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Wayne & Shuster’s Shakespearean Slapstick
In terms of mass appeal, perhaps no version of Shakespeare reached more Canadians than the television adaptations performed by the widely popular sketch comedy duo Johnny Wayne and Frank Shuster. Various forms of the Wayne & Shuster show were staples on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s (CBC’s) Saturday evening television programming from the 1950s through to the late 1980s, and they have been occasionally rebroadcast as specials since the 1990s on both CBC and The Comedy Network.
Curated and Analyzed by Jennifer Drouin
Wayne and Shuster produced ‘Rinse the Blood off My Toga’ (1955); ‘The Shakespearean Baseball Game’ (1958); ‘Hamlet, The Kid from Elsinore’ (1964), also titled ‘Hamlet, The Fastest Soliloquy in the West’ (1979); ‘Murder at the Stratford Festival’ (1973); and ‘The Macbeth Murder Case (Or Hassle at the Castle)’ (1988).
Visit the MIT Global Shakespeare’s YouTube channel to sample the highlights of Wayne & Shuster’s Shakespeare as television sketches, talk shows, and radio programs. Click the image below to visit the channel.
While a fuller list of radio and television programs is available there, here, below, is a series of snapshots of some of the must sees.
Their first hit sketch featuring Shakespeare, ‘Rinse the Blood off My Toga’, is a detective story adaptation of Julius Caesar which they first performed on CBC Radio in 1954 and on CBC Television in 1955. In 1958, this sketch was their debut performance on The Ed Sullivan Show, which led to the The New York Times dubbing them ‘the harbingers of literate slapstick on tv’ (qtd in CBC and Library and Archives Canada). Two jokes from this sketch have become so famous that they’ve entered popular culture and are now cited outside references to the sketch itself: ‘Julie, don’t go!’ and ‘Give me a martinus. / You mean a martini. / If I want two, I’ll ask for them.’
The following is the 1959 version on radio:
This reliance on Shakespearean high culture is even more pronounced in ‘The Shakespearean Baseball Game: A Comedy of Errors, Hits, and Runs’, which features thirty-nine Shakespearean-derived lines of dialogue. The original 9:00 minute television version of this sketch was made in black and white in 1958 in homage to the Stratford, Ontario Shakespeare Festival, which was inaugurated a few years earlier in 1953. A 9:40 minute version was broadcast on CBC Radio in 1959. The video was re-made in colour in 1971 with almost the same dialogue and actions but runs for 7:50 minutes. Notably, the dialogue is mostly spoken in iambic pentameter.
In their later sketches, Wayne and Shuster move from mash-up adaptations to ‘reduced plot adaptations’ in which the emphasis is placed less upon citing Shakespeare’s text and more upon the larger arc of the plot. In ‘The Macbeth Murder Case’, the comic duo play a pair of undercover cops from Dunsinane PD sent to Glamis Castle to investigate Duncan’s murder. Johnny’s character is named Lamimore and Frank’s is McPhee. Before they appear onscreen, the sketch opens with witches around a cauldron singing the first four lines of Macbeth: ‘When shall we three meet again? / In thunder, lightning, or in rain? / When the hurly-burly’s done, / When the battle’s lost, and won’ (1.1.1-4). Duncan is already dead when Frank and Johnny arrive, and together they announce successively, ‘A drum, a drum: / Macbeth doth come’, a line normally spoken by the Third Witch (1.3.30-31). Macbeth admits to killing ‘the two guys that did it’ because they were supposed to be protecting the king, situating the beginning of the sketch in 2.3.
Frank and Johnny go to see ‘the three witches’ at ‘Hecate’s Hangout’. Johnny addresses them, ‘Excuse me, you secret, black and midnight hags’, borrowing an epithet from Macbeth (4.1.47). The witches are eating from a steaming bowl that they say contains ‘Eye of newt and toe of frog, / Wool of bat and tongue of dog, / Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting, / Lizard’s leg and howlet’s wing’ (4.1.14-17). Frank asks if they told Macbeth that he would be king, and they say they did, alluding to the events of 1.3. Johnny surmises, ‘They tell Macbeth he’s gonna be king, so he makes it all come true by making the hit on Duncan’, explaining the backstory of 2.1 and 2.2 to the audience. A witch adds, ‘I also told Macbeth that he’d be killed by “No man born of woman”’, varying slightly the prophecy spoken by the Second Apparition that ‘none of woman born / Shall harm Macbeth’ (4.1.79-80), which is repeated by Macbeth as ‘no man that’s born of woman’ (5.3.6). Frank then intervenes from outside the sketch entirely, wearing a suit typical of later reruns and greatest hits compilation shows, to summarize, ‘They told us plenty. Banquo was next on the hit list. And a surprise: Lady Macbeth was the brains behind all the murders. She was Mrs. Big.’ Here, he covers the plot of 3.1 and 3.3 regarding Banquo’s murder and 1.5, 1.7, and 2.2 regarding Lady Macbeth’s influence upon Macbeth.
Wayne & Shuster’s Shakespearean Slapstick
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