12 Winters Blog

The Winter’s Tale and other literary happenings

Posted in July 2011 by Ted Morrissey on July 24, 2011

I had the pleasure of attending a production of The Winter’s Tale at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival last evening in Bloomington, Illinois. I’ve been attending the Festival for years and am always impressed and pleased with its productions, some of which are risk-taking, like 2008’s Titus Andronicus, which channeled a kind of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome motif while employing a heavy-metal soundtrack (and, for my money, it worked), or last season’s The Tempest, which suggested that the entirety of the play was taking place in some sort of ethereal space and not on solid ground (I liked it) — while other productions are much more conservative in their staging. This Winter’s Tale, directed by Deb Alley, tended toward the conservative.

The most obvious manifestation of this conservatism was the deletion of Time, personified, from the text. Sometimes an actual character, sometimes a chorus, Time opens the fourth act by emphasizing the swift passage of time (in the context of The Winter’s Tale, sixteen years evaporate in an instant) and transitioning into the spring/summer section of the play. The Festival production eliminates this first scene of Act IV altogether, and 4.2’s exchange between Polixenes and Camillo serves as the transitional device. In more traditional readings of the play, time stands still in the nation of Sicilia, where the action opens (and closes), but the sixteen years have progressed in Bohemia, the site of 4.2 through 4.4, and thus the characters have aged. However, with the excision of Time and 4.1 in the Festival production, time’s passage has not been arrested in Sicilia, evidenced by the graying of hair and faltering of vision among the characters when we return to Sicilia for Act V.

The removal of this whimsical element in the play (that is, Time’s appearance and his freezing of time in the winter section of the play) lays the groundwork for a more conservative climax, which virtually eliminates Shakespeare’s ambiguity from the climactic event, and in my mind simplifies and makes less interesting the event. In the beginning of the play, Sicilia’s Queen Hermione is unfairly accused of adultery and is imprisoned by her suddenly insane (with jealousy?) husband, King Leontes; and we are told that because of the ordeal, Hermione perishes. In the final scene, 5.3, after Leontes has been reunited with his daughter Perdita (it’s a long story — go see the play), he is presented with a statue of Hermione — a statue which shortly comes to life. It is unclear in the text of the play if we are witnessing a supernatural event (a la the freezing of time) or if Hermione has merely been in hiding somewhere for sixteen years and is reintroduced as a “statue” for dramatic effect (dramatic within the context of the action of the play).

The Festival’s production definitely privileges the more conservative interpretation; through the actions of the characters, especially Paulina, the alleged maker of the statue, and through the graying of Hermione’s hair, it seems clear that the flesh-and-blood Hermione has only been playing at being a statue. The whimsical, the supernatural has been expunged from the scene, which is an extension of its being expunged from the play as a whole. The conservatism of the Festival’s interpretation shows up in other, more subtle ways. For instance, the contrast between the winter-Sicilia-tragedy half of the play and the summer-Bohemia-comedy half is evident in the costuming (especially the palette’s shift from largely monochromic to widely colorful) and the set (especially the lighting’s shift from blue spectrum to orange spectrum). While costuming and set/lighting do suggest the contrast, one has to look closely to see it. Another conservative choice would be the physical absence of the bear that famously chases Antigonus from the stage in 3.3. According to the Norton Shakespeare’s footnotes, in the Bard’s day an actual bear very well may have been brought onto the stage to “chase” Antigonus, but

[m]odern productions vary significantly in their representation of the bear. Some strive for realism, having a bearskin-clad actor or a mechanical likeness of a bear pass across a darkened stage illuminated only by the occasional lightning bolt. Other productions are more stylized, suggesting a bear by the obvious artifice of a mask or symbol.

The Festival removes a step or two further, and the bear is represented merely by its roaring and the terrorized expression of Antigonus as he runs (unsuccessfully) for his life.

One may argue that by eliminating elements like personified Time and an actor in a bear-suit, the Festival production is being the opposite of conservative — that it’s straying from more traditional, more textbound versions of The Winter’s Tale; and, on the one hand, that’s true, but I guess what I’m suggesting is that the Festival’s interpretation is more conservative (that is, less fanciful) than Shakespeare’s vision of the story. I have some ideas as to why these choices were made, and how they affect our overarching reading of the play — but that sounds like the stuff of an academic paper.

To be clear, I enjoyed the Festival production very much, and I encourage directors to stray from traditional staging choices and to play with the text, even if those choices and those edits seem, to me, less whimsical than what the playwright had in mind in the first place.

Anyway, the Festival is also doing Romeo and Juliet, and I plan to see that within the next week or so.

In June, I happily participated in the Poets & Painters event at the H. D. Smith Gallery in the Hoogland Center for the Arts in Springfield, Illinois. The event was a joint venture between the Prairie Art Alliance and Springfield Poets and Writers (of which I’m a proud member). I was planning on providing a link to the poems and artwork that were presented that evening (including my poem “Anima”), but the page seems to be missing in action at the moment. If it rematerializes, I’ll update this post.

This month I’ve been participating in a poetry workshop organized by Lisa Higgs and Tracy Zeman (a link to Tracy’s poem “Grass for Bone” in Beloit Poetry Journal) at the Vachel Lindsay Home. Unfortunately I had to miss the second of four sessions, but I’ve been enjoying them very much and getting a lot out of them. I’ve mainly been focusing on writing some new short stories and putting the finishing touches on the manuscript of my newest novel, “An Untimely Frost,” but I did write a poem for the workshop; and in general Lisa and Tracy have had me thinking about language in ways I wouldn’t have been if not for the workshop this summer.

The workshop session I missed was time well spent nonetheless as I met with the Friends of Sherman Library book club July 12 to discuss my novel Men of Winter. It was great fun to talk with avid and enthusiastic readers, and they indulged me to read my brand-new short story “Crowsong for the Stricken,” which was also fun (for me at least). In addition to “Crowsong” I’ve also written a story titled “Primitive Scent,” and I’m at work on a third new story. I have in mind the next novel I want to begin writing, but now I’m thinking of postponing that project to write a collection of stories all set in the same weird little Midwestern village, the setting of these three new stories. We’ll see.

On the reading front, I continue to make my way through War and Peace (on page about 840 out of 1,200), and also Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain (for my nightstand read) — but I did take a few days away from Tolstoy to read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novella Memories of My Melancholy Whores (translated by Edith Grossman), and liked it very much: funny, haunting, touching — all the things one would expect from a Nobel Laureate.

tedmorrissey.com

Advertisements

2 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Tracy Zeman said, on July 27, 2011 at 3:40 pm

    Ted, you have a blog! I will have to start checking this out…..


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: