Refreshing Insights into Theater by Shakespeare and Chekhov
By: Ellis Nassour
Nick de Somogyi’s Shakespeare on Theatre (Opus Books; 256 pages trade; SRP $19.95; E-Book edition available) is more than a richly detailed analysis on the Bard’s text and working methods. It’s a unique collection of the playwright of Avon’s every reflection on theater in the Jacobean era. But, more than that, Dr. de Somogyi, founding editor of the Globe Quartos, a visiting curator at the Globe Theatre and editor of the Shakespeare Folio Series, puts us in Shakespeare’s mind as he contemplates the nuts and bolts of his craft – not only the plays, but also the poems.
It’s a unique behind-the-scenes look with an expert on the man and the era that allows the reader, almost literally, to eavesdrop on the work at hand: putting on a show – auditions, casting, rehearsals, costume and scenic design – right up to opening night. It doesn’t stop there. De Somogyi steps over the footlights and gives the reader a heady aroma of those discerning but rowdy first audiences.
Among revealing insights are into Hamlet’s encounters with the Players, Bottom’s amateur theatricals, and one of Shakespeare’s most frequently-quoted passages: Jaques’ "All the world’s a stage" monologue from Act II of As You Like It. The speech isn’t all melancholy and whimsy. It has depth: "All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players, They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts, His acts being seven ages ... The world is a stage. Life is a play. The ages are catalogued from infant, to schoolboy, lover, soldier, man of wisdom, old age, and the ultimate irony, death.
Stephen Mulrine’s vivid translation and commentary Chekhov on Theatre (compiled by Jutta Hercher and Peter Urban) (Opus; 256 pages trade; SRP $19.95; E-Book edition available) is equally fascinating as it purports to have every word the renowned, much-produced Russian playwright wrote about theater. His personal observations as one in the cat-bird seat, so to speak, create a strong picture of theatrical life in turn-of-the-19th Century Moscow and St. Petersburg.
Mulrine knows the territory. His translations range over almost the entire Russian oeuvre. His Uncle Vanya was selected by Sir Peter Hall in 2008 to open the Rose Theatre at Kingston-upon-Thames.
Judging from the playwright’s writings, Chekhov could easily have been a dramaturg or director as he shows amazing ability to spot strengths and weaknesses – and not only his own writing. Chekhov, as many may have forgotten was a medical doctor who never stopped practicing. He was quite fond of saying, "Medicine is my lawful wife and literature is my mistress." Perhaps his medical background accounts for his acute observation, especially of himself. Ironically, in moods, varying from peppery, passionate, and distraught, he feels his plays are misinterpreted or undermined. Maybe that last state of mind led him in 1896 to renounce theatre after the disastrous critical reception of The Seagull. Never you mind, the total opposite response two years later upon a revival of the play brought him back. They say, nothing’s like a rave review.
Chekhov started writing about theater in newspaper articles and in his own letters even before he began writing short stories, which were acclaimed for their originality and writing innovations. In addition to detailed writing and analysis of his plays, he wrote of his wife, leading actress Olga Knipper, and, quite unsparingly and with sweet revenge of several directors.
From John Patrick Shanley
Fans of Oscar-winning screenwriter of Moonstruck and Pulitzer Prize and Tony-winning playwright of Doubt, John Patrick Shanley would be interested in 13: More by Shanley (Opus, 354 pages trade; SRP $19.94). His work is always thought-provoking and, best of all, has unexpected twists and turns on human foibles. The compilation doesn’t include his Broadway debut Doubt, but does include Beggars in the House of Plenty, The Big Funk, Danny and The Deep Blue Sea, The Dreamer Examines His Pillow, Italian-American Reconciliation, and Women of Manhattan, which are among the many Shanley works produced Off Broadway. Mike Nichols provides the introduction.