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Welcome to Episode 197 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that goes behind the curtain and into the real life and history of William Shakespeare by interviewing the experts who know him best.

One of the most powerful aspects of modern day theater performance is the spooky sounds, creaking doors, or the wailing noises of the witches across the moor. These same sound effects were important on stage for Shakespeare’s original performances of his plays, as well, but as you might imagine, with a decidedly less computer-based generation.

While the bard’s selection of performance sound may not have been based on anything created by Steve Jobs, the technology was no less impressive with implements designed specifically to generate the sound of waves in the ocean, rain falling down, and even thunder. Here today to share with us some of the history of mechanical sound production and the use of music on stage to set the scenery in the early modern theater are our guests, and experts in original practice of Shakespeare’s plays, Chris Johnston and Alexander Sovronsky

Editorial Note: In the episode, I refer to the thunder run at the Old Vic as bring in London, but it is, in fact, in Bristol. Visit their website here. Thank you to listener Alison for sending in this correction.

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Chris Johnston is an actor and music director. Last seen onstage with the American Shakespeare Center for 24 seasons and over 160 roles including Macbeth in Macbeth, Enobarbus in Antony and Cleopatra, Feste in Twelfth Night, Flamenio in The White Devil. His music directing credits include the World Premiere of The Willard Suitcases, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, and many more. Chris is currently pursuing his MFA in Shakespeare and Performance from Mary Baldwin University.  

Alexander Sovronsky – is an actor, musician, composer living in NYC. His career includes creating music/sound as well as performing in various Broadway, Off-Broadway, regional, and international productions. Alexander holds an MFA in Classical Theatre from the Academy for Classical Acting at the Shakespeare Theatre of DC, where he has taught workshops on how Shakespeare utilized music & sound in his plays to connect with his audience. He has also taught that workshop in many other theatres and colleges & universities around the North East. You can find him online at www.AlexanderSovronsky.com 

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In this episode, I’ll be asking Chris Johnston and Alexander Sovronsky about :

  • What about popular music, like ballads or folk songs from the 16-17th century? Do we know of any instances in Shakespeare’s plays where he used popular songs to advance the action on stage during a production? 
  • Over 30 times across his works Shakespeare writes simply “Music plays” or calls for just “music” in the stage directions without any specific indication as to what kind of music. Alexander, would this be music Shakespeare wrote for the play? 
  • We’ve identified ways to make the sound of thunder for Shakespeare’s plays, but in The Tempest Act I Scene 1, the stage directions specifically call for lightning, as a sound. What would have been used to create the sound of lightning?

… and more!

Books & Resources Chris Johnston and Alex Sovronsky Recommends

A few more music and sound effect resources (from Amazon) that Cassidy thought you might enjoy: 

There’s another book probably useful if you’re investigating sound/special effects called Sound Effects in Shakespeare: A Study of English Renaissance Stage Production by Thomas Edward Ruddick · 1982, but I was unable ot find a copy of this book online. It shows up on World Cat here and was published by the University of South Carolina Press, so if you really want to track it down that should be enough information to give your local librarian and find a copy (remember interlibrary loan can order books for you, too!) 

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…his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound.

Jaques

As You Like It (II.7)

 

Costa Rican Pottery Whistle dated c. 800-1525. This pottery whistle is similar to the one shown in the video version of today’s podcast by our guest Chris Johnston. Thank you to Alexander Sovronsky for sharing the history of this artifact and how it would have been available to a playwright like Shakespeare in the 16th century. | Image details: The Crosby Brown Collection of Musical Instruments, 1889, Metropolitan Museum of Art. Aerophone-Whistle Flute-whistle, H: 44mm; W: 45cm; L: 46mm; Wt: 32g. Made of Clay. Public Domain. Source

 

Sound Effects: Bird Whistles

Bird sounds take place in Shakespeare’s plays, but none perhaps so well known as the nightengale and lark that occurs in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

“It was the nightingale, and not the lark,
That pierced the fearful hollow of thine ear;
Nightly she sings on yon pomegranate-tree:
Believe me, love, it was the nightingale.” – Juliet, Romeo and Juliet (III.5)

Alexander and Chris discuss the creation of these effects in Shakespeare’s theater and along with the very real possibility that the noises of bird sounds were made by the actors themselves whistling with their lips, it could also have been made by a unique pottery whistle which is a kind of wind instrument. This ceramic pottery whistle was available to Shakespeare and certainly could have been the source of the bird whistles we see on stage.

Bird sound is probably made by a flute based instrument, or a pipe (horn also, depending on the bird sound). Actors whistling also used to make bird sounds. As the Capulets are exiting, they can’t be making the sound, [therefore] the Nurse is a good option for the actor who could have generated this sound [from off stage].

 

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…she had a song of ‘willow;’
An old thing ’twas, but it express’d her fortune,
And she died singing it: that song to-night
Will not go from my mind…

Desdemona

Othello (IV.3)

This is an example of a virginal, a specific instrument that would have been used in theaters like Shakespeare’s Globe. Musicians would accompany the actions on stage, sitting off to the sides of the main action area, and play instruments like this one. | Virginal “ à la quinte” made by Hans Ruckers 1583 – Paris Musée de la Musique. (Object nr. E.986.1.2). The instrument sounds a fifth higher than standard pitch, and it is the only virginal with this pitch, that has been preserved.| Public Domain | Source | We discuss the virginal and other stage musical instruments in our episode with Mary Springels of the Newberry Consort.

Sound Effects: Desdemona’s Willow Song

The description goes on to describe that the presentation was supported by the guild of Goldsmiths and that the King of Moors would throw coins or metal counters along the pageant route as he rode through London. Maria, this sounds a lot like a sponsored float we might see in a parade today where the participants go overboard to wear the colors of the sponsoring company and give out samples to the audience as a marketing ploy. A great comparison is like the parade floats you see today in an event similar to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in the United States where each float or dance/dramatic presentation is sponsored by an organization who has a marketing interest in participating in the event. Maria explains the significance of the livery companies:

It is a great opportunity for the livery company in questions to show off at the city at large, very public, free to attend, drew a huge crowd–close to 20,000 people watching these shows and they market to these audiences with devices, and are similar to parade floats, floats of money reflections of the splendor and generosity of the institution they represented. Devices were a great way of reaching the audience because it was a visually striking presentation and they gave away “freebies” to the crowd and linked thematically to the company in question. In the 1616 show, that show was actually put on my the fishmongers and within that show we have a flattering homage to the goldsmith company, and they stage the kind of moors pageant, and fitting to hand out things like look like coins (metal imitations) visual visual representation of their trade… they had different pageants like an model of a fishing vessel very ornately carved, to celebrate the fishmongers, the actors in that vessel were handing out free fish.,/blockquote>

 

Willow Song from Shakespeare’s Othello, interpreted by: Julia Maria Seemann (Desdemona): vocals Marian Droba: violin Videography: Amanda Riddell Sound engineering and video editing: Stephen Riddell Original music: Emanuel E. Garcia Directed by Emanuel E. Garcia. Source

Thomas Dallis, a composer who wrote a book of music for the lute in 1583, wrote the music for a song called “All greane is the willow” which which is thought to be the song on which Shakespeare based the “Willow Song” sung by Desdemona in Othello. It was a popular broasdside ballad in Elizabethan England. The original copy of Thomas Dallis’ 16th century compositions are kept at the Trinity College Dublin and available in digital format here. (Credit: Digital Collections, Trinity College Dublin, University of Dublin (MS 410, D, iii, 30)

Help, Jupiter; or we appeal,
And from thy justice fly.
[Jupiter descends in thunder and lightning, sitting]

Second Brother

Cymbeline (V.4)

Southampton portrait wriothesley

 

A depiction from Nicholas Rowe’s 1709 edition of Shakespeare’s plays of the stage direction of the opening of the 1674 adaptation | Frontispiece of the opening scene of The Tempest scanned from Rowe’s 1709 edition. | Author: William Shakespeare, Nicholas Rowe, ed. | Public Domain | Source

 

Sound Effects: Lightning

We’ve identified ways to make the sound of thunder for Shakespeare’s plays, but in The Tempest Act I Scene 1, the stage directions specifically call for lightning, as a sound.  Alexander explains how lightning could have been created for Shakespeare’s theater:

To achieve that crack of lightning (the sound of lightning hitting something or breaking the sound barrier) they could have been achieved by a cannon ball being dropped to slammed into the wooden track, or the tracks themselves would have had levels, like a long staircase, with one track that drops to each level. The drops accent thunder nicely. 

Pertaining thereunto, as fights and fireworks,
Abusing better men than they can be…

Sir Thomas Lovell

Henry VIII (I.3)

Newington Butts Present Day Photograph by Laurie Johnson

Hand cannon being fired from a stand, Bellifortis manuscript, by Konrad Kyeser, 1405 | Hand cannon lighted by a hot iron rod being fired from a stand, manuscript by Konrad Kyeser: Bellifortis. Niedersächsische Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Göttingen, 2° Cod. Ms. philos. 63 Cim. 1402-1404 | Public Domain | Source 

Sound Effects: Fireworks

One of the most elaborate sound effects employed by Shakespeare include the elusive “Noises of hell.” Chris explains what noises would have been used to create sounds of hell:

Loud, consorts of musicians indoor theaters. THe core instruments would make music, but also sound effects. Drums, fifes, flutes, etc were  constantly used in early modern plays.So many options for sounds to describe hell. Fireworks would also be used to create bangs (as well as an order that adds to the effect) Conjuring the noises of hell, they must have done a good job because several anecdotes tell of suddenly an extra demon appearing on the stage.

One of the most elaborate sound effects employed by Shakespeare include the elusive “Noises of hell.” Chris explains what noises would have been used to create sounds of hell:

Loud, consorts of musicians indoor theaters. THe core instruments would make music, but also sound effects. Drums, fifes, flutes, etc were  constantly used in early modern plays.So many options for sounds to describe hell. Fireworks would also be used to create bangs (as well as an order that adds to the effect) Conjuring the noises of hell, they must have done a good job because several anecdotes tell of suddenly an extra demon appearing on the stage.

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