Nahum Tate, Knock-offs, Lear and 'Tatefication'
by Stephen Meigs
Toward a Traditional Trampling of the Reputation of Mr. Nahun Tate
The History Of King Lear, Nahum Tate’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s classic, was popular for 150 years. But that’s not his only claim to fame.
Tate also wrote lyrics for a Christmas carol still sung today, “While Shepherds watched their flocks at night, ” here performed by the King’s College Choir in 2011.
No Blanche Dubois, Mr. Tate had no use for strangers. He depended almost solely on more certain stuff: other writers’ work (Shakespeare, Dryden for example) and the producing power of rich patronage (the Earl of Dorset).
With his Christmas carol Tate got the best of writing and patronage: The text comes from the Bible (writer, God) and the Anglican church (only church allowed at the time). Unlike other popular Christmas tunes of the time, Tate’s song was the only Christmas carol allowed to be sung in the Anglican Church until 1700.
Maybe that helped his productions succeed, but Tate was not respected - even while he was alive.
Gerald Langbaine in the 1691 History of Dramatic Poets, describes Tate as “An author now living; who tho' he be allow'd to be a Man of Wit and Parts, yet for Dramatick Poetry, he is not above the common Rank.”
Sir Walter Scott called him “one of those second-rate bards who…can find smooth lines if any one will supply ideas.”
In Lives of the Poets of Great Britain and Ireland, late 1700s, an anonymous writer dismisses him: Tate is “…thought to possess no great genius, as being deficient in what is its first characteristic, namely, invention.”
In the 19th century the practice of trying to rewrite Shakespeare and failing miserably came to be called “Tatefication.”
So Nahum Tate fits Willy Loman’s definition of a loser: “He was liked… but not well liked.”
Stealing from dead writers is still in vogue, of course, but usually it’s the characters that are stolen, not the lines their creator wrote. There’s the book and musical Wicked pinching its heart from the Oz stories; and Scarlett, the “sequel” to Gone With the Wind; and on the best seller list now, the authorized theft of Stieg Larson’s ideas, the “fourth” in the trilogy, The Girl in the Spider’s Web. Give the public whatever it will buy, that’s still the rule.
In keeping with the centuries-old tradition of dumping on Nahum Tate, who stole not only the characters but also the lines of William Shakespeare, and especially as we are ambling toward Christmas time, here is Tate’s famous Christmas carol cheerfully parodied by Steve Mason and performed by The Mason Family Singers, in 2009.
While shepherds washed their socks by night,
all seated 'round the tub
the angel of the Lord came down
and gave their socks a scrub.
And when their socks were squeaky clean and sparkling like a gem,
The shepherds put them on again and walked to Bethlehem.
And when they got to Bethlehem
all looking nice and neat,
the Christ child said you've got nice socks,
but next time wash your feet.
Afternotes: I saw the Hidden Room production reviewed elsewhere at CTX Live Theatre by Dr. David Robinson. I enjoyed it very much. A lot of acting talent on the stage. Worth seeing. I only have two criticisms:
1) Ryan Crowder is a very fine actor and too young to play Lear. This is not his fault, of course. It was a superb attempt to deliver on director Beth Burns's casting. Crowder handled the language and the Restoration style well, but an actor with a bit more brutish physique would also have helped me believe in an aged (80+ years old) Lear who has master swordsman skills.
2) Numerous entrances and exits are made through modern doors, with their clicking door latches and opening and closing sounds. A covering screen or curtain would have served the audience better; it broke the restoration spell.
CONTINUING THE CONVERSATION
NOTE from Director Beth Burns
I hope that answers Stephen's very thoughtful points. I seriously loved reading more about Tate from him. Good stuff!
ps - I popped some pics down of Garrick and Betterton right about the times they would have played Lear, as well as an extant Garrick Lear engraving. I think Garrick looks a bit like Crowder. That makes me happy.
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