Good afternoon! Jordan is back to give you the scoop on the second staging session of the conference, this time pitting Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay by Robert Greene (1594) against The Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd (1582). (There will be a total of three staging sessions throughout the conference, with each producing a winner.) The first staging session placed Bonduca by Beaumont and Fletcher (1613) against The Tragedy of Nero by Anonymous (1624) with the warrior queen overpowering the emperor. Today’s second round began with Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay.
Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay was presented by Garry Walton from Meredith College and his summary seemed to be of Doctor Faustus on steroids. Thought to be Greene’s best and most significant play, Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay features dragons, forbidden demonic knowledge, feuding academics, German scholars, religious undertones, and no fewer than six wizard wars. Walton also made note of a prop of epic proportions: a massive telescope which would have been the latest and greatest of technology at the time of Greene’s writings. Walton augmented his plot summary by having ASC actors David Anthony Lewis, Chris Johnston, Danielle Festa, Michael Manocchio, and Sylvie Davidson perform a staged reading of several critical scenes. We saw the teased telescope in action, magic performed, rivals stymied, and the hints of the wizard duels.
Why this play now? Walton thinks the content would speak to a generation that grew up with Harry Potter and Bill Nye. The play’s comments on the vain dream of securing a nation’s border with a wall and the manipulation of academia for political ends would resonate with many in our current social climate. There is also a romantic subplot revolving around a pair of feuding lovers and reflections on the dangers of male sexual conquest, unbridled nationalism, and rapid technological advancement. It’s got fun for the whole family!
After Walton concluded, the panel of three judges (Dan Hasse, ASC’s Associate Artistic Director; Jay McClure, ASC’s Associate Artistic Producer; and Anne Morgan, ASC’s Literary Manager) took a few minutes to pose some questions to Walton. Hasse opened by asking how could a play with all of these crazy pieces live up to the list of its parts? He likened it to an Early Modern Snakes on a Plane and said it seems like a pretty big-budget production (massive heads descending from the heavens, dragons, etc.) so why is the ASC the right place for this play? Walton responded that the unique talents of the ASC company members is what makes him want to see Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay performed at the Blackfriars. He also thinks that the recurring theme of wizarding duels would speak to the town that hosts a yearly festival in honor of the Harry Potter literary world.
It was then McClure’s turn, and he prefaced his comments with a general overview of what he is looking for anytime he is looking to possibly produce a play. His personal check list is:
- Is it interesting? Does the pitch make him want to read it?
- Is it understandable? Can you follow the plot just by reading it, or does it take multiple passes through the text?
- Is it playable? Can he see the actors of the ASC in it?
- Is it marketable? Will it generate enough interest to make it worth the effort?
McClure thinks it’s interesting and that the ASC actors could make it work (as evidenced by the scenes Walton had them read) but he also said that doesn’t mean they should make it work. His biggest sticking point is in the marketing of it, how to sell a play titled essentially Friar Friar. There was then a brief disagreement between two panel members; Hasse claiming that the title is “amazing” with McClure maintaining that he thinks it’s “terrible.” In response to this, an audience member suggested using the subtitling technique that the ASC employed for Henry VI (Shakespeare’s Joan of Arc, for example). However, the conversation was cut short so that we could get to the other play with time for discussion after.
This brought us to Annalisa Castaldo of Widener University, Skyping in to make a case for The Spanish Tragedy. She came out swinging; outlining her three main points in support of The Spanish Tragedy. Her first point rests on the play’s historical relevance: its use of violence on stage opened the door for the genre of revenge tragedies, and plausibly served as inspiration for a number of its contemporaries (including both Hamlet and Titus Andronicus). Spanish Tragedy was also an Early Modern blockbuster, eliciting nine reprints of the script. It not only features a strong female lead with agency, but also manages to include almost all of the popular tropes of the day, disguises, madness, love triangles, play-within-a-play. The only thing missing is cross-dressing.
The second pillar of her argument was that performing The Spanish Tragedy at the ASC, using the Early Modern staging conditions, would be of intense interest to modern scholars. While it has been performed with some regularity in recent history, those productions did not adhere to the staging conditions in use during its conception. Staging The Spanish Tragedy at the ASC could potentially answer some questions that have long plagued scholars, including how to choreograph the extensive violence and how to successfully stage the vengeful ghosts.
The third piece? General awesomeness. Castaldo claimed it is a truly engaging play on many levels, a perfect blend of action and rhetoric. It includes epic stage deaths, witty banter, exciting fights — even a soliloquy in which a character delicately balances his desire for revenge with his belief in the rule of law. Castaldo asserted that the quantity and quality of Hieronimo’s musings on the murder of his dead father are second only to Hamlet’s.
In order to illustrate her third point, Castaldo pieced together four different scenes to capture the spirit of the play and be performed by ASC actors Brandon Carter, David Watson, Chris Johnston, David Anthony Lewis, Michael Mannochio, Leighton Brown, and Michael Blackwood. Her only direction? “Have fun!” The scene began with a wordy wooing which was interrupted by a swift stabbing, illustrating the balance of action and rhetoric that Castaldo mentioned in her introduction. There followed a soul-searching soliloquy, reminiscent of Angelo’s “What’s this?” speech from Measure for Measure, and concluded with a cliffhanger.
Then the judging began.
Morgan lead the comments this time around. She started off by asking Castaldo what challenges she could foresee in the production of this play. Castaldo said that the staging of the final scene, which features a play-within-a-play, a fake poisoning, and plenty of vengeance, would be the most difficult; however she argued that it would be well worth the effort to bring what she calls “Hamlet 1.0” to life on the Blackfriars’ stage. McClure then inquired about any other difficult to stage deaths, which is how we learned about the character that is first hung up by his ankles and then stabbed. Castaldo also mentioned a character who somehow bites off his own tongue and spits it out. Though not technically a death, that would still be difficult to stage.
Hasse said the ASC acting company was sold on the violence and excited by the challenges it presents, but asked about the use of different languages that Castaldo mentioned in her introduction. She clarified that although four languages are mentioned when introducing the play-within-a-play, with Hieronimo saying that the play will be performed in French, German, Spanish, and Latin; these languages do not appear in the script and Hieronimo was recently mad so he could be mistaken in his claim. At that point, audience member Dr. Matt Davis mentioned a production at the National Theater where all four langues did make appearances during the play-within-a-play, though another scholar claimed that most productions use only English. The conversation then shifted to more general statements when a third audience member voiced her disbelief that The Spanish Tragedy has yet to be performed by the ASC, a sentiment echoed by several others in attendance. Yet another audience member called it “one of the best tragedies ever written,” which was another popular opinion repeated by others several times during the remainder of the session.
Lia Wallace from ASC Education asked both presenters how their play would work as a one hour cut performed by teenagers (these just happen to be the performative constrains for ASC Theatre Camp productions). Castaldo said that the entire subplot could be cut and that should bring down the run time enough. She also thinks that the themes of The Spanish Tragedy would resonate with teenagers; raging passions, fraught familial relations, violent revenge, all things high school students should be familiar to. Walton claimed Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay could be trimmed down to an hour as well and posited that many teenagers would greatly enjoy staging wizard battles.
An audience member commented on how marketability seems to have been a recurring theme in this session and he doesn’t think it should be such an influential factor in the decision process. He mentioned that the fifth slot of the ASC’s Ren Season only performs four times and that the play that got him to come to the Blackfriars for his first visit back in 2007 was an extremely obscure production. He came mostly out of curiosity and has been an ardent fan ever since.
As the session drew to a close the judges deliberated among themselves and announced The Spanish Tragedy as the winner of this session, a decision no doubt influenced by passionate members of the audience. The final staging session will take place tomorrow, Friday the 25th, and will see A Fair Quarrel by Thomas Middleton and WIlliam Rowley facing off against The Devil’s Charter by Barnabe Barnes to determine which play will join Bonduca and The Spanish Tragedy in the final.
Judges’ verdict: The Spanish Tragedy, by 2-to-1 vote