Sunday, October 21, 2018

How old are Nora and Torvald?

How old are Nora and Torvald Helmer, the central characters in Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House? Ibsen doesn’t say. We know that they’ve been married for eight years and have three children, the oldest of whom (Ivar) has to be around seven. Torvald once refers to Nora as “young”. But other than that, we get absolutely no clues about their ages from Ibsen, who of course is the only person who could tell us.

But we’re not going to let that stop us from trying to figure it out anyway, are we? Of course not! I have developed a pretty good theory which suggests rather specific ages for them, to within a year or so. I propose that in A Doll’s House, Nora is 29 and Torvald is 37.

This is based on three things:

1. The ages of the original actors who played the parts in the world premiere on December 21, 1879 in Copenhagen. Betty Hennings was 29, and Emil Poulsen was 37.

2. The ages of Laura Kieler and her husband Victor. Laura Kieler was an acquaintance of Ibsen’s, and the real-life inspiration for Nora. Just before Ibsen wrote the play, Laura had actually done many of the actions Ibsen ascribes to Nora, and Victor’s involvement also corresponds to Torvald’s up to a point. (The fascinating story of Laura’s life, and her complicated relationship with Ibsen, should be a play unto itself.) But to the point: In 1879, Laura was 30 and Victor was 36, within a year either way of Hennings' and Poulsen's ages.

3. If Nora and Torvald are 29 and 37, and have been married for 8 years, then they were 21 and 29 when they were wed. When Ibsen married his wife Suzannah (in 1858), she was 22 and he was 30. So eight years into their marriage, they were 30 and 38, again just a year away from Hennings' and Poulsen's ages.

Flashing forward to Lucas Hnath’s play A Doll’s House, Part 2, which takes place 15 years after “Part 1”, Nora would be 44, and Torvald 52.

Of course, every production of either play must determine the characters’ ages for itself. But the very close alignment of the three points I raise above seems to suggest that this is more-or-less the age range that Ibsen had in mind.

Friday, March 2, 2018

Lemuel Gulliver: a timeline

As I prepare to play Lemuel Gulliver in Wishing Chair Productions' Gulliver's Travels, I have searched online in vain for a timeline of Gulliver's (admittedly fictional) life. Finding nothing, I have created one myself. I was aided greatly here by Isaac Asimov's terrific The Annotated Gulliver's Travels.

Where possible, dates are in year/month/date format, followed parenthetically with Gulliver's age that year. As a point of reference, it may be interesting to note that Jonathan Swift was born in 1667 and died in 1745.

Here is my timeline:

1661 — born in Nottinghamshire
1675 (14) — goes to Cambridge
1678 (17) — leaves Cambridge, apprentices with surgeon Bates
1682 (21) — goes to study medicine in Leyden
1685 (24) — sets sail as surgeon on The Swallow
1688 (27) — returns, settles in London, opens medical practice, marries Mary Burton (who is probably no older than 17)
1690 (29) — his practice fails, sets sail to the East and West Indies
1696 (35) — returns to England, tries to renew practice
1699/5/4 (38) — sets sail on The Antelope; by this time has fathered Johnny and Betty
1699/11/5 — The Antelope is shipwrecked; Gulliver arrives in Lilliput
1701/9/24 (40) — sails away from Blefuscu
1702/4/13 (41) — arrives back in England
1702/6/20 — sets sail on The Adventure
1703/3 (42) — leaves the Cape of Good-hope
1703/6/16 — Brobdingnag is spotted
1705 (44) — eagle carries Gulliver from Brobdingnag
1706/6/3 (45) — arrives back in England
1706/8/5 — sets sail on The Hopewell
1707/4/11 (46) — arrives at Fort St. George
1708/2/16 (47) — leaves Laputa for Balnibarbi
1708/4/21 — sails to Luggnagg
1709/5/6 (48) — leaves King of Luggnagg
1709/5/27 — arrives in Japan
1709/6/9 — arrives in Nangasac
1710/4/20 (49) — arrives back in England (Gulliver writes he’s been gone 5 years and 6 months, but this is wrong); soon after arrival conceives third child
1710/9/7 — sets sail as Captain of The Adventurer
1711/5/9 (50) — is abandoned on Houyhnhnms Land
1715/2/15 (54) — leaves Houyhnhnms Land
1715/11/5 — arrives in Lisbon with Captain Pedro de Mendez
1715/11/24 — leaves Lisbon
1715/12/5 — arrives back in England; youngest child is now 5 years old (assuming it was born); Johnny and Betty are between 16-27
1719 (58) — poses for frontispiece engraving
1720-21 (59-60) — writes Gulliver’s Travels; Betty is now married with children
1723 (62) — moves back to Nottinghamshire
1726/10/28 (65) — publishes Gulliver’s Travels
1727/4/2 (66) — writes letter to cousin Sympson

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Junie B. Jones: The Musical

Yay, my copy of "Junie B. Jones: The Musical" arrived today! We recorded this last year, and I must say it sounds sensational! Kudos to all, especially David Weinstein, Dan Rudin, and Lori Casteel (who is terrific as Junie!).

What you get from Amazon from this link is a 2-CD set, one CD being a Junie B. Jones audiobook, and the other being the studio cast album we recorded. The latter will soon be available on iTunes, Apple Music, Spotify, etc.

One correction from the credits: In the song "Lucille, Camille, Chenille", I am Chenille and the wonderful Chris De'Sean Lee is Camille, not vice versa. Let's set the record straight! (Or in this case, the CD.)

Monday, December 26, 2016

Of Angry Birds and Rath-ful Pigs

I can find no evidence that Jaakko Iisalo, the Finnish designer of Rovio Entertainment's "Angry Birds" franchise, owns up to any influence from Lewis Carroll. But I see a connection!

At its simplest, the goal of the "Angry Birds" video game is to catapult birds through the air in an attempt to destroy fortresses constructed by green pigs.

In Chapter One of Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, Alice reads the poem "Jabberwocky", which famously begins:
'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves 
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
In Chapter Six, Humpty Dumpty explains parts of the poem to Alice, including that a rath "is a sort of green pig". Furthermore, in Martin Gardner's The Annotated Alice, Gardner states that in Carroll's day, rath "was a well-known old Irish word for an enclosure, usually a circular earthen wall, serving as a fort and place of residence for the head of a tribe."

So the word "rath" connotes both "green pigs" and "fortresses"! Also, "rath" is a homonym of "wrath", which is a synonym of "anger", which again reminds us of those catapulting birds. Is Iisalo a reader of The Annotated Alice?

Thursday, December 8, 2016

What happened to Emily's baby?

Thornton Wilder's Our Town is my favorite play. But a question recently occurred to me that I'd never thought of before, and I couldn't find anyone else wondering about it anywhere online. That question is this:

What happened to Emily's baby?

In Act 3, we learn from Emily's cousin Sam Craig and the undertaker Joe Stoddard that Emily has died:
Sam Craig: Joe, what did she die of? 
 Joe Stoddard: Who? 
Sam Craig: My cousin. 
Joe Stoddard: Oh, didn't you know? Had some trouble bringing a baby into the world. ’Twas her second, though. There’s a little boy ‘bout four years old.
The now-dead Mrs. Gibbs confirms that Emily died "in childbirth". Emily then joins Mrs. Gibbs and the other dead onstage:
Emily: My boy is spending the day at Mrs. Carter's. (She sees Mr. Carter among the dead.) Oh, Mr. Carter, my little boy is spending the day at your house.

Mr. Carter: Is he?

Emily: Yes, he loves it there.
Clearly, Emily is talking about her four-year-old son. Later:
Emily: But, Mother Gibbs, one can go back; one can go back there again…into living. I feel it. I know it. Why just then for a moment I was thinking about…about the farm…and for a minute I was there, and my baby was on my lap as plain as day.
Mrs. Gibbs: Yes, of course you can.

Emily: I can go back there and live all those days over again…why not?
The "rules" of Wilder's afterlife seem only to allow reliving days, not resuming life as if one had never died (the 1940 movie notwithstanding). So the baby Emily refers to here must again be her now-four-year-old son.

Finally, when Emily is advised to relive only an "unimportant day", she says:
Emily: Then it can’t be since I was married; or since the baby was born.
Once more, "the baby" has to be her firstborn. And that's the last mention of Emily's offspring in the play.

So...what happened to the baby Emily died delivering?

• Did it live? Emily never mentions it, or who's taking care of it during the funeral, as she does with her four-year-old son (whom she mentions three different times). Emily notes that the farm "won't be the same to George without me", but doesn't express a word of notice that George has been left alone to raise a newborn baby? This option doesn't seem likely.

• Did it die? In that case, why doesn't it join Emily among the dead onstage (as impractical as it would be to stage this)? I mean, is there some sort of afterlife daycare somewhere? And why is there no mention or sign of a funeral for the baby, from Joe Stoddard or anyone else?

Wilder's notion of Emily dying during childbirth is deeply poignant. But by choosing it, he introduces a question into the play that doesn't seem to have a satisfactory answer.

However, it's clear that the ambiguity was deliberate. The first published edition of Our Town from 1938 reflects the script before it went into rehearsal, and there are numerous differences. In this version, Wilder firmly answers the question:
Sam Craig: Joe, what did she die of? 
Joe Stoddard: Who? 
Sam Craig: My cousin. 
Joe Stoddard: Oh, didn't you know? Had some trouble bringing a baby into the world. Let's see, today's Friday—'twas almost a week ago now. 
Sam Craig: Did the baby live? 
Joe Stoddard: No. 'Twas her second, though. There's a little boy 'bout four years old.
So there it is: an answer, of sorts. Of course, the deliberate ambiguity in the standard script does leave the question open, and a production that featured someone holding a baby at Emily's funeral would seem to supply the opposite answer. But personally, I'm not feeling good about the baby's fate.

Thanks to Rosie Strub of The Wilder Family LLC and Lincoln Konkle of the Thornton Wilder Society for helping to solve the mystery.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016


Over the weekend I had the pleasure to be among the first several thousand guests at PizzeRizzo, the new Muppet-themed restaurant at Disney's Hollywood Studios in Orlando. There are several "easter eggs" hidden around the place, for the delight of Muppet geeks like myself. Here are a few:

The animated neon sign outside proclaims "THE CITY'S TOP RATED PIZZA". But every now and then some of the letters flicker off, making the sign momentarily read "IT'S RAT PIZZA"! The flickering lasts about 12 seconds, and happens approximately once per minute. So if you just happen to glance up at the sign for a few seconds, chances are you'll never see the secret message!

Tucked away on a shelf in the main lobby area is an ancient can of Wilkins Coffee.

And finally, the most incredible, subtle, layered easter egg I've ever seen anywhere: Upstairs at PizzeRizzo is the gloriously tacky "Rizzo's Deluxe Supreme Banquet Hall". Outside the Banquet Hall there's this sign:

This is an easter egg reference to The Muppets Take Manhattan, where Kermit encounters advertising executives named Jill, Bill, and Gil. Cute, huh? Ah, but underneath! If you look very closely, beneath the changeable letters on the sign, through the faux fading and dust, you'll see that this sign used to read: Pa Otter Memorial Service with tribute performance by The Frogtown Hollow Jubilee Jug Band.

You can read all about Pa Otter here. Kudos to the PizzeRizzo designers for including such an incredibly subtle, even touching, reference.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Thornton Wilder in "Our Town"

On September 29, 1946, Theatre Guild On The Air broadcast a radio adaptation of Thornton Wilder's Pulitzer Prize-winning play "Our Town". The adaptation was by Erik Barnouw, and the production featured Thornton Wilder himself.

Wilder played the role of the Stage Manager onstage numerous times in "Our Town", beginning as a replacement in the original Broadway production. As far as I know, this radio adaptation is the only surviving record of his performance. The cast features Dorothy McGuire as Emily, the role she understudied and performed during the original Broadway run. Original cast members Doro Merande and Arthur Allen are heard as Mrs. Soames and Professor Willard, respectively.

As grateful as I am to be able to hear and share this recording, I must say I think it's a poor adaptation of the play. Barnouw made his adaptation without knowing that Wilder himself would be performing the Stage Manager role (which Barnouw renamed "Narrator"), and the part is greatly rewritten. In his book Media Marathon, Barnouw writes of being very nervous during the first readthrough, but Wilder was apparently quite game about the whole enterprise. Wilder's performance is good, although it would be nice to hear him reading more of the lines he actually wrote. The syrupy, overblown music is also a serious detriment to the production.

Admittedly, it's an impossible task to reduce Wilder's three-act play to 60 minutes, and the play itself is granted only about 45 of those minutes, due to sponsor messages. It is, as they say, what it is. And here it is. The photo in the video below shows McGuire and Wilder, with John Craven (the original George Gibbs on Broadway).

The full cast of the radio production:
Emily: Dorothy McGuire
Narrator: Thornton Wilder
George: James Dobson
Dr. Gibbs: Cameron Prud'Homme
Mrs. Gibbs: Barbara Weeks
Mr. Webb: Bill Adams
Mrs. Webb: Dorothy Sands
Mrs. Soames: Doro Merande
Mr. Morgan: Will Geer
Simon Stimson: Philip Tonge
Professor Willard: Arthur Allen