Trodding the Bard

“Inspired brilliance,” I thought as I settled into the arachnid chair, the latest addition to the club’s furniture family.

Side view of the arachnid chair.

Admittedly, after a couple of minutes I was feeling like the villain in a Roger Moore James Bond movie, but its comfort could not be denied, and its design wasn’t likely to present me with much competition to sit in it.  At least not from Carrie, anyway.  Most of our friends are still amazed that she raised no objection to keeping my pet tarantula once we were married.

Maybe it was the chair’s influence, or maybe it was simply because I needed to think about something less serious for a while, but my thoughts eventually wound up at last week’s Weld Chat, which was quite entertaining.  Not to mention effective, since I was still thinking about it four days later.

Weld cover photograph by David Garrett. Cover art and design by Traci Edwards.

Weld Chat is a weekly conversation via social media sponsored by Weld For Birmingham, a highly-regarded (and deservedly so) source of news and entertainment in the Greater Birmingham area, and its website, WeldBham.com.  To participate, make sure you’re following @WeldBham on Twitter, log in at noon Fridays, and look for the #WeldChat hashtag. Topics can be rather diverse, ranging from current issues affecting the Magic City to what kind of music you listen to on a rainy day.

Last week, moderator Walter Lewellyn, Weld’s online editor, opened with the question, “Do you have a favorite Shakespeare play?”

The Taming of the Shrew,” I replied.  “I was Curtis in our high school production.”

“I was Benedick in a middle school production of Much Ado About Nothing,” Walt said. “For a comedy, it was pretty tragic.”

“Many of Shakespeare’s were.”

“I think it had more to do with my performance than the Bard, I’m afraid.”

Heather Milam, Weld's savvy, congenial, and whimsically capricious general manager.

“We also read The Taming of the Shrew in high school,” said Heather Milam, Weld’s general manager.  “Loved it. First Shakespeare play for me. I think we even took a field trip that year to the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. We had some remarkable teachers. Can’t scream their praises enough.”

“I know what you mean,” I said.  Heather and I both grew up in small towns. “I’m thankful for those who exposed me to exotic things and made me wonder what’s out there beyond the county line.”

I have John Turner to thank for introducing me to Shakespeare.  He was first my neighbor and later my art and drama teacher.  I would eventually have read the plays and sonnets anyway, in Alan Perry’s senior English literature class, but John saw to it that I first encountered the enigma called Shakespeare when he staged a production of the Bard’s 16thCentury comedy during my sophomore year.

Robert Mantell, the emotive matinee idol.

For who-knows-how-many small town residents at the turn of the previous century, their first introduction to Shakespeare came through Scottish actor Robert Mantell.  Recognized as one of the most emotive actors who ever trod the boards, Mantell had a reputation for on-stage histrionics that could fill a theater with his presence and bring a cheering audience to its feet.

One of the last great blood-and-thunder Shakespeareans, he became a Broadway star on the opening night of Victorien Sardou’s Fedora in 1883.  In the title role of Princess Fedora Romanoff, the well-known actress Fanny Davenport wore a felt hat that soon became a popular fashion known by the title of the play.  Davenport spent 35,000 bucks from her own savings to produce the play, but Mantell’s antics stole the show from her and propelled him to leading man status.

Fanny Davenport, Mantell's leading lady in Fedora.

At the height of his career, he earned the stupendous sum of $10,000 a year, a portion of which he evidently failed to pay as alimony to the first of his three ex-wives.  He left New York to avoid a subsequent arrest warrant, and with him took Shakespeare to the heartland.

“By covered wagon, iron horse, horseback, and muleback…Mantell brought Macbeth to a hundred one-horse towns across the country that otherwise might never have heard of the Bard,” David Carroll wrote in The Matinee Idols, his wonderful 1972 retrospective of 19th Century theater and the silent film era.  “In local town halls, Mantell and other itinerant troopers made the best of hick audiences, dowdy costumes, and cramped prosceniums to bring Shakespeare before the American hinterlands.”

I can’t say that I’ll ever regret that my first experience with Shakespeare was studying for the role of Curtis, but I’m almost envious of those who first heard his words as orated by Mantell, a thespian the likes of which this century will never see.

Mantell and company staging The Merchant of Venice in a town hall, complete with orchestral accompaniment.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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