The Folger Spotlight

What's On at the Folger

Louis Butelli: Lights, Camera, Action!

Cover art for "Silent Shakespeare."
Cover art for “Silent Shakespeare.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And let’s not even get into the Internet.

Screenshot of Malvolio, "I will smile!"
Screenshot of Malvolio, “I will smile!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All the best! Until next time!


  • Fantastic post! Very informative – loved it! I will be in D.C. this weekend and the Folger Library is one of my first stops – so excited to see it! Unfortunately, I won’t be able to make Twelfth Night, but break a leg! I was in a production of Twelfth Night last year, I played Olivia, and had a fantastic time playing her! She’s such a great character – I love the scenes between she and Malvolio. :)

  • This is great! The idea of a burgeoning low-brow industry attempting to give itself credibility by digging into work that gained “high-brow” credibility after a few hundred years of endurance and scholarship is sort of fascinating. And here we are, more than a hundred years later and film has more than earned its place as an art form — thanks, in part, to endurance and scholarship! Surprised to see Mr. Beerbohm Tree here — kind of an anchor connecting the 19th century theatre to the 20th century cinema.

    There’s a bit in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Beautiful and Damned” that comments a bit on how desperate the early silent films were for “stories” and “plots,” regardless of the fact that they could do very little to capture the language of whoever it was they were adapting. They would literally buy up any novel they could get their hands on, to mixed success. Ironically, one of those was “the Beautiful and Damned,” a film Fitzgerald hated and is now lost to the ether.

  • Thanks for the YouTube links!

    We are looking forward to seeing Twelfth Night in a couple of weeks. We have made coming to the Folger in May a family tradition (driving down from Vermont), and our kids, ages 9 and 12 this year, loved last year’s “Shrew” and have loved “Twelfth Night” since they were tiny. (When the 12-year-old was almost three she asked to watch the movie “where the girl dresses up as a boy.”)

    We have been enjoying your production updates, too. Thanks for the backstage insights! When does the trailer come to YouTube?

  • I saw the production last night. It was marvelous. It looks like all your study over the past weeks paid off. Feste was/is delightful… Extraordinary voice inflections and gestures sure help us non-experts understand the context of the word play. And Feste is just so damned cute ;-).

    I once attended a cast party of the English Shakespeare Company when they were in Chicago. One of the more prickly actors, not realizing an American was standing behind him, complained royally that American audiences laughed at the wrong parts of Shakespeare’s plays. There was so much laughter and delight during last night’s wonderful performance… I wonder if the audience reactions were what/when the cast expected them?

  • Anomalink: so pleased that you and the kids are making the trip from Vermont! Please stick around and say hello afterwards. Meanwhile, here’s a link to the first 12th Night teaser (more to come):

    Dawnforsythe: Thank you so much for coming last night! As you are probably aware, it was our very first run of the show with a crowd and, as such, it was a great learning experience for us. Frankly, the answer to your question is sort of complex – I’ll do a whole post about it. The short answer is this: we are grateful for ANY reaction to what we’re doing! Some of the reactions we anticipated, and some of them took us completely by surprise. For this preview week, we’ll take the opportunity to learn from our audiences to craft what we’re doing to what you all are doing (or not doing). Either way, I’m so glad you enjoyed. Please come back, and please send along your friends and family. The more the merrier!

    Thanks for reading.

  • I saw this. Rachel Pickup is the most entrancing actor I have seen on a stage – a voice spun to say Shakespeare and an Olivia dropped from the gods. The whole cast of this wonderful production is bliss to watch.

  • Thanks very much, NickP! I will pass along your kind words to Rachel – she is as delightful offstage as she is on. Tell some friends to come and see us!

Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)