COMPANION

Alexander and Shakespeare

This entry covers Alexander’s Shakespearean performances and his references to Shakespeare.

Reciting from Shakespeare plays

Alexander incorporated scenes from Shakespeare plays in some of his recitals, especially in his early reciting days. For example he performed scenes from Hamlet, Othello and Macbeth in 1893.[1] It would appear that later recitals in the 1890s would include poems and extracts from Dickens rather than Shakespeare. However, by 1901 he returned to Shakespeare’s plays, especially The Merchant of Venice and Hamlet.

Performing in Shakespeare plays

Alexander reports both in his autobiographical sketch and in Man’s Supreme Inheritance that he performed The Merchant of Venice and Hamlet with amateurs trained according to his technique, though with himself and Edith Tasca-Page in the lead roles. In MSI he writes:

And in this connection it may be of interest to my readers to know that in 1902-3 I decided to test the principles I advocated, and to this end I organized performances of Hamlet and The Merchant of Venice, for which I gave special training on the lines I have just indicated to young men and women, none of whom had previously appeared in a public performance of any kind whatsoever. I trained all these young people on the principles of conscious guidance and control, principles that I had then developed and practised. My friends and critics naturally anticipated a wonderful exhibition of ‘stage fright’ on the evening of the first performance, but as a matter of fact not one of my young students had the least apprehension of that terror. By the time they were ready to appear the idea of ‘stage fright’ was one that seemed to them the merest absurdity. It may be said that they did not understand what was meant by such a condition. And this, although I would not allow a prompter on the nights of the public performance! I regard this as one of the most convincing public demonstrations I have yet made of the wonderful command and self-possession that may be attained by the inculcation of these principles.[2]

In his 1925 lecture he reported:

Now the point I want to make is this. That during the time that I was teaching and working at this dramatic work, I had pupils, and I was twitted by people that I never sent any of my pupils up for competitions. I said, ‘No, I would not do such a thing,’ and they twitted me, until one day I said in desperation, ‘I will put on The Merchant of Venice and Hamlet with people who have never appeared in public before except the Shylock and Portia.’ And I played Shylock myself. I did this merely to show the theatre people who were interested in me, and interested in what I was doing, that a man does not want this training, twenty-five years’ training, to know how to walk across the stage. These young men and young women were never taught to walk, they were taught how to use themselves, the whole psycho-physical organism, satisfactorily; their sensory consciousness and sensory appreciation of the use of themselves was properly developed, and there was no need for any trouble.[3]

He also relates his experiences of these performances in his 1950 autobiographical sketch.[4]

A collection of newspaper clippings published as a PDF testify to the process and the results.[5] The process of advertising for people to take part started in January 1901, with The Merchant of Venice first performed end of June 1901, followed by Hamlet at the end of September 1901, both in Sydney. It would appear that the 1901 performances were done under the company name of the Shakespearian Society. Alexander continued the process of training amateurs according to his method, and created a more official institution (the Sydney Dramatic and Operatic Conservatorium). Among the newspaper clippings there is also Alexander’s announcement of his intention to stage As You Like It.

The short biography, ‘F. M. Alexander: A Biographical Outline’ (1979), refers to these performances.[6]

First teacher training course performances

In December 1933 Alexander put on The Merchant of Venice at the Old Vic and Sadler’s Wells with students of his first teacher training course. Alexander played Shylock.

Lulie Westfeldt dedicates chapter 7 of her book, F. Matthias Alexander: The Man and His Work, to this episode.[7]

Some of the children at the Little School wrote reports on the performances:

  •  ‘The Merchant of Venice’ by Peter Nissen.[8]
  • ‘The Merchant of Venice’ by Alison Kerr.[9]
  • ‘Comments on the performance of Nov. 20th’ by Mary D. Pelly.[10]
  • ‘The Merchant of Venice’ by Ian.[11]
  • ‘The Merchant of Venice’ by Rachel Atkinson.[12]
  • ‘The differences I noticed between the performances at Sadler’s Wells and the Old Vic’ by Alison.[13]
  • ‘Comparison of the shows at the Old Vic and Sadlers Wells’ by Mary D. Pelly.[14]
  • ‘Difference between the two shows’ by Rachel Atkinson.[15]
  • ‘Differences in the show at the Old Vic’ by Ian.[16]
  • Comparison of the shows at the Old Vic and Sadlers Wells’ by Peter Nissen.[17]

Some of the children also made illustrations of these performances.

In November 1934, Alexander put on Hamlet at the Old Vic, playing Hamlet himself. The following extract from the programme explains the reasons for putting on the play:

Mr. Alexander’s work is not concerned with the theatre as such, nor, indeed, with any one activity. In his Training Course, he is endeavouring to teach his students how to improve the way in which they use themselves in the performance of every act of daily life, and his technique is based on the discoveries described in his last book, The Use of the Self. Through this training, the student gradually develops a greater awareness and control of what he is doing with himself and this knowledge is of value to him in any activity, particularly when this involves new and therefore unfamiliar experiences. Apart from the work done for last year’s performances, none of the students have had any theatrical experience or training, nor do any of them intend to take up the theatre as a career. Mr. Alexander, who is now 65, himself abandoned his career as a reciter over thirty years ago, in order to devote himself entirely to the teaching of his technique. Since the production of a play involves a wide range of activities demanding control of speech, movement, gesture and expression, it gives the students a particularly interesting opportunity of attempting to apply, under difficult and comparatively unfamiliar conditions, the same principles which they are learning to put into practice in everyday life.[18]

The programmes of these performances are produced in the 1998 edition of Lulie Westfeldt’s book.[19]

Two letters (authors unknown) to Irene Tasker (the first is dated 20 November 1934) describe the Hamlet performance.[20]

Newspaper reviews of Hamlet were published in The Times and The Daily Telegraph, 14 November 1934.[21]

Marjory Barlow, having joined the training course in 1933, participated in Hamlet. She refers to it in her An Examined Life.[22]

Walter Carrington did not participate in these performances as he only started training in 1936, but he did watch the 1934 performance of Hamlet. He mentions the performances once in Explaining the Alexander Technique,[23] and discusses them in Personally Speaking.[24]

There is a reference to Irene Tasker’s views on participating in the 1933 performance of The Merchant of Venice, in the biography, Irene Tasker.[25]

References to Shakespeare in Alexander’s writings

Alexander reflects on the following part of Hamlet’s monologue[26] in UoS:

What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god ! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals![27]

Alexander then goes on to question this view of man, based on his experiences of not being in control of his own use and functioning.

 (Goddard Binkley, in his diary of his lessons with Alexander, refers to the above as Alexander’s ‘favourite quotation’.[28])

Alexander refers briefly to the ‘Bacon–Shakespeare controversy’ (the discussion as to whether Sir Francis Bacon was the real author of the plays attributed to Shakespeare) in MSI.[29]

Alexander quotes ‘Now set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide’ from Henry V (Act 3, Scene I) on the cover of his ‘A Respiratory Method’ booklet (c. 1905).[30] The quote is also featured in some of his newspaper advertisments from the same period.[31]

Alexander was apparently fond of quoting both ‘To thine own self be true’,[32] and ‘The readiness is all’ from Hamlet (Act 5, Scene II).[33]  ‘The readiness is all’ is quoted in a 1931 letter published in the Alexander Times (the magazine of the Little School).[34] [35]

In his private letters Alexander quoted Shakespeare a number of times.

In 1939 he quotes ‘Let Hercules himself do what he may, the cat will mew, the dog will have his day’ (Hamlet, Act 5, Scene I).[36]

In 1943 he is paraphrasing ‘My poverty, but not my will, consents’ (Romeo and Juliet, Act 5, Scene 1).

In 1945 he is paraphrasing ‘Am I not i’ th’ right, old Jephthah?’ (Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2).[37]

In 1946 he quotes ‘Excellent, i’ faith; of the camelion’s dish: I eat the air promise crammed’ (Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 3).[38]

In 1950 he quotes ‘To thine own Self be true and it must follow as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man’ (Hamlet, Act 1, Scene III).[39]

In 1954 he is paraphrasing ‘That they pass by me as the idle wind, Which I respect not’ (Julius Caesar, Act IV, Scene III).[40]

Also in 1954 he is paraphraing ‘Why, then, ’tis none to you; for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so: to me it is a prison’ (Hamlet, Act II, Scene 2).[41]

The same paraphrasing appears in an undated letter to Dr Wilfred Barlow.[42]

It should be observed that Alexander also quoted from a number of other plays, poems, and the Bible.

References

[1] Up From Down Under by Rosslyn McLeod (Mouritz, 2017), p. 60.
[2] Man’s Supreme Inheritance by F. Matthias Alexander (Mouritz, 1996), p. 84.
[3] Lecture: ‘An Unrecognized Principle in Human Behaviour’ (1925) in Articles and Lectures by F. M. Alexander (Mouritz, 2022, Graz), p. 214.
[4] ‘Autobiographical Sketch’ (c. 1950) in Articles and Lectures by F. M. Alexander (Mouritz, 2022, Graz), pp. 316–17.
[5] ‘Reviews and notices of F. M. Alexander’s theatre performances 1901-02. Part One: 1901’, and ‘Part Two: 1902’. PDFs retrieved 11 June 2022 from https://mouritz.org/library/articles/index.
[6] ‘F. M. Alexander: A Biographical Outline’ (1979) by Walter Carrington and Ron Brown, in An Evolution of the Alexander Technique by Walter Carrington, Dilys Carrington (Sheildrake Press, 2017), p. 122.
[7] F. Matthias Alexander: The Man and His Work by Lulie Westfeldt (Mouritz, 1998 [1964]), pp. 71–80.
[8] The Alexander Times Vol. 2: 1933-1934 edited by Jean M. O. Fischer (Mouritz, 2017), pp. 101–02.
[9] The Alexander Times Vol. 2: 1933-1934 edited by Jean M. O. Fischer (Mouritz, 2017), pp. 104–06.
[10] The Alexander Times Vol. 2: 1933-1934 edited by Jean M. O. Fischer (Mouritz, 2017), pp. 108–10.
[11] The Alexander Times Vol. 2: 1933-1934 edited by Jean M. O. Fischer (Mouritz, 2017), p. 112.
[12] The Alexander Times Vol. 2: 1933-1934 edited by Jean M. O. Fischer (Mouritz, 2017), p. 114.
[13] The Alexander Times Vol. 2: 1933-1934 edited by Jean M. O. Fischer (Mouritz, 2017), pp. 116–17.
[14] The Alexander Times Vol. 2: 1933-1934 edited by Jean M. O. Fischer (Mouritz, 2017), pp. 119–20.
[15] The Alexander Times Vol. 2: 1933-1934 edited by Jean M. O. Fischer (Mouritz, 2017), pp. 121–22.
[16] The Alexander Times Vol. 2: 1933-1934 edited by Jean M. O. Fischer (Mouritz, 2017), pp. 123–24.
[17] The Alexander Times Vol. 2: 1933-1934 edited by Jean M. O. Fischer (Mouritz, 2017), pp. 125.
[18] F. Matthias Alexander: The Man and His Work by Lulie Westfeldt (Mouritz, 1998 [1964]), p. 75
[19] F. Matthias Alexander: The Man and His Work by Lulie Westfeldt (Mouritz, 1998 [1964]), pp. 72, 74–75.
[20] Appendix D, ‘Extract from a letter dated 20th November 1934 addressed to Irene Tasker’, in F. Matthias Alexander: The Man and His Work by Lulie Westfeldt (Mouritz, 1998 [1964]), pp. 171–72.
[21] Appendix E, ‘Newspaper reviews of “Hamlet”’, in F. Matthias Alexander: The Man and His Work by Lulie Westfeldt (Mouritz, 1998 [1964]), pp. 172–73.
[22] An Examined Life by Marjory Barlow, Trevor Allen Davies (Mornum Time Press, 2002), pp. 126–27.
[23] Explaining the Alexander Technique by Walter Carrington, Seán Carey, (Mouritz, 2004), p. 30.
[24] Personally Speaking by Walter Carrington, Seán Carey, (Mouritz, 2001 [1986]), pp. 6, 11, 18, 75.
[25] Irene Tasker – Her Life and Work with the Alexander Technique by Regina Stratil (Mouritz, 2020), p. 66.
[26] Hamlet (2.2.295-299), Hamlet to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
[27] The Use of the Self by F. Matthias Alexander (Methuen, 1939), p. 22.
[28] The Expanding Self by Goddard Binkley (STATBooks, 1993), p. 67.
[29] Man’s Supreme Inheritance by F. Matthias Alexander (Mouritz, 1996), p. 52.
[30] Facsimile of ‘A Respiratory Method’ booklet (c. 1905) in Articles and Lectures by F. M. Alexander (Mouritz, 2022, Graz), p. 59.
[31] See for example an advertisement in The Morning Post, 18 February 1905, reproduced in Articles and Lectures by F. M. Alexander (Mouritz, 2022, Graz), p. 58. And in The Morning Post, 20 October 1906, p. 65.
[32] Personally Speaking by Walter Carrington, Seán Carey, (Mouritz, 2001 [1986]), p. 75.
[33] Walter Carrington, personal communication.
[34] The Alexander Times Vol. 1: 1929-1932 edited by Jean M. O. Fischer (Mouritz, 2017), p. 166.
[35] Letter no. 33, 30 November 1931, in Letters Volume I 1916–1942 by F. Matthias Alexander. Edited by Missy Vineyard and Jean M. O. Fischer (Mouritz, 2020), p. 33.
[36] Letter to Ludwig Kast, 14 March 1939, in Letters Volume I 1916–1942 by F. Matthias Alexander. Edited by Missy Vineyard and Jean M. O. Fischer (Mouritz, 2020), p. 57.
[37] Letter to F. P. Jones 20 May 1945, in Letters Volume II 1943–1955 by F. Matthias Alexander. Edited by Missy Vineyard and Jean M. O. Fischer (Mouritz, 2020), p. 370.
[38] Letter to Mungo Douglas, 8 February 1946, p. 391 in Letters Volume II 1943–1955 by F. Matthias Alexander. Edited by Missy Vineyard and Jean M. O. Fischer (Mouritz, 2020).
[39] Letter to Mungo and Sydney Douglas, 22 April 1950, in Letters Volume II 1943–1955 by F. Matthias Alexander. Edited by Missy Vineyard and Jean M. O. Fischer (Mouritz, 2020), p. 463.
[40] Letter to Louise Morgan, 3 June 1954, in Letters Volume II 1943–1955 by F. Matthias Alexander. Edited by Missy Vineyard and Jean M. O. Fischer (Mouritz, 2020), p. 555.
[41] Letter to Louise Morgan, 4 December 1954, in Letters Volume II 1943–1955 by F. Matthias Alexander. Edited by Missy Vineyard and Jean M. O. Fischer (Mouritz, 2020), p. 566.
[42] Letters Volume II 1943–1955 by F. Matthias Alexander. Edited by Missy Vineyard and Jean M. O. Fischer (Mouritz, 2020), p. 577.
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