Dollop Coffee & Tea (4181 N Clarendon Ave), Saturday, April 7 @ 6pm. As always, our Coffeehouses are free of charge.
April 6, 2012
Dollop Coffee & Tea (4181 N Clarendon Ave), Saturday, April 7 @ 6pm. As always, our Coffeehouses are free of charge.
March 7, 2012
Caffeine also produced a staged reading for the AWP Conference in Chicago last weekend. Founding Artistic Director Jennifer Shook came in from Iowa to direct the reading of Things I Didn’t Know I Loved, Zack Rogow’s lovely biographical piece about Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet. The reading was introduced by Cornelius Eady (author of Brutal Imagination, which Jason Beck directed for Caffeine last season) and featured a cast composed mainly of Caffeine regulars.
Ian Randall, Carey Burton, James Elly, Erik Schnitger, Dana Black (L to R).
Photo by Jennifer Shook.]
A large and appreciative audience heard our interpretation of Rogow’s script, which makes use of several Nazim Hikmet poems to explicate biographical moments. Here is an example from Hikmet’s long prison sentence for political agitation:
Living is no laughing matter:
you must live with great seriousness
like a squirrel, for example—
I mean, without looking for something beyond and above living,
I mean living must be your whole life.
Things I Didn’t Know I Loved includes a scene set in 1920, when Hikmet and his friend Va-Nu went to join the Turkish army. Every time we got to this scene, I couldn’t help thinking it was happening at the same time as the events of The Oxford Roof Climber’s Rebellion. I was also continually reminded of T.E. Lawrence’s role in defeating the Turkish army during the Arab Revolt of 1916-1918. Specifically, I remembered Ned’s self-deprecating comment in the first scene: “I blew up a few Turkish trains.”
At the end of that first scene, Ned and Robert begin their roof-climbing adventures together. (No mean feat in the low-ceilinged Lincoln Square Theatre, by the way. I’m biased, but I think our director, designers, actors, and TD have found an elegant solution). Climbing is a recurring trope in the play, and it turns out the historical Graves and Lawrence were both known for their climbing. Graves was an avid mountain climber, favoring rocky terrain, while Lawrence apparently preferred the challenge of trees and rooftops.
Flora Armitage writes of Lawrence’s precocious climbing ability as follows: "At two, following his father without his knowledge, he climbed up a steep ladder into a loft, never pausing until he had reached the top and safety in the arms of an astonished parent. During the family's sojourn in the New Forest this prodigiousness on Ned's part became even more marked. 'No tree was too high for him to climb,' his mother said, adding that she never knew him to fall." (The Desert and the Stars, p. 17)
Robert Graves summarizes his own attitudes toward climbing in an early chapter of Good-Bye to All That, comparing his climbing talents to his poetic talents and expressing greater pride in the former: “I felt very proud to be on a rope with [rock-climbing expert] Geoffrey Young, and when he told me one day: ‘Robert, you have the finest natural balance that I have ever seen in a climber,’ this compliment pleased me more than if the Poet Laureate had told me that I had the finest sense of rhythm that he had ever met in a young poet.” (64)
Graves also recounts the camaraderie of climbing, recalling an essay he wrote in his youth: “In an essay on climbing written at the time, I said that the sport made all others seem trivial. ‘New climbs, or new variations on old climbs, are not made in a competitive spirit, but only because it is good to stand where nobody else has stood before. It is good, too, to be alone with a specially chosen band of people—people in whom a man can trust completely.’” This notion of choosing a particular group of people is reminiscent of Ned’s selection of Robert as a member of The Oxford Roof Climbers, the Benevolent Order of. Comparing climbing to fox-hunting, which involves factors beyond the hunter’s control, Graves contends that mountain climbers do not have to trust to unpredictable horses: “Climbers trust entirely to their own feet, legs, hands, shoulders, sense of balance, judgment of distance.” Graves’s comments on the independence fostered by climbing reflect his distrust of institutions as depicted in the play.
Robert and Ned relish the danger of climbing; a repeated refrain of the play involves the two characters daring each other: “It’s awfully dangerous….”/ “It’s your favorite kind.” Describing his experience climbing a particularly challenging peak in Wales, Graves offers a fascinating explanation of this danger: “My worst climb was on Lliwedd, the most formidable of the precipices, when, at a point that needed the most concentration, a raven circled round the party in great sweeps. I found this quite unsettling, because one climbs only up or down, or sideways, and the raven seemed to suggest diverse other possible dimensions of movement—tempting us to let go our hold and join him” (GBTAT 66). The raven inspires a desire for flight and a simultaneous fear of falling, emotions that similarly confound the characters in Oxford.
February 25, 2012
Ned goes on to mention the major event that led to Lawrence’s fame: “Since that show about him has been selling out in the West-End, he’s received letters from as far away as America, Canada, even Japan, requesting the usual things, to be the godfather to their children, to speak at Universities. Marriage.” Ned’s use of the third person here sets up a distinction between his actual self and the persona of Lawrence of Arabia. (This distinction is reminiscent of another Oxonian and Caffeine Theatre stalwart, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, who rejected mail addressed to Lewis Carroll.) The West End show in question was a lecture-demonstration by American journalist Lowell Thomas, who combined film and discussion in what we might now call a multimedia event. A wonderful collaboratively produced online exhibit chronicles Lowell Thomas’s performance, “With Allenby in Palestine and Lawrence in Arabia,” and further developments in the legend of Lawrence of Arabia. The exhibit is called “Lowell Thomas and Lawrence of Arabia: Making a Legend, Creating History.”
While much of Lawrence’s involvement in this play is drawn from Robert Graves’s perspective in Good-bye to All That, several events can be corroborated in biographical materials on T.E. Lawrence. The following examples are mainly taken from Jeremy Wilson’s book Lawrence of Arabia: The Authorized Biography of T.E. Lawrence (New York: Atheneum, 1990).
In Massicotte’s play, Lawrence and Curzon discuss their participation in the Paris Peace conference that resulted in the Treaty of Versailles. Lawrence was in Paris from January 9 to the end of May, 1919. According to Wilson, “Long afterward he would describe these months as ‘the worst I have lived through; and they were worse for Feisal. However he learnt the whole art of politics, from them. Perhaps I did, too!’ ” (598).
Wilson also cites an American account of Lawrence that gives a sense of his larger-than-life character: “He has been described as the most interesting Briton alive, a student of medieval history at Magdalen College, where he used to sleep by day and work by night and take his recreation in the deer park at four in the morning—a Shelley-like person, and yet too virile to be a poet” (605). Yet Lawrence’s prose has poetic qualities, and his encounters with young poets such as Robert Graves and Ezra Pound suggest an interest in poetry.
Lawrence’s move to Oxford is explained as follows: “There was nothing to do in Paris and he returned to Oxford. On June 10th he had been elected to a Research Fellowship of All Souls College. He had been approached about this months before, by Geoffrey Dawson of The Times, and had indicated his willingness to accept if a Fellowship was offered. The conditions had been drawn up by the Warden and D.G. Hogarth in as vague a fashion as possible: during his tenure he was to ‘prosecute his researches into the antiquities and ethnology, and the history (ancient and modern) of the Near East.’ The Fellowship was worth £200 a year, a comfortable income for a single person. It would run for seven years, and carried the right to rooms in college” (616). In The Oxford Roof Climber’s Rebellion, Lawrence feels confined in his rooms in Oxford. He and Robert share a sense of imprisonment, trapped by their post-war guilt. Another biographer, Flora Armitage, describes Lawrence’s time at Oxford after the war: “At All Souls where he went into residence he indulged in outbursts of wild, almost undergraduate exuberance, as when he leaned out of the window…and loudly clanged the iron bell taken as booty in his raid on the Tell Shahm station.” (Armitage, The Desert and the Stars, New York: 1955, 160).
In the play Lord Curzon accuses Lawrence of continuing a correspondence with Emir Feisal, his main contact in Arabia. But Lawrence at least intended to sever ties with Feisal, writing in a letter: “My first sign of grace is that I will obey the F.O. [Foreign Office]…and not see Feisal again” (Wilson 620). During one scene, Lawrence has read about events involving Feisal that have upset him: “the ‘General Syrian Congress’ had proclaimed Feisal King of an ‘independent and integral Syria,’ which was supposed to include not only Lebanon, but also northern Mesopotamia and Palestine. The claim to these latter regions caused as much irritation in Britain as it did in France, and was roundly dismissed in San Remo. Both the Foreign Office and the India Office now viewed Damascus as a hotbed of rabid nationalism which threatened to unsettle the whole region” (631). In Stephen Massicotte’s play, Curzon’s ties to the Foreign Office allow for this diplomatic conflict to be portrayed in dramatic fashion as he and Lawrence clash in Lawrence’s rooms in Oxford.
Wilson also mentions the initial meeting with Robert Graves, and Lawrence’s feedback on Robert’s poems: “After a dinner at All Souls…he met Robert Graves, who had become a member of St. John’s College. He showed great interest in Graves’s poetry, and his comments were evidently of some value…” (627). Flora Armitage adds other incidents described in the play: “At Fullers’ Restaurant for tea with Robert Graves, he caused a momentary flurry amid the teacups by clapping his hands, Eastern fashion to summon the waitress; and once he indulged again in his old sport of roof-climbing in order to hang a crimson Hejazi flag from the pinnacle of All Souls” (Armitage 164).
The myth of Lawrence of Arabia as created by Lowell Thomas (and as we know him from Peter O’Toole’s portrayal in David Lean’s film) competes with his efforts to present himself to the other four characters in The Oxford Roof Climber’s Rebellion. For his servant Jack, Lawrence is initially an eccentric charge, but he eventually comes to represent all that is wrong with the British military. For Curzon, Lawrence is a personal nuisance and a political firebomb. For Nancy, Lawrence represents competition for her husband’s time and affection, until she finally meets him and they reconcile. For Robert, Ned is a friend. When Robert invites Ned to “come out of there and be Lawrence of Arabia,” he sparks a powder keg whose explosion has a tremendous impact on the lives of all of these characters, and repercussions beyond the limits of Oxford.
February 21, 2012
Dan served as Master of Ceremonies and started off the festivities by reading "Free Verse," a favorite Robert Graves poem from the 1918 collection Fairies and Fusiliers. To kick off round 2, he read "Careers," a poem about sibling rivalry from the same collection. Also during round 2, Dan recited his favorite anti-Petrarchan Shakespeare sonnet (Sonnet 130: "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun"). He would like to thank the teachers in the second row who prompted him when he forgot the beginning of the third quatrain (which he forgets every time he tries to recite this poem).
Below, for your delectation, are the two Robert Graves poems Dan recited today:
I now delight
Of the might
And the right
Of classic tradition,
Without let or omission,
Just any little rhyme
In any little time
That runs in my head;
Because, I've said,
My rhymes no longer shall stand arrayed
Like Prussian soldiers on parade
Stiff as starch,
Foot to foot,
Boot to boot,
Blade to blade,
Button to button
Cheeks and chops and chins like mutton.
My rhymes must go
Turn 'ee, twist 'ee,
Rhymes I will make
Like Keats and Blake
And Christina Rossetti,
With run and ripple and shake.
A merry little rhyme
In a jolly little time
And poke it,
And choke it,
Change it, arrange it,
Straight-lace it, deface it,
Pleat it with pleats,
Sheet it with sheets
Of empty conceits,
And chop and chew,
And hack and hew,
And weld it into a uniform stanza,
And evolve a neat,
Father is quite the greatest poet
That ever lived anywhere.
You say you're going to write great music--
I chose that first: it's unfair.
Besides, now I can't be the greatest painter and
do Christ and angels, or lovely pears
and apples and grapes on a green dish,
or storms at sea, or anything lovely,
Because that's been taken by Claire.
It's stupid to be an engine-driver,
And soldiers are horrible men.
I won't be a tailor, I won't be a sailor,
And gardener's taken by Ben.
It's unfair if you say that you'll write great
music, you horrid, you unkind (I simply
loathe you, though you are my
sister), you beast, cad, coward, cheat,
Well? Say what's left for me then!
But we won't go to your ugly music.
(Listen!) Ben will garden and dig,
And Claire will finish her wondrous pictures
All flaming and splendid and big.
And I'll be a perfectly marvellous carpenter,
and I'll make cupboards and benches
and tables and ... and baths, and
nice wooden boxes for studs and
And you'll be jealous, you pig!
February 14, 2012
The opening scene of the play depicts the initial meeting between Robert and Ned, much as Graves describes it in his autobiography: “The first time I met Colonel T.E. Lawrence, he happened to be wearing full evening dress. That must have been in February or March 1920, and the occasion was a guest night at All Souls’, where he had been awarded a seven-year fellowship.” These details are mentioned in the play; Massicotte also establishes the electric connection between Ned and Robert upon their first meeting as it is described by Graves. “The formality of evening dress concentrates attention on the eyes, and Lawrence’s eyes immediately held me” (Graves 297). Robert and Ned are clearly drawn to each other in the opening scene of the play, and they quickly unite against Lord Curzon, the British Foreign Secretary and Oxford University Chancellor.
Curzon’s role in the play is inspired by Graves’s description of him as Ned’s enemy, a description colored by the context of Lawrence’s penchant for sophomoric pranks: “Lawrence also proposed to present the College with a peacock which, once accepted, would be found to bear the name ‘Nathaniel’—after Lord Curzon, an enemy of Lawrence’s, and Chancellor of the University”(301). The presence of Curzon, described by Ned as “Former viceroy of India. Former member of the War Cabinet. Former drinker or champagne at the Treaty of Versailles in 1919,” raises the political stakes of the pranks in the play.
Graves describes an incident involving the flag of Mecca flying over All Souls' College as an example of Lawrence being silly: “He behaved very much like an undergraduate at times. One day I happened to visit the top of Radcliffe Camera and look down on the roofs of neighbouring colleges. From a pinnacle of All Souls’ hovered a small crimson Hedjaz flag: Lawrence had been a famous roof-climber when up at Jesus College twelve years before this” (300). Massicotte incorporates this incident into the play, but Curzon’s reaction renders it far more serious and offers a moment of conflict that (if we can believe Ned) arises from a miscommunication. Curzon interprets Ned’s Hejaz flag as consorting with the enemy and goes so far as to accuse Ned of treason. Ned claims that he “wanted to suggest that all lands are holy.”
Similarly, Massicotte develops a planned practical joke involving a herd of deer into an anti-colonialist gesture. In Good-Bye to All That, Graves describes the project as follows: “Another scheme, for which he enlisted my help, was to steal the Magdalen College deer. We would drive them one early morning into the small inner quadrangle of All Souls’, having persuaded the College to answer the Magdalen protests with a declaration that it was the All Souls’ herd, pastured there from time immemorial. Great things were expected of this raid, but we needed Lawrence as the stage-manager; so it fell through when he left us” (301). In the imaginative world of the play, the great expectations of this raid are fulfilled. A letter from the deer characterizes their occupation of the All Souls’ quad as striking back against the quasi-colonialism of Oxford. Again, Massicotte’s version imbues the events with greater political significance.
Graves’s description of Lawrence ends with a reference to his “morbid horror of being touched,” another key detail exploited for dramatic effect in the play. In using Robert Graves’s own words about T.E. Lawrence as a source for this play, Massicotte expands and elaborates for both theatrical efficacy and thematic resonance. To paraphrase Graves’s poem “Free Verse,” Massicotte’s technique of adaptation allows for the action of the play to “run and ripple and shake,” creating a vibrant stage world that is more than just an “academic extravaganza.”
[Citations with page numbers are from Robert Graves, Good-bye to All That (New York: Doubleday, 1957)]
February 12, 2012
Caffeine Theatre seeks short (15 minutes or less) original performance pieces of all disciplines--music, dance, theatre, spoken word, poetry, etc.--for its Robert Graves Coffeehouse, which will take place on Saturday, April 7. The Coffeehouse is in conjunction with Caffeine’s Chicago premiere of The Oxford Roof Climbers Rebellion by Stephen Massicotte, which chronicles Graves’s friendship with T.E. Lawrence (aka Lawrence of Arabia). As such, pieces should explore the work or life of Robert Graves AND/OR Lawrence of Arabia.
Please email a script and/or a 1 page proposal to Associate Artistic Director Kristin Idaszak (email@example.com) including a description of your proposed piece, how many people you expect to be involved, estimated length, and any required resources. (We will accept proposals for scripts that do not yet exist or pieces that do not have a traditional script, but please include that information in your proposal.) Please also include a short bio or resume and use “Robert Graves Coffeehouse—Last Name” in the subject heading.
SUBMISSION DEADLINE: March 4, 2012.
Accepted pieces will be notified by March 11, 2012
Caffeine Theatre seeks original poetry for our fifth poetry contest: “Fairies, Fusiliers, and Pillars of Wisdom.” Submissions may include any size or style of poem, as long as it is inspired in some way by the life or work of Robert Graves or T.E. Lawrence, or in some way speaks in conversation with the life and/or work of one of the two. Poems exploring war (especially World War I), love, loss, friendship, and/or classical Greek and Roman texts are particularly welcome. Winners will be posted on Caffeine’s blog (http://caffeinetheatre.
TO SUBMIT: Email poem(s) and a brief description of relation to Robert Graves or Lawrence of Arabia to Caffeine Theatre Associate Artistic Director Daniel Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org with a subject heading that indicates a poetry contest entry. DEADLINE: March 15, 2011.
December 21, 2011
We also curated an “Explore the World of Penelope” event in collaboration with Steppenwolf. The Penelope Coffeehouse Cabaret, as we called it, took place on December 15 and included feminist performance art, a clown piece, an opera excerpt, poetry by Artistic Associates Don Gecewicz and Ian Randall, and three short plays. Caffeine Theatre Associate Artistic Director Kristin Idaszak did most of the heavy lifting in terms of producing this event, which was a fun way to riff on themes of Enda Walsh’s play Penelope through multidisciplinary performing arts.
Preparations are under way for our spring production of Stephen Massicotte’s play The Oxford Roof Climber’s Rebellion, which focuses on the relationship between Robert Graves and T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) in Oxford after World War I. Graves was a prolific poet, and his poem “Ulysses” includes Penelope as a character:
Robert Graves, “Ulysses”
To the much-tossed Ulysses, never done
With women whether gowned as wife or whore,
Penelope and Circe seemed as one:
She like a whore made his lewd fancies run,
And wifely she a hero to him bore.
Their counter-changings terrified his way:
They were the clashing rocks, Symplegades,
Scylla and Charybdis too were they;
Now they were storms frosting the sea with spray
And now the lotus island’s drunken ease.
They multiplied into the Siren’s throng,
Forewarned by fear of whom he stood bound fast
Hand and foot helpless to the vessel’s mast,
Yet would not stop his ears: daring their song
He groaned and sweated till that shore was past.
One, two and many: flesh had made him blind,
Flesh had one pleasure only in the act,
Flesh set one purpose only in the mind---
Triumph of flesh and afterwards to find
Still those same terrors wherewith flesh was racked.
His wiles were witty and his fame far known,
Every king’s daughter sought him for her own,
Yet he was nothing to be won or lost.
All hands to him with Ithaca: love-tossed
He loathed the fraud, yet would not bed alone.
As in Walsh’s play, the theme of competition is apparent here. Unlike Penelope, however, Ulysses “was nothing to be lost or won.” Graves depicts Ulysses as torn between Penelope and Circe (leaving out Calypso and Nausicaa, though he would later write a novel called Homer’s Daughter with a title character named Nausicaa). Much of the conflict in Massicotte’s play comes from a similar bifurcation of affection: Graves is torn between his wife Nancy Nicholson and his friend Ned Lawrence.
The world of Oxford is very different from the freewheeling, sexually emancipated English Restoration presented in Or, and Robert Graves’s bisexuality is far more problematic than Aphra Behn’s. While at boarding school, Graves developed a romantic attachment to a younger boy named Peter Johnstone. Though Graves continued to write amorous letters to Johnstone, he would represent the relationship as having no sexual component and was horrified by Johnstone’s eventual arrest for soliciting. Graves was also part of a circle of homosexual aesthetes, including poetic patron Edward Marsh and fellow war-poet Siegfried Sassoon. Indeed, when Graves became engaged to Nancy Nicholson, he wrote a letter apologizing to Sassoon. It is tempting to view Graves’s marriage as a kind of “ex-gay therapy,” and several biographers have suggested as much.
Nancy Nicholson, a socialist, feminist painter, apparently was not thrilled with the idea of getting married and spent much of the wedding night alone with a bottle of champagne. Nancy and Robert opened a shop together in Oxfordshire, on a hill five miles outside of Oxford proper. The shop, which is the setting for several scenes in Massicotte’s play, never prospered and eventually failed. The Graves-Nicholsons always had trouble with money, and T.E. Lawrence was one of many friends who gave Robert items to sell when he was in need.
The Oxford Roof Climber’s Rebellion takes place in 1920, before the Graves-Nicholsons brought American poet Laura Riding with them to Cairo, where Nancy was to be recovering from illness. They lived together in a ménage à trois until 1929, at which point the addition of Irish poet Geoffrey Taylor exacerbated the problems in the group. Laura Riding attempted to commit suicide by jumping out a fourth-story window. (Robert apparently jumped after her from the third-story window.) The foursome split up into two couples: Robert Graves and Laura Riding moved to Mallorca together; Nancy Nicholson and Geoffrey Taylor were together in England. Nicholson and Graves would not divorce until 1949, ten years after Graves and Riding had split. Graves later described his love life as a quest for the White Goddess of poetic inspiration in the persona of young, nubile Muses.
All this to say that we are about to embark on a journey into the lives of several fascinating people with lots of baggage. We hope you’ll join us in March and April at Lincoln Square Theatre for The Oxford Roof Climber’s Rebellion.