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Nathan Thomas

What I Learned Playing Prospero

A little more than a year ago, my wife had to be away on a business trip.  Luckily this led to some happy father/daughter time.  I’m a wee bit more than ten times my daughter’s age, so a few days of bonding also leaves Papa Bear exhausted at the end of the day.

I had one of those little imaginative flashes that happen every now and again.  I immediately saw what it would be like to raise a daughter on a desert island with no one else to help and no modern conveniences.  And immediately I thought of Prospero.

Recently I had the joy of playing the part for an outdoor run of The Tempest.  It’s a show that has been a presence in my life.  My first job out of college was directing a play and also playing Gonzalo in a production of The Tempest.  I’ve written music for a production of the play.  And now I got to play the wizard himself.

In thinking about the play before getting cast, during rehearsals, and playing the run of the show – I learned more about myself and the play than I had imagined.

Before getting cast, I thought three things about the role.  He and Miranda are the “Team Supreme.”  The tradition in English lore is that good wizards are pleasantly eccentric. Prospero is more forgiving even than what we usually think or imagine.

In imagining the given circumstances that Shakespeare provides, Prospero and Miranda have been together every day for some dozen or so years.  For years, he was responsible for everything for keeping them going until she could be big enough to do some tasks independently.  They come to the island when she’s about three years old.

In a world without chicken nuggets or hot dogs, he had to find and prepare thousands of meals to keep them both going.  No easy mac and cheese.  Without appliances he had to figure out hygiene for them both. He likely had to teach her how to wipe.

He was her first and only physician, making sure that she was growing appropriately. 

Anything she learned formally, from reading to playing chess, he taught her.  There were likely days (weeks?  months?) when they had little new to say to each other.  Did they have belching contests some days?  My guess is – yes, probably.  He held her when she vomited.  She nursed him through colds.

It also seemed clear to me that he tried to keep “work” away from her.  Until the boats with the Neapolitans show up near the island, he hasn’t told her about why they’re living on an island.  She knows he does some magic, but doesn’t seem to be aware of all of what he does or why.

One of the things that has struck me about a number of the productions of the play that I’ve seen is that I haven’t bought this aspect of Prospero.  Perhaps because I’m the father of a daughter, it seemed to me that the whole of the man was wrapped up in one of his earliest lines in the text – “I have done nothing but in care of thee – thee, my dear one – thee, my daughter. . . .”  When he “gives her away” to be married to Ferdinand, he says that she is, “ . . .a third of my own life, or that for which I live. . . .”

In doing the play, I learned why this aspect of the character can be a challenge.   But I didn’t know it starting out.

Second, from the early stories of Merlin to the more modern Dumbledore, good English wizards are a little eccentric. Shakespeare may have added his talent to a Merlin play in his day, so he certainly knew of this tradition.

Finally, there is the relationship of his anger to his forgiveness.  The circumstances of his ouster and the intervening years of island life would make extreme anger a not inappropriate response.  And there are flashes of anger in Prospero’s telling of the story. Certainly we see him angry while observing his brother and his brother’s allies in III.3.

Nevertheless, Prospero seems able to forgive with more capacity than we might expect.

It seems clear, regardless of a variety of possible readings, that Caliban is markedly older than Miranda.  If Caliban was born to Sycorax on the island sometime comparable to when Ariel was imprisoned, he’s at least twelve years older than Miranda.  Given that he remembers what his mother looked like, Caliban may be even older. 

I do not want to engage in needlessly hurtful imagery.  But, taking the text at its word, I can imagine a father’s upset at finding a guy at least a dozen years older than his daughter seeking to violate the daughter. The amazing thing is that Prospero didn’t execute Caliban on the spot.

Likewise his brother, Sebastian, Alonso and the clowns. His brother and Alonso had deposed him and left him to drown in a sail-less boat.  The clowns plotted with Caliban against his life.  And yet, within the space of only a few hours, Prospero forgives them.  In a way. 

Whatever else one might think of the tricks Prospero plays on his enemies during the course of the play, they never face the long years of his troubles.  It’s not even close.

Curiously, Prospero’s first conversation with Ariel includes more than one entreaty about making sure that everyone is mostly safe.

And these were the foundations upon which I started rehearsals.

One of the challenges of the role is getting the words into one’s head.  Ye_elves-crCompared to other characters, Prospero’s use of language is extremely convoluted. More than one character will shift occasionally the order of the parts of a sentence.  A direct object might precede the verb, rather than follow it, for example.  But Prospero’s speech is regularly convoluted in ways that astound the simple actor’s brain.

I came to conjecture a couple of things. Given Prospero’s bookishness, I wondered if Shakespeare (he of little Latin and less Greek) simply took Latin sentences – Latin being a more inflected language – and rendered them in English.  I also wonder if it wasn’t just a bit of, “All right, Burbage, see if you can work your way out of this one” challenge. In any case, it took me the better part of a morning just to nail the ‘else’ in the correct location in, “Hark what thou else shalt do me.”  (I kept wanting it to go after ‘what.’)  I note that the Arden footnotes suggest the language is incredibly convoluted.  So it’s nice to know it just wasn’t me.

I also discovered that “now” is important to Prospero.  And various tenses of “do” also show up often in Prospero’s speech.  I thought if one made a word cloud of Prospero’s lines, the two biggest words would be “now” and “do/did.”  The final speech of the play has three “now’s.”

Despite my preparatory work, one of the things that I began to learn in rehearsal and didn’t fully realize until the run of the show – was how little Prospero interacts with Miranda.  He spends much more time with Ariel.  After telling the story of how they came to the island, Prospero rarely speaks to his daughter again in the play.

This suggests to me that Richard Burbage had lost the boy who had played the “Late Plays” female characters like Imogen. And it also suggests the on-stage chemistry of Burbage and Robert Armin (and Armin’s successor).  From Lear to Prospero, Burbage teams up with the witty character who can sing a lovely song.

In rehearsals and performances, I learned that I.2. is, in fact, four scenes joined together into one long introductory unit.  Prospero is intended to drive the first three parts of the scene until Ferdinand’s entrance – which allows the actor a few moments of rest before having to drive the action again to the end of the scene.

First the actor is charged with one of the longer sections of continuous exposition in the canon.  There is a longer investigation of Shakespeare’s exposition strategies that change from play to play.  But Shakespeare has Prospero tell (not show) the story of the palace intrigue that led to island living.  Shakespeare also uses the quaint trick of having the story teller interrupt himself to ask his daughter if she, in fact, is listening to this story.

This suggests to me a kind of game of sorts. Miranda finds out that she is a princess.  She’s been bugging her father for years about this very story, and he has over the years put her off with lame excuses or just silence.  It seems odd that when the story finally gets told that she would be so distracted that she wouldn’t want to listen attentively.

With all of that being said, it’s a knotty series of text that takes some work to carry Miranda and the audience through all of the details.  It is a double challenge since it establishes Prospero as a talker, rather than a man of action.  So it demands much of the actor to get through it.

As soon as Prospero completes the story, he suggests that his daughter sleep while he speaks with Ariel.

It was unclear to me how much Prospero keeps Ariel hidden from Miranda.  Miranda knows her father does magic of some kind.  But does she know Ariel?  It appears unlikely, but it doesn’t seem as clear in the text.

Again, although Ariel does some wonderful work, Prospero must again drive the conversation with Ariel – are the sailors safe? Do you remember how we started? Remember our bargain.

The one place where I always felt bad was in the scene with Ariel.  Like many modern productions, we had a female Ariel (who was absolutely fantastic!). While I felt no problem in Prospero’s relationship with Caliban, I always felt a pang when referring to Ariel as “ . . .my slave.”  He only does it once, and it’s in this scene.

As we worked on the scene, I had this notion of what it must have been like for Prospero finding the island.  Here he is in the “rotten carcass of a butte” with his baby daughter.  Unexpectedly they manage to happen upon this island, but there’s this noise (Ariel’s groans) that makes wolves howl.  Somehow Prospero locates the source of that sound, finds out what it is (can just anyone see Ariel, or do they need to be magic themselves?), and work out what needs to be done.  I felt reasonably certain that Prospero didn’t just wave a hand and it all worked out on the first try.  I can imagine it took genuine time and effort to get Ariel out of the pine tree.

That being said, I also had some fear of Ariel. While I might have some wizarding in me, Ariel is a fully magical creature.  What powers does this creature possess?  I was never quite certain.  I didn’t like bullying Ariel, but I didn’t know any other way to keep things moving in Prospero’s relationship at that point other than threats.

Then Prospero moves to the introduction of Caliban. These few speeches of strings of different pains were lovely to say.  Shakespeare was a master of cursing.  (Kent’s curse in King Lear being the prime example.)  It was just fun to say, “Fill all thy bones with aches” and the rest of them.  Take a few minutes and read Prospero’s text aloud from this sequence.  You’ll be glad you did.

Finally, Ferdinand enters and Prospero gets a little on-stage break while Ariel leads Ferdinand about the stage.  My heart always felt lighter at this point.  Not only for the entrance of the character, but also because I knew that the hardest part was past.  I finally felt that I could settle in.

One of the nice benefits of the way The Tempest is constructed is that several characters are on stage at opportune moments to simply watch other actors perform. And it’s a real treat.  Often in a play, characters are hustled off stage so that new characters can come on and do their bit.  In The Tempest, though, several characters get to watch the show along with audience.   In this sequence I got to watch Ariel lead on Ferdinand and watch the two of them work for a time before I had to jump in again.

Swiftly, I.2. concludes.  And then there’s a break of about 15 minutes.

Burbage liked a break in a play.  Hamlet runs off to England.  After the storm, Lear disappears while we concentrate on Gloucester and the sequence that leads  to his blinding.

So after introducing the story.  Shakespeare introduces us to the Lords and the Clowns.

After that rest, Shakespeare eases Prospero back into the action. 

Prospero’s asides in III.1 are hardly necessary to the action.  But they serve to show that the old man is still a presence on the island and gets him back in the story.

The dinner scene in III.3 is another place where actors get to enjoy watching the show while on stage.  First the spirits bring on the feasting table, and then Ariel harangues the Lords as the Harpy (one of my favorite speeches in the play, incidentally).

III.2. exists as Prospero’s final pee break.  Once III.3 begins, Prospero won’t have enough time to wander off and pee.  This may sound strange to you, but to us older guys it’s not unimportant.

Also, it was dress rehearsals that led me to understand the awkward join between the end of Act IV and the start of Act V . It’s very rare in any play to have the same characters leave the stage at the end of a scene and then walk right back on at the beginning of the next scene.  It seems odd.  Why didn’t they just stay on stage and keep going?  Why does Shakespeare go to the trouble of getting them off-stage and then bringing them right back on?

It’s a necessary break for the actors to get something to drink.  After doing the wedding and its aftermath, Prospero and Ariel need a moment to grab a beverage before all the speaking that attends the opening of Act V.

Of course, if I.2 is the labor of the role, then Acts IV and V are the pleasure of the role.  In Act IV Prospero says, “Our revels now are ended . .. “  And in Act V Prospero says, “Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes and groves. . . .”

Curiously, both Act IV and Act V are “front-loaded” for Prospero .  In Act IV, he sets up the ensuing wedding-ish activity.  Then he steps back, and he watches the spirits.  He steps up to do “Our revels” and then again, he gets to watch the Clowns go to town for a while.

Likewise in Act V, after “Ye elves” and bringing the Lords on and transforming into “sometime Milan,” Prospero recedes somewhat while Gonzalo and others take the reins to finish up the fun.

In approaching the impending wedding of Miranda, one of the things I did was to keep shaking Ferdinand’s hand.  It was something that I’d seen happen at a wedding. The audience seemed to appreciate this aspect of being the father of a daughter just before a marriage.

“Our revels now are ended” is the famous speech that has the quotes that everyone knows.  People who don’t know Shakespeare know, “We are such stuff as dreams are made on” from everything from posters to coffee mugs.

My tendency with famous speeches like this is not to treat it like a famous speech, but rather as just another utterance of the character.  From what I gather, the critics particularly did not like this aspect of the performance. They wanted more from the late play speeches, this one in particular.

My assumption was that the act of doing the big magic physically depleted Prospero.  So, at the end of “Our revels” I fell.  Probably, if I had my way, I would have liked to have fallen more in different places in the play.  So it’s for the best that I didn’t have my way.

But once Ariel came to my bidding (“Come with a thought”), Ariel was able to “re-charge” me and my magic.  In rehearsals we worked out a “rule” of island magic that Ariel could possible touch me.  Prospero could not touch Ariel, being a creature of air.

Probably the peak of Prospero’s anger, for me, occurred at this moment.  Preparing to bring Caliban and the Clowns back on, not knowing what would happen with their murder plot against me – I roared the lines that I would plague them, even to roaring .  One, I liked the irony of it.  Two, I think the anxiety of having all of his enemies in his power is on the edge of corrupting Prospero into a very dark place.  From which he enters into Act V.

Each night I tried to bound into Act V with as much energy as I could.  Prospero was preparing to do something nasty to all of these awful people.  Until Ariel told him of the tears of old Gonzalo. Each night, I would touch my own old beard in sympathy with my old friend.  Would I be the man who is worthy of friendship?  Or, would I be someone who is so driven by corrosive anger that I would do the unthinkable?  Each night when I said, “The rarer action is in virtue than in vengeance,” I hadn’t made up my mind yet.  I didn’t know that I needed to be a rare person.  I didn’t know that I needed to do the rare thing.  And then I decided to break the spell and restore their senses. And when I suggested they would be themselves, I had a little memory of Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka at the end of that movie saying the children would be their old rotten selves.  Just because I returned their senses  to them wouldn’t change the lives of my brother and his confederates.

When the Lords return and he breaks his previous spells, Prospero keeps commenting that they will “wake up,” but they don’t seem quite to do so.  This led me to wonder how much he had worked magic on humans.

Prior to the start of the play, the only fully human person on the island is his daughter, and I couldn’t conceive that Prospero would experiment with his magic on his own and only daughter.  It was my thought that he had not worked magic on humans before this play.  And the circumstances showed that magic doesn’t work like a light switch with a clear “on” and “off” position.

Once Ariel had helped in the transformation into “sometime Milan,” I wanted to again throw the audience off as to what Prospero might do.  I wanted to be fairly wild in setting up embracing Alonso, so that the audience wouldn’t know even whether or not I might strangle or bite the Neapolitan. In the event, after the wild set-up I did a formal European double cheek brush and a formal bow, and then the simplest “hearty welcome” that I could muster.

The final wonder of the evening for me was the farewell to Ariel.  As I mentioned above, it was only in performance that I realized that the majority of the play for Prospero is playing with Ariel.  As the run continued, the moment of giving Ariel her freedom and her farewell moved me more each night.  It really was a farewell and an end to the whole evening for me.

Prospero, then, is given an epilogue.  (“Now all my charms are all o’er thrown. . .”)  I worked to speak simply as myself, not as the character, directly to the audience.  Some nights people wanted to clap at “ . . . with the help of your good hands. . .”  I was quite taken aback at this the first time it happened.  I still had more to say, of course.  Some nights if they wanted to clap, I shut them down pretty quickly.  Some nights I let them go.  I still don’t know which was best.

There’s one more element to the role that I used to power me through the evening.  Early in rehearsals I joined in a conspiracy with the director.

In “Ye elves” Prospero recites a litany of magic the elves and spirits have helped him accomplish – “I have bedimmed the noon-tide sun” and so forth.  (I always thought the one place that Shakespeare might be referring to himself was the line, “To the dread rattling thunder have I given fire” – something which Shakespeare did as a writer in the storm scene in King Lear.)  Almost all of the things he describes are the effects of working on non-human elements – the sea, the sky, the trees, etc.

With one exception.

“Graves at my command have waked their sleepers, ope’d, and let ‘em forth by my so potent art.”

Who did Prospero want to see that he did this piece of very disturbing magic?

Miranda’s mother.  His wife.

I entered a conspiracy with the director that the purpose behind the magic in the first place was related to his wife.  In the marriage scene, Prospero refers to Miranda as a “third of my own life.”  At the end of the play, “Every third thought shall be my grave.”  Who was the third?  Miranda’s mother.

The awful thing that I found in doing the top of I.2 with Miranda was the series of questions that Prospero asks Miranda before telling the story of being deposed.  What does Miranda remember of the pre-island days.  What image can she remember?  My guess was that he couldn’t quite remember what she looked like and that wound went to the center of his very soul.  He wanted to see her again. And he wanted her approval that he did right by their daughter.

So when I spoke of raising the dead, it was not something grand – but something truly awful.  I found a magical way to open the grave and loose the sleeper there, but I was not God. Or even a god.  So the thing I saw was more horrible for not having the essence that I wanted to connect with.

Then, when I promised to the break the staff and bury the book, not only was I stepping away from magic – I gave up on the attempt of seeing my wife again in this world.  Every third thought would be my grave, and my last chance to see her again.

I don’t know if it worked for the audience. But it meant something to me.  I never talked about it during rehearsals or performance with anyone else other than the director.

Critical reception of the work was mixed.  All commented that it was palpable that my Prospero loved Miranda, I felt that was a success.  They wanted more from the “big” speeches, however.

Audiences seemed to enjoy the play.  We did very good box office for the company we were working for.

Outside of playing the part, I learned something about myself. 

I’ve been working as a paid actor on and off since the first Reagan administration.  And I’ve been a little proud of myself that I haven’t seemed to experience stage fright or nerves in the way that other actors have talked about over the course of years. 

I’m not proud to admit this, but since I didn’t seem to have the same kind of nerves that other folks had, I felt a little smug about myself.  I may not be the most talented actor on the block, but at least I had that.

It was doing this play that I learned that it’s true, I don’t experience nerves like everyone else.  But that doesn’t mean there isn’t an effect.

There’s a part of us as humans that makes us present or absent.  Our bodies are in a place.  But we’ve all had the experience of being physically present with someone who isn’t there.  We say things like, “My mind was elsewhere” or something like that.  But something about us in our mind or soul or heart either makes us present or absent.

I discovered that this inner part of me is like a rabbit.  If the least little thing is different, that inner part of me suddenly becomes very still. And inactive.

In a Doctor Dolittle book, one of the characters tells a story of a farm-boy who worked to capture a wily crow as a pet. The boy learned that simply rigging a trap wouldn’t work because the wily crow would be suspicious of the least little change and give it a wide berth.

I found the same is true for me.  After all these years of doing this, I finally realized this aspect of myself because of a comment from the show’s director that led me to understand a particularly awful dress rehearsal.

Like the crow, the least little change throws me off.  “I” become very still inside, which is not good.  Then, to over-compensate, “I” get frantic.  None of which is very good.

I can’t imagine what the company thought.

I close with this: the purpose of this article is not to suggest in any way that my work was an island.  Rather, as a columnist who deals regularly with acting, I wanted to provide a holistic view of the creation of a whole character. But none of it could have been done without the creativity and artistry of a company led by an outstanding director, text coach, and stage management team (so important to us actors to give us the confidence to do our work and know the show will run smoothly).  The company was one of the best casts I’ve worked with in my career.  Every single person was amazingly talented, gracious, and amiable both on-stage and off.

The best. 

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Nathan Thomas has earned his living as a touring actor,
Artistic Director, director, stage manager, designer, composer,
and pianist. He has a Ph.D. in theatre, and is a member of the
theatre faculty at Alvernia College.
He also writes a monthly column and is a Senior Writer for Scene4.
For more of his commentary and articles, check the Archives

©2017 Nathan Thomas
©2017 Publication Scene4 Magazine



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