Living Paintings: 13 Caravaggio Works of Art Performed by Real-Life Actors

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, the father of Baroque painting, shocked the upper class aesthetes of his day by drafting prostitutes and proletariats as models for his primarily Biblical subjects.

Ten years ago, under the direction of founder Ludovica Rambelli, eight members of the Italian company, Malatheatre, discovered first hand the insanely rigorous poses Caravaggio demanded of his models, creating 23 tableaux vivants inspired by the master’s oeuvre.

The company sought less to reproduce the paintings than the scene Caravaggio would have gazed on from behind his easel.

The 13 stagings in the video above make one aware of the intense physicality evident in Caravaggio’s work.




All those extended arms and inversions are agony for a model. After 30 seconds or so, even a sharply inclined neck or bent back can serve up a small taste of what it’s like to be crucified.

The result is exquisite. The eight players are not just extraordinarily fit specimens, they have clearly devoted much thought to the emotional life of each character they embody, sustaining the moment with great focus and determination.

The action unfolds in the suitably ancient setting of Naples’ Church of Santa Maria Donnaregina Nuova.

When not called upon to model, the performers become stage hands, helping each other to arrange the simple, well chosen props and flowing mantles.

(I enjoyed the small joke of a female Bacchus.)

Performed live to selections from Mozart, Bach, and Vivaldi, this company has settled on the Lux Aeterna section of Mozart’s Requiem to accompany their archival footage.

The next opportunity to see the show performed live will be in Naples on December 28.

Have a look at the video below, for some comparisons between the original paintings and the 13 tableaux vivants seen in the video:

The Entombment of Christ

Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy,

Crucifixion of Saint Peter

The Beheading of St John the Baptist

Judith Beheading Holofernes

Flagellation of Christ

The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew

Annunciation

Rest on the Flight into Egypt

Narcissus,

The Raising of Lazarus

Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy

Bacchus

via This Kids Should See This

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Ayun Halliday is a former artist’s model turned author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on Monday, November 12 for another monthly installment of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

 

The CIA’s Former Chief of Disguise Show How Spies Use Costumes in Undercover Operations

Think on this as you ready your Halloween finery. Sometimes it’s not a case of winning a costume contest, or impressing your friends with your witty take on current events or pop culture.

Sometimes, masquerade is a thin line between life and death.

The CIA’s former Chief of Disguise, Jonna Mendez, rose up through the ranks, having signed on as receptionist shortly after her fiancé revealed—three days before the wedding—that he was actually an undercover agent.




As Chief of Disguise, her mission was to protect case officers in dangerous situations, as well as foreign sources who routinely put their lives at risk by meeting with American operatives.

Transforming their appearance was an additive proposition—while it’s difficult to make someone shorter, slimmer, or younger, it’s not difficult to render them taller, heavier, older…

In her experience, women are easily disguised as men. (She shared with The New York Times' Matthew Rosenberg how she herself passed undetected in male mufti, thanks primarily to a lit cigar.)

Men have a tougher time passing as women. Fans of RuPaul’s Drag Race might take exception to this position, were it not for the assertion that blending in is key.

The goal is to be forgettable, not fabulous.

For Americans abroad, this poses certain cultural challenges.

Mendez stresses that disguise is much more than a simple facial transformation, involving makeup, false hair, and prosthetics.

It’s dress, carriage, gait, jewelry, scent…

The biggest American giveaway is our shoes. An Italian civilian can peg ‘em with one swift glance.

Passing requires further behavioral modifications in the realms of table manners, gait, and even hanging out. (Europeans distribute their weight evenly, whereas Americans lean.)

To fly beneath the radar, the disguised operative must shoot to transform every aspect of their appearance. Imagine a survey wherein the participant recalls every physical aspect of someone they’ve just encountered. The goal is to nudge that participant into answering every question incorrectly.

What color are your eyes? Your hair? How much do you weigh? How tall are you? How old?  How would you describe your nose? Your voice? Your clothing?

Change it.

Change it all.

You can do so by low tech methods, using whatever is on hand. Mendez once maneuvered an agent out of a tight spot on the Sub-Continent, by improvising a quick change with Dr. Scholl’s powder and cosmetics collected from local CIA wives.

She credits her own second husband, CIA “master of disguise” Tony Mendez (the inspiration for Ben Affleck’s character in Argo) with many trade secrets she put into regular practice: dental facades, speech-altering artificial palettes, prosthetics…

At the high end is the mask she wore to brief former CIA Chief, President George HW Bush, on developments within the disguise program. The President was none the wiser.

Meanwhile, a masked American agent chucked his mask under a Moscow rock when danger compelled him to scupper his mission midway through. That mask now resides in the KGB museum where Mendez cannot visit it.

Check out the Mendezes’ book Spydust for more information on their adventures in the field.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on Monday, November 12 for another monthly installment of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Why Read Waiting For Godot?: An Animated Case for Samuel Beckett’s Classic Absurdist Play

Iseult Gillespie’s latest literature themed TED-Ed lesson—Why should you read Waiting For Godot?—poses a question that’s not too difficult to answer these days.

The meaning of this surprisingly sturdy Absurdist play is famously open for debate.

Author Samuel Beckett told Roger Blin, who directed and acted in its first production at the Théâtre de Babylon in 1953, that all he knew for certain was that the two main characters, Vladimir and Estragon, wore bowler hats.




(Another thing he felt sure of was that they were male, and should only be brought to life by those in possession of a prostate gland, a specification that rankles female theater artists eager to take a crack at characters who now seem as universal as any in Shakespeare. The Beckett estate’s vigorous enforcement of the late playwright’s wishes is itself the subject of a play, The Underpants Godot by Duncan Pflaster.)

A “tragicomedy in two acts,” according to Beckett, Waiting for Godot emerged during a vibrant moment for experimental theater, as playwrights turned their backs on convention to address the devastation of WWII.

Comedy got darker. Boredom, religious dread, and existential despair were major themes.

Perhaps we are on the brink of such a period ourselves?

Critics, scholars, and directors have found Godot a meaningful lens through which to consider the Cold War, the French resistance, England’s colonization of Ireland, and various forms of apocalyptic near-future.

Perhaps THAT is why we should read (and/or watch) Waiting for Godot.

Vladimir:

Was I sleeping, while the others suffered? Am I sleeping now? Tomorrow, when I wake, or think I do, what shall I say of today? That with Estragon my friend, at this place, until the fall of night, I waited for Godot? That Pozzo passed, with his carrier, and that he spoke to us? Probably. But in all that what truth will there be? (Estragon, having struggled with his boots in vain, is dozing off again. Vladimir looks at him.) He'll know nothing. He'll tell me about the blows he received and I'll give him a carrot. (Pause.) Astride of a grave and a difficult birth. Down in the hole, lingeringly, the grave digger puts on the forceps. We have time to grow old. The air is full of our cries. (He listens.) But habit is a great deadener. (He looks again at Estragon.) At me too someone is looking, of me too someone is saying, He is sleeping, he knows nothing, let him sleep on. (Pause.) I can't go on! (Pause.) What have I said?

Gillespie’s lesson, animated by Tomás Pichardo-Espaillat, above, includes a supplemental trove of resources and a quiz that educators can customize online.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Her play Zamboni Godot premiered in New York City in 2017. Join her in NYC on Monday, October 15 for another monthly installment of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Sarah Bernhardt Becomes the First Woman to Play Hamlet (1899)

At one time, the name Sarah Bernhardt was synonymous with melodramatic self-presentation. In her heyday, the actress created a category all her own—impossible to judge by the usual standards of the dramatic arts. Or as Mark Twain put it, “there are five kinds of actresses: bad actresses, fair actresses, good actresses, great actresses—and then there is Sarah Bernhardt.”

Admired and beloved by Victor Hugo and playwright Edmond Rostand, who called her “the queen of the pose and the princess of the gesture,” Bernhardt commanded attention in every role, and became infamous as “a canny self-promoter,” as Hannah Manktelow writes. Bernhardt “cultivated her image as a mysterious, exotic outsider. She claimed to sleep in a coffin and encouraged the circulation of outlandish rumors about her eccentric behavior.”




Bernhardt’s worldwide fame rested not only on her public relations skill, but also on her willingness to take dramatic risks most actresses of the time would never dare. In one notable example, she played Hamlet in 1899, at age 55, in a French adaptation of Shakespeare’s play. What’s more, she boldly undertook the role in London, then again in Stratford at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre. Finally, she became the first woman to portray Hamlet on film (see a short clip above).

Reactions to her stage performance by contemporaries were mixed. In her review, actress and writer Elizabeth Robins praised Bernhardt’s “amazing skill” in playing “a spirited boy… with impetuosity, a youthfulness, almost childish.” But Robins issued a qualification at the outset: “for a woman to play at being a man is, surely, a tremendous handicap,” she writes, a criticism echoed by English essayist Max Beerbohm, who went so far as to deny women the power to create art.

“Creative power,” wrote Beerbohm, “the power to conceive ideas and execute them, is an attribute of virility; women are denied it, in so far as they practice art at all, they are aping virility, exceeding their natural sphere. Never does one understand so well the failure of women in art as when one sees them deliberately impersonating men upon the stage.” Setting Beerbohm’s categorically sexist assertions aside (for the moment), we must mark the irony that both he and Robins are troubled by a woman playing a man, given that all of Shakespeare’s female characters were once played by men, a fact both critics somehow fail to mention.

Where Beerbohm saw in Bernhardt’s performance a mere “aping of virility,” Robins, unhampered by Beerbohm's ugly misogyny, observed the great actress in vivid detail, in an essay that brings Bernhardt’s Hamlet to life with descriptions of her, for example, “appealing dumbly for another sign” after seeing her father’s ghost (on painted gauze), “and passing pathetic fluttering hands over the unresponsive surface, groping piteously like a child in the dark.”

The pathos of Bernhardt’s performance was undercut, Robins felt, by some clumsy moments, such as her  mistreatment of poor Yorick’s skull. (A real human skull, by the way, given to her by Victor Hugo). “It was not pleasant,” writes Robins, “to see the grinning object handled so callously…. Indeed, I feel sure that Madame Bernhardt treats her lap-dog more considerately.” On the whole, however, Robins felt the performance a truly dramatic achievement through Bernhardt’s “mastery of sheer poise… of sparing, clean-cut gesture… the effect that the artist in her wanted to produce.”

Further up, see an ink drawing of Bernhardt as Hamlet by Reginal Cleaver and, just above, an 1899 postcard photograph (with Hugo’s gifted skull). Read more about Bernhardt’s performance, and the attendant publicity, at the Shakespeare Blog, and learn about a new play based on Bernhardt’s Hamlet called “The Divine Sarah” at the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Shakespeare & Beyond.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Take a Virtual Tour of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London

The story of the Globe Theatre, the ancestral home of Shakespeare’s plays, is itself very Shakespearean, in all of the ways we use that adjective: it has deep roots in English history, a tragic backstory, and represents all of the hodgepodge of London, in the early 17th century and today, with the city’s colorful street life, mingling of international cultures, high and low, and its delight in the play and interplay of languages.

“The first public playhouses,” notes the British Library, “were built in London in the late 1500s. Theatres were not permitted within the boundaries of the City itself”—theater not being considered a respectable art—”but were tolerated in the outer districts of London, such as Southwark, where the Globe was located. Southwark was notorious for its noisy, chaotic entertainments and for its sleazy low-life: its theatres, brothels, bear baiting pits, pickpockets and the like.”




The Globe began its life in 1599, in a story that “might be worthy,” writes the Shakespeare Resource Center, “of a Shakespearean play of its own.” Built from the timbers of the city’s first permanent theater, the Burbage, which opened in 1576, the Globe burned down in 1613 “when a cannon shot during a performance of Henry VIII ignited the thatched roof in the gallery.” Within the year, it was rebuilt on the same foundations (with a tiled roof) and operated until the Puritans shut it down in 1642, demolishing the famed open-air theater two years later.

In a twist to this so far very English tale, it took the tireless efforts of an expatriate American, actor-director Sam Wanamaker, to bring the Globe back to London. After more than two decades of advocacy, Wanamaker’s Globe Playhouse Trust succeeded in recreating the Globe, just a short distance from the original location. Opening in 1997, three-hundred and fifty-five years after the first Globe closed, the new Globe Theatre recreated all of the original's architectural elements.

The stage projects into the circular courtyard, designed for standing spectators and surrounded by three tiers of seats. While the stage itself has an elaborate painted roof, and the seating is protected from the weather by the only thatched roof in London since the 1666 Great Fire, the theater’s courtyard is open to the sky. However, where the original Globe held about 2,000 standing and 1,000 seated playgoers, the recreation, notes TimeOut London, holds only about half that number.

Still, theater-goers can “get a rich feel for what it was like to be a ‘groundling’ (the standing rabble at the front of the stage) in the circular, open-air theatre.” Short of that, we can tour the Globe in the virtual recreation at the top of the post. Move around in any direction and look up at the sky. As you do, click on the tiny circles to reveal facts such as “Probably the first Shakespeare play to be performed at the Globe was Julius Caesar, in 1599,” and videos like Mark Antony’s famous “friends, Romans, countrymen” speech, performed at the Globe, above.

If you don't have the luxury of visiting the new Globe, taking a tour, or seeing a performance lovingly-recreated with all of the costuming (and even pronunciation) from Jacobean England, you can get the flavor of this wondrous achievement in bringing cultural history into the present with the virtual tour, also available as an app for iPhone and iPad users. This interactive tour supersedes a previous version we featured a few years back.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Eleven Rules for Writing from Eight Contemporary Playwrights 

Chances are most of us won’t be immediately familiar with the eight mostly British playwrights reflecting on their process in the National Theatre’s video, above.

That’s a good thing.

It's easier to choose which pieces of inspiring, occasionally conflicting writing advice to follow when the scale's not weighted down by the thumb of celebrity.

(Though rest assured that there’s no shortage of people who do know their work, if the National Theater is placing them in the hot seat.)




It’s impossible to follow all of their suggestions on any given project, so go with your gut.

Or try your hand at one that doesn’t come naturally, especially if you’ve been feeling stuck.

These approaches are equally valid for those writing fiction, and possibly even certain types of poetry and song.

The National wins points for assembling a diverse group—there are four women and four men, three of whom are people of color.

Within this crew, it’s the women who overwhelmingly bring up the notions of permission and perfection, as in it’s okay to let your first draft be absolutely dreadful.

Most of the males are prone to plotting things out in advance.

And no one seems entirely at home marooned against a seamless white background on a plain wooden stool.

Jewish identity, school shootings, immigration, race, climate change, and homophobia are just some of the topics they have considered in their plays.

Some have worked in film and TV, adapted the classics, or written for young audiences.

They have won prestigious awards, seen their plays staged ‘round the globe, and had success with other artistic pursuits, including poetry, performance, and dance.

Clearly, you'll find some great advice below, though it's not a one-size-fits-all proposition. Let us know in the comments which rules you personally consider worth following.

Eleven Rules for Writing from Eight Contemporary Playwrights

1. Start

or

2. Don’t start. Let your idea marinate for a minimum of six months, then start.

3.. Have some sort of outline or plan before you start

4. Do some research

5. Don’t be judgmental of your writing while you’re writing

6. Embrace the terrible first draft 

7. Don’t show anyone your first draft, unless you want to.

8. Know how it’s going to end

or

9. Don’t know how it’s going end

10. Work with others

11. Print it, and read it like someone experiencing it for the first time. No editing aloud. Get that pen out of your hand.

And now, it’s time to discover the work of the participating playwrights. Go see a show, or at least read about one in the links:

In-Sook Chappell

Ryan Craig

Suhayla El-Bushra

Inua Ellams

Lucy Kirkwood

Evan Placey

Tanya Ronder

Simon Stephens

The National Theatre has several fascinating playlists devoted to playwriting. Find them here.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on Wednesday, May 16 for another monthly installment of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical Debuted on Broadway 50 Years Ago: Watch Footage of the Cast Performing in 1968

As years go, 1968 is packed with notable events.

The Tet Offensive and the Apollo 8 mission to the moon.

The assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy.

The first 747 took to the skies. Star Trek showed television’s first interracial kiss.

And Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical, which debuted downtown hard on the heels of the Summer of Love, reopened on Broadway.




New York Times critic Clive Barnes—a fan—caved to pressure from anxious preview audience members, who wanted him to warn prospective ticket buyers what they were in for. Tongue firmly in cheek, he complied within the body of a rave review:

A great many four letter words such as “love”

A number of men and women (I should have counted)… totally nude

Frequent approving references… to the expanding benefits of drugs

Homosexuality

Miscegenation

Flowers

Then, as now, a growing youth movement occupied the American public’s imagination.

If 2018’s Broadway producers are willing to take a risk on a musical that’s not adapted from a popular movie, we may well be entering ticket lotteries for Gonzalez! sometime in the very near future.

Back then, young people were in revolt against the Vietnam War and the values their parents held dear.

The original versions, both on and off Broadway, featured two of the show’s three authors, Gerome Ragni and James Rado, as antiheroes Berger and Claude. (Galt MacDermot wrote the music.)

While other cast members emerged from New York’s hippie scene, Ragni and Rado’s backgrounds were somewhat lacking in patchouli. Rado was an aspirant composer of traditional Broadway musicals. Ragni, as a member of The Open Theater, was a bit more tuned in, theatrically speaking.

As Rado recalled in an interview:

There was so much excitement in the streets and the parks and the hippie areas, and we thought if we could transmit this excitement to the stage it would be wonderful. ... We hung out with them and went to their Be-Ins (and) let our hair grow.

Barnes wryly noted in his review that “these hard-working and talented actors are in reality about as hippie as Mayor Lindsay.”

But there’s nothing too wig-like about the hair swinging around in the above footage—from the Grammys, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, and the 1969 Tony Awards where the cast was introduced by Harry Belafonte. There’s a spontaneity seldom seen in big budget musicals these days, though with a national tour hitting the road and dozens of 50th anniversary productions popping up across the country, we may be in for a redux.

To learn more about Hair’s role in theater history—including understudy Diane Keaton’s refusal to get naked and a page from the Times’ theater listings showing what else was playing at the time—read The Bowery Boys photo-packed 50th anniversary salute.

Sing along with the original Off-Broadway cast below.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on Wednesday, May 16 for another monthly installment of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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