Our recent exploration of the spanking stage history of Shakespeare deliberately excluded the richest source of material: of all Shakespeare’s plays, and perhaps of all the plays ever written in the history of mankind, none has had an unscripted spanking scene put in more often than The Taming of the Shrew. There is even an academic doctoral dissertation on the subject by Jennifer S. Horn (now a dramaturg for the Tennessee Stage Company), which you can download here if you’re interested in reading it. You will, however, get more hard information and spanking pictures if you carry on reading here…
This post inaugurates two new strands in our ongoing theater series, one dealing with different kinds of Shrew spankings and the other with plays that don’t include spanking scenes as scripted but have sometimes acquired them in production.
The point where directors most often put a spanking into The Shrew is the wooing scene, Act 2, Scene 1, when Petruchio is left alone on stage with Kate. (We’ll leave other options mainly for future installments.) The scene sets itself up nicely with a lot of sexual innuendo:
PETRUCHIO: Come, come, you wasp; i’ faith, you are too angry.
KATHARINA: If I be waspish, best beware my sting.
PETRUCHIO: My remedy is, then, to pluck it out.
KATHARINA: Ay, if the fool could find it where it lies.
PETRUCHIO: Who knows not where a wasp does wear his sting? In his tail.
‘Tail’ here meaning waspish Kate’s bottom – which Petruchio sometimes smacks at this point, giving her another sort of sting in the tail.
KATHARINA: In his tongue.
PETRUCHIO: Whose tongue?
KATHARINA: Yours, if you talk of tails: and so farewell.
PETRUCHIO: What, with my tongue in your tail?
‘Tail’ here meaning something a lot ruder than ‘bottom’!
Nay, come again, good Kate; I am a gentleman.
KATHARINA: That I’ll try.
She strikes him
PETRUCHIO: I swear I’ll cuff you, if you strike again.
And that’s the point where seasoned Kiss Me Kate viewers are used to hearing Lilli get threatened with the paddling of her life, and on stage. But even without Fred Graham’s help, the line is a direct threat to slap her, though Petruchio doesn’t specify whether he’ll aim for anywhere in particular!
More banter follows, after which he explains the situation explicitly:
And therefore, setting all this chat aside,
Thus in plain terms: your father hath consented
That you shall be my wife, your dowry ’greed on,
And, will you, nill you, I will marry you.
Now, Kate, I am a husband for your turn;
For, by this light, whereby I see thy beauty,
Thy beauty, that doth make me like thee well,
Thou must be married to no man but me;
For I am he am born to tame you, Kate,
And bring you from a wild Kate to a Kate
Conformable as other household Kates.
During the wooing there are many opportunities for a spanking, and arguably many provocations, but the one most often taken up is towards the end of this speech at or around ‘I am he am born to tame you’ – just moments before her father returns.
Now we’re going to follow the Shrew spanking backwards through time, a bit like trying to find the source of the Nile by sailing upstream. We’re not just looking at a series of spankings – though naturally we shall see and enjoy some on our way – so much as at successive illustrations of the idea that the play includes a spanking. And of course, we can’t do it comprehensively, so we’ll leap from year to year like stepping stones into the past, until the evidence runs out on us.
Just to orient ourselves, let’s start in very recent history, by revisiting last year’s Independent Shakespeare Company production at Los Angeles, in which Melissa Chalsma’s Kate did this to Luis Galindo’s Petruchio…
… and earned herself this ultra-dynamic spanking:
The Shrew staged by Plaza Theatrical Productions, a touring group based in Lynbrook, New York, was not a major event in the play’s stage history, but it does have the advantage of giving us a bit of incontrovertible video evidence:
This isn’t a significant moment either, but a revealing one. The February issue of the British journal Amateur Stage included an article by the playwright and amdram guru, Albert Jeanes, in which he remarked on the popularity of The Taming of the Shrew among amateur actresses, who would regularly lobby him to select the play as the opening Shakespearean production in a season. The problem with doing so, he explained, was one of casting:
‘In these days of the liberated woman, it says something that so many of them can’t wait to be beaten up on stage, and after having been duly tamed, deliver a final speech which extols the virtues of female subservience to male domination! But if I have 15 potential Kates, what choice of actors do I have who might play Petruchio? Two, perhaps three? And none of them prepared to do battle with the other for the privilege of giving a lady a good spanking, however well-deserved it might be.’
So Jeanes made the working assumption that Petruchio will spank Kate – no matter what it doesn’t say in the script. Amateur productions, when they could be cast at all, must have been worth keeping an eye on!
This year saw the publication of Luella E. McMahon’s adaptation of Shrew as a one-act play. In this version, the wooing scene includes a stage direction, after Kate hits Petruchio, that perhaps puts the title of this article into the category ‘moot’: ‘He turns her over his knee, gives her a couple of slaps.’ There wasn’t a scripted spanking in The Taming of the Shrew – until 1969!
Here’s an example from 1969 of a high school one-act version of the play, performed at Arlington High School, Texas. It’s a rehearsal shot, out of costume, with Debbie Duket as Kate and Bob English as Petruchio. The guy watching them, John Nedderman, is playing Kate’s father, and he clearly approves of what he’s seeing!
Incidentally, Debbie was named Best Actress in the one-act play competition for her portrayal of Kate, while Bob was runner-up for Best Actor.
Dateline: Finland, where Maikki Lansio is having her bottom spanked by Heikki Savolainen.
The point they’re illustrating is that Shrew spanking isn’t just an Anglo-American cultural tradition: it happens the world over. And that inevitably complicates any search for its point of origin. The more universal a phenomenon turns out to be, the farther back it is likely to go. So we could be here for a while…
Even before Luella E. McMahon gave written instructions, there had been a great deal of Shrew spanking in American high schools, a tradition that continued well into the present century. It’s a subject that merits separate treatment, but for now we’ll note that the earliest I’ve traced so far was at Van High School, Texas, in the school year 1956-57, and was administered by Ronald Tankersley to Carolyn Hamman (whose inscription says she thinks she looks stupid):
Any claim of an ‘earliest’ record is always susceptible to being disproven by the happy discovery of an even earlier example, so this is necessarily a provisional date. But it is still striking that typical school yearbook spreads on Shrew productions before this do not show a spanking, even though photographers and yearbook editors of the 1940s and early to mid-’50s were not reticent about presenting the spanking scenes in Men are Like Streetcars or many another comedy. So there is just a chance that this really was a newish phenomenon in the late ’50s. If so, perhaps one aspect of Ronald’s performance might be a clue. Does anything strike you as familiar about the way he has Carolyn over his knee, or indeed about the way she’s holding her left arm?
It’s the same pose that was used in the original production of Kiss Me Kate! Could it be, could it possibly be, that it was the example of KMK that put spanking into the Shrew? (Leap-frog to 1948 for the answer to that one.)
It’s often assumed that Shrew spanking is the result of a vulgarly mistaken interpretation of the play by provincial theater companies that might be unkindly caricatured as the Hicksville Players. But that is itself a mistake.
In the 1950s, the Old Vic Company was regarded as Britain’s unofficial national theater, and it later became the basis of the official National Theatre when it was founded in 1963. In 1954 they were engaged in one of the decade’s most significant projects in Shakespearean production, the ‘Five-Year First Folio Plan’ to produce all of Shakespeare’s plays. And on November 30, they opened Denis Carey’s production of The Taming of the Shrew.
Carey is probably now best known for his acting roles in Doctor Who at the very end of his career, but in the ’50s he was a highly respected stage director. His Petruchio was the distinguished classical actor Paul Rogers and his Kate, film star Ann Todd…
… who may be best known for her bravura performance in The Seventh Veil, in which she gets her hands whacked by James Mason. But this time it wasn’t her hands…
This production is easy to document, for two reasons. Firstly, the promptbook still exists in the Old Vic’s archives. This is the copy of the script, marked up with the stage business, that was open in front of the prompter as the performance itself took place. Here’s a page from the wooing scene, with the business noted on the left as numbered items keyed to lines in the script on the right.
If you click through to read it, you’re looking for no. 6: ‘PET slap KAT on bottom’. It happens, unsurprisingly enough, at the moment when Petruchio refers to Kate, like the wasp, having her sting in her tail. And we know exactly how it was done because we also have a series of photographs showing the scene being performed:
So Kate wasn’t just slapped: she was spanked. Ann Todd got 44 such spankings before the show closed on March 14, 1955.
And that wasn’t the last Shrew spanking to be produced by the company, either. From May 23 the same year, 1955, another Old Vic Shrew began touring Australia, this time directed by Michael Benthall, who went on to direct the 1957 Old Vic Midsummer Night’s Dream with a spanking, and who had already both directed Shrew (at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in 1948) and appeared in it (at the Old Vic in 1939, a production of which we shall hear more later). Robert Helpmann was Petruchio, best known outside ballet circles for his chilling performance as the Child-Catcher in Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang, and Kate was…
She was already no stranger to a smacked bottom, thanks to Spencer Tracy. First there was State of the Union (1948), in which Tracy plays a would-be political candidate on the campaign trail, with Hepburn as his semi-estranged wife. She remembers how he used to hate to hear her swear, and how, when he did, he would ‘smack me on my sitter hard’. And she tells Adolphe Menjou,
‘It’s a small request, but I’d give anything for one good smack on the south end.’ Menjou says he’d like to be able to do something about that. And at the end of the movie, she forgets herself and swears during a live radio broadcast, albeit mildly, for the sake of the Hays Office. One good smack on the south end coming up:
They followed this up the next year with the famous bottom-smacking massage scene in Adam’s Rib (1949):
And now, here she is risking similar treatment at the hands of Helpmann:
There’s no photo showing her getting it, but one review mentions that she was turned upside down so that her bloomers showed and spanked with a slipper, though a regard for strict historical accuracy requires us to mention that it’s unclear whether this refers to two separate pieces of stage business or, as we’d all like to think, two successive stages of the same piece of business!
So what all this tells us is that Shrew spanking wasn’t only the province of two-bit outfits doing work of marginal cultural importance. This was one of the most important theater companies in the world, and these were top-line actors who could pick and choose their roles. In the mid-’50s, Shrew spanking couldn’t have been more mainstream!
And what’s more, don’t think you’ve heard the last of the Old Vic Company – nor of the slipper…
December 30 saw the premiere of Kiss Me Kate at New York’s New Century Theatre, after a three-week tryout in Philadelphia. Patricia Morison was Lilli and Alfred Drake was Fred, captured above by the New York Times cartoonist. Another time there’ll be much more to say about this production in its own right; here we’re interested in it as a piece of evidence in the history of Shrew spanking.
The really clever thing about KMK in this connection is that it pulls off a conjuring trick whereby it shows, simultaneously, that Shrew both does and doesn’t include a spanking scene.
Fred and Lilli are opening in Baltimore in a musical adaptation of Shrew. As we all know, when Lilli’s onstage behavior gets out of hand, Fred also takes some liberties with the show and gives her a spanking: ‘You asked for it, and now you’re going to get it.’
(Pat Michon gets it from Ian White at the Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury in July 1969)
What that means is that there is no spanking in the script for their version of Shrew: it’s business added on the spur of the moment by the sorely provoked Fred.
(Henryk Böhm is provoked by, and takes reprisals upon, Sarah Schütz at the Brunswick Staatstheater in 2006)
But what it also means is that Shrew already had the reputation for including a spanking: otherwise, why would anyone have thought of this, either Fred Graham looking for a way to take his revenge without breaking character, or the KMK authors themselves, Sam and Bella Spewack, as a clever twist in their plot?
And that means we’re going to have to go back further!
This is another date which may only stand for an example rather than an epoch; but it is quite a good example, and may turn out to be an epoch after all. We turn to another Old Vic Shrew, this time with John Burrell directing Trevor Howard as Petruchio and Patricia Burke as Kate.
The production opened on August 26 at the Edinburgh Festival and toured to Brussels and the English provinces before coming to London in November. Patricia Burke’s 2003 obituary in The Independent remarked that it ‘was charged with an unusually high voltage of sexual chemistry and, for the time, an unexpectedly thrilling athletic vigour in their fight scenes’.
But, mixed metaphors aside, what exactly does that mean? Early theater reviewers are often coy about inserted spankings, when they are not silent altogether, perhaps because such business was considered commonplace and so not worth mentioning, but perhaps also out of a misplaced sense of delicacy about such undignified domestic matters. For instance, from The Stage we hear that the 1939 Old Vic production of Shrew, with Roger Livesey as Petruchio and Ursula Jeans as Kate …
… featured ‘a regular battery of slapping’, but we don’t know if it was Ursula’s Kate who got slapped or, if so, on what part of her body.
(Ursula Jeans, possibly earning herself a spanking from Roger Livesey in the 1939 Shrew)
Even so, perhaps we can hazard a guess. The production’s director was Tyrone Guthrie, and he later directed an Edwardian dress Shrew at the Stratford, Ontario, Shakespeare Festival, a production now best known for featuring the future captain of the Starship Enterprise in the role of Lucentio.
(William Shatner is seated on the left; Kate stands at the center)
One reviewer helpfully noted that this production’s Kate, Barbara Chilcott, was ‘slapped on the seat’, but if that delicate phrasing tells us that Guthrie wasn’t averse to the slap of masculine hand on feminine bottom, what it doesn’t help us do is know whether Kate got spanked or just smacked!
So what we have to do, short of finding a spanking photograph or a helpfully specific review, is piece together information about what actually happened on stage from sources that aren’t telling us directly what we want to know. And the striking thing about the 1947 Old Vic Shrew is just how much we can work out from the little that is available to us.
Unusually, there are two reviews of the production that mention spanking more or less directly. One came from Kenneth Tynan, who saw a performance at Oxford as part of the pre-London tour, and who was interested in both the principal ladies in the show. He enjoyed the spectacle of Kate slung over Petruchio’s shoulder…
… and praised Patricia Burke’s ‘fine looks, malign lips, arching eyebrows, sinewy forearms and quivering rats’ tails of black hair, coiling in sinister disorder’. Meanwhile, Kate’s sister Bianca was played by Renee Asherson as ‘a syrupy puss’…
… and Tynan recounted with characteristic relish the fact that she ‘gets her little behind well slippered’. So in this production it seems that it was actually Bianca who got spanked – a phenomenon we’ll return to in a later entry in this series. But that’s not the import of the News Chronicle review of the London premiere, which found Patricia Burke’s Kate to be already ever so slightly domesticated: ‘even her tantrums are of the sort to vanish at the touch of a well-applied slipper’. The specific mention of the slipper in both reviews means that each authenticates the other, and there’s an obvious way of explaining the apparent contradiction about who got it applied to her behind.
What happened, by the sound of it, was this. In their first scene, Kate’s mistreatment of Bianca included, uncommonly, the application of slipper to bottom. There’s an interesting and perhaps revealing detail in a surviving photograph of the scene:
The chair! A vital stage property if Kate put Bianca across her knee for the slippering, but a damn nuisance if she didn’t. But later on, Kate found herself getting the very same treatment from Petruchio, probably with the very same slipper, and hopefully in a different position relative to his lap than the one we see in this photo…
We don’t actually know this is what happened in the production: knowledge is only available when there is a photograph or a review or a promptbook to tell us. But it’s a hypothesis consistent with all the evidence: the 1947 Old Vic Shrew featured two spanking scenes, first Kate/Bianca and then Petruchio/Kate. The fact that it has been quite a struggle to get there might also be relevant…
This year saw the release of Ernst Lubitsch’s screwball comedy, Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife, with Claudette Colbert and Gary Cooper.
She is Nicole de Loiselle: old, impoverished French aristocracy. He is Michael Brandon: new American money, a playboy with seven broken marriages behind him. The key to her financial problems is to become his eighth wife – and that’s the start of his problems!
The marriage does not go well, and they find themselves living in separate rooms. At a loss for how to deal with her, he looks for literary precedent. And the book he gets down from his shelves is…
We next see him marching forcefully up the corridor to her room, breaking a vase as he goes. He unceremoniously walks in and slaps her face.
So she slaps him back.
Back to the book to check what to do next! And then back to Nicole’s room, and… Well the trailer caption tells you what she gets:
‘Shakespeare!’ he says, and lays on the aforementioned Cooper touch. Just like this…
Shakespeare – really?
Obviously, somebody behind the camera was very keen to see Claudette Colbert get spanked…
… but no copy of The Taming of the Shrew that was in existence in 1938 could possibly have suggested that particular course of action to Michael Brandon!
But it looks as if the idea also didn’t come directly from the play on the stage, either. One production of The Taming of the Shrew dominated America in the late 1930s, with the leading roles taken by the battling ‘Lunts’, the feuding married couple Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontanne.
The production opened in 1935 and toured America intermittently until 1940. The surviving promptbook enables us to say for sure that Lynne Fontanne’s Kate was not spanked, only smacked. (To be precise, it was in the wooing scene, when Petruchio tells Kate, ‘Take this of me’. As Lunt played the line,‘this’ was a smacked bottom. The promptbook even specifies, ‘hard’.) But no doubt there were other minor Shrew productions in America, and perhaps some of them may have been spanking productions, but information about them has not come down to us.
It’s almost as if, looking for Shrew spanking, we’re chasing an urban legend…
In 1920, Mary Pickford, ‘America’s Sweetheart’, was spanked twice by Katherine Griffith in the silent film version of Pollyanna, though neither sequence made the final cut of the picture:
Nine years later, she was not spanked by her husband Douglas Fairbanks when they played the leads in their film version of The Taming of the Shrew.
What’s interesting is how the movie was publicized:
Take a good look at that drawing. Is it or isn’t it? It’s obviously meant to suggest that Petruchio is taking Kate across his knee to spank her – but the suggestion is also deniable. His hand isn’t raised above her rear, and it might just as well be representing a bit of rough-house. In fact, it’s doing what Kiss Me Kate managed more comprehensively nineteen years later: having it both ways. It’s exploiting the idea that Shrew features a spanking scene whilst stopping just short of actually portraying one.
As we go farther and farther back into history, we are finding ourselves dealing more and more with Shrew spanking as a phenomenon of belief rather than of actuality: we can show that people thought Petruchio spanked Kate, but we haven’t found a single securely documented instance of him actually doing any such thing in any production before the Second World War. So was it something that people who had never read or seen the play mistakenly believed was in the script, as the authors of Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife evidently did? Or was it a traditional feature of Shrew staging that never got directly on the record, leaving us with the difficulties of interpretation that we faced in relation to the 1947 Old Vic production?
It looks as if the evidence is fast running out. But before the mists of time close over us completely, let’s take one last giant leap backwards, to arrive in the year…
Well, actually, we’re first going to take a detour to January 1746. The reason? Let me introduce you to Mrs Kitty Clive…
One of Kitty Clive’s more invidious claims to fame is that she was the recipient of the earliest known backstage spanking. It happened at Drury Lane during a 1746 production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, in which she was playing the spirit Ariel, and had new songs written for her by Thomas Arne, the composer of ‘Rule Britannia’. But she made a mess of one of them, and blamed the musicians for her own shortcomings: ‘Why don’t the fellows mind what they are about?’ she called to them, which gave offense. When the interval came, Arne sprang into action on their behalf, as Charles Burney later recorded in his memoirs:
‘At the end of the act, Arne went upstairs to remonstrate against her insolence, when the only satisfaction he obtained was a slap on the face. In return, he literally turned her over his knee and gave her such a manual flagellation as she probably had not received since she quitted the nursery. But as a proof that she had made a good defense, he came back without his wig, all over blood from her scratches, and his long point ruffles dangling over his nails.’
She then refused to sing his songs and effectively had him fired from the production.
After recounting the affray, Arne’s biographer Todd Gilman adds in a footnote, ‘This was not the only spanking Mrs Clive received.’ And he quotes a theatrical historian’s account of how Kitty and Henry Woodward were the first pair of feuding actors to bring their offstage animosities into their onstage performances in Shrew: ‘When Petruchio whacked this Catherine, he did it with a good will’ – yes, just like in Kiss Me Kate!
The earliest known backstage spanking… and then the earliest known Shrew spanking. Take a bow, Kitty Clive! We promise not to think you’re bending over for any other purpose…
So that’s 260 years of spanking stage history for The Taming of the Shrew – not bad for a play that doesn’t have a spanking scene in it!