Seasons come and seasons go. What was the winter of your 14th year like (assuming you’re older than 14)? Do you recall the spring of 1998 (assuming you were born before 1998)?
The longest April of my life was the year I turned 16. I counted the days until I could take my driving test and get a license. Each day dragged on and on. Teachers spoke more slowly – I’m sure they did. TV shows were written to be more tedious that month than they had ever been before. From what I know of temporal theory, the closer you get to the speed of light, your temporal rate slows relative to a location not moving close to the speed of light. I was moving toward that driving test at near the speed of light, and everything else was relatively slower.
So, a commonplace “book” or note to remind us of the seasons of the year in theatre.
Theatre workers tend to be cave dwellers (hats off to Saroyan for the metaphor). You go into a room in which the light is controlled and often dark. You concentrate your energies on producing something – a show, a work of art, a piece of entertainment, a veritable shower of thrills and chills and spills. Call it what you will. You lose track of time. You start to lose knowing what day of the week it is. You have a kind of awareness that opening will happen sometime, but you’re certain the stage manager will remind you of where that’ll happen. You can lose track of life outside the cave.
The world travels nowhere near the speed of light, of course. It whirls closer and farther from the sun. It plays the fun tilt-a-whirl game on its axis. And we get these lovely seasons. Rain in summer that closes the outdoor performance. Snow and ice in winter that closes a show down.
We start with the season of Spring.
Spring is important to agriculture – the planting happens to take advantage of the summer growing season. So spring is the season of beginnings, newness, rebirth after the cold of winter, and so on.
Spring is the season of the Greek month of Elaphebolion and the time of the Great Dionysia. This annual festival provided the environment for the first tragic contests in ancient Athens.
Today the mean temperature (late March/early April) is in the upper 50’s and lower 60’s degrees Fahrenheit for Athens. For three days as part of this annual festival, folks would gather on a slope coming down off the Acropolis and watch plays. Did the plays start at sunrise? The theatron (“seeing place”) could handle several thousand audience members. In a world before alarm clocks, how did several thousand people wake up before dawn and make their way to a hillside and figure out where to sit in the dark so the play could start at dawn?
And the plays were arranged as trilogies followed by a satyr play. If someone had to pee or poop (not surprising during a festival in honor of the god of wine that included a huge public barbecue), where did they go to go?
Or, rather than new beginnings, should we speak of the Astor Place Riot in May of 1849 or the near-riot at the opening of The Rite of Spring in 1913? No, we should not. The nativism that spawned the former and the aesthetic conservatism that impelled the latter aren’t new beginnings. So, they don’t fit our paradigmatic perspective. So, we won’t speak of them in relation to spring. No, we won’t.
But we will speak of the Cycle Plays done for hundreds of years in cities like York in the U.K. Usually done close or as part of the Corpus Christi celebration, audience saw guild members enact the history of the world – or stories from the Bible, which possibly amounted to about the same thing for the audience and the actors. Again, did the shows start with the sunrise? In York in late May or early June? It was a chilly morning to be sure. I’m sure there were a few actors and a few audience members who had a little bit of stout ale or similar beverage to get the engines rolling so that an audience could see a play about the Creation of All Things by sunrise.
Spring – the season of new beginnings.
Summer, traditionally, is the time for planning if you’re in theatre. If your traditional time of showing productions starts in the fall – after summer vacation, then summer is a time for planning and resting.
So it’s not surprising that the most famous lunch in theatre happened on June 22, 1897. Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, teacher at the Moscow arts university, had been working to get together with the wealthy artiste, Kostantine Alexiev for some time. They finally got together for lunch at about 2 p.m. at a local hotel restaurant. And they talked for 18 hours.
You’ve heard about the artistic policy for the Moscow Arts Theatre that they dreamed up during that lunch. But what you didn’t hear about was Nemirovich-Danchenko’s financial plan, which was a lengthy part of the conversation as well. Nemirovich-Danchenko wanted Alexiev money to sponsor the enterprise. Nemirovich-Danchenko proposed that he and Alexiev handle the first year of the new theatre out of their own pockets. Given his net worth relative to the Alexiev fortune, Nemirovich-Danchenko was basically asking for money to finance his scheme. Alexiev saw through this scheme pretty easily and disagreed. He was more than willing to give his energy, time, heart, passion, skill, expertise, etc to the new theatre. But he would not be a major financier of the concern. Nemirovich-Danchenko swallowed the rebuff, but accepted the decision. As much as the Alexiev money, he also needed the Stanislavsky name on the posters and Stanislavsky’s “rolodex” – the contacts Stanislavsky had made in his real guise as an Alexiev who knew absolutely every member of the hoi polloi and the theatrical folks of Moscow.
They’ve got some talent, and they got the moxie. If they stick with it, maybe they can get something going.
I wonder whatever became of those folks?
In July of 1915 a group of folks formed a new Little Theatre group called the Provincetown Players, trying to capture a feeling of a group of friends at a particular time in a certain place. Ah, the young folks of 1915.
And then, the following year of 1916, this same group gave a performance of the first play of a kid who’s dad was a famous, matinee-idol kind of actor. They put on Bound East for Cardiff by Eugene O’Neill. The boy has a knack. He must have picked up something from hanging around theatres where his dad worked. Y’know, something might come of that boy some day, if he sticks with it. He might make something of himself one day.
And in the “dog days” of late August in 1665 in the Fowkes Tavern in Virginia, a few guys put on a performance of a barn-burner of a show with the butts-in-seats title of Ye Bare and Ye Cubb. Yes, what many say as the first (English) play in the New World, wound the actors up in court defending their actions.
A performance offending someone so that the performers get taken to court . . . . in America?!? Who’da thunk it?
Summer – a period of heat and the growing season. For many, a time of planning and rest.
Autumn is the season of the harvest. The summer crops are brought in for storage for winter. The animals are slaughtered in autumn to build the supply of food to be ready for the cold. The nights get longer. The time when we bring new plays to the public.
In September of 1670, Aphra Behn became (probably) the first professional female playwright with the opening of The Forc’d Marriage: or, The Jealous Bridegroom in London.
In October of 1896, Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull opens. Was it a complete flop? No, even Chekhov himself treated the evening somewhat differently depending on who he wrote the day after the performance. To his publisher and friend Suvorin, he wrote to stop the printing of his plays, but this was probably a joke. To his sister, he wrote that he was not disappointed by the performance, the (three) rehearsals for the production had prepared him for the experience. To his brother, Chekhov wrote more of failure, including a feeling of disgrace and bewilderment in the theatre. And soon Chekhov was praising in particular the work of Vera Komissarshevskaya who played Nina, or the seagull of the title.
I hope something good happens to the Chekhov guy. He can be funny. Sometimes.
Autumn. The harvest.
Leaving winter. Winter is the season of long nights, of chill, of metaphorical death.
Both Alfred Jarry and the colleagues of the Moscow Art Theatre killed off some old ways with two new winter productions. Jarry opened Ubu Roi in December of 1896 and ended an old world as he uttered, “Merdre” on the French stage. The Moscow Art Theatre ended several old ways of making theatre with their opening of The Seagull in December of 1898.
January of 2002 saw the end of the original run of The Fantasticks in New York after more than 17,000 performances. (A new run has since started.)
Jerzy Grotowski died of leukemia in 1999.
And on February 2, 1940, Vsevolod E. Meyerhold was taken into a room in the headquarters of the Russian secret police and shot. A man who had created some of the great theatre of the 20th century was arrested and tortured. Guards urinated on a man in his 60s cowering on a floor in shame and pain. And then they got him to put his name to any number of confessions. And then they shot him.
Edvard Radzinsky reports this in his biography of Stalin. At a dinner party a few years after the Great Patriotic War (WW II), Stalin admitted that probably Meyerhold didn’t need to be “purged.” It was all for nothing.
Winter. The season of the long nights.
And so ends our commonplace “book” of seasons. Spring, summer, autumn, and winter. Markers to watch the passing of years.
Plan and harvest, plant and rest.
Rest. That sounds like a good thing of a summer’s afternoon. I’ll work tomorrow.