Bacon and Chicken

Part of the crazy fun of Something Rotten! is the dozens of Shakespeare references. It's a very funny show even if you know nothing about Shakespeare, but it's extra funny if you do know about him. So with that in mind, I thought it would be a good idea to create a Something Rotten! glossary, for our actors and our audiences.

And then I realized how many references there are in this script and score, so I'm starting with just the opening song, "Welcome to the Renaissance."

RENAISSANCE is French for "rebirth," as Something Rotten! tells us at the end of the opening number. Apparently, scholars disagree a bit, but this period started roughly in the 15th century and lasted through the 16th century. It was a time of returning to the ideals of Classical Greece and Rome, of massive advances in art, literature, music, architecture, politics, science, and lots more. And Shakespeare was writing his plays in the late 1500s and early 1600s, almost as a sort of culmination of everything the Renaissance brought us.

SOMETHING ROTTEN! is an incredibly clever, multi-layered title (the best ones always are) that references both Hamlet and also, Nick and Thomas' clumsy misreading of Hamlet as Omelette. The original quote, "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark," is a line from Hamlet, as Marcellus and Horatio discuss two disturbing things: the ghost of Hamlet's father appearing at night, and also the moral ambiguity of Hamlet's uncle sitting on the throne and all the intrigue behind that. But when Nick and Thomas mistake the title for Omelette, the quote takes on two more meanings, the "rottenness" of the idea to write a musical about omelettes, and the various unpleasant schemes unfolding, most notably Nick trying to cheat and steal using Thomas' dubious powers. As I wrote about in my last post, it creates multiple meta-theatrical layers. 

WAR OF THE ROSES refers to a series of civil wars in England in the later 1400s, fought between the Lancasters and the Yorks over who gets to inherit the crown. At the beginning of Shakespeare's play Richard III, Richard tells us briefly of his family's victory and the resulting boredom for him. Richard opens the play with this speech:
Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;

The "winter of our discontent" is the War of the Roses, and the "glorious summer" is the Yorks' victory. Then Richard makes a pun. The word "sun" refers to the metaphorical summer that has come, and it also is heard by the audience as "this son of York," because he is part of the House of York. Then he talks about how much everything has changed, and the bad times dispelled. 
And all the clouds that lour'd upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths;
Our bruised arms hung up for monuments;
Our stern alarums changed to merry meetings,
Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.
Grim-visaged war hath smooth'd his wrinkled front;
And now, instead of mounting barbed steeds
To fright the souls of fearful adversaries,
He capers nimbly in a lady's chamber
To the lascivious pleasing of a lute.

Now instead of war, the new peacetime pastime is sex, "capering" (fooling around) in "a lady's chamber" (her bedroom), to sexy music. But that's a problem for Richard, because he's a hunchback and nobody wants to fool around with him.
But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;
I, that am rudely stamp'd, and want love's majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;
I, that am curtail'd of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinish'd, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them;
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity:

Wow, this guy is pissed, at life, at himself, at everybody else. So he decides if nobody will fuck him, he's going to fuck over everybody else.
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous,
By drunken prophecies, libels and dreams,
To set my brother Clarence and the king
In deadly hate the one against the other:
And if King Edward be as true and just
As I am subtle, false and treacherous,
This day should Clarence closely be mew'd up,
About a prophecy, which says that 'G'
Of Edward's heirs the murderer shall be.

Richard is the Earl of Gloucester, so the prophecy he mentions predicts he will kill his brother Clarence. And as soon as he says it out loud, Clarence shows up.
Dive, thoughts, down to my soul: here
Clarence comes.

Such a great opening to a play! But there's some interesting resonance here between angry Richard and angry Nick, and Nick does some dirty deeds as well, though he stops short of murder.

was a very famous writer, author of The Canterbury Tales, among other things, and he is often referred to as the Father of English Literature or the Father of English Poetry. He was also a respected philosopher and astronomer, and he scares the shit out of Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn!

THE CRUSADES were a series of religious wars initiated, supported, and directed by the Catholic Church in the medieval period. The best known of these Crusades are those to the Holy Land in the period between 1095 and 1291 that were intended to recover Jerusalem and its surrounding area from Islamic rule. Beginning with the First Crusade, which resulted in the recovery of Jerusalem in 1099, dozens of Crusades were fought, providing a focal point of European history for centuries. Later on, the Crusades arguably led to The Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition, which was at its peak powers of terror about a century before Shakespeare.

BUBONIC PLAGUE, also known as The Black Death, is a terrible disease spread by fleas and small infected mammals. It was the most lethal pandemic in world history, lasting about ten years in the mid-1300s, killing up to 200 million people, and it's still with us today. The estimates are that the Black Death killed 30-60% of the population in Europe, and about a third of the population of the Middle East. It was known as The Black Death because one of the symptoms was acral necrosis, a dark discoloration of the skin.

CHARLEMAGNE, French for "Charles the Great," was the first emporer of the Holy Roman Empire, uniting Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire. Charles was son of Pepin the Short, and two of his sons were named Louis the Pious and Pepin the Hunchback. Intrigue, plots to bring disaster...

LUTE is a stringed instrument, close to a guitar or mandolin, and it was the lead instrument for most Renaissance music.

THE HOUSE OF TUDOR was one of the royal bloodlines in England, and Henry VII took over the throne after the War of the Roses, because the House of Lancaster had no more male heirs. Henry then married into the House of York. The style of architecture during this period became known as Tudor as well.

FARTHINGALE is just a Renaissance version of the structure under a hoop skirt.

THOMAS DEKKER was a dramatist, a pamphleteer, and a versatile and prolific writer. His career spanned several decades and brought him into contact with many of the period's most famous dramatists.

was a gay English philosopher and statesman who served as Attorney General and as Lord Chancellor of England. He was a contemporary of Shakespeare's. His works are seen as contributing to the scientific method and remained influential through the later stages of the scientific revolution. Bacon has been called the father of empiricism. He argued for the possibility of scientific knowledge based only upon inductive reasoning and careful observation of events in nature.

Bacon's philosophy is laid out in the many writings he left behind, His scientific works described his ideas for a universal reform of knowledge into scientific methodology. His religious and literary works laid out his moral philosophy and theological meditations. His juridical writings laid out Bacon's proposals for reforms in English Law.

In "Welcome to the Renaissance," one actor sings, "Hey Look, it's Francis Bacon with a chicken." Another sings, "What's he makin'?" And the first one replies, "Well, I think he found a way of freezing meat." It's true. And it's a weird story. Bacon had theorized that fresh meat could be kept fresh by freezing it. To prove his theory, he stuffed a chicken with snow, packed snow around it, and buried it. And he caught pneumonia and died.

SIR WATER RALEIGH was an English statesman, soldier, writer, explorer, and a favorite of Queen Elizabeth I. He played a leading part in English colonization of North America (and the introduction of tobacco as a cash crop), he helped suppress rebellion in Ireland, and he helped defend England against the Spanish Armada.

JOHN WEBSTER was the last of the great Elizabethan playwrights, known particularly for his extremely gory tragic plays. Webster as a child shows up in the film Shakespeare in Love, as a comically bloodthirsty street kid who loves the uber-gore of Shakespeare play Titus Andronicus, and not incidentally he enjoys feeding live mice to cats. That's all fictional, but it's a great way to establish the ultra violence of his future plays.

BEN JONSON was considered the second greatest English playwright, after our boy Will. He was famous for his satirical comedies.

CHRISTOPHER "KIT" MARLOWE was a gay atheist (neither acceptable at the time) and an incredibly famous and successful playwright, considered now to be the greatest Elizabethan playwright until Shakespeare took over the title after Marlowe's mysterious early death. He also makes an appearance in Shakespeare in Love. One of Marlowe's biggest hits was Tamburlaine the Great.

THOMAS KYD was another of the important Elizabethan playwrights (there were a lot!) and his most famous work is The Spanish Tragedy.

THOMAS MIDDLETON was unusual among his peers for writing comedies, tragedies, and histories, all three.

THOMAS MORE was an English lawyer, judge, social philosopher, author, statesman, and humanist. He opposed the Protestant Reformation and the Church of England. He was a mentor and advisor to Henry VIII, who executed him for not taking the Supremacy Oath, which said that the King is the head of the Church of England. He's also a major character in the cable drama The Tudors.

Later in the show, at the after-party, Nigel and Portia see one more celebrity writer of the time...

EDMUND SPENCER is considered one of the greatest poets in the English language. He's best known for The Faerie Queene, an epic fantasy poem and allegory celebrating the Tudor dynasty and Elizabeth I.

This opening song of Something Rotten!, "Welcome to the Renaissance," does so much important narrative work, like all the best opening numbers do. It sets up time and place, the establishing situation, and it subtly sets up the central conflict to come. It also sets up the ironic meta-device of essentially setting the story in 1595 and 2022.

But it also does a masterful job of reminding us what a wild and wonderful time this was in many ways. So much happening, so much changing, so many advances in art and science. The list of authors in this song is stunning, as we realize that all these amazing writers all lived about the same time.

It makes me think of the musical theatre here in America, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when we had so many amazing artists working at the same time in the same place, Stephen Sondheim, Hal Prince, Jerry Robbins, Bob Fosse, Michael Bennett, Kander and Ebb, Harnick and Bock, Jerry Herman, Stephen Schwartz, Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber... you get the idea.

This list also suggests to us that the competition in London's theatre scene is fierce! So many masterful playwrights giving the public very high quality work, makes it hard for a marginally talented new voice like Bottom's to get noticed. Even worse for poor Nick, he realizes that Nigel is also a much better writer than he is.

So much of what's to come in our story is here in this seemingly goofy, seemingly traditional, musical comedy opening. The lyrics even sneak in the fact that the printing press was making literature available to the middle class for the first time. But it's done comically, as the lyric keeps demanding rhymes for renaissance. The ensemble sings:
Our printing press has the fancy fonts.
That's right, we're fancy,
And very literary, theatrical, too.
It's what we do.

Something Rotten! is a neo musical comedy like Bat Boy, Urinetown, Cry-Baby, and others, so wacky and transgressive on the surface, that we don't notice the substance and craft underneath. It's such a joy to work on material this smart, this insightful, and this human. I love my job.

Long Live the Musical!

P.S. Season tickets are on sale now, and single tickets will go on sale at the end of the month. For more info about the show, click here.

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