Tuesday, October 28, 2014

'Present mirth hath present laughter': Flashes of merriment, surprise and expectation in the theater

As a theater outsider since my school days, I've often wondered how directors and actors handle the leap from rehearsal to public performance, especially when it comes to anticipating audience response to comedy. [A more general consideration of laughter, its wellsprings and benefits, can be found here.]

Outbursts of merriment can be planned for, though not precisely. How long will they laugh? How much will they laugh? Knowing what's likely to generate laughs and what to do to keep the response from covering the next line or action is part of the preparation. Getting it right must be something like having a cast member who never shows up for rehearsals but is undismissably part of the show.

Phoenix's 'Old Jews Telling Jokes': laughing along with the crowd
A comedy audience is indelibly a player, and if you're doing something like  Phoenix Theatre's "Old Jews Telling Jokes,"  you wouldn't have it any other way. Laughter is infectious, so it delighted me to see the show's cast visibly share in the amusement on opening night last Thursday. This wasn't a matter of breaking character, as sometimes happens when a goofy mistake elicits titters in the audience that jump onstage and unsettle the actors. This show is a parade of deliberate howlers. Even when well-rehearsed, why shouldn't the cast revel  in the fun along with the paying customers?
EclecticPond's Macbeths in the midst of their rough night.

But I want to ponder Shakespearean tragedy, and compare intended and unintended humor as inferred by modern audiences. My first example will be a production of "Romeo and Juliet" I was part of in 1962; the second is EclecticPond Theatre Company's "Macbeth," which opened last weekend.

My paltry stage experience reached an early zenith more than 50 years ago in that high-school production of "Romeo and Juliet." I was cast as Lord Capulet — my largest role before or since.

Three performances were scheduled, a student matinee and two evening shows for families. My most demanding scene was the one where Capulet blows up at Juliet for her resistance to the nuptial match he intends for her. With the director's help, I had worked in rehearsal to ride a crescendo of sputtering rage at my daughter's stubbornness, little knowing her heart has already been given to Romeo. Paris was the husband I had picked for her, and that was that. I was ready to be brought to a boil.

Just after Capulet has turned his invective upon the Nurse, who has dared to pipe up, Lady Capulet interjects this mild admonition: "You are too hot." We had conceived Capulet as barely pausing at this interruption, storming right into his long exit speech, beginning "God's bread! it makes me mad."

So I was thunderstruck when the student audience burst into loud laughter at Lady Capulet's line, putting a hitch in my fine rage. I'm sure I looked confused or abashed, precisely the way Lord Capulet should not look at that point.
Program from 1962: Was I too hot as Capulet?

OK, so I figured that in the second performance I should expect to hear laughter after Lady Capulet's attempt to check my wrath and simply hold on to the character's anger, seeming to seethe wordlessly. But at this performance, there were so many adults in the room not inclined to find sexual innuendo in "You are too hot" that there was no laughter. I must have looked startled at the brief silence — also not what Capulet should convey at that point.

By the third night, I correctly guessed  there'd be no sniggering at "You are too hot," so finally I was able to charge into that exit speech the way I'd rehearsed it. God's bread, indeed!

People with more experience in theater than I — your numbers are legion — plus familiarity with student audiences surely have lots of stories about adjusting the rehearsed timing to take into account unanticipated laughter. But my other example from Shakespeare is more nuanced.

I first noticed it in 1971 back in my teaching days when I shepherded students from Atlantic City Friends School up to the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, N.J., to take in a performance of "Macbeth." Something that recalled my Capulet experience occurred with Macbeth's line after he has directed Macduff to the king's bedroom. There the nobleman's wake-up errand turns into horrified alarm at discovering Duncan's bloody corpse. In the few moments before that discovery, Macbeth talks with Lennox, who recounts disturbing signs of natural disorder throughout the previous night. Macbeth agrees, saying: "'Twas a rough night."

A sizable laugh followed immediately at the McCarter, and I winced a little.  Macbeth's terse reply — like "You are too hot," I figured — must nowadays come across as an informal colloquialism. Students compelled to attend Shakespeare will always be looking for such. We often say we've had a rough night when we haven't slept very well. In several "Macbeth" performances I've attended since, though, the line has always drawn laughter.

It seems a regrettable place to find humor. But over the years it occurred to me that Shakespeare, who understood humor (like so many things) better than anybody, might have intended to raise a chuckle here. After all, the audience has just been "warmed up" by the Porter's drunken response to the knocking at the gate. At the EclecticPond performance I attended, a male voice in the audience sounded so immediately warmed up by the Porter's appearance I suspected him of being a plant. But I have too much respect for the director's taste to sustain such a suspicion.

This grim play's rare outburst of humor is already undergirded by the tragic irony of the Porter's imagining he serves at the gate of hell rather than the gate of Dunsinane. Hell, Dunsinane — one and the same, and not just in a tipsy man's fantasy, it turns out. Shakespeare is treading that borderline that always gives a humorous edge to irony, no matter how horrible the events it surrounds.

Everything Macbeth says in the scene after the Porter lets Macduff and Lennox enter the castle is crisply ironic. Macduff asks if the king is stirring. Macbeth replies: "Not yet." What the assassinated king is capable of stirring is nothing less than the rest of the play.

Macduff apologizes for enlisting Macbeth in his assigned errand to wake the king. Macbeth says, in effect, "no trouble at all" — "The labor we delight in physics pain." If you enjoy your work, in other words, any trouble you take to do it is cured. Choking back misgivings, Macbeth is trying to convince himself he's enjoying the murderous work required to assure his ascent to the throne he covets. Before long any chance of enjoyment will be dashed.

Lennox's eloquent catalog of the night's omens recalls similar speeches in "Julius Caesar" and "Hamlet."  By having Macbeth put a fool's cap on Lennox's description, perhaps the playwright was mocking his portentous descriptions of natural disorder in those plays of a half-decade before.

So it is a funny line, oddly enough: "'Twas a rough night." Not enough "to set the table on a roar," like Yorick in Hamlet's recollection, but pretty good stuff for its context.

And it properly gives one pause, even though Lennox blandly tops it with "My young remembrance cannot parallel / A fellow to it."

Then all hell breaks loose as Macduff returns with news of regicide. Humor disappears conclusively from "Macbeth." No more laughs, but the audience will remain free to savor "'Twas a rough night"  — and not feel juvenile about it.

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