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).  


Nahum Tate (via Wikipedia)


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.”  


Liz Beckham, Nathan Jerkins in Hidden Room's 'The History of King Lear' (photo by Kimberley Mead)



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.



NOTE from Director Beth Burns

I love it!  Thanks for sending along the link!  Very enjoyable and informative piece.  And poor Tate really does get a trampling throughout history.  But they trampled people so gracefully back in his day, didn't they?  
To answer Stephen's critiques in a way that I think he might appreciate (although it still may not necessarily satisfy) Ryan Crowder was cast specifically because of his age.  Thomas Betterton (our first Tate's Lear) was five years older than Crowder is now when he played Lear, and Garrick was 10 years younger than Crowder when he first tackled the role so famously.   Kean was the same age, and so on. 
Crowder's size is also period appropriate.  Garrick in particular noted that Lear was slight, frail, a shadow of his past self, and worked hard to create that image.  It is in keeping with the period notion of age shrinking people away - see Shakespeare's seven ages of man speech with "his shrunk shank" and all that.  Those actors still would have likely still made themselves beautiful in terms of their gesture work, but the age would have been made more specific with the wig (check) and the actor's size and higher voice (check) possibly with makeup (check.)  So when the sword fight comes, I think it is meant to be a glorious surprise for the audience - the small man, once great, being forced back to fight his way back to power and in doing so, find his lost sanity.  So Crowder's casting was an informed choice.  I think that the intimacy of our setting works against us on this one.  On the appropriately sized and shaped stage, with audience well back, I suspect no one would blink.  But in a nutshell, a bigger, older Lear is definitely a 20th century performance tradition so it's a no-can-do for our mission.  
The doors drive us nuts too, and we had particular troubles with them that night.  I'm sorry they bothered folks.  With so much activity backstage we've got to keep noise out somehow, and we aren't allowed to add curtains to the existing structure.  Bummer.  One day I hope we'll get to play the piece on the right stage - and I do think that's in our future.  I've got my eyes on the Drottningholme.  :)

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.


Garrick as Lear; Garrick


Thos. Betterton (via Hidden Room Theatre)

The History of King Lear, Nahum Tate adaptation
by William Shakespeare, Nahum Tate
Hidden Room Theatre

November 06 - November 29, 2015
Hidden Room Theatre
311 W. 7th Street
3rd floor, York Rite Masonic Temple
Austin, TX, 78701
Tate’s Lear unveils scenes for some of the world’s most prestigious early modern theatre scholars at the American Shakespeare Center’s Blackfriars Conference November 1st before beginning its Austin run every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday in November 2015 at the York Rite Masonic Hall. Tickets will become available shortly on www.hiddenroomtheatrecom.  
every weekend in November
Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm
Sundays at 5 pm
Industry Night Thursday Nov 12th, 8pm