Archive for January, 2012

Still in Continental Europe, this time during the Spanish Golden Age. It was a tough call between Calderon dela Barca and Lope de Vega. de Vega came first and is arguably the more inventive playwright but dela Barca is the one who perfected the technique, merging Renaissance sensibilities, Neoclassical sensibilities and a whole secular/religious/philosophical trifecta. So, Life is a Dream:

  • It was really funny. Most modern playwrights and critics pride tragedy over comedy but as this reading challenge has shown, being comic is not secondary to being tragic. (Tartuffe, Amphitryo, etc)
  • Harping on one of my ideas on last week’s challenge, the whole anxiety of influence will be kicking in. When dela Barca hits the core of existentialism, in a way, it predicates the theatres of Beckett and Anouilh. Its story is a callback as well to something as formulaic as Oedipus with the whole baby and prophesy thing.
  • Perhaps it is the Spanish disposition, but, although I’ve been joking that King Lear should be adapted into a telenovela, Life is a Dream is a telenovela. Love square – check. Jilted lover – check. Regaining honor – check. Dark family secrets – check. Double identity – check. Put all the tropes of soap opera here and then you realize soap opera is not ground breaking because Calderon de la Barca has been doing it.
  • Such conventions is not an indicator of its quality. Yes, the cape and sword trope is popular among the Spanish crowd, but what makes dela Barca’s work powerful is how it enters the existential problems of human condition without sacrificing spectacle. The opening soliloquiy of the prince shows so much insight into the entire play and when his dream monologues come in by Act II, we can forgive its length because its just so brilliant.
  • At the same time, maybe because it’s Spanish, I felt a great sense of movement. Unexpected – it was surprising – but in no means was it contrived. For instance when the king tells the people to pretend it’s all a dream – that was great. There’s just so much twists (blame it on the Spanish) that as a reader you would have to expect the unexpected.
  • My favorite character in this play would have to be Clarion (known as Fife in other translations – he is Rosaura’s servant). Yes, Prince Segismund is the more brilliantly written character (arguably dela Barca’s vessel), but Clarion is just so funny. It is in his character, but the way his dialogue flows and how his character jumps from scene to scene is just remarkable. I felt sad when he died.

Right. That’s it for this week. I really quite liked it more than the others. Funny but deep. So intimidating for a contemporary playwright, damn it. Next week, we go back to England. William Congreve’s The Way of the World.


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We’re out of England and into Continental Europe (btw, theatres in England were shut down at this time; blame it on the Puritans) The Neoclassicists were a throwback to what they consider the standards of Classicism of the ancients. Elements of this would come to england when we read the restoration dramas later on. Anyway, Tartuffe:

  • It is quite funny. As with most French farces, not only is Moliere’s wit on fire here, but the potential for other sorts of comic incidents are there, such as physical comedy, slapstick, absurd, etc.
  • What I do want to point out most prominently would be the theme – it attacks hypocrisy of religion (not religion per se but people who bring religion to its most ridiculous extreme. HELLO CBCP!) Primarily with the attack on religious hypocrisy on the table (which isn’t entirely new as Doctor Faustus was commenting on evil popes as well, although Moliere gave more focus to it), as a modern dramatist, you get so depressed. Moliere has been attacking religious hypocrisy four hundred years ago and up to now we’re still doing it. Anxiety of influence, everything has been written about.
  • Still on religion, you could see why Moliere was refused a christian burial. While it does not go against the belief of god or whatever it is the church supports, the attacking of religious practices will offend a certain sector. He may have made it clear (to the point of being ridiculously on the nose) the difference between the two, but perhaps the church is how the church always was.
  • Just like Wilfrido Guerrero had a fetish for nuns, Shakespeare for clowns, Moliere has a fetish for maids. I have previously read Imaginary Invalid and the maid there is just like the maid here. He likes witty, borderline bitchy, maids so much, who are arguably more intelligent than all the other characters in the play. Of course, one could argue that the neoclassicists look back into classical tropes (such as stock Roman characters) and just drop them into neoclassical sensibilities – and, yes, servants were also a fetish of the ancient romans (Hello, Sosia of Amphitryo) – but that would rob Moliere of his intrinsic literary merit.
  • The way that Moliere goes all the way down, making his characters as stupid and as desolate as possible, shows that he has a firm grasp on characterization. In fact, he goes straight to the core and does not hide his characters under any sort of pretense.
  • He has a family ensemble and the way that every character is varied from another is just brilliant. You know when the maid is talking, when it is the wife, the daughter, the son, Tartuffe, etc. And for such a big cast (and given some of them don’t even speak/appear that much) that is an achievement.
  • Very interesting in this play, Tartuffe appears almost in the middle of the play. Everything builds up to the entrance of the lead character. Going by it, it sort of builds the tension – so when Tartuffe comes acting all religious and all, the audience already knows that he is a hypocrite. That is quite a nice structure.
  • It ends with something Aristotle would call a deus ex machina (hello, the king is saving us!) but then again you would expect something like that to happen. As a comedy, you would be anticipating a happy ending and then you see the family having already exhausted all options. In a way, it functions as a feel-good ending. Surprisingly for a plot device, I didn’t exactly NOT like it. So kudos to that.


Next week, we’re leaving France and touching on the Spanish Golden Age of Theater. Let’s go with Pedro Calderon dela Barca’s Life is a Dream (then we’ll go back to England the week after)


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Still very much in the Renaissance and, in fact, comes years before Shakespeare.

  • It was beneficial, however, that we have read Doctor Faustus after reading Lear. Critics mark Doctor Faustus’ publication as a sort of gateway between medieval drama as well as Renaissance drama. For instance comparing this to our representative medieval play (Second Shepherds’ Play) and if you’ve read Everyman, there still are elements of the passion and morality plays present. Of course, partly because there are angels and demons and the really awesome seven deadly sins but it goes all the way to the allegorical state. However, it cannot be purely that because it harkens back to classical drama, ie the tragic heroes of Greek and Rome (Reading Challenge Week 1 – Creon/Antigone). The shift moved from allegory to talk about humans.
  • Of course, the story of Doctor Faustus is not new, nor was it new at the time of Christopher Marlowe. Just like how both Shakespeare and Sophocles would take familiar stories and weave a brilliant plot out of them, so did Marlowe with the character of Faustus. Of course, future playwrights like Goethe would create their masterpiece based on this. (Goethe’s Faust). Therefore, probably with the execption of the Second Shepherds’ Play (though you can argue it IS the nativity story), what I have learned from this challenge is that Sophocles, Plautus, Shakespeare and Marlowe used already made stories. It was through their handling of plot that their literary merit came to be.
  • Marlowe is…a lot easier to read compared to Shakespeare. Took me a week to read King Lear, took me a couple of hours to digest Doctor Faustus. Of course, you can say King Lear is twice as long as Doctor Faustus, but Marlowe’s use of poetry in this play appeals more to the common people. Hence, the prose isn’t as high as Shakespeare. Lesser footnotes have to be utilized.
  • Then you have the most famous line of Marlowe – “Is this the face that launched a thousand ships and burnt the topless towers of Ilium? Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss” And then you feel nice because it sounds so nice and Helen is so pretty (and a little bit slutty). But then, textually, you realize, hey, this guy Faustus is just saying this because his soul is about to be taken by the devil and he is trying to delay Mephistophilis. He is not just complimenting Helen he is trying to save himself. And then, when you realize that Marlowe, as a humanist, is pegging the Greeks, you realize that, hey, Helen of Troy is a product of Homer’s Iliad and then you start to wonder. If this were theory, I’d even argue that Marlowe is Faustus and Homer is Helen and Marlowe is telling Homer that he hopes his works would be as good as his by the inclusion of Helen of Troy but that’s just me over-reading.
  • On the level of genre, a play like this could easily delve into tragedy. And it does have a rather tragic ending and even a typical tragic opener (with such a Grecian method, the Chorus). But then, the play is funny. So, there’s that sense of genre-bending that predates even Shakespeare.
  • One of the more interesting things for me would be the allegorical seven deadly sins. If a modern production would do this, this would be definitely a dance. Pegging Chicago’s Cell Block Tango. I can’t explain why that scene works so well – just read it again. I love Luxuria’s line 🙂
  • Then we see scenes where Faustus challenges the Pope and we see that this is not a medieval church play. In fact, it’s a very political look into the powerhungry nature of the Roman Church.
  • This is actually a play that would be so nice to stage. There’s so much spectacle – there is Mephistophilis, the demon, there is Lucifer, there’s Belzebub, the seven deadly sins, good and bad angels, clowns, evil popes, fake popes. All this needs is a whore really, but Lust could take that place. As a director, you’d be hardpressed with all the scenic changes, the time changes and the large cast, but an efficient director could handle this well.

Not really much more to say about Doctor Faustus. It was unexpectedly funny. Marlowe is witty. Next week, we move to the French Neoclassicists. Just one play – Moliere’s Tartuffe. Yay! 🙂

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A drama book (Drama 100 by Daniel Burt) recently named King Lear as the best play of Shakespeare and therefore, the best play in dramatic history. It is very apt that this was the first play I have read for this year 2012. My thoughts:

  • It is so fucking depressing. Have you experienced reading a work and feeling so drained afterwards? It took me a whole week to read this (mostly because I was dealing with some personal issues as well) but after I read the last scene of the play, I felt so depressed. Generally, the tone of it isn’t (well, not extremely) but come to the last scene where [spoiler] practically everyone dies and you get so depressed.
  • Finally – more female characters I like! The past three reading challenges left me with female characters who were not to my liking – Antigone, Alcmene and that woman from Second Shepherds’ Play. They weren’t badly-written – I just didn’t like them. But then you have women like Goneril and Regan and they’re just brilliantly written evil women. That is awesome. Female characters like Goneril and Regan (and later on Lady Macbeth) are the type of female characters I like.
  • Why do I like them? They’re evil, they’re heartless, they’re witty, they’re bitchy, they’re very slutty.
  • At this point I do have to mention that it was the last scene that sold me on this play. It’s so brilliant. I hope I would be afforded the chance to direct King Lear one day. The mixing of poetry and prose as defined by the person talking and the situation is just brilliant.
  • The blinding of Gloucester is chilling, arguably more chilling than the gore-fest in Titus Andronicus – even with the cutting of Lavinia’s tongue and hands. Not only is the Gloucester subplot a recalling of Lear’s major plot, it also references another man who could only “see” when he got blinded – Oedipus.
  • I always like to devote a bullet point to which character I would like to do in a production. I am not old enough to do Lear and I don’t think I have the emotional baggage to do Edmund. If afforded the chance, perhaps the playful Fool or Edgar.
  • To analyze this plot and strip it to its bare minimum (Hello, Georges Poltis’ 36 Dramatic Situations), it would be similar to modern soap operas. After all, it is a story of intimate family matters eventually leading to betrayal. Of course, it is the manner that the story has been treated as well as the political undertones and insights to the human condition that elevate this.
  • On that note though, Romeo and Juliet has been transformed to modern MTV (Romeo + Juliet) and 50’s melting pot USA (West Side Story), Othello to a high school basketball team (O), Hamlet to lions (Lion King), it would be very interesting to do Lear in a very intimate modern setting – a pastiche of a telenovela if you will. It has a love triangle! It even has the classic “Do you love her?” Hmmmmmmmm…..
  • I can spend more time talking about Lear himself or the subplot, but what really hooked me were Goneril and Regan. I want to expand more about them – you see a female character, a daughter, a princess, twisted to villainous proportions, having no glimpse of hope in them. You see Regan forcing her husband to prolong Kent in the stocks and urging her husband to blind Gloucester’s other eye. You see Goneril poisoning her sister just because she’s stealing her man. And then you have the youngest Cordelia, who, when asked to what she can compare her love for her father, answers “Nothing.” This is twisted. This is macabre. This is brilliant.
  • I will stop writing now and start working on a soap opera-parody adaptation of Lear.

Right. Sadly, I don’t think we can do two plays a week. At least not for the foreseeable future. As such, next week’s play is still due on Sunday this week. We are still in the Renaissance though. Next week’s theme would be Non-Shakespearean Renaissance. We will read Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus

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