Whose Tragedy Is It Anyway?

By Tony Tambasco

Sitting in my tenth-grade English class, I can remember the lesson on Julius Caesar was more or less focused toward proving the point that Julius Caesar was, in fact, all about Brutus. It didn’t seem right to me then: this was Shakespeare, after all, whom in those days would more properly be written SHAKESPEARE, and you would almost think a guy like that would know what he was doing when he gave the play a certain title (which, for those keeping track, in the First Folio, the earliest printed source for this work, is given as “THE TRAGEDIE OF IVLIVS CÆSAR.”).

My English teacher, and so many others, are to be forgiven for this, though, as centuries of tradition have focused on Brutus as the center of the play. He has the most lines, to be sure, and the idea that the most important character in the play is the one with the most lines is hard to shake, but Shakespeare seems pretty clear that this is Caesar’s tragedy in the same way that King Lear is Lear’s, Hamlet is Hamlet’s, and Macbeth is Macbeth’s.  To put it another way, when was the last time you sat there watching Macbeth hoping that the tyrant and child-murderer would come out on top?

Brutus has been one of the roles that top actors have tackled with vigor in their centuries; Edwin Booth, son of Junius Brutus Booth, is probably the most famous actor in that role in this country prior to the twentieth-century, when Orson Welles would re-define Julius Caesar as Death of a Dictator, and his anti-fascist creed would color most productions that followed. Brutus not only had the most lines, but was also the tragic hero dying in service of the cause of freedom, liberty, and the American way.

It’s a story as beautiful as it is wrong.

The republic of Rome that Shakespeare gives us in Julius Caesar is a far cry from the American way. It is a government run by a privileged few who exploit the petty passions of the commoners for wealth and power. At rise, Shakespeare’s Rome is a place where elections determine who governs, but only the sons of wealth and privilege are on the ballot, and political alliances are kept within families. It is a bloated and diseased state where freedoms are weighed down by the tallow of economic oligarchy.

No, wait, on second thought, that’s pretty close to America in the 21st century. Sorry.

The real tragedy of Julius Caesar, from where I sit, is that there is no way out of this mess. Caesar can fix things, but he can only do it the way he knows how, and that means infringing on the privilege of the few, who, fearing their freedoms will be reduced in the new regime, react the only way they know how: by killing the man they fear will oppose them. The people are hopelessly caught in the middle of this, and while Antony and Brutus inflame their passions, they are ultimately helpless to even form an opinion about Rome’s inevitable slide into imperial government.

Whose tragedy is Julius Caesar‘s? Ours.

Shakespeare, writing without the benefit of the Enlightenment, takes only the position that assassination leads to bloodshed, and doesn’t think much of the common people, but we know better, or at least we should. As politics in America is increasingly governed by the whims of a duopoly of corporations and wealthy individuals, we ought all look to Julius Caesar as a warning from the year 1599: we are citizens of a free republic, and if we allow smooth-talking rhetors to use our passions to lead us by the nose against our own interests, we will suffer the same fate.

And we will deserve it. The only ones we have to blame are ourselves.

What we think about when we think about Sweet Tea Shakespeare shows

People often ask us how and why we pick the shows we do at Sweet Tea Shakespeare. As we look ahead to our most ambitious schedule yet, we wanted to share with you some answers to these questions.

Sweet Tea Shakespeare is, first and foremost, a Shakespeare theatre company. This means Shakespeare’s work is at the center of our performances. On the surface, this means we have done and will do quite a number of Shakespeare plays. If you’ve paid attention to our first few productions, however, you’ll know we’ve eagerly and joyfully presented Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest and Anton Chekov’s The Seagull. This is because we believe that to be a Shakespeare theatre company, we need to share and celebrate Shakespeare’s own obsession with words. So we’ll occasionally depart, as Shakespeare’s own company did, to revel in the rich wordscapes of plays that are not by the Bard himself. Over time, this will play out in commitments to more Wilde and Chekov, but also to Jonson, Marlowe, Beaumont and Fletcher, Massinger, Racine, Moliere, Strindberg, Ibsen, Behn, and others.

We also believe that to be doing theatre in the way Shakespeare did theatre, we need to be concerned, as his company was, with developing new works for the stage. Early modern playing companies thrived on new works performed alongside known favorites and we will, too.

We also believe that Shakespeare and the other early modern play-makers were masters at developing plays based around the materials they had on hand and the conventions that dominated the stage at the time. One of these conventions involved using only male actors. Women didn’t appear on stage. Men comprised the leadership positions in the playing companies of the time. Women wrote very few plays during the period. The result is that a lot of Shakespeare and other early modern plays have very few roles for women and, even when there are some great ones, they’re often voiced with a male perspective (sometimes very kind, sometimes not kind at all). Jump forward to the 21st century. We think Shakespeare, if alive today, would embrace women as collaborators, actors, and fellow writers without a second thought.

And so, we look forward to our next several shows with all this in mind. A heart for Shakespeare, a commitment to great language, an entrepreneurial investment in new work, and a love for all kinds of voices. Take a look at what we have planned in our main STS season and in our new Honey series, an initiative for women artists and voices.

Julius Caesar | September 23 at 9:30am, Seabrook Auditorium | September 24-28 at 7pm nightly, 1897 Poe House

Antigone | Honey Series | November 5-9 at 7pm nightly, Capitol Encore Academy

The Winter’s Tale | January 9-11, 16-18, 23-25 at 7pm nightly, Capitol Encore Academy

Sweet Words: New Work | Honey Series | February 11-15 at 7pm nightly, Capitol Encore Academy

Bottom’s Dream | A new, experiential, promenade production based on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream | March 27-29, 1897 Poe House

The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekov | June 11-14 and 18-21 at 7pm nightly, 1897 Poe House

The Tempest | July 16-19 and 23-26 at 7pm nightly, 1897 Poe House

Sense and Sensibility | A new adaptation | Fall 2015

 

 

Taming of the Shrew – Dramaturgical background

Here’s some information to help you “get inside” Sweet Tea’s upcoming production of The Taming of the Shrew! First, an article written by the Sweet Tea Shakespeare company dramaturg, Ruth Nelson; then, check out the links provided for additional analysis, performance reviews, and fun facts!

NOT Your Average Picnic: Sweet Tea Shakespeare Serves Up The Taming of the Shrew
By Ruth A. Nelson
(originally published in Friction Magazine July 2014)

A rich young bachelor acquires a rich headstrong beauty for his wife. It sounds like the plot of many a modern romantic comedy, doesn’t it? But what if, instead of living “Happily Ever After,” the groom showed up late – and dressed like a homeless clown – to the wedding, dragged his new bride away from the reception and through the mud to his country house, deprived her of food and sleep, and eventually humiliated her into meek submission? One might think a phone call to the police would be more appropriate than a round of applause.

Thus runs the plot of The Taming of the Shrew, one of Shakespeare’s most hotly debated plays and Sweet Tea Shakespeare’s second offering this summer. Shrew has been a source of contention for literary and theatrical analysts since its debut in the 1590s. Various productions have explored an array of interpretations to this robust comedy, from a sobering tale of cruel misogyny to a surprisingly tender – and easily misunderstood – love story. Whichever way you slice it, this story has the potential to be a difficult theatrical morsel to swallow, for audience and actors alike.

Why choose such a tricky dish for Sweet Tea Shakespeare’s summer fare? Jeremy Fiebig, Founder and Artistic Director of Sweet Tea Shakespeare, does not shy away from the play’s boldly troublesome nature: “Shrew is considered controversial because it seems to celebrate a male chauvinist perspective. The play does do this — there’s no getting around it. To me, presenting and dealing with the discomfort that emerges from a play like Shrew is important. Shrew can serve as a mirror for us. If we look into it, we may not like what we see, but we can sure learn from it.”

Besides being “important,” Shrew has proven its performative worth through sheer longevity. For over four hundred years now, audiences continue to demand, enjoy, and respond enthusiastically to the shamelessly raucous fun of this script. Between 2002 and 2012, the Royal Shakespeare Company alone put up no fewer than four productions of The Taming of the Shrew (Maddy Costa, The Guardian 2012). Disguises, rivalries, fistfights in the street, bumbling servants, razor-sharp verbal wordplay – Shrew has it all! Even with its uncomfortable subject matter, this comedy remains a popular resident of Shakespeare’s “hall of fame,” making it an apt choice for the warm, whimsical, unabashedly theatrical Sweet Tea Shakespeare.

Furthermore, at its core, Shrew is a funny story about love. Recalling Love’s Labours Lost, Sweet Tea’s first summer show (June 2014), Fiebig observes: “Both shows this season are about the extremes we go to for love and the unexpected endings that come from those pursuits.” As with every production, the goal of Sweet Tea Shakespeare is to explore authentically the rich nature of this complicated text, invite the audience into the exploration, and have a riotous amount of fun along the way. Who knows? We all might learn something – and we will definitely be better for the laughter.

TEXTUAL HISTORY
Visit the British Library online:
http://www.bl.uk/treasures/shakespeare/taming.html

*Note: It is widely believed that John Fletcher wrote a sequel to Taming of the Shrew in the early 1600s, called The Woman’s Prize or The Tamer Tamed.

LITERARY ANALYSIS
Check out this article by Erin Furstnau: http://www2.cedarcrest.edu/academic/eng/lfletcher/shrew/efurstnau.htm

PERFORMANCE REVIEWS
1) Royal Shakespeare Company, 2012 – Maddy Costa (The Guardian):
http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2012/jan/17/taming-of-the-shrew-rsc

2) Shakespeare BASH’d, Toronto Fringe Festival, 2012 – J.A. Macfarlane: http://www.playshakespeare.com/taming-of-the-shrew/389-theatre-reviews/6071-an-excellent-evening-bash

3) Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 2010 – Barry Eitel
(Framing device written by Neil LaBute):
http://www.playshakespeare.com/taming-of-the-shrew/389-theatre-reviews/4889-labute-cannot-tame-shrew

Sweet Tea Shakespeare Auditions

Sweet Tea Shakespeare will host auditions for its productions of Julius Caesar, Antigone, and The Winter’s Tale on July 17 from 4-6pm with callbacks on July 18 from 4-6pm.

Julius Caesar will rehearse beginning August 19 and run from September 22-28, including at least one daytime performance for schools. This will be an outdoor performance. Antigone, part of our new Honey series for women, will rehearse in late September through October and will run November 5-9. We anticipate this being an indoor performance. The Winter’s Tale will rehearse through the fall, with performances running weekends in January (9-25). This will be an indoor performance. Auditioners may be cast for Julius Caesar; these are screening auditions for Antigone and The Winter’s Tale — additional audition dates for those shows will be added in the fall. Musicians of any sort are particularly encouraged to audition. STS employs cross-gender casting of roles. Auditions are cold readings from sides, which will be available on site at auditions. Rehearsals will begin with intensive text work. Actors are typically required to arrive at the first rehearsal memorized and having completed some text homework (with instruction provided). Shows will be double cast, with total casts being not more than 12-15 people. Actors will customarily play more than one part.

As part of the STS experience, actors are typically expected to take part in one or more of the following activities: -musical entertainment prior to the show, during the show, and/or at intermission -other entertainments, such as juggling, dancing, etc. -audience interaction, including selling merchandise, handing out programs, etc. before the show and at intermission -assisting with set up and strike of costumes, props, scenery, lighting, and sound equipment for each performance as part of a team -assisting with social media marketing STS pays a stipend of not less than $50 and not more than $400 per role, with the bulk of stipends being in the $50 to $100 range.

Auditions are by appointment only. To make an appointment, email artistic@sweetteashakespeare.com with your resume and headshot. If you have neither, please email a summary of your experience and a photo.