Nov. 1, 2010


by Cindy Gregg

On this first day of November
it is cold as a cave,
the sky the color
of neutral third parties.
I am cutting carrots
for the chicken soup.
Knife against carrot
again and again
sends a plop of pennies
into the pan.
These cents,
when held to the gray light,
hold no noble president,
only stills
of some kaleidoscope
caught being pensive...
and beautiful,
in the eye of this beholder,
who did not expect
this moment of marvel
while making an early supper
for the hungry children.

"Monday" by Cindy Gregg, from Suddenly Autumn. © Wordplay Press, 2010. Reprinted with permission.

It was on this day, seven years apart, that two of Shakespeare's plays (books by this author)were performed for the first time: Othello in 1604, and The Tempest in 1611.

Othello was performed for the court of James I. In the "Accounts of the Revels at Court" from 1604, there is an entry that says: "By the Kings Maiesties plaiers. Hallamas Day being the first of Nouembar, A play in the Banketinge house att Whithall called The Moor of Venis. Shaxberd." Othello, the Moor of Venice was performed several more times before Shakespeare died in 1616, but it wasn't printed until 1622.

Richard Burbage, Shakespeare's friend and the leading man in his acting company, probably played the first Othello, just as he played Hamlet, King Lear, and Richard III. He definitely played him in later productions, and a poet described Othello as Burbage's "chiefest part, / Wherein beyond the rest he moved the heart." King James was a scholar himself and a serious patron of the arts — he gave his name to the King James Bible, and he and his wife particularly enjoyed theater, and so many of Shakespeare's plays were performed before the royal court. Macbeth was written specifically for James, who was fascinated by witchcraft. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, who preceded James, an average of six or seven plays were performed each year in the royal court. The court of James I averaged more than 20 each year.

And it was on this day in 1611 that The Tempest was first performed, once again for the court of James I. The Tempest tells the story of Prospero, a powerful magician and the former Duke of Milan who is exiled to a remote island with his daughter. He conjures up a storm to shipwreck his brother, who stole his throne. Prospero is one of the only Shakespeare protagonists who is not based on a known historical figure. But in 2008, a retired policeman-turned-amateur historian from Scotland named Brian Moffatt self-published a book called Death Resurrection and the Sword. In it, he explained his theory that Prospero is based on the real-life Francis Stewart, the Fifth Earl of Bothwell. He was the king's cousin, but he turned against James. He and his wife were said to be practitioners of witchcraft and magic, and Bothwell apparently tried to cast a spell to conjure up a storm and shipwreck his cousin, James, as he returned from Denmark with his new bride. The spell didn't work, and Bothwell was tried and acquitted, but later exiled, and he ended up dying in Naples.

Because The Tempest is Shakespeare's last major play, a lot of people think that Prospero is meant to stand for Shakespeare himself, and that his last speech, when he gives up his powers, is Shakespeare's own comment about the end of his career: "To the dread rattling thunder / Have I given fire and rifted Jove's stout oak / With his own bolt; the strong-based promontory / Have I made shake and by the spurs plucked up / The pine and cedar: graves at my command / Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let 'em forth / By my so potent art. But this rough magic / I here abjure; and, when I have required / Some heavenly music — which even now I do, — / To work mine end upon their senses, that / This airy charm is for, I'll break my staff, / Bury it certain fathoms in the earth, / And deeper than did ever plummet sound / I'll drown my book."

The theater scene at James' court must have gone downhill after Shakespeare's day, because a few years later, in 1614, a courtier wrote to his friend complaining of the constant plays: "We have Plays at Court every night, — wherein they shew great patience, being for the most part such poor stuff that, instead of delight, they send the auditory away with discontent. Indeed our Poets' brains and inventions are grown very dry, insomuch that of five new Plays there is not one that pleases, and therefore they are driven to furbish over their old; which stand them in best stead and bring them most profit."

It's the birthday of the playwright A.R. Gurney, (books by this author) born Albert Ramsdell Gurney Jr. in Buffalo, New York (1930). In the Buffalo of his youth, the theater was the center of town, and both of his grandmothers had season tickets to the theater. But none of his cousins would agree to go with their grandmas, so he went every Sunday, and he loved it. He decided that he wanted to be an artist of some sort, and when he was eight years old, he made a formal announcement at the family dinner table that he would not be going into his father's business.

His first major off-Broadway play was called The David Show, a satire of 1960s culture and politics, using characters from the Old Testament. It opened off-Broadway in 1968. Gurney was teaching at M.I.T. at the time, and on opening night a bunch of his students threw him a party — they brought him cake and a jug of wine. But then the play got totally panned by the New York Times critic Clive Barnes. He wrote, "We leave the smooth nothingness of Mr. Gurney's play with its empty intellectual beaches and gently lapping waters of inconsequentiality." It closed after only one night. Gurney was so distraught that he didn't want to go back and face his students, but they brought in another jug of wine and told him to stick it out.

And he has gone on to write more than 40 plays, plus one-acts, a libretto, and three novels. His plays include Scenes from American Life (1971), The Dining Room (1981), Love Letters (1989), Sylvia (1995), and most recently, The Grand Manner (2010).

It's the birthday of novelist Susanna Clarke, (books by this author) born in Nottingham, England (1959). She worked in publishing, then went to Italy to teach English, and while she was there she said: "I had a kind of waking dream about a man in 18th-century clothes in a place rather like Venice, talking to some English tourists. And I felt strongly that he had some sort of magical background — he'd been dabbling in magic, and something had gone badly wrong."

She decided to write a novel about this character, even though, as she said, "I really like magicians, but there was no reason to suppose anyone else would." She took a five-day science-fiction and fantasy class, and one of her teachers was so impressed with a short story she wrote in the workshop that he sent it to his friend Neil Gaiman, who showed it to an editor, who called her up and offered to publish it. So she started publishing short fiction, but her novel was slow-going. She was working as a cookbook editor for Simon & Schuster, and for years she got up and started writing at 5:30 in the morning, wrote for about three hours, and then went off to her day job. The novel took her 10 years to write, but finally she was done with the manuscript, called Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. It's the story of two wizards, one a handsome and charismatic young man named Jonathan Strange and one an uptight scholar named Gilbert Norrell. It isn't a book of high fantasy as much as a comedy of manners and a history of early 19th-century England during the Napoleonic Wars — with a lot of magic thrown in. When it was finally published, Susanna Clarke got as many comparisons to Jane Austen and Charles Dickens as to any fantasy writer.

But publishing Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell wasn't easy — it was 800 pages long, and the first few publishers turned it down, saying that it would be impossible to market such a book. But then Bloomsbury picked it up and was so sure it would be a success that they offered her a huge advance. Sure enough, the book stayed on the New York Times best-seller list for about three months.

From the archives:

It's the birthday of novelist and short-story writer Stephen Crane, (books by this author) born in Newark (1871). His novel The Red Badge of Courage (1895) came out when he was just 24. It's about the Civil War soldier Henry Fleming who runs away from his first real battle and wanders through the wilderness, stumbling on corpses and wounded soldiers, until he finally rejoins his regiment and fights well on the front line of a major battle.

Crane had been inspired to write the book by some old magazines with illustrated articles about the war, but people said it was the most realistic war novel ever written, and no one could believe that its author was a 24-year-old who'd never been in battle himself. Civil War veterans wrote into newspapers claiming that they had fought beside Crane in various battles. The whole experience made Crane feel like a fraud. He wrote to an editor at the time, "The nearer a writer gets to life, the greater he becomes as an artist." So he decided that he had to see a real war himself.

In 1896, he learned that there was a civil war brewing in Cuba, so he hopped a ship for Cuba on New Year's Eve. But before his ship got very far, it began to sink. Crane spent the next 30 hours in a lifeboat with three other men, paddling the 15 miles back to Daytona Beach, praying that they wouldn't capsize. Their boat was swamped just before they made land, and they had to swim to shore. One of Crane's shipmates was drowned. Crane spent the next several weeks writing about the experience in his classic short story "The Open Boat," (1898), which begins, "None of them knew the color of the sky."

Crane never did get to Cuba, but he finally saw a war in Greece, and wrote to his friend Joseph Conrad, "I have found [war] as I imagined it." He went on to cover the Spanish American War and watched the Battle of San Juan Hill wearing a white raincoat. But he died of tuberculosis in 1900, a few months shy of his 29th birthday. His writing career had lasted only eight years.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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