West Virginia Book Festival

Happy birthday, Shakespeare

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As best as anyone knows, William Shakespeare was born on this date, 449 years ago, in Stratford-upon-Avon. There are historical records that show he died on this date, 397 years ago, in the same town.

I used the occasion two years ago to write about the man and his impact on what we read today. Last year, Dawn Miller wrote about reading Shakespeare to kids as a volunteer for Read Aloud West Virginia.

This year? I’m just going to remember the people who helped me learn to love Shakespeare. And I’m going to post this photo that I took at the Globe Theater replica in London a few years ago, because it makes me happy every time I see it.

And I’m going to honor his memory the best way I know how. I’m going to read him.

Shakespeare for kids: Comedy is hard

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I recently read Bruce Coville’s adaptation of “William Shakespeare’s Hamlet,” to 46 fifth-graders, not the first time I’ve used this book in my role as a Read Aloud volunteer. Still, I was thrilled when shortly into the story, one student asked, “Why is the picture blurry?”

What a great question. What could artist Leonid Gore be trying to convey with the illustrations? The class kicked it around for a couple minutes.

“It’s dark,” one student offered.

“It’s foggy,” said another.

“Scary things are happening,” said a third.

“Hamlet is confused,” summed up another.

I almost sang out, I was so pleased. What a wonderful volume this is, so accessible, and yet with just enough of the original Elizabethan English that you get the beauty and flavor of the language. Hamlet dithers about, conflicted and confused, for three hours in that play. That student put her finger on it in the first page.

Shakespeare often gets a reputation for being snooty. It’s not deserved. The 400-year-old language is  certainly difficult for our ears, although it gets easier with practice.  While the settings and social mores may be foreign to us, the stories hold up over the centuries because the people, their failings and their aspirations, are not.

From “Hamlet,” we went to “Romeo and Juliet.” Students were stunned at Juliet’s age — just 13 and thinking of marriage. They enjoyed recounting to me references to Shakespeare they now recognize — the film “Gnomeo and Juliet,” Lisa Simpson cast as Ophelia.

We needed a break from tragedy, so the third week, we tried “Twelfth Night.” As I expected based on a previous reading, Shakespeare’s comedy was not so universal. The children enjoyed it, and they laughed at the mistaken identity and mixed up lovers. But much of the humor passed them by. They accepted Hamlet’s ghost without a blink. They had no trouble relating to Hamlet being confused about the right thing to do, or the grief at losing a father or a sister. They shook their heads at the tragedy of so many deaths. But in “Twelfth Night,” they struggled to understand why poor shipwrecked Viola had to dress as a boy to go work for the duke. Why couldn’t she just go as herself? They thought it beyond belief that anyone would fail to notice she was a young woman just because she changed her clothes and hair. Having not yet suffered the pangs of that first romance, they were not distracted by the comical love story. The more confused and farcical the plot became, the more logical the questions. Didn’t her voice sound like a girl?

It’s just like the actors say. Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.

“Robert and Ted” and the Senate

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Robert C. Byrd, who died in 2010 after nearly 60 years in Congress, lives again (sort of) today at the University of Charleston.

As Doug Imbrogno reported in the Sunday Gazette-Mail, West Virginia author Denise Giardina has taken the relationship between Byrd and another lion of the Senate, Ted Kennedy, and fictionalized it in her play “Robert and Ted.” The play is still a work in progress, but Giardina will read from it at the UC Builders Luncheon today.

The first encounters between Kennedy and Byrd in the early ’60s did not go so well. Each was a young senator, but the different worlds they came from might as well have been Mars and Venus.

“Byrd was in his first term and Kennedy was elected in a special election not long after JFK was elected,” said Giardina. “Kennedy was from a wealthy family in Massachusetts and Byrd came up hard in the coalfields of West Virginia. He felt Kennedy was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and got all the committees handed to him. Byrd knew that was not going to be the case with him.”

If you’d like to go … too bad. Doug says registration is closed. But there will be a full reading of the play at this summer’s FestivALL event in Charleston.

William French, 1932-2012

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Readers of the blog will know that I am a Shakespeare fan. One of the people who helped me kindle and nurture that love died last weekend.

Bill French, my professor for two Shakespeare classes at WVU, died on Feb. 18 on a cruise off the Florida coast, according to his obituary in the Dominion Post. His visitation and funeral are Saturday. He’d been retired for more than a decade, but still taught a class on a different play each term at WVU’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, according to the obituary (which I encourage you to read; that is an obituary that anyone would be proud to have).

The class of his that I remember most was a look at Shakespeare’s plays through the lens of performance. Before that, I’d seen two or three Shakespeare performances, but most of my exposure to the Bard was on the printed page. Dr. French’s class involved a lot of reading, but also a lot of watching productions of various Shakespeare plays, classic and modern, traditional and experimental.

He showed us the Paul Scofield version of “King Lear,” which remains one of the most haunting things I’ve ever seen on film. At the end of the class, students were required to put on a performance themselves, which ended up with me, in the role of Malvolio in “Twelfth Night,” wearing a green leisure suit and an Afro wig. (Don’t ask. No, seriously.)

The other course that Dr. French taught me was a survey Shakespeare course, required of all undergraduate English majors at the time. As any college student knows, survey courses are a hit-or-miss affair. You’ve got people who would never set foot in the class if they didn’t have to, and there’s usually a lot of material crammed into a short time. If you end up with a teacher who doesn’t give a damn, the class can be close to worthless. Dr. French gave a damn. It wasn’t my favorite class at WVU, but I still looked forward to it every time.

Coincidentally, the last time I talked to Dr. French, it was about required Shakespeare courses. Not long after I started at the Gazette in the late 1990s, some colleges created an uproar by striking Shakespeare from their list of required courses. I called Dr. French (and a counterpart of his at Marshall) to get their views on the subject. We must have talked for about an hour. I enjoyed it immensely.

Dr. French pointed out that WVU had dropped the Shakespeare requirement once already, during the height of student unrest in the early 1970s. But he also talked about the re-emergence of Shakespeare into popular culture, and how he believed that even if the requirement were dropped, Shakespeare classes would still be full.

Let’s hope so. Unless I’m misreading these course requirements, as of the 2010 fall semester, WVU students can get a bachelor’s degree in English literature without taking a Shakespeare course of any kind. Instead, they have to take one course about a “major author,” which can be Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton, or a “major author” course in which “authors will vary.”

The de-emphasis on Shakespeare seems like a shame. But I’m glad that when I was at WVU and learned about the man and his work, Bill French was there to teach me.

“Shakespeare Apprentice” winner named

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We told you earlier about the “Shakespeare Apprentice” video contest that the Kanawha County Public Library was running for budding Shakespearean filmmakers. Well, the judgment is made, and Jillian Carney took the prize for directing (and editing, and screenwriting) an adaptation of Act I, Scene III from “Othello.” Here it is:

It’s just a few minutes long, and brevity is the soul of wit, right?

You can see all of the entries in the contest at the KCPL Teen Zone booth at this weekend’s West Virginia Book Festival. They’ll also be seen at a reception on Friday night at the West Virginia State University Capitol Centre, after the Charleston Stage Company’s performance of “Othello.”

Hark, budding Shakespeare filmmakers!

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Want to be a Shakespearean filmmaker? You’ve got a few days left.

The Kanawha County Public Library and the Charleston Stage Company are sponsoring a “Shakespeare Apprentice” contest, inviting young filmmakers to give their interpretations of any of four Shakespeare scenes and send in the video.

Full information is here. The deadline is Sept. 26.

Winners will be shown on Friday, Oct. 21, after a reception at the West Virginia State University Capitol Centre, on Summers Street in downtown Charleston, after the CSC’s performance of “Othello” that night. The winning entries will also be on view at that weekend’s West Virginia Book Festival, in the KCPL Teen Zone booth.

A few words about Shakespeare

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I don’t want to say I like Shakespeare, but when we visited the reconstruction of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London a couple of years ago, my wife says I acted like “a 7-year-old in a dinosaur museum.”

With his birthday (we think) coming up tomorrow, it’s a good time to talk about the man who may have more to do with what we read today than anyone else.

Some people, seeing this is a Shakespeare post, have already tuned out. That’s a shame. This is what I wrote back in 1999, when I reviewed the movie “Shakespeare In Love” for the Gazette:

Do not be turned off by the word “Shakespeare.” Too many people associate his name with stuffy academics and high-falutin’ productions. Back in the day, though, Shakespeare wrote entertainment for the masses, not the elite; more John Grisham than John Updike. If he were alive today, he’d probably be a television screenwriter.

It’s still true. Hamlet’s uncle kills his father, marries his mother and steals his kingdom. Macbeth kills his king, at the urging of his wife and a bunch of witches, and then slowly goes mad as his doom approaches. Beatrice and Benedick, a pair of smart-aleck independents, find themselves inexorably drawn toward each other as their friends’ romance is torn apart.

This is not bloodless, academic stuff. This is cop shows and horror movies and soap operas.

Sure, the language can be a little hard to follow in places, but it’s still English. In fact, English wouldn’t be English without Shakespeare. Everyone instantly recognizes “Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?” and “To be or not to be, that is the question.” But did you know that Shakespeare appears to be the first to use the phrase “thin air”? Or “the milk of human kindness”? Or “give the devil his due”? Or the image of being so scared your hair stands on end? From “Hamlet”:

“I could a tale unfold, whose lightest word would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood, make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres, thy knotted and combined locks to part and each particular hair to stand an end, like quills upon the fretful porpentine.”

Biographies of Shakespeare all suffer from the same problem: other than his plays and poetry, we don’t know very much about him. A few property and church records, some legal documents … nothing much to answer the mountain of questions we have about the man.

“The Lodger Shakespeare” by Charles Nicholl, which came out a few years ago, does a nice job of accepting this and working with it. Nicholl takes the only instance of Shakespeare’s spoken words being recorded — a legal proceeding involving a former landlord — and sketches a picture of the Bard’s world in Elizabethan London. He acknowledges that many of his educated guesses are just that, but it doesn’t stop him from telling what he knows and speculating about the rest. (Nicholl also has a similar and I think better book, “The Reckoning,” about Christopher Marlowe; the title refers to Marlowe’s legendary death in a brawl over a bar tab.)

More typical biographies abound; the standard in many corners is “Shakespeare’s Lives” by S. Schoenbaum, and the more recent “Will In The World” by Stephen Greenblatt was well received. I found Bill Bryson’s “Shakespeare: The World as Stage,” part of the Eminent Lives series, to be a good, basic biography with a few new ideas (and at the end, Bryson mercilessly mocks those who believe that Shakespeare didn’t write his own plays).

After reading those, some may be surprised that Shakespeare wasn’t always the great literary behemoth we know today. Even in the decades after his death, many people considered him just another Elizabethan poet and dramatist, and not a great one at that. “Becoming Shakespeare,” by Jack Lynch, traces the rise in Shakespeare’s posthumous fortunes, with special attention given to the actors who performed his work through the centuries and the lesser writers who had no problems with rewriting him when they deemed fit.

And last, a word on Shakespeare’s Globe, the brainchild of American actor Sam Wanamaker, who was startled when he arrived in London to find that there was no permanent monument to the greatest playwright ever to write in the English language. It took more than 10 years to build, and was finished in 1997, and its founders strove to make it as authentic as they could, up to getting a special dispensation from the City of London to have a thatched roof. (The city banned them because they catch on fire easily, which is why we don’t have the original Globe anymore.)

No, this new Globe isn’t the real thing. No, it’s not in the same location as the old Globe (although it’s close). Yes, many of Shakespeare’s plays weren’t even performed at the Globe.

But if you’ve imagined what it was like to see Shakespeare’s work while he was still alive, writing and performing, it’s as close as you’re going to get. And if you love the man’s plays, and the language, and the history, to stand in that place and soak it in … I just don’t have words.

Which makes me as unlike Shakespeare as you can imagine. He would have words.

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William Shakespeare was born on Saturday’s date, March 23, 447 years ago. (At least, that’s as close as we can get it, given the state of record-keeping in Stratford-upon-Avon at the end of the Middle Ages; we know he was baptized three days later.)

We’ll have more about the Bard later today. But for now, enjoy this special birthday tripartite edition of the Video of the Week, featuring a couple of great actors and their takes on the doomed Scottish nobleman-turned-murderer-turned-king, Macbeth.

First, here’s Ian McKellen (long before he thought of playing Gandalf or Magneto) as probably the best Macbeth ever recorded on film. It’s part of a 1978 version filmed for British TV, and was largely based on the legendary Royal Shakespeare Company production starring McKellen and Judi Dench. There were practically no props, and a lot of dim lighting and fog, and the two of them are just amazing. This is McKellen doing Macbeth’s soliloquy after learning of his wife’s death:

Next, here’s an interview with a much more recent Macbeth portrayer, Patrick Stewart, and the impromptu advice he got on the part from McKellen:

How did McKellen’s advice work for Stewart? Pretty well, I think. Judge for yourself:

Odds and ends

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Been away for a few days (more on that shortly), and missed some reading-related news:

| Sales of electronic books jumped enough in January to push them past sales of both hardcovers and mass market paperbacks, according to the Association of American Publishers.

A couple of tidbits I got from that article that I hadn’t thought about, but that make sense: E-book sales always jump in January, after everyone gets their new Kindles and Nooks and other devices and want to try them out. And the market for mass market paperbacks is declining because the baby boomers are aging and can’t read small type as well as they used to.

| A couple of smaller literary prizes were announced:

Chinese writer Bi Feiyu’s family drama “Three Sisters” was named the winner of the 2010 Man Asian Literary Prize, given to the best novel by an Asian writer that’s either written in English or translated into English. According to The Associated Press, organizers said their three jurors praised the novel as “a moving exploration of Chinese family and village life during the Cultural Revolution that moves seamlessly between the epic and the intimate.”

Austin Ratner’s debut novel, “The Jump Artist,” won the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. The novel is based on the true story of Philippe Halsman, “a man who Adolf Hitler knew by name, who Sigmund Freud wrote about in 1930, and who put Marilyn Monroe on the cover of Life magazine,” according to the news release about the award.

Drew Reeves as Edward III and Mary Russell as the Countess of Salisbury perform in the Atlanta Shakespeare Company's version of "Edward III." AP Photo

| An Atlanta stage company claims it’s the first in the world to perform all 39 Shakespeare plays.

What’s that? You didn’t know Shakespeare had written 39 plays? Well, he didn’t. Play No. 39, which the Atlanta Shakespeare Company performed last week, is “Edward III,” which some people believe, possibly, that Shakespeare may have written some part of.

Eh. Color me skeptical (whatever color that is). Just because Shakespeare may have written a few lines doesn’t make the play any more than an Elizabethan curiosity. But it could have been worse. At least all of the Atlanta actors finished the play without getting hurt.

Emily Dickinson show comes to Tamarack

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“The Belle of Amherst,” a one-woman show about the life of poet Emily Dickinson, comes to Tamarack on Friday and Saturday. Admission is $5.

Dickinson is portrayed by Pamela Chabora, an instructor and performer with Mountain State University and Theatre West Virginia.

According to the website:

Drawing largely from Emily’s poetry and letters, The Belle of Amherst is a breathing autobiography of a true nonconformist. For years, scholars have theorized that Emily Dickinson had some form of mental illness. This play gives Emily the chance to answer those scholars in person. Using a stream of conscious flow of poetry and musings, Emily Dickinson is brought to life before the very eyes of her audience.