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Cover art for "Silent Shakespeare."

Cover art for “Silent Shakespeare.”

Hello once again from your pal Louis Butelli! We have completed our first full week of rehearsals for Robert Richmond’s production of Twelfth Night, beginning April 30 at the Folger Theatre. We’ve got a really spectacular ensemble of actors working on this beautiful play, and we’re having lots of fun getting to know each other, and creating the world of Ilyria. You should probably go ahead and pick up your tickets now by clicking here.

I’d just like to thank you so, so much for reading along here in the Production Diary. Over the next several weeks, I – in conjunction with some other members of the company – will keep you posted on how rehearsals are progressing, and hopefully shed some light onto the experience of presenting a play by William Shakespeare in the year 2013, nearly 450 years after the plays were written.

If you’ve been following the blog, you know that I’ve undertaken a little experiment. With the invaluable assistance of my very own “Library Sherpa,” Circulation Specialist Alan Katz, I’ve been digging into the Folger Shakespeare Library’s world-class collection of books, music, art, and other media relating to the work of William Shakespeare, in order to prepare for Twelfth Night.

In prior posts, I shared some thoughts about the original Feste, Robert Armin (click here to read), and about the Folger’s amazing collection of Prompt Books (click here to read). In this post, I’ll address one of the more surprising components of the Folger collection — Shakespeare on Film.

Feste_screenshotBefore I get into it, though, I just want to say a couple of things about notions of “high-brow” and “low-brow,” when it comes to all of the choices we have, as a species, for our entertainment and our art.

Shakespeare himself, whoever he was, wrote popular plays for a wide audience. These plays were successes at the box office, among the critics (with some notable exceptions), and, perhaps most importantly, with the large, diverse crowds that packed the theater to see them. If you had a pulse and a penny, you could go to the Globe (etc.) and see the latest Shakespeare play. Of course, you could just as easily head across the street to see some bear-baiting. Who would know?

And, frankly, who would care? Nobody of any class, ruling or otherwise, has ever exempted themselves from the odd guilty pleasure. To be fair, historically, the ruling class has usually encouraged and disseminated the most garish of our entertainments – and the finest of our art.

As a child of the 1980’s, filmed entertainment has been an enormous part of my life. Movies and television have been a constant, nearly parental presence for about as long as I can remember. If I took a second right now to brainstorm a list of “best possible feelings,” you know, sensually, aesthetically, nostalgically, psychologically, etc., one of them would certainly be arriving at a movie theater and sitting back into a comfy chair with a bag full of popcorn as the house lights dim.

And let’s not even get into the Internet.

Screenshot of Malvolio, "I will smile!"

Screenshot of Malvolio, “I will smile!”

It’s amusing to me that early movies, I mean the silent ones in film’s beginnings, were generally considered the lowest of low-brow entertainment. More amusing still is the fact that numerous early filmmakers turned to Shakespeare for subject matter, in order to bring a little bit of narrative heft to the proceedings. Of course, there have been many, many adaptations and interpretations of the plays put on film since then, to triumphant and fascinating effect, but those early ones were really pretty darned cool.

One of many great things about the Folger collection is that it doesn’t ask anyone to make large, sweeping decisions about “high-brow” and “low-brow.” Rather, it continues to collect any materials relevant to the greater understanding of Shakespeare, including a DVD copy of Ten Things I Hate About You, a 1999 film adaptation of The Taming Of The Shrew, directed by Gil Junger, and starring Heath Ledger and Julia Stiles.

Knowing and sharing my affinity for movies, when I headed back into the Library, Alan already knew that the collection includes a DVD copy of Silent Shakespeare. All we had to do was enter the title into HAMNET, submit the call number to the Circulation Desk, and head to the Audio Visual Room to watch.

Here’s the précis of Silent Shakespeare, from distributor Milestone Films:

“In the early days of the cinema, pioneer filmmakers created these seven charming, moving and magical films based on the plays of William Shakespeare. Considered a ‘lowbrow’ medium, the fledgling movie industry sought to elevate its status by immortalizing the classics and hiring the greatest actors of the day. As most of these early photoplays were only one or two reels long, adapting the Bard proved to be both challenging and inspiring. Whatever these films gave up in language and length, they made up for in exuberance, cinematic artistry, visual wit and bravura acting.

Digitally restored to video by the British Film Institute’s National Film and Television Archive, the DVD features King John (Britain, 1899, with Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree), The Tempest (Britain, 1908), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (USA, 1909), King Lear (Italy, 1910, with Francesca Bertini), Twelfth Night (USA, 1910), The Merchant of Venice (Italy 1910, with Francesca Bertini) and Richard III (Britain, 1911, with Sir Frank Benson).”

Rather than talk too much about the experience of watching, instead, I’ll share some clips that I found on YouTube so that you too can enjoy.

The Tempest: Clip of Act 1, scene 2 (1m, 35s). Prospero, Miranda, and Ariel discussing their situation, with Special Effects Shot of the shipwreck. Click here.

Screenshot of Viola and Olivia from "Twelfth Night" silent film.

Screenshot of Viola and Olivia from “Twelfth Night” silent film.

NOTE: the following three clips are completely silent. May I suggest playing some music while you watch? Piano pieces work really well, but anything will do. And, if you watch a second time, try it with a different piece of music. It spins everything in a completely different direction.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream: The whole movie. Part 1 (5m, 45s) click here; Part 2 (5m, 48s) click here.  The film rolls were short, so they had to make short films!

Twelfth Night: The whole movie (12m, 13s). Click here.

OK! Much more to come. Please feel free to leave a comment or a suggestion. I’d love to hear what you thought of those clips, and what sorts of things you think Alan and I ought to search for next. Also, seeing as we’re in rehearsals for Twelfth Night, we’d love to hear your ideas about the play, so that we can steal them. Get your tickets here!

All the best! Until next time!