Friday, August 19, 2016

And You Think You Have Identity Problems

 The scene is in the rehearsal room with a tape and chair for the director, a few tiers of benches for the twelve major actors and four or five walk-on or minor characters, some of whom will be doubled, which is to say portrayed by one of the major characters.

This play, King Lear, was first performed in 1606. meaning we are back in time to that historical era, the consequence of which is that three of the major characters, Lear's daughters; Ragan, Cordelia, and Goneril, are portrayed by boys.

Of course, this was the case in all plays in England until 1660, thus such famous Shakespearean women as the Lear daughters, Rosalind, Ophelia, Queen Gertrude, Mistress Quickly, and Lady Macbeth were portrayed by boys. 

If the boy actors were not accomplished, the entire production would sag with a noticeable and horrific effect. In addition, such noted actors of the original troupe such as Richard Burbage and Will Kemp would have tired of the cognitive dissonance, then sought employment with other companies.

The most extreme case of a boy portraying a female character would be the young man cast to portray Viola in Twelfth Night,which happens to be your favorite of the many wonderful Shakespeare plays. 

Thus a situation with a boy, portraying a girl pretending to be a boy, in love with and in the service of Duke Orsino, who uses Viola as a go-between to express his devotion to Olivia who, thinking Viola a young man, falls in love with him.

Here we agree then, the director wanting three boys to portray the daughters in Lear, by all accounts important roles, their importance carrying with it a presence of gravitas, particularly in the need for nuance and polarity in Cordelia and Goneril. 

Now comes the problem. The boys with the most skills and experience at acting are at the stage in their life when their voice is changing, resulting in a probability of an unintended croak during the rendering of a critical speech, such as when Lear first broaches the question of loyalty he puts to Cordelia. Croak.

Such a concept is close to wonderful story, a judgement you make because such situations and conditions have great appeal for you. Only natural you'd think such a concept worth pursuing to the point of developing characters, dramatic circumstances, and a condition in which some character, manufactured to have a vision of the world similar to yours, decides on a solution.

One of the boys has a sister who's watched enough plays and likes the idea of acting enough for the director to consider her for the role of Cordelia. Here we go, once again: a girl pretending to be a boy in order to portray the daughter of a king.

There is a similar situation in Antonia Byatt's remarkably dense and nuanced novel, Possession, in which Byatt uses the dramatic monologues of the poet Robert Browning to guide her into writing the poems of a fictional poet, Randolph Henry Ash, thus a woman using a male poet's showcase product to create the work and personality of a fictional male poet of a particular temperament. 

But Possession doesn't stop at that; its author also channels the work of two female poets, the American Emily Dickinson and the British Christina Rosetti to produce the poetry of a fictional woman poet, Christabel LaMott, named for the protagonist of a major minor poem written by the male poet/critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Nor do we stop there: Antonia Byatt, through her characters, Ash and LaMott, is writing letters from one character to another. Acting is a challenging and demanding profession, made even more so when we see an individual of either gender portray a role with convincing vigor and notable insight. 

Acting also allows  actors to work across gender, as in Shakespeare's time, but also in modern time when Mark Rylance, at about age forty-five, portrayed Viola in Twelfth Night, Dustin Hoffman as the eponymous Tootsie, and Ben Wishaw, portraying Georgette in the film made of the novel Cloud Atlas.

Writing is fraught with gender and identity problems; the writer of necessity has to be everyone, often in some kind of on-stage relationship with everyone else, but certainly the one who has to fragment his or her psyche to bring the story to believable life.

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