Noah Millman

Reading Myself and Others

Jason Schwartzman does not want his picture taken with this book.
Jason Schwartzman does not want his picture taken with this book.

As someone with a taste for films with thoroughly unpleasant protagonists, and with a fondness for Jason Schwartzman, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that I quite enjoyed Alex Ross Perry’s latest film, “Listen Up Philip,” in which Schwartzman plays about as unpleasant a protagonist as he’s ever assayed.

That protagonist is Philip Lewis Friedman, a notable (or is it noteworthy? Philip actually muses about this question) young New York novelist who has just seen his second novel come out. Philip celebrates the happy occasion by telling off his ex-girlfriend (for being late to meet him), and his ex-roommate (for not having held up his end of their pact to become great writers together), and his publisher (for no obvious reason; he simply announces that he isn’t going to do any promotion for his own book, and that’s that) – and then, having cleared his calendar, fleeing his supportive-in-more-ways-than-one-but-starting-to-lose-patience current girlfriend, Ashley (Elizabeth Moss, giving an expressive performance with great economy), with and on whom he has been living for two years, to hang out upstate with his Philip Roth-esque literary hero, Ike Zimmerman (a pitch-perfect Jonathan Pryce), who is in need of a protégé to tutor in the ways of misanthropy and misogyny.

So far, so satiric, and the satire is biting indeed. Philip is an exaggerated character, but the stunts he pulls and the demands he makes are all familiar enough to anyone familiar with the lives of writers (though few are quite as relentless as Philip is). Philip isn’t just a colossal narcissistic jerk; he’s both clever and clueless – clever enough to know that telling a girlfriend “I’m telling you this to hurt you” will actually be effective at disarming her of any possible response, clueless enough actually to be surprised when another girlfriend, with whom he hasn’t spoken in months, decides that is no longer her status, and changes the lock. The pervasive visual satire is the funniest, and never funnier than when sending up the look of Zimmerman’s dust jackets through the decades.

The satire gets considerably juicier all around when Ike Zimmerman enters the scene, and we can observe the contrast in narcissisms between the literary generations. Zimmerman is a monster of ego, who has fully earned the hatred of his daughter (the luminously furious  Krysten Ritter), but he can fairly claim to have labored to satisfy his voracious appetite, whether for women or literary acclaim. I believed his daughter’s fury – but I also believed that she can’t quit him in spite of all. Philip is fully his equal in ego, and – in a nice departure from the too-common trope of the whiny Millennial slacker – respectably if not extraordinarily productive. But rather than assault life to salve his essential loneliness, as Zimmerman does (ineffectively, in the final analysis), Philip sips his bitter cup in silence, daring life (women, publishers) to rescue him. And he’s clever enough for it to be believable that he’s genuinely talented, and therefore for us to believe that he can get these women to put up with him. But only for a time, and it’s hard to picture any of them ever wanting to bear his children.

Though the story is ultimately Philip’s, the narrative gives ample time to Ashley and Zimmerman – enough time that we begin to truly see them as separate people, not devices who exist for the sake of Philip’s story line. But when I step back, it’s clear to me that this impression of separateness, too, is a device, that even the contours of Ashley’s independence from Philip are driven by the demands of the central narrative. I use that word, “narrative,” with particular emphasis, because this story is not just shown, it is narrated, in voice-over (by Eric Bogosian) so exceptionally heavy-handed that one can only conclude the filmmaker wanted to be absolutely certain we would be conscious of it as a device, and ask how it should be “read.” If “Listen Up Philip” were a novel, a narrative voice this strong would beg to be interrogated as to its reliability; we would be forced to ask whose voice this is, and what its agenda might be.

Well, given that Ike Zimmerman is a Philip Roth stand-in, and that the titles are in a famous Roth font, and that Roth has a strong penchant for writing novels narrated by characters named “Philip Roth” or by transparent surrogates like Nathan Zuckerman, and that he wrote a novel, The Ghost Writer, about the relationship between a rising young writer and a bitter older literary lion (modeled on Bernard Malamud), that bears a striking resemblance to the premise of this film . . . well, when you put it all together, it feels like the movie’s voice-over is begging to be read as the creation of Philip Lewis Friedman (or, whatever hypothesized persona is Roth to Philip’s Zuckerman). In other words, the film’s view of Philip – as unrelentingly selfish and arrogant, and therefore doomed to misery – is Philip’s own. As is the larger view of the world: a place where men are uniformly miserable (they are young and lonely, and either grow old and bitter, or they commit suicide as another rising writer does), and where women are uniformly made miserable by these narcissistic men (and can only find peace if they settle for the affections of a cat they are mildly allergic to).

When I describe the world of the movie that way, in all of its comprehensive male self-pity, it seems all the more plausible that Philip is the author of the film. Which raises the question: what kind of response is that author trying to get from us? Is the “real” Philip so much like the Philip we see on screen that we can view this entire film as one of his clever manipulations of our emotions, daring us to rescue him from his own misery by watching it, analyzing it, praising it, wanting to meet him and ask him whether we got it?

I guess it worked.

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Libertarians, Virtue and “Yes Means Yes”

MGM (1940)
MGM (1940)

I’ve got somewhat unsettled thoughts about the whole California yes-means-yes law myself, with sympathy for multiple sides in this debate, ranging from Ezra Klein’s much-maligned piece defending a law he himself thinks is lousy, to Fredrik deBoer’s critique of the law as more likely to be used against the innocent-but-weak than against the most successful campus predators, to Heather MacDonald’s piece back-handedly defending the law as the restoration of Victorian relations between the sexes. But as is my wont, when I’m not sure what I think, I look for a proof text to interpret. This time, I came up with two.

The first direction I went, in thinking about the law, was to wonder: what’s the libertarian take on the question? It wasn’t obvious to me. On the one hand, libertarians tend to be highly skeptical of intruding the clumsy hand of the state into the private sphere. And this intrusion is going to be pretty darned clumsy. On the other hand, libertarians tend to have pretty strong, even absolute, views on private property rights. Such absolutism makes, if anything, even more sense when it comes to the use of our own bodies than if we’re talking about, say, the right to use groundwater. And in general, if you own property, nobody has the right to use that property without your affirmative consent. If I’m your neighbor, and we have basically friendly relations, been to each other’s barbecues and borrowed each other’s lawnmowers, I still can’t presume the right to draw groundwater from your well without explicitly asking and getting explicit permission.

And – as it happens – I found a proof text for precisely this question, from one of the foundational libertarian works: Robert Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. For those of you who were not quite such dire sci-fi nerds as I was as a pre-teen and teenager, Heinlein’s novel is about a revolution on the moon, prompted, as it happens, by ecological concerns, but intended by the author to demonstrate the viability of a society without law or government as we understand it. His Luna is a prison, but, being practically impossible to escape from, the wardens don’t really do anything to police the populace. Since they won’t allow anything like a government or a police force to develop either, though, the populace has, perforce, come to customary solutions to a variety of social problems that are enforced in an ad hoc fashion rather than through a process of positive law. For example: relations between the sexes.

In Heinlein’s imaginary lunar society, there’s an imbalanced sex ratio as a consequence of the predominance of males among the deported convict population. As a consequence, in his imagination, the “clearing price” of female consent to sexual relations is very high – and, as a consequence of this, women wind up basically having complete control over sexual relations. In his words, put into the mouth of a native Lunarian trying to explain Lunar society to a tourist from Earth who nearly got himself killed by a gang of teenage toughs for making a pass at “their” girl:

“You have no choice, she has all choice. She can hit you so hard it draws blood; you dasn’t lay a finger on her. Look, you put an arm around Tish, maybe tried to kiss. Suppose instead she had gone to hotel room with you; what would happen?”

“Heavens! I supposed they would have torn me to pieces.”

“They would have done nothing. Shrugged and pretended not to see. Because choice is hers. Not yours. Not theirs. Exclusively hers.”

Now, it so happens that this fantasy of Heinlein’s bears absolutely no resemblance to what societies with highly skewed sex ratios actually look like. Heinlein presumes that the spontaneous order that would arise in the absence of authority would treat women not merely as valuable prizes but as agents. If you don’t make that assumption, and instead think about any other scarce, high-priced resource and how it would likely be allocated in a state of nature, it doesn’t look much like Heinlein’s fantasy. In reality, a high proportion of women in highly-skewed societies like North Dakota’s oilfields work as sex workers employed by men to service other men rather than as free-spirited women freely choosing to spend their “valuable” sexual services in whatever fashion maximizes their own personal utility function. The dynamic is undoubtedly different at, say, Cal Tech – but toxic misogyny, the too-frequent refuge of men who see themselves as losers in a ruthless contest for female attention, is not exactly unknown in those precincts.

More to the point, it’s worth noting that Heinlein’s vision for what a spontaneous order would look like is heavily dependent on assumptions about how male violence specifically would play out. Though the women of Heinlein’s Luna are fierce fighters, he isn’t really fantasizing about Amazon women on the moon. He’s fantasizing about men enforcing a collectively-beneficial norm granting women complete control of sexual relations through fatal violence against men who violate that norm. In other words: even in this libertarian fantasy, female agency is underwritten by an implicit cartel between men relating to how their violence will be deployed. Men who don’t understand what a woman’s love is worth, or never expect to experience it, are not going to join that cartel.

None of this is to suggest that female agency has no role on the “lawless” frontier. I cite “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” as my proof-text for that aside. But where I really want to go next is to another filmic proof-text.

Because: if I’m right that even deeply libertarian thinking about the question of relations between the sexes necessarily smuggles in questions of character - male character specifically – under the radar, then what kind of character are we actually looking for? Is Heather MacDonald right that the feminists are kissing cousins to the Victorians, and that what is really wanted is a return to the “default no,” and a much higher risk premium associated with sexual exploration?

I’m doubtful. And I cite “The Philadelphia Story” as my proof-text this time.

In that classic film, Katherine Hepburn plays Tracy Lord, a furiously moral woman who left her first husband, C. K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) because of his drinking, and is now  preparing to marry a completely different man: George Kittredge (John Howard), a highly moral self-made man who puts her on the same pedestal on which you might imagine she places herself. But you’d be wrong. Over the course of what is, at times, a quite painful film to watch – the movie is downright cruel to Lord at times, particularly when her father returns to the scene to berate his daughter for being the cause of his infidelities (you heard right) – Tracy Lord learns that she wants something quite different than she thinks. She doesn’t want someone who is good, who is upright, who behaves rightly, and who worships her as a proper object of neo-Victorian veneration. She wants to be loved.

She learns this by getting sloppy drunk with yet another character, an impoverished but brilliant writer and disgruntled hack, “Mike” Macaulay Connor (Jimmy Stewart), with whom, when the dawn finally breaks on a very long night before her scheduled wedding, she’s convinced she’s just had a sordid one-night-stand – a realization which fills her with self-loathing.

But she’s under a misapprehension. Her virtue is intact. And her dialogue around the revelation of that fact is instructive:

Connor: Kittredge, it may interest you to know that the so-called ‘affair’ consisted of exactly two kisses and a rather late swim . . . All of which I thoroughly enjoyed, and the memory of which I wouldn’t part with for anything . . . After which I deposited Tracy on her bed in her room, and promptly returned down here to you two – which doubtless you’ll remember.

Tracy: Why? Was I so unattractive, so distant, so forbidding, or something – that – ?

George: Well, this is fine talk, too.

Tracy: I’m asking a question.

Mike: You were extremely attractive, and as for distant and forbidding, on the contrary. But you also were a little the worse – or the better – for wine, and there are rules about that.

Tracy: Thank you, Mike. I think men are wonderful.

Now, your average undergraduate is unlikely to measure up in wit or presence to the likes of Tracy Lord or Macaulay Connor, but that’s not the point. When Mike says Tracy was both a little the worse and a little the better for having drunk too much, or when Tracy worries that perhaps Mike didn’t take advantage of her incapacity because he wasn’t attracted to her (or worse, was afraid of her) – that’s not the shallow, sordid dynamic that George Kittredge thinks it is. For her own good, Tracy Lord needed to lose control, needed to let herself take some stupid risks.

Nonetheless, the scene would have played out very differently had Mike not understood that “there are rules” about the situation he found himself in with Tracy. What underwrites the happy outcome isn’t Kittredge’s Victorian rigor, but an altogether warmer version of male restraint – a version that can delight in being with a woman who’s a little out of control, while remaining enough in control himself to be able to imagine what she will ultimately regret or resent, and to bring that imagination to bear on his actions.

I don’t know about men in general, but Mike specifically is wonderful, and a wonderful model to hold up (and a more plausible one for most of us to emulate than the magisterially aristocratic C. K. Dexter Haven). But there’s still that asymmetry. The safety that makes it possible for Tracy Lord to find herself is underwritten by Mike’s basic human decency. The opposite is no doubt true as well – indeed, Liz’s frankly superhuman patience with Mike in the very same film is a necessary contributor to his freedom to find himself. My point is that in each of these situations, this asymmetry obtains. My freedom to explore depends on your willingness to show patience, restraint, maturity that, in some measure, exceeds mine. And vice versa.

This isn’t an order that can arise spontaneously. It’s also not an order that corresponds to a neo-Victorian assignment of essential sex roles, nor to “pink police state” regulation. The “rules” that Mike is talking about aren’t laws you follow for fear of punishment or shame, but rather the internal evidence that you have the moral imagination, and moral courage, to be a decent human being. That has to be taught – and it has to be taught by everyone.

Not everyone can learn how to be a decent human being – but I have faith that most can. The bulk of the harm “yes means yes” is intended to correct is inflicted by a small minority of predatory individuals. But in a world where decency is commonplace, and we mostly know what it looks like, perhaps the truly predatory will be a little easier to spot.

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A Healthy Debate About Health

I want to applaud Jonathan Coppage for penning an extremely well-written and well-considered rejoinder to my piece from last week about eugenics. With his permission, I’d like to take the argument one more round.

The heart of his objection is here:

Millman in fact claims that “eugenic motivations aren’t suspect as such, but perfectly normal,” so long as they are properly tempered with humility and a recognition of the inner life of others not like us. For “everybody wants their kids to be healthier, including being born healthier. There’s nothing wrong with trying to ensure that—unless there’s something wrong with what you are doing to ensure it, or unless you take your standards of what constitutes ‘health’ to unreasonable extremes.”

The problem is, taking “health” to unreasonable extremes is just what is at issue in this discussion. Dougherty doesn’t object to Tay-Sachs carrier couples adopting or even parting ways, after all. He voices concern over social policy and social stigma turning against those who fall short of an increasingly healthy society’s increasingly stringent expected standards. A moral abhorrence at abortion is certainly at work in his defense of Down children, as is no secret to anyone familiar with his work. But resisting the prenatal extirpation of the Down community is about more than the abortion wars. It is precisely about how poorly our society is equipped to understand health reasonably, and what consequences flow from that shortcoming.

If I take that literally, Coppage would seem to be saying that it is unreasonable to treat Down Syndrome as a negative health condition to be avoided. And I just don’t see how that can be sustained. If Down Syndrome were caused by a pathogen rather than a genetic abnormality, and could be prevented or cured, I can’t imagine that Coppage would be arguing that doing so would be wrong – even though it would deprive the world of the unique inner life of Down children.

Or perhaps he would. I am familiar with that kind of argument from the disability rights movement. There are certainly members of the deaf community who will argue that cochlear implants are wrong, because the deaf experience is genuinely different, and fecund in its own way, not merely inferior. And they aren’t wrong about the latter! But they are about the ethical implications. Two apparently conflicting claims – that deafness is a genuine disability, something that a parent might rationally wish for her child to be spared; and that deafness is the fount of unique and distinctive perspectives on the world, with their own beauty, which the world would in some sense be poorer without - can both be true. They are both true. Precisely because they are both true, in the abstract there’s something wrong with society mandating cochlear implants for deaf children, and something wrong with society prohibiting cochlear implants for children. We should leave it up to parents to decide.

I would say the same is true for children with Down Syndrome – again, if we take the specific questions that abortion uniquely raises off the table for the moment.

To my mind, that really is enough to settle the ethical question at issue – whether there is something distinctively wrong about eugenic motivations, that is to say, thinking about the genetic health of our offspring and acting licitly to promote that health. But the ethical question isn’t the only one in play; much of the debate is really about sociology rather than ethics, the fear that social pressure will be brought to bear to make the “right” choices, where “right” is understood to mean “the one that makes society the most economically productive in aggregate.”

Well, if you want to debate sociology, you need data, and most of what I’ve seen in the debate is anecdote. Personally, when I look out, I see a culture much more interested in helping people with disabilities live as full and active a life as possible than was the case in previous generations. Those kids with autism who once would have been institutionalized? They’re part of the family now. Far from being “missing faces,” the faces of children with Down Syndrome are if anything more present in our lives today than I remember them being when I was a kid. Back in “America’s dark 20th century” a President of the United States had to hide his disability for fear of being thought unfit for leadership; now we make culture heroes of legless marathoners and mountain-climbers. Maybe that’s just the view from Brooklyn, a weird place that embraces slow food and natural childbirth but can also be cut-throat about getting into the “right” middle school. But if the fear is that the ability to prevent disabilities (whether by morally licit or illicit means) will make us intolerant of disability, anecdotally I see a lot of evidence running the other way.

The other way of parsing the question of sociology isn’t by talking about subtle coercion, but simply by talking about how power, individual and collective, shapes our individual, and collective, preferences. This is the direction that Coppage goes when he cites Yuval Levin on the stem cell research debate:

[A]s biomedical advances have taken the tools provided by the previous centuries’ advances in physics and chemistry and applied them to the human form, we have gained the power to manipulate that necessarily accompanies the power to heal. And now we have to discern how to use the tools science provides us.

Levin describes how the embryonic stem cell research debate gave a very pessimistic peek into what could be our biotechnological policy future. Media, politicians, and physicians united in urgent hyperbole as John Edwards toured the country promising that lifting a partial ban on federal funding of human embryonic stem cell research would cause Christopher Reeve to stand up and walk again, and Arlen Specter claimed it held “the potential to conquer … all the maladies we know.” Those raising ethical questions were berated and blamed for the suffering of the sick. So far, we have found that “when the pursuit of health through science and medicine conflicts with even our deepest commitments—to equality, to the protection of the weak, or to responsible self-government—science and medicine typically carry the day.”

I think that last sentence from Levin assumes a very substantial percentage of its conclusions. Specifically: Levin is simply asserting the force of the moral objections of those opposed to such research. He implies that there’s something obvious (if disputable) about the moral status of an embryo that the pressure of the desire to heal overwhelmed. Allow me to tell a somewhat different story, a story according to which most people never seriously thought an embryo was comparable in moral stature to a human being, but for whom the question was generally not a pressing one. The prospect of research that depended on the destruction of human embryos suddenly made the question pressing – and put weight on the contrary side of the ledger. The proposition, “as soon as it’s a zygote, it’s a baby” is, perhaps, easier to assent to casually than once there are costs attached. That doesn’t mean the proposition is wrong – but it does mean that it’s wrong to describe it as one of “our deepest commitments.”

Because here’s the thing: you can’t wish power away. You don’t have to use it – but not using it is a choice in a way that not having it is not. That’s something the advocates of stem-cell research understood that opponents have had a harder time grappling with – which is completely normal and unsurprising. But the stem-cell research debate did not prove that we care “too much” about health. What the stem-cell research debate did was expose the shallowness of our commitment to something abortion opponents thought was fundamental.

Finally, I want to talk about Coppage’s concluding section, about receiving a disabled child as a gift, and how an obsession with the “fitness” of our offspring makes it harder to receive that gift. I think there’s some real truth here – but it’s a broader truth that stretches well beyond the bounds of this particular debate. Power, affluence, security – familiarity with these goods necessarily makes it harder to adjust to their disruption. But that is not a reason to reject power, affluence, or security as goods.

In my last post on this thread, I talked about being tested for Tay-Sachs disease before marriage. Well, it turned out I’m not a carrier, but it didn’t turn out to matter: my wife and I were unsuccessful in our attempts to conceive. After a few years, we decided to adopt. Now, the thing about adoption is that you necessarily have less control than you do when you conceive a child – over the kid’s genes, intra-uterine environment, potentially (depending on whether or not you adopt a newborn) the early childhood environment. But you also have some very direct forms of control. If you suspect this birth mother used narcotics while pregnant – you can politely refuse to pursue that situation. If you hear orphanages in that country have a bad track record in terms of providing an environment that promotes attachment in infants – you can look at other countries. Race, sex, disability – you name it, you have the option to say yes or no, because until you say yes these are not your children and you are not personally responsible for them.

Now: does that mean that exercising this power is wrong? That you should, morally, be indifferent to all of these various factors that will affect your life as a parent, because considering them makes you feel like a shopper? Makes you less-able to accept the child you ultimately wind up with as a gift?

My answer is: no. That is to say: yes, you do feel like a shopper. Yes, that’s kind of an icky feeling. But you just have to deal with it. You have to accept that you do have a choice, and then you have to make a rational choice. Which implies knowing exactly what is really important to you, and what is not as important. If you really are happy with the idea of raising a disabled child, by God, please offer to adopt one – there are plenty waiting for homes. If you really aren’t happy with that prospect, please, don’t adopt one – know yourself well enough to know what you want to take on before you take it on. And then, of course, you may still wind up with the unexpected – and you will need to accept it with grace and love because now the child is yours.

That’s a complicated psychological balancing act – though not as complicated as you might think; the natural process of attachment to an infant really does work wonders at completely erasing all that earlier fretting from your mind. And yes, you could avoid the whole business by foreswearing the power that choice affords. You could not consider adoption at all. Or you could go into adoption as a blind lottery. But I would bet that if society mandated the latter, that more people would opt for the former – to not consider adoption at all. That doesn’t seem to me like an optimal outcome, either for society as a whole or for the children most in need.

I think all of the above applies equally well to the impact of emerging technologies on childbearing. I am much more confident than many New Atlantis readers in the power of natural attachment – notwithstanding the inevitable horrible outliers who will always make headlines, I think the overwhelming majority of parents will always be fiercely attached to their children, however they turn out, and that therefore we just don’t need to fret that much about being unwilling to accept them as gifts once they are here. Having more power, and hence more choices, beforehand can indeed mess with your head – which is why my maxim from my previous piece, “moderation in all things,” still sounds good to me as a starting point.

And moderation is, necessarily, measured against a background of the choices available.

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Somebody’s Gonna Get It: Sean Graney’s Monumental “All Our Tragic”

Erin Barlow and Geoff Button in The Hypocrites' ALL OUR TRAGIC adapted and directed by Sean Graney.
Erin Barlow and Geoff Button in The Hypocrites' ALL OUR TRAGIC adapted and directed by Sean Graney.

Question: what kind of lunatic would stage a twelve-hour marathon mash-up of all thirty-two surviving Greek tragedies?

Answer: my kind of lunatic.

That much shouldn’t surprise any regular reader of this blog. I’ve been a fan of Sean Graney’s Hypocrites for a number of years, because he’s interested in many of the same questions I am. What is theater for? What can it do for us, individually and collectively, that other art forms cannot? How can we make our theatrical heritage live in the present? What could a modern audience experience that would approximate the meaning of theatrical experience for our ancestors?

He’s explored these questions in his radical adaptations of Gilbert and Sullivan, William Shakespeare, and, in his most ambitious efforts, Greek tragedy. Now he has returned to that deepest of wells, and come up with a truly extraordinary work: an attempt to re-create, for contemporary sensibilities, the experience of attending an Athenian theatrical festival.

Graney’s latest, monumental work, All Our Tragic, takes the entire corpus of Greek tragedy as it has come down to us, and re-works it into a single piece of theater that follows something very like the structure of a traditional festival day in Athens. Their days would be filled with three plays of a trilogy, followed by a fourth, satyr play on similar themes. Graney’s play is divided into four parts: the first, centered on the story of Herakles; the second, on the story of Oedipus; the third, on the Trojan War; and the last, on the aftermath of that war, particularly as reflected in the Oresteia.

Various other stories are told alongside these central strands; Euripides’s Medea, Alkestis and Hippolytus all get woven into the Herakles cycle, for example, while Ion gets grafted onto the Oedipus cycle. And some stories appear to have been lost altogether; if The Bacchae showed up, I missed them, and frankly, we’re talking about the Bacchae; if you could possibly miss them, then they can’t really have shown up. But that’s a quibble, because Graney isn’t attempting to stage these tragedies as originally conceived. He’s creating something new out of the stories of the past.

He’s also less interested, this time around, than he has been in past outings in some of the conventions of Greek tragedy. He’s never gone in for masks, but in the past he’s been very interested in the role of the chorus. Not this time: the three “Odd Jobs” who introduce each act and play musical interludes do not function as stand-ins for the community (nor, as in These Seven Sicknesses, as nurses tending to the maimed and wounded victims of universal tragedy). Less bothersome is that there is no deus ex machina; the gods have been pretty thoroughly banished from Graney’s world. But these omissions are in the service of cleanly, directly, and without distraction, telling the new story that Graney wants to tell.

This story goes something like this:

In the beginning, we are children, with childish notions of manhood and womanhood, and the monumental chthonic terrors of childhood. This is the age of monsters – beginning with an army of cyclopses (who recur, later, as zombie cyclopses) who threaten the Seven Sisters, preternaturally youthful women who will go on to marry or mother (or both) many of the male characters. And of heroes – chief among them Herakles (a delightfully understated Walter Briggs), a man-child who carries around a children’s storybook, longing only to earn a place in it, and earn the right to free Prometheus (a wearily skeptical Geoff Button).

Though the events are gruesome – Phedre (a wide-eyed and very funny Christine Stulik) raped by her horned son; Alkestis (a very sexy Lindsay Gavel) transformed into a flesh-eating Gorgon; Herakles’s flesh seared off by his jealous wife, Dejanira (Tien Doman, treading a very difficult line with this brutalized but always cheery character) – the tone is light. The main villain of Part I is an ostentatiously silly necromancer (Maximillian Lapine), and the cyclopses are led by a four-eyed brother doing a Woody Allen impersonation (Ryan Bourque, who also plays a distracted Theseus). Even Medea (a furious Dana Omar) has been reduced to a goth high schooler. The most memorable line of this early section of the play comes from Phedre, after her buddy, Medea, has offered to watch her kid so she can go out with Theseus; Phedre coos to her baby, “I know Medea’s not a good babysitter.”

Even secondary characters with apparently more adult concerns – like Zeke Sulkes’s goat-footed Aegeus (full disclosure: my nephew), who desperately wants a child – articulate them in a fairy-tale tone. It’s a familiar tone to Graney-watchers, but also to the culture at large: from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or the first half of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods. It’s the clever child – or, better yet, soulful sophomore - and part of what’s interesting about the rest of the play is the way in which that tone evolves when Graney comes face to face with material that is decidedly post-high-school.

Part II is called “Politics,” but this isn’t really an accurate description. In the background, we’re aware that while Thebes is mired in perpetual turmoil, Athens has, under Theseus’s leadership, become a democracy – whatever that is supposed to mean, because this play isn’t interested in politics. We remain in Thebes, and in Thebes what present as political problems are really familial: Oedipus’s tangled involvement with his mother; his sons’ rivalry for the throne after his departure; his daughter’s filial commitment to her father and brothers – whereas politics, as we understand it (and, I imagine, as things work somewhere off-stage in Athens) is what you get when you finally transcend these impacted relationships and start relating as neighbors.

This section is the tightest of the four, with the clearest narrative arc – and with many of the strongest performances of the whole marathon. It’s anchored firmly in the Oedipus story, but what’s interesting is that the main arc doesn’t focus on Oedipus (John Taslan) and his relationships with Jocasta (a frantic but still very funny Stulik, who once again gets the best line, “Nothing helps except time. Time – and bleach.”) and Antigone (a coldly fierce Erin Barlow), but on Creon (Sulkes again), who, in Sophocles’s plays, is never the central focus. Creon has been given a romantic backstory with Tiresias (Gavel again, giving a bitter and sadly funny performance that was my favorite of her four offerings), and a step-fatherly relationship with Ion/Haemon (Luce Metrius, also doing some of his most winning work, though occasionally upstaged by his own pet tortoise) that feels like it might satisfy a thirst that never was slaked back when he was playing Aegeus.

Graney’s Creon is quite happy being second banana, and would be happier if he could give up on Thebes entirely and spend time alone with his family. But like Michael Corleone, just when he thinks he’s out they pull him back in, over and over, until he literally has to bury all his hopes, and all his love. It’s a powerful arc, but it’s notable how young Creon seems, even at this point in the narrative where he’s at the end of his story. This is not a world-weary Creon, but a Creon who has just launched upon the uncharted waters of adulthood, and is still reeling from the cost.

That cost is nothing compared to what it takes to launch a thousand ships in Part III, “Patriotics.” This is the Trojan War section of the marathon, and to my mind it is the weakest section of the four. Act 5, the first half of Part III, is largely a re-telling of the story of Iphigenia (Gavel yet again) – in other words, the story of a man, Agamemnon (Briggs again) who murders his daughter because he thinks it is necessary. As I watched this situation play out, I became less and less convinced of the reality of the situation being described – only Tien Doman’s forceful performance as Clytemnestra truly carried me with it.

Part of the problem, I think, is that Graney has let many of the other characters off the hook of difficult emotions. Euripides’s Achilles, like Homer’s, is a furious creature of honor; Graney’s is a perfect gentleman (and, as Metrius plays him, a rather soft-spoken one). Menelaus in the source material is brooding, bitter, vengeful; Graney’s Menelaus (another role played by Bourque) is rather diffident about the whole business, more interested in getting a good cup of tea than in getting his wife back. The common soldiers, meanwhile, whom Agamemnon fears will turn on him if he backs out of the war, are played by the Neo-Titans, a group of thugs-for-hire who also play the cyclopses in Part I and Polynikes’s clownish company of weekend warriors against Thebes in Part II. They are not, in other words, endowed with very much humanity; they are an irrational force for violence unleashed for . . . well, for no particular reason, since the war is no longer about honor.

A related, even more troubling problem, to me, reared its head when Iphigenia declares herself ready for death. She does not, in Graney’s text, choose to face death freely and with honor rather than accept an ignoble death at the hands of the mob. Rather, the sense I got was that she was trying to make things easier on everyone – on Achilles and the Greeks generally, but particularly on her father. That is, needless to say, a very, very troubling place to go, and I didn’t sense that Graney fully cottoned on to how troubling it is. And as I thought more and more, I realized that she is not the only willing victim among Graney’s tragic women. His Phedre, in part I, dies readily at the hands of her monstrous son. His Antigone, in Part II, played with great steel right up until the end, suddenly, after being buried alive, swerves to comfortable reconciliation with her death, and telling everybody not to worry about her. Even Clytemnestra, in Part IV, welcomes Orestes into her arms, though she knows he comes to kill her.

I found more to latch on to in the second half of Part III, where the story of Achilles’s son, Neoptolemus (Sulkes yet again) and the marooned Philoktetes (a world-weary Danny Goodman), comes to the fore; when Troy gets sacked, and we meet Stulik’s truly terrifying Cassandra, the knitting prophetess. But we’re still left with an Agamemnon who is ready to murder his daughter to get elected president of Athens, or some such. I didn’t feel any pity or terror at his choice. I just thought: well, that’s obviously evil. And looked forward to his bath.

Part IV, “Poetics,” focuses on the Oresteia, and to the extent that it does it is marred from the start by the unresolved understanding of Agamemnon’s primal crime. Graney had more success, I think, when he tackled this story from Elektra’s perspective, as he did in These Seven Sicknesses, his adaptation of all of Sophocles. Now Clytemnestra and Orestes (Button again) come to the fore. Graney avoids directly confronting Agamemnon’s crime, and instead makes Cassandra’s appearance the focus of Clytemnestra’s ultimate ire (a repeat of the earlier scene between Dejanira and Herakles). And poor Orestes he just really wants to give a hug to, and the only one available to provide it is the ghost of his mother.

But while the center of Part IV is flawed, the periphery fairly bursts with energy and life. A marooned Menelaus’s encounter with a second Helen, and consequent need to decide whether the woman so many died for is really his wife or an evil sorceress, suddenly becomes a charged, manically dangerous figure. And Helen herself (Emily Casey, absolutely perfect as a self-described “sexy kindergarten teacher”) deepens from a spoiled trophy bride to something altogether more horrifying. But the most inspired innovation is for Neoptolemus to open a theme park on the ruins of Troy, there to reenact the war for spectators – and, in private, to reenact his own ultimate crime of killing his captive, Polyxena (Barlow again). This is a potent synecdoche for Graney’s entire enterprise, as well as exceptionally bitter comedy when we see Neoptolemus as an adult (he’s put on quite a bit of weight, and a ridiculous mustache, and seems the buffoon, but when we see the reenactment, he’s deadly serious).

And it’s also a very plausible destination for that journey to adulthood that this day of theater describes: from childhood monsters and dreams of glory; through the painful assumption of adult responsibilities, including the responsibility to cause pain to those you love; on to a contest with other adults in which what you should hold most dear is often sacrificed to ephemeral goods like honor and status; and finally, to reflection on that fact, and the creation of art ostensibly to pass on the lessons learned, but really because we cannot escape these traumas, that we have suffered and that we have inflicted. We can only choose whether to repeat them in life, or on the stage.

I don’t know whether that’s what the Greeks thought tragedy was for, but I don’t care. It’s a vision for our times, and in Graney’s hands, and that of his extraordinarily talented and committed cast and crew, it has beautiful clarity, boundless energy, and all the pity and terror that tragedy is supposed to inspire.

All Our Tragic is gone for now, but it’s coming back to Chicago in the summer of 2015. Watch for it!

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Abortion and the Eugenics Bogeyman

Before my wife and I married, we both got tested to see whether we were carriers of the gene that causes Tay-Sachs disease. Why? Because if we were both carriers, and went on to have children, and our children got two copies of the gene, they’d suffer from a gruesome disease that would cause them great pain and likely kill them in their youth. And we didn’t want that. What parent would?

Had we both tested positive, we could have chosen not to marry; or to marry but not to have children; or to marry and adopt children; or to marry and have children using either donor sperm or donor eggs; or we could have taken our chances and aborted any children who tested as having the disease. Those would all be ways of preventing what we didn’t want to happen: having children who suffered from Tay-Sachs.

You might object to some or all of those choices on one or another ground. Perhaps you believe abortion is fundamentally wrong because it is intentional killing of a human being. Perhaps you believe egg and/or sperm donation is wrong because it formally separates biological parenthood from the intentional parenthood. Perhaps you believe adoption is wrong because it alienates the child from their “true” parents, scarring them for life. Perhaps you believe that a life without children is essentially empty, or that there is a biblical commandment to at least attempt to have two children minimum. Perhaps you believe love should conquer all; that if you love somebody, it’s just wrong not to marry them because of some practicality like the fact that you’re both Tay-Sachs carriers.

But do you object to any of these choices because the decision would be based on “eugenics”? Because if you object to any of them for that reason, you would logically have to object to all of them. Because that is what they have in common: they are all ways of making sure that our children won’t be born with a genetic disease.

Is there anyone out there who objects to every one of those possible decisions? Whose view is that we should make decisions about who we marry, and whether we have children, entirely without regard to the likely genetic health of the children thus engendered?

Color me doubtful.

A great deal of what once passed for eugenic “thought” is either nonsense racist pseudoscience or at best highly questionable. But if eugenics means wanting the next generation to have “better” genes, surely one of the few axes of “better” we can agree on is “healthier.” As in, not being born with a painful terminal disease. And it’s very hard for me to see the fundamental moral objection to that as such.

This is all prompted by Michael Brendan Dougherty’s worries about the persistence of eugenic thought in American life, the primary evidence for which that he presents is the very high rate at which women abort when they discover they are carrying a child with Down Syndrome. Now, I’ve known a handful of people with Down Syndrome, and every one of them, even the lowest-functioning one, has been pleasant to know. None seemed to me to be living a life characterized fundamentally by great suffering; they are not analogous to kids who suffer from Tay-Sachs. But I’ve also known some of their parents, and so I’m aware of how much work it is being a parent of a child with Down Syndrome, how much being such a parent comes to define your life. So I’m pretty sure that on some level Dougherty is right. Many parents don’t want to have kids with Down Syndrome because those kids will take a lot of their resources—time, energy, money—that they would rather devote to other things (likely including their other children).

That may not be the most noble motive in the world—but neither is it ignoble. If a father gave up his gambling habit in order to preserve more resources for his children’s education, or for his own retirement, we’d consider that highly praiseworthy—even if we considered gambling as such to be a morally neutral activity. Preserving resources for more worthwhile endeavors is good. The reason Dougherty is disturbed is that, in his view, a fetus with Down Syndrome is already an endeavor with equal worth of any child, and aborting it is categorically wrong.

So here’s my question to Dougherty: assume that Down Syndrome worked like Tay-Sachs, meaning that you could avoid having a child with the condition by pre-marital screening. Would Dougherty oppose such screening? If so, why?

Or, here’s another one: late childbearing significantly increases the risks of your children having Down Syndrome (which is why Down Syndrome births are up in spite of the high abortion rate). Would Dougherty say it’s wrong to take that fact into consideration when deciding at what age to start having children (and at what age to stop)? Would he say it’s wrong for public health authorities to let people know about that fact, and to encourage (via informational campaigns, not physical or financial coercion) women to have children somewhat earlier?

Now, I should pause here and make it clear that I’m aware that the contours of “healthier” are not objective and universally agreed upon. Is it ok to want your children not to be deaf? Not to be gay? Not to be left-handed, or to have a merely average IQ, or to be lousy at tennis? Follow the logic I’ve been following above to its logical conclusion, and you can wind up defending the idea that it’s ok to want to design a perfect child, and to accept nothing less. But just because that end of the spectrum strikes me as absurd, that doesn’t mean that the other end of the spectrum—the one where, for fear of the eugenic bogeyman, we actively ignore information that could prevent horrible and completely preventable pain and suffering—isn’t also absurd. There’s a time to plan for the future and a time to accept whatever the future brings, and moderation in all things is still a pretty good maxim.

My own view is that eugenic motivations aren’t suspect as such, but perfectly normal. They just need to be tempered with a whole lot of humility, the recognition that the fantasy of total control is and always will be just that—a fantasy—and the consciousness that if we can’t imagine the joy of the inner life of someone different from us (someone with Down Syndrome, someone deaf, someone gay, someone who sucks at tennis), that’s our problem, not an objective sign of their deficiency. And coercion in a matter as intimate as childbearing should have to clear a very high bar for justification—and I can’t imagine eugenic motivations ever legitimately clearing that bar. Bearing all that in mind, I don’t see what’s wrong with wanting to have the healthiest children we can, and doing what we can to get what we want. Including thinking about their genes.

Dougherty’s fundamental objection, as I read him, isn’t to eugenics but to abortion as such. Inasmuch as he objects to eugenic motivations, it’s because he worries that by definition any thinking about “better” children makes life into something instrumental, a product, and thereby makes abortion more acceptable. But I don’t think that’s a sustainable view; it makes perfectly normal planning for the future seem corrupt and wrong. Everybody wants their kids to be healthier, including being born healthier. There’s nothing wrong with trying to ensure that—unless there’s something wrong with what you are doing to ensure it, or unless you take your standards of what constitutes “health” to unreasonable extremes.

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This Thing Of Darkness I Acknowledge Mine

A couple of years ago, at this time of year, I wrote a piece in this space about the scapegoat ritual (the climax of the biblical observance of the Day of Atonement). I’m still quite pleased with the piece (and I’m comfortable with that self-satisfaction because I can’t take actually take credit for the central idea). But I’m not in the same place this year. This year, I’ve been meditating on something else I wrote about atonement, a piece I wrote a decade ago:

It is said of the four who entered the Garden, and gazed: one died; one went mad; one became apostate; and one departed in peace. But what did they see?

At the entrance to the Garden stands an angel, and he brandishes a whirling, flaming sword. For what purpose does he wield this sword?

For our righteous deeds, we are promised a share in the world to come. But for our transgressions, we are punished in the world to come. How can this be? For who among us is wholly righteous?

Some have said that when righteousness outweighs villainy, he merits a share, but when it is less, he is judged wanting. But can the man who steals from the orphan atone by giving to the widow?

The dead approach the Garden, housed in the body of their life, their deeds made flesh, and face the angel and the sword. And with a burning stroke, he cuts out the blemishes of their transgressions, and leaves their flesh gaping. For we are told, that none with a blemish may approach the Lord (Leviticus 21:23), and none with a blemish may be offered (Leviticus 22:20).

But their flesh gapes, for there is no Experience in the Garden, no way for souls to heal the gashes made by holy flame.

And this, perhaps, is what the four saw there: the maimed and crippled souls stumbling in Paradise.

The tongues that gossiped, the lips that spoke falsely, the eyes that coveted – cut out.

The hands that struck in anger, the fingers that stole, the legs that ran to do evil – lopped off.

And the poor souls who huddled in the dark, who buried themselves in their caves, so fearful of evil that they hesitated to do good; pale souls who pass almost unnoticed through the byways of the Garden, they live in the poor houses that their deeds built while they lived.

One in four? There is not one in a thousand who would not die, go mad, or lose his faith, gazing on the cauterized stumps of the saved.

I called it a “parable of teshuvah (repentance),” and reading it now, it sounds like a horror story. What I’ve been brooding on is that, at the time, I thought: ooh, that’s good! That’s serious stuff – but inspiring! And I tacked on to the end of the piece an exhortation: don’t wait until you enter the Garden! Take up your own flaming sword, and cut out your sins while you are still alive – so that the wounds you make by cutting have time to heal, and you may enter the Garden whole. I wished only that I would have the fortitude to take my own advice, and cut out those parts of my soul that were unworthy of the Divine presence.

Now, that is a horror story. That gives me nightmares.

To be fair, I’ve had nightmares of accidentally slicing off fingers and such for as long as I can remember – that’s probably where I got the imagery for the parable in the first place. But what mental place was I in, a decade ago, that I wished I could maim myself, in order to make myself whole? It’s a pretty gruesome metaphor to have embraced.

I don’t embrace it any longer. But refusing to embrace it has made for a rather fallow season of repentance this year.

After Rosh Hashanah, there’s a custom to go down to a body of water and toss bread in while reciting Psalms. (Well, some strictly Orthodox Jews don’t actually throw bread, because throwing bread could be construed as feeding the ducks, which would be work, or wasting bread, which would be a sin in its own right, but let’s not go there). You’re symbolically casting your sins out, throwing away what you want to get rid of. But by what process can these things be alienated from you, that you can throw them away to be eaten by a duck, and then be gone from you forever?

It’s too easy, I have come to feel, to make oneself believe that one has rid oneself of habits, needs, qualities that you wish you didn’t have. To say: I will reject envy, anger, lust – whatever your particular deadlies happen to be (or their modern psychological equivalents; it doesn’t really matter). To will them gone, cut them out, cast them upon the waters. In my experience, they are something else you will find again after many days.

I am more drawn, this season of repentance, to the wisdom at the end of Ursula Le Guin’s classic, A Wizard of Earthsea. Ged, the hero of the novel, has spent much of the book fleeing from a mysterious black creature, released by him when he toyed with a spell beyond his ability. The creature has hunted him all across the world, and Ged’s only hope of controlling it would require learning its true name, which he has sought, in vain, for years.

But when finally he comes face to face with the thing of darkness, he knows its name.

Ged.

I’d like to be able to call my own darkness by its true name, that is to say, my own. But I can’t quite do that. Not this year, anyway.

So: no embracing the dark doppelgänger, but no cutting him out with a flaming sword either. This year, as I stood on the bridge over the Gowanus Canal, feeding the mutant three-headed ducks that live in its polluted waters, I simply asked for patience.

And my son looked at me.

“Patience?” he scoffed. “You? That’ll last about three minutes.”

Which was, unfortunately, about right.

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New Year Off to a Good Start: Writer Troubles Edition

I was AWOL last week because of a trip to Chicago, followed by preparing for the Jewish New Year, followed by the thing itself. Last night I thought I’d get back in the swing, though, and start making up for lost time. Start the new year on the right foot and all that.

Instead, I spilled bourbon all over my keyboard.

I expect to spend a chunk of today at the Apple Store. Apologies.

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Human, Not Alien To Me: A Brechtian Trio at Stratford

Seana McKenna (background) as Mother Courage and Carmen Grant (centre) as Kattrin with members of the company in Mother Courage and Her Children. Photo by David Hou.
Seana McKenna (background) as Mother Courage and Carmen Grant (centre) as Kattrin with members of the company in Mother Courage and Her Children. Photo by David Hou.

Bertolt Brecht‘s best-known, possibly least-understood, certainly least-faithfully-implemented “big idea” was the Verfremdungseffekt, usually translated as “alienation effect” or “defamiliarization effect.” I count myself among those who at best imperfectly understand what Brecht was getting at – but inasmuch as I do, it’s that I understand what he was fighting against and not that I know exactly what he was aiming for.

What he was fighting against was catharsis, Aristotle’s theatrical “big idea.” (Or perhaps more properly, Sophocles’s, since Aristotle’s theory is based substantially on his understanding of what Sophocles was up to.) For Aristotle, the function of tragedy was the purging of the audience’s souls of dangerous passions through the vicarious experience of pity and fear. But of course, for Aristotle (and for latter-day followers like – I would argue – Freud) tragedy was a feature of life, something we have to learn to live with. For Brecht, on the other hand, theater aimed not at a healthy accommodation to reality, but at raising the consciousness of the audience so that reality could be changed. And tragedy was, generally speaking, not a feature of existence but a consequence of human beings being crushed by social forces that are – theoretically at least – subject to human control.

The aim of defamiliarization, then, was to short-circuit easy identification with the characters and action on stage. Direct address to the audience, songs that broke up rather than advancing the action, actors leaving character to comment on the action – all of these techniques are intended to stop the audience from feeling that it was being taken on an emotional journey with a “satisfying” destination, and instead focus their consciousness on the social cause of the events taking place, and leave them dissatisfied. The point was not to dull the emotional response but to turn pity and fear into anger – but wise anger, anger focused on the proper target.

The techniques described were not invented by Brecht. Shakespeare, for example, used all of them at one point or another. Direct address to the audience was common in Elizabethan theater, and no playwright used soliloquy more variously or with greater complexity than Shakespeare did. Anticipations of Brecht are not hard to find throughout the canon - Macbeth‘s porter; the minstrel, Autolycus, from The Winter’s Tale; pretty much the entirety of Troilus and Cressida. Rosalind, Puck and Prospero all break character at the end to acknowledge that we have been watching a play, and even Bottom’s character-breaking interjection to Theseus -

No, in truth, sir, he should not. ‘Deceiving me’
is Thisby’s cue: she is to enter now, and I am to
spy her through the wall. You shall see, it will
fall pat as I told you.

- is a comic “defamiliarization” of drama; how can we experience catharsis in King Lear once we recall that “Howl, howl, howl, howl!” also comes on cue?

Brecht’s plays, meanwhile, don’t always achieve the effect he describes, even when they are played with some fidelity to his theories. I attended an astonishing and invigorating production of The Good Person of Szechuan at the Public Theater last year that, among other things, did a brilliant job of marrying Brecht’s distancing to conventions out of drag performance. But I certainly experienced an emotional journey. I didn’t leave the theater ready to smash the capitalists. I found the play, well, cathartic.

So perhaps it is not so paradoxical when I say that, though Stratford’s Tom Paterson Theatre is having a very Brechtian season this year, the least-Brechtian show of the three currently playing is the one Brecht himself wrote.

*          *          *

That play is Mother Courage and Her Children, which, I’m embarrassed to say, I’d never actually seen before, only read. From reading it, it struck me that it would be difficult to do a properly Brechtian production. How can you see Mother Courage viewing the body of her bullet-ridden Swiss Cheese, or the mute Kattrin banging on her drum, and not be moved – to pity and fear. It reads as a play about survival in extremis, an anatomization of human beings under the pressure of endless war, and the personal toll that struggle to survive takes on them. You can imagine it having been written by Primo Levi.

It feels like director Martha Henry agrees, because she plays the drama very straight, as the story of a bunch of people with whom we are emphatically supposed to identify. And to a person the cast makes that identification easy. E. B. Smith’s Eilif is more eager to please than I imagined him, and hence more sweet – he’s not a thug who found his proper metier in war, but just a big, strong guy who adapts to circumstances. Antoine Yared’s Swiss Cheese is less dim than deeply conscientious. Geraint Wyn Davies has a grand old time as the randy Cook; you can hardly find it in your heart to hold against him all the wrongs he did Deidre Gillard-Rowlings’s nimble Yvette. And Ben Carlson does a solid turn as the cowardly, critical Chaplain.

The heart of the play, meanwhile, is the relationship between Mother and daughter, and that heart beats fiercely. Seanna McKenna and Carmen Grant are really ideally cast for their respective roles; McKenna in particular gives an effortlessly modulated performance, while Grant’s every move has the painful transparency that is the soul of Kattrin. It’s a pair of performances, and a production, that pulls at our heart strings just the right amount to actually make us tear up, not so much as to feel like we’re being manipulated. Exactly the opposite, in other words, of what Brecht claimed to want.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. But there was something missing from the play, and I think it comes down to that word that Brecht used to describe his theater: epic. Though it ranges across battle-scarred Europe over years and years of war, the play felt distinctly small. I never felt the proximity of the war, never smelled the cannon. The stage is spare and remarkably neat and clean. Even the mythic cart seems small; I feel like Tevye pulled a heavier load in last year’s production of Fiddler.

Some of this is in the nature of this particular stage – but not all of it. Last year’s Mary Stuart was staged in the same space, and a very simple concept – ringing the stage in barbed wire – brought home an essential quality of the drama in a visceral way. It felt like this production didn’t have any real view on what that essential quality might be, where its viscera might still be bleeding.

I found myself thinking about another, very Brechtian war play, of more recent vintage: Black Watch, about the deployment of the Scottish regiment to the area around Fallujah in 2004. That play didn’t stint on bringing home the individual stories of these soldiers. But its anger was visible, and genuine, and infectious. Mother Courage and Her Children is set during the Thirty Years’ War, proportionately the bloodiest European conflict of the last 500 years, a war fought on all sides under the banner of God, but with the omnivorous ferocity of hellhounds. That’s the monster that devours Mother Courage’s children, even as it provides her her livelihood. That’s the kind of scope the play needs, to really hit home.

Perhaps, instead of performing it into English, Stratford should have translated it into Arabic.

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Antony and Cleopatra is usually thought of as one of Shakespeare’s great love stories – a doomed, tragic love, like Romeo and Juliet’s, or Othello and Desdemona’s, but, like them, an authentic love that is supposed to inspire us to, yes, pity and terror. We want to be swept up with Antony’s rapture, to feel just why he can’t let go of his Egyptian love, even though, when Roman thoughts strike him, he knows he should. Maybe if we experience such a dangerous love vicariously, we’ll cathartically slake the thirst to find it in reality.

The thing is, the play knows better. Those Roman thoughts are mistaken. In Act II Scene 3, the Soothsayer and Antony engage in this dialogue, right after Antony has made his marriage to Octavia, Octavius’s sister, so as to mend the growing rift in the triumvirate:

Mark Antony
Now, sirrah; you do wish yourself in Egypt?

Soothsayer
Would I had never come from thence, nor you Thither!

Mark Antony
If you can, your reason?

Soothsayer
I see it in
My motion, have it not in my tongue: but yet
Hie you to Egypt again.

Mark Antony
Say to me,
Whose fortunes shall rise higher, Caesar’s or mine?

Soothsayer
Caesar’s.
Therefore, O Antony, stay not by his side:
Thy demon, that’s thy spirit which keeps thee, is
Noble, courageous high, unmatchable,
Where Caesar’s is not; but, near him, thy angel
Becomes a fear, as being o’erpower’d: therefore
Make space enough between you.

Mark Antony
Speak this no more.

Soothsayer
To none but thee; no more, but when to thee.
If thou dost play with him at any game,
Thou art sure to lose; and, of that natural luck,
He beats thee ‘gainst the odds: thy lustre thickens,
When he shines by: I say again, thy spirit
Is all afraid to govern thee near him;
But, he away, ’tis noble.

Mark Antony
Get thee gone:
Say to Ventidius I would speak with him:

Exit Soothsayer

He shall to Parthia. Be it art or hap,
He hath spoken true: the very dice obey him;
And in our sports my better cunning faints
Under his chance: if we draw lots, he speeds;
His cocks do win the battle still of mine,
When it is all to nought; and his quails ever
Beat mine, inhoop’d, at odds. I will to Egypt:
And though I make this marriage for my peace,
I’ the east my pleasure lies.

The Soothsayer has already predicted (whether by hap or art) the futures of Cleopatra’s waiting women, and though we don’t know their fortunes yet, by the end of the play we know he was a true prophet. Antony’s star is fading. Octavius will be lord of the world. The only question is how Antony will respond to this inevitable turn of fortune.

Antony thinks his is a story about a man losing his manhood, his power, his very sense of self, because he has fallen under the spell of a particularly desirable woman. That’s what Enobarbus thinks as well. The other Romans hope that Octavia will “settle the heart” of the hard-partying Antony, and Enobarbus thinks he knows better, but they’ve all got it wrong, and the Egyptians have it right. This is not a story about a man losing himself because he has fallen for a woman. This is a story about a man who falls for a woman because he is terrified that he’s losing himself – that he’s growing old, being surpassed by a younger man who isn’t a patch on him as a soldier or a lover, but who has the grace of fortune, and will rise inevitably as he falls.

It’s Cleopatra who’s desperately in love, and who truly throws it all away for love. The Soothsayer did not say her spirit quaked before Caesar. Her peace with Octavius was secure, before she threw her lot in with his rival triumvir – and if she would only throw him over she could live secure again. She knows that Antony is holding a losing hand. Perhaps that’s why she tries to save her navy. She’s genuinely surprised when he follows her, disastrously – perhaps she really thought he was a Roman, still and all. When I read Act III Scene 13, I read a woman, a queen, realizing belatedly just how far gone her lover is – how far from fortune’s favor, how captive not to her but to phantom gestures of chivalry – and trying to figure out what to do. How to survive. How, if possible, to save him. How to buck him up, help him be himself in death if he cannot be saved. She’s more like Mother Courage than we knew, he more like one of her poor, hopeless children.

It is a great love story, one of the greatest. Just not the one that Antony thinks it is.

But what if the love story doesn’t really play? What’s left then?

Well, if you want to know, you can check out Stratford’s current production, which has many virtues but, if not a lump of lead as cold as steel, then a hollowness, not where a woman’s heart should be, but where Antony’s should. Geraint Wyn Davies would seem, on paper, to be perfect for the role: charismatic, sexually potent, fleshy, both a man’s man and a ladies’ man – and at just the right age to seize the part by the testicles. And he’s worked wonderfully well with his Cleopatra, Yanna McIntosh, before. But his performance suggests a man who’s cut just a little too close by precisely the themes I harped on above, and an actor trying very hard not to see just who he’s actually playing. There’s an air of distraction about him; he doesn’t seem really to be feeling either the sting of his defeats or the desperation of his passions. He’s strongest in the early Roman scenes, deploying his contempt for Caesar along with his charm, and in the scene where Enobarbus, who has just left his service, receives his share of the camp’s treasure – but in that scene he’s not really himself, but Enobarbus’s noble image of his once-great master. And that, I think, is telling.

So what happens as a result? What does this absence do to the play? Well, Antony and Cleopatra can read as a very cold, even Brechtian look at how politics works in a world where there is no natural order, no proper right to rule. The two competing principles, then, are love and interest. The cold and calculating Octavius, played by Ben Carlson with his trademark dyspeptic rectitude, stands for interest. He’s not much of a general; he inspires no natural loyalty. But he’s run the numbers; he has the votes; he knows he’s going to win. He’d like to win at the lowest possible cost. But his pursuit of Antony is ultimately nothing personal, not even with his sister (a sincerely sweet Carmen Grant) in the middle. It’s just business.

Antony, meanwhile, is the brilliant soldier, the man of chivalry, who inspires an instinctive loyalty in his followers. They follow him for love of him. And so they can’t, on some level, fault him for following Cleopatra in his love of her (though, as I say above, I think Antony is a bit deluded about what’s really going on in that relationship).

Between the two stands Enobarbus, the Brechtian alienation figure, played by the incomparable Tom McCamus with a perfect autumnal rue. He’s our cynical voice of reason, who sees through the drama to the forces beneath, and tells the audience the truth about what they are seeing. He’s a marvelous character, and can seize control of almost any production, but in this production he is exceptionally prominent. We agree with his choice when he leaves Antony. And we want to die with him not because this Antony really deserved his love to the end, but because leaving meant renouncing love as such. And who wants to live in a world where that’s the only sane course?

And what about Cleopatra herself? Notwithstanding her lover’s distraction, I was grabbed by McIntosh’s Egyptian queen – but primarily by the quality of her regal mind. Her passion burned stronger in her anger than in her ardor, but more powerful than both was the sense I got that she understood the drama she was in, that she was observing her own emotions along with everybody else’s. I owe a good deal of my understanding of the play as articulated above to her performance.

And I give her the credit, because she is helped very little by her larger surroundings. By which I don’t mean to say the cast, which is excellent down to the minor roles, but the design and direction. The Egypt conjured up by director Gary Griffin and designer Charlotte Dean is a compendium of cliches. It doesn’t feel ill-thought so much as not thought at all. McIntosh and her attendants slink winningly in their peek-a-boo sheathes, but it’s an exceptionally stale exoticism that they’re pitching. One would be hard-pressed on any stage, much less the narrow runway of the Paterson, actually to show the Egypt of Enobarbus’s rapturous description – that’s part of the point of his speech. But we shouldn’t be conscious of such a yawning chasm between what we’re told and what we see; we need the right visual hints to carry our imagination to the full heights of wonder that Shakespeare’s language evokes.

This problem – the lack of a sense of wonder – is a problem throughout, but never more so than in the climactic death scenes. Antony is hoisted not up to a tower, but onto a bare, nondescript platform. It’s a serious anti-climax, and having attendants carry him as though he were crucified does not improve the situation, either visually or poetically.

When Caesar finally arrives, and bears perfunctory witness to the passing of greatness, there’s supposed to be an air of “oh, well; that didn’t work out the way I hoped, but at least it’s done. Now down to business.”

But I don’t think I’m supposed to agree with him.

*          *          *

The most compelling of the three Brechtian dramas on this year’s program is the least-familiar, at least to me – so perhaps it required the least defamiliarization. King John is one of Shakespeare’s relatively early plays, believed to have been written after familiar early plays like Richard III, Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but before he launched on a deepening period that ran from The Merchant of Venice through to his breakthrough tragedy, Hamlet. It’s yet another play about war, politics and business, and yet another with something of an enigma at its heart. And it’s yet another play with a key character who performs an alienation function: Philip the Bastard.

Philip, played zestily by Graham Abbey, is a very different sort of bastard than King Lear‘s Edmund. Where Edmund calls on his natural god to “stand up for bastards,” Philip begins the play protesting his legitimacy to defend his inheritance against his younger brother’s claim. But everybody on stage – including Philip himself – seriously questions that kinship, and when the King (Tom McCamus) and his mother, Queen Eleanor (Patricia Collins), recognize the resemblance to the late King Richard, they make him an offer Philip has no desire to refuse: proclaim his own bastardy, and they will avouch his Plantagenet blood and join him to their court.

Philip is a Brechtian alienation character par excellence, speaking directly to the audience and commenting on the action. And the action, at least in the first half, is Brecht-worthy  scabrous comedy. John, you see, is at war with France over his title; the King of France (Peter Hutt) is sheltering a pretender to the throne, the teenaged Arthur (a precocious Noah Jalava, who I expect we’ll be hearing from in the future), and the two Plantagenets square off before the town of Angiers to dispute the question. Or, rather, their mothers do; Seana McKenna, playing Arthur’s mother, Constance, like Mama Rose at an audition, and Collins, playing the Queen Mother as an elderly coquette – Kate Hepburn’s Eleanor of Aquitaine from “The Lion in Winter” crossed with Aunt Alicia in “Gigi” – so thoroughly and hilariously overbear their sons that I’m not sure I’ll be able to take Coriolanus seriously ever again.

Alternating with the cat fight, the two armies go at each other, inconclusively except for the poor sods on both sides who are slaughtered. The mayor of the town won’t let either of the claimants to the throne in until one has proven victorious, so the two Kings decide to join forces and make war on the town instead – at which point the mayor comes up with a perfect, and thoroughly dishonorable, compromise that costs John’s heirs a bit of their kingdom and Arthur and Constance the whole gamble. To my mind, nothing in Mother Courage is quite so effective as this comprehensively cynical crew.

From that point, the plot gets a bit twisty and unsatisfying. John makes a stab at playing Richard III after all, ordering his teenage rival murdered, but he doesn’t really have the stomach for that level of villainy, and has a quite picturesque nervous breakdown on stage when he thinks the order has been carried out. Which, it turns out, it hasn’t – which news sparks a remarkably swift recovery, until we learn that Arthur is dead anyway, from a botched escape attempt or a successful suicide, depending on how you read the scene. John has troubles retaining the loyalty of the nobility, who can’t believe he isn’t implicated in Arthur’s death, but nothing a bit of luck and base bribery can’t bring to amends. And then he dies, still an enigma, to us and, perhaps, to himself.

The play, ultimately, feels like a portrait of a leader utterly lacking in charisma. John isn’t Richard II; he isn’t stupid, or vain. He’s not Richard III; he isn’t deeply evil, or a master of manipulation. He isn’t Henry V either, the charismatic machiavel. He’s weak but clever, unpopular but willing to buy loyalty. He earns our grudging respect, ultimately, by proving clever enough to convince everyone else that he just isn’t worth toppling. John Boehner might well tear up in recognition.

The production, meanwhile, is the only one of the three that really suits the space. It makes the most of its Elizabethan costumes and the other trappings of original practices favored by the director, Tim Carroll (you can read my larger thoughts on this approach to Shakespeare here). And, again in keeping with that approach, doesn’t fuss much about set. And there’s no need to: the language moves us along vigorously, bringing us in close when we need to be, conjuring the vasty fields of France or the confines of a cell when either is called for.

Of the three Paterson plays, it’s also the one I’ve meditated on the most since seeing it. And what I’ve reflected on most is the friendship between Philip the Bastard and King John – and I don’t think that’s the wrong word to use. After the battle before Angiers, and its ignominious aftermath, Philip the Bastard learns a thing or to about politics, and the low behavior of these high-borns whom he longed to join – and he then teaches us. He has no illusions about this world he’s joined, or the King he’s bound to. King John isn’t much like the fabled Coeur de Leon, Philip’s biological father. He’s a shifty, changeable schemer, with a fragile claim on the throne to boot. Philip the Bastard represents, on one level, everything he isn’t: he’s a natural man and a natural leader, one who eagerly spoils for a fight, makes decisions quickly and sticks to them once made. In another play, this would breed a species of contempt. But the two of them share a remarkable bond. The King obviously likes him the moment he meets him – and the feeling, notwithstanding the fairly pathetic displays that his Highness indulges in later on, remains mutual to the end.

And, in the midst of so much cynicism, there’s something restorative, if not cathartic, about that.

Mother Courage and Her Children, Antony and Cleopatra and King John play in repertory at the Paterson Theatre of the Stratford Festival through September 28th.

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Dream Country

A Midsummer Night's Dream: A Chamber Play - On The Run 2014

Every life is in many days, day after day. We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love. But always meeting ourselves.

- James Joyce, Ulysses

The Stratford Festival doesn’t usually mount more than one production of a given play in the same season. I was going to say that this year has been an exception – but not really. Because, while there are two productions called A Midsummer Night’s Dream currently on stage at Stratford, the second, subtitled, “A Chamber Play,” is really another play entirely, albeit one that uses Shakespeare’s text as its basis and starting point.

Created and directed by Peter Sellars, this Dream, like Chris Abraham’s, recognizes that this is a play that needs to be “made new” in order for us to really hear it and see it again. Abraham’s departures are all intended to restore to Dream the spirit of love, to make us care, once again, about the fate of young lovers seeking their destined partners. Sellars’s method is far more radical. His aim, it seemed to me, was not to remind us what it’s like to care about these jejune young lovers, but to see how much the play, and its language, can mean once the lovers are no longer so young, in years or in experience.

Sellars has cut the play radically it so that four actors can play all the roles. Actually, that’s not right: Sellars has created four roles, each encompassing several parts from Shakespeare’s play. It’s not that the actors move in and out of characters, as in the Fiasco Theater production of Cymbeline. Rather, the characters display different sides of themselves by way of different characters in Shakespeare’s comedy. Some of these feel closer to their “social” personae, while others feel like deeper archetypes, erupting as a consequence of the pressures of the claustrophobic quadrangle that plays out on stage. The result is closer to Bergman than to Shakespeare, and absolutely riveting.

The story, as I understood it, is something like this. Some time before the beginning of the play, there were two couples. Helena/Puck/Hippolyta/Thisbe (Sarah Afful) and Demetrius/Bottom/Theseus/Pyramus (Dion Johnstone) are one couple. Hermia/Titania/Wall/Lion (Trish Lindstrom) and Lysander/Oberon/Moonshine (Mike Nadajewski) are the other. But these “proper” pairings have broken; Johnstone’s character and Lindstrom’s are having an affair, and Afful and Nadajewski, devastated, assay a variety of responses: pleading, raging, threatening, manipulating, even seeing if they can make a go of it as an alternative couple (they can’t). They must play the hand out fully, inhabiting their various roles, finding their various ways back to their proper selves and their truest, deepest loves, before they can reach reconciliation and forgiveness, as individuals, as couples, and as a quartet now bound together by something more than mere friendship.

What springs the recombination? Johnstone’s character is the Proteus of the group; he’s terrified of being defined. Ordered to play Pyramus, a lover, he would rather be the tyrant – or a ravenous lion – anything but the lover, which he plays only under duress. Whether it is Afful’s aching need that drives him away, or whether that gets the causality of her longing reversed, we don’t know – but his is a flight from commitment that is ultimately a flight from himself. Lindstrom’s character, on the other hand, has suffered some kind of terrible loss, involving a child (the changeling boy). Infertility, miscarriage, abortion, the loss of a born child – we don’t know what happened, needless to say, but it has left her numb, around a core of confined rage – a Lion surrounded by a Wall. Nadajewski’s dominant response is bitter, sarcastic and controlling.

The lovers journey passes through a much darker wood than the one Shakespeare placed outside Athens, one more than a little reminiscent of Sondheim’s; “Last Midnight” could easily serve as the theme song of this belated walpurgisnacht. I also heard an echo of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, particularly given the prominence of the missing child in Lindstrom’s character’s psychology, but more generally for the sense that the use of Shakespeare’s language is the most elaborate party game George and Martha have come up with yet.

And the great delight of the play is hearing just what a fecund game that is. The most surprising and heart-warming moments are the ones where Shakespeare’s comic scenes are suffused with deep emotion. Oberon’s observation of Titania with Bottom often reads to me as quite ugly – his latter pity irretrievably tainted by the fact that he has “won” the child by trickery. But in this play, he and Puck observe their partners entwined in love with each other, and his pity is the spirit of true forgiveness, a man seeing that the healing his lover needs (and therefore the only way he’ll ever get that child) can only come in the arms of another. Or later, when he has taken the form of Moonshine, and proclaims to his once and future love: “All that I have to say is to tell you that the lanthorn is the moon; I, the man in the moon; this thornbush, my thornbush; and this dog, my dog.” If you don’t cry at that, you are more Wall than she.

The juxtapositions created by cramming these particular characters together also revealed patterns in Shakespeare’s play that I hadn’t noticed before. I seem to be stuck on Nadajewski’s character, but nonetheless: playing both Lysander and Oberon brings out just how controlling Lysander is in his relationship, a quality one always sees in Oberon but that I’d never focused on in the young lover. Juxtaposing Bottom and Demetrius, meanwhile, gives Demetrius more of a motivation for abandoning Helena for Hermia than mere fickle fancy. The racial politics of the recombination – “Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt” and “Away, you Ethiope!” – are also played very loudly (Johnstone and Afful are both black actors, Lindstrom and Nadajewski both white), and for once to powerful effect (in most Shakespeare productions, I find calling attention to the Bard’s casual color prejudice to be something of a distraction).

As I say, I read a clear, powerful, Bergmanesque story, and I read the performances, both in terms of specific line readings and the integrated characters they were playing, in light of that story. But the performances are uniformly so visceral that even if I hadn’t seen a story, I would have been held by the individual moments. That was my wife’s experience of the play; she didn’t catch much of a story, and talked about the play more as akin to a concept album. And other theater-goers I talked to all saw different plays. So perhaps it’s a bit of a Rorschach blot, reflecting back the stories the audience brings to it.

But then, we always do that at the theater. And we should.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream: a Chamber Play runs at the Stratford Festival’s Masonic Concert Hall venue through September 20th.

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The American Conservative: For Open Eyes, and an Open Mind

illustration by Michael Hogue

When I joined TAC back in 2012, I explained in advance, first to the editor and publisher and then to my prospective readers, that I was “off-side” on a host of issues relative to where TAC‘s readership was. I wanted to be sure that everybody understood what they were getting before I agreed to give it to them.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover that nobody cared.

Nobody cared whether I held the “house” opinion on any particular issue, or whether I would be appropriately deferential to “members of the family.” Nobody even cared that I used the phrase “off-side” in a manner that betrayed comprehensive ignorance of the rules of both association football and cricket. Because they cared about something much more important for the future of American intellectual life.

Journals of opinion are generally founded to advance a backer’s particular intellectual agenda. That agenda may be closely tied to the fortunes of a political party or faction, or it may not, but people generally don’t spend the kind of money it takes to put out a serious magazine, an enterprise that hemorrhages cash in the best of circumstances, unless they have something specific to say.

Well, TAC, when it was founded, did have something specific to say. It was founded in opposition to one of the most colossal blunders in the history of American foreign policy, and in defiance of the determination by the mainstream American Right to expel from its company anyone who voiced that opposition. It was founded by people who, at the time, I thought were wrong about just about everything. But on the most important issue of that time, they were right, when much of the rest of the intellectual class was solidly wrong.

Now, that experience could have led TAC to champion a conservative counter-movement, a faction determined to “win back” the America for a set of views that all “right-thinking” sorts already believed in their hearts. After all, they had been right when it counted, weren’t they? Surely the thing to do was to push the line that was “right from the beginning,” as hard and as fast as possible.

open3

But that isn’t how TAC developed. Instead, TAC grew into something much more precious than another factional rag. TAC is that very rare journal of opinion that is more interested in exploring and developing ideas than in promoting them, more interested in getting people to think well than in getting them to think “correctly.” There is unquestionably a TAC sensibility – a gut-level skepticism about grand projects and schemes; and a conviction that the core political principle is love, and that we love best what we are closest to and know best. But there is no TAC ”line” on any issue. Even on matters closest to the heart of the magazine’s founding, TAC has been willing to publish articles – even cover stories by the editor - that, instead of flattering its readers’ views, challenge them on a deep level.

TAC is currently in the middle of a fundraising campaign, the catch phrase for which is “realism and reform.” And, as catch phrases goes, it’s not bad. Who, after all, is going to come out in favor of “delusion and sclerosis”? But realism, before it narrowed to mean a particular theory of politics and foreign affairs, meant seeing reality with open eyes, and analyzing it with an open mind. And reform, before it was corrupted to mean progress in a politically predetermined direction, meant the restoration of form to what had fallen into chaos, the restoration of peace after a period of conflict. These are not really liberal or conservative concepts, because they are not about what to think. They are about how to think.

TAC doesn’t measure its effectiveness simply by number of page views. Those matter, to advertisers and as some measure of the breadth of our readership. But fundamentally, we measure our effectiveness by looking at whether we are in the conversation, nationally, and whether we are shaping that conversation in a more considered, thoughtful direction.

By writing in this space, I’ve tried to do my small part to promote that kind of thoughtful conversation, about matters great and small. Partly because I still believe that the deliberative faculty is essential to a republic’s function. And partly because I just find a thoughtful conversation a lot more interesting than the bloodsport that passes for discourse in so many corners of the internet.

But like everything else on the internet, our conversation here isn’t really free.

As I said, most people who fund journals of opinion do so to advance their preexisting views. If you are reading this, you’re the sort of person who wants to have their views challenged, complicated, deepened. Somebody other than the typical backer needs to provide the funding to make that experience possible. Ultimately, that somebody is you.

So: if you like what you get to read, in this space and elsewhere on the site and in the magazine, please give what you are able, so that we are able to keep publishing the kind of work that brought you to TAC in the first place, and continues to bring you here today.

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