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Lessons from Sandy Dennis and Shakespeare

My younger daughter knows I’m a Sandy Dennis fan. Several years ago she bought for me a DVD of the Dennis-Anthony Newley movie from 1968 called “Sweet November.” It’s a good movie.

One thing had me stumped. I could follow the story. Dennis and Newley appear to fall in love, then part ways with hardly any histrionics. But the movie seemed to be hiding something. What was it?

Then I bought “Shakespeare After All” by Marjorie Garber. Now I get it. “Sweet November” is a Sixties update of Shakespeare’s “As You Like It.” The movie before Marjorie Garber was fun. The movie after Marjorie Garber makes sense.

First, a look at 1968’s “Sweet November.”

Dennis is Sara Deever, a single woman in her early 20s who lives in Brooklyn Heights. She makes her living by renting apartments, then subletting them.

Newley is Charlie Blake, a single man somewhat older than Sara. He runs a box-manufacturing company with an office in Manhattan.

Charlie and Sara meet as strangers at a Department of Motor Vehicles office in Manhattan. They and others are taking a drivers-license exam. Sara pesters Charlie for help. The DMV worker thinks Charlie is the one trying to cheat. Charlie’s test is torn in half. He’s told to try again after lunch.

Sara and Charlie wind up eating hot dogs together on a park bench. The Brooklyn Bridge is in the background. Sara takes the conversational lead. Charlie is still miffed about the DMV mix-up, but they develop a rapport. They part with Sara suggesting that Charlie, should he be in the hunt for a good apartment, show up the next day in Brooklyn Heights. Charlie says he doesn’t need an apartment. But he shows up anyway.

That’s when the story hits its stride.

Sara takes Charlie to a hardware store. He asks her on a date. They visit a museum, then return to her apartment. They have tea. Sara tells Charlie about her mission in life. She will ask a man to live with her, but only for a month. The man arrives at the stroke of midnight on the first day. He leaves at the stroke of midnight on the last day. No exceptions.

Sara asks Charlie to be her November. Charlie agrees. He arrives at the appointed hour. Over the course of a month, they do things in Brooklyn Heights. He falls in love with her. She appears to fall in love with him. Charlie wants to stay into December. At the last minute of the last day on November, Sara tells Charlie to leave.

The movie ends with Charlie, suitcase in hand, walking alone through snow flurries toward the Manhattan skyline on the other side of the East River.

Now, a look at Shakespeare’s “As You Like It.”

Two brothers, Duke Senior and Duke Frederick, fight over the throne of an unnamed kingdom. The throne truly belongs to Duke Senior, but Duke Frederick unfairly grabs the prize. Duke Senior takes off to the Forest of Arden with some followers.

Two other brothers, Oliver and Orlando, are at odds over the estate of their father. Oliver, the older brother, has the upper hand. He unfairly keeps Orlando from becoming a gentleman. Orlando challenges Charles, a wrestler and a favorite of Duke Frederick, to a match. Orlando wins. The victory angers Duke Frederick and Oliver.

Orlando also takes off for the Forest of Arden, spurred by a warning from his faithful servant, Adam. But before he goes, Orlando falls in love at first sight with Rosalind, daughter of Duke Senior. Duke Frederick had allowed Rosalind to stay at his court despite her connection to his hated rival because Rosalind is such a good friend to his daughter, Celia.

The defeat of Charles does more than get Duke Frederick angry with Orlando. Duke Frederick changes his tune toward Rosalind. Soon, Rosalind, Celia and Touchstone (the court jester) all take off for the Forest of Arden.

The forest is getting full – Duke Senior, his followers, Orlando, Rosalind, Celia and Touchstone are all there. Rosalind on her journey to the forest dresses like a young man. She goes by the name of Ganymede in this disguise. Orlando isn’t around at the time, so he knows nothing of Rosalind’s new role.

We’ve got all sorts of nasty politics back in the real world of the royal court. We’ve got a bunch of city folks banished to a forest where they somehow find enough food and shelter to get along just fine. And pretty soon Orlando bumps into Rosalind dressed up as Ganymede.

Orlando, thinking he is talking to a sympathetic and worldly male, tells Ganymede of his love for Rosalind. Ganymede tells Orlando to pretend Ganymede is Rosalind and practice his courtship skills. Orlando does so for days. In other words, Rosalind as Ganymede teaches Orlando how get over his lovesickness and be a worthy mate for Rosalind.

Rosalind soon sheds her disguise. She decides to stop being a deceiver. She and Orlando get married. Other couples marry. Oliver sees his errors. So, too, does Duke Frederick. Most everybody, but particularly Orlando and Rosalind, happily return to the real world of day-to-day life and the royal court.

“Sweet November” of Sandy Dennis and Anthony Newley takes “As You Like It” and asks: What would it be like if Rosalind lived perpetually in a modern, urban Forest of Arden and, once each month, took in a new and different “Orlando” to whip into shape for the challenging world of maturity, commitment and marriage?

But that’s not how the movie has been marketed for the past 45 years. Let’s take a look at how “Sweet November” is presented to the public by Hollywood.

“For 30 days they lived the love of a lifetime,” says the cover of Warner Brothers’ “Sweet November” DVD.

“Businessman Charlie Blake is wound as tightly as the wristwatch he slavishly obeys,” the cover continues. “He’s all ‘hurry, hurry, ding, ding,’ free-spirited Brooklynite Sara Deever says. He’s also perfect for her next human salvage project. She’ll welcome Charlie into her romantic life for one month – and one only. Then, Mr. November must step aside for Mr. December.

“Charlie and Sara share the life-altering power of love in the witty and wistful ‘Sweet November,’ from ‘Summer of ‘42’ author Herman Raucher … Anthony Newley plays the increasingly unwound and smitten Charlie. And Academy Award winner Sandy Dennis is Sara, whose Man-of-the-Month parade – sexually libertine on the surface – has a deeper, more heartrending resonance.”

What does Warner Brothers mean by “resonance”? Maybe Shakespeare has an answer.

Let’s now take a look at some of what Marjorie Garber says about “As You Like It.” According to my copy of “Shakespeare After All,” Garber is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of English and American Literature and Language at Harvard.

“In ‘As You Like It’ Shakespeare turns his attention to the pastoral, a literary mode that enjoyed a tremendous vogue in Elizabethan England,” Garber writes. She goes on to briefly review the history of pastoral plays. Such plays are nostalgic. They evoke a sense of belatedness and loss. A “shepherd” is typically part of the mix.

The pastoral play, Garber writes, is “a city art rather than a rural one; shepherds do not write idyllic accounts of the perfect simple lives of shepherds. And it is a way of offering a criticism of contemporary social, political, and religious practice in a ‘safe’ context of coded fiction.”

The pastoral play, in other words, is a flexible vehicle for telling a story. For example, Garber writes, the American “Western” in fiction and film is often a pastoral. “The word ‘cowboy,’ like the word ‘shepherd,’ is readily understood as a metaphor, and it need not have any direct connection with livestock in order to carry familiar connotations of recklessness, wildness, or individuality.”

Garber notes that the pastoral of Shakespeare’s day had conventions easily recognized by an audience: “Shepherds who are also poets, writing poems and playing upon pipes; the good old shepherd, poor but eager to give hospitality to strangers and to those in need; the ‘savage’ man or men who lacked courtly upbringing but possessed in innate gentleness and gentility….”

Garber adds that Tudor and Elizabethan writers often spelled “savage” as “salvage,” emphasizing “its roots in the Latin ‘silva’ – wood.”

The pastoral typically involves nature and a journey to a strange place full of strange people, Garber writes. “In the world of ‘As You Like It,’ geography assumes some of the aspects of character, so that the place of the play intersects with the persons of the play in ways that are significant and sometimes surprising.”

And, of course, a pastoral can have a beautiful shepherdess or two.

Garber in the first four pages of her essay gives us a solid foundation for understanding the play: A journey is to occur; unusual sights will be common; events may have more than one meaning; fantasy or the supernatural is present; there are lessons to be learned (“savages” will be “salvaged”); the real world is not far away and easy to return to.

Oh, and one other point.

Garber writes: “The most common of all activities of pastoral shepherds in English Renaissance literature was the writing of poetry. ‘Shepherd’ virtually meant ‘poet’ when it appeared in a literary context, so that if you were told that so-and-so was a shepherd you would be quite surprised to find that he or she spent a good deal of time tending sheep.”

“Sweet November” writer Herman Raucher and director Robert Ellis Miller give us a concentrated version of “As You Like It.” They take plenty of liberties, but that’s part of the fun. Here are a few examples of the the tie between “Sweet November” and “As You Like It”:

* We first see Charlie getting out of a cab on a busy Manhattan street. He’s heading into the DMV office. But that’s not the movie’s first scene.

The first scene, the background for the opening credits, is an aerial shot of Manhattan’s skyline. It’s an imposing sight. But why this sight?

It’s a hint: This clearly is a major city, if not THE major city, of a rich and powerful nation — or kingdom.

* Charlie soon ends up in Brooklyn Heights, on the other side of the Brooklyn Bridge from the bustle and intrigue of Manhattan. Brooklyn Heights has the peace and relative quiet of a pastoral’s forest — the Forest of Arden.

Some of the action in the Forest of Arden occurs above grown, in the trees. In Sara’s one-story apartment, the bed and the bathroom are on a platform about 10 feet above the main room.

* On Charlie’s first visit to Sara’s apartment, when she asks him to be her “November,” he notices a bowl of over-ripe fruit. She likes to paint such fruit.

Charlie: “This fruit. It’s all rotten.”
Sara: “It’s the only kind that I use. I like to refer to it as bruised.”
Charlie: “I don’t mind the bruises — it’s the open wounds.”

That brings to mind some lines from Jaques, one of Duke Senior’s noblemen, as he quotes a motley fool:

“It is ten o’clock.
Thus we may see how the world wags.
‘Tis but an hour ago since it was nine,
And after one hour more, ‘twill be eleven.
And so from hour to hour we ripe and ripe,
And then from hour to hour we rot and rot;
And thereby hangs a tale.’”

Ganymede/Rosalind will teach Orlando about the passage of time even in the midst of love. Youth turns into old age — get ready for it.

Sara will teach the same lesson to Charlie.

* On that first evening in the Brooklyn Heights apartment, Charlie confesses that, as a young man, he wanted to be a poet. He wanted to write blank verse. That’s not poetry, she says — it doesn’t even rhyme.

Charlie: “Shakespeare didn’t deal in rhyme. He dealt in meter — iambic pentameter. Ah, the hell with it.”
Sara: “And you call yourself a poet.”
Charlie: “The hell with it with a hey-nonny-no.”

What’s with this “hey-nonny-no”?

It comes from part of a song in Act 5 of “As You Like It”:

“It was a lover and his lass,
With a hey and a ho, and a hey-nonny-no,
That o’er the green cornfield did pass,”

* During that first visit to the Brooklyn Heights apartment, Sara warns Charlie about working too hard. He’s got a watch with an alarm that’s always going off.

Charlie (explaining why he gave up his dream of writing poetry: “I grew up.”
Sara: “You became a box.”
Charlie: “It’s been a family business for over 80 years. My father made it one of the most successful concerns in the British Empire. I intend to do the same thing in America. It might take a little time.”
Sara: “Hurry hurry, ding ding, hurry hurry, ding ding.”
Charlie: “I really don’t understand what it is about you that makes you feel so damn superior.”
Sara: “I think you’re worth saving.”

But Charlie’s watch, when it goes off, sounds nothing like “ding ding.” Where does “hurry hurry, ding ding” come from?

It comes from the same song as “hey-nonny-no.”

“It was a lover and his lass,
With a hey and a ho, and a hey-nonny-no,
That o’er the green cornfield did pass
In springtime, the only pretty ring-time,
When birds do sing, hey ding-a-ding ding,
Sweet lovers love the spring.”

* Alonzo, played by Theodore Bikel, is Sara’s faithful sidekick. He’s a vegetarian and a sign-painter who regularly checks in on a Sara. He asks for nothing in return.

Adam is Orlando’s faithful servant. (Alonso is a king in “The Tempest.”)

* A shepherd in a pastoral must meet strange and mysterious people. Sara on the first day takes Charlie to meet some of the interesting people of Brooklyn Heights. He gets rid of his Manhattan clothes and dons the attire of a new land.

“Charlie is a very good sport about wearing the costumes” of Brooklyn Heights, Sara says in a voice-over. “We did the neighborhood rounds and he was readily accepted by the group.”

Actors wear costumes and play roles. Sara and Shakespeare have a lot to say about both costumes and roles.

* As Professor Garber notes, the pastorals of Shakespeare’s day have a lovesick shepherd writing bad poems. Charlie moves in with Sara and takes up his quest to be a poet. His hands an early poem (about flying a paper airplane off the Brooklyn Bridge) to Sara while they’re in her small backyard. Sara reads the poem:

“I shot a plane into the air,
It struck Manhattan over there,
I got a ticket but I don’t care,
I’d do it again.”

Sara gives him a tactful thumb’s down.

“OK, I’ll put it with the others,” Charlie says. He then impales the piece of paper on a nail in a tree. There are other pieces of paper already there.

Why attach the bad poems to a tree? We go to Duke Senior at the beginning of Act 2, when he tells his “co-mates and brothers in exile” as they enter the Forest of Arden:

“And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.”

Charlie’s bad poems are “tongues in trees” speaking of his growing love for Sara. His poetry improves at the same pace as his growing maturity in the world of love. Orlando also grows (thanks to Rosalind/Ganymede) as the play proceeds.

* Sara is obviously a woman. She’s not in disguise like Rosalind/Ganymede. But Sara always wears loose clothes. It’s impossible to tell hat she has any of the curves of a woman. In this sense, she’s very much in disguise. “Sweet November” is quite modest.

* One of the best-known passages from “As You Like It” is Jaques’ statement about the seven stages of man:

“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players.
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven parts ….
Last scene of all,
That ends this strange, eventful history,
Is second childishness, and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”

How did the writer and director of “Sweet November” get this bracing sentiment into the movie. No actor — not Sara, not Charlie, not Alonzo — comes close to suggesting this thought.

The lesson that time gets all of us in the end — and until that end comes, we all have certain roles to play — is to be found in the background shots.

For example, Charlie in one scene storms out of Sara’s apartment after an argument. The camera briefly catches him hurrying down the wide alley leading to a street.

There, in this alley of all places, are youngsters jumping rope and a conservatively dressed, middle-aged woman pushing a baby carriage. Similar scenes of children and adults are found in the background of many “Sweet November” scenes.

These children and the adults keeping an eye on them are there for a reason. They tell us what Jaques told us.

Rosalind/Ganymede in much of the play says love is a serious, life-long business. It’s not for childish men. That’s also the message from Sara.

“Sweet November” opened on Feb. 8, 1968, a few days before I turned 18. It was far from a box-office hit. This was a remarkable year for America. The U.S.S. Pueblo had been hijacked by the North Koreans on Jan. 23. The Tet Offensive began Jan. 30. Martin Luther King was assassinated in April. Robert Kennedy was assassinated in June. On and on it went like that in 1968. People still went to movies, but their tastes were changing with the times. Young people preferred “The Graduate.”

“She Reads Playboy; He Reads Cosmopolitan: Ritual Roles Reversed in ‘Sweet November’” was the headline for the movie review by Renata Adler in the Feb. 9, 1968 edition of The New York Times.

Adler calls the movie “the most sentimental and sinister fantasy about contemporary love in years. One can’t help leaving the theater sniffling and furious with oneself, which makes the movie a little hard to criticize.”

Adler praises the performances of Dennis and Newley. In the end, she gives the movie a backhanded compliment: “But despite all the sick, dreadful assumptions about life that turn out to underlie the plot—and as you think about it after you’ve seen it, you’ll probably be appalled – ‘Sweet November’ succeeds,” she writes.

What are these dreadful assumptions?

Adler writes: “What the movie does is reverse the terms of the modern urban argument: he wants to get married, and she, for her own special reasons, wants to have an affair. Brief, no regrets, perfect – just as it would be in the mind of the young man from Playboy in his struggle on the way to the altar with the determined young woman from Cosmopolitan. There is only one possible resolution for all this perfection. True romantics have always seen it, and the movie quite mawkishly presents: Tragedy attends promiscuity at the Music Hall, still.”

I admit it — I don’t understand Adler.

Warner Brothers in its marketing campaign (Sara Deever as libertine) and Adler with her sophistication miss the movie’s point because they fail to see it as a pastoral with a disguised message. That message is a criticism of the spirit of the age that was the late Sixties, a time of monumental self-absorption. The Summer of Love was just six months in the past. Libertines and hedonists (those years were full of them) are nothing if not self-absorbed. Sara Deever is the very opposite of the libertine and the hedonist.

“Men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but not for love,” Rosalind (as Ganymede) tells Orlando.

Sara says something similar to Charlie right before midnight on November 30. The viewer thinks she may change her mind and let Charlie stay forever. Instead, she shows him the door.

“We must stay within the scheme of things,” she says.

In other words, Charlie won’t die because he’s a heartbroken shepherd. He’ll get on with life just fine if he does so (as Sara tells Charlie on their first night together) “with much maturity.”

Not a bad piece of advice in any decade.

But what of Sara? There is a Mr. December on the premises at the end of the movie. Will there be a Mr. January, then a Mr. February, then a Mr. March …. on and on and on?

Don’t forget Professor Garber’s review of the pastoral. It takes place in a land of fantasy.

Sara Deever. Sara Deceiver. She’s not real. She’s that timeless instructor of willingly foolish men.

“Sweet November” ends with Charlie in the dead of night walking to a small brick courtyard by the river where he and Sara once had deep talks. He looks back toward Sara’s apartment. A sigh. A sad look of “what hit me?” Then he gathers his wits and heads with purpose toward Manhattan.

“As You Like It” ends with an epilogue from Rosalind. In Shakespeare’s time, Rosalind would be played by a man. You’d have a man playing a woman who dresses up like a man so as to convince another man that he has the stuff to woo and win and keep the woman who’s giving the encouragement and advice.

Pretty complicated.

So, the man who played Rosalind/Ganymede comes onto the stage and addresses the audience.

He/she/he says in part: “My way is to conjure you ….”

That’s what Herman Raucher and Robert Ellis Miller do in “Sweet November.”

Along with the great Sandy Dennis.

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