This is Backstage Graffiti #144. For those of you who are of a mathematical bent, this constitutes a “gross,” or, if you are of a literary bent, a “grosse.” Or, if you are just intellectually a little bent, “One More Backstage Graffiti! Yahoo!”
And why would a literarily bent person spell it “grosse”? Well, having played William Shakespeare for two whole days a couple of weeks ago, I can tell ya. It was at an event held out at Thanksgiving Point called a “Renaissance Faire.” Note the superfluous “e.” This kind of spelling was, apparently, characteristic of Shakespeare’s era. Note that Shakespeare himself spelled his own name with an extraneous “e.” Of course, the Bard (“Barde”? No.) spelled his name variously. People didn’t care. One playbill even has him listed as “Shaxberd.”
This decorative “e,” along with promiscuous double letters, was so characteristic of the late fifteen-hundreds and early sixteen-hundreds that in the late seventeen-hundreds (got all that?) a forger by the name of William-Henry Ireland tried to pass off a phony manuscript of “King Lear,” by using the following spelling in the introduction:
“Iffe fromme masterre Hollinshedde (a guy who wrote a previous version of “King Lear”) I have inne somme lyttle departedde fromme hymme butte thatte Libbertye will notte I truste be blammedde bye mye gentle Readerres.”
The double letters have mercifully been mitigated in modern times, but the superfluous “e” has reappeared in the spelling peculiarities of suburban developers on, say, the Wasatch Fronte, where we have a mall called “Provo Towne Centre” (which is nowhere near the “centre” of Provo) and another called “South Towne Center” (which either didn’t get the memo about the cooler way to spell “centre” or else just chickened out). There is a dance studio called “The Pointe” (which might be excused, because ballet is taught there) and a residential development called “Bison Pointe” (which will never be excused until buffalo dance). Among many other examples. Have fun with it.
At the Renaissance Faire I was entrusted to wander about, ostensibly working on my latest play (“The Tempest”) and generally Shakespearing it up with individuals and small groups. For months beforehand, I had been resigned to wearing tights and “pumpkin pants” and therefore feeling ridiculous. But my excellent and merciful costumer, Jenny Lynn Rasmussen, found me a Don Quixote outfit that was really cool. I’d sort of “been there, done that” with the noble Spaniard and felt right at home ( www.latterdaysaintmag.com/article ). After blackening my hair and beard (Shakespeare died thirteen years a younger man than I am-on the same day as Miguel de Cervantes, Qreator of Don Quixote), I was off to the races.
To prepare, I had revisited a bunch of plays, read enough good scholarship to be convinced that my character actually wrote them, and memorized a page of lines I like, most of them from plays in which I’d quoted Shakespeare (none, oddly, from the only Shakespeare play I’ve actually been in, “King Lear” ((the real one)) ). On the prop front, the faire provided me with a crusty “Yorick” skull, but I thought it would grosse people out. I just wanted tools to write with. Happily, I discovered that pencils existed by the late fifteen hundreds, because I didn’t want to hop around jotting notes with a quill and precarious bottle of ink.
Shortly before Shakespeare was born, a big storm near Borrowdale, England, blew over a big oak tree and exposed a large deposit of graphite. Local shepherds thought it was coal and tried to burn it. It wouldn’t. But they found they could mark sheep with it (tic-tac-toe, “cut on this line for leg of lamb,” peace signs, who knows what sixteenth-century shepherds might get up to?). The graphite broke easily, so somebody thought to encase a strip of it within a hollow stick. Voil! A pencil!
A Swiss physician and naturalist named Konrad Gesner first described it the very year preceding Shakespeare’s birth, and the Bard is supposed to have used one. So I got a couple of Dixon Ticonderoga “My First Pencils.” You know, the big fat ones. I carved them into the shape of Herr Gesner’s drawing of the first one he saw. I fooled everybody. I can’t count the number of people who said, “Dude! Is that a real Gesner pencil?” (I can’t count them because you can’t count nobody. Also, Shakespeare would never deign to respond to anyone calling him “Dude.”)
So for two days (first one snowed on me, second one sunburned me) I got people to brainstorm about where “The Tempest” ought to go, listened to grave students recite monologues from my scenes, accepted the congratulations of folks who like my plays, and rejoiced in the wonder of things that would delight a guy like Shakespeare. It was fun to see the world through his eyes, particularly the people in it. They gave me great ideas for plays.
Being totally in character for that long had its drawbacks, though. On the second day, when my Celtic band “Annie’s Romance” played in a small tent, we had to be introduced as “Rob and Liz Macdonald, Michelle Adams, and William Shakespeare.” (Scholars have pondered for centuries over what occupied Shakespeare’s energies during what have come to be known as “the lost years” between his marriage in the early 1580s and his appearance in London in the early 1590s. Welle, he was working on his guitar chops. Duh.)
The aforementioned “drawbacks” include that yours truly couldn’t take any credit for being part of such a fun band
(first “Annie’s Romance” CD released September 20th– write Liz at [email protected] for your very own copy!)
and couldn’t tell the cast of the monstrously successful TV comedy series, “Studio C,” how much Marvin Payne admires their work (How much? He laughs his head off). It was like this: after our set in the tent, my sixteen-year-old daughter Caitlin hurried up to the stage and breathlessly whispered “Nearly the whole cast of Studio C was sitting right behind me!” And they were, right by the table where I’d left my guitar case, right by where I was going. When Whitney Call, with shining eyes, asked me if I was the dad in Saturday’s Warrior, what could I say? (Shakespeare wasn’t.) I simply asked in return, “Are there teens in your life that require slapping?” That seemed proof enough, and we all hugged for pictures. Sister Call said, “Wow, I’m star-struck.” Marvin would have said, “You’re star-struck?” But Shakespeare couldn’t. Now I’m contriving to run into them as myself and behave more like a proper fan.
One reason for memorizing a page of Shakespeare lines by speaking them aloud (mostly on a long drive up the west side of Utah Lake from the church’s “Jerusalem” film set in Goshen after playing King Benjamin-a character who we all know looked remarkably like Shakespeare, except the king’s beard was white, like Marvin’s) was that, use them or not (I used a couple), I wanted to roll the words of Shakespeare around in my mouth, see what they felt like, see if I could presume to sound like he may have sounded.
At the gig, it was easiest to sound like Shakespeare when talking about capturing ideas on paper. I met a lovely British lady, Vanessa Bridge, who was there to play renaissance music. She told me she was from Birmingham, a city not far from Stratford-Upon-Avon (my home town) but not as pretty. She confessed that in Birmingham “There isn’t much to look at, unless you know what’s there.” And she mentioned a fine symphony, ballet, and museums. Marvin might have heard her “not much to look at” statement and forthwith forgotten it. Shakespeare heard it and was electrified (electricity was before Shakespeare, but only by a little bit). Immediately he began pounding it into an iambic pentameter line. He quickly got “There’s nought to look at, lest you know what’s there.” This was rich earth-things that would move us with their beauty, weight, and depth if we only had some inkling of what we were really looking at-if we could manage to see beyond the superficial. Being an old guy, I quickly thought of old people and the treasure under their faded shells. I wanted a quatrain beginning with old people and ending with Vanessa’s line.
(Probably the best example of the line’s truth is to be found in the Savior, whom we’ve heard described as having “no apparent beauty.” But if you get even the faintest scent of “what’s there” you’re tortured, along with the best poets, by your inability to express it.)
My Gesner pencil filled up a couple of fake parchments and I’d consulted a lot of faire attenders (“The Tempest” went to a back burner) before I had
Shakespeare couldn’t be satisfied with it. “Dust-uncrusted” felt a little too clever. He knew he had chosen “gray cage” mostly for its rhyme. He wasn’t happy about repeating forms of “beneath” in adjacent lines.
Marvin was just fine with it. So was Vanessa Bridges when I caught up with her-or she was very kind.
I was reminded of all this “talking like Shakespeare” stuff during General Conference yesterday, when the Sunday School’s David McConkie was speaking. He talked about being certain that we were speaking the words of the Spirit when we’re teaching. Shakespeare’s words are so bright and succulent that the modern actor’s whole passion is to make them heard and understood. No one would walk onstage in a production of “Hamlet” and wish they were allowed to speak their own words. It’s all about speaking the words of the master. The actor is a little like the Savior, who wished no more than to speak the words of His Father.
I know what it feels like to speak the Spirit’s words during priesthood blessings. Is it this very experience we’re after while teaching or praying? Sitting there in front of conference on the family iBook, I suddenly imagined the scorn of “independent thinkers” who would look upon this “speaking like somebody else” phenomenon as mindless parroting. I don’t feel this way at all. For me, so much of the Savior’s personal beauty arises from His desire to do His Father’s will and speak His Father’s words.
My will wavers and my words tend to rattle. “Sounding brass” and “tinkling cymbals” come to mind. It was way fun to walk among my fellows and “talk like Shakespeare.” It elevated me. I need practice (and I can easily get practice) to fit me to walk among them and “talk like the Holy Ghost.”