Happy birthday, dear William

Robin J. Holt

April 23, 1991|By Robin J. Holt

CENTER STAGE should pause during its production of "Twelfth Night" this evening. It's William Shakespeare's birthday, or at least the day on which it's traditionally celebrated. And of course Shakespeare is synonymous with High Art.

Shakespeare's name connotes great acting, lyrical poetry, noble themes of love, sacrifice, passion. In other words, Shakespeare is serious business. Shakespeare is performed in the live theater, however, and thus his plays have suffered from all the expected hazards of live performing.

All plays, for example, have lines -- lines the actors don't always get right. Maude Adams (the original Peter Pan) once played a fairy in "A Midsummer Night's Dream," but her line, "You spotted snake with double tongue," came out as, "You potted snake with ham and tongue." Sometimes, actors can barely get their lines out at all. In John Barrymore's 1920 production of "Richard III," the actor playing Ratcliff entered with the lines:

Ratcliff, my lord; 'tis I. The early village cock

Hath twice done salutation to the early morn.

The poor actor got as far as "village cock" on two tries and dried up each time. On his third attempt, Barrymore hissed, "Why the hell don't you crow, then?"

The fact that Shakespeare is written in verse makes the whole business of lines even more tricky, since the actor has to decide just where to place the accent on a syllable. During rehearsals for "Hamlet" (1964), director John Gielgud and actor Richard Burton jousted over Hamlet's line, "What a piece of work is man, how express and admirable." Gielgud wanted the accent on ex-press, while Burton wanted it ex-press. After several minutes back and forth, William Redfield, playing Guildenstern, offered a compromise. "Perhaps," he said, "we should change it to local."

Props in Shakespeare can be tricky and dangerous. It has been mainly props and scenery which have given "Macbeth" its reputation as a cursed play. So deeply ingrained is this superstition that cautious actors, in the confines of a theater, will only refer to it as "that play" or "the Scottish tragedy."

A British actress playing Lady Macbeth discovered in the course of researching the role that sleepwalkers roam about with their eyes closed. Although she executed the famous sleepwalking scene perfectly in rehearsal, on opening night she fell off the platform, off the stage and broke everything in sight, including a number of her own bones.

Another actor, in a different production, playing Banquo, was the victim of an overly enthusiastic Third Murderer, who drove his real dagger in Banquo's ear. The actor, his ear heavily bandaged, was discovered in his dressing room following the performance, staring into his make-up mirror and murmuring, "He's too keen, that chap. He's really too keen."

Sometimes "Macbeth" doesn't even open. In the 1900s, the Moscow Art Theatre abandoned its production of "Macbeth" at the dress rehearsal when the prompter was discovered dead in the prompter's box. Sir Laurence Olivier was nearly killed in 1937 when, during a rehearsal, a stage weight crashed onto a theater seat he had been occupying only moments before. And three members of Gielgud's wartime touring company of "Macbeth" died in the space of a few months.

Other Shakespeare plays have been booby-trapped. The venerable Old Vic once produced "Henry V" in authentic 15th-century armor. Unfortunately, the actors didn't play in full costume until opening night, and, in the middle of his heroic speech to the English troops, Henry lost his balance and toppled over on his back.

Bravely, the actor continued: "God, for Harry, England and St. George!" waving his arms (since that was all he could move). When the laughter from the audience began to drown him out, he did the bravest thing an actor can ever do. He turned his head toward the wings and shouted, "Help!" Immediately, two supernumeraries rushed out and righted him. Once on his feet, Henry, determined there would be no more mishaps, continued his speech while moving very slowly, resembling the Tin Man from Oz.

The famous 18th-century actress Sarah Siddons was playing Lady Macbeth one summer at Drury Lane. Finding the heat intolerable, she told her dresser to fetch her a cool drink before the sleepwalking scene. Her dresser, in turn, sent a small boy to the nearest public house. When he returned, he inquired as to Siddons' whereabouts and was told she was on stage. Undaunted in his mission, he walked on the set, approached the Great Lady and said, "If you please, ma'am, I've brought you your beer."

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