(Photo of Bruce Turk and his wife and fellow actor, Katie MacNichol. Editor’s note: The following posts are adapted from the Hartford Stage blog series by Bruce Turk about his experiences as a Fox Foundation Resident Actor Fellow.)
It takes a long time to get into Versailles.
Long lines snake across the plaza. The great sun beats down. You tread over a daunting expanse of uneven stone cobbles to what you believe to be your short line to the entrance. But once there, you discover that you’ve been led astray by errant signs and indifferent crowd control. A petulant tourist faces off with a tall security guard who insists that even passes do not entitle one to cut the line. Your heart sinks: indeed, the longest line is yours. You slog back to the tail of the snake.
It’s a long, slow press and you shuffle your way inside to a desk to pick up an audio guide. You haven’t been in the palace one minute when a man of average build, look, and demeanor barges by. He lifts his forearm, deliberately places it upon your shoulder, and bulldozes you to the side as he passes. A flush of heat rises to your face. You glare and silently vow retribution–rapiers at dawn? But he plows easily through the sea of people and disappears from sight. You are indignant, but how can you track him down? In Moliere’s day over 6000 courtiers passed through Versailles on a daily basis. There’s no knowing how many thousands are flooding its halls today.
You grit your teeth, but then realize this man has given you a gift; for as your blood begins to boil, your cotton t-shirt and linen pants become brocaded velvet waistcoat and trousers. You learn in an instant what it means to be a courtier clambering for position in the land of the eternal Sun King. The in-fighting, the slights, the imbroglios of high society are all part of a brutal game played out on a daily basis. Who is in? Who is out? Who knows what? Who owes what to whom? Who is above and who below?
The Versailles of King Louis XIV is an exhilarating–yet dangerous–place. Etiquette and the rules of propriety are strict, but this is a jungle where a civilized savagery reigns. Courtiers jockey for position and lobby for favor from those on higher rungs of the social ladder. At the top sits a king who is brilliant at managing his empire. He holds his friends close, his enemies closer, and prevents the aristocracy from uniting against him by keeping them off balance and at odds with each other.
Moliere enjoys the favor of the King. He is a brilliant artist, yes, and he provides entertainment for a man who loves the arts; but perhaps more critical is the role he plays in a difficult chess game that the King maintains with the aristocracy. Moliere, like Beaumarchais after him, is an outsider of the court–a commoner. The son of a tapster and a servant of the chamber, he does not enjoy the privileges heaped upon the landed classes; but as an actor and a writer, he can boldly mock the upper classes through his work. His biting satire does not go unnoticed; but Moliere is not a duelist, nor is he a fool. He keeps his temper in check. Still, his plays sting and his very presence at court is considered a slap in the face of the aristocracy.
So, as you receive this brazen shove from an entitled tourist, you are transported through time. You swallow the insult and vow to avenge yourself with a pen. You calm yourself in the tiny library of the ground floor apartments. You read the titles and examine the fine leather bindings. You lean on marble mantles, ape the stance of statues of great (wealthy) French lords, and peer into hundreds of mirrors. The place is mammoth, yet you can’t believe how claustrophobic it feels.
It’s not just the crowds. The rooms are crammed and box-like. They are penetrated by long hallways which run the length of the wings. Just as huge crowds of tourists now press along these hallways to pass through rooms for a quick gawk at the king’s bed or the queen’s harpsichord; so too do long lines of courtiers who hope to gain access and a favor from their glorious sovereign. Just as you watch tourists push and shove for a picture, you see courtiers with hands raised proffering petitions for the king to sign.
You hear an easy voice–not loud.
The king beckons Moliere.
He says he’ d like to hear a play next week.
“Of course, your majesty. Which one?”
“Let’s have something new, shall we?”
In an instant you forget the indignity of the shove and wonder how Moliere is able to prepare an entire play in just seven days. He is not a confrontational man at all. No, he is a sponge. The slights he receives at court fuel his work. He listens, he watches, he endures…and then he writes. Everything he knows goes into his work.
Moliere’s oeuvre is the autobiography of a man.
You make your way to the eastern exit of the palace. You drink in the fresh air and crunch across the gravel to a shaded hedge which leads to a walled garden of fountains. Here you can breathe and enjoy a privacy which is impossible inside the palace. Moliere, too, is relieved when released from the confines of Versailles. He does not care for court. Though he relies upon the king for support and protection, he cannot and will not wholly depend upon him for a livelihood. He returns to Paris as you do now. After such a struggle to get in, it’s good to be outside. It’s good to be an outsider.
Bruce Turk has performed On and Off Broadway, internationally, and at major regional theatres across the country. He has been a resident member of Tadashi Suzuki’s Acting Company in Mito, Tokyo, and Togamura Japan. He has worked extensively with Julie Taymor, appearing in her productions of Titus Andronicus, Juan Darien at Lincoln Center, and playing the title role in The Green Bird. Other New York credits include King John, and Pericles at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. His regional credits include seasons and productions at Hartford Stage, the Goodman Theatre, McCarter Theatre, Seattle Repertory, the Denver Center, Cincinnati Playhouse, La Jolla Playhouse, the Shakespeare Theatres in D.C. and New Jersey, Shakespeare Santa Cruz and many more. San Diego audiences have seen his work in six seasons of the Shakespeare Repertory at the Old Globe Theatre, where he received the San Diego Critics’ Craig Noel Award for Excellence in Theatre. He has conducted workshops and given Master Classes at Columbia University, UC Santa Cruz, University of Michigan, Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, The Old Globe Theatre, and Cal State Long Beach, where he has also directed. Bruce received the 2012 Fox Fellowship for Distinguished Achievement and is a graduate of Northwestern University.
The William & Eva Fox Foundation, a private grantmaking foundation, is committed to the artistic development of theatre actors as a strategy to strengthen live theatre. Through its prestigious Fox Fellowships the Foundation has provided more than $3 million to underwrite periods of intensive study, research and training by actors recognized as having a serious commitment to the theatre. In 2004 the Foundation awarded fellowships totaling $150,000 to ten distinguished actors. The Foundation is the largest grantmaker solely dedicated to the artistic and professional development of theatre actors, and one of very few that provides direct support to individual actors.