Storm warning! (1.1.1-8) #StormTossed

A tempestuous noise of thunder and lightning heard; enter a Shipmaster and a Boatswain.

MASTER         Boatswain!

BOATSWAIN  Here master. What cheer?

MASTER         Good, speak to th’mariners. Fall to’t yarely or we run ourselves aground. Bestir, bestir!                                                                                 Exit.

Enter Mariners.

BOATSWAIN  Heigh, my hearts; cheerly, cheerly, my hearts! Yare! Yare! Take in the topsail. Tend to the master’s whistle! [to the storm] Blow till thou burst thy wind, if room enough. (1.1.8)

Bang. Probably literally: possibly fireworks for the lightning, at least in the outdoor performances at the Globe; certainly drums, and  cannonballs rolling and roiling along wooden troughs above the tiring house, although probably not quite as elaborate as the eighteenth-century thunder-run at the Bristol Old Vic. But, despite the state-of-the-art sound-effects, the storm here is made mostly by the actors, and the ship is too, the setting established by the very first word, Boatswain (pronounced, and sometimes spelt, as ‘bosun’) and by the dress of the ship’s crew: sea caps, perhaps canvas shirts, untucked. (They probably have bare feet.) This is a moment of noise, chaos, and danger – and the sense that this storm has blown up suddenly and unexpectedly, not on the radar, not on the charts. In a nod to classical convention (and far from its only one), The Tempest opens in medias res, in the middle of things, in the middle of the plot, so ostentatiously that it’s almost parodic: no chatty gentlemen or servants here, and not much time to talk, either. The Master is the captain, ultimately in charge, but the Boatswain is the one who directs the movement of the sails, their furling and unfurling, and gives the sailors their orders. Appropriately, given his responsibility for the sails, it’s the Boatswain who makes the wind, when he – Lear-like – tells the storm to Blow till thou burst thy wind, crack your cheeks, but also broken-winded, like a horse or a runner or a trumpeter out of puff. He’s the one who’s meant to get them out of this, and the Master – on the page at least – swiftly disappears to leave him to it. The Boatswain must instruct, but also motivate and reassure, the Mariners; the crucial phrases here are yarely and yare – quick! As fast as you can! – but also cheerly, cheerly, my hearts, reminding the sailors of their courage and strength. All hands on deck! It’s not quite talk-like-a-pirate, but it’s nautical talk, and as such would be familiar to many playgoers: London was a major port, and there would almost certainly have been sailors in the audience; watermen were central to the city’s life, and the Thames itself could be very dangerous, especially around London Bridge.

In modern productions, there can be rain, and crashing waves, wind machines and bright lightning flashes. I have seen an entire stage tilt on hydraulics – and a chessboard (or a model ship) wobbled in the hand, and pretty much everything in between. Whatever the budget, the stage is the deck of a ship at sea, and those on it are in peril.

There might have been a prologue, at least at some performances, now lost. (Not unusual.) And these are the Master’s only lines in the play, although he might appear, silently, in the final scene (he is included in a stage direction). He could, at a pinch, be doubled by Prospero. But he could also be doubled by Caliban…



View 3 comments on “Storm warning! (1.1.1-8) #StormTossed

  1. Hello Hester

    Is there somewhere I can read your complete Storm tossed blog please. I am adapting The Tempest for Primary age children to watch with three actors and for 120 children to perform. This is my fourth attempt at it.

    1. Hi Mike – I’m really sorry, but I’ve only just started this week! I pretty much write each entry the night before it’s posted – so I’m still in 1.1 at this point and it will be running well into next year… Now, Romeo and Juliet, I have a whole blog… Your adaptation sounds brilliant – what’s the larger context? do I infer you’ve done previous versions already? Sorry!

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