoughts turn to the beginning of the year’s work, for we must all work hard to feed our families, but then there is always Shakespeare:

If music be the food of love, play on;
Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,

The appetite may sicken, and so die.
That strain again! it had a dying fall:
O, it came o’er my ear like the sweet sound,
That breathes upon a bank of violets,
Stealing and giving odour! Enough; no more:
‘Tis not so sweet now as it was before.
O spirit of love! how quick and fresh art thou,
That, notwithstanding thy capacity
Receiveth as the sea, nought enters there,
Of what validity and pitch soe’er,
But falls into abatement and low price,
Even in a minute: so full of shapes is fancy
That it alone is high fantastical.

There are no more Christmas carols for us, but there is always music. Orsino knows the intimate connection between the sound of the harp and the sound of the heart.

I once saw a production of Twelfth Night in 1920s dress, which opened with a chap in a boater dancing almost Charleston-style to a gramophone and it did not quite fit the pained opening soliloquy, but even the band-tunes of the 1920s dance hall were aimed at the heart (and it needed a lot of work to make that decade jolly, to forget all that had been before, and the resentful division between those who had served and those who had not, and those who came home whole and those who did not).

However, we misread Orsino if we read only the first lines, as we usually do. Music is the food of love, or one food for it, and we sing the lines as if they were an invitation to conjure up love. Orsino though suffers from love. He loves Olivia and it is unrequired, and he wants to be rid of his affliction, and so he will be drowned in music so he is so full of the artificial love-feelings it generates that he is sick of them and will love no more. It is a dishonest trick though – he wants those emotions washing over him, until he admits it to himself perhaps and the music calls to him to well the remembrance that he can never be loved; ‘Tis not so sweet now as it was before. Is that the music, or the feelings of love?

Shakespeare knew what music could do, and his words were music in themselves. As he said elsewhere: “The man that hath no music in himself, Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds, Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils;” (The bard does not say whether writing a political blog counts. I expect so.)

Great music is a powerful think to mould the soul, even to our own day. Ours is not an age without music, but the cacophony of popular singers and sickening lyrics might make you think so. Great music is still written these days, but you may not notice you are hearing it – it is written for films. There are composers today as great as there were in the classical age, writing for Hollywood not the opera. They move the soul as ever great music did.

In the play, Orsino is to be changed unwillingly. Enter Viola, who unwittingly returns to the theme as she goes to seek the Duke’s employment:

I can sing
And speak to him in many sorts of music
That will allow me very worth his service.
What else may hap to time I will commit;
Only shape thou thy silence to my wit.

And so the transformation begins, moving the affection from Olivia to Viola. The almost anagram of the ladies’ names is a clue to the muddles of the plot.

Orsino cast music aside, but not for long. He seeks the thing it engenders in his heart and he looks for it again:

Give me some music. Now, good morrow, friends.
Now, good Cesario, but that piece of song,
That old and antique song we heard last night:
Methought it did relieve my passion much,
More than light airs and recollected terms
Of these most brisk and giddy-paced times:
Come, but one verse.

The old and antique song is what we all seek. Though it seems a cultureless age, there is something eternal in music worthy of the name that ensures it cannot disappear.

The whirligig of time brings in his revenges

Why, ‘some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrown upon them.’ I was one, sir, in this interlude; one Sir Topas, sir; but that’s all one. ‘By the Lord, fool, I am not mad.’ But do you remember? ‘Madam, why laugh you at such a barren rascal? an you smile not, he’s gagged:’ and thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges.

What has happened to all those high-flying Members of Parliament who have all of a sudden stepped away to let others, untried but often as able, step into their places? When they vanish as vanish they must, will they find real life and absorb themselves in it? They must be men and women and not just political personae, but it is easy to categorise them as such and expect that there is some political strategy behind it. In truth though, no one has a right to sit in Parliament, until they are periodically elected to it, and no one has a right to be elected.

Some have found the very flavour of the House of Commons soured and repulsive. Some find that of the politics outside the formal procedures, in the interview and on social media (which it is hard to ignore even if you try not to do social media: it must be cutting to think there are people thinking about you and hating you at a distance, when all you ever wanted to do was to work for the public good).

Others though are cast out for rebellion. Some have greatness torn from them, and it hurts. Some lost favour for backing the wrong side, like a lord who wore the king’s white rose only to find Lancaster on the throne or vice versa, and thus condemned as a retrospective traitor. Many of the accustomed rulers lost their lands and their lives in that way in the days of the unfortunate King Henry VI and those who usurped his throne. The new leader of a political party may be even less forgiving than Richard of York.

They were full of confidence when they had power, and think they are still players. Once they step outside the doors of Westminster however they become ordinary men or women, with no call on the press or voice of influence. Goodness – they will even have to find jobs.

Some still now hold back through pride. It will be the end of their political careers though. They should not assume their local members will ride to the rescue – it does not work like that outside cheap Hollywood films. They stood against their own party (Conservative or Labour) and successfully prevented its action in some way, but now they find that their strength has undercut their power – the times come round again and retribution with them, to leave then whipless or deselected: the whirligig of time brings in its revenges.

Counter-cheque Quarrelsome

If one word of public discourse curdles in the ear it is ‘lie’.  It is a lazy word and ironically a dishonest one.  It is a word issued out of hatred and without thought. To us ordinary, common folk we know what it means, but in political discourse it has come to mean “an argument which we do not want to be said” or “anything said by someone we do not like”.

There should be a subtlety to disagreement.  Shakespeare explained it in As You Like It, in which Touchstone enumerates the ‘degrees of the lie’.  In this context ‘lie’ is another meaning of the word:  ‘to give the lie to’ something is to contradict it, but contradicting a man plainly is fighting talk. Therefore there are degrees of the lie, for which Touchstone’s example began:

‘I did dislike the cut of a certain courtier’s beard: he sent me word, if I said his beard was not cut well’:

1. The Retort Courteous.  he sent me word, if I said his beard was not cut well, he was in the mind it was.

2.. The Quip Modest: he would send me word, he cut it to please himself;

3. The Reply Churlish: he disabled my judgment;

4. The Reproof Valiant: he would answer, I spake not true;

5. The Counter-cheque Quarrelsome: he would say I lied;

6. The Lie Circumstantial (also ‘the Lie with Circumstance’);

7. The Lie Direct.

I durst go no further than the Lie Circumstantial, nor he durst not give me the Lie Direct; and so we measured swords and parted.

All these you may avoid but the Lie Direct; and you may avoid that too, with an If. I knew when seven justices could not take up a quarrel, but when the parties were met themselves, one of them thought but of an If, as, “If you said so, then I said so;” and they shook hands and swore brothers. Your If is the only peacemaker; much virtue in If.

This is wit and with is wisdom from over three hundred years ago.  Cannot our political commentators learn from it and temper their anger with art?

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