Friday, February 22, 2013

Revisiting The Classics

Every now and then it helps to revisit a classic work of art from a different perspective than the one you've grown used to. After witnessing the American Repertory Theatre's new production of The Glass Menagerie (starring Cherry Jones, Zachary Quinto and Celia Keenan-Bolger), Ben Brantley wrote a fascinating ArtsBeat column for The New York Times entitled "Theatre Talkback: Old Works, Born Anew." That very same day, The Hollywood Reporter published an article entitled "I Was Rob Lowe's Snow White: The Untold Story of Oscar's Nightmare Opening."

These articles only served to reinforce the underlying message of J.C. Lee's new play, Luce, which was recently featured as part of the Aurora Theatre Company's series of new play readings for its Global Age Project. An extremely talented and prolific young playwright, Lee has found a provocative new way to ask theatregoers the age-old question: "How well do you really know someone you love?"

Playwright J.C. Lee as a "gay bandit"

Last weekend's Winter Program from the San Francisco Silent Film Festival offered audiences a chance to wonder just how well they knew two classic tales which, over the years, have acquired so many cultural imprints and branding opportunities that people assume they know these stories upside down and inside out. As audiences discovered while seated in the Castro Theatre, such is not always the case.

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The original version of Snow White was first published 200 years ago by the Brothers Grimm in 1812.  Since then, the fairy tale has appeared in numerous versions.

On October 31, 1912, a Broadway play entitled Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs premiered at the Little Theatre with Marguerite Clark starring as the titular princess. While most people are familiar with Walt Disney's 1937 version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (which was the first full-length cel animated feature film), the original Broadway production served as the inspiration for 1916's silent film version of Snow White (also starring Marguerite Clark).

Walt Disney saw the 1916 silent film version when he was a 15-year-old newsboy. Its enchanting prologue begins with a Santa Claus-like figure placing a series of dolls on a dining room table. The dolls magically come to life and enact the story of Snow White.

There are some unexpected laughs for modern audiences early in the film when Prince Florimond (Creighton Hale) arrives at the court to request his cousin's hand in marriage. The audience roared when the evil Queen Brangomar (Dorothy Cumming) noted that the Prince was so much younger than her. After insisting that Florimond wait a year before returning to her castle to claim and marry Snow White, Brangomar tersely explained the child's sudden absence by claiming that "she's been sent to a boarding school for backward princesses."

Marguerite Clark as Snow White with Creighton Hale
as Prince Florimond in 1916's Snow White

The silent version of Snow White does a beautiful job of capturing the young maiden's innocence and generosity of spirit. Is it any wonder that, when discovered sleeping by the seven dwarfs, one of them comments "I don't know if girls can talk."

Snow White (Marguerite Clark) with one of the dwarfs

The Walt Disney Family Museum is currently presenting a special exhibition entitled Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: The Creation of a Classic (which is on display through April 14). A restored print of the entire 1916 film has recently been uploaded to YouTube by the Cinema History Channel. You can watch it in its entirety below:

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Most of my experiences with the Faust legend have been through opera. These include:

Back in the late 1960s, when I first started attending opera, Gounod's Faust was frequently performed by the Metropolitan Opera and the New York City Opera at their new homes in Lincoln Center. The New York City Opera created a new production of Boito's Mefistofele for Norman Treigle, which became a high point of the American basso's career. In 1989, Sam Ramey starred in Robert Carsen's brilliant production of Mefistofele that was televised over PBS and will be revived this fall at the San Francisco Opera).

In 1986 I had a curious opportunity to experience all three operatic treatments of the Faust legend. That fall, the San Francisco Opera revived Wolfram Skalicki's production of Gounod's Faust with Francesca Zambello directing a cast headed by Justino Diaz, Luis Lima, Alan Titus, and Mary Jane Johnson. The New York City Opera revived the famous Tito Capobianco production of Mefistofele with John Cheek the title role, Robert Grayson as Faust, and Marianna Christos pulling out all stops for Margherita's mad scene.

Earlier that year I had suffered through a bizarre production by David Pountney at the English National Opera (on loan from the Deutsche Oper Berlin) which managed to be both boring and unnerving. In my review for the Bay Area Reporter, I wrote:
"Stefanos Lazaridis's dangerously shaky and decidedly clumsy sets included long banks of steel file cabinets which were precipitously perched above the stage and then slanted down toward the footlights at an angle of nearly 45 degrees. Below this unit piece, people disappeared into a steeply-raked, slatted floor which rested above a series of trapdoors. Although there were Nazis, an old car, and three mysterious students from Krakow in this production, I will readily confess that this was one instance where I didn't have the slightest fucking idea of what was happening onstage. The only thing of which I can be sure is that numerous chairs in London's ancient Coliseum Theatre fell apart as soon as their occupant sat down in them that night. So, for that matter, did the guiding concept behind this unfortunate an extremely bizarre production."
San Francisco's Silent Film Festival presented F.W. Murnau's 1926 version of Faust (the last film he made in Germany) as the grand finale of its Winter program. Those familiar with Murnau's work from films like 1927's Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans know him to be a master of lighting and shadow. In the following clip from Faust, one can see how he has used smoke and fire for dramatic effect.

Murnau's adaptation of Goethe's Faust also adds a motivating factor that is missing from the Gounod and Boito operas. Early in the film, Mefistofele and an Archangel are seen arguing over who rules the earth. When the Archangel mentions Faust, he inspires Mefistofele (who spreads an ominous cloud that carries the plague throughout Faust's village). Frustrated by his inability to help villagers whose families are dying from the plague, Faust then summons Mefistofele (who is only too happy to indulge the aged philosopher in exchange for Faust's soul).

Murnau's film is a filled with haunting images that range from terrified faces to a giant Mefistofele hovering over a miniature village. Emil Jannings is a fleshy force of malevolence while Gosta Ekman's portrayals of the younger and older Faust are often quite touching. Camilla Horn's Gretchen and Yvette Guilbert's lusty portrayal of Marthe Schwerdtlein provided strong dramatic foils to the two male leads.

With so many musical adaptations of the Faust legend available on recordings (Hector Berlioz's 1846 oratorio, La Damnation de Faust quickly comes to mind), I found the music by Alex Smoke Menzies in the above video clip to be quite disappointing. On Saturday night, local organist Christian Elliott supplied a much more appropriate and foreboding accompaniment on the Castro Theatre's Mighty Wurlitzer.

Cultural anthropologist and ethnomusicologist Pieter degree Rooij

However, in researching clips from Murnau's Faust, I stumbled across a fascinating essay by the Dutch cultural anthropologist and ethnomusicologistPieter de Rooij, who described how he had essentially reworked Murnau's film to match up the action with the musical score written for another version by the American composer, Timothy Brock. De Rooij points to a new area of combined dramaturgy and musicology that might find its home in Cyberspace. His essay (in its entirety) reads as follows:
"This video, a special edit prepared and presented by me, Pieter de Rooij, shows the first part of the domestic version of Murnau's Faust in a slightly different way than usual. It's the result of an experiment I did to find a way to combine the 'domestic cut' of Murnau's film Faust with Timothy Brock's brilliant score, written for another version of this film, the so-called 'export version.' Let me explain a little bit further what I've done and how and why I did this."
Gosta Ekman and Emil Jannings in F. W. Murnau's Faust
"F.W. Murnau's masterpiece-film Faust was released in 1926. There are seven known versions of the film. The most well known version is the so-called 'export version' with English titles, that premiered in December 1926 in the USA. That export-version is 10 minutes longer than the newly discovered 'domestic version' a couple of years ago, the domestic version being the original 'German print' (the one with German titles that was shown at the time in German cinema theatres). The export print is slightly darker and softer, lacking the detail and clarity of the domestic version. Incidentally, the differences between the export and the domestic version are considerable. There's no difference in terms of the overall structure of scenes and story line, but the pacing and lengths of scenes often vary greatly. There are often striking differences in the order and in the composition of shots, the domestic version certainly being the superior of the two."
Mefistofele (Emil Jannings) and Faust (Gosta Ekman)
fly through the sky in F. W. Murnau's Faust
"Timothy Brock's orchestral score, written for the Faust-export version is a masterpiece, a fantastic accomplishment, perfectly keeping with the operatic and epic nature of the film. The way Brock uses operatic- and leitmotif-storytelling and story developing techniques in his music for the export version of the film is absolutely stunning. But, as soon as Brock's score is played with the domestic version, picture and sound are almost everywhere out of sync, that is, numerous details and leitmotifs of the score then miss the point, lose their 'iconic' meaning and strength and simply can't work as they do so perfectly in the export version. Isn't it possible then to combine Brock's music with the greatly cut and very clear print of the domestic version? The answer is 'no' when you play the music along with the domestic film in its original speed. The answer is 'yes' (that is, in my opinion) if you manage to adjust the speed of numerous sequences of the domestic film. Only when countless sequences are 'manipulated' in terms of duration the music is able to work once more on the pictures (and vice versa) as it does in the export version."
Emil Jennings as Mefistofele in F. W. Murnau's Faust
"I took it as a challenge to try to make Brock's music work as well in the domestic cut version of Faust and with this aim in mind I've edited the complete domestic Faust. I think the result of my editing is quite interesting. After the changes I made in the duration of countless sequences (a time-consuming job that requires precision and a lot of patience) I personally think this brilliant music now also works very well for the complete domestic version. For me the result has been quite spectacular. I've tried to keep the duration manipulation of sequences within reasonable measures, in order to maintain as much as possible the natural look, tempo and feel of the domestic Faust version. I use all of Brock's score and all of Murnau's film, there's no material left out by me. Enough said, hope you'll find this 'experiment' as fascinating as I do and I hope you'll enjoy this video." [Pieter de Rooij / August 2011]"
I mean, really....Who knew? You can watch de Rooij's version of Murnau's Faust in its entirety in the following clip:

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