A Tale of Two Swords

I would be the first to admit my lacking an appreciation for plays, my appetite for such advanced cultural things probably stunted by my rural southern Illinois upbringing. Yet, in thinking about my time at Oakland City College from 1969 until 1973, I easily recall when the plays produced by the OCC drama department were of great interest to me, but only because of my old Jordan Hall college roommate, Carl Runyon. Ironically, given Carl’s great interest in being in plays, he was not particularly dramatic when it came to real life, pursuing a more practical approach to life’s problems while I knew him at OCC, and frowning on my own tendency of often creating stories which, in his words, sometimes made “mountains out of molehills.”

So, I was not surprised when Carl did not immediately respond to my recent email request asking him about a particular event concerning one of the plays in which he had a lead role. Knowing my old roomie, I had the feeling he felt like he’d received a grade school writing assignment along the lines of “What did you do over your summer vacation.” I pressed on, however, building my mountain, delving into yellowed O. C. C. Collegian newspapers and old yearbooks housed in the archives at the Oakland City University Library to help me better understand a particular episode that had always stuck in my mind, using some half-forgotten details Carl once told me several years ago to further help construct the story.

In the fall of 1972, Oakland City College’s Drama Department, under the always steady hand of Dr. Margaret Earl Harper, attempted one of its most daring stage productions, William Shakespeare’s Macbeth.  The play would be the college’s first Shakespearean play in twelve years and would have the challenging elements of finding and guiding a host of actors and production managers, along with the equally challenging problem of managing the elaborate wardrobe. The play also faced the daunting limits of the Stinson auditorium stage. This problem would be especially problematic during the final to-the-death sword fighting scene between the Macbeth and the Macduff characters. The O. C. Collegian noted of the problem, “The setting of the play will require special construction and stage extensions in the auditorium.” The article further stressed that the play would “be presented on a unit set against drapes with much use of special lighting to bring out the jewel tones in the elaborate costuming.”

Handsome Jim King on the right in his astounding rendition of John Proctor in “The Crucible.”

Many thought that the lead role of the tragic Macbeth would surely go to Jim King, a tall, handsome senior with a deep, animated voice who had already been seen in several important leading roles in prior plays. His performance as John Proctor in Arthur Miller’s historical play about the Salem witch trials, “The Crucible,” the year before was called “the most outstanding” of all the participants by one enthusiastic critic, and the overall performance of the rest of the cast was said to be “flawless.” King definitely received the most detailed accolades, however. “He was never more convincing,” asserted one pleased reviewer, “than in the closing moments when he was torn between saving himself by admitting to be an agent of the Devil, or dying a martyr’s death with his friends.”

Carl Runyon in an earlier and lesser role as Giles Corey in “The Crucible.”

My college roommate, Carl Runyon, had a much smaller supporting role in that same play, as old Giles Corey, and his sudden interest in participating in OCC plays drew me reluctantly into that world for a brief time.

I soon discovered Giles Corey was a perfect role for my roommate. I especially loved the moment the Corey character, as he was being crushed to death by having heavy stones placed on him, said in his dying breath, “More weight.”

Carl, far right, playing a small part as a telephone repairman in the OCC production of “Barefoot in the Park.”

That same year, Carl had a small part as a telephone repair man in the drama department’s production of the Neil Simon play, “Barefoot in the Park.” Much shorter than the deep voiced and clean-shaven Jim King, and with a bit of a southeast Missouri accent, Carl’s shaggy hair and beard, a common style for the times, made him more of a potential character actor than a leading man. Carl seemed very content, however, to do whatever the casting asked of him.      

When the fall of 1972 rolled around, rumors began to fly that the Drama Department would produce Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Most began to imagine what Jim King would do with the such a powerful part. It was a great surprise then when the coveted role of Macbeth went to my old Jordan Hall roommate, Carl Runyon.

I could tell my roommate was both excited and a bit scared about his being selected. I found myself paying more attention to the situation, even though, as previously noted, I typically cared little about the college plays.

Jim King did score the important role of Macduff, and many anticipated how he might find ways to wrestle away the limelight from Carl as time passed. If my roommate had any worries about hard feelings, however, those fears were eased somewhat when Jim King announced he would take care of procuring authentic looking swords for the big fight scene. The act had a surprising turn. Carl remembered how “Jim got the heavy swords for our final battle forged locally. Imagine my surprise when I discovered he’d had his sword made much heavier and longer.”

The cast of “Macbeth” in full dress rehearsal. Note Jim King’s longer sword.

Interestingly, this dynamic would eventually come to add greatly to the performances.

The level of the rivalry built throughout the rehearsals, especially during the sword fighting scene, a scene that had to be practiced over and over again to ensure both authenticity and safety.  “It was amazing one or both of us were not badly hurt,” Carl told me some years ago. “We did not pull back, swinging as hard as we could until our arms grew heavy. And of course, neither one of us wanted to be the first to say that we’d better stop.”

Anticipation built as the time for the play’s opening performance in early November of 1972 drew closer, with the local newspaper putting out a special section of the paper that highlighted the event:  A Shakespeare Revival comes to O.C.C. Theater.” A photo of Carl, dressed as Macbeth in Scottish Highland regalia took up the entire front page of the section. In one hand, Carl held the shorter sword Jim King had had made. 

The opening night was smashing, the audience all but standing to watch the final fight to the death. Jim King won the day, being singled from the rest of the cast by one reviewer. “Jim King, a senior, gave a command performance. One can see the truly dramatic abilities of this young actor.” My roommate’s performance was deemed “very laudable.” His rendition of Macbeth’s soliloquy was particularly moving, and I was proud of his performance, his complete dedication to the difficult role. It was also then that I realized how much guts it took to get up on a stage and act.

The tale does not end here, however.

The opening scene of the three witches set the powerful emotional tone for the rest of OCC’s production of Macbeth.

Carl did finally get back to me and his detailed memories of the occasion underscores the old adage that fact is indeed stranger than fiction, or, in this case, poetic license. Below is his thoughts on the episode, very lightly edited, and, of course, explained in a way that only my good old roomie could concoct. Please bear with Carl’s and my lament about the university tearing down our beloved Jordan Hall.

Hey, Roomie,

I’m sorry about the delayed response—I made a quick weekend trip to Piggot, Arkansas, for a Runyon family reunion. And, yes, I’d like a chair from our old room if one is available. I would say I regret seeing Jordan torn down, but in reality, my memories really aren’t dependent on its physical existence. When Bob and I were forced to move my mother out of our family home in Poplar Bluff and put her in an assisted living situation near where Bob lives in MO, we sold the house to a contractor who flips and sells/rents the properties. Within a couple of years, my Aunt Dean called and said that contractor had rented to some people who were apparently using the basement as a meth lab and the house burned down. She thought that would bother me, but I was surprised to find it didn’t. 

About the play. Here’s how I remember it.   

When Dr. Harper announced that she was doing Macbeth, I guess Jim assumed he was the logical choice for the lead. When she cast me in that role, he came to me privately and tried to convince me to decline the role so that he could take it. You know me roomie: I didn’t see myself as a great actor, so not having the lead was not going to bother me. But I was bothered that he thought he could manipulate me to give it up simply because he assumed he was a much better actor and deserved to have the role. So I politely (or not so politely) refused to step aside. Besides, by that time, Harper had made it clear to me she wanted me to play that role.

Jim went out to one of the coal mines to have the swords made. When he brought back the swords, and his was about six inches longer than mine, his rationale was that he had the swords made proportionate to each of our heights to be more aesthetically pleasing on stage.

I can’t remember his name (he was blond and had a beard and was an English major), but one of our fellow Jordan Hall residents wrote a student review of opening night in which he describes the duel on stage and how real it seemed. As the student described the scene, he said that in the darkened theater, the audience could vividly hear the clanging swords and see the sparks flying. The sword blades were completely iron (but with a dull edge, yet heavy enough to do serious injury if one of us were hit). We had carefully choreographed the scene and were swinging away with full strength, and then parried each other’s blow. At the end, the force of a blow was to appear to knock me down on the ground and then he stabbed down to finish me. Again, we had choreographed so that his blade hit the floor just an inch to my side facing away from the audience, so the optical illusion made it easy for the audience to imagine he had actually stabbed me. During the last performance, after a couple of weeks of live practice and then 2-3 previous performances, the metal blades became very jagged and would rip the skin. On the last night—I’ll never know whether it was accidental or angry frustration—Jim’s downward last thrust was closer than it was supposed to be and it ripped a big hole in my tunic (luckily, it didn’t catch any of my skin).

 So, there you are roomie, what I did on my summer vacation.

My roommate giving his all on the Stinson Hall stage.