Tuesday, November 23, 2010

_______________________Exit Burbage.

Today's post title is one of many epitaphs and elegies written upon the death of Richard Burbage, a lead actor of the Lord Chamberlain's Men and later the King's Men, both of which were Shakespeare's companies. He would have played the title roles of the great tragedies, from Hamlet to Othello to King Lear, and aside from Edward Alleyn (star of many of Marlowes' plays, from Faustus to Tamburlaine to The Jew of Malta) was probably the most popular and famous actor of the period. I love the brevity and poignancy of this epitaph, which may or may not actually have been engraved on his tombstone. It is the great actor's final exit, his leave-taking of the stage which was his world, and of the characters to whom he first gave life.

I stumbled across the line while reading Simon Palfrey and Tiffany Stern's book, "Shakespeare in Parts," for my essay on Robert Armin, one of Shakespeare's clowns. The book spends a significant portion of its bulk discussing cues, which are tiny bits of dialogue that tell an actor when he is to speak. See, the actors in the 16th and 17th centuries (and probably before and definitely after) were not given full copies of the play they were to act, but instead received only their own parts (usually rolled up in a scroll, which is where we get the word "role" for an actor's part), which included their own speeches and the one-to-three words preceding their own speeches. These words would have a tail, or line trailing into them, which helped visually to divide the actor's speeches. For example, the part for Hamlet might have begun:

__________________________ my Sonne?
A little more than kin, and less than kinde.
__________________________ hang on you?
Not soe, my lorde, I am to much i'the sunne.
___________________________to eternity.
Ay, madam, 'tis common.

And so on. It's fascinating to think about what this might have meant for the actor, because he would have had no idea how long he had to wait before his next line, or if more than one character would speak in the interim, or indeed which character he was meant to address with his own lines. He had to memorize everything on his scroll, and do his best to interpret the character from the bits he was given, and then do his best to project that on stage. Because companies performed a different play every day during the legal terms, actors were often given only a day or two to learn a new part (or parts, as roles were often doubled!), and it is possible that on occasion the first performance was the first time they discovered what the play was actually about. The first performance, by the way, could also be the last, if the audience did not like the play or the way it was acted, so there was a lot of pressure both on the actors to make it worth their while to have memorized these roles, and on the playwright, to make the play both interesting and memorable so the actors would play it well and the audience would want to see it again.

Fascinating stuff, isn't it? Really, I have spent far too much time reading the first eight chapters of "Shakespeare in Parts" when the really pertinent bits for my paper are in Chapter 9, "From Crowds to Clowns." But I have learned some new and helpful information along the way. Sometimes what has been most helpful are the footnotes, which make reference to other texts that seem like they would be useful; this of course leads to me looking up books and articles online and reading late into the night, which I'm sure is weakening my eyes, so I should probably stop that. I had been on my semi-normal schedule of being in bed by 10 and up by 6, but for some reason these past few days have completely thrown me off.

It started on Friday with Lauren's birthday celebration, I guess, and though I didn't leave the house on Saturday, I had a busy day. I ended up making a stew out of that mushroom sauce, with boiled potatoes and chicken and broccoli. It was delicious! (Although, three days later my fingers still smell of garlic...) Then I turned on the internet stream of WRDV--a great radio station, for those of you back home! It plays big band classics and music from the 30s-50s for most of the day, which is just my kind of music--and I folded laundry, cleaned up a bit, and did some reading well into the night. My room was nice and toasty, as I had laid some clothes over the radiator and turned it up so they would dry more quickly. The only downside to that, I have discovered, is that I wake up in the night rather sweaty, and in the morning very dry-skinned and completely parched! I guess I will turn the heater off at night, as my duvet keeps me quite comfortably warm.

On Sunday I spent the morning working, because in the afternoon I had crew practice--the first semi-successful one of the week, as fog had canceled Tuesday's and no one came to ergs Wednesday! Even this one didn't go very well, as we had to wait for the W2 to get back before we could go out, and they were late, and it was getting dark, so we got about 45 mins of practice, none of which was all that good because we were out of our usual order and the boat was leaning down to bow side (we call that starboard back home) the whole time. I came back and got right into the shower, because I had promised Jackie that I would finally make it to Evensong to hear her sing. Our college chapel has an Evensong at 6 every Sunday, but I never seem to be able to get there. This week Lord Harries, former Bishop of Oxford, was to come preach for us, and I was interested to hear him. Of course, because of my shower I was late--well, I got there JUST at 6, so I walked in behind the former Bishop, and then I stood in the wrong place, where the choir was supposed to be, so a kind boy beckoned me over to the other side. Of course I was really noticeable in my red coat! The music was pretty, though, and I liked what Lord Harries had to say. I guess he remembered me, because he came up to me at drinks afterward and we conversed for a bit. He is a really pleasant man, who reminded me of an actor, but I couldn't remember who. Sort of like Sir Ian McKellan but with no facial hair and a slightly more rounded face.

After Evensong I went to dinner in hall, where I had a great conversation with a law undergrad named Joe, who was sitting all by himself at the table nearest the High Table, so I joined him. We talked about school and literature and food and Christmas, and all sorts of things; rarely have I been so pleasantly surprised in my dining companion. I don't often do dinner in hall, but that's okay, because the richness of it is dangerous for me! Of course, everything was delicious, with a samosa sarter followed by a saucy pork dish with croquets (think mozzarella sticks, but with mashed potato instead of cheese inside) and lima(?) beans, and then apple crumble with that fabulous hot custard the British like to pour over everything. How have we not imported that to America, as much as we love our fattening foods?? It's magnificent. Of course, I rolled out of there thinking I might never be able to fit into my jeans again... Fortunately, I had a nice 15-min walk across town to help me digest, as I was meant to meet the other early modernists for our weekly drinks and chat session at the Royal Oak. I kept my gown on for the walk--we have to wear our gowns to formal hall, and though it might have looked out of place in a pub, any extra layer was welcome in that cold wind! There was quite a large group gathering, so we moved from a little corner table to a big round one. I had walked in behind classmates Hugh and Seirian (sigh-ree-an), who were holding hands--apparently they are an item since Wednesday, which is cute, if (for me) completely unexpected. We had lots of really good conversations there, too, though I can hardly remember all of them now. I know we discussed our Thanksgiving meal, which is happening this Saturday, and which I really should start thinking about. What shall I make? I had originally planned to do candied yams, but Jason said he is making yam fritters, and I don't want to step on his toes, as he is hosting the party. I know the girl who is doing the turkey is making some sort of rice stuffing, so I thought I might make a tray of real stuffing to go along with it (though the sausage meat here is not very good, so it may not come out right...). If anyone back home has any fun recipes I could try, I'd love to hear from you! There are at least 15 of us going, so it has to be something I can make for a lot of people with relatively limited kitchen equipment (and budget!).

Hmm, I've wandered a long way from Burbage's epitaph. Really the thought with which I began this post was, when important or popular people die, how do those who are left behind (mainly the writers) commemorate them? What sorts of interesting elegies might be written about today's famous people (or not-so-famous people), and would they be as moving? I think nowadays we tend to use their own words in a new context, like a singer's lyrics or a poet's verses. I am reminded of Douglas Adams' "So long, and thanks for all the fish," or the story about Oscar Wilde's last words being "Either I or this wallpaper must go." Or that great discussion Thoreau had on his deathbed...I can't remember with whom, but when asked if he had made his peace with God he said, "I never quarrelled with my God," to which the other said, "But aren't you concerned about the next world?" and Thoreau replied, "One world at a time." I hope I manage to say or do something clever enough in my lifetime for people to associate it with me always!

1 comment:

  1. I made this bulgur stuffing once and it was really good. there are other recipes on this site too.