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March 24th, 2011

Double Falsehood

On a whim (and because we were both going to be out all day anyway and Ellen saw they had cheap tickets), we braved the sleet, rain, thunder, and snow last night to see Classic Theatre Company's production of Fletcher, Theobald and (possibly) Shakespeare's Double Falsehood.

Shakespeare wrote 37 plays.  That's more than a play a year for the 24 years he was active.  That's a helluva lot of plays.  It would be no shame if some of them weren't good--and some of them are indeed better than others (I'm looking at you, Timon of Athens).  When you add Fletcher into the mix--a workmanlike playwright at best--you get Two Noble Kinsmen and Henry VIII, which are read only because Shakespeare had a hand in some of their scenes and virtually never produced.  And maybe Double Falsehood as well, which could be the long-lost Shakespeare/Fletcher play Cardenio, if we believe Lewis Theobald, who discovered it in a 1660 prompt book in the early 18th Century and sprang it on the public in 1727 at Drury Lane Theater as a lost Shakespeare play.  Which inspired Alexander Pope (who Theobald had hammered in a scathing review of Pope's edition 1725 of Shakespeare) to write The Dunciad, with Theobald in a starring role as King of the Dunces.

Oh, and the textual scholars, who have run their stylometric analysis programs over the text and discovered the ghost of Shakespeare lurking in its verbal DNA.

I'm not sure what inspired the Classic Theatre Company to mount this production, and I'm certainly not convinced that Shakespeare contributed so much as a word to the text (except, possibly, "hath").  But on the whole, I'm glad they did it.  I love loopy, deriviative late Renaissance drama, and this is right on up there, with a girl dressed as a shepherd boy, another girl smuggled out of a cloister in a coffin, two heavy fathers, a virtuous young man driven raving into the wilderness, a pair of noble brothers, one virtuous, one gleefully vicious, two heavy fathers, some unfunny shepherds, and a denouement that is almost as unromantic as the end of All's Well.

Briefly, the argument is this:  Leonora and Julio (pronounced, in this production as Hulio, as in the happy (or unhappy) Hulio) are in love and waiting only for Julio's father's consent to marry.  Julio, called to attend upon the duke at court, asks his friend, the duke's son Henriquez, to watch over Leonora for him while he's gone.  Henriquez, in the meantime, is courting the beautiful but low-born Violante, who scorns him.  He rapes her (she's low-born, after all) and, in the space of one medium-length soliliquy, feels guilty, decides it wasn't his fault after all, decides he's actually in love with the Virtuous Leonora, feels guilty over stealing his best friend's intended, rationalizes that (I remember that taking less time that rationalizing the rape, but I could be wrong), and runs to Leonora's father, waving his pedigree and his bank account.  Leonora's father welcomes him with open arms, informs Julio's father Leonora has changed her mind, and goes off whistling to figure ways and means of getting the bride to show up for the new wedding he has planned for her.  Meanwhile, the Violated Violante considers suicide, decides (as one does) to dress as a boy instead and go watch sheep in the hills.  Julio, alerted to the situation by a letter Leonora has managed to smuggle out of the house, rides to her rescue.  Leonora, unwilling (because she's Virtuous, remember) to run away with him or to kill herself, tucks him behind the arras and proceeds to go through with the wedding until, just before she says "I do," Julio jumps out, hits Henriquez with a volley of lamentations, and rushes off into the night. Leonora decides he is dead and runs off to a convent.

Intermission, during which sleet pattered on the theater roof and thunder rolled commandingly.  The storm continued, at intervals, during the first part of the second half, but never when it would have been dramatically apt so we knew it wasn't part of the show.  Or maybe it was.  By this time, I was ready to believe anything.

The second half opens on the mountain, in a sheep field, with two shepherds and the V.V., en travestie.  Enter to them Julio, in his skivvies and smeared with ashes and, in a sharp break with his roots, not in the least bit a-cold.  He raves a bit, tries to kill one of the shepherds, gropes Violante, hails her as a girl, and scurries off, still raving.  The other shepherd then independently guesses Violante's femaleness and proceeds to try and rape her, but is prevented by Julio (still raving).  When he runs off, the betrayed pair tell each other their woes and exit, contemplating suicide and laughing madly.  The Horrible Henriquez, still stuck on Leonora, cons his virtuous older brother Roderick into smuggling her out of the convent in an empty coffin.  When she wakes up, she not unnaturally freaks out and spills the beans, which eventually leads to the cascade of bean-spilling that takes up the rest of the play.  At the end, Julio and Leonora are reunited, Horrible Henriquez is to marry to Violante, and all three fathers are satisfied that duty, justice, and their family honors have been duly served.

The actors did their best with this hodge-podge of borrowed bits and bobs.  I was particularly impressed by Slate Holmgren, whose Henriquez managed to be both a creep and an asshole (ninja and barbarian?).  The last scene, where he pretended to be delighted to be marrying Violante, was downright chilling.  Mackenzie Meehan as Violante frankly made a better Florio the Shepherd Boy than violated maiden.  I loved how she made it very clear in the last scene that she was only marrying Henriquez for his name and his money, and that she had every intention of making his life a living hell from that day forward.  The rest of the cast ranged from competent to excellent, with special props to Philip Goodwin, who played Julio's father and Henriquez's father in the same tux and managed to differentiate them even though the text did not.

Which brings me to why I'm not impressed by the scholarship that purports to establish that Shakespeare hand is detectable in Acts 1-3 of this play.  Even if you accept that the prompter had simplified Shakespeare's poetry so that stupid 17th C. groundlings could follow it, and that Thobald, in adapting the play for an 18th C. audience, mangled it further, I find it hard to believe that it wouldn't have retained a lyric flight or two, a line or a moment of true beauty or meaning.  The verse in Double Falsehood is sing-song, prosaic, utterly pedestrian.  What's more, the characters are purest plywood and cheap paint, their sentiments ditto.  They can't be said to be characters at all, just collections of convenient reactions.  Leonora loves Julio, and announces (over and over) that she will never marry another, than bowing a dutiful head to her father's wishes and putting her hand in Henriquez's without so much as an aside to explain her change of heart.  Violante spurns suicide in one breath and prepares to kill herself with the next.  I really should read the text to see if their moments of decision hit the cutting room floor, but still, I gotta wonder.  Furthermore, I got no sense of theme or weight or meaning in the play, other than "children should obey their fathers even when their fathers are self-satisfied idiots because it will all come out in the end somehow."

I read the Newsletter interview with the Arden editor of the play, Brean Hammond, and basically, it comes down to this:  His gut tells him it's Shakespeare's and he has a computer print-out and a bunch of other scholars backing him up, all of whom, like him, want a new Shakespeare play to pet and write about even more than they want tenure and a knighthood.  My gut tells me it isn't, and I bet mine isn't the only one.  Those other scholars probably have their pseudo-scientific reasons, too.  But what it boils down to is that we don't want Shakespeare to have had anything to do with the thing, which is jolly good fun, but ultimately even sillier than Cymbeline, and not nearly as well-written.

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