Monday, November 25, 2013

The History of the Turkey Pardon

The play November deals with the controversial topic of presidential pardons of... turkeys. I got curious as to where this tradition got started. Here's what the White House website has to say:

Americans have been sending the President turkeys for the holidays since at least the 19th century. Beginning in 1873 during Grant’s presidency, a Rhode Island man named Horace Vose was responsible for “selecting with the utmost care” the “noblest gobbler in all that little state” for the President’s Thanksgiving dinner, a tradition he carried out for more than 25 years according to The New York Times. In 1947, the National Turkey Federation took on the role of official turkey supplier to the President, delivering a 47-pound bird in time for the Christmas holiday.
That year, the White House also began holding a turkey receiving ceremony, usually in the Rose Garden, providing a photo op that many confuse with the beginning of the pardoning tradition. Back then, however, birds were more likely to be destined for the White House dining table than the easy life on a farm. In 1948, President Truman said he would take the gifted turkey home to Independence, Missouri, where his 25 relatives “require a lot.”
So then when did the pardoning start? Here’s where it gets tricky. Tales of spared turkeys date back to the Lincoln days. According to one story, Lincoln’s son Tad begged his father to write out a presidential pardon for the bird meant for the family’s Christmas table, arguing it had as much a right to live as anyone. Lincoln acquiesced and the turkey lived.
In 1963, President Kennedy decided to send that year’s gift from the National Turkey Federation back to the farm where it came from. “We’ll just let this one grow,” he said. Sometime around the Nixon administration, the President began sending the turkey to a petting farm near Washington after holding the traditional receiving ceremony and photo op, although no formal pardon was given. 
President George H.W. Bush was the first to actually offer a turkey pardon. On November 14, 1989, he announced that year’s bird had “been granted a presidential pardon as of right now.” He sent the turkey on his way to the perhaps unfortunately named Frying Pan Park in Herndon, Virginia, and with that, a tradition was born.
In 2009 President Obama admitted that Courage, that year’s top turkey, came dangerously close to gracing the White House table. “Thanks to the intervention of Malia and Sasha – because I was ready to eat this sucker – Courage will also be spared this terrible and delicious fate."
"I'm told Presidents Eisenhower and Johnson actually ate their turkeys," Obama said. "You can't fault them for that; that's a good-looking bird."
Here's the Presidential turkey pardon ceremony from 2010. 

Everyone in the cast and crew of November wishes you and yours a very happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Oval Office Trivia

The entire play November takes place in the office of the President of the United States. Called the Oval Office, the office has been in use by the President since 1909 under President Taft.

 Why is the Oval Office oval?

The Oval Office has been the main office for the president since President Taft first worked in it about October 1909. After his inauguration President Taft held a competition to select an architect to enlarge and make permanent the West Wing's "temporary" Executive office built during Theodore Roosevelt's first term. Taft ordered a southward extension of the existing structure. The winning architect was Nathan C. Wyeth of Washington, D.C. who designed the wing expansion with a new office for the President. Wyeth modeled the new president's office after the White House's original oval-shaped Blue Room.

Before moving to the president's house in Philadelphia in 1791, George Washington ordered that the straight rear walls of the principal two rooms be rebuilt into a semi-circular form, or bows. In these bowed walls may be found the inspiration for the oval shape of the Blue Room. This distinctive shape apparently had been preferred by Washington to create a suitable space for a formal reception known as a "levee."

The original Oval Office decorated with green
burlap and painted ivory trim.
The levee, a tradition borrowed from the English court, was a formal occasion to allow men of prominence to meet the president. Replete with formal dress, silver buckles, and powdered hair, the event was a stiff public ceremony almost military in its starkness. Invited guests entered the room and walked over to the president standing before the fireplace and bowed as a presidential aide made a low announcement of their names. The visitor then stepped back to his place. After fifteen minutes the doors were closed and the group would have assembled in a circle. The president would then walk around the circle, addressing each man by his name from memory with some pleasantry or studied remark of congratulation, which might have a political connotation. He bowed, but never shook hands. When he had rounded the circle, the president returned to his place before the mantel and stood until, at a signal from an aide, the guests went to him, one by one, bowed without saying anything, and left the room.

Although the Oval Office was born in the expansion of the "West Wing" in 1909, the room's distinctive shape was inspired by the Blue Room and its form may be traced to a formal social greeting that was meant by President Washington as a symbolic means of dramatizing the office of the Presidency. After he became president, Thomas Jefferson ended the practice of holding levees and replaced this formal ritualized greeting with a simple handshake.

Why is the White House white? 

It has nothing to do with the burning of the house by the British in 1814, although every schoolchild is likely to have heard the story that way. The building was first made white with lime-based whitewash in 1798, when its walls were finished, simply as a means of protecting the porous stone from freezing. Why the house was subsequently painted is not known. Perhaps presidents objected to the dirty look as the whitewash wore away. The house acquired its nickname early on. Congressman Abijah Bigelow wrote to a colleague on March 18, 1812 (three months before the United States entered war with England):

"There is much trouble at the White House, as we call it, I mean the President's" (quoted in W. B. Bryan, "The Name White House," Records of the Columbia Historical Society 34-35 [1932]: 308).

The name, though in common use, remained a nickname until September 1901, when Theodore Roosevelt made it official. 

What's the history of the President's desk? 
The Resolute desk
Called the Resolute desk, the president's desk is made from the timbers of the HMS Resolute, an abandoned British ship discovered by an American ship and returned to the Queen of England as a token of friendship. When the ship was retired, Queen Victoria commissioned the desk and gifted to to President Rutherford Hayes in 1880.

The desk has twice been modified. President Franklin Roosevelt requested that the kneehole be fitted with a modesty panel carved with the presidential seal as he preferred that people not see his leg braces. Roosevelt didn't live to see the panel installed. President Truman liked the eagle motif and had it installed when he cam into office in 1945. Since this was prior to Truman's decision to turn the head of the eagle in the presidential seal to face the olive branch of peace, the eagle on the Resolute desk faces the arrows of war.

Every president since Hayes except Presidents Johnson, Nixon, and Ford has used the Resolute desk, though some have chosen to use it in their private study in the Residence. The desk was made famous in part by a photo of President Kennedy at work with his son, John Jr, peeked out through the front panel.

The Resolute desk left the White House during President Lyndon Johnson's presidency as it was loaned to the Kennedy Library for a traveling exhibition from 1964 - 1965 and was then taken to the Smithsonian for an exhibition from 1966 - 1967. In 1977 President Jimmy Carter requested that the desk be returned to the White House for use in the Oval Office and it's stayed in the White House since 1977. 

[ Source 1 | Source 2 ]

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

About The Author: David Mamet

David Mamet was born in Flossmoor, Illinois on November 30, 1947. He studied at Goddard College in Vermont and at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of Theater in New York. He has taught at New York University, Goddard College, and the Yale Drama School, and he regularly lectures at the Atlantic Theater Company, of which he is a founding member.
The Pulitzer Prize winner made his name with Sexual Perversity in Chicago (1974), and American Buffalo (1977). These dark dramas have strong male characters with highly charged dialogue that build dramatic tension within the confines of the play. He often portrays the plight of small-time drifters, salesmen, and hoods and the con games they play. Glengarry Glen Ross (1984) for which he won his Pulitzer prize is a damning representation of the American business practices, and Speed-the-Plow (1988) gives a savage view of the underside of the film industry. Glengarry Glen Ross was later made into a film version in 1992.
Mamet began writing for the screen in 1981 with a re-make of The Postman Always Rings Twice, with his script emphasizing the base sexuality and violence of the material in such a way that the original 1947 film could not. After Glengarry Glen Ross, Mamet had his first true screen success as a screenwriter with Brian De Palma’s film The Untouchables in 1987. That same year he received critical acclaim for his directorial debut, House of Games, a crime thriller starring Mamet’s then-wife Lindsay Crouse as a psychologist caught up in an elaborate con game.
After directing two more celebrated features (Things Change, Homicide), Mamet turned primarily to screenwriting lending his talent to such films as Hoffa (1992), Malcolm X (1992), and Vanya on 42nd Street (1994). He took a brief respite to step back behind the camera to direct an adaptation of his controversial play, Oleanna in 1994.

His screenplay for Barry Levinson’s political satire Wag the Dog earned him Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for Best Screenplay. That same year he directed The Spanish Prisoner, his fifth film as writer-director, a twisty spy thriller that had the added attraction of Steve Martin in an uncharacteristically dark role.
At the 1998 Sundance Film Festival, after the release of his The Spanish Prisoner, he noted on the amount of Mamet knockoffs at the festival:  
“It’s all very flattering, but it’s also natural. Someone like me, who’s been writing for a long time, naturally people coming up will look and say that’s a good idea. Just like I would look at the works of Harold Pinter or Samuel Beckett and say that’s a good idea. The old phrase is ‘Talent borrows, genius robs’ I don’t mind if somebody wants to write like me. The only thing that disturbs me is if they do it better.”
Mamet makes few distinctions between working on the stage and the screen; He believes both involve putting the material on its feet and seeing how it plays. With movies, that’s done in the editing room or sometimes on the set. With plays, it’s done during rehearsals. In neither case does he see himself handicapped by being both the writer and the director.  
“There are two stages,” Mamet says, “First I write the best script I can and then I put on my directors hat and say, ‘What am I going to do with this piece of crap?’”

Mamet’s other writing credits include the film scripts for Ronin, State and Main, Hannibal, Spartan, Redbelt, and a number of episodes of the television show The Unit. The original production of November opened on Broadway at the Barrymore theatre in January of 2008 with Nathan Lane and Laurie Metcalf.

Here's a political ad from the original Broadway production featuring Nathan Lane: 

November by David Mamet runs at the Dragon Theatre in downtown Redwood City November 22 - December 15, 2013. Tickets available at

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

About The Author: John Guare

John Guare is one of America's best known playwrights thanks to his success with Six Degrees of Separation and House of Blue Leaves. A native New Yorker, Guare has been writing plays since his childhood.

Rather than give a bio I thought it would be more informative to read one of Mr. Guare's interviews as he always has interesting things to say.

The interview is from the early 1990s from the Paris Review. The bits that lept out at me are as follows:

INTERVIEWER All right, let’s start with this then: you once told me that you thought of playwriting as simply another job in the theater.
GUARE To stay around any place you love, you have to have a job. In college at Georgetown in the fifties, I got my first theater job checking coats at the National, which was Washington’s main theater. I sold orange drinks there at intermission and felt personally responsible for the entire audience’s receptivity to what was going on onstage. I ushered at the Shubert in New Haven during graduate school when plays en route to Broadway still went out of town to try out. I worked backstage at summer stock doing jobs from garbage man, to strapping on Herbert Marshall’s wooden leg, to fixing Gloria Swanson’s broken plumbing in her dressing room with her yelling at me as I worked the plunger. I ran the light board for her show, which involved bringing up all the stage lights surreptitiously when she came onstage so the audience would subliminally think, Gee, isn’t everything brighter when she’s around? I was supposed to do it very quietly. It was an old light board and very squeaky. I’d bring the lights up one point—and it squeaked. I don’t know what the audience felt when they heard that sound—when she came on and left the stage. It was called a “star bump.” Knowing lore like that made me feel there was a secret freemasonry to the theater. Then I toured as an advance man for a summer stock package, setting up the show each week in a different theater before moving on to the next. Even with Six Degrees of Separation I felt part of my job as playwright was to go backstage two or three times every week during the run to check the backstage temperature—who’s unhappy, who’s not speaking, whose costumes are wearing out. You must keep people happy backstage because that affects what’s onstage. During a run, the playwright feels like the mayor of a small town filled with noble creatures who have to get out there and make it brand new every night. When a production works, it’s unlike any other joy in the world.
INTERVIEWER So you chose the theater life early on.
GUARE My parents started taking me to plays early. Plays have a celebratory nature that no other form has. Theater always meant celebration, a birthday, a reward for good grades. I felt at home in a theater. I loved being part of an audience. All the rules—the audience has to see the play on a certain date at a certain time in a certain place in a certain seat. You watched the stage in unison with strangers. The theater had intermissions where you could smoke cigarettes in the lobby and imagine you were interesting. The theater made everybody in the audience behave better, as if they were all in on the same secret. I found it amazing that what was up on that stage could make these people who didn’t know each other laugh, respond, gasp in exactly the same way at the same time.
INTERVIEWER What was the first play you saw?
GUARE Annie Get Your Gun. Ethel Merman.
INTERVIEWER I have a theory that there are two kinds of people in the theater . . . those who started out because they went to see Annie Get Your Gun or those who went into it because they read Antonin Artaud.
GUARE I was reading Artaud during Annie Get Your Gun. A girl, Jane, in our grammar school class was actually in Annie Get Your Gun, and she’d be off Wednesdays for matinees. On holidays, Sister Donalda, the very stern superior, would come to our class and ask Jane to come forward and sing Sister’s favorite song; Jane would step to the front of the class and belt out “You Can’t Get a Man with a Gun.”
INTERVIEWER So you’ve always been stagestruck?
GUARE In the blood. My mother’s family was in show business. Her two uncles toured in vaudeville with a bill of sixteen plays they cobbled together from 1880 to 1917 with titles likePawn Ticket 210, The Old Toll House, and Girl of the Garrison. Lines like the old man coming forward and saying: Twenty five years ago this very night my son left home taking the money he did not know was rightfully his. Oh, if I could only see him again. (Flickering outside the window.) Oh, the same lightning! The same thunder! (Knock knock.) Who can that be!
My grandfather was a cop in Lynn, Massachusetts. In a raid on a Lynn cathouse they found a very small child left by one of the arrested girls. He brought the baby home; he turned out to be five years old and a midget. Little Billy was taken into the act by the uncles for the good reason that he was a great little hoofer and song shouter. The act broke up when little Billy left to join the George M. Cohan Review of 1918; dressed as a tiny soldier, he was one of the cast who introduced “Over There.” My mother’s real brother, who was known in our family as Big Bill, became an agent for stars like W. C. Fields, Al Jolson, and Will Rogers. Big Bill was called “Square Deal” Grady by Damon Runyon for the “creative” contracts he made with his clients. He was head of casting at MGM from 1934 to 1956. I never saw Big Bill much but his presence and power to discover people figured heavily in my dream life. In fact, the monologue that opens the second act of House of Blue Leaves happened exactly as described: Big Bill was on a major MGM talent hunt searching for an unknown child to play Huckleberry Finn. To escape all these kids, he came to see us. I decided fate had sent him to me: I would be Huck. I packed my bags and went mad and auditioned. He quickly left thinking he’d been set up by my parents. My mother cried. It was horrible. I gave up all dreams of acting at age eight. Playwriting seemed a lot safer.

It struck me because much of this reminded me of our current show, Rich and Famous. It's a bit vaudevillian in its telling and was clearly written by a man who's had his up and downs in the theatre business.  I also loved the bit about the act of theatre being a communal celebration. For me, that's the heart of why I do theatre. Unlike film it's happening very much in the moment, every night, and if you do it right the whole audience is there participating with you.

Later in the interview:

GUARE I always liked plays to be funny and early on stumbled upon the truth that farce is tragedy speeded up. Filling up that hunger. Get to Moscow. Get into an adult world. The want becomes a need. The need becomes a hunger and because you’re speeding it up so much . . .
INTERVIEWER . . . it becomes ridiculous.
GUARE Exactly. The intensity puts it on the edge. The top keeps spinning faster until it can only explode, and if you’ve got a stageful of people at that psychic, manic state, and an audience in tune with them, then something dangerous might happen out of that hysteria. You want to move the audience into a new part of themselves.

This basically outlines Rich and Famous in very broad strokes. It's a frenetic, hilarious look at a man whose hopes and dreams come crashing down on him at the moment of his highest high.

In any case, Rich and Famous isn't something that you see very often and it's a challenging work to produce - it requires a few actors to be insanely talented. The technical requirements are pretty extensive. And it's a trippy story for the audience to follow. So strap in for this crazy ride and just enjoy the show!

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

About Paul Zindel, the author of "And Miss Reardon Drinks A Little"

When I first read the script for And Miss Reardon Drinks A Little, upon completion my first thought was "man this guy likes Edward Albee." I also thought that his play reminded me quite a bit of Tennessee Williams' Glass Menagerie in that it seemed to be a story that rang true to the playwright's life - I think you don't get these kinds of sharp, funny, painful observations without having lived them.

And it turns out I was right on both points. From the playwright's self-written biography (written for Scholastic):

"I grew up on Staten Island with my mother and sister. When I was young, my father left the family, and I saw him about every other Christmas. My mother struggled to get money from him, and tried to keep us together, moving from apartment to apartment and coming up with "get-rich-quick" schemes. But because we moved around so much, each town offered a lush new backdrop for my imagination. By the time I was ten I had gone nowhere, but had seen the world. I dared to speak and act my true feelings only in fantasy and secret. That's probably what made me a writer.

In high school, I wrote my first play. Some of my classmates got the impression I had a strange sense of humor — macabre, I believe, was the term they used. A group of student government officers asked me to create a hilarious sketch for an assembly to help raise money. I decided that even if I could not succeed in the real world, perhaps my appointed role in life was to help other people succeed.

I went to Wagner College on Staten Island and majored in chemistry. But I found a mentor, playwright Edward Albee, who taught my creative writing course. He was one of my primary inspirations in writing plays. I felt very grateful because he took the time to help me. During my last year in college, I wrote my second original play.

After college, I worked for Allied Chemical as a technical writer. After six dreadful months of that, I left and decided to teach high school chemistry and physics. During my ten years of teaching, I continued to write plays. My first staged play was The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds. It is the kind of story that just sort of pops right out of you, because you've lived it.

Charlotte Zolotow, editor for Harper & Row, saw the TV production of Marigolds and tracked me down. She got me to write my first novel, The Pigman. She brought me into an area that I never explored before my own confused, funny, aching teenage days.

In 1969 I quit teaching altogether. I felt I could do more for teenagers by writing for them. I started reading some young adult books, and what I saw in most of them had no connection to the teenagers I knew. I thought I knew what kids would want in a book, so I made a list and followed it. I try to show teens they aren't alone. I believe I must convince my readers that I am on their side; I know it's a continuous battle to get through the years between twelve and twenty — an abrasive time. And so I write always from their own point of view.

I like storytelling. We all have an active thing that we do that gives us self-esteem, that makes us proud; it's necessary. I have to tell stories because that's the way the wiring went in."

"Mr. Zindel had been a high school chemistry teacher for six years, demonstrating basic chemical reactions and explaining concepts like atomic numbers and covalent bonds, when ''The Effect of Gamma Rays'' opened in Houston. As with other plays that were staged before he quit teaching in 1969, he had written it in his spare time and seemed to relish his outsider status -- he never went to the theater, he said, until he was already a published playwright.

''The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds'' was ''one of the most discouraging titles yet devised,'' Clive Barnes said in his review in The New York Times. The play focused on an abusive, beleaguered mother and her two daughters, one with unexpected scientific talent, the other with instincts that mirror the mother's. Mr. Zindel contrasted the marigolds one daughter grows for a science project -- marigolds that had been exposed to radiation, and grow abnormally -- to the family, which mirrored his own.

''Our home was a house of fear,'' Mr. Zindel once said. ''Mother never trusted anybody, and ours wasn't the kind of house someone could get into by knocking on the front door. A knock at the door would send mother, sister and me running to a window to peek out.'' He said his mother conditioned him to believe that the world was out to get him, and he retreated into a secret world of puppet shows in cardboard boxes.

Mr. Zindel was born on May 15, 1936, in Tottenville, Staten Island. His father was a police officer who abandoned the family. Mr. Zindel's mother, a nurse who also worked as a shipyard laborer, hat-check attendant and dog breeder, took in dying patients as boarders. Mr. Zindel did not read much as a child and said he he wrote for people who did not like to read.

He wrote plays and sketches in high school, including one about a pianist who recovers from a serious illness and is acclaimed for playing ''The Warsaw Concerto'' at Carnegie Hall. ''For this literary achievement, I was awarded a Parker pen,'' Mr. Zindel recalled in 1970. He also took a creative writing course with the playwright Edward Albee while he was an undergraduate. But his bachelor's and master's degrees were in chemistry, both from Wagner College, which later awarded him an honorary doctorate."

[sections cut for brevity] 

"For his novels, Mr. Zindel said, he reworked experiences from his high-school teaching days, but in ''The Effects of Gamma Rays,'' the character Beatrice ''really conveys my mother and the house I lived in.''

''Like my mother, Beatrice was a scorned woman whose husband had left her, and who was left to raise two kids who were like a stone around her neck. She felt that the world was lurking out there to ridicule her clothes and to attack her with unkindness.''

She seemed to think he had done the same thing when he read the play to her. ''At the end of it she said, 'How could you? How could you expose me to the world as a kleptomaniac and a manic-depressive nurse?' '' he recalled in an interview last year with School Library Journal. ''I felt so badly the way she had been hurt. But then she asked, 'Who is going to play me on television?' When I told her Eileen Heckart'' -- who won a Golden Globe award and was nominated for an Academy Award for the 1956 thriller ''The Bad Seed'' -- ''she said, 'Oh! Well, that's wonderful, then.' My mother only cared which actress was going to play her.''

Once again, a rough family life has led to some great American writing. While the mother of the Reardon sisters has recently passed away, her presence is continually felt by the two sisters who still live in her apartment, and you can certainly see shades of Zindel's family in the Reardons.

Paul Zindel has said that And Miss Reardon Drinks A Little is his version of Edward Albee's classic Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? It's certainly got a similar dark humor and cutting dialogue in it. It's simultaneously hilarious and terrible, sometimes in the same moment.

Incidentally, that badly named marigolds play? It won the Pulitzer Prize for Best Drama and an Obie Award. Not too shabby for a high school chemistry teacher.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

NPDF Photo Album: Almost Happy

Here's a few photos from the staged reading of Almost Happy:

The actors backstage.

For more information or for tickets visit the New Play Development Factory

NPDF Photo Album: The Killing Jar

Here's a few photos from the staged reading of The Killing Jar:

The playwright, reviewing her changes

The director

For more details or tickets visit the New Play Development Factory

NPDF Photo Album: Sexbot 2600

Here's a few photos from the 2013 staged readings of Sexbot 2600 by Jake Arky.

The whole Sexbot team before a show

Rehearsal - the playwright listening to the latest revisions. 

The view from the stage. 


For more details or for tickets visit the New Play Development Factory

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Les Liaisons on film

Many people know Les Liaisons Dangereuses from the Oscar winning film released in 1988. Called Dangerous Liaisons and directed by Stephen Frears, the film featured Glenn Close as the Marquise de Mertuil and John Malkovich as the Vicomte de Valmont. The film script was also written by playwright Christopher Hampton, who basically adapted the stage version to the screen, but did make some changes to the story. 

Some fun trivia about that film: 

- Sarah Jessica Parker was originally offered the role of Cécile but turned it down. 

- Michelle Pfeiffer was offered the role of the Marquise de Mertueil in Valmont but she chose to play Mme de Tourvel in this film instead. 

- Alan Rickman, who played Vicomte de Valmont in the Broadway version, was offered to reprise the role for the film, but turned it down to make Die Hard, which was released a year later. 

- Annette Bening was considered for the role of the Marquise de Merteuil and ended up playing that role in the film Valmont

- This was Keanu Reeves' first major film role as Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure was released a year later. 

Madonna wore one of Michelle Pfeiffer's costumes from the film at the 1990 MTV Video Music Awards during her 18th century themed performance of 'Vogue'. 

Dangerous Liaisons won 3 Oscars for Best Art Direction - Set Decoration, Best Costume Design, and Best Screenplay (adapted). It garnered 4 other nominations for Glenn Close and Michelle Pfeiffer, as well as Best Music - Original Score and Best Picture. It won 2 BAFTA awards - Best Supporting Actress (Michelle Pfeiffer) and Best Screenplay - Adapted.

A year later, a film version entitled Valmont, was released, and featured Colin Firth as Valmont and Annette Bening as Mertuil. This was Ms. Bening's first major film appearance. Valmont was directed by Milos Foreman and was only nominated for 1 Oscar, and that was for costume design.

Ten years later, a version centered around rich American high school children appeared on film under the title Cruel Intentions. The film featured a number of rising teen stars, including, Ryan Phillipe, Sarah Michelle Gellar, and Reese Witherspoon among others. The movie made enough money to spawn not one but TWO additional films - one a prequel, the other following a college age cousin of Mertuil.

More recently, in 2012 there was actually a Chinese version of Dangerous Liaisons. It featured Ziyi Zhang (from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) as essentially Madame Tourvel. You can see a trailer for it here, as it's pretty interesting to watch:

There was also a contemporary version filmed in 1959 called Les liaisons dangereuses that involved seduction at a ski resort. Because I guess in the '50s that's where the ultra rich would play.

Which version/s have you seen? Did you prefer it to the stage version? If you've seen the Glenn Close version, were you surprised by how the ending differed?

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

It's All About Rank and Precedence

Reading Les Liaisons Dangereuses made me curious about something: who outranks whom in terms of titles? And what exactly is a chevalier? And what is the correspondence to the British nobility, a system I'm a little more familiar with. So I did some research and it's pretty interesting. 

The French nobility (la noblesse) was the privileged social class in France during the Middle Ages and the Early Modern period until the French Revolution in 1789. The nobility was revived in 1805 with limited rights as a titled elite class from the First Empire to the fall of the July Monarchy in 1848, when all privileges were abolished, and survived in hereditary titles until the Second Empire fell in 1870.
In the political system of pre-Revolutionary France, the nobility made up the Second Estate of the Estates General (with the Catholic clergy comprising the First Estate and the bourgeoisie and peasants in the Third Estate). Although membership in the noble class was mainly passed down though hereditary rights, it was not a closed order. New individuals were appointed to the nobility by the monarchy, or they could purchase rights and titles or join by marriage.
During the ancien régime, there was no distinction of rank by title (except for the title of duke, which was often associated with the strictly regulated privileges of the peerage, including precedence above other titled nobles). The hierarchy within the French nobility below peers was initially based on seniority; a count whose family had been noble since the 14th century was higher-ranked than a marquis whose title only dated to the 15th century. Precedence at the royal court was based on the family's ancienneté (seniority by age), its alliances (marriages), its hommages (dignities and offices held) and, lastly, its illustrations (record of deeds and achievements).
  • Titles:
    • Duc(Latin dux, literally "leader") possessor of a duchy, was originally the governor of a province, usually a military leader. 
    • Prince: possessor of a lordship styled a principality (principauté); most such titles were held by family tradition and were treated by the court as titres de courtoisie -- often borne by the eldest sons of the more important duke-peers. This title of prince is not to be confused with the rank of prince, borne by the princes du sang, the princes légitimés or the princes étrangers whose high precedence derived from their kinship to actual rulers.
    • Marquis: possessor of a marquessate (marquisat), but often assumed by a noble family as a titre de courtoisie. In older times it was a count who was also the governor of a "march", a region at the boundaries of the kingdom that needed particular protection against foreign incursions (margrave in German, marchioness (female) in Britain).
    • Comte(Latin comes, literally "companion") possessor of a county (comté)  and was originally an appointee of the king governing a city and its immediate surroundings, or else a high-ranking official in the king's immediate entourage. In Britain the equivalent would be a count. 
    • Vicomte: possessor of a viscounty (vicomté) or self-assumed. Originally he was the lieutenant of a count, either when the count was too busy to stay at home, or when the county was held by the king himself. Equivalent to the British title of viscount or viscountess.
    • Baron:  (a later title) was originally a direct vassal of the king and owned a barony, or of a major feudal lord like a duke or a count. 
    • Chevalier: an otherwise untitled nobleman who belonged to an order of chivalry, such as the Legion of Honor or the Order of Malta. In earlier days it was a rank for untitled members of very old noble families. 
Many of these titles eventually became hereditary and formalities and didn't require any particular skill. 

If you want to get a pretty exhaustive look at the history of French nobility, I refer you to this website, which has all kinds of fascinating detail. 

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Comportment and Corsets and Cards, Oh My!

Les Liaisons Dangereuses presented a particular challenge to us because it's actually our first ever big costume drama. Since we don't have a vault full of clothes from the 1780s, our costume designer, Scarlett Kellum, had to reach out to other companies to beg, borrow, and steal some costumes. Ok, well she didn't actually steal anything but you get the idea. We also had to acquire swords and the like for the big fight scene. because again, it's not something we have on hand for our normal productions. And because Scarlett is a stickler for details, all of the ladies' corsets were handmade and custom fitted for them. No faked up velcro rigs here - these are the real laced up deal.

Director Jeffrey Bracco brought in Kristin Kusanovich in to talk to the cast. Kristin has a background in dance and movement and spoke to the whole cast about how people in the 1780s moved - we're incredibly casual these days in the way we walk, talk, and hold our bodies. We slouch, cross our legs at the knees, and move quickly. So Kristin discussed comportment with the cast - there were rules of etiquette that governed behavior and posture and movement. Some of this movement was, of course, tied to the fact that ladies were corsetted, as corsets really restrict the movement of the upper body. Much of the movement of the time was tied to dance training, so their movements were much more graceful and deliberate than modern day movement. With Kristin the actors learned how to how to correctly walk and sit, the correct body language to use to address one another.

And finally, a few of the ladies got together to learn about piquet, the card game that you see the ladies playing at the beginning of the show. It's a challenging game for two players with fairly complex rules. Card games were incredibly popular among the aristocracy at the time of Liaisons because, let's face it, they didn't have much else to do to kill time. Researching all of these little details makes it easier for the actors to slip into the time period of the show, and creates an authentic world for us, as audience members, to believe in.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Who is Choderlos de Laclos?

The story of Les Liaisons Dangereuses was actually written by a French novelist, Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, in 1782. de Laclos started his career in the French military, but became disenchanted and left the military to become a writer. 
His first novel, Les Liaisons Dangereuses (in 1782 - 7 years before the French Revolution), caused an immediate sensation. It was also immensely popular - it sold 1000 copies in a month which was unheard of at the time. 
Liaisons was written as a series of letters (called epistolary form) and is considered one of the very first psychological novels ever written. A psychological novel shows the characters interior motives as well as the external action of the story - you know the WHYs of what's happening,  rather than just watching a story play out. The book was an immediate hit and generated lots of buzz as it showed the amorous vices and machinations of the upper-class. It was also banned for some time in France because it was just too racy and scandalous. 
The book was viewed as scandalous at the time of its initial publication, though the real intentions of the author remain unknown. It has been suggested that Laclos's intention was the same as that of his fictional author in the novel; to write a morality tale about the corrupt, squalid nobility of the Ancien Régime. However, this theory has been questioned on several grounds. In the first place, Laclos enjoyed the patronage of France's most senior aristocrat – the duc d'Orléans. Secondly, all the characters in the story are aristocrats, including the virtuous heroines – Madame de Tourvel and Madame de Rosemonde. Finally, many ultra-royalist and conservative figures enjoyed the book, including Queen Marie-Antoinette, which suggests that – despite its scandalous reputation – it was not viewed as a political work until the events of the French Revolution years later made it appear as such, with the benefit of hindsight. He served
in the Rhine and Italian campaigns and was made commander in chief of the Reserve Artillery in Italy in 1803 and died shortly afterward, likely of dysentery and malaria.