Michael Goodliffe, Wartime Actor


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ghostMichael Goodliffe was an English actor who died in 1976. Some of his most interesting achievements were in Germany where he was held as a prisoner of war from 1940 to 1945.

Here you can find the fascinating tale and a lot of images of Goodliffe’s theatrical productions in several prison camps – the hardships, the daily battles and the joys of putting up show after show in the least promising of contexts…

And yet.

Art will blossom right where and when it is most needed, won’t it?

Shakespeare After All


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HESA free online course, today, from the Harvard Extension School.

Marjorie Garber, author of the book of the same name, delivers 12 two-hour-long lectures on Shakespeare’s later plays – from Measure for Measure to The Tempest.

I have only watched the introduction, so far, and it sounds pretty interesting – not least because the course covers quite a few of the less well known plays.

And it is free, and it can be taken at one’s chosen time and pace… Isn’t it just great?


Truth & Reality


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OdysseusBowBack when I  worked as an assistant-director with a small company, there was this time when the director got sick, and I was left in charge of an open-air performance of a play about Odysseus coming home to Ithaca.

And I suppose it was because of my youth and inexperience that the leading man, an ancient archery buff, thought it was his chance of doing a stunt he must have had in mind for some time. You know the scene where Odysseus shoots an arrow through twelve axe heads? Well, about an hour before curtain-up, the fellow informed me he was going to shoot a real arrow. He even had brought his own period bow…

“But you can’t!” I squealed – and he proceeded to explain that he didn’t mean to shoot through our prop axes, just somewhere offstage…

Now, even discounting the awful danger of shooting at random in a crowded public place (just think of Tamburlaine Part II at the Rose!), our Odysseus was completely missing my point. And please, don’t think I wasn’t worried about our leading man shooting some unsuspecting member of the audience. I was, very much – but, since all my knowledge of archery comes from historical novels, my standing on the subject was clearly non-existent.

Still, the point I meant to impress on Odysseus was that, theatrically speaking, we had no need whatever of his real arrow. His job as an actor wasn’t shooting real arrows, but showing the audience the truth of an arrow that wasn’t there.

And if he did well his job of nocking, aiming and releasing, if everyone else onstage did well their job of starting, flinching, being astounded – then the non-arrow would be much more effective and meaningful, much truer than any real arrow shot for real.

Because what happens on a stage is, you know, fiction painted with colours of truth. It is not real, never for a moment – but it is true inside the circle of the suspension of disbelief: do tell me a story, and, for the time it takes, we’ll all pretend it is true. But the story’s effectiveness, meaning and beauty have nothing to do with how real the arrows are.

It is, after all, the very essence of what we do: we use means to create an effect. We pursue truth by way of lies. We shoot imaginary arrows to amaze in truth. And we (should) never forget that truth and reality are not the same.

Why, realism sounds even a little out-of-place on a stage: should we really seek reality in theatrical fiction, whose governing law can be summarized as “Please, lie to me – convincingly and gracefully”?

Oh, and in the end there was no real arrow – thank heaven. I’d like to chalk it up to my convincing bit of theatre philosophy, but I’m afraid it was more a certain wariness of legal consequences…

Ah well – at least we killed no one.


Vintage Theatre


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wsJust back from the theatre – where the staged reading was a huge success before a very full house. Ah, but I am blissfully happy at how my words and the intelligent, witty artistry of our leading man combined to shape the Will Shakespeare I wanted to bring onstage…

And then there was a late dinner with the company, devoted in equal parts to comments on the performance and plans for the next stages of the workshop…

All of which is why here is a little celebrative link of vintage theatre images.

Enjoy – and colour me happy.

A Plunge in the Massacre


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massacreAnd today a post from writer and historian Mathew Lyons’ very interesting blog.

This The Massacre at Paris: Kit Marlowe, the Rose Playhouse and me is an intelligent and thoroughly enjoyable look at Marlowe, his last play, theatre in general, what appears to have been a remarkable production of the Massacre, and the role Mathew Lyons played in it.

With no prior acting experience, he found himself plunged into a complex professional production of a difficult play… The esperience seems to have been both terrifying and exhilarating. I have no difficulty believing it.

Staged reading!


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LocGenericaScrSo, my Sonnets play is getting its staged reading next Monday, as… well, basically as part of the 2014 Shakespearean celebrations.

For several reasons, I haven’t been able to attend rehearsals, so it’s going to be a complete surprise. I don’t mind too much.

Through the years I have worked with directors who firmly instructed me to stay the hell away until first night, and with directors who wanted me around so much that the whole process turned into one giant workshop right up to dress rehearsal* – and just about everything in between.

I love being there to see the thing shape itself, and build on my words, but I love just as much the sudden revelation when the curtain goes up, and my play appears in its new form.

Both ways, I have been lucky enough to work with wonderful people who know their stuff, and know how to make the most of mine – so that, both ways, the game has always been magical and highly rewarding.

The Man of the Sonnets is going to be a new experience in its halfway-ness: as I said, I attended no rehearsal for the staged reading, but I gather there will be some workshopping with the author afterwards…

Meanwhile, though, Monday night will fall in the Sudden Revelation category, and I find myself burning with anticipation. Butterflies flutter in my stomach at the thought of sitting in the darkened house, waiting for the curtain-up… Or shall I watch from backstage? I’m not clear yet. I’ve been asked to briefly introduce the play to the audience, and I’m not sure there will be time for me to go back to my seat once I’m done.

Again, I don’t terribly mind either way: I’ve watched my (and plenty of other people’s) plays from both the seats and backstage, and from the lighting board – and love it both ways, for different reasons. At the risk of sounding like some insufferable stage-mad Pollyanna, there isn’t much that I don’t love, when it comes to theatre…

But bear with me. I’m having a staged reading in five days, done by people whose work I like, and if all goes well – the Bard and Thalia willing – it will prelude to a full production, and I’m all a-flutter over it.



* Which is how I eventually took up lighting design… but this is a tale for another time.


Lost & Found


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English: Robert Louis Stevenson at 26 Français...Have you heard the news?  It seems that R. L. Stevenson’s lost The Hair Trunk, wasn’t quite as lost as everyone thought – rather just misplaced. The story about a bunch of Cambridge students founding their own little Commonwealth, and learning the shortcomings of utopia, which Stevenson wrote when he was only 27, turned up in manuscript form, and was transcribed and published.

An extract can be read here, on The Scotsman’s Write Stuff page. The accompanying article calls The Hair Trunk is a masterpiece – a claim with which, on the sole strength of the extract, I can neither agree nor disagree. The idea is certainly whimsical, but I’d rather suspend my judgment.

When it comes to Stevenson, I’ve grown wary of “masterpieces”. When I read the unfinished Weir of Hermiston – which Stevenson himself considered well on its way to become his masterpiece – I was rather disappointed. I love Stevenson, and from a novel that filled its own author with such enthusiasm, I expected… oh, I don’t know: I expected better. Then again, Weir is unfinished, and therefore hard to compare to Stevenson’s finished and published work. Then again again, THT is very early work. Then again again again, I’m the one with a weak spot for early and atypical works – so perhaps I’d better stop speculating, and read the damn story instead.

I’ll let you know.



Lost Play Database



LPDDid I mention already how much I love the Internet?

I just discovered something utterly and absolutely wonderful: the University of Melbourne’s Lost Plays Database.

In the staff’s own words, it is…

a wiki-style forum for scholars to share information about lost plays in England, 1570-1642. Its purpose is to add lost plays to scholarly discussions of early modern theatrical activity. The editors believe that lost plays are a potential source of significant information on playwrights, playing companies, venues in London and the provinces, repertory studies, and audiences. The database provides a web-accessible, web-editable site for data on these plays concerning theatrical provenance, sources, genre, and authorship.

It is a real treasure trove of information, and something you browse at your own peril: you go there for a brief visit and seeking a specific detail – and come away hours later, dazzled and happy.

Amongst countless wonders, I found there Warburton’s list of the plays Mrs Baker burned in the stove… Oh, Mrs Baker! And, in truth, the list sounds almost too good to be true, doesn’t it? I’m afraid one has to wonder whether it wasn’t at the very least spiced up with some wishful listing…

And it strikes me that, in a way, the list, in its post-Betsy version, was after all a forerunner of the LPD… Happily, the LPD is safe from zealous, thrifty cooks.

The Lost and Unlikely Maiden


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dyThe Maiden’s Holiday is a lost comedy, entered in the Stationers’ Register in the early 1650s as “written by Christopher Marlowe and John Day“. Since Day doesn’t appear to have been active as a playwright before 1599 – six years after Marlowe’s death – a later reworking seems far more likely than an actual collaboration, but we cannot tell for sure. The only known manuscript copy belonged to 18th Century antiquarian John Warburton’s collection, that went… er, lost.

Warburton, the proud owner of some fifty priceless Elizabethan and Jacobean manuscript plays, saw it fit to store them in the kitchen – and it never occurred to him to alert his servants to the fact. Mrs. Baker, Warburton’s cook, found in one of her cupboards a bundle of musty old papers, and did what any thrifty housekeeper would have done: she used them, in part to light the stove, the rest as baking parchment.

And so it was that what might or might not have been Marlowe’s only comedy (together with quite a few other plays, including three by Shakespeare), was very likely used to cook a venison pie…

I can’t help finding the story quite tragicomic – poor Mrs. Baker, how was she to know? One wishes, though, she had been a little less inclined to pie-baking. If she had, we could stop wondering at the utter unlikelihood of Kit Marlowe writing comedy – much less something called The Maiden’s Holiday… Frankly, it just doesn’t sound like him, does it? DyceMarlowe

In 1850 Alexander Dyce thought he had found a fragment of the comedy in a scrap of verse dialogue attributed to “Kitt Marlowe” in the Alleyn Papers… Trouble is, John Payne Collier had discovered and edited it – and we have learned to be wary of any find of Collier’s…

Besides, the scrap is hardly a work of genius… And yes, it is conceivable that Marlowe was just not very good at comedy – but the bottom line is, we know very little about the Maiden’s Holiday. We can’t be sure the Stationer’s Register is accurate, we cannot know whether Warburton attributed his manuscript to Marlowe on the sole strength of the Register, no one can vouch for the authenticity of anything that John Payne Collier touched and, even if the find were, for once, legitimate, we can’t be sure the dialogue is really from the lost comedy – or, for that matter, really Marlowe’s. Which means that, unless or until someone finds a surviving copy of the Missing Maiden, all we have is a nice riddle: Could or Would Kit Marlowe Really Write Comedy?



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