What Would Martius Have Worn If I Had Been A Fourth-Grader In Prague?

Becoming a fourth-grader at Columbus School for Girls was a big deal, mostly because of the legendary teacher who presided over the classroom at the end of the hall.

From 1963 until her retirement in the early 1990s, Dorothy Sehring was known for teaching her students chess to develop logical thinking, holding a “Pioneer Day” of frontier-inspired learning, and giving dramatic readings to gear up for the big finish — the Shakespeare play that Form IV performed every year under her direction.

The reserved girl who arrived at Mrs. Sehring’s room on the first day of school in September 1978 felt a little trepidation in her presence, but before long, the talented teacher worked her magic and put me at ease long before she cast me as Martius in her production of Julius Caesar.

I’m kneeling on the left, posing as Martius in Julius Caesar, Spring 1979

“Gentle, poised, calm, interested and organized, Betsy comes to school to learn – and she does, very well, as her report card indicates,” Mrs. Sehring wrote in her end-of-semester comment that December. “Perhaps just as important is how Betsy interacts with her classmates – she is kind, warm, friendly and caring. No wonder she is such a joy to teach!”

By the end of the school year, Mrs. Sehring had given me the confidence to do the unthinkable. “In science, when we dissected eyes, brains, kidneys and other organs, my fastidious friend plunged in like the good sport she can be,” she wrote to my parents at the end of the school year. “I was proud of her.”

When I received my invitation to attend CSG’s Gal-entine’s Day Happy Hour at the Columbus Museum of Art — held just six days after the opening of a new exhibition called Shakespeare in Prague: Imagining the Bard in the Heart of Europe — I accepted right away. Mrs. Sehring passed away last June, so it was the perfect occasion for me to celebrate the Shakespeare-lover who said, “I look forward to great things from Betsy.”

Listening to Shakespeare in Music & Words on my way to the museum, I planned to arrive early so I could see the exhibition first.

Organized by the museum, The Ohio State University’s College of Arts and Sciences Arts Initiative, and the Arts and Theatre Institute and the National Museum, both in Prague, Czech Republic, the exhibition explores the unique ways Shakespeare’s plays were adapted in central Europe from 1909 to 2014. During this turbulent time, Czech artists commented on political and cultural developments by creating innovative, unified designs for all aspects of a production, from posters and handbills to stage and costume designs.

Josef Wenig’s stage model for the production of The Winter’s Tale, 1923

Shakespeare’s works were first performed in Czechoslovakia by English traveling actors who toured continental Europe during the playwright’s lifetime. After his death, they continued as popular additions to central European theater repertoires. By the mid-19th century, they had become important classics that allowed an oppressed culture to express itself.

Early 20th-century avant-garde Czech artists adapted Shakespearean productions in distinctive ways, influenced by German Expressionism, Russian Constructivism, and French Cubism and Surrealism. Modern theater trends found expression in the scenic elements of stage design, where circus-inspired swings provided more motion, film techniques inspired unusual viewing angles, and mysterious cracked backdrops heightened the sense of drama. These unique approaches to staging Shakespeare’s plays demonstrate how lively his works are, and how their meanings can be expressed in imaginative new ways.

I wouldn’t say that wearing a uniform for 12 years oppressed me, but it certainly led to my love of expressing myself through my wardrobe. So it was to the costumes displayed in the exhibition that I gravitated.

Winter-hued sets and costumes were the hallmarks of a 2008 production of The Winter’s Tale, which is set in Bohemia, the Czech kingdom where Prague was located during Shakespeare’s time. Audiences who viewed a production of Hamlet in 2003 relied on color-coded costumes to determine whether characters were allies or enemies.

As I looked at elaborately embroidered aprons based on traditional Czech folk dress designed for a 2010 production of Hamlet


a lady’s skirt with rows of folded men’s shirts, worn by a male actor…

a pen-and-watercolor drawing of a costume for Ophelia that Vlastislav Hofman created for a 1926 production of Hamlet,

together with a reconstructed version of the costume,

I thought about the tunic and sandals I wore as Martius and wondered what my costume might have looked like, had I been reciting my lines as a fourth-grader in Prague.

Shakespeare in Prague: Imagining the Bard in the Heart of Europe is on view at the Columbus Museum of Art until May 21. Earlier this month, the museum hosted a Czech and Slovak Scenography for Shakespeare symposium, a two-day event featuring speakers from the Czech Republic, Slovakia, the United Kingdom, and the United States who discussed how designers from eastern and central Europe have brought Shakespeare to life on the stage. For more, read Shakespeare in Transition: Political Appropriations in the Postcommunist Czech Republic, by Marcela Kostihová.

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