June 15, 2012

Traveling Players

By Peggy Riley

The tradition of traveling players is almost as old as theater itself, encompassing performers from the pageant wagons of Medieval Europe to the roving bands and Commedia troupes of Renaissance Italy to the road shows and touring companies of our own time.  And now the traveling players come to Livermore Shakespeare Festival 2012: A troupe arrives at Concannon Vineyard to perform in Hamlet’s play-within-a-play, The Murder of Gonzago; while they’re here, the players present The Merry Wives in the vineyards outside the town surrounding the castle (in our case, the grand Ellen Roe Concannon house).

How chances it they travel?  Hamlet (II.2)

Traveling players were very much a part of Elizabethan theater and familiar to Elizabethan audiences. London-based acting companies regularly toured the country, sometimes going as far as Scotland, often in times of plague when theaters were closed in London. Many companies also toured annually, performing in a wide variety of venues, including large country homes and castles, as we see in Hamlet when “the Tragedians [actors] of the City” come to Elsinore. Some players went even farther, all the way to Europe. Three of Shakespeare’s players, Will Kemp the clown, George Bryan and Thomas Pope, are recorded as performing for Danish royalty at Elsinor in 1586!

Traveling troupes in England generally kept to major roads, partly to ensure the easiest possible transport for their wagons containing costumes, props and set pieces, and partly to gain access to large population centers, the best-paying venues. Performing in country houses could also be especially appealing; often the company members enjoyed free food, safe accommodations, and generous payment. “Use them after your own honor and dignity,” Hamlet tells Polonius, speaking of the players. “The less they deserve, the more merit is in your bounty. Take them in.”

 O brave new world.  That has such people in’t.  The Tempest (V.1)

The earliest English colonists brought Shakespeare to the New World and were staging his plays by 1750. Shakespeare was considered the icon of Anglo-Saxon culture, a culture the raw, new country was eager to acquire. By the first half of the 19th century, Shakespearean actors were coming from England: touring companies promised wealth and excitement, unusually great job prospects for actors. Traveling players even became the target of Mark Twain’s satire in Huckleberry Finn when a pair of rogues tried to pass themselves off as Shakespearean actors touring the South.

Courtesy of artist Tim Raglin / timraglin.com

Then westward-ho!  Twelfth Night (III.1)

And tour the actors did. They played not only the big cities in the East, but the mining camps and new towns in the West, which proved particularly profitable. Cowboys, outlaws, miners and, yes, even outlaws, knew and loved Shakespeare. When there were no accessible performances, they’d often read or recite Shakespeare around a campfire. So when traveling players brought Shakespeare to the West, they were enthusiastically welcomed.

Shakespeare was the most popular playwright in California. In San Francisco alone, 22 of his 38 plays were performed repeatedly between 1850 and 1860. Famed Shakespearean actor Edwin Booth was a frequent player in these productions; he was celebrated for his brilliant portrayal of Hamlet in 1853.

And no wonder he and his father and brother, also actors, traveled west.  Actors could earn up to $3,000 a week in San Francisco in the 1850s, and even more among cheering miners who paid for their tickets with gold dust and tossed gold nuggets on the stage. They played in saloons, gambling halls and brothels as well as in some of the ornate new “opera houses.” Actors even performed on the stump of a giant redwood tree in Calaveras County.

Let us every one go home/And laugh this sport o’er.  Merry Wives (V.5)

So imagine a troupe of these traveling players passing through Livermore on their way to play Shakespeare in the Sierras; the route we know as I-580 was a major route from San Francisco to the gold country. Imagine those players camping by what is now Concannon Vineyard. And now imagine yourself in the present, visiting Concannon Vineyard on a summer evening, after the traveling players have pulled in their wagon and are preparing to perform for you.

Model of Victorian house and traveling wagon by Randall Enlow, scenic designer.

Shakespeare is very much a part of western summers; Westerners pioneered Shakespeare festivals. From Ashland, Oregon to Utah and Colorado, from Orinda and Santa Cruz to Livermore, Westerners revel in Shakespeare’s timeless stories. “Gosh!” observed one 19th century cowhand. “That fellow Shakespeare could sure spill the real stuff.  He’s the only poet I ever seen what was fed on raw meat.”

Next time we’ll take a look at how the technical folks prepare the venue at Concannon for performance. Until then enjoy a musical treat, “We Open in Venice” from the film version of Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LoR1ElaOpDk