Category Archives: Guest posts

Meeting the (historical) players

Note: This is a guest posting from Annaliese McSweeney, dramaturg for our Summer MainStage production of Her Majesty’s Will.

In the delightful world created by David Blixt in Her Majesty’s Will, from which Robert Kauzlaric’s play is adapted, the rich and colorful characters stand out among the descriptive writing. Perhaps the reason these characters feel so alive and fleshed out is because they were all based on real life nobles, playwrights, and rogues (with the exception of two smaller characters, Rookwood and Higgins). Although Blixt admits that he took certain liberties with historical accuracy and filled in many blanks with his own fancy, he sees this more as a “bending of the truth” rather than ever outright breaking it. True to the spirit in which the book was written, Kauzlaric’s play features and highlights many of the real life personalities Blixt introduced to us.

Here’s a run-down of the historic characters and what are known to be the facts of their lives. Let’s meet our players.

Kit Marlowe
Born just a few months before William Shakespeare, Marlowe’s flamboyant and unpredictable nature was legendary. His schooling at Cambridge was riddled with speculation and mysterious extended absences that led to the rumors that he was working for Sir Francis Walsingham as a spy. He was only allowed to receive his degree after the Privy Council sent a letter in his defense citing an unspecified service for Her Majesty, the queen. In London, he associated with contemporary writers, wrote plays, and was credited as the leader of what would eventually be called University Wits. He would go on to become one of the leading tragedians of his day and one of Shakespeare’s most important predecessors. His play, Tamburlaine, is among the first of English plays to be written in blank verse. It, along with The Spanish Tragedy, is considered the beginning of the mature phase of Elizabethan theatre. His plays are known for their overreaching protagonists and broadly heroic themes, but he also displayed dexterity with the ability to approach great tragedy from multiple, complex perspectives. His reputation as a playwright was undeniable, but his personal life was complicated. Later in life, Marlowe was formally accused of being a heretic and a sodomite, which were both punishable by death in Elizabethan England.

John Lyly
Lyly graduated from Oxford and became the private secretary to Edward de Vere, a significant patron of the arts. During this time he earned a reputation as a noted wit. Both of his novels, Euphues, or The Anatomy of Wit (1578) and its sequel, Euphues and his England (1580), were immediately popular and for a while Lyly was one of the most fashionable and successful writers in England. He was known for his comedic prose, lively dialogue, and precise use of word placement. These traits of his writing are seen as a primary influence on Shakespeare’s romantic comedies. Lyly later turned his attention to playwriting in an attempt to get appointed as the Master of Revels (who reviewed all the plays prior to performance in Elizabethan England).

Robert Greene
Greene was one of the earliest English writers to support himself at a time professional authorship was virtually unknown. A graduate of Cambridge and awarded and honorary degree from Oxford, Greene was an early adversary of Shakespeare due to his lack of formal education. (He actually called Shakespeare an “upstart cow” in one of his published works.) In his personal life, however, Greene associated with a slew of underground criminals, whom he often wrote about in his commercial pamphlets. Cutting Ball, a notorious cut-purse was a supposed close friend and his sister, Em Ball, was rumored to have been Green’s mistress and mother of his son. His writing displays a fantastic linguistic capability, grounded in the extensive knowledge of the classics combined with contemporary understanding of modern languages.

Helena of Snakenborg
Helena was a Swedish noblewoman who came to England on a state visit with Princess Cecilia. Queen Elizabeth and Helena developed a friendship despite their difference in age, and she appointed Helena as a Maid of Honor in her court and later as a gentlewoman in the privy chamber (an attendant to the queen in her private quarters). Helena became one of Queen Elizabeth’s most intimate and trusted aides, often controlling access to the queen. With her marriage and the subsequent death of her husband, Helena inherited the title of Marchioness, making her the fourth senior peeress in the country, behind the queen’s cousins. After her second marriage, Helena became the queen’s deputy, often attending baptisms of noble’s children and other lesser ceremonial events in the queen’s stead. She was also the chief mourner at the queen’s funeral procession.

Sir Francis Walsingham
Walsingham was born into a well-connected family of gentry and attended good schools. Along with hundreds of Protestants, he went into exile after the coronation of Mary I and lived abroad studying law in Italy and becoming fluent in Italian and French. After his return to England, Waslingham entered into the service of William Cecil, Queen Elizabeth’s principle secretary, performing confidential tasks for the minister. He soon took over a small network of secret agents Cecil had established and was appointed to the Privy Council. He was made a principle secretary. As secretary, he handled all royal correspondence to foreign ambassadors and determined the agenda of council meetings. He wielded great influence in all matters of policy and in every field of government. Queen Elizabeth clearly valued his loyalty, dedication to her security, and unvarnished counsel. Notoriously sparing with her honors for public servants, Walsingham was one of the few exceptions and was knighted in 1577.

Walsingham is best known for his legacy as the creator of an extensive intelligence network. He employed double agents, informants, experts on codes and ciphers, experts in the art of lifting a wax seal so a letter could be opened undetected, and he promoted covert propaganda, disinformation, and agents provocateurs as he sought to gather and master as much information as possible concerning government administration, economics, and practical politics at home and abroad. He secured his informants through bribery, veiled threats, and subtle psychological gambits. He often paid for intelligence with his own money. His network of spies and informants that spanned France, Scotland, the Low Countries, Spain, Italy, and even Turkey and North Africa. Walsingham was and continues to be seen as a pioneer in intelligence methods and as a seminal figure in the British secret service. His wide-ranging education and experience mixed with his psychological shrewdness were perfectly suited for this role. He would use this network to spend nearly 20 years trying to bring down Mary Stuart, whom he saw, along with the Spanish, as the biggest threat to the English crown.

John Savage
John Savage served in the Army of the Duke of Parma and was a courageous and zealous Roman Catholic. When he met a few conspirators of the Babington Plot, he volunteered his services, proving to be a valuable ally. He was one of the six nominated to assassinate Queen Elizabeth so that Mary could take the crown and he swore an oath to do so.

Sir Thomas Lucy
A knighted noble, Lucy sat two sessions of Parliament, was a justice of the queen’s peace, and an ardent hunter of recusants (Catholic dissenters). He became high sheriff of the Warwickshire in 1586. Shakespeare is said to have later satirized him in Henry IV, Part 2 and The Merry Wives of Windsor with the character of Justice Shallow.

Thomas Phelippes
Phelippes was a linguist with a genius for deciphering letters, recruited by Walsingham. He could speak French, Italian, Spanish, Latin, and German and attended Walsingham’s spy school that taught cipher and forgery among other things. Phelippes soon became Walsingham’s assistant and England’s first cryptanalyst. He also created forgeries and gathered secret correspondence. He is most remembered for his forgery of the “bloody postscript” that ensnared Mary Stuart in the end. Later in life Phelippes’ employment with the government was sporadic and he struggled with debt, but even in prison he was sometimes sent coded letters to decipher by William Cecil.

Gilbert Gifford
Gilbert was a Catholic double agent who played a significant role in the Babington Plot. He came from a well-known Catholic family in Staffordshire. He was admired in school for his intellectual abilities, but was perceived to have a deceitful character and was later expelled due to unknown circumstances. While abroad in France, he met John Savage, who was embroiled in the plot against Queen Elizabeth and who vowed to carry out her assassination. Shortly thereafter he returned to England, was arrested, and turned by Walsingham to serve as a double agent. Back in Paris, he got a letter of recommendation to place him in Mary Stuart’s household and to set the wheels in motion for her entrapment. Over the next few months he made many visits between Paris and England and became well acquainted with other Catholic co-conspirators. Before the plot came to fruition, he fled England and both sides suspected him of treachery, and his true loyalties were never quite certain.

Dick Tarlton
Richard Tarlton was an English actor, Queen Elizabeth’s favorite court jester, and the most popular comedic actor of his time. He is credited as the creator of the “stage yokel” and was known for his ability to improvise dialogue in and around a script. His jests were thought to have an aggressive and subversive wit about them, ready to take on authority figures, even the queen. He was known for being the first jester to study natural fools and simpletons to add to character performance. He was also an experienced fencer, a decent singer, and a dancer. During performances it was said that he only needed to poke his head out from behind the curtain in order to make the audience laugh. He also policed the hecklers and caught them with a cutting rhyme if he found them to be disruptive. After the shows, he performed bawdy song-and-dance extra-theatrical pieces and enjoyed staying to match wits with the crowd. On top of all this he was also an accomplished playwright for the Queen’s Men, although none of his plays survived. Tarlton was immensely popular with both the court and the lower classes during his lifetime and his was genius was undisputed. His performances were thought to be inspiration for Shakespeare’s Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the court jester Yorick in Hamlet.

Cutting Ball
Cutting Ball was a notorious cutpurse and thief of the Elizabethan age. He was the brother to Em Ball who was the mistress to Robert Greene. Greene was said to have employed Cutting Ball as a bodyguard at one time or another. Greene also wrote much about the London underworld, probably inspired by his time with Cutting Ball and Em. Cutting Ball was rumored to have been a friend of Shakespeare and Marlow as well.

Em Ball
Em Ball was a prostitute and most likely the sister of Cutting Ball. In history she is remembered as “a woman of a very bad reputation” and one of ill repute who is a footnote aside two famous men. Em Ball may have shared a home in Holywell Street in Shoreditch with Richard Tarlton at the end of his life (or he may have simply taken refuge with her when he fell ill) since that is where he died in 1588. She was also believed to be the mistress of Robert Greene and lived with him later in life. They are rumored to have a son named Fortunatus together.

Robert Dibdale
Dibdale was an English Catholic priest and eventually a martyr. He was born in Stratford-upon-Avon to a Catholic family. He went to Rome and then to college in France before returning to England. Immediately on his entry into the country he was arrested and imprisoned. Once released, he returned to France for his ordination. Using an alias, he became a chaplain in a private manor in Buckinghampshire until he was arrested again. Given the 1585 Act making it a capital offence to be an ordained Catholic priest in England, he was found guilty of treason and sentenced to be hung, drawn, and quartered. He and two other priests were beatified in 1987.

Henry Evans
Evans was a scrivener (clerk or scribe) and a theatrical producer. He was responsible for the Children of the Chapel and the Children of Paul’s at Blackfriars and then the head of the Earl of Oxford’s Boys at court. He is described by historians as “unsavory” and “devious”.

Huffing Kate
A real figure as far as accounts that appear in the published Tarlton’s Jests: And News Out of Purgatory, but there is little other evidence about her life at the time.

Blacke Davie
A real figure as far as accounts that appear in the published Tarlton’s Jests: And News Out of Purgatory, where he appears in a sword fight with the famous Tarlton, but there is little other evidence about his life at the time.

Young Will’s inauspicious beginnings

Note: This is a guest posting from Annaliese McSweeney, dramaturg for our Summer MainStage production of Her Majesty’s Will.

Welcome to the inauspicious beginnings of our young hero and someday poet and playwright of great renown – William Shakespeare! Although very little is known about the specifics and inner-workings of William’s early life, for a young man of his social status, it is surprising that what is known about him has survived.

William was born to John and Mary Shakespeare in April 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire. John, although of yeoman status, had somehow managed to marry above his station into one of the most prominent aristocratic families in Stratford. Despite both families’ Catholic backgrounds, the Shakespeares were a respectable heritage with strong ambitions. John rose to become a valued civil servant in the community. In addition to being a glover, or glove-maker, John owned a shop that traded in wool and farm produce. He may also have dabbled in being a money-lender, a dubious enough position at the time. By the time William was born he already owned multiple properties in town and had held a couple of elected positions in the town including Ale-taster (Stratford had a prestigious reputation for its ale) and chamberlain (a position which had daily meetings, was responsible for clearing town streets, and heard local petitions). In 1565, John was elected as alderman, a position that would have come with free education for the children in the local grammar school. It is assumed that William learned to read and write in Latin, and that he would have studied the Greek and Latin playwrights and poets at the local King’s New School in Stratford. John’s ambitions continued to climb, and he was soon appointed as high bailiff (or mayor) in 1568, then to his highest held position of chief alderman in 1571. William would have been expected to follow in his father’s honorable (although restrictively local) footsteps. Feeling a sense of accomplishment, John applied for a coat-of-arms to formally give the family the credibility he had worked hard to achieve. The application, a costly endeavor for such a man, was denied, perhaps because of the family’s Catholic connections.


William Shakespeare’s believed birthplace

Unfortunately, John Shakespeare’s prosperity was not long-lived. The 1570s brought trouble for the Shakespeare family. By the end of the decade, John Shakespeare had fallen behind on his taxes, stopped paying the poor relief, and needed to mortgage Mary’s inherited estate. The boys were removed from school to help with the family businesses and so came the early end of William’s formal education. John was fined for missing court dates and church. There is no clear evidence as to what caused this sudden downward spiral from a promising career as a dedicated civil servant, although many scholars focus on an inability to manage finances.

Things got worse for the Shakespeares when 18-year-old William announced that 26-year-old Anne Hathaway was three months pregnant with his child. This news would have been devastating to the family name. A hasty marriage was arranged with special permission from the Bishop of Worchester and William and Anne were married on November 27, 1582. Susanna was born in May the following year. Two years later, twins Hamnet and Judith were born. It is assumed that William helped his father’s business during this time, or possibly took up secondary work as a teacher or lawyer. William was rumored to have acted as a money-lender when he relocated to London, so perhaps it is during this time that he learned the specifics of that trade. Since there is no evidence that has survived to indicate what he may have been doing to support his young family, many theories have cropped up to fill in the blanks of William’s life. One thing does seem to be consistent, though. It seems pretty clear that Anne and William’s relationship was strained and distant, despite its scandalous beginnings. John’s and the family’s fortunes continued to flounder and by 1586, John was removed from the board of alderman due to a lack of attendance. By 1592, John was stripped of all his civic duties.


Anne Hathaway’s family cottage

The years between 1585 and 1592, and where our play Her Majesty’s Will finds the young William, have been known as “lost years” in Shakespeare’s history. There are no official records between when his children were baptized and his first writing credits in London, therefore it is a time of incredible speculation by scholars. How does a barely-educated poor, struggling man from Stratford-upon-Avon become one of the greatest writers of the English language? Scholars though the ages have tried to crack the mystery of how Shakespeare established a successful career when he arrived in London. Common theories include: a local legend about poaching deer from Sir Thomas Lucy’s property and a quick escape from his punishment (complete with a revenge ballad); that he headed to London to be a horse attendant at the theatres; or that he was working as a lawyer or soldier based on the knowledge he displays of these professions in his plays. There is no evidence to support any of these claims, however. The most plausible speculations, with a little (but still not a lot) of evidence are the following three theories: 1. That Shakespeare was a teacher during this time, either in a private household or as a schoolmaster (this story was recounted by the son of one of his fellow actors in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men) which would have allowed him time to study and work on his craft; 2. That Shakespeare was recruited by a travelling troupe of actors that came through Stratford (most likely the Queen’s Men who came to town short one actor in 1587); or 3. A recently-developed economic theory that suggests far from struggling, John Shakespeare’s business was tied into shady dealings, so William Shakespeare left Stratford to be his father’s agent of trade in the booming city of London (this would have been how Shakespeare could have supported himself with his artistic pursuits). In any case, it is reasonable to assume that whatever the reason Shakespeare left Stratford and his family behind, it must have been fairly compelling, since he gave up a fairly respectable lifestyle for one with the lowly rabble of the theatre profession.

By 1592, the first recorded indication that Shakespeare was in London writing plays appeared. Robert Greene made reference to him (and a dig or two) in his last written work, referring to Shakespeare as an “upstart cow” reaching above his rank by trying to match the university-educated men around this time. At the time there was the belief that a man could not change his own destiny, but that artistry needed to be fostered by a patron or developed through formal education. By 1594, however, Shakespeare’s plays were being produced regularly and exclusively by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, a company in which Shakespeare would later be a managing partner. The company would go on to become the King’s Men after Queen Elizabeth’s death.

As for his personal life, much examination and speculation has come from studying his sonnets and his plays – from what actually happened during those lost years to whether or not Shakespeare had a homosexual relationship and even whether or not Shakespeare penned all his own works. While many theories exist, little evidence supports one over the other. For example, while many scholars point to the sonnets and extensive cross-dressing themes in his plays as explicit proof of Shakespeare’s support for homoerotic relationships, others point out a different understanding of sexuality in the Elizabethan age in which the homosexual identity did not exist, separating act from identity in a way that is foreign to modern understanding. So, the best we can do to understand and interpret Shakespeare’s heart of hearts is to guess.

It seems almost silly to try to sum up the legacy of Shakespeare’s plays for he is widely regarded as one of, if not the, greatest writer of the English language. His total body of work consists of approximately 38 plays, 154 sonnets, two narrative poems, and a few other verses. He produced most of his work over the 24 years between 1589 and 1613. Perhaps the greatest achievement in his parent’s eyes was that he was able to secure a coat-of-arms for his father before John passed away.

Shakespeare’s literary legacy changed the approach to Elizabethan theatre. He is credited with expanding the potential of characterization, plot, language and genre. He used the same devices that were popular in the age of Elizabethan theatre, not only to move the plot, but also to explore the complete range of emotions and conflict within his characters. He wrote plays that attempted to capture human emotion in a way that transcended his time and place. Shakespeare wrote within the conventional style of the day, but his innovative adaptations to language and flow changed the experience of the play, so much so, that critics have questioned how someone with such little education could revolutionize the genre. Without any evidence to the contrary, the vast majority of scholars do give him the appropriate credit. As his contemporary poet and dramatist, Ben Jonson, put it, he “was not of an age, but for all time.” David Blixt points out early in his book that theatre breathes life again into the playwright and characters every time the play is picked up and performed. Because of this, William Shakespeare continues to live a very long and celebrated life.

Madeleine L’Engle

Note: Julia Santha, Assistant Director for our upcoming production of A Wrinkle in Time, prepared this biography of author Madeleine L’Engle.

Madeleine_lengleMadeleine L’Engle, beloved author of A Wrinkle in Time and more than 60 other books, librarian, mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother, was born on November 29, 1918. L’Engle spent her early childhood in busy New York City, preferring to write stories and poetry in school rather than focus on her lessons. Although her teachers pushed her to conform, from a young age L’Engle was compelled to write and follow inspiration, rather than the rules of others—somewhat like our protagonist, Meg Murry. At the age of 12, L’Engle and her family moved to the French Alps, where she attended an English boarding school. There, her love for writing was first formally encouraged. Years later, armed with journals full of stories and a mature sense of confidence, L’Engle enrolled in Smith College, where she studied English, focusing on classics and her creative writing. After graduating with honors, L’Engle returned to New York, to work as an actress and continue her writing.

In her early years, while living in a studio apartment in Greenwich Village and supporting herself on an actor’s salary, L’Engle published her first two books, met her husband, fellow actor Hugh Franklin, and gave birth to her first daughter. Eventually, the family moved to Connecticut, settling in a tiny farm village. There, L’Engle enjoyed solitude and the village community. She and Hugh had two more children and together the family revitalized an old general store that became a humming village center. It was during these years that L’Engle wrote A Wrinkle in Time. At first, L’Engle struggled to have her novel published, as editors warned her that it was too mature for children, but not quite a book for adults. But L’Engle would not change her work, declaring that it was a novel for and about people, adults and children alike. Wrinkle was finally published in 1962 and garnered immediate success, winning the prestigious Newbery Award “for the most distinguished contribution to American Literature for children” in 1963.

After years in the peaceful countryside, L’Engle and her family returned to New York. There, L’Engle became the writer-in-residence and librarian at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, where she would maintain an open office for 30 years. L’Engle continued writing, lecturing, and serving as a librarian and mentor in her community until her death in 2007.

A book, too, can be a star, ‘explosive material, capable of stirring up fresh life endlessly,’ a living fire to lighten the darkness, leading out into the expanding universe.” –Newbery Award Acceptance Speech: The Expanding Universe (Aug 1963)

Returning to Wrinkle

Note: This is a guest posting from emeritus ensemble member James Sie, adaptor for our Winter MainStage production of A Wrinkle in Time, returning to Lifeline for the first time since 1999.

Let’s do a little time traveling, shall we?

Wrinkle-in-Time-1990
A Wrinkle in Time, Lifeline Theatre, 1990

Twenty-six years ago, Lifeline embarked on our first stage adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. It’s hard to believe that more than a quarter of a century separates the current production from that one, and yet here I am, tinkering with a new draft of the script while simultaneously reliving the excitement of the first one.

In 1990, I was not yet thirty. Lifeline itself was relatively young. We were just getting into the groove of the whole adaptation process, inspired by the successes of previous adaptations by Christina Calvit (ensemble member adept), and our shared love of literature. A Wrinkle in Time was my first MainStage adaptation, and I was grateful for the opportunity. I was also Lifeline’s marketing director, and I remember running to Kinko’s every week with graph paper and X-acto knife in hand, to literally cut and paste up the ads for the Friday newspapers. I was pretty narrowly-focused, then: Chicago and Chicago theater were my world, and that was fine by me. It was a different time. I had hair. Lots of it.

sieandlengle
James Sie with Madeleine L’Engle.

Twenty-six years is a long time.

WrinkleinTime
Press photo for A Wrinkle in Time, Lifeline Theatre, 2017

Now, I am returning to Wrinkle, a bit wrinkled myself, and so much has changed. Dropboxed scripts instead of dot-matrix print-outs. The internet for research, so if I need an Arabic proverb I can run a search, instead of trying to find someone to talk to me at the United Arab Emirates Consulate. I now read (digitally) those sections of the paper I used to toss aside in search of the theater section. Skype production meetings. Spellcheck. I still cannot get the pagination in Microsoft Word to work quite right, but I have a feeling that’s not technology’s fault.

Wrinkle in Time rehearsal photo
Rehearsing some tessering for the 2017 production.

My own perspective has changed, too. The art of adaptation is largely one of selection and enhancement, and I find I am focusing on different parts of the book. Certain lines from the book that I had cut out before now jump out at me with a new urgency. I had once identified with Meg, the misunderstood, perpetually angry hero and heart of the book; now, I have a teenager of my own. I know only too well the intense emotional maelstroms middle grade students experience on the daily and I ache for Meg and her alienation, but with the empathy of a parent, and that informs my script choices. When Meg is sent off alone on a mission, it is not just her father that cries out, “She’s only a child!”

And yet.

What has not changed, what has endured, is Madeleine L’Engle’s message of love, of personal strength and uniqueness, of the need to stand together to battle against the powers of darkness. These themes resonate as strongly now as they did at the book’s publication in 1962. Back then, we were deep into the Cold War; the threat of Communism made Americans feel like we were on the brink of some kind of annihilation. Today, many experience that same pervading disquiet, the same sense of a world badly askew. L’Engle’s book feels more timely than ever. In working with director Elise Kauzlaric to rediscover these deeper resonances, L’Engle’s words have proven to be both a comfort and an inspiration. In her universes, love and kindness may be temporarily extinguished, but they are just the qualities that will save us in the end. “May the right prevail!” Mrs. Who declares in the book, and her words give me hope that they will. I am as grateful to be working on this production as I was to be working on its maiden voyage all those wrinkles ago.

Joe Buck: The Real/Reel Cowboy

Note: This is a guest posting from Patrick Runfeldt, dramaturg for our Winter MainStage production of Midnight Cowboy.

It may seem a bit of a stretch to insinuate that Joe Buck has any measure of “true” cowboy in him. He’s certainly not the strapping presence of John Wayne (or even the Marlboro man) who is embedded in the very fabric of our culture as the gun-toting, swearing, and quaintly charming hero of the West in film and folklore. Frankly, he can’t even live up to the rhinestone-studded shoes of his contemporaries from the saloons of Texas to the nightclubs of New York. Digging a little deeper, however, Joe’s situation — young, homeless, and unemployed — meets the exact criteria of the cowhands of early ranching times.

Before the great innovations of turn-of-the-century America and the migration of railroad routes farther and farther West, the best way to transport cattle was via miles and miles of herding. Most cattle ranchers of early pioneering times were either quick to give the practice up or were consolidated into larger cattle ranch holdings by wealthy landowners (or even the occasional businessman from the East). As a result, the practice of actually herding, defending, and moving the cattle across the vast plains was handed down the line to a ragtag band of youthful, unemployed vagabonds who could hardly afford to scrape together the money for a decent meal, let alone a six-shooter or a pair of fine leather boots. These uneducated, rough and tumble men were a melting pot of recent immigrants (Latino, Chinese, etc.) and poor white farmworkers whose immigrant families had initially come West seeking fortune in gold mining or other quick wealth pursuits. Many were orphans, due to disease, poor crops, or the general exposure to the elements that shortened lifespans in the pre-industrial West. Few believed in the “American Dream” that was being formulated, fought for, or defended prior to and after the Civil War. All of them knew how to drink, heavily. In the shadows of mountain passes, these young men passed long winters defending miles of cattle from wild animal attacks, thieves (even though they were known to steal a certain number of cattle for themselves), and the dangers of the natural terrain. Though they tried several times to unionize, these cow hands were poorly paid, prone to lawlessness and robbery (they had to get their money from somewhere, right?), and sometimes just didn’t know enough to know of a better life.

In short, they were much like Joe and Ratso.

The myth surrounding these downtrodden workers began to develop as their own labors died out. In the late 1880s, a promoter named William Frederick Cody began to travel and ride under the name “Buffalo Bill” in a sideshow revue that began to attract huge crowds throughout the rapidly industrializing eastern half of the United States. Oftentimes, Buffalo Bill would recruit unemployed cow hands who had a trick or two up their sleeve, dress them up, and then craft a show and story out of their garish costumes (think rhinestones, spurs, and the elaborate designs you’d see in a 50s TV show). Dime novels quickly picked up on the popularity and TV shows and movies would follow from the 50s through the present.

Enter Joe Buck. As Joe grew up in the 40s and 50s, his formative ideas of masculinity, power, and romance would have all been formulated and shaped by the cowboy show. Sprinkle in the larger-than-life memories of his would-be father figure, Woodsy Niles, and it’s safe to say that Joe probably always wanted to be a cowboy. The problem, however, is that he never tended cattle. He never even saw much of the open plains. He lived in an era of paved roads, beauty parlors, and overly large Cadillacs, and his childhood was spent anywhere but outdoors. Several times throughout the play, Joe is faced with a dangerous situation and can only be protected by enacting his own method of “cowboy” justice. When he fails to play upon his cowboy persona to live a life of lawlessness, he falls further and further into squalor, distrust, and chaos. By the time he is able to reconnect with his image on a pedestal (the literal pedestal onstage) of Woodsy Niles, it might be too little too late. No matter what, the end result (real or imagined) had already been written for him. A cowboy he very well may be…

Prosperity?: The Gospel according to $3,000 suits (Or, a Conclusion.)

Note: This is a guest posting from Patrick Runfeldt, dramaturg for our Winter MainStage production of Midnight Cowboy.

A cursory glance at the themes of Chris Hainsworth‘s adaptation of Midnight Cowboy reveals a striking outlier not much present in James Leo Herlihy’s novel: religious promises of prosperity. Certainly Joe Buck attends Sunday school at the behest of his grandmother Sally and attempts to be vaguely involved in “church”, but the significance never reaches the forefront of the novel. Not so with Hainsworth’s adaptation, wherein the audience is guided and shadowed by the mysterious Mr. O’Daniel. He is a half-crazy street “preacher” mixed with just the right amount of foreshadowing present in predecessors like a Greek chorus or griot. O’Daniel provides Joe’s character with both diagnosis and decree at various moment, cycling back through a series of emotional peaks and valleys throughout Joe’s checkered past. The overall narrative, however, never strays from a clear trajectory of the “prosperity gospel” preached by such famous televangelists as Joel Osteen and his predecessor Oral Roberts. Perhaps an examination of Roberts’ wildly successful and ultimately troubled personal history will allow for further understanding of the implications of Hainsworth’s thematic move and, ultimately, what it all means for Joe in the play.

Oral Roberts was one of the most famous and celebrated televangelists of the 1950s through the 1980s and his career spanned near to his death in 2009. His wealth so far exceeded his needs that he opened an entire university dedicated to his philosophies, with the entire campus decorated in real flakes of gold. The dark corners hidden behind the TV lights, however, always ate away at Oral; his entire empire was founded on donations from mostly poor Americans who were convinced that what he was preaching would turn their economic and personal lives around. His philosophy (better known as the aforementioned “prosperity gospel”) has inspired the model for megachurches and religious profiteers for more than half a century now: “Plant a seed—meaning, send a check—and God will reward you with health, wealth, and happiness”. Oral’s own life (despite his material prosperity) was undercut by his distance from his family, his religious flock (several lawsuits and audits tarnished his ministry organization and his university), and, in his final hours, his God. Oral’s oldest son committed suicide in his 30s due to unrelenting pressure from his father regarding his queer sexuality and desire to remain away from the television spotlight. His oldest daughter died in a plane crash that he mysteriously half-predicted. He was left with his son Richard as the most likely (and least likable) air to his televangelist throne. Always in the spotlight from a young age, Richard became infatuated with fame, which ultimately led to a long history of drug abuse, public infidelity, and the near ruin of his father’s religious empire. Mired in audits, lawsuits, and negative speculation, Oral died reciting a series of his own sermons and prophecies, based on what he had heard from his God. The echo of his ministry lives on in the slowly crumbling university that he left behind, bathed in tarnished gold.

In Hainsworth’s adaptation, O’Daniel approaches Joe with a proposition similar to Oral’s prosperity gospel, but instead of money he asks for Joe’s physical self and his time. Having loosely grown up with an image of the Everyman Jesus in his mind, Joe is quick to listen, but slow to understand the implications of giving his own possessions away to obtain some kind of happiness (or, at least, the illusion of happiness). O’Daniel keeps reappearing throughout the drama representing both a corner of Joe’s conscience and the false promises of such a philosophy. It is less a question of whether Joe would have been less moribund if he had chosen O’Daniel as his companion instead of Ratso and more a series of landmarks pointing out how Joe’s selflessness ultimately fails him over time. Joe is profoundly lonely because he cannot figure out what he wants (as Perry so aptly noted), not for a lack of trying to relate to others. When he gives up Anastasia, Sally, and Bobby respectively so that they can try to make the most of their lives, he sacrifices his own desires. At the end of the drama, Joe is lonely not because he cannot articulate what he wants, but because what he wants and whom he wants to be with have been put out of his reach by forces beyond his control.

Focus on Artists’ Lifestyles – A Smattering of Socialite Poets

Note: This is a guest posting from Annaliese McSweeney, dramaturg for our Fall MainStage production of Miss Buncle’s Book.

This article about the poetry and artists’ lifestyle in the 1930s provides insight into the inspiration for the character, Countess Marina Pavlova, in Christina Calvit’s adaptation of Miss Buncle’s Book. Christina created this character to help Miss Buncle on her journey through the play. The character Christina drew is a mix of the figures highlighted below.

Bright Young Things

In the late 1920s in London, a social group emerged that was referred to as the “Bright Young Things”. Described as “attention-seeking, flamboyant, decadent, rebellious, promiscuous, irresponsible, outrageous and glamorous,” they were the original celebrity personalities – defined in the eyes of the public by their raucous parties, bohemian outlooks, public practical jokes and overall extravagance. The movement started with upper class women hosting famous and boisterous treasure hunts all around town. These events attracted young men who, eager to join in the action, provided mobility for the group with their new cars and extended the events to day trips into the countryside. The larger the group, the more elaborate the parties became for the London socialites, the more raucous the nightlife they represented, and the more attention they got from the public. These Bright Young People were from the generation that was too young to fight in World War I but were reacting to the changing circumstances of the waning aristocracy and the rapidly changing social landscape in Britain. The group had an odd mix of the upper class socialites and the hard-core bohemian fringe, both choosing to live lives of leisure, which created an environment for an unusual number of writers, as well as other artists, some more dedicated to and more lasting in their art than others. Within their troupe, they encouraged and supported each other’s projects, particularly in their writing careers. They would publicize each other’s books and some of the higher-class members opened up their homes as meeting spaces. The more affluent members even financially supported writers’ groups in order to feel a greater sense of participation in the movement. By 1931, interest from the press and the public’s infatuation with the group began to wane since the excesses they were displaying became distasteful in the face of worldwide depression; however, some of their number did go on to become quite successful in the artist domain.

Bright Young Things at one of the infamous dress-up parties.
Bright Young Things at one of the infamous dress-up parties.

Here are some of the women who published poetry from the group or profited from writing about the Bright Young Things.

Edith Sitwell – Born into an aristocratic family, she and her two younger brothers had a significant impact on the art world of the 1920s. Influenced by the French symbolist movement, her greatest contribution to the modernist movement was as an editor, but she wrote her own poetry as well. Her work was stylized with a theatrical and grand use of emblems and diction. Robert K Martin explained:

Although she always remained a poet committed to the exploration of sound, she came to use sound patterns as an element in the construction of deep philosophic poems that reflect on her time and on man’s condition. [… She should be remembered as] an angry chronicler of social injustice, as a poet who has found forms adequate to the atomic age and its horrors, and as a foremost poet of love. Her work displays enormous range of subject and of form.

In her social life, she became “passionately attached” to the homosexual Russian painter Pavel Tchelitchew, and she never married. She was a strong advocate of London’s poetic circle, to whom she was unfailingly generous and helpful, even so far as to opening her home up as a meeting place for local poets.

Sylvia Townsend Warner – Educated at home and with a strong musical and literary background, she was first introduced to the writing world by being instrumental in getting Theodore Powys’ novels published. She was primarily a novelist and poet, known for changing the way unmarried women were represented in fiction at the time, but also a talented musicologist, a diarist and letter-writer, a political journalist, an occasional translator and biographer, and a prolific short-story writer. She published a joint collection of poems with Valentine Ackland, her lover in 1933. By 1935, Sylvia and Valentine became committed members of the Communist Party, attending meetings, fund-raising and contributing to left-wing journals.

Nancy Mitford – The eldest of the six legendary Mitford sisters, Nancy was a novelist, biographer, and journalist known for her novels on the upper class social scene and her life in England and France. She began writing in 1929 and her first novel was published in 1931, despite having no prior formal writing training. Her novel was a semi-autobiographical piece about her time as part of the Bright Young Things. During the war, she worked at a bookstore, which became a meeting place for the London literary society and her friends. Her online biography says, “She hid her deepest feelings behind a sparkling flow of jokes and witty turns of phrase, and was the star of any gathering.” Although this quote suggests she was unhappy in her personal life, she found great success later in life as a writer – publishing multiple novels including some worldwide bestsellers.

Anna Akhmatova

Anna Akhmatova is considered one of the greatest women in Russian literature and a political and poetic ideal. Having joined the poetry group Acmeists in St. Petersburg, she married the group’s leader in 1910. After a few years, the two of them moved to Paris to immerse themselves in the culture and gain experiences of the poetic lifestyle abroad. Upon returning to Russia as a leader of Acmeism in her own right, she praised the virtues of lucid, carefully crafted verse in reaction to the vagueness of the Symbolist style that dominated the Russian literary scene of the period. To the group’s ideals, Akhmatova added her own elegant colloquialisms and psychological sophistication that demonstrated full control of the subtle vocabulary of modern intimacies and romance. In her writing, a small detail could and was meant to evoke a whole gamut of emotions. Her first collections were published as early as 1912, but in 1917 her primary themes of tragic love morphed to include the civic, patriotic, and religious motifs of the changing Russian society; however, she did not sacrifice her artistic conscience and personal intensity in developing her style. Her personal life was rocky and hindered by the political landscape in Russia at the time. In 1921, her ex-husband was executed under the new regime, and during the 1930s her son and her third husband were imprisoned while a close friend died in a concentration camp. She didn’t publish any poetry between 1921 and 1940 as there was an unofficial ban on her poetry by the government. During this time she took on other forms of literary work – translations, as well as literary criticism. Throughout her career, while she faced plenty of government opposition, she was beloved by the Russian people because she refused to abandon her country in their difficult political times.

Sources and Further Reading

Academy of American Poets Website. “Anna Akhmatova.” http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poet/anna-akhmatova

Freidin, Gregory. “Anna Akhmatova.” Encyclopedia Britannica.com. http://www.britannica.com/biography/Anna-Akhmatova

Johnson, Ben. “Bright Young Things,” Historic UK. http://www.historic-uk.com/CultureUK/Bright-Young-Things/

The Mitford Archive. “Nancy.” http://www.nancymitford.com/nancy

The Poetry Foundation Website. “Edith Sitwell.” http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/edith-sitwell

Sylvia Townsend Warner Society. “Biography of Sylvia Townsend Warner.” http://www.townsendwarner.com/biography.php

Waters, Sarah. “Sylvia Townsend Warner: the neglected writer.” Appeared in The Guardian on March 2, 2012. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2012.mar/02/sylvia-townsend-warner

Tea Time with Mrs. Featherstone Hogg

 

Note: As an introduction to the world of Silverstream, this narrative account of the characters and the Society they represent has been created by production dramaturg, Annaliese McSweeney, inspired by the characters created by D. E. Stevenson in Miss Buncle’s Book and Christina Calvit’s adaptation of those characters for the stage production.

Martel Manning as Stephen Bulmer, Katie McLean Hainsworth as Mrs. Featherstone Hogg, Kate Hildreth as Mrs. Carter, and Elise Kauzlaric as Vivian Greensleeves
Martel Manning as Stephen Bulmer, Katie McLean Hainsworth as Mrs. Featherstone Hogg, Kate Hildreth as Mrs. Carter, and Elise Kauzlaric as Vivian Greensleeves

Tea Time with Mrs. Featherstone Hogg

Oh dear! Barbara Buncle realized she hadn’t heard a word Sarah Walker was saying. She had let her mind wander once more. But it is just so interesting to watch the people around her! She really should pay better attention to Sarah since she is always there when you need her. She hardly ever overlooks Barbara, and never judges her for her shabby clothes. Sarah’s lack of concern for things like that is probably what has kept Sarah on the outside of the social circles of the likes of Mrs. Featherstone Hogg and Mrs. Carter, but none of that really matters to Sarah, which is what Barbara loves about her. While Sarah was the kindest woman you could ever meet, her stories about her sweet little twins and her good-hearted husband couldn’t keep Miss Buncle’s attention like watching the hustle and bustle of Silverstream society in Mrs. Featherstone Hogg’s drawing room.

Speaking of, Barbara’s eyes catch the flashy host of this afternoon’s tea. As the richest lady in town, Mrs. Featherstone Hogg regularly hosts an afternoon tea party with a poetry reading in her home to help improve the lives of those around her, if only she could serve better coffee! Considered “new money” and filled with ideas of her own self-importance, she is constantly trying to impress the other wealthy neighbors and to assert her position of influence in the town. She does not speak much to Barbara, of course, because she is such an unimportant person, but when she does, Barbara could not help feeling it was good of Mrs. Featherstone Hogg to bother to speak to her at all. Mr. Featherstone Hogg is more tolerable, but has no problem letting his wife run the show; after all, it is easier than fighting with her. The town only ever takes notice of him as Mrs. Featherstone Hogg’s husband, not a person in his own right.

Miss Buncle’s thoughts wander to Colonel Weatherhead who is talking to his neighbor, Mrs. Dorthea Bold. Since he retired from the army, he can spend his days as he wishes, often at teatime with other members of the landed gentry. He is gallant and jocular and the ladies appreciate his social mannerisms. A kind man at heart, he is accustomed to helping and serving others when needed, but he also enjoys a good fight with the plants in his garden. Colonel Weatherhead often helps Mrs. Dorthea Bold deal with pesky workmen who don’t take a woman seriously. Widowed and living in her grand home alone, she is always bright and cheery and despite the workmen, tremendously independent. Barbara really must make plans to have Dorthea over for tea soon.

Mrs. Bulmer gets up to make her excuses to leave, a typical occurrence. Every time, Margaret heads home early to put the children down for their nap before Stephen tries to work on his book. Living a privileged life, Stephen has dedicated his days to writing the Life of Henry the Fourth, but everyone knows he does so very seriously. In fact, Margaret has to be careful not to cross him. That is very difficult, however, when he is ever so touchy and sometimes the neighbors do notice (although they always pretend not to). Needless to say, the atmosphere at the Bulmer’s home is a little tense, but Barbara has never heard Margaret complain because she loves her darling children so much, which is more important than her own peace of mind.

Mrs. Goldsmith interrupts Barbara’s thoughts by offering her a fresh scone. The town baker, Mrs. Goldsmith knows each member’s routine and what type of bread they prefer, and Barbara wonders what other secrets she knows. Not invited as a guest, Mrs. Goldsmith is working this afternoon and has only stopped here to drop off the fresh baked goods.

Before she leaves, Mrs. Goldsmith stops to say hello to Mr. Dick, Mr. Fortunum, and Mr. Durnet. Barbara thinks to herself that they look a bit out of place in this setting, staying off to their own, and talking among themselves on their brief break before heading back to their normal lives and jobs. Mr. Dick runs the local guesthouse at which Mr. Fortunum has staying and Mr. Durnet is working class, but old and hard of hearing and everyone just puts up with him.

Barbara notices a few new faces in the room. That young woman next to Mrs. Carter must be her granddaughter; although Barbara thought she was much younger by the way Mrs. Carter had talked about her. Mrs. Carter is from an old Society family in Silverstream with quite a bit of influence in London, even if she is an old stick in the mud. Of an older generation with charm and manners, she is regular entertainer and friendly with most of the ladies of the town. Having been neighbors for a long time, Barbara and Mrs. Carter get along just fine, although her options of the “youth” these days are a bit old fashioned for Barbara’s tastes. Perhaps living her young granddaughter will change that.

Her granddaughter, Barbara seems to remember was her name was Sally, seems interesting. On the surface she looks spunky and free-spirited. According to her grandmother, Sally has been living in town (London) with her father who is an influential diplomat and traveling the world entertaining her father’s acquaintances. Sally has no problem speaking her mind, as Barbara has already seen her speak up excitedly in response to prim grandmother. Barbara wonders if she could be the breath of fresh air Silverstream needs.

Vivian Greensleeves is talking to another new face, the new vicar, Ernest Hathaway. Barbara has heard some interesting rumors about Ernest. The only son of a wealthy investor, he has come to town to follow in the footsteps of his uncle, who is also a religious man. An intellectual, generous, and good-hearted man, Ernest seems to be settling into caring for this town and tending to its flock well. With a privileged background and high quality tastes, no wonder he has attracted the attention of Mrs. Greensleeves. She is pretty woman who enjoys pretty things. Originally from town, Barbara suspects she only moved to the country because she is cutting back since her husband’s death. In any case, this new scheme of hers will be interesting to watch unfold.

In another corner, Isabella Snowdon is sitting with Miss King and Miss Pretty. Miss Snowdon is the righteous and proud daughter of another higher-class family still living at home. Quick to talk of her own accomplishments, she is not always the best listener. Miss King and Miss Pretty are two unmarried orphans, who have intertwined their lives to look after one another. They are regulars about town together and Barbara quite enjoys their company. They compliment each other well – Miss King is bold, forward, and confident, whereas Miss pretty is docile and tends to “lean” on others. They have a nice quiet life, with just enough to be comfortable without worry, although Barbara wonders if Silverstream is a little too dull for them.

Barbara’s attention snaps back to Sarah talking about her husband, who is the town doctor. John is a kind, well-respected Scotsman, with no patience for fake illnesses. Like her husband, Sarah is intelligent enough to help anyone, even her husband, work through the most difficult problems, although she would never talk about it to anyone else. Sarah is a genuine and transparent person, which is a rare thing in Silverstream, indeed! Just as Sarah asks Barbara her opinion on the subject, and Barbara is about to be caught out for not paying attention, Mrs. Featherstone Hogg calls the ladies and gentlemen in her drawing room to attention. It was time to begin the poetry reading. This class of people is expected to be refined and cultured, and if Mrs. Featherstone Hogg needs to be the one to make sure that happens, she is willing to take on that task, if only to prove that she can do it.

Who is D. E. Stevenson?

Note: This is a guest posting from Annaliese McSweeney, dramaturg for our Fall MainStage production of Miss Buncle’s Book.

DES

Meet Dorothy Emily Stevenson. She was the kind of woman who wrote on the sofa with her feet up and a green baize board on her lap while she smoked her cigarettes. She was a devoted wife, mother of four, and a “lovely cuddly granny” who played Scrabble with her granddaughters. But also, she was the author of over forty-five novels that were written throughout sixty years, including Miss Buncle’s Book, the source material for Lifeline’s upcoming fall production. A prolific writer during her lifetime, she was an international bestseller and to this day she has an international fan club who affectionately call themselves “Dessies” after her.

Dorothy Stevenson was born in Edinburgh in 1892. Her father was a lighthouse engineer and she enjoyed a privileged upbringing. While she was well-educated by a series of governesses at home, her father refused to send her to college because as she said in an interview, “he didn’t want a blue stocking girl in the family,” meaning that he thought it was improper to have an intellectual or literary young woman in the household. He simply did not think that it was worthwhile to educate a woman beyond primary school. Stevenson had showed an interest in writing from the age of eight, although she often had to hide her poetry and stories from her family due to their disapproval, and began publishing her writings in 1915. In 1916, at the age of 24, she married Captain James Reid Pepole and began to keep a diary about her life as an army wife. She had four children before 1930, the eldest of which died while away at school in 1928.

Although she had previously published some books of her poetry, her first novel, Peter West, was published in 1923 and was not very successful. Her second attempt fiction was a happy accident that was inspired by her own diary. She had lent it to a friend whose daughter was marrying a lieutenant in order to give her an idea of what life as a service wife would be like, but the friend liked the writing so much that her family read it aloud and laughed so hard they cried. They encouraged Stevenson to publish it, but instead she drew on it to write what would later become Mrs. Tim of the Regiment in 1932. Mrs. Tim has gone on to become one of Stevenson’s most beloved and popular characters. It was through this story that Stevenson recognized and developed her skill for characterization and her interest in interpersonal relationships of everyday life. She wrote another book before publishing Miss Buncle’s Book in 1934, the first of another series of one of Stevenson’s most beloved characters. Both Mrs. Tim and Miss Buncle have become staples of Stevenson’s stories, each having their own series of books as well as being woven into other stories and making cameo appearances in other books. Stevenson’s worlds of her books were often intertwined, so her characters were able to visit one another from time to time. Stevenson more or less wrote a novel a year from then until 1969. That year her husband passed away and it was to be the end of her writing career as well. She passed away in 1973 and is buried with her husband in their hometown of Moffat, where she and her family lived for nearly 30 years. Over her lifetime Stevenson published over 45 novels, and three have been published posthumously.

D. E. Stevenson is most commonly remembered for her “light romantic novels,” although over the course of her career she also wrote in a variety of genres: war novels, science fiction, and a few spy thrillers. Much of her work could be described as “fictional biographies,” but she also demonstrated the ability to move outside of her comfort zone in terms of content. While her body of work as a whole is difficult to categorize, her stories are always driven by character development and rich personalities. Her books look at the intricacies of the human condition and are filled with the nuances, manners, and details of the historical period, which make them familiar and yet unique. Through it all, her light-handed humor makes it all the more enjoyable.

In recent years there has been renewed interest in the novels of D. E. Stevenson, despite the fact that many of her books were out of print for quite some time. More than four million of her books had been sold in Great Britain alone, with another three million sold in the United States and there was always an active demand for them in the second-hand market. In 2008, Miss Buncle’s Book was re-published by Persephone Books, followed shortly by Mrs. Tim of the Regiment by Bloomsbury Books in 2009. Since then, three other Miss Buncle books have been re-published as well as four of her other books. After her death, three unknown novels were found and published by her granddaughter, who also later published two unfinished manuscripts. The Dessies, Stevenson’s fan club, have a worldwide following with members in America, Canada, France, Australia, New Zealand, Scotland, Northern Ireland and England. They keep in touch through the Internet and attribute new technology with a having a hand in bringing them together and renewing interest in D. E. Stevenson’s books. Many of them traveled to her hometown for the champagne toast and reveal of her previously unpublished novels in 2011.

“I am grateful for all my blessings; amongst them the Gift of Storytelling, which seems to please and amuse so many people all over the world.”

DES to American friend Jewelene Epps Jones, November 1973

Sources and Further Reading

D. E. Stevenson Website maintained by Susan Dot Daly:
http://dalyght.ca/DEStevenson/index.html

D. E. Stevenson Website maintained by Susan Monahan:
http://www.dalyght.ca/DEStevenson/des_monahan/index.html

“Staying Power” article by Mary Smith as appeared in Dumfries & Galloway Life in April 2011:
http://www.dalyght.ca/DEStevenson/smitharticle.pdf

For a complete listing of D. E. Stevenson’s books:
http://www.anglophilebooks.com/desbib.htm

SOON I WILL BE INVINCIBLE: Character Reference Part 2

Note: This is a guest posting from Jason A. Fleece, dramaturg for our summer MainStage production of Soon I Will Be Invincible.

In my earlier blog posts, I discussed the history of superhero fiction to give a context for the tropes and traditions that inform the world of Soon I Will Be Invincible. The main work that I did for this production, though, was to contextualize the characters of the play by drawing connections to superheroes and supervillains of (mostly) the Big Two, and to give the cast reading lists of the superhero fiction that inspired their roles.

Last time, I covered the two primary characters of Soon I Will Be Invincible, Fatale and Dr. Impossible. Today I’m going to cover some of the other heroes of The Champions.

Corefire

CoreFire costume rendering by Lifeline ensemble member Aly Renee AmideiCoreFire is pretty obviously Superman, but that leaves us with lots of room for interpretation. Which version of Superman? Which elements of Superman?

Superman was the very first superhero, created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster and debuting in Action Comics #1 in 1938.

Superman was born Kal-El, the lone survivor of the planet Krypton.

Well, lone other than Supergirl. And General Zod. And all the other criminals in the Phantom Zone. And Krypto the Superdog. And all the people living in the shrunken bottle city of Kandor.

Lone is a relative term.

His father, Jor-El, knew of his planet’s impending doom and, when the powers that be refused to heed his warnings, saved his infant son by putting him in a rocket to Earth. Raised by the Kents, farmers from Smallville, he was given the name Clark and believes in helping everyone—no matter what. Clark works as a reporter at the Daily Planet in Metropolis, and saves the world every day.

Early Superman comics depicted Clark Kent as a rough-and-tumble young socialist hero, exacting violent vengeance on slumlords and abusive husbands.

This version of Superman was edgier than you might expect, less interested in upholding the law than in doing what was right. At the start, Superman’s abilities were more limited—he could leap an eighth of a mile, “nothing less than a bursting shell” could pierce his skin—but eventually his strength increased and his leaping became full-fledged flight. He would later gain powers like heat vision, x-ray vision, and super ice breath.

In the 1950s and 1960s Superman’s rebellious ways made way to an avuncular figure of paternal authority. The advent of the Comics Code and the relative lack of popularity of the superhero led his stories to become weird sci- fi, as red kryptonite or magic would make him behave strangely . . . or he’d take ever more bizarre journeys into space and undergo weird transformations . . . or he’d spend time gaslighting the two women vying for his affection, Lois Lane and Lana Lang, or torturing poor Jimmy Olsen.

He seemed to gain more increasingly strange superpowers as the writers needed them: super- ventriloquism, super-hypnotism, a super-homunculus that would come out of his hands to do things for him.

As the Silver Age waned and the 1980s and 1990s began, comics started to trend away from madcap fantasy and into more “realistic” stories. This led to a sadder, more elegiac Superman who struggled with his responsibilities and dealt with threats that he couldn’t punch his way out of.

In the early 1990s Superman died, killed while saving Metropolis from Doomsday. He got better. He also had a mullet for a while. Then he turned blue. It was the nineties.

During all of this, he revealed his secret identity to Lois Lane and they got married. It was kind of a big deal.

In 2011, when DC rebooted their entire line, they wiped Superman’s story clean. Superman was no longer married, Lois never knew his identity, and so on. His costume was tweaked several times, and elements of his Golden Age exploits crept back in.

Superman has always been my favorite superhero. He’s inspirational. He makes you want to stand up straight and to help a stranger.

CoreFire Recommended Reading and Viewing:

Action Comics #1 (1938) by Siegel and Shuster Superman
For the Man Who Has Everything by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow by Moore and Curt Swan
Superman: For All Seasons by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale
Kingdom Come by Mark Waid and Alex Ross
Superman Birthright by Mark Waid and Leniel Francis Yu
All-Star Superman by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely
Superman/Batman: Public Enemies by Jeph Loeb and Ed McGuinness
Action Comics #775 by Joe Kelly, Doug Mankhe and Lee Bermejo
Superman: Red Son by Mark Millar, Dave Johnson and Killian Plunkett
Irredeemable by Mark Waid and Peter Krause
(this isn’t technically a Superman story, but it’s a great deconstruction of Superman using an obvious Superman analogue)
Supreme Power by J. Michael Straczynski and Gary Frank (another deconstruction that doesn’t actually star Superman and the rest of the Justice League but is still definitely that)

Damsel

Damsel costume rendering by Lifeline ensemble member Aly Renee AmideiLegacy is a particularly important theme in superhero comics, particularly in DC Comics. Batman trains sidekicks, and in fact has had five prominent Robins, three Batgirls, and a Bluebird. Dick Grayson, Jean-Paul Valley, and Terry McGuinness have all been Batman instead of or alongside Bruce Wayne. There have been several different Flashes. Three Wildcats. A whole Corps of Green Lanterns (and Yellow Lanterns, and Blue, and Red, and so on).

In Soon I Will Be Invincible, Damsel is the daughter of a Golden Age superhero and an alien princess. DC Comics’ Black Canary, as specifically the daughter of another Black Canary, is probably the closest analogue.

Black Canary, in most incarnations, is Dinah Laurel Lance, daughter of Dinah Lance (nee Drake), the first Black Canary, and Larry Lance, a Gotham City police detective. Dinah grew up around the Justice Society and had decided as a child that she wanted to be a part of that community, although her mother did not at first approve. She received training from Ted Grant, a boxer and the superhero Wildcat.

Dinah has a superpower, the “Canary Cry,” a sonic scream that can be used as a weapon.

The thing that has always been most fascinating about Dinah as a legacy hero is her status as a lynchpin of the superhero community.

Dinah has been a member of the Justice League—a founding member in some continuities, the leader in some incarnations. Through the League she met her eventual husband, Oliver Queen, the Green Arrow. Dinah and Ollie’s relationship is often volatile, as Ollie is a womanizer and a rogue, and Dinah has a tremendous amount of pride and self- respect. Their marriage fell apart when Ollie killed a supervillain in cold blood as retribution for the death of his former sidekick’s infant daughter.

She worked with fellow superheroes The Huntress and Oracle as one of the Birds of Prey. She helped Oliver’s sidekick, Roy, overcome his addiction to heroin, and had a very protective attitude toward him.

Unfortunately, Much of this continuity was erased with the reboot of the DC Universe in 2011. Dinah now has a completely different history, including time as a government operative and soon as the frontman for an indy rock band—but those changes occurred after Austin Grossman wrote his novel, and it’s certainly the pre-reboot version of Dinah that inspired Damsel.

Damsel is also an alien princess, much like DC Comics’ Starfire, the alien princess from the planet Tamaran who fled her tyrant sister to and eventually became a member of the Teen Titans.

Damsel Recommended Reading and Viewing:

Birds of Prey, Vol. 1: Of Like Minds by Gail Simone & Ed Benes
JLA: Year One by Mark Waid & Barry Kitson
Green Arrow/Black Canary: For Better Or For Worse by various
Teen Titans Animated Series (2003-2006) has a really quirky take on Starfire
Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (Damsel is also quite reminiscent of the Silk Spectre)

Blackwolf

Blackwolf costume rendering by Lifeline ensemble member Aly Renee AmideiBlackwolf, the non-superhuman who is at the peak of mental and physical training who beats the crap out of criminals, has cool gadgets, and is very much the brains of his team of heroes, is primarily an analogue of DC Comics’ Batman.

Batman was created in 1939 by Bob Kane and Bill Finger as an attempt to capitalize on the success of Superman (at the time, Action Comics and Detective Comics were not owned by the same publishers).

Inspired by The Shadow, Zorro, and the Scarlet Pimpernel, Batman is a terrifying figure of the night who uses fear and theatrics to fight crime.

Bruce Wayne, of course, was the son of a wealthy doctor, orphaned as a young child when his parents were gunned down in the street by a mugger. Understanding that “criminals are a superstitious and cowardly lot,” Bruce took on the identity of Batman, donning a cape and cowl and patrolling Gotham City. Bruce trained his entire life to become a perfect physical specimen, the World’s Greatest Detective, and a brilliant tactical mind.

Batman has always been particularly interesting as part of a team, whether that team is made up of his confidantes and proteges (such as his butler Alfred, police commissioner Jim Gordon, and various Robins and Batgirls and others) or made up of more colorful and more powerful heroes like the Justice League or the Outsiders.

He always becomes the leader of the group, running operations, planning battle tactics, and keeping the team working like a well-oiled machine. At the same time, however, Batman tends to be gruff and somewhat secretive, leading to frustration among the group.

Blackwolf Recommended Reading/Viewing:

There are countless great Batman stories that speak to Batman’s motivation as a terrifying creature of the night, and if this was a play about Blackwolf I’d list far more of them than I do below, but what I’d really like to focus on are stories that speak to Batman and how he works as part of a team.

Batman and the Outsiders Vol 1 by Mike W. Barr and Jim Aparo
Kingdom Come by Mark Waid and Alex Ross
JLA: New World Order by Grant Morrison and Howard Porter
JLA: Earth 2 by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely
JLA: Tower of Babel by Mark Waid and Howard Porter
JLA: Divided We Fall by Mark Waid and Bryan Hitch
Batman and Son by Grant Morrison and Andy Kubert
Justice League Unlimited, Season 1/Episode 5 (“This Little Piggy”) and Season 2/Episode 13 (“Epilogue”)

While Batman is certainly the primary influence on Blackwolf, he is a little bit more of a rogue, a little more fun, than the Dark Knight. I see a bit of Marvel’s Iron Man, Captain America, and Wolverine in Blackwolf—all three are dynamic leaders, brilliant tactical minds, and/or rakish and charismatic heroes with an edge. Here’s some non-Batman-related reading/viewing that I think would also be informative:

Iron Man (2008 film)
The Avengers (2012 film)
Old Man Logan by Mark Millar and Steve McNiven
Wolverine and the X-Men Vol 1 by Jason Aaron and Chris Bachalo

Elphin

Elphin costume rendering by Lifeline ensemble member Aly Renee AmideiElphin is one of the less obvious analogues in Soon I Will Be Invincible.

She’s a champion of an ancient mythology that no longer exists and/or is no longer being worshipped. She uses a mystical artifact to fight crime and to aid her teammates as a superhero.

I think she’s equal parts Thor and Wonder Woman.

Created in 1962 by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby, Thor is Marvel’s version of the ancient Norse God. He is the God of Thunder, the son of Odin the All- Father, the brother of Loki, the God of Mischief.

In the Marvel Comics continuity, it is unclear whether the Asgardian pantheon are actual gods, or advanced celestial beings who might as well be gods.
In any case, the Marvel version of Thor, after displeasing his father Odin, was banished to Midgard (Earth) to inhabit the body of a handicapped physician, Donald Blake. Eventually, this was retconned—Blake turned out to have always been Thor, his memories and life an illusion created by Odin to teach Thor humility—and Thor abandoned the Donald Blake identity.

Thor’s mystical hammer, Mjolnir, can only be lifted by someone who is deemed worthy.

Other people who have lifted Thor’s hammer include Captain America, Storm of the X-Men, an alien with a horse head called Beta Ray Bill, and also a frog who was transformed into Throg, the Frog of Thunder.

Currently, Thor is no longer worthy (we still don’t know why) and can no longer lift his hammer. He has been replaced by a new female Thor, whose identity I won’t spoil here for those of you who want to discover the comics for yourselves.

Elphin also resembles DC’s most prominent female superhero, Wonder Woman. Wonder Woman was created in 1941 by William Moulton Marston, who also happens to be the inventor of the polygraph machine. Also known as Diana of Themyscira and as Diana Prince, Wonder Woman is the daughter of Hippolyta, and comes from an all-female society of Amazon warriors. Most versions of the story say that Diana was made from clay and given life by the Greek Gods. More recently, it was revealed that Diana is actually the daughter of Zeus and that the clay thing was a ruse meant to keep the god Hera, Zeus’ wife, from murdering her out of jealousy. Either way, Diana is steeped in Greek mythology.

Wonder Woman carries with her a magical golden lasso, which compels anyone bound by it to tell the truth. She also wears a pair of magic bracelets that she uses to deflect bullets. If Wonder Woman’s wrists are bound together, she is rendered powerless. In some stories, Wonder Woman pilots an invisible jet; in others she can just fly, no jet needed.

The tone of Wonder Woman’s stories varies wildly. Early stories were weirdly kinky, making overt references to bondage and commenting that slavery and submission were good as long as you had a kind master.

For a while in the 1960s, Diana was a secret agent, with a racially insensitive Asian caricature named I Ching as her mentor. Her costume and powers were gone, and she was known for her mod wardrobe. Gloria Steinem was very upset by this version of Wonder Woman.

Many stories in the 1990s and 2000s emphasized the dichotomy of a warrior Amazon trying to be a symbol of peace.

In current comics, she has become the God of War after Ares’ death, and also is in a romantic relationship with Superman.

While Elphin is a close comparison to Thor and Wonder Woman in the broad strokes, the mythology Grossman uses as her background is the world of Faerie, which is drawn from equal parts Shakespeare, Celtic mythology, and other Pagan myths.

Elphin Recommended Reading/Viewing:

Essential Thor Vol 1 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
Thor Vol 1 by Walter Simonson
Thor (2011 film)
The Greatest Wonder Woman Stories Ever Told by various
Wonder Woman: The Circle by Gail Simone and Terry Dodson
Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang’s run on the Wonder Woman comic, which have been collected in six volumes
A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare
The Sandman by Neil Gaiman and various artists (Gaiman’s seminal comic has several appearances of the faerie world and Titania that I believe are a major influence on Grossman’s character)

Mister Mystic

Mr. Mystic costume rendering by Lifeline ensemble member Aly Renee AmideiMister Mystic is a sorcerer, a mystical gatekeeper who handles the threats that his companions, based as they are in science and the empirical world, cannot fathom. He is almost certainly based on Marvel Comics’ Doctor Strange.

Created by Steve Ditko in 1963, Dr. Stephen Strange was a gifted neurosurgeon. After breaking his hands in a car accident, Strange lost dexterity and control of his fingers and was unable to continue operating. His quest to regain his abilities as a surgeon led him to the Himalayas, where he became an apprentice to the Ancient One. Eventually, Strange surpassed the Ancient One and became the Sorcerer Supreme.

Strange lives in his Sanctum Sanctorum in Greenwich Village with his manservant, Wong, and protects the Marvel Universe from mystical threats. Dr. Strange has been an Avenger and a Defender.

Among Doctor Strange’s most trusted confidantes are Brother Voodoo, a psychiatrist from Haiti and powerful houngan, and Clea, the niece of the Dread Dormammu.

Early Dr. Strange comics were known for their complicated and psychedelic artwork. Another distinguishing feature of Dr. Strange comics is the detailed mythology of The Book of Vishanti, the Eye of Agamotto, the Crystal of Cytorrak, Baron Mordo, Dormammu, The Mindless Ones, Raggadorr, Watoomb, and so on.

While Dr. Strange is arguably the most prominent mystical hero in comics, there are many others, particularly in the DC Universe, including Dr. Fate, The Spectre, Zatanna, and John Constantine.

Mister Mystic Recommended Reading:

Marvel Masterworks: Doctor Strange, Vol 1 by Stan Lee & Steve Ditko
Doctor Strange: The Oath by Brian K. Vaughn & Marcos Martin
Doctor Strange & Doctor Doom: Triumph & Torment by Roger Stern & Mike Mignola
The Books of Magic by Neil Gaiman, Roger Zelazny, John Bolton, Scott Hampton & Charles Vess
John Constantine Hellblazer: Newcastle by Jamie Delano, Richard Piers Rayner & Mark Buckingham
John Constantine Hellblazer: Dangerous Habits by Garth Ennis & William Simpson

Rainbow Triumph

Rainbow Triumph costume rendering by Lifeline ensemble member Aly Renee AmideiRainbow Triumph is Blackwolf’s sidekick, and owes a major debt to the very first sidekick in comics: Robin.

The original Robin made his debut in Detective Comics #38 in April of 1940. He was Dick Grayson, a young acrobat who was taken in by Bruce Wayne as his ward after Dick’s aerialist parents were murdered in front of him. Eventually, Dick outgrew the Robin identity and became Nightwing, a hero in his own right. Currently, Dick Grayson is believed by most to be dead and has infiltrated the spy organization Spyral under orders from Batman.

After Dick Grayson became Nightwing, Bruce soon took in another ward, Jason Todd. Jason was a street kid, who Batman first met boosting the tires off of the Batmobile. Jason was more rebellious and difficult than his predecessor, and his relationship with Batman was not nearly as smooth. Jason was killed by the Joker—beaten with a crowbar and then blown up. Jason eventually returned from the grave and now fights crime as the Red Hood.

Despite Jason’s death, Batman has continued to have teenage protégés who use the Robin identity, including Tim Drake, Stephanie Brown, Carrie Kelley, and most recently Damien Wayne, Batman’s son with the villainous Talia al Ghul. Batman has had other sidekicks as well, including several Batgirls, the Spoiler, and Bluebird.

Robin was the first, but there have been many other superhero sidekicks over the years, including Bucky (Captain America’s sidekick), Kid Flash (The Flash’s sidekick), Speedy (Green Arrow’s sidekick), and Wonder Girl (Wonder Woman’s sidekick).

It is not uncommon for a superhero sidekick to take over the identity of their mentor. Wally West and Bart Allen (Kid Flash and Impulse) have both done stints as The Flash. Dick Grayson was Batman for a bit when Bruce Wayne was dead (he got better), and many stories have implied that Damian Wayne will one day become the Batman. Bucky Barnes was Captain America for a while when Steve Rogers was dead (he also got better). Often, kid sidekicks will team up and have adventures without their mentors, forming groups like the Teen Titans, the Young Allies, and Young Justice.

Rainbow Triumph Recommended Reading/Viewing:

Batman: Dark Victory by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale
Batman: A Death in the Family by Jim Starlin and Jim Aparo
Batman: A Lonely Place of Dying by Marv Wolfman and George Perez
Batman and Robin: Batman Reborn by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely
Batman and Robin: The Pearl by Peter Tomasi and Patrick Gleason
Batman: The Movie (1966), starring Adam West and Burt Ward
The Flash: Born to Run by Mark Waid and Tom Peyer
Impulse: Reckless Youth by Mark Waid and Humberto Ramos
Young Avengers by Allan Heinberg and Jim Cheung
Young Avengers Vol 1 by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie

Epilogue

I could go on. I haven’t covered the mysterious Lily, or the robot Galatea, or the edgy crusaders of the Chaos Pact—not to mention the evil Baron Ether or the nefarious Nick Napalm. But I can’t give away all of our secrets, True Believers. You’ve got to see the rest for yourselves when you come see Soon I Will Be Invincible.

Maybe I’ll see you there. Until then, Make Mine Lifeline!