Friday, April 24, 2015

Interview: Eric Tucker of Bedlam

To celebrate Will Shakespeare’s birthday and deathday (which was yesterday, April 23), I got you a gift! Last month I interviewed Eric Tucker, the artistic director of Bedlam, during his company’s rehearsals for a double-staging of Twelfth Night and What You Will. My article got aborted but I didn’t want to waste the work, especially since I found Tucker very insightful about how Shakespeare works. So to celebrate the great playwright’s life and work, here’s an edited transcript of our conversation in March!
Bedlam in What You Will
(photo: Jenny Anderson)
How are rehearsals going?

Not bad, not bad. We have good days and bad days. Sometimes a lot of good stuff comes out and some days we’re nowhere.

Well you’ve bitten off a lot with two versions of Twelfth Night at the same time. How did that idea come about?

We were actually going to do Twelfth Night in rep with The Country Girl, the [Clifford] Odets play. We weren’t able to get the rights though. So I was thinking I wanted to find another play while we were working on Twelfth Night. But you know, in rehearsal you come up with these ideas that could be cool but they don’t fit in the play you’re doing. So then I thought maybe it would be fun to do it two different ways.

How are you approaching each version of the play?

Well they’re both with five actors, the same actors. We go into the rehearsal room every day and we all try a lot of things and talk about it a lot. We don’t plan things out or have anything programmed. It’s a team effort.

So we started approaching it from a place of what the themes of love were that we might pull out from each one. And one was about the trials and tribulations of love and how difficult it can be, but hopefully the message is that it can end up rewarding and exciting and worth it all. And then with the other one, we were looking at it as love being a madhouse or a sickness or disease, and it doesn’t always end up well.

I don’t think that’s exactly where each one is now, several weeks later. Now we’re just figuring out what the language of each one is, what the world is, what the rules are and what each one of them can hold aesthetically. Sometimes we’ll have an idea and think, ‘That’s better for the other version.’ So it’s like a devised piece in many ways. 
Bedlam in Hamlet
(photo: Elizabeth Nichols)
Is that similar to the approach you took for Saint Joan or Hamlet, or last fall with The Seagull and Sense and Sensibility? Did you go in without a plan and instead discovered and experimented? Or is this a new approach?

It depends on the play. With Joan, I had done it in Los Angeles with three actors. It turned out pretty good but there were things I still wasn’t satisfied with. It was very hard with three people. I always knew I wanted to do it again, I loved the play so much. So when I came to New York and formed a company, I thought that would be a good one to start with, just add another person to make life a little easier. But I had a road map of that one already, there was a blueprint for me as a director.

When we added Hamlet, I had directed the play many times, played it once. But I knew basically how I wanted to split the roles up amongst us. I knew that I wanted both plays to be in the same world and be interchangeable in terms of the visuals. But other than that, in terms of how we would tell it, the aesthetic was that we were constantly just experimenting.

And that was what I did in the fall too. I had a vision for what I thought Sense and Sensibility would be. But when things are very actor-driven, you need time to play and experiment. It doesn’t always look like what you think in your head. Or you get surprised by these things you never thought of that the actors are doing. And I like to be open to that.

Do you think there’s something to Shakespeare that allows for that sense of play and exploration that more realistic theater doesn’t have?

I do think Shakespeare allows for that. There’s almost no stage directions, nothing very descriptive other than what’s in the text. There’s so much left to our own imaginations that you can do just about anything with them. Oftentimes that leads to them having a shell put on them, a time and place that gets chosen because maybe the costumes will look cool or—I don’t know, I think if you do something like that with Shakespeare you have to think about what that means for the play in depth. But also there’s such a freedom with that, because you can tell the story in a modern way. I think when they’re done at the speed of thought, when they’re done quickly and economically, then a modern audience still gets it. So you don’t underestimate an audience.

Again, I think it’s just because so much is left for us to decide. If you follow the text and the stage directions are there, but it’s really open to play. You can see five Twelfth Nights a year and get five different types of storytelling. His plays, the stories are so fantastic. There’s so much about human nature and the characters are so three-dimensional that we’re always finding new stuff. I think it was Ben Kingsley said how everyone, whether they’re male or female, has a Hamlet in them, because he’s written so completely and fully. How could we get tired of seeing it? If we’re seeing someone else play it we’re seeing this whole new person.

That leads me to another question. You did Chekhov last fall, which has a sense of realism, a ‘you’ve gotta have a samovar onstage’ type of attitude that doesn’t necessarily fit with Bedlam’s style. What sort of things do you look for in scripts to enable your aesthetic of activity and movement? How do you approach a script that’s rooted in realism?

One is the language. The dialogue. There’s a rhythm to it that’s slightly, I don’t know—it’s like the first time when you read Angels in America or a Stephen Adly Guirgis play. Some people have this gift to write characters that lift off the page and you just see it up there. And those two guys, you can do almost anything with them. We know where they’re set and we know the situation between two people. They might be in an apartment having a fight but that apartment can be anything, you can put it on any stage, bare or not bare.

It’s also definitely plays that you read and think that can only be a play, it couldn’t be a movie. Then you can really get in and have fun with it and give the audience something that can only be gotten in a theater. That’s what I look for, that’s the key, the theatricality. That real gift of language and dialogue is rare. There are a lot of really good plays that are new, but it’s rare to get one that is extraordinary, they don’t come along quite as often—the kind of boldness that Kushner has, or Rajiv Joseph, who wrote Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo. There’s just so much magic in them even when they’re highly violent or when the subject matter is dark. That’s hard to come by. So that’s why I go back so often to classics.

Are there any classics that you feel would not mesh with your aesthetic? Do you pull Sophocles off the shelf and say, “I just don’t see how I could stage this?”

No, not really, nothing comes to mind. I get excited to tackle anything. I think when a story’s exciting or I feel like we have the cast for it, I get excited about it. But I can’t think of anything that I would say I don’t think that would mesh at all. For me it comes down to a story that gets me excited, then some sort of image of how I could present it, and then I go.

You mentioned story and you also mentioned language. That’s surprises me simply because the first thing I think of when I think of a Bedlam style is the movement and the use of space. How did you developed that aesthetic?

Early on, when I was in college in Rhode Island, I saw an outdoor production of Midsummer Night’s Dream—in Washington Square Park, I think. And the audience was being led around and we would watch a scene then go somewhere else. I kind of fell in love with that aesthetic for outdoor theater. I started doing that when I went back to college, learning how to move the audience around and keep them involved in a way that wasn’t their average experience in the theater.

Then I went to Trinity Rep for graduate school, and the aesthetic there has always been about the audience and how the actors relate to the audience. It’s always thought out: ‘what will the relationship be for this story? where will we put them and where will we be? and will that change?’ For me, I just kept switching that up. One time I did a Macbeth with everybody on moving risers and we moved them in their seats throughout.

Also, I’d walk into a space and know I have to do this story here, and I’d ask, “How will it fit into the space from corner to corner and wall to wall, not just necessarily up on the stage?” Sometimes I think the space should come first; it’s nice when that can happen, though it’s rare. So the audience feels like they’re in on something from the start, when they come in the doors. Over the years I’ve tried to keep exploring the nature of the audience and the actors, and how we’re in relation to each other. I think that’s at the heart of it.

Taking it back to Shakespeare, how do you conceive of his plays’ relationship to the audience?

What’s great is that it’s already there from the start. These solilioquies were meant to be spoken to the audience, so you’ve got a person just speaking out, asking them questions. There’s also something about the speed at which the scenes come together. Things just go, and I think it should be as seamless as you can make it. In the modern day, people cut a lot of text and then they add a lot of transitions. I do that too, I suppose, but I think it’s nice when you can keep it as seamless as possible. That is part of the relationship to the audience, because you’re keeping them in the story and on their toes.

The great thing about Shakespeare is that you can take one of his plays into the library of a school or you can do it around a campfire or on a Broadway stage or in a warehouse. He says it to us in Henry the 5th: ‘you’re going to have to bring something to this. You have to imagine armies, you have to imagine location.’ And I love that, I love to go and watch people pull something out of thin air. With Shakespeare, his mode of storytelling was to pull things out of thin air. He didn’t have anything but that wooden O. It’s magic, actors have to perform magic. And that’s the stuff that excites theatergoers, because it takes us by surprise.


Bedlam's Twelfth Night and What You Will runs from Mar 13 thru May 2 at 312 W. 36th St.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Review: What You Will at Bedlam

What You Will, or Twelfth Night
playwright  William Shakespeare
company  Bedlam

Edmund Lewis, Susannah Millonzi, Andrus Nichols, Tom O'Keefe, Eric Tucker

director/set/sound  Eric Tucker
costumes  Valérie T. Bart
lights  Les Dickert
props  Violeta Picayo
music  Tom O'Keefe & Ted Lewis

The company of What You Will
Twelfth Night, a play that revels in gender ambiguity, is perfectly suited to Bedlam’s fluid method of staging classics. They dub this version What You Will while its twin, Twelfth Night, plays in rep—same cast, different roles. To make the play even more protean, the company double-cast Viola. Effectively (but not invariably) she’s played by Susannah Millonzi, while Cesario and his twin Sebastian is Tom O’Keefe. The actors look nothing alike, but realism in Shakespeare is a fool’s pastime anyway. Bedlam, led by Eric Tucker, would rather find insight in a theatrical staging than a mimetic representation. So in What You Will, as Tucker’s Orsino dances to a bossa nova beat, his partner alternates from Millonzi to O’Keefe. Viola’s ambiguity is a self-confusion that’s only straightened out by Shakespeare’s endgame. But Bedlam gets the final word, since it’s O’Keefe who ends up as Viola. Millonzi, who started the evening in that role, finishes up as Sebastian.

Millonzi, in her rookie effort with Bedlam, sounds the emotional depths of Viola’s soliloquies. Doubling as Maria, she also steals the comic subplot: a pinch-voiced nerdlet in love with a female Sir Toby, here an aging debutante. This puts her opposite Andrus Nichols in both plots, and their great chemistry justifies the unconventional approach all on its own. Nichols matches Millonzi’s shape-shifting abilities as Sir Toby and Olivia. The latter begins the play in deep bereavement, so that when her affections are tossed around by the twins, she’s naked-hearted and vulnerable. It’s a pleasure to see two talented Shakespearean women make the most of their chance to carry the play. Against their formidable performances, the male actors offer simpler takes on their roles, but presumably they find more in the partner staging of Twelfth Night.

Actually it’s worth noting that most of the backstage team is also female, from Valérie T. Bart (who supplies elegant post-war whites that get smeared with a passionate red) to the stage managers and PAs. One exception is Les Dickert, whose lights do more with less. Actor/director, Tucker also supplies the sound design, although the use of vinyl records (Ella Fitzgerald and other post-war sounds) is so closely intertwined with the staging that it probably fell under his role as rehearsal captain. Bedlam is a strongly collaborative company, and its sense of equality likely results in a more open-hearted work. In its short (two-hour) runtime, this What You Will beguiles the audience with an emotionally lush and sensitive staging.
Susannah Millonzi & Andrus Nichols
in What You Will

Bedlam's What You Will runs from Mar 13 thru May 2 at 312 W. 36th St.

photos: Jenny Anderson

Friday, April 17, 2015

Review: Hamlet at CSC

playwright  William Shakespeare

Hamlet  Peter Sarsgaard
Ophelia  Lisa Joyce
Claudius  Harris Yulin
Gertrude  Penelope Allen
Polonius  Stephen Spinella
Laertes  Glenn Fitzgerald
company  Jim Broaddus, Austin Jones, Scott Parkinson, Daniel Morgan Shelley

director  Austin Pendleton
set  Walt Spangler
costumes  Constance Hoffman
lights  Justin Townsend
music/sound  Ryan Rumery/Scapesound

Sarsgaard as Hamlet
There is no ghost in Hamlet. Usually the role would provide backstory for the plot, motivation for the lead, and most importantly, theatrical magic for the audience. In Austin Pendleton’s staging at CSC, however, the prince follows an invisible spirit offstage then circles back moments later with his course set for vengeance. Throughout this production, Pendleton isn’t just banking on his audience’s familiarity with the play, he’s demanding it. His staging only works (when it works at all) through prior knowledge. At times it even seems like a Hamlet in quotes, a sort of three-hour setpiece. It’s abstruse, remote, and finally inaccessible.

Pendleton sets Elsinore as a luxury wedding: a table center, a canopy of flowers overhead, a tiered cake upstage, banquettes and a bar in the voms. Presumably it’s the royal nuptials (although I wondered if it was Hamlet & Ophelia’s hypothetical one). The white-and-blue palate suggests a Scandinavian climate subliminally, but otherwise the design is abstract—we’re not meant to think this Hamlet is actually playing out at a swank catering hall. But by making the space wholly conceptual, Pendleton divides the plot from its playing, and strands some scenes without a sense of place. That’s okay for the soliloquies and the nunnery scene, but not for specific locations like Gertrude’s closet and Ophelia’s gravesite.

Peter Sarsgaard has worked with Pendleton twice before at CSC, and their prior collaborations suggested he was well-cast as Hamlet. In Vanya and Three Sisters he’d shown an inwardness of focus and a neurotic rumination that should fit this titanic role well. But Sarsgaard also has no experience with verse drama and that shows. Plays at self-reflection, he seems to get lost in the poetic syntax. He’ll murmur into his wine, muffling his words and masking his emotions, then he’ll suddenly swing into fustian mode. His Hamlet is mercurial and temperamental, yet watching him isn’t particularly interesting.

Lisa Joyce as Ophelia, Stephen Spinella as Polonius
The same goes for Harris Yulin and Penelope Allen as the royal couple. Their work must’ve stalled early in rehearsals, since their choices are dully conventional. The supporting cast shows some nuance (Scott Parkinson, as Rosencranz and the Gravedigger, is nimble with the word-play). But only Stephen Spinella and Lisa Joyce are actually absorbing. The early scene between Polonius and daughter is the first to elicit a reaction from the audience. Spinella’s rambling yet brisk “brevity is the soul of wit” speech is the evening’s high point. Joyce is one of the few actors I’ve seen who plays Ophelia as the protagonist of an entire subplot rather than as a supporting character in Hamlet’s tragedy. She traces a convincing arc in the role by suggesting that her stifled emotional response in the ‘nunnery’ scene, and not her father’s death, is the start of her mental unraveling.

That scene ends the first half, surprisingly. The play resumes with “Speak the speech”, which is a great way to regain the audience’s attention after intermission. Or it would be if Pendleton had otherwise shaped the play into a story. There’s no variation to the tone, which undercuts the pacing, and no focus on one scene—Claudius’ prayer, for instance—over another. Pendleton relies on the audience to remember the plot but offers nothing for our attention. A three-hour runtime is par for Hamlet, but this one feels longer.


CSC's Hamlet runs Mar 27 thru May 10 at 136 E. 13th St.

photos: Carol Rosegg

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Shakespeare Listings: April in New York City

This spring is astonishingly busy on Broadway—leading other critics to complain, justly in my view—and in the NYC Shakesphere. Partly for my own sake and partly to get back to regular blogging, I’m putting together a listing of NYC theater onstage this spring that’s related to Will and his world. 

The Wooster Group
at St. Ann's Warehouse

The Wooster Group had collaborated with the RSC on a Troilus and Cressida in 2012. Evidently the partnership lacked chemistry, but Le Compte has kept working on her company’s half of T&C. She recasts her all-white company as Native Americans, a Wooster who-gives-a-fuck attitude toward race that dovetails too well with the NYTimes front-page exposé on how domestic abuse polluted the London rehearsals. Keep that in mind when you see what they bring to Shakespeare’s acrid Iliad. (thru Apr. 19)


Classic Stage Company

This looks like the most traditional staging on the spring slate. Peter Sarsgaard plays the big role. He's been in a lot of Chekhov in NYC the last 5-10 years (including a Vanya opposite his wife Maggie Gyllenhaal) but this is his first Shakespeare. Austin Pendleton has directed Sarsgaard well in those Chekhov productions, but they've been better at the internal, emotional moments than the theatrical gestures. Of all of Shakespeare's plays, Hamlet plays to those strengths, and Stephen Spinella is well-cast as Polonius. But otherwise it's hard to get excited about this production.
(thru May 10)


Broadway (St. James Th.)

A fluffy musical comedy set in the Elizabethan theater, Something Rotten is notable mainly for being a Broadway show not based on some prior work. Instead it imagines a pair of Elizabethan playwrights who anachronistically invent musical theater to compete with Will Shakespeare. So Rotten isn’t exactly groundbreaking: this is the schticky sub-genre of musicals-about-musicals (e.g. The Producers, Spamalot). The creative team is a question mark, with the musical elements coming from Hollywood types; a book by a big-in-Britain comedy writer; and direction/choreo by Casey Nicholaw (The Book of Mormon). The big draw is Christian Borle, who earned his Tony for Peter & the Starcatcher, and who here plays the Bard, but Brian d’Arcy James is no slouch onstage either.


Red Bull Theater
at the Duke on 42nd St.

One of the essential English classics that gets crowded out by Shakespeare's dominance. It offers a great pair of leads—its last NYC revival in '92 had Val Kilmer and Jeanne Tripplehorn at the Public—plus some honestly great poetry, dark dark psychology, and several astonishing scenes. Usually (but aptly) described as "What if Romeo and Juliet were siblings?", Tis Pity is decadent but ironic about it: the incestuous couple are just about the only heroic models in a corrupt Italian court. And the Red Bull can be relied on for an inventive sense of theatricality and willingness to get dark. And Tis Pity is dark even by Jacobean standards. Plus it's got one of the most memorable titles in theater history!
(April 14 - May 16)


What You Will
Theater Bedlam
at the Dorothy Strelsin Th.

Theater Bedlam apparently has enough ideas for staging Twelfth Night that they’ve decided to mount two productions in repertory. I’m confident that they can manage it, since their Saint Joan and Hamlet last year were packed with innovations in staging and playing. Seriously Bedlam is breaking new ground in Shakespeare; watching them you get the sense that they really are experimenting in rehearsal and finding ingenious ways to incorporate new ideas for staging. They’re re-invigorating classic plays, which is what I secretly want most when I see a show. And while some people might find a double-bill of the same show harebrained, I think it shows how hard Bedlam is striving to push the boundaries of how to produce Shakespeare’s plays. I’m more excited by these two shows than any other Shakespeareana this spring.
(thru May 2)


Fiasco Theater
at Th. for a New Audience

Fiasco pivots quickly from an acclaimed Into the Woods to present the rare Two Gentlemen. This company made a strong impression a few seasons ago with Cymbeline of all plays, and their Woods extended their style into a non-Shak avenue. The tight camaraderie of the ensemble, a flair for play-acting and for imaginative use of props and bodies, and an approach that foregrounds character rather than versification all make Fiasco a distinctive and potentially trend-setting company. They’ve picked a challenge with Two Gentlemen. It’s a very early one in Shak’s career, full of self-serious poetic romance and broad clowning comedy. It’s very rare to see—in fact, it’s one of only three plays by our man that I’ve never seen! So I’m looking especially forward to seeing what Fiasco does with it.
(April 24 - May 24)


Wolf Hall, pts. 1 & 2
Royal Shakespeare Company
on Broadway (Winter Garden Th.)

I'd include Wolf Hall just because it's the RSC. But the first novel in Hilary Mantel's historical series covers the same period of history as Henry the 8th, from Cardinal Wolsey's alliance with France to the birth of Anne Boleyn's daughter Elizabeth. More generally, Mantel follows Shak in the way she dramatizes history. This double bill plays out a set of tragic arcs in the English kingdom, by staging a succession of political maneuvers over a decade-plus of time. On the RSC tip, this production is up for several Olivier Awards: best new play and lighting design, plus director Jeremy Herron, and Nathaniel Parker for his King Henry. As a lover of history plays, I'm looking forward to this one. See also my historical guide on Playbill Online!
(thru July 5)


Rattlestick Playwrights Th.
May 14 - Jun 18
A drama about an actor who wants to play Hamlet

Mobile Shakespeare Unit (Public Th.)
May 17 - Jun 7
Low-fi Shak for NYC community centers & the Public

Shakespeare in the Park (Public Th.)
May 27 - Jul 5
Sam Waterston plays Prospero in Central Park

Classic Stage Company
May 29 - 
Chris Noth (!) makes a deal with the devil in Marlowe's tragedy

Shakespeare in the Park (Public Th.)
Jul 27 - Aug 23
Hamish Linklater & Lily Rabe return to Shak under Dan Sullivan's hand

Atlantic Th.
November 2015
A musical based on Much Ado, with music by Billie Joe Armstrong (?!)

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Writing link – Wolf Hall in Playbill

The company of Wolf Hall boogie on Broadway
(photo: Johan Persson)
I've got a busy spring coming up, with lots of Shakespearean theater and related work to cover. To get started, I re-read Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, the exceedingly well-turned historical novel about Henry the 8th and Anne Boleyn. Then I wrote a layman's guide to the relevant history for Playbill Online

Wolf Hall covers the same stretch of history as Henry the 8th, which Shakespeare collaborated on with his protege, John Fletcher. H8 is the only one of Will's plays that I've neither seen nor read. So I'm looking forward to reading that in the next week! I've also lined up Peter Sarsgaard as Hamlet (at CSC) and the first episode of the BBC's Wolf Hall with Mark Rylance.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

American Racism: "Othello was a white man!"

I spent this Thanksgiving weekend with Lady Hotspur and the Tiny Tiger instead of reviewing the two Shakespearean productions I saw in November. When I did sit at my computer, I could only think about one thing and that was Ferguson. I tried to approach the two shows—Pericles at the Public and Marlowe’s Tamburlaine at TFANA—by noting that the casts are racially diverse. Those two companies are the top Shakespearean troupes in town, and their commitment to race-blind casting is worth celebrating.

But commending American Shakespeare—or American anything—on its approach to race felt like bad faith this Thanksgiving. The mechanisms of justice are beyond broken; for a subset of Americans, they never existed in the first place.

I considered examining Shakespeare’s tricky but ultimately racist dramaturgy, teasing out the differences in eras. Shakespeare’s London didn’t have the framework of Social Darwinism that implies blacks invite and deserve their second-class status, or the pseudo-genetic notion of race that claims that people of African descent can’t be fully civilized. On the other hand, in 21C New York the biblical Curse of Ham no longer obtains.

Ira Aldridge, c. 1854, as Othello. Aldridge emigrated from the US
to Europe, whose audiences were less bigoted about black actors
Then, as I paged through books for inspiration, I found a shocking excerpt in Shakespeare in America, a collection published in 2014 by the Library of Congress. The piece is Mary Preston on Othello, one of 14 essays on Shak that she wrote in the 1860s—the Civil War era. She’s a Romantic, roughly contemporary with Emily Dickinson, and she reads Othello as an allegory of Nobility corrupted by Envy. This gives her a huge problem when she deals with Othello’s race (all italics are hers):

“In conclusion, let me add a word of explanation to my reader. In studying the play of Othello, I have always imagined its hero a white man. It is true the dramatist paints him black, but this shade does not suit the man. It is a stage decoration, which my taste discards,—a fault of color, from an artistic point of view. I have, therefore, as I before state in my readings of this play, dispensed with it. Shakespeare was too correct a delineator of human nature to have colored Othello black, if he had personally acquainted himself with the idiosyncrasies of the African race.
“We may regard, then, the daub of black upon Othello’s portrait as an ebullition of fancy, a freak of imagination,—the visionary conception of an ideal figure,—one of the few erroneous strokes of the great master’s brush, the single blemish on a faultless work. 
“Othello was a white man!”

That’s nuts! It’s a different sort of Shakespeare-crazy than Knight’s kabbalistic chart, which at least is rooted in a close reading of the plays. On a superficial level, it’s like saying the ghost in Hamlet is actually Claudius in disguise (he would’ve gotten away with it, except for those meddling kids!). It makes nonsense of the play.

I suppose we could admire Preston’s chutzpah. She’s bold enough to say that Shak overreached, and that he failed in his artistic intention. But in her misreading, the flaw that undermines Othello is that a black man cannot be a tragic hero. Put another way, Preston is saying the death of a black man is never tragic. That's still insane, but it’s also a view shared by the 21C Americans who dismiss Michael Brown’s murder (and Trayvon Martin’s, and innumerable others) as anything but a crime.

Race in Shakespeare is a Gordian knot, which I’ll revisit at the (sadly inevitable) next conflict. In the meantime, the Public’s Pericles and TFANA’s Tamburlaine coming up!

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Shedding blood on St. Crispin's Day

It’s St. Crispin’s Day, October 25, the anniversary of the 1854 Battle of Balaclava—that’s the English cavalry fiasco memorialized by Tennyson in “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” But of course, we really remember it because of the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. Or more accurately, we know it because of Shakespeare’s epic speech at the climax of Henry V. As if you need a reason to watch Sir Laurence:

So who was St. Crispin to get a day of his own? Actually, he shares October 25 with his brother, St. Crispian. Their story’s pretty standard for martyrs of pre-Christian Rome. Back in 285 or 286, the boys were making a living in Belgic Gaul as shoemakers, while they proselytized the illegal faith. They got hauled before the prefect of Gaul, Rictiovarus. And this brings us to the good part of any martyrology: the torture. Here’s the story from a Victorian collection about saints:

The judge, then, ordered the two brothers first to have spills of wood thrust between their nails and the quick. Then S. Crispin and S. Crispian prayed, and instantly the spills started out of their fingers, and turning in the air, rushed at their tormentors and stabbed them, so that several fell dead on the spot and others died soon after of their wounds.

Then Rictiovarus commanded a couple of millstones to be hung round the necks of the martyrs, and that they should be cast into the river Aisne. S. Crispin and his brother swam across without feeling the slightest inconvenience from the mill-stones.

He then had boiling lead poured over them, but that refreshed rather than injured the indomitable shoemaker martyrs. Then pitch, oil, and fat were stewed together, and they were plunged in the bubbling caldron. This failed to injure them, therefore Rictiovarus, disgusted at his want of success, pitched himself headforemost into the fire under the caldron, and stifled his dissatisfaction in the flames.

Seeing their chief persecutor thus disposed of, the martyrs placidly devoted their necks to the sword, and their heads were struck off without difficulty by the executioner.

One may be quite sure, when in the Acts of the Martyrs a series of tortures and miraculous cures leads up to a decapitation, that all but the decapitation is a pure invention of the writer.

The saints lived and died in Soissons, where a nice cult grew up around them for a millennium and change. One day, in the middle of the Hundred Years War, French soldiers staged a massacre of English bowmen garrisoned in Soissons—then kept going, and killed and raped the citizenry. When the English forces faced the French at Agincourt, King Henry claimed to be avenging the saints and city on this, their day.

Shakespeare sources turned that bit of royal PR and the astonishing military victory into a legendary episode in English history. But ironically it’s Shakespeare's speech about remembering the battle, and not the battle itself, that keeps alive the observance of St. Crispin’s Day and the legend of Agincourt.


quote from The Lives of Saints, Rev. S. Baring-Gould, vol. 12, p. 628-630 (1870-1877)