to Oklahoma
a history
of byways

by Nathan Thomas

Scene4 Magazine -From Shakespeare to Oklahoma" - Nathan Thomas - January 2011

January 2011

"The only thing new in the world is the history you don't know."
—Harry S Truman

Julie Taymor's new film of The Tempest is a "re-imagining" of Shakespeare's last play.  Well, that was what the announcer on the radio said.  And this is where theatre history wakens the crank in me.

First, all plays are re-imagined with every production.  We don't really know what the first production was like and couldn't reproduce it even if we could.  We don't have those actorsnor that audience. 

Second, the notion of The Tempest as Shakespeare's last play is imprecise.  It's highly likely that Shakespeare continued to write after The Tempest.  It's unknown precisely in what order the plays were written.  People like to feel sentimental about Prospero's (and, thus, Shakespeare's) farewell, but sentiment isn't evidence.

But none of that matters. 

I'm a theatre history crank.  I was "the beadle" when theatre history ever came into a discussion on back in the 1990s.  People would create whole issues out of strong mis-understandings of theatre history. Russian theatre history, in particular, leaves many practitioners cold.  But due to Stanislavsky, many theatre folks feel they ought to be able to say something about him at parties.  Generally they're mistaken.

Why should I care?

One, as ethical people we have a responsibility to the truth as we have the ability to understand that truth.  Secondly, the world of theatre has ever been a small one.  I feel that all of the world's theatre folk are part of an on-going continuum.  We can honor people through myths, it's true.  But in such a humanizing medium as theatre, I think we can honor people by understanding their immense human complexity.  Which means that the simple myths probably don't express nuance.

So, here is a compendium of some of the great quirks, myths, and curiosities out of my experience in talking with folks about theatre history. 


The Greeks sang and danced in circles in honor of the god Dionysus. These dithyrambs became the basis for the chorus that performed in the circular orchestra of the ancient Greek theatre.  Moreover, these ritual performances in honor of the god show how theatre and religion are linked.


That's how I was taught it back in the day.  Some problems with that story, though.

It appears that the first orchestra was probably closer to rectangular, rather than circular.  Well, can't people dance in a circle in a rectangular space?  Certainly.  But the later architecture we see in Epidaurus doesn't necessarily prove earlier circle dances.  If they could dance in a circle in a rectangular space, why build a circle later?

Gerald Else makes the useful argument that when we speak of Greek theatre, we should be speaking of Athenian theatre.  Else also points out that each of the developments of Athenian tragedy can plausibly occur by the innovations of men.

Eli Rozik makes the further argument that ritual is a "speech act." What is a speech act in this sense? For example, if you and I make a wager on the Super Bowl, I'd say, "I bet you $20 that my team will win."  I'm not only describing what's happening.  By saying those words, I'm actually betting you. I'm doing something. 

According to Rozik, a ritual may use a variety of media (talking to god, providing animal/grain/liquid/scented sacrifice, singing, dancing, etc), but is essentially a speech act.  Theatre, by contrast, is a medium through which many things may be communicated.  But it is simply a medium.

So theatre doesn't need a religious underpinning or some sort of ritualistic origins to exist.  It's fine on its own. 

Late Antiquity

I'm personally fond of two stories from late antiquity.

One, the Empress Theodora had a checkered career before meeting the man who would become the Emperor Justinian.  She was both a prostitute and an entertainer.  The move from entertainer to prostitute was a step up on the social scale of her day.

Two.  I know we're supposed to think that all theatre ended in the "Dark Ages" and reappeared in the Catholic Church with Easter ritual. The master historian Allardyce Nicoll in Masks, Mimes, and Miracles describes at great length the threads that join the ancient and the medieval worlds without the church, and then says, "Theatre disappeared and was re-started in the church."  He ignores his own argument. 

Anyway . . . .

The young Roman Catholic Church didn't know quite what to do with the pagan institution of theatre.  So they spent some time considering under what circumstances actors could be in communion with the church.  But my favorite story is about a Bishop of Ephesus who loved the theatre, attended regularly, and evidently had dinner with some actors while dressed himself as Dionysus. 

Evidently he didn't have a stage manager to remind him not to eat in costume.


 A fact of Elizabeth theatre was the economic factor of the shareholding system.  The company of which Shakespeare was a member centered around a strong group of shareholders.  These actors were the core of the company. When in doubt, who's going to get a bigger part in the play, a shareholder or a hired man?  Does the question even need to be asked? Unquestionably a shareholder, since he has a larger stake in the business of the company, is going to be preferred to a guy hired in to help out.  And economically and artistically, stability in the core group benefits everyone. If the core group of actors knows each other well, they have to spend less time in rehearsal.  They will have more trust in each other on stage in performance.  Relationships deepen.  The audience has a trusting sense in seeing particular combinations of actors.  (The reader can easily call to mind any number of such combinations in the present day – Hope and Crosby to Shrek and Donkey all leap to mind.)  The economic benefits the artistic and vice-versa.

William Shakespeare was an actor who acted with the men for whom he wrote. We know Richard Burbage excelled at "mad" scenes.  Is it a curiosity, then, that Hamlet, Lear, Othello, and Macbeth (to name only a few) have "mad" scenes?  Or that Burbage's parts seem to have a 'break' a little after the mid-point in the play?  (Hamlet goes to Britain.  Lear disappears while we concentrate on the Gloucester sub-plot, etc.)

Or, look at such parts as Aaron in Titus Andronicus, Mercutio, Gratiano in Merchant of Venice, Borachio in Much Ado About Nothing.  Tart talkers all.  And all likely played by Augustine Phillips.  Likewise Tybalt, Laertes, and Hotspur are all figurative and literal foils for Burbage's characters (Romeo, Hamlet, and Hal respectively) and played by Henry Condell.

Will Kemp – Master Kemp – played charming rustic clowns enormously well. From Bottom to Dogberry to his triumph as Falstaff, Shakespeare knew the strengths of the company clown.  Kemp, a large Falstaffian man, left the company and was replaced by Robert Armin, a short (almost dwarfish) man who had a lovely singing voice.  Who appears as a clown?  Feste.  And, curiously, a character who seems to wander in and out of scenes and sings when necessary.  Why wouldn't Shakespeare fashion a character to capitalize on the talents of a new company member?  This type of work is not the result of some remote by-stander, rather the craftsmanship of a man involved in the daily work of acting in a company and working to show off his mates to the paying crowd.

Shakespeare also had the benefit of seeing the daily work of the apprentices up close.  We know as a fact of Elizabethan theatre practice that females weren't on the stage. Boys or young men played the women's roles.  We know that few Elizabethan playwrights wrote effective roles for women characters. Shakespeare's plays, by contrast, abound with amazing women characters.  We emphasize a fundamental principle -- these plays were written to attract a paying audience.  Thus, if the boys could not have effectively carried off such women as Lady Macbeth or Cleopatra or Juliet, audiences would not have paid the ticket prices to watch these plays.

Boys came into an acting company as apprentices to the main actors. Therefore, Richard Burbage would take on a boy (or boys) to train them in a trade.  The same situation was common in many (if not all) professions. A master tailor would take on an apprentice tailor.  A master printer would take on a boy to learn the trade.  In an adult company, the young boy would play either a child or a woman.

Consider again the economics of the situation.  An apprentice likely does not have the skill of a master.  In professional theatre the producers don't want to have a performance ruined by inexperience.  So, as a practical concern, we may look and see where children characters and women have stage time and how that stage time is constructed. Also, economically a master shouldn't have his time taken up in training another master's boy.  (If I'm Condell, I don't want to waste my time helping Burbage train his boy or taking a lot of time rehearsing Burbage's boy.  That's his job.  I've got my own work to do.)  Therefore, many women characters in Shakespeare's plays have much of their stage time with a particular male character – the master and the apprentice primarily act as scene partners.

Consequently, we may deduce that Burbage in particular was a pretty good teacher.  By the time of Macbeth, Burbage's boy (playing Lady M) has shown the playwright that she can command the stage by herself.  The two boys who play Portia and Nerissa (Burbage's boy and Phillips' boy, respectively) in Merchant of Venice have shown they can command the stage together for a scene without the assistance (supervision?) of a master on stage with them.

The Origins of Russian Theatre

Given the contributions of Russians to world theatre, it may come as a surprise to learn that the Russians took to theatre very recently, compared with other areas of Europe.  For example, Russia didn't have a playwright who made his living in writing plays until the 19th century.

At least by the late medieval period, Russians were producing a pageant in churches based on the story of three young men burned in a furnace from the Old Testament book of Daniel.  (Story in a nutshell – Babylonian king has taken large number of Jews into exile in Babylon.  King wants to enforce Babylonian religious practice by decreeing all should worship an idol.  Three young Jewish men rebel.  Punishment is death in a furnace.  God of the Jews keeps young men from burning.  Babylonian king recognizes the power of Jewish God.)

British visitors who saw this pageant in the 1500s described it as a bad play.  Russians seemed to look at this pageant as ritual.

Shakespeare was long dead and Moliere was one year away from passing on himself when Russia had their first play produced for the purpose of entertainment.

October 16.1672.  The Tsar ordered a pastor of Moscow's Lutheran Church, Johann Gottfried Gregori, to create a play for the court to see.

In the event, Gregori wrote a play based on the biblical story of Esther called The Comedy of Artaxerxes.  Gregori wrote the play in German and translated it back into a Slavic dialect. The Comedy of Artaxerxes was seven acts long with interludes and a prologue.  The play also include lengthy quotes from Psalms in Hebrew.  It had a cast of 64 with a running time of about 10 hours.

The Tsar evidently enjoyed the entertainment and gave a reception for cast and crew. 

A little more than 200 years later, we get Chekhov.

Top 10 Things People Generally Don't Know About Stanislavsky

10.  His real last name was Alekseyev.  Stanislavsky is a stage name because . . .

9.   . . . his family was enormously wealthy.

8.  He was a terrible student in formal schooling situations, but . . .

7.    . . . he was a regular and determined keeper of journals/diaries.

6.  He cared deeply about "technique."  He regularly hired voice teachers, music teachers, and dance teachers to work with his young actors.

5.  He got the reputation of being "the Professor" for lecturing post-Revolution audiences about how to behave in the theatre.

4.  Wrote more about vocal production than any other subject.

3. Some of what we think we got from Stanislavsky we got from Leopold Sulerzhitsky.

2.  Stanislavsky largely developed the "System" after Chekhov was dead several years.

1.  Stanislavsky loved operetta and opera.

Black and White Issues for the American Stage

Surely the "Original Sin" of the United States of America is the stain of racial slavery.

Not a very controversial statement, that.  We know that the wrongs of racial slavery intertwines with the great moments of our country – Civil War, Jim Crow law, the Civil Rights Movement.  We know that slavery has tendrils that effect this nation every day in ways large and small.  At our country's beginning we had a man write that "All men are created equal . . ." Except, of course, for that same man's slaves – one of whom shared a father with his dead wife and probably shared that man's bed.  In recent years we discover that segregationist Strom Thurmond has a daughter by a black mistress.

This is not to say that the U.S.A. has other wrongs worthy of comment. The Trail of Tears serves as an apt title for more than simply the removal of tribes of American natives to the Plains.

The African-American experience shows the essence of the strangeness that makes up the whole of the American experience.  Take two actors and their public.

New York City in the early 1820s started to show signs of being an entertainment hub.  A large population living on the island plus the visitors who came off the ships in the harbor provided a steady stream of paying customers for those wishing to provide entertainment.  Part of that population was a cohort of about 10,000 free African-Americans that was growing. 

Due to discrimination based on skin color, these folks were unable to take advantage of the growing number of "tea gardens" and other venues on the island.  Thus William Brown who opened the first of a variety of venues – the African Grove, the African Theatre, the African Company at the American Theatre – that provided theatrical entertainment to NYC's African-American folks.

Evidently a young man named Ira Aldridge became part of Brown's company.  The young Aldridge was born in 1807 in NYC.  He attended the African Free School and took course work in declamation.  As a teen, he probably played parts for Brown's various ventures.  But he also realized that he could not make a career as a black actor in his own country.

Brown was run out of town (quite literally) by thugs hired by his white competitors who evidently wanted an uncompetitive market for their own companies.  Certainly they didn't want competition from a black man who hired black actors.

Aldridge traveled to England in 1824, when he was about 17 years old. He started a European career that lasted the remainder of his life.  Having taken the name F. W. Keene, Aldridge billed himself as the "African Roscius" and played his way across Britain and the continent.  He toured as far away as Turkey and Russia.

In 1833 he took over Othello in a noted production that was to star Edmund Kean with his son Charles as Iago and Ellen Tree as Desdamona when the elder Kean died unexpectedly.

During a tour through Poland in 1867, Aldridge began plans for a return to his home country when he became ill and died of a lung infection (probably pneumonia).  He was buried in Lodz, Poland.

Meanwhile. . . . .

Aldridge was born in July of 1807.  Less than a year later, an almost direct contemporary was also born in NYC. Thomas Dartmouth Rice was born in May of 1808.  Rice also came of age in the theatre scene of the early 1820s in New York.

Generally speaking, a novice actor in the early 19th century would join a theatrical company.  They would start the young actor with the smallest of parts.  If the actor showed skill or ability and if the actor showed a capacity to learn and if the actor showed growth as a performer, he would get bigger parts.  Ultimately, within three to four years of starting, the now experienced actor would play medium to starring roles.

Rice evidently failed to show this capacity.  Whereas Aldridge in his teen years was already playing Romeo and grew to play the great roles of the times, Rice was challenged as an actor. A few years after Aldridge had made his way to England, in 1828 we have evidence that Rice was trying to make it as part of a travelling troupe in the "West" (which generally meant the Tennessee Valley and the western part of the Ohio Valley in those days). 

Rice's success as an actor may be marked by evidence that he worked in the early 1830s in Louisville as a stage carpenter and prop man.

And then it all changed.

Rice went on as a piece of intermission entertainment.  He did a little song and a dance.  The only thing different about it was that Rice had smeared his face to make it look black.  And he played a character he called "Jim Crow."

He did a little song with a dance that included a mix of shuffling and jigging and had a little jump at the end of each verse.  He jumped "Jim Crow."

Rice – known by his nickname "Daddy" Rice – became a major hit.  By the end of the 1830s Rice had been invited to play in London.  On his return to America, the Boston Globe reported that the two most famous people in the world were Queen Victoria and Jim Crow.  The song Rice sang was translated into a variety of languages. Reportedly his song was sung in Hindi in New Delhi.  London street urchins were observed dancing his dance.

Years later he took on a second job playing the title character – Uncle Tom – in a theatrical version ofUncle Tom's Cabin.

Rice made a fortune and lost it.  At one point his vest was buttoned with ten-dollar coins.  He died of a stroke in 1860.

Much of the story of American entertainment history may be told through the lives of these two men and their audiences.

First, that which we might describe as "American art" derives strongly from African-American art (jazz being the most obvious example).  In the instance of these two men we have one man who is African-American and the other plays at it.

Two, from the very beginning we export our culture around the world. America's number one export in the world is entertainment.  And it has been ever thus.

Three, in this fun-house mirror we see the racial bizarreness that is the American experience.

Consider: a black man left his country because he couldn't play for white audiences.  A white man makes his fortune by playing a black man for white audiences.  This is America in all of its amazing contradiction.

Imagine you are a wealthy Virginia planter in the 1840s.  You want to entertain a young lady with an evening at the theatre.  You would never, ever take this innocent young lady to see black actors.  That would be disgusting.  But you pay large sums for great seats to see a white man with black make-up on his face playing a black man.  That is quality entertainment.

Further, our imaginary Virginia planter considers himself a good and moral man as he watches the show and buys a refreshing beverage for his lady while his slaves might watch the show from the "Servant's Seats" in a completely different portion of the theatre – the literal cheap seats.

Now America has a black president.  Some Americans truly can't stand to watch a real black man on the stage. Seeing a man of such intelligence and wisdom, elegance and grace on the stage of national and world politics truly angers them.

It's easy enough to condemn these people for being yahoos (and worse) -- for so they were then, and so they are now.  The challenge is to meet this boiling, irrational rage.  A stiff challenge, but one worth the effort.

A Difference Between Russian and American Film

Moving pictures were introduced to the public in a variety of ways.  For example, the Lumiere brothers projected moving pictures in the Paris Grand Café.  The new medium was efficiently democratic in a way – anywhere someone could set up a projector and a screen could become a theatre.

The first public accounts of displays of moving pictures in the U.S.A. came from journalists who had seen the new medium in exhibitions in the Edison Labs in New Jersey.  The exhibitions sometimes included accompanying lectures.  Soon, the exhibitions were given in lecture halls and the occasional up-scale vaudeville house.

Contrast that with Maxim Gorky's account of witnessing an early exhibition of moving pictures at the Nizhny Novgorod Fair in Aumont's Café Chantant. Gorky wrote of seeing Lumiere's  Partie d'ecarte, ". . . the cupidity of the players is betrayed by the trembling fingers and by the twitching of the facial muscles."

Aumont mainlined in prostitution. 

What is the difference of seeing moving pictures associated with science and progress and wholesome entertainment from seeing moving pictures associated with a house of prostitution?

An Answer to Tom Coburn:  (Little To Do With Theatre and A Lot To Do With History)

Even though I haven't lived in Oklahoma for more than twenty years, I still feel some responsibility for Tom Coburn.  I don't know why.  I'm certain Mr. Coburn is a good man and a good father.  But his understanding of American history doesn't make sense. 

I take as my text the remarks made by Mr. Coburn to the Debt Commission on Dec 1, 2010.  Mr. Coburn said:

"Nobody is looking at what the real problem is. And the real problem is us."

"We have way too much government and not enough of the thing that made America great, which is independence, personal responsibility and self-reliance. We have abandoned the principles which made America exceptional, which wasn't the government. It was the people. It was us relying on ourselves, not saying I can take a pass and depend on the government."

"And we're rotting. We're rotting as we sit here and speak today."

This argument relies on some of the same premises made by Thomas Jefferson. 

Jefferson believed strongly in the thrift and industry of the independent farmer.  Jefferson's belief in the thrift and industry of the independent farmer seemed to be more clearly exemplified in the life and work of Abigail Adams than Jefferson.  As we might recall, Mr. Jefferson's "hard work" relied strongly on the labor of his slaves.  And his "thrifty nature" left him in heavy debt on his deathbed. While a wonderful writer and "deep thinker," Mr. Jefferson showed few real qualities he claimed to admire.

Abigail Adams, by contrast, took care of the family holdings in Quincy over the course of many years and kept the operation afloat with the help of her prodigious family and paid help.

Abigail modeled the true qualities of the family farmer that I saw when I was a boy.  There was a time in the United States when farmers were truly independent.  Many were able to feed themselves, their families, and the nation through their work.  The farmers of my day were able to fix tractor engines, milk cows, slaughter pigs, raise chickens, and can and/or freeze food to keep their family from buying groceries at the market in town.

The number of people who live that life have declined precipitously.

According to government figures, there were about 6.8 million farms for a national population of about 127 million in 1935.  In 1992 62,000 farms accounted for about 50% of the nation's agriculture.  Only five years later in 1997 that number was 46,000 farms.    Today we have about 307 million people in the USA and only about 2% of the nation lives on farms and less than 1% claims farming as their profession.

According to the Oklahoma Historical Society there were about 203,300 farm families in Oklahoma in 1933 when the low commodity prices led to the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933.  By contrast the Oklahoma Department of Commerce notes that there were 4675 people in 2010 with jobs in Agriculture, Forestry, Fishing, and Hunting – a loss of 139 jobs in the category from 2005.  [Incidentally "Arts, Entertainment, and Recreation" was responsible for about 9,742 jobs in Oklahoma in 2010.]

Mr. Coburn, you came to Oklahoma in the 1960s.  It was a time when agriculture included several thousands more people than it does even now in your own state.

I know that the people of Oklahoma, like everywhere in America, prefer to think of themselves as self-reliant people.  That's a difficult thing to believe simply because most people today don't have the first idea of what it would take to really feed themselves every day without the assistance of a massive systemic infrastructure of food transportation and power distribution systems.

When the USA developed into an urban/suburban/exurban nation in the post-WW II era, the only way it could do so was with a highly complex system of shared responsibility.  An ever smaller number of people would supply food to the great populace so that the greater populace could diversify the tasks necessary to continually grow the system.

In one sense, Mr. Coburn is correct.  America could have developed in other ways.  The men and women returning from the battlefields in Europe and the Pacific in the 1940s could have had fewer children.  They could have denied more people from coming into the country. They could have denied higher education to the returning warrior.  They could have asked those men to return to the farms they had left. 

The country failed to make those choices.  One might regret those choices or not.  But the world is not in a place where that clock can be returned to 1945.  We have the system of urban/suburban living conditions that we have.

That system needs some centralized decisions so that the people who can no longer feed themselves can have:  reasonably healthy food and other living basics, reasonably safe places in which to live and work, reasonably clear "rules of the road" so that people aren't being robbed of the fruits of their labor, and reasonable opportunities for further growth and development.  And since we've developed this system in which people can't feed themselves, we've done what we can to protect people who otherwise can't care for themselves.

Now it may seem from time to time that means "too much government" to some. But the rhetorical flourishes that suggest we're rotting because of government ring hollow.  Mr. Coburn, is that what you tell the workers at Tinker Air Force Base when you visit them to ask for votes?  Do you castigate them for drinking too deep at the public tit?

Curiously, I imagine that most of the folks at Tinker think of themselves as self-reliant.

(Some material has been previously been published.)


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©2011 Nathan Thomas
©2011 Publication Scene4 Magazine

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, is a member of the theatre faculty at Alvernia College and a Senior Writer and Columnist for Scene4.
For more of his commentary and articles, check the Archives


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