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During the Restoration era, two of the reigning actresses, both named Elizabeth, couldn't hate each other enough. They played a scene in which one would wave a knife - a prop, the audience assumed. But in what came to be known as the "Battle of the Elizabeth's," the knife-bearer stormed on stage with the real deal.

On June 7, David Wiener, award-winning San Diego playwright, will finish that story, and tell many others, in his lecture "Behind the Grand Drape: 'Warts and All' Stories of Legendary Plays and Musicals."

"It's a backstage history tour through some of the theater's most famous (and infamous) productions," says Wiener.

The talk, part of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute's "Distinguished Lecture Series," comes forward in time from ancient Greek theater to a behind-the-scenes look at the creation/chaos of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire and the "producer you love to hate, David Merrick."

Just a taste: one legend took place in June, 53 B.C.E. Marcus Licinius Crassus was part of Rome's First Triumvirate. The others, Julius Caesar and Pompey, already had great conquests to their credit. Crassus wanted - maybe even needed - similar glory.

He was 60, and one of the world's richest men. He marched at least 30,000 soldiers across Syria. Against the advice of counsel, he attacked the fortified city of Carrhae, on the outskirts of the vast Parthian Empire, which stretched from East Turkey to Pakistan.

Big mistake. Though they outnumbered their foe, the Romans had to turn and run. The Parthian leader, Surena, arranged to meet with Crassus. But it was a trap, not a truce. Crassus was killed and beheaded.

An envoy took the head north to the Parthian King, Orodes II, who was campaigning in Armenia. When the envoy arrived, Orodes was at the theater, watching a performance of Euripides' The Bacchae.

In the play, Agave, daughter of the Theban king, brutally murders her son, Pentheus. She sticks his head atop a long pole.

Instead of a prop, the actor playing Agave - Jason of Tralles - grabbed the head of Crassus and hoisted it on stage in triumph, much to the delight of the king and his court.

Who was Crassus? In the movie Spartacus, he's the ice-blooded Roman nobleman, played by Laurence Olivier.


Distinguished Lecture Series, Osher Lifelong Learning Institute Campus, classroom 129, UCSD, 9600 North Torrey Pines Road and Muir Drive. 858-534-3409, http://olli.ucsd.edu/

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