28 September 2009

Pudlo Pudlat, Inuit Artist

Some time back, I wrote a profile of experimental stage director Leonardo Shapiro and his theater troupe, The Shaliko Company, for TDR ("Shapiro and Shaliko: Techniques of Testimony," The Drama Review 37.4 [T140 - Winter 1993]: 65-100). I had spent months following Leo around, plowing through his files and records, interviewing him and his colleagues, and attending rehearsals and classes. I had first met Leo when I covered the Theatre of Nations in Baltimore in 1986 and saw his magnificent production of The Yellow House, a play about Vincent van Gogh he’d composed with his company, and I interviewed him as one of the participating artists. After that, I’d kept up on Shaliko’s work so I knew a little about Leo, most pointedly that he took his inspiration from the theories of Bertolt Brecht and Jerzy Grotowski. Later, when I was preparing the TDR article, I asked Leo who his other influences were. At first, he said he didn’t know; he’d never thought about it. Then, a few days later, he handed me a list of names and works of art which he said were the influences or inspirations of his artistic and philosophical life. It was a varied and fascinating list, covering all the arts and some politics, and including some names and works that I found surprising in Leo’s case. I’d at least heard of most of the names on the list, but there were four or five that were unfamiliar to me, and one or two that I couldn’t find when I first looked them up. One of these was an Inuit artist, Pudlo Pudlat, whom Leo admired because of his “courage and openness.”

Some years later, because I found the subject of Leo and his theater work so interesting, and because I had so much unused material left over after the TDR profile, I decided to expand the essay into a book-length examination of Leo’s art. One of my first notions was to research the names and art works on Leo’s list and see what in them might have inspired Leo’s art and ideas and use that as a sort of reflection of Leo’s own work, a commentary, so to speak. When I came to Pudlo--Inuit commonly use only one name and the artist is internationally known this way--I found an engrossing and revealing subject in its own right. I fancy myself a devotee of art, especially modern art, so I pursued the story of Pudlo a little more extensively than other names on Leo’s list. The artist just interested me. Here’s some of what I learned.

First, a number of years after I did this research, I made a visit to Quebec, which is a center of Inuit art. The galleries all over the city show Inuit artists and there’s an Inuit art museum, the Galerie Art Inuit, a few doors up the street from our hotel. I learned some general facts about the whole niche that is Inuit art, which has an interesting, and I suspect unique, history. Since Pudlo’s part of this continuum, let me précis this chronicle before I go into his own story.

If you are my age or older, you are probably more used to speaking of Eskimos, but especially in Canada the more current, and preferred, expression is Inuit. (That’s the plural; the singular is Inuk, which means person). Eskimo, which is still used in Alaska, refers to several native peoples, including the Inuit. The term Eskimo is a foreign word applied to the Inuit and other peoples by outside tribes. Its most likely etymology is a Montagnais word meaning snowshoe-lacer. (The Montagnais are a group inhabiting the north shore of the Gulf of St. Lawrence in Quebec and Labrador.) In Canada, however, the word is believed to be derived from an Algonquin word that means raw meat-eater, and although linguistically this is less likely, the belief is widely held in Canada and the word Eskimo is considered derogatory and racist. In any case, the Canadian government officially recognizes the people of the far north, including Nunavut, as Inuit; the name Eskimo is seldom heard in the country.

The Inuit were a nomadic culture of hunter-gatherers well into the 20th century, following the fish and game of the far north as the ice receded, living in igloos (which means simply house and may be made of ice and snow, according to the image we have, but is also commonly built from stone, sod, mud, skins, or any other convenient material), and moving from spot to spot as the hunting, weather, or terrain necessitated. Traveling by dogsled across land and in umiaks or the smaller kayaks across water, an Inuit family or clan could not really afford to carry much with them that wasn’t of immediate practical value in their harsh life, so decoration was minimal, and artwork, even on practical items, was uncommon. What little there was was carved ivory or bone. A change occurred in about 1945, however, when the Canadian government encouraged Inuit and other native peoples to settle in towns and villages, learn cultivation and other domestic skills, and give up the nomadic way of life they had known for centuries. I won’t get into the socio-political implications of this change (except to suggest that it wasn’t entirely insensitive and cold-hearted as the world around the Inuit had changed and their subsistence existence was becoming untenable), but the sociological effect was profound.

The Canadian government saw that the move to permanent habitation in towns and villages left many Inuit without traditional livelihoods or even pastimes. This was mostly true of the men, as the women were able to transfer their traditional responsibilities of homemaking and child-rearing from the nomadic existence to the permanent one with little significant change (except, of course, that they now got their material needs from stores instead of the wild). The men, on the other hand, were the ones who lost their customary occupations. Looking around for something with which to replace the lost income and work, the government lit on art and established training programs and outlets for whatever the Inuit produced, even supplying them with the materials they needed. In what may be one of the rare examples among artificial cultural redirection, the plan succeeded wildly. I guess the Inuit had a hidden tribal talent for making terrific art, and they started a co-op to market and determine the prices of their work so that they wouldn’t be ripped off by gallery owners and dealers or, in turn, cheat the buying public. (That Inuit art museum in Quebec is run by the co-op, and all the galleries, from the high-end chi-chi ones to the shops in hotels to the tourist dives, all sold the Inuit art at the same range of prices.) Inuit art took off in popularity and desirability in the south. Over time, some artists became recognized and art museums began organizing exhibitions of Inuit works. Collectors, first in Canada then in the United States, began to buy the art. Whole villages lived off the art turned out in their community studios, some making it, some marketing it, some managing the studios; printmaking became a profitable concern. Over 60 years now, Inuit art has become established and while it started as naïve work, it now has a sophistication and dynamic that compares easily with the works of American Indian artists in, say, the Taos art colony area. In both cases, too, the themes and subjects developed from strict focus on traditional culture to an embrace of the whole universe around them--in the case of the Inuit, the Canada of the Europeans and the technology of the middle- and late-20th-century world. Though many Inuit artists work in a naturalistic style, carving animals or scenes common to the Canadian north, many others work in symbolist and abstract styles that draw on indigenous images and refer to the style of Inuit art that developed in the post-WWII years (there not having been a true indigenous precursor). The media used by Inuit artists has expanded as well, from simple carvings to sophisticated soapstone sculpture, painting, drawing, lithography, and all the forms commonly used by Western artists.

Pudlo was born on Baffin Island, Northwest Territories, Canada (now part of Nunavut Province, the Inuit homeland), on 4 February 1916. He straddled the generation that lived an entirely nomadic life and that born in permanent abodes of towns and villages. In 1957, Pudlo suffered a hunting accident which he dismissed as minor until the injury required medical attention a month later and was flown south for treatment. A few days after he returned north to recuperate, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and went back south again to recover. The injury and the illness forced Pudlo and his wife, Innukjuakju, who had also been ill, to give up their nomadic life and they settled in the village of Kiaktuuq, Cape Dorset, in the spring of 1958 when Pudlo was 42. Cape Dorset was the epicenter of the emerging Inuit art community, established there only a few years earlier. Pudlo met James Archibald Houston, the Canadian southerner who was the prime force in developing Inuit art, and took up art himself. Though he made sculptures, he found carving difficult because of the hunting injury to his arm and by 1959 or ’60, his preferred media became watercolors, oils, and especially drawing and lithography. (Many of Pudlo’s works exist as both a drawing and a subsequent print.) Pudlo saw ten of his first drawings commercially printed in 1961 and he continued to make art for the last 33 years of his life and left an output of over 4,500 drawings and 190 prints in the end. His work is exhibited in galleries and museums around the continent and abroad, including MoMA, and his drawings and prints are still in demand. A few years after that trip to Quebec I was in Vancouver, on the opposite coast of the country, and I recognized several of his prints in the city’s art galleries. (One gallery owner was astonished that I not only knew Pudlo but that I spotted his work almost instantly. Shocked my mother, too! Thank you, Leo.) Pudlo has been the subject of many articles in art magazines and several books, which include reproductions of his drawings and prints. Among his other accomplishments as an artist, one of his drawings, Umingmuk (1970, the image of a huge, shaggy, but rather friendly-looking muskox), was reproduced as a 1972 UNICEF greeting card and in 1978, Aeroplane (1976) was chosen as the design for a Canadian postage stamp. Pudlo died in Cape Dorset on 28 December 1992 at 76.

The artist had a wonderful sense of humor which only expanded as his art became more elaborate, from the simple pencil drawings of his early work to his colorful later sketches drawn with felt-tipped pens of. Pudlo not only worked in many forms but he incorporated in his art images of both indigenous subjects such as caribou, fish, hunters, and dog sleds, and modern, technological ones such as helicopters, snowmobiles, power lines, and satellite dishes. He mixed in Christian iconography with Inuit shamanistic symbols. Pudlo also included imaginary images alongside the old and new reality, all to create a portrait of his times and the world he saw around him, metaphorically and actually. In a way, Pudlo the hunter transferred his sharp eye and analytical mind from finding game with gun and dogsled to depicting life with paper and ink. In a broad sense, he was a documentarist. “Artists draw what they think . . . ,” said Pudlo. “That’s how they are. They draw what they think--and what they have seen also. But sometimes they draw something from their imagination, something that doesn’t exist anywhere in the world.”

Although other native artists had begun to incorporate the modern European world in their art, Pudlo was among the earliest who recognized that modern technology had long ago become part of human, even Native American, culture. He treated this encroachment on traditional life as integral to the world of his people, a permanent and everyday element rather than a temporary or unwelcome intrusion. (In contrast, American Indian artists often see Euro-American technology as a dangerous threat to be expunged.) Pudlo’s work is a visual evocation of the nexus between the traditional life of the Inuit and the modern world of Canada and the south. He saw, more clearly perhaps than other native artists, that there were now more snowmobiles than dog teams; more motor boats than umiaks; that Christianity was quickly displacing traditional shamanism; airplanes were commonplace; and telephones, television, and the Internet were bringing the south into the Inuit’s living rooms and keeping far-flung members of the tribe in regular contact with each other and the tribal center. No longer foreign or alien, the planes, helicopters, angels, and churches in Pudlo’s drawings had become part of northern life. It is this openness to the new experience, which he encountered repeatedly whenever he went south, that is fundamental to Pudlo’s art. Over his career, the artist demonstrated an endless inventiveness and versatility both in his techniques and his subjects. Pudlo not only saw that, along with the indigenous images, the formerly foreign objects had long ago become part of the native culture, he knew that by drawing these once-alien images, capturing them in various juxtapositions with traditional ones, such as a miniature airplane tethered to the horns of a gigantic muskox, he gained a measure of control over them. In Leo Shapiro’s words, Pudlo “adapts art to his incomprehensible life.”

That muskox image is in Pudlo’s Winds of Change (1983/1984 drawing; 1985 lithograph) which shows two Inuit and a dog (the indigenous form of transportation) bound together like mountain-climbers on the undulating, knobby back of a muskox, tied to one of the horns, and an airplane attached to the tips of the animal’s horns as if in a giant slingshot. Another plane is buzzing the ox--perhaps one that’s already been launched. It’s a wonderful example of Pudlo’s tendency of juxtaposing the familiar and the exotic--though what he found “familiar” and “exotic” were, of course, the reverse of what we southerners find so. (The juxtaposition still functions, however.)

Aeroplane, the drawing that was reproduced for the stamp, depicts a large, colorfully-decorated prop plane over an arctic mountainscape while seals lie on floes in the blue sea below. "This is like an iceberg or a big hill of snow,” the artist explained; “that is what I was thinking when I was drawing." Four anorak-clad Inuit stare up at the plane. Two huge icebergs rise up to the plane and two more figures stand on them as if to reach the plane. The airplane became a frequent symbol in Pudlo’s later work of the confluence of the old way of life and the new--but it was an object of interest, not of fear. Pudlo’s two worlds meet here, not in a clash of cultures but in an atmosphere of curiosity and wonder. "Whenever there is a plane,” Pudlo said, “we go up to the hills to get a better look at it." Not only did the artist depict modern technology alongside more traditional images in his art, he found it to be a beneficial addition to society. Having been saved from death or permanent handicap by being airlifted to the south for medical treatment on at least two occasions, he saw planes and helicopters as useful inventions. It is interesting to note that Pudlo explored the meaning of modern technology in other ways as well. In New Parts for an Inuk (1981), for instance, he drew an anthropomorphic figure with a light and antenna on its cap and a clock over its heart in a reflection of the artist’s own pacemaker, installed that same year. Some descriptions assert that the figure bears horns, antlers, and hooves (though what these are is more than open to interpretation, I’d say), all of which would be references to the game that Pudlo used to hunt in his nomadic days. While New Parts remains true to Pudlo’s documentary approach, that is, recording the world he saw around him, it is full of visual puns and fantasy, a self-portrait--the Inuk, or man, is Pudlo himself, of course--that shows himself in a highly symbolic and whimsical manner.

His investigation of the convergence of the European and native worlds in Canada is most vividly portrayed in North and South (1974) which shows the “white Arctic camp scene” of the Inuit north on the right and the “blue lakes and lush, green forests” of the European-dominated south on the left, each in a separate field surrounded by a border, but connected by a bridge-like arc. Pudlo asserted that the bridge demonstrates how cultures that were “split off” from one another “before telephones or radio” (i.e., technology), “even though we were part of one piece, Canada, . . . are touching each other--through CBC radio and telephones.” Having himself been saved from possible death from a hunting accident in 1957 by being airlifted to medical care in Western hospitals, Pudlo deemed the airplane and helicopter useful inventions for aiding stranded and isolated people.

One aspect of Pudlo’s art that is distinctive and makes him such a captivating artist (along with his whimsy), is the way one work carries over to the next. Within one drawing, one idea or image might be echoed in another, but each drawing can also be seen as a preparation for another one, with each succeeding work developing or continuing explorations the artist started earlier. He could take an image or idea, either Western or traditional, and experiment with it, looking for a way to depict it accurately. Images or ideas might be repeated differently or Pudlo might experiment with technique or approach, resulting in a series of drawings that explore and develop that new approach. Pudlo didn’t just document what he saw and experienced around him, he examined it, learned from it. He saw art as a kind of investigation, both for the artist and for the spectator: The muskox, for instance, a frequent image in Pudlo’s work (including Umingmuk, the print that UNICEF made into a greeting card in 1972), is not actually indigenous to his native territory in Nunavut: he first saw some being corralled in northern Quebec in 1957, and then he saw a herd from the air while on a flight from the south in 1969. He became fascinated with this strange, new beast. And like the snowmobile, the airplane, or the helicopter, this unfamiliar creature fascinated Pudlo and he attempted to understand it by drawing it. “If an artist draws a subject over and over again in different ways,” Pudlo said, “then he will learn something. The same with someone who looks at drawings--if that person keeps looking at many drawings, then he will learn something from them too.”

21 September 2009

Staging Shakespeare

Having looked at Shakespearean acting not long ago, I’d like to reinforce and clarify some points I made regarding classical directing. Like actors, many directors, it seems, are frightened by the prospect of mounting a classic play. Some are intimidated by the language and poetry, others by the weight and heft of a play that’s come down through the centuries. The great German director Peter Stein has even admitted, “It was not easy for me to approach Shakespeare . . . because I’m simply afraid. For me he’s just a giant . . . .” And Ariane Mnouchkine, whose work I’ve admired immensely, says quite frankly, “Shakespeare’s such a mystery . . . . For me both Aeschylus and Shakespeare are gods.” Other artists apparently feel that plays as old as Shakespeare’s are no longer relevant or accessible to modern audiences. Over the years, I’ve seen productions of Shakespeare that suggest all of these feelings.

Many famous and successful directors have faced Shakespeare and recognize his power and complexity. A number have recorded their thoughts on directing Shakespeare plays. Though some couch their ideas in prescriptive terms, telling directors what they “should” or “must” do, their remarks are still worth noting. (Many quotations and concepts mentioned here are drawn from Toby Cole and Helen Krich Chinoy, eds., “Staging Shakespeare: A Survey of Current Problems and Opinions,” Directors on Directing [Indianapolis and New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1953], 403-440. They’re a tad old, but some things just don’t go out of style. Other sources are also quoted.)

Margaret Webster, author of Shakespeare without Tears, points out first of all that “The principles on which a director must base his approach to a Shakespearean play are, after all, no different from those which govern his approach in any other play.” Peter Brook provides no-holds-barred counsel in this regard: “To communicate any one of Shakespeare’s plays to a present day audience, the producer must be prepared to set every resource of modern theatre at the disposal of his text.” (‘Producer’ used to be the British locution for what we Americans call the director. ‘To produce,’ as you’ll hear below, was to direct a play. The American usage has overtaken the British distinction.) As with any other script, the director must learn “the mood of the play, its material and spiritual atmosphere, its structural pattern, the wholeness of its effect,” adds Webster. Polish director and teacher Kazimierz Braun, a friend for over 20 years, writes for instance, that whether you’re directing Shakespeare or anyone else, the first problem is “to integrate speech with action.” While Braun acknowledges that this is harder for verse plays than those with contemporary dialogue, the key for the former is to infuse the speech with passion. Of an early encounter with directing Shakespeare, Braun says:

I had the feeling that I was faced with an impossibly difficult challenge, and, at the same time, that the author was taking me by the hand, like a little child, and leading me safely through the labyrinth of the play. Trusting him was the best way to go. Unmistakably, he permeates the dialogues with the energy of action.

One aspect of plays that seems too often missing in Shakespearean productions is humanity. Literary scholar Harold Bloom establishes in his book Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human that the Bard was the first dramatist to portray men and women as characters who could grow and change and drew psychologically-based portraits of his characters (even though Shakespeare didn’t know that was what he was accomplishing). Peter Brook points out that all of Shakespeare’s characters are “fully resolved human beings,” even the “shortest character in Shakespeare,” James Gurney (King John, I.1). Plays are written for people about people, and, as director Stuart Vaughn insists, “The real task we have, those of us who try to produce Shakespeare for modern audiences, is to reach those audiences with the essence of Shakespeare’s human meaning. . . . We must try to find what he intended his audience to receive and transmit the same effect and intention to our own.” This does not necessarily mean that the plays must be modernized “because the director lacks faith in Shakespeare’s longevity,” for, as John Gielgud points out, “Great plays do not date except through the occasional obscurity of archaic jokes and unfamiliar wording.” Margaret Webster reminds us that “The truth of the plays is a timeless truth, and similarity of external circumstances no more than a fortuitous, though sometimes poignant, reminder that the returning paths of history have been trodden by many feet.”

“The challenge for the director therefore,” asserts Joseph Papp, “is to achieve . . . modernity without sacrificing the form and poetry of Shakespeare . . . .” For Franco Zeffirelli, this means that “[w]hat matters is modernity of feeling, modernity inside.” This is what the late Jan Kott wrote in his Shakespeare Our Contemporary, in which the critic and teacher points out that Shakespeare anticipated not only the circumstances of our world, but the modern dramas of the likes of Beckett, Ionesco, and Genêt. In Kott’s view, Shakespeare doesn’t need to be modernized because he’s already dealing with modern problems and notions within his own plays. Harold Clurman, commenting on Kott’s analysis, writes that the greatness of Shakespeare and other classical playwrights “transcends the limits of time and many cultural differences.” The director and critic continues:

In the theatre they reveal their contemporaneity only when they are felt and projected in response to our innermost needs. This is not to be construed to mean that they must be made “topical,” e.g., Julius Caesar as Mussolini, Shylock as an East Side peddler or King Lear as an example of latter-day nihilism.

The theatre is not a museum, a treasure house to commemorate ancient wonders; it is a vehicle for the manifestation of the joys and travail of our existence. The greater the scope and profundity of its revelations, the more universal it becomes. But it always begins with the now.

Though Papp’s and Zeffirelli’s exhortations may sound as if they’re calling for psychological Realism, there is a difference between Realism, the imitation of life on stage, and reality, putting truth on stage. “Shakespeare,” as Tyrone Guthrie cautions, “is only intermittently concerned with realism. In the main, he is not writing realistic dialogue or dealing with realistic characters or situations. Most of his characters have great reality but this effect is not, as a rule, achieved by literal imitation of life.” In director Michael Langham’s terms, the director must not be “so preoccupied with this truth in his small domestic terms that he overlooks and belittles his author’s vaster intentions” and have the courage to recognize that “important theater, almost invariably, can only hope to convey its widest implications by eschewing naturalness . . . .”

Ignoring this admonition, Langham thinks, leads to productions in which “[i]nsignificant, domestic themes are . . . made to take the place of the play’s major timeless issues.” Langham faults directors “inhibited by an overabundance of naturalism” who avoid the vastness of Shakespeare’s works “through shapeless underplaying” or “with a loud, empty rhetorical flourish.” Both cheat the audience of the full impact of a classic. Often-controversial director Peter Sellars insists, in fact, that we do Shakespeare specifically because we don’t “want to be so literal about the world, and the reason we apply poetry to these questions is because in the end it’s more interesting than journalism.”

Brook, who has no objection, he says, to “rewriting Shakespeare,” admonishes directors to look for “Shakespeare’s meaning” in the plays by going beyond the words to find “the essential living heart of the play--the poetic inner dream” and translating that into theatrical vocabulary. Now, I don’t go along with Brook’s advocacy of changing Shakespeare’s words unless you’re doing a true adaptation (though I do agree with Brook when he points out that “the texts do not get burned,” so it’s not like you’ve drawn a mustache on the Mona Lisa), but going beyond the words, not cleaving to a slavish literalism, should be part of the director’s prep: not just ‘What did Shakespeare mean?’ but ‘What is Shakespeare saying to us now?’ (This is akin to the dramaturg’s basic inquiry: Why this play, why here, why now?) The director (and, of course, the actors) must figure out what the play is saying to the current audience, then put that into Shakespeare’s words by all the arts of acting and playmaking. That’s what Brook means, I think, by using “every resource” at the contemporary director’s command. Not long ago I saw a brilliant Merchant of Venice that made use of computers, cell phones (and cell phone cams), and PDA’s on a generally high-tech set to make the point the director wanted. Not a word of Shakespeare was altered and it worked like gangbusters for me.

What Brook expects, I think (and since he’s done this himself, I’m probably right), is, if setting Merchant on Wall Street, or Midsummer in a circus, or Richard III or Julius Caesar in a 1930s fascist state makes the point you think Shakespeare’s making, then do it. That’s not the same as putting Hamlet on rollerskates just because you think no one else has done it. But if it says something about the play to your audience to paint a nearly-naked Achilles in black and gold psychedelic swirls--go for it. As a teacher of mine, Aaron Frankel, would say, paraphrasing Harold Clurman: “We don’t have Shakespeare’s phone number.” (He might have added, too, that the Bard doesn’t have ours, either.)

What seems to be operating in so many contemporary productions is a distrust of the audience. Director William Ball deplored that “very little has been done in drama to utilize the willingness of the audience to extend its vision beyond what it is looking at, and to help it to see with a larger vision--that is, to see with its imagination.” “The audience’s imagined spectacle can be counted on as more vital and real,” he insists, “because it arises from the creative participation of each individual.” Psychologists know this to be true from tests with children who overwhelmingly prefer toys that do nothing themselves--dolls that don’t talk, instruments that don’t make their own music--and so force the child to do the playing. Hiding safely in tradition for its own sake or exploiting the current faddish concepts disserve your audience. As a current promo for the Syfy channel says: “Imagine greater.”

This is no argument for producing “museum classics.” Gielgud says, “The classics, it seems to me, have to be rediscovered every ten years or so.” I disagree only with his time lapse; I think they should be rediscovered continuously. Change may occasionally be necessary, but it helps to remember that, as writer and critic Alphonse Karr said, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” But, as the great actor-director remarks, this does require “approaching the play with real spontaneity and joy so that it has an absolutely topical effect.” More lessons from Peter Brook’s work include finding inspiration from any quarter, even the unexpected and unlikely, and eschewing old ideas and traditionalist approaches. He revived the playability of a reviled play, Love’s Labour’s Lost, by finding visual stimulation in the paintings of Jean Antoine Watteau. And when his prepared staging ideas didn’t work, he began to experiment, becoming famous for saying, “I don’t know.” Don’t be afraid, he’d say, to try and fail. “No matter,” says Samuel Beckett, one of the great dramatists of all time. “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

18 September 2009

Similes, Metaphors—And The Stage

In a New York Times essay about two decades ago, Robert Brustein took on the issue of “the reinterpretation . . . of celebrated classical plays” (“Reworking the Classics: Homage or Ego Trip?,” New York Times 6 Nov. 1988, sec. 2 [“Arts and Leisure”]: 5, 16). Brustein divided this “deconstruction” into two categories: “the prosaic simile and the poetic metaphor.” A simile production, he asserted, simply shifts the time or location to an analogous one nearer our own, while a metaphorical one examines the play from the inside, “generating provocative theatrical images . . . that are suggestive of the play rather than specific, reverberant rather than concrete.”

Brustein cited world-famous examples of both types, like Orson Welles’s totalitarian Julius Caesar, a simile, and Peter Brook’s circus-oriented Midsummer Night’s Dream, a metaphor. I’ve recently seen prominent examples of what Brustein was describing: the Théâtre du Soleil’s 1992 Kathakali revisioning of Greek cycle of plays which recount the story of the House of Atreus, Les Atrides, a metaphor; this year’s resetting by the Katona József Theatre of Chekhov’s Ivanov to mid-20th-century Hungary, a simile; Nora, an up-dated Doll House by Berlin’s Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz (2004), a simile; and John Jesurun's FAUST/How I Rose, a 2004 deconstruction of Goethe’s classic, a metaphor. As you might expect, some were more successful (Les Atrides, Ivanov) than others (Nora, FAUST). Do the more modest and lesser-known productions avail themselves of these tactics, and are the results similar? I think so, and some Off-Off-Broadway productions I saw some time back, when I made a concerted effort to see a broad sampling of Shakespeare productions on New York City stages, indicate that I may be right.

In two of the similes I saw, there were no profound reinterpretations, and, in a third, one given only lip-service. The first two--an Italian-American Romeo and Juliet with Paris as a Mafia godfather and the servants as musical-comedy gunsels, and a yuppie Midsummer Night’s Dream with the lovers romping through the forest in designer shorts and warm-ups--carried their reworking through mostly by costuming. In fact, the company seemed to have fallen into a trap they laid themselves (however unwittingly): by giving the play a soap-opera setting and look, the actors all exhibited soap-opera acting, the superficial, shallow, and hollow performance style necessitated by the fast-moving production process of a daytime drama. The R&J included several “dese and dose” accents among the servants, but for the rest, nothing was reinterpreted to further a new approach or shift my attention from the traditional focus. The director didn’t seem to have relocated the story in order to say something unconventional about or through the play.

A second R&J, which I discussed not long ago, did assert a new interpretation. The director’s program note explained that he saw Friar Laurence as the witting catalyst of the tragedy, and ascribed to him an un-Christian reliance on the occult. The note provided some evidence from the text for this notion, and it might well have worked theatrically, not to say intellectually, if he’d followed through with it in his production. Alas, he went no further than giving the friar the prologue and the epilogue, having him do two parlor-magic tricks, and using a violet light when the Nurse describes the natural phenomena on the night Juliet was weaned. Beyond the program note, the production, tricked up as middle-class American suburbia, showed me nothing new about this play. While Brustein notes that this kind of simile directing is “at best a platform for ideas,” with the Capulet party a backyard barbecue and the Tybalt-Mercutio duel fought with aluminum bats on a baseball diamond, this R&J was nothing more than “an occasion for pranks.”

Though a comparison of the two kinds of reworkings will have to wait until after we take a look at metaphorical directing, on the basis of this small sampling, it’s fair to draw a few simple conclusions. First, simile directors seem to strive for familiarity, all three of these choosing contemporary America for their settings or costuming. (Nora and the Hungarian Ivanov, too, were transferred to locales and times that would have been immediately familiar to their original audiences.) Second, there was a similar approach to acting, with all three casts treating Shakespeare’s language as conversational Realism. Third, either because of this or along with it, all the actors endowed their characters with a minimal emotional life. (This was not true of the two international examples.) Fourth, these directors seemed to believe that modern American playgoers can’t understand productions remote from us in time or place; that the common, human problems the classics treat can’t be communicated unless they are portrayed by people just like us.

The simile production, which Brustein saw as an update, “depends largely on external physical changes.” On the other hand, the metaphorical production “changes our whole notion of the play” by probing “the mystery of a play in order to devise a poetic stage equivalent--a process considerably more radical in its interpretive risks, since the director ‘authors’ the production much as the author writes the text.” While acknowledging that “not all examples of this process have the same integrity of purpose,” Brustein nonetheless “champion[s] a more radical auteurism in directing.” Having examined the simile, let’s look at two metaphors.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream I saw (and discussed recently in another context) promised to explore the violence and animalism in all of us. Attired in tights and tee-shirts or leotards overlain with identifying character accessories--red shorts, a studded wristband--the mortals entered in pairs with martial-arts shouts and struck combat poses. During their opening lines, Duke Theseus and Hippolyta rolled on the ground in rough sex. “Tough guy” Demetrius, who, like Lysander, wore leather costume pieces over his tights, later rapes Helena to punish her for following him into the forest and dissuade her from interfering further. In the face of this, however, the acting was flat and unengaged.

The animal imagery was invoked by the fairy characters, all but one of whom had costume additions of pelts and skins and, for the men, went bare-chested. Except for one fairy, however, none exhibited any animal-like behavior.

Now humans with bestial characteristics and spirits with animal traits make a likely combination, and to explore human brutishness through the medium of a fantasy-comedy could be a very effective tactic. Theatrically, at least, it has promise. The director and actors, however, merely let the visual imagery of their costumes and blocking carry the whole exploration without developing any deeper performative aspects. The director conceived the idea but was either unwilling or unable to carry it over into performance.

Finally, in a metaphorical Macbeth, the cast and director made some decisions and ran with them. Determining, for instance, that Macbeth was in the hold of evil forces, not just swayed by the power of suggestion or caught up in a tide of action--other possible approaches--this company tripled the the witches’ appearances on stage. By acting as servants, messengers, and others and standing silently on stage during all the portentous scenes, the witches, symbols of evil, seemed to control events and guide Macbeth’s and his wife’s fates. There were three levels on which this scheme worked. First, as the messengers, the witches seeded and nurtured the plot. The second level was less directly involved in the events of the play: as the various servants, the witches’ presence suggested their control over Macbeth’s life and fate; they were always there, keeping an eye on things. In the third level, the director put the witches invisibly on stage in momentous scenes. They didn’t enter into the action, though they might echo lines or make sound effects such as the knocking that unnerves Macbeth just as he’s about to murder his king.

Further, the costumes were selected elements of modern dress draped with rough fabric to camouflage their silhouettes and allude to “ancientness” and “Scottishness.” The basic costume for the mortal males--the witches were far more fanciful--was a foundation of modern attire draped with rough, wool- or burlap-like tunics or sashes. The colors were muted, mostly charcoals, browns, or blacks, except for the almost blood-red royal sash worn first by King Duncan, then by Macbeth and finally by Malcolm. The modern under-costume suggested general character: the more soldierly wore combat boots and bloused trousers; the more administrative, including Duncan, wore civvies. Other modern accouterments included contemporary haircuts, military field jackets, bayonets, turtlenecks, eyeglasses, and flashlights. The lack of period specificity asserted that this play is not just about an 11th-century Scottish king; it is relevant to today, not lost in some past era, and to all cultures, not only ancient Scotland or modern America.

As Brustein suggests, directors who have an attraction for similes settle for an updated environment and may load their productions with tricks and gimmicks. Metaphorical directors, however, try to “capture the imaginative life of a classic.” A simile staging can be effective and even thought-provoking (the Hungarian Ivanov, which I have described in another post, was extremely compelling, for instance), but even when it misses, the metaphor production can be more powerful and exciting, particularly when the simile is used merely for “ornamental” purposes.

[Much of my discussion above was based on the Robert Brustein essay cited in the first paragraph. After publishing this article on ROT, I’ve decided to reprint Brustein’s original New York Times column; see “Reworking the Classics: Homage or Ego Trip?,” 3 February 2011.]

15 September 2009

Crypto-Jews: Legacy of Secrecy

Forty-five years ago, my father told a story of a colleague in the Bonn embassy who’d taken a solo bicycle trip trough Spain. He had his route all carefully mapped out so he knew where he had to stop for the night on each leg of the trip. But on one segment, the road wasn’t as good as he’d anticipated, and he was much slower covering the distance between towns. He found himself in the countryside as night fell, so he rode up to a farmhouse and asked if he could spend the night. The farm family was more than gracious, and he shared their evening meal. Before the meal, he watched as the woman of the house and her daughter performed some apparent ritual in which they lit candles and mumbled some unintelligible words before the family sat down to eat. Realizing that it was Friday night, the traveler asked what the woman was saying. She admitted that she had no idea what the words meant, but that her mother and grandmother had always performed the ritual on Fridays, so she continued the practice and even taught it to her daughter. The visitor recognized that the woman had been performing the Friday night Sabbath prayer and that the language had originally been Hebrew, but that the family were descendants of Marranos, secret Jews from the time of the Spanish Inquisition, and that they’d long since lost any understanding of the ritual or even any knowledge of their Jewish past. The family was Catholic, of course--this was the time of Franco when all other religions were outlawed--so the visitor didn’t say anything, but he understood that he was in the home of the descendants of crypto-Jews whose real heritage had been lost to history. What was so strange wasn't that they were descendants of Marranos--there have to be thousands of those in Spain and Portugal today--but that they retained that ritual over all those centuries, even though they no longer had any notion of what it meant.

Somewhere around 1990 some historians began discovering that in the area of New Mexico, what used to be the northern provinces of New Spain when the Spanish colonized that territory in the 16th century, are scores, even hundreds of families who are descended from Marranos who came to the New World with the Conquistadors, fleeing the Inquisition on the Iberian Peninsula. Over the intervening four centuries, the Jewish histories of those families has been lost to the descendants who not only are no longer Jewish, but often don’t even know that their forebears used to be Jewish. This lost past is the legacy of secrecy.

Marranos, for those who need the refresher, were Jews in Spain and Portugal who overtly converted to Christianity to escape harm during the Spanish Inquisition while secretly maintaining their Jewish faith and practices. The Pope established the Inquisition between the 5th and 15th centuries to root out heretics and non-believers, especially Muslims (Moors) and Jews. It is estimated that by the end of the 14th century about 100,000 Jews had become conversos, or Marranos, although most Jews openly adhered to their faith even at the risk of expulsion. Some conversos fully accepted Christianity, but most practiced Judaism in secret, while others waited only for an opportunity to throw off their Christian disguise. Many conversos rose to positions of great prominence and even married into noble and wealthy Spanish families. Prosperity, however, didn’t indemnify the New Christians, as they were called by those born Catholic, from persecution and discrimination. The Old Christians were constantly looking for signs of secret adherence to Judaism: avoiding pork, lighting candles on Friday, observing the Sabbath on Saturday, wearing yarmulkes or prayer shawls under street clothes, allowing children to play with dreidel-like four-sided tops.

The Marranos suffered greatly at the hands of the Inquisition. Those perceived to be falling back to Judaism were severely punished or even burned at the stake. Marranos were often regarded with suspicion and hostility by the Christian population and were often victims of riots and massacres. Many Marranos left Iberia and openly resumed Judaism when they settled in countries beyond the reach of the Pope and the Inquisitor such as Holland and the New World. The first Jews to arrive in New York (then still New Amsterdam) 355 years ago were Spanish and Portuguese Jews from Brazil who’d originally fled the Inquisition in Iberia only to have it catch up to them in America after a few years. The philosopher Baruch Spinoza, while not himself a crypto-Jew, was the son of Marranos who resettled in Amsterdam to escape the Inquisition.

Discussions of Marranos (the name comes from the Spanish word for ‘pig’ or ‘swine,’ and has the connotation of filth, just as the English words do, when applied to people) include other words which, while not strictly interchangeable, can refer to related figures and are often used to mean the same thing. (Muslim converts were called Moriscos, meaning ‘like a Moor.’) First, the Spanish and Portuguese called the forced converts to Christianity conversos, which could be used to indicate both Jews and others, mostly Muslims, who were forced to convert as well. In its use by Spanish Christians it was not a complimentary or even neutral term. Another phrase was cristianos nuevos (or, in Portuguese, cristãos novos), or New Christians, which was also not a welcoming descriptive, used to distinguish the converts from the Old Christians who considered themselves superior to the conversos. Marrano has become a term used among Jews, though it wasn’t originally, but another phrase Jews themselves use is crypto-Jew, which designates a Jew who secretly practices Judaism while outwardly appearing to be converted to another faith. (While the other religion is usually Christianity, it isn’t always. Crypto-Judaism has also been practiced in Muslim countries where the observance of the Jewish faith is forbidden. A form of crypto-Judaism was also common in the former communist countries where all religious practices were suppressed.) The term can also refer to someone descended from secret Jews who still maintains some Jewish traditions in private--even though she may not actually know their significance, like the wife of the farmer in my father’s story. Used by non-Jews, the phrase can have anti-Semitic implications. Finally, there is anusim, Hebrew for ‘forced ones.’ This word is used to designate any Jews (the singular is, infelicitously, anús) who’ve been forced to abandon Judaism against their wills. (This expression is distinguished from meshumad, which means a person who’s voluntarily abandoned Judaism. This is similar to apikoros, Hebrew for ‘apostate,’ which is a Jew who’s abandoned religion altogether, either in favor of atheism or agnosticism, or simply in preference for non-practice or non-observance. What some Jews consider apikorsim may be merely practitioners of a less rigid form of Judaism or just secularized Jews.)

There’s one more set of terms that you might encounter in this history. Most Jews will know the distinctions, but others may not. After the expulsion of the Jews from Palestine in the 6th century B.C.E., the people spread over the known world; this was the Diaspora, the dispersion. Most Jews in the United States and North America, descended from Central and Eastern European ancestors, are Ashkenazim. The word comes from the medieval Hebrew name for what we now call Germany, but it refers to Jews not only from that country but the Slavic lands, Hungary, France, and even Italy. All those German and Slavic names that we associate with Jews are Ashkenazi names, many having been adjusted from Hebrew to more indigenous-sounding forms. Thus Levy might become Loewe in Germany or Levsky in Russia (both names derived from the words for ‘lion’). The traditions, cuisine, and language of the Ashkenazi Jews are distinctive to that group, influenced by the German and Slavic cultures within which the Ashkenazi Jews lived. Yiddish, for instance, is derived from medieval German with elements of Hebrew (whose alphabet the language uses), Russian, Ukrainian, Byelorussian, and Polish.

The Jews from Spain, Portugal, Turkey, and North Africa are Sephardim (from the word that in modern Hebrew is the name for Spain). The religious practices are quite different from those of the Ashkenazim, though the religious tenets are the same. Most strikingly, the configuration of the synagogues of the two groups is dissimilar, the Sephardic shul resembling an arena stage, with the bimah (more accurately, tebah among Sephardim) in the center, and the Ashkenazi shul resembling a proscenium theater, the bimah at one end with the congregation arced out in front of it. The foods, including the Seder meal, of Sephardim is markedly different from that which we know as “Jewish food” in the United States and Western Europe, and the lingua franca of Sephardic Jews is Ladino, which bears the same relationship to Spanish, Portuguese, Turkish, and Arabic that Yiddish does with German, Russian, and Polish. Sephardic names are outwardly Spanish or Portuguese for the most part; some well-known Sephardim include philosophers Moses Maimonides (Moshe ben Maimon), Baruch Spinoza, and Jacques Derrida; statesmen Benjamin Disraeli and Pierre Mendès-France; poet Emma Lazarus, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo; painter Amadeo Modigliani; actor Hank Azaria; and pop singer Neil Sedaka. The Jews of the Inquisition, the Marranos, were largely Sephardim.

Mizrahim are Jews from the Middle East, Central Asia, and the Caucasus. The name, which derives from the Hebrew word for ‘easterners,’ refers today, especially in Israel, to Jews from Muslim-majority lands, especially Arabic countries and Iran. Also called Oriental Jews, their traditions are similar, even identical to those of the Sephardim, but Mizrahim speak many different Judaic languages based on Arabic, Farsi, Kurdish, or the other native tongues of the regions in which they live. Like Yiddish and Ladino, these indigenous dialects are written in Hebrew letters and adapted some Hebrew and even Aramaic words and expressions. Prominent Mizrahim include clothing designer Isaac Mizrahi, advertising mogul and art collector Charles Saatchi, pop singer Paula Abdul, actor Chris Kattan, martyred journalist Daniel Pearl, and filmmaker Claude Lelouch. Some Marranos were Mizrahim--those Jews who came to Spain with the Moors, whose acceptance of Jews was far more tolerant than the European Christians’.

It doesn’t make sense to summarize a history of the Inquisition here--it would simply be too long and much of it isn’t directly pertinent. Suffice it to say that King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Castile and Aragon gave Spanish Jews a choice: either convert to Catholicism or be expelled from the Iberian Peninsula. The Edict of Expulsion (sometimes called the Alhambra decree) was issued on 31 March 1492 and gave non-Christians until 31 July to decide. (Columbus started his voyage on 3 August, and the Battle of Granada, which resulted in the final defeat of the Moors in Spain, was fought from 24 April 1491 to 2 January 1492.) Many Jews simply stayed and faced the Inquisition as secret Jews; but many more fled, of course. Of those who fled, many went to the New World, including New Spain, the territory that became Mexico, Central America, California, and the southwestern United States. (Spain occupied Portugal in 1527, bringing the Inquisition with it.) By the mid-16th century, Jews began arriving in Mexico City and, as the Inquisition hadn’t reached New Spain yet, some even reconverted to Judaism. In 1571, however, the Inquisition spread to New Spain and the local authorities provided names of crypto-Jews as well as any New Christians whose behavior was suspicious or insufficiently Catholic in the eyes of their neighbors. Who carried matzoh under his hat, or perhaps a bit of tortilla instead? Who was quick to wash off a newly-baptized baby in water or perfume? Did someone turn the mirrors to the wall after a death in the house? Who had their sons quietly circumcised or incised a slit in the foreskin as a symbol? Arrest by the Inquisition could mean death at the stake. Having already fled across the Atlantic, the conversos pulled up stakes again and moved farther north into the frontiers of New Spain. They resettled in what became northern New Mexico, keeping their heritage hidden even after the United States took control of the territory in 1848, following the Mexican-American War. (The Edict of Expulsion wouldn’t be formally repealed in Spain until 16 December 1968.) In fact, few, if any, of these crypto-Jews revealed their religious backgrounds until the last third of the 20th century. By this time, of course, the grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren knew little of their Jewishness because no one spoke of it openly, not even among family, not for 13 generations (that would be 10 “greats”).

But some of the conversos’ New Mexican descendants began to feel uneasy in the later years of the 20th century. Some attest to a sense of not belonging, or strangeness. Some began to wonder about the odd bits of behavior and family lore they observed and discovered little by little. There were Chanukah menorahs stashed away in attics. Some women observed odd rituals on Friday night before dinner and men refused to work on Saturdays. Some noticed that members of the family wouldn’t eat pork or hung freshly slaughtered meat to drain the blood. Some family gravestones were marked with both a cross and a six-pointed star like the Mogen David and even bore Hebrew inscriptions. In some cases, dying elderly relatives made deathbed statements that the family were really “Israelites” or “Sepharditos,” but no one else would address the utterances. These tales reached historians, genealogists, and occasionally clergy in the 1980s and ‘90s. Some of the people who felt there was something missing in their family histories had DNA tests conducted and found that they shared a chromosome with the clan of Cohanim, the traditional priests of ancient Judea. One DNA lab estimates that 10-15% of the men in the region who were tested (and I don’t know how large the sample was for this conclusion) had a gene that traced back to the Middle East. Of course, even if that’s accurate it’s not terribly conclusive with respect to being a descendant of Marranos since a few who have this gene are African Muslims and Spanish settlers could just as easily have been descended from an intermarriage with a Moor; the Moors occupied parts of Spain for 700 years until the Inquisition drove them out as well. Further, even if the gene does indicate a Jewish past, which is apparently statistically likely, many Jews converted sincerely and voluntarily over the centuries of the Diaspora, and intermarriage, while less common among Cohanim, was not unheard of both before and after the Inquisition. Finally, the DNA could have been inherited from a more recent intermarriage with a meshumad after the family came to America.

(One more word, one that describes the inhabitants of the American Southwest settlers, is significant. Many descendants of the Spanish settlers choose to call themselves Hispanos, they explain, since they feel it distinguishes them from Chicanos, which means specifically Mexicans and connotes the mixed ethnicities that that implies. Latino is much too broad, covering all Americans of Latin heritage regardless of country of origin, from France to Portugal to Italy. Hispanic, arguably the most commonly used descriptor for people of Spanish background, is a linguistic term, referring to the language people speak rather than where they came from. The New Mexicans whose ancestors were Marranos and other Spanish settlers want to stress their European roots, believing they trace their heritage back to medieval Spain.)

Some of the questionable actions can be written off as misinterpretations or coincidence. But too much of it’s been revealed by too many unrelated families, and the stories started circulating and the questions asked before any historians or genealogists began writing about the phenomenon. In fact, from what I’ve read on the subject, the New Mexican Hispanos actually started the whole search themselves, rather than picking up on an academic research project begun by some professors and academics. But even if you do dismiss some of the revealing anecdotes as self-delusions or misreadings, there’s still enough left to be thought-provoking. The logic is unassailable, too: we know that some Marranos came to America with the colonists and that the Inquisition in Mexico probably drove them north. It’s hard not to believe that some few would retain the outer trappings of their lost heritage like that farm family in Spain half a century ago. Why this would all surface so precipitously all at once in the ‘80s and ‘90s is a question, and why so many of the New Mexico crypto-Jews seem to have embraced, even sought a revival of their Jewishness, is another. “When I found out, it was like coming home for me,” said one searcher. (Not all of them have felt this way, of course. Some who learned of this hidden heritage have asked that it not be mentioned again.) One hidden Jew who found himself wondering about his family history is a Catholic priest and now celebrates Mass wearing a Star of David around his neck. His parish has accepted his spiritual dichotomy; as one parishioner said, “He has taken us back to our roots.” Several crypto-Jews have taken up the study of Judaism and the history of Spanish Jewry, saying that the revelations have enriched their family and their lives. Like the priest, some of the searchers have kept one foot in each faith, finding a richness in the confluence, but some have converted wholly to Judaism. One recently-revealed Jewish Hispano has begun attending services at an Orthodox synagogue.

The journey hasn’t always been simple or easy, as you might imagine. Some of the Marrano descendants had known, or at least suspected, for years that there was a Jewish connection in the family history. No one spoke of it openly, though in some families a child might be taken off to some field or mountainside and told, “We are Jews,” never to hear the matter discussed again. After affirming the truth, however, some searchers, sharing their discovery with relatives, are being told, “Of course we are Jews. We’ve always known that.” But other families never told their children, and the truth was lost over the generations. Still, those who suspected a Jewish connection might be hidden have confirmed their guesses with the help of genealogists, historians, and rabbis. Others have been surprised to learn of their hidden heritage, some quite by accident as they tried to trace their family trees past the arrival in New Mexico. (Curiously, some of the heirs to crypto-Jewry have learned that they are related to other Hispanos who are rediscovering their family backgrounds.)

The difficulty in coping with such a profound revelation has, unfortunately, been compounded in some cases by the established Jewish community. Many of the newly-revealed Jews have reached out to synagogues, rabbis, and Jewish centers in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, trying to learn whatever they can about their history and their previously hidden roots. But because there’s almost no documentation to support the Marranos’ claims to Jewish heritage, some congregations, especially the Orthodox ones, have resisted welcoming these newcomers into their circles, unless they convert. Reformed and Conservative congregations have been more accepting, but they, too, acknowledge that provenance is questionable and rare. Nonetheless, some of the former conversos have willingly reconverted to remove any doubt.

As for the evidence of the crypto-Jewish practices that raised the suspicions of the searchers in the first place, some observers reject that it is in the least conclusive. The behavior doesn’t really resemble established Jewish practice, they insist. It’s idiosyncratic and individualistic. Supporters argue, however, that the differences are reasonable considering the circumstances. For 500 years, these former Jews have lived in secrecy and fear. As a legacy of that secrecy, of course their private rituals would take on individual characteristics. As scholars have pointed out, the Marranos have suffered the loss of three key aspects of cultural continuity: they no longer had contact with the larger Jewish community as a model and arbitrator; they were denied organized worship with co-religionists; and they were disconnected from the literary tradition of Judaism. Without such anchors, theorists observe, the Jewish practices of the Marranos would necessarily become idiosyncratic. Besides, they add, all societies evolve and change as they absorb the influences of the surrounding cultures, and this is more true of minority cultures. It’s reasonable to expect that the Marranos would take on some of the coloration of the dominant Christian society and even the Native American culture in the midst of which they were living. (In the 1980s, a similar objection was raised about the Falashas when they were in danger from the Ethiopian government and Israel proposed to provide haven. Their Judaism didn’t resemble that of the mainstream Jewry of either the Ashkenazim or the Sephardim, and some questioned that they were really Jews at all. Nonetheless, they were ultimately recognized as Jews and between 1984 and 1991, all the Falashas, nearly 30,000 people, were airlifted to safety in Israel.)

The analogy that comes to my mind is the development of what we call Pennsylvania Dutch, the language spoken by the American colonists from Germany in the 18th century. Cut off from the mother tongue, the emigrants had to develop the language on their own as new concepts and inventions came into being. With no word for railroad when the settlers arrived in America, when the new form of transportation was developed, the Pennsylvania Dutch settlers had to devise their own word for this new phenomenon. The Hochdeutsch word for railroad is Eisenbahn (literally, ‘iron road’); the Pennsylvania Dutch word is Riggelweg, which might be translated as ‘regular way,’ as in ‘standard, unwavering’ (Hochdeutsch: Regel, ‘rule’). (An even stranger coinage came many decades later, when TV was invented. In Hochdeutsch, the word is Fernseh, a kind of translation of the Greco-Latin etymology of the English word: ‘far’ + ‘sight.’ In Pennsylvania Dutch, the word is Guckbox, from the Hochdeutsch gucken, ‘to look,’ + ‘box,’ the English word. I’m not sure I’ve spelled any of the Pennsylvania Dutch words correctly, by the way.) Just as German needs the connection to the mother tongue to remain standard--the same development occurred in Canadian French, though to a lesser degree--so would “Jewish practice” need contact with the greater Jewish community. As I’ve already noted, the Sephardic tradition is very different from Ashkenazi practice, though both are mainstream Judaism.

Some of these evolved practices have even enlivened the traditional customs. In the Southwest, some of the Hispano families use tortillas instead of matzoh for unleavened bread at Passover, for instance. At the Seder, the story of the Exodus from Egypt is often conflated with the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, with Queen Isabella appearing as an avatar of Pharaoh. At Succoth, the Feast of Tabernacles, the Hispanos associate the little booths, the succah, with both the shelters the Jews built in the wilderness and the crude huts their 16th-century ancestors built as they fled north from Mexico to New Mexico. To me, these all seem like wonderful palimpsests, hardly travesties or heresies.

All of this is truly fascinating--and not a little gratifying--to me. There are still pockets in this country, the most open society in the world, where anti-Semitism is condoned. Even among present-day crypto-Jewry there is a palpable sense of enduring trepidation. While for some, the floodgates have opened as relatives avidly tell stories and anecdotes of family lore, others still find silence and continued secrecy and apprehension. Some family members have encouraged the discovery and exploration, whereas others have resisted and persist in suppressing the past to protect their status in the church and community. There are even a few family members who want to retaliate against those who return to Judaism--a small but real threat, generating residual fear and distrust that echoes the 15th century, a legacy of the secrecy from the Inquisition. Said one rabbi who has worked with the former Marranos, "They are afraid of their own cousins."

The secret and unexplained behavior, however, is much more intriguing to me than the history or the science. How does a family continue to perform rituals they don’t understand for 500 years? That’s 17 generations removed from the origins in Spain. It’s probably different for modern Hispanos in New Mexico who can have read about Marranos and the Spanish Inquisition in school, but think of that peasant farm family in Spain in the 1950’s or ‘60s. They obviously had no idea what was happening, but the woman followed a tradition handed down to her by her mother and grandmother and unquestioningly passed it along to her own daughter. Doubtlessly, that family would have been aghast if they discovered what their actions meant. Surely the same circumstances held for the descendants of the Hispano settlers of New Mexico in the 17th or 18th centuries when they had lost the contact with other Jews but hadn’t acquired the sophistication to reinterpret their own actions. It doesn’t sound possible over all that time--and yet, it happened. Whole communities, unbeknownst to one another, followed customs and engaged in practices they didn’t understand for centuries and passed them on to their children and grandchildren, preserving, against all logic, a tradition that was meant to die out. But it didn’t. It persisted. Even among the Hispano crypto-Jews who knew what the rituals and behavior meant, it’s hardly believable that they would continue. They still thought of themselves as Catholics, and yet they lit Friday night candles and said Hebrew prayers even as they went to Mass on Sundays. The relics of the family’s Marrano past were preserved, even if no one ever took them out and showed them to the children. They kept them. Who does that? Why? Maybe it’s what the Stage Manager in Our Town says: “Everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal.” I’m not enough of a philosopher or a mystic to try to figure that out, but something sure made those folks, who mostly just wanted to be good Catholics, keep all those remnants of a lost and hidden heritage, like spiritual packrats. Something kept them all connected to those remnants of Jewishness in the face of Torquemada and his progeny. Why the dam burst in the 1980s like that, I have no idea, but that little pocket of New Mexico reached back half a millennium and wrenched forth some lost history, and maybe we’re all richer for it. The legacy of secrecy has been exposed to the light. What do I know? It’s like my one and only experience with the aurora borealis: it’s something that shouldn’t exist because it defies reason. But there it is nonetheless. Go know, right?

12 September 2009

Creative Dramatics: Games

Over the years of teaching acting, theater, and creative dramatics, I’ve developed, borrowed, and adapted a number of theater games and exercises that I found to be productive and useful. Here are descriptions of several games I especially like.

SITUATIONS

An instant play can be improvised by assigning characters and selecting a location at random. Make up a set of character cards and a set of location cards. Let each actor select one character card out of a hat, then select one location card for the group. Each actor must decide why he or she is in that place, and what he or she wants there. Advanced students can be instructed to create an objective and other techniques from formal acting classes.

Variations in the basic structure can be added in subsequent sessions. For instance, one character can be secretly instructed to stage a stick-up, have a heart attack, pick a fight, or introduce some other surprise. In another case, characters may be introduced into the scene serially or in small groups rather than have them all start on stage at the beginning. The workshop leader can also introduce surprise elements arbitrarily by instructing, “A hurricane has begun,” “The whole town’s been blacked out,” or any similar circumstance.

Characters and locations can be any kind imaginable. The best location is a place that would naturally attract many and varied people, such as a drug store, beach, airport, library, diner, hospital, and so on. The mix of characters should be as broad as possible to avoid stagnant situations: jockey, child, reporter, bum, dancer, cop, teacher, prince/princess, and others.

THE PARTY

This exercise is a variation on Situations and makes a good ice-breaker and a great end-of-workshop finale. The characters are the same odd mix, assigned secretly by the teacher. One difference, however, is added. One character is designated the host or hostess of the party, a second is a spy and a third is an FBI agent. The party-giver is the only one of these three whose role is known to the others. The setting is a “Greenwich Village” party where anyone can show up, and anything can happen. The object, obviously, is for the spy to identify and neutralize the FBI agent before the agent identifies the spy. When either of these scenarios happens, the party’s over. The other guests, not part of the spy thriller, must simply establish their characters and enjoy the party. Part of the fun of this exercise is that it can be a real party, with refreshments supplied by the group. If the teacher joins in, it’s a terrific way to say good-bye to the class at the end of the workshop.

INSTANT CHARACTER

Since physical adjustments can affect character and even help create it, one good beginning exercise that helps break the ice is a way of instantly developing a physical characteristic that inspires a character. There are two ways of starting this exercise off. One is to gather a large pile of random costume and clothing pieces from stock, including shoes, jackets, coats, and so on. An alternative is to have members of the group contribute a piece of their own clothing to a pile. In either case, each actor selects a piece from the pile and puts it on. It need not be worn in its intended fashion: a shoe can be a strange glove; a jacket, a new skirt. What is important is that the new piece of clothing should alter the way the actor moves: a jacket too tight, shoes too big.

With their new attire, the actors walk about the room as they discover how the new piece makes them move. When the new movement has been discovered, the actors should go off by themselves for a while to explore it. They must be able to recreate the movements without the piece of clothing. This becomes their new physical characteristic, the basis for their new character. The adjusted walk is demonstrated for the class, first without accompanying action, then with a character and a task to perform. Often it’s easiest to provide some simple task for everyone, such as crossing the room to answer the telephone.

Once everyone’s developed the walk and character, pairs and other groupings of actors can be randomly assembled to set up a set of circumstances in which they must interact. The new characters usually instigate some bizarre and amusing scenes that can be further developed if the workshop leader desires.

TITLES

Book and song titles can provide some wonderful ideas for scenes. Working in pairs, the actors are each given a title of some kind. One of the titles, or both taken together, should suggest a situation to the pair of actors. They decide mutually who they are, what their relationship is, and where they are. Individually, the actors select an objective.

The improvisation continues normally within whatever situation the actors set up, which needn’t be logical or realistic (“Fly Me to the Moon” might suggest two astronauts on a moon flight), until one of them has used his or her title in the dialogue. (It can’t be used as a title per se, but just as ordinary words in conversation. “Have you read . . .” isn’t an acceptable solution.) Whichever actor first says his or her title must cease talking for the remainder of the scene until the other partner has also managed to work his or her title into the lines (which have now become a monologue). In this, the exercise is a little like the old children’s game (and one-time TV game show) Keep Talking. The silent actor must remain in the scene, actively participating, except that he or she may no longer talk. Some very strange things occur in this exercise, both in terms of the situations devised from the titles and from the silence imposed on one partner in the end of the scene.

HAIKU

An exercise that promotes creative imagery for the body is based on the short Japanese poetry, the Haiku. With Haiku either written by the students or culled from collections, ask the performers to find one clear image in each of the poem’s three lines. Each actor recites the Haiku first without action, then again, striking the pose devised for each line. Ideally the three poses should use the entire body as much as possible and one principle is that they should flow from one into the next rather than be three distinct, unconnected images. (The ideas needn’t connect; it’s the physical images that should flow from one to the next.) Literalness, of course, isn’t the goal in this exercise, but it may take several attempts before the performers get a feel for the imagery.

WORD PLAY

Words can suggest actions just from their sounds. It’s an interesting experiment to see what the sounds words make, disregarding their meanings, can do to our bodies and the way we move. While the students are moving randomly about the room, the leader pronounces a series of words which the students must “take into their bodies.” Without relying on what they understand by the words, they should allow only the sound to affect their movement and posture. Obviously, literalness will creep in, but this can be suppressed by choosing words less familiar and pronouncing them in a somewhat mechanical, unemotional way so as not to color them.

This exercise works best when the words are grouped into categories. The most successful are “earth words” (dirt, loam, boulder, compost, detritus), “fire words” (candle, ember, flicker, conflagration, smolder) and “water words” (dribble, glacier, meander, deuterium, arroyo). Other interesting groups are diseases (aneurysm, halitosis, psoriasis, ichthyosis), and space words (planetoid, nebula, corona, Betelgeuse, red giant). Most important, stress that it’s the sounds of the words, not their denotations or connotations--their intellectual meanings--that should guide the physicalizations.

NONSENSE PLAY

A wonderful exercise for communicating without relying on verbal expression (though not without words) is the nonsense play. A two-character “script” of some 14-15 one-sentence lines can be composed on the spur of the moment, as long as the words don’t make too much sense. The exercise is quite simple: the actors decide who and where they are, their relationship (in acting terms, of course, not genealogical ones), and whatever else they need to make a scene, then enact it, using the nonsense text of the script. (They can repunctuate the text, but not change any words.) The trick is not to communicate with one another--the actors have already colluded on what the play “means”--it's to communicate with the “audience” (the rest of the class). It’s edifying to learn afterwards how the audience’s perception compares to the actors’. Here’s one example of a nonsense script:

A: What's happening?
B: Go to hell!
A: I don't know.
B: Is it raining?
A: I'm going home.
B: What's happening?
A: Keep away from me.
B: Sit down.
A: I can't stand it.
B: Don't tell me! I've been there before.
A: This is ridiculous.
B: You're insane.
A: Don't give me that nonsense.
B: Well, I never . . . !
A: Is it raining?


IMPROVISING A SCRIPTED SCENE

As a prelude to standard scene study classes, I’ve taken a leaf from Uta Hagen’s book--or rather the version edited by my first professional acting teacher, Carol Rosenfeld, a former student of Uta’s. While this improvisation isn’t a game, it is a useful exercise which can stand on its own or lead to work on the scripted scene.

It has always been my practice to assign plays and scenes to my students, though I will welcome requests and suggestions. (My reasoning is that acting students, first, don’t know the theater lit as well as I do and tend to concentrate on recent plays, Broadway hits, and plays that have been turned into movies. Second, most actors, I’ve discovered, also cast themselves very badly and often overlook roles they ought to work on even if they’re not in the actors’ usual casting ranges.) Further, I always insist that my students read the entire play from which their assigned scene is drawn (so, no scene books or sides).

For this exercise, then, I tell the actors to analyze the scene for the basic acting elements in it. I expect them to glean their characters’ objectives, their relationship to one another, the “place,” task, immediate preceding circumstances, and so on. (They will also have to devise the set and bring in the necessary props and costumes as needed, just as in a scene study class.) The assignment is to pursue the objectives without the playwright’s dialogue. The better the actors have analyzed the scene, the closer their improvised dialogue will parallel what the playwright wrote. (The goal of the improv is not, however, to replicate the playwright’s words but to explore and understand the acting context beneath the words.)

09 September 2009

Creative Dramatics: Creating A Play

Some years ago, I led a project in a fourth-grade English class to introduce the students to writing plays. The classroom teacher was introducing her classes to various forms of creative writing, including haiku and stories, but she had previously asked me to lead a role-playing project in her social studies class, so she invited me to guide the students through the segment on playwriting. This project actually produced scripts which taught the craft of playwriting along with the creative and performance benefits. The process can be used successfully in formal classes in schools and in workshop programs, and is suitable for children as well as adults (with some obvious adjustments).

If desired, the written script can be omitted so that the final product is improvised within the general scenario. I used improvisations for the introductory session, but the idea of this project was to create a written play that could be performed for an audience after it had been developed. (This also results in a document the kids can take home with them in the end, a nice lagniappe that enhances the sense of accomplishment.) It’s very enjoyable for the class to perform their works for the rest of the school, community group, or arts festival as a sort of reward for the successful work. Furthermore, the classroom teacher wanted the students to learn some of the conventions of playwriting just as they’d been doing in the poetry and story-writing segments, so a written script was built into our lesson.

I also decided that I’d use theater terms in conducting this project. When the same teacher and class did the historical role play, we deliberately used non-stage expressions--'rehearsal’ became ‘caucus,’ for instance--because that project wasn’t a theater exercise, but a social studies lesson. But I felt that since they were learning about playwriting and theater this time, using theater words with the students would help make this project special and set up an atmosphere of performativeness in the classroom, which was now a theater studio for the duration of the project. So clothes were ‘costumes’ and the outline was a ‘scenario’ and so on. I was careful to make sure the special meanings of my words were understood, and I tried not to go overboard with this (lights were still ‘lights,’ not ‘instruments’), but I wanted the fourth-graders to feel like insiders, getting a glimpse of something not everyone else knew.

While older, more sophisticated or experienced students might not need a refresher of the basics of dramatic writing, beginners such my fourth-graders probably will. Though the social circumstances of this group of 10-year-olds gave them access to both live theater and even professional actors, a number of the parents being in the entertainment business, their age meant that more often than not, they equated a play with TV or the movies, their most common experience of performance. I reminded the nascent playwrights of the conventions of good playwriting, cautioning them, however, that they’re not rules they had to follow, but only advice based on common wisdom and experience. “If you have a good enough reason,” I told them, “and a clever enough imagination, you can violate any convention.” In theater, there’s only one rule, I explained: Whatever works is right!

“Your play should have a beginning, a middle, and an end,” I taught them. The beginning should include the introduction of the major characters, an explanation of the situation, and the exposition (revelation) of the pertinent facts. The middle should develop the conflict or problem that will be the crux of the play. The end should contain the resolution of the conflict or problem in some concrete manner. Any “loose ends” left, I suggested, may weaken the play. (In fact, this point is well demonstrated in TV sit-coms and series episodes. When I taught a college introduction to theater, I used the tapes of an old Jeffersons episode and an I Love Lucy show to illustrate dramatic structure.)

To be dramatic and stageworthy, the play must deal with actions as much as possible, I explained, making sure the students understood what ‘action’ means in theatrical terms. Something must happen to the characters and be resolved in the end. If the writers want to explore psychological or emotional “actions,” I instructed them, they should translate the feelings into physical action as well. Plays that just talk are boring.

I reminded the students that their plays would have to be performed live on stage with live actors. “You’re not writing a film or TV script!” I prompted them. “Though this might restrict what’s physically possible, it doesn’t have to limit your imagination; theater permits a wide range of illusion and stage magic to replace and enhance reality.”

Using a simple worksheet helped keep the project organized as it developed. It also provided a way to assign a topic or idea for students who are inexperienced enough to resist using their own imaginations. If the worksheet isn’t used, the teacher can hand out cards with the title, situation, and characters. Adults and older children, though, may want to make up their own plotlines from the outset. In either case, it’s important to stress that the story of the play can change as it develops and needn’t end up resembling the original idea.

The class was divided into small groups of three to five performers each. This is the most efficient number for these short plays, which should be from five to fifteen minutes long when they’re finished. Fewer players cramp the imagination of the creators; more is cumbersome for organizing. Doubling and tripling actors to create more roles should be discouraged, but not prohibited. (It devolves into an exercise in logistics instead of creativity. It also engenders entropy.)

I provided the barest facts at the first meeting. I wanted the creators to invent their own answers to problems that arose. They should write their own play, not some version of the teacher’s. I was a resource and adjudicator of procedural or technical disputes, but did not impose my own ideas.

This project can be the basis for eight sessions, including a performance of the finished plays. My first session was an Introductory Improv Session. Each group was assigned a basic situation for a scene, with the characters and circumstances provided. (A list of some examples is below.) I gave the groups, now a cast of actor-creators, time to discuss the plot and details, and then present their play to the class. A critique-and-comment may follow if desired.

The second session began the actual script development. The groups were given their worksheets with the title, situation, and characters provided. (A list of some intermediate and advanced plot suggestions is below.) This session concentrated on plot and story line, which was developed by discussion and improvisation among the cast members. I monitored all the groups as they worked, encouraging them to try out all the ideas. One student should not be allowed to become the playwright of the group, though one person in each cast should be the scribe to keep note of what has been decided. The session ended with a written outline of the plot (scenario) so the next session didn’t have to begin with trying to recreate what was accomplished here.

The worksheet is useful to keep track of the progress from each session, though students who are imaginative enough to invent their own plots don’t need the boost of suggested plots. Even those that do need the help should be encouraged to find their own interpretations of the suggestions and take them wherever their ideas lead them. I was amazed at the specific ideas that these 10-year-olds came up with for their plays, some having entirely abandoned the suggested plot line I provided after it served them as a catalyst for their own imaginations. Others put a spin on the outline and turned it into something entirely unpredictable. The results ranged across a half dozen genres of plays, some dramas, some comedies, some farces, some adventure stories. Some were serious treatments of issues with which the students were obviously concerned, others were just fun. Several were remarkably sophisticated and sensitive, even grown-up. I was sincerely impressed.

The third through fifth sessions were devoted to writing the play and developing and refining the idea. Actual dialogue was written down so that a script could be compiled, but all the work was developed and tested by improvisation and performance. Younger students may want to make major changes in the basic idea several days after the process has begun. This should be discouraged gently to avoid starting over each time. Small changes as the idea is developed and refined, on the other hand, should be encouraged. Try not to let the groups “set” their work after only one or two tries, though. Again, written scripts were turned in at the end of each session to avoid losing the work that had been done.

By the time the workshop reached the sixth session, the groups were ready for actual rehearsals of the draft script. I encouraged the casts to bring in props and costumes for their plays. Whether the groups need one or two sessions of rehearsals is the decision of the teacher.

The eighth session was devoted to performances of the plays. Each cast presented its play to the rest of the class. Comments and critiques are possible, but should be supportive and non-threatening, especially for beginning performers. A first public performance can be very scary.

The most successful plays were selected by a vote (secret ballot, of course) of the class and were performed for other classes. If a written script is created, “revivals” for assemblies, festivals, and other events are a real possibility. Ideas for topics are infinite, but here are a few suggestions. (These were mostly prepared for fourth-graders.) Don’t forget, though, that the writing groups should be allowed to take these suggestions wherever they lead them. They are only meant to get ideas started so that the student writers don’t get stuck at the very beginning. The introductory set is intended to be superficial and light-hearted since its use is for a single session to model the project. The third set below was prepared for older students, and I never used it. The second set, which was the basis for the actual scripts for my fourth-grade playwrights, generated some absolutely remarkable and astonishing results.

SITUATIONS FOR INTRODUCTORY IMPROVS:

  • “The Body Shop”: trading in your body for a new one; 1 sales clerk, boss, 2 customers
  • “Animal Talk”: animals talk about people; 1 dog, 1 cat, 1 wolf, etc.
  • “Space Station”: 3 astronauts living in a space station
  • “Cave Dwellers”: a family living underground; mother, father and child/children
  • “Men in the Moon”: astronauts land on the moon and meet moonmen; 1 or 2 astronauts, 1 or 2 moonmen
  • “Museum Pieces”: statues in an art museum come to life at night; Venus di Milo, Winged Victory, The Thinker, etc.
  • “Ghost Story”: ghosts planning to haunt a house
  • “Body Language”: your body works like a factory with each department talking to other departments; brain, heart, lungs, etc.
  • “Germ of an Idea”: germs plan strategy for an invasion of a body
  • “World Factory”: celestial engineers design a new world; water department, land department, “interior decoration”
  • “Toying Around”: toys in a toy store come alive at night; ballerina, toy soldier, teddy bear, etc.
  • “Will the Real Human Being Please Stand Up”: a scientist makes two robot copies of himself and tries to convince another scientist they are human

INTERMEDIATE SITUATIONS:
  • "If I Ran New York City (or Wherever)": Kids become the government of the city; mayor, police commissioner, schools chancellor, city treasurer, etc.; a) Winning the election & the new rules, b) Facing a problem, c) The solution
  • "The New Student": A foreign exchange student who does not speak much English arrives at school; exchange student, class leader, class clown; a) The first meeting, b) The class clown makes fun of the exchange student, c) The exchange student and the class clown become friends with the help of the class leader
  • "Leaving Home": A child has a fight and decides to run away from home; 2 children, mother, father; a) The argument, b) Running away, c) The parents alone, d) The return and reconciliation
  • "The Big Game": On the day before the last game of the season, the star player cannot play; star player, team captain, team manager, (coach, parent, doctor); a) The problem, b) Making other plans. c) The solution"The Lost Homework": A student has lost an important homework paper just before it is due; The student, 2 friends; a) The discovery, b) What to do?, c) The solution
  • "The Homecoming": An older brother/sister who has been away a very long time is coming home; 3 younger siblings; a) The news, b) Uncertainty (How to react?), c) The decision
  • "Trouble": Two friends find out a third has done something that may get them all into trouble; 3 friends, (a cop, a parent, a teacher, etc.); a) The revelation, b) What to do?, c) The solution
  • "Rivals": Two friends are finalists in a contest that both want to win; 2 friends, a judge; a) The results of the semifinals, b) The rivalry, c) The resolution
  • "The Party": Three friends are invited to a party, but one has a job to do at home and may miss the party; 3 friends, (host/hostess, parent); a) The invitation, b) Disappointment, c) The solution
  • "The Surprise": Two siblings discover that their parents have bought a gift and hidden it away; they don't know what the gift is, why it was bought or whom it is for; 2 siblings, mother, father; a) The discovery, b) Who should get it?, c) The solution
ADVANCED SITUATIONS:
  • "The Hospital": Two patients in a hospital ward are awaiting the return of a third who has gone for his/her operation; 2 patients, doctor, visitor, (nurse); a) Visitor arrives, b) A confusion occurs, c) Resolution of confusion
  • "Detective Report": A private detective becomes personally involved with his/her "subject"; private detective, husband (client), wife (subject); a) Detective makes report to husband, b) Wife enters; involvement is revealed, c) Resolution
  • "Mind Games": A man is trying to drive his wife insane; husband, wife, police detective, maid/butler; a) Husband and maid/butler conspire, b) Detective arrives and suspects husband, c) Solution
  • "Stop Thief!": A man/woman catches a burglar in his/her apartment; man/woman, burglar, man's girlfriend/woman's boyfriend; a) Man/woman catches burglar, b) Girlfriend/boyfriend arrives, c) Resolution
  • "Hysterical Historical": Two men/women living alone in an isolated cabin are visited by a famous, but long dead, historical person and his/her companion; 2 men/women, historical person (e.g.: Joan of Arc, Napoleon, Washington, Lincoln, Alexander the Great, etc.), the companion; a) 2 men/women alone, b) Historical figure arrives and causes confusion/problem, c) Resolution
  • "Blind Man's Bluff": A young woman moves in next door to a young man who is blind; young woman, blind boy, his mother, her boyfriend; a) Young woman and blind boy meet, b) His mother arrives and wants him to come back home, c) Resolution
  • "The Room": Four strangers meet inexplicably in a room with no doors or windows; 4 people; a) Fourth member arrives and meets other three, b) How do they get out? How did they get in?, c) Resolution
  • "Intelligence Report": A general of an invading army is waiting at an inn for some important intelligence; general, lieutenant (the messenger), innkeeper, female spy; a) General and Innkeeper, b) Lieutenant arrives without documents, c) Spy arrives, disguised as a man, d) Resolution
  • "The Apartment": A young man moves into a new apartment with a crazy girl as a neighbor who wants to borrow some rope to hang herself; young man, girl, old woman (neighbor); a) Young man meets girl, b) Girl tries to commit suicide, c) Resolution
  • "The Jail": A man is in jail for a crime he may not have committed; man, girl who cleans up the jail, jailer, the accuser, (accuser's spouse); a) Man and girl get acquainted, b) Jailer and accuser enter, c) Resolution
  • "The Doctor": An inspector is coming to check a private clinic where the doctor and his wife (also a doctor), seem to be hiding something; doctor, wife (doctor), inspector, (nurse, delivery boy); a) Doctor and wife together, b) Inspector arrives, c) Resolution