Whenever I tell anybody about the American Shakespeare Center’s current world-premiere production of The Willard Suitcases, Julianne Wick Davis’s song cycle inspired by the suitcases left behind by inmates of the now-defunct Willard Psychiatric Hospital, I get the same question: “What does that have to do with Shakespeare?” 

The short answer is: not much. Davis, unlike Shakespeare, is alive and writing today. None of the characters in The Willard Suitcase are Roman or have any tie-in to our current season’s “Roman Holiday”-themed offerings. Her primary method of linguistic communication in The Willard Suitcases is song, not iambic pentameter… which is where we get into the longer answer about what Willard has to do with Shakespeare, because it’s all about the words.

At the American Shakespeare Center, we love words. I mean really, really love them. In fact, that’s one of the beliefs that drives our actions: We believe in the joy, the beauty, and the transformative power of words. Shakespeare continues to go down in history as one of English’s wittiest and wildest word-players. I’d like to quietly submit Davis for consideration in the same category. 

ASC Education loves the study of rhetoric, and the ROADS to Rhetoric system designed by Cass Morris (formerly the ASC’s Academic Resources Manager, now a published author) is one of our favorite workshops to teach. I decided to apply the teachings of that workshop to a song from Willard to show you just how Shakespearean these songs can be in their use of rhetoric. 

The ROADS to Rhetoric system outlines five “categories” of rhetoric: Repetition, Omission, Addition, Direction, and Substitution. Here are the opening lines of Julius Caesar with the rhetoric marked accordingly, taken from the ASC’s Julius Caesar study guide:

And here is the first phrase (verse and chorus) of a song from The Willard Suitcases, “The Switch,” with the rhetoric likewise marked:

Songs share a structural core with iambic pentameter: after all, both are types of verse. Whereas songs are under no obligation to entertain or enlighten beyond their melodies, Davis’s songs do. Like Shakespeare, Davis writes characters whose songs are lyrically dense, idiosyncratically complex, and rhetorically delightful. In “The Switch,” we get to experience two of Davis’s infinite varieties of verse, as Anna (played by Sylvie Davidson) tells us the story of her husband, Ronnie — and his “switches.” Let’s look at how Davis arranges different rhetorical categories (particularly repetition and omission) within these lyrics.

Davis, like Shakespeare, arranges her words purposefully to create an effect on her listeners. Anna reels us in with a seemingly sweet story, employing the normative storytelling tactics of descriptive parentheticals that give us more information than is semantically necessary, allowing us to imbue her tale with the trappings of genuine humanity. How many of us can relate to the idea of vacations coming as a surprise? I know I can — but perhaps not in quite the same way Anna did. In this opening, her rhetoric is unfussy and sophisticated, setting us up for a structure she’s going to switch. For example, each verse begins with the phrase “Ronnie could be [ADJECTIVE]” — here, it’s “spontaneous.” The repetition of the set-up phrase, “Ronnie could be”, draws the focus of both the brain and the eye towards the thing that’s different (or, as the case may be, “switched”) — we already know that Ronnie could be a lot of things (including a straight-up asshole), and our brains are primed, ready, and waiting for the next word.

Which barrels us right into the pre-chorus, the eponymous “Switch” — where the music, like Ronnie, does a total about-face. We go from Anna’s light, carefree, unfussy beginning into her recount of Ronnie’s rigidly structured and precise nightmarish episodes. The repetitive rhetoric remains, however, setting us up to walloped anew by each new word of discovery: we hear “until the” so many times that we stop listening to or for it, and we don’t notice that it gets smaller (from “until the” to “til the”) before disappearing into a hailstorm of conjunctions as thing piles on thing piles on thing and suddenly – there’s not even a clear point to accuse. 

The entire pre-chorus is directing us towards this conclusion offered by the chorus, the first and last lines of which repeat throughout the song: “No point to accuse / These are battles I pick and choose.” This sort of literal repetition of phrases verbatim is familiar to the verse structure of song — you have to repeat the chorus, after all — but Davis does a little extra, rhetorically, with that repetition. She switches out the middle line of each chorus to draw the focus of the brain and eye to what’s different each time while still offering the comfort of that familiar, structural repetition we know so well from thousands of songs. Here, the middle line is also an excellent example of omission, drawing the focus of the brain and eye towards what is NOT there in the very act of leaving it out. What’s the function of the phrase “words don’t leave a bruise”? Anna is affirming the very thing Ronnie is not doing: he is not bruising her. Not physically.

This is only the first phrase of one song from The Willard Suitcases. The song continues its fascinating interplay between what’s repeated and what’s omitted. The melody, instrumentation, and staging in our production are all huge parts of this song’s story and as such they have a huge impact on what effect the song creates when it hits the listener. An actor’s interpretation of Shakespeare’s rhetorical patterns similarly influences the performance of those verses. But the most integral piece of both is the words themselves.

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