Usually, when I do these (too infrequent) double feature features, I connect one current film with a film from the back catalog: “The King’s Speech” with “Richard III,” or “Tree of Life” with “A Serious Man.” But every now and again, Hollywood serves up two movies that are obviously intended by fate to be seen together. This year is one such, and the pairing is “Gravity,” directed by Alfonso Cuarón (director of “Children of Men” and “Y Tu Mamá También“) and “All Is Lost,” directed by J. C. Chandor (director of “Margin Call,” my favorite film about the financial crisis and, hence, a primary object of my envy since I wish I could have written a film that good).
I almost don’t feel like I need to explain why. But I will anyway.
“Gravity” tells the story of Sandra Bullock, rookie astronaut, struggling home to earth all on her own after space junk cripples the shuttle that brought her to orbit in the first place. Everything that can go wrong does, and at one point she gives up and prepares for death. But her final brainstorm actually works, and, amazingly, she makes it (we presume – the movie ends when she finally reaches dry land but is still far from civilization).
“All Is Lost,” on the other hand, tells the story of Robert Redford, wealthy yachtsman, struggling to get back to land all on his own after sea junk (a stray shipping container) cripples the 39-foot sailboat that brought him to the middle of the Indian Ocean in the first place. Everything that can go wrong does, and at one point he gives up and prepares for death. But his final brainstorm actually works, and, amazingly, he makes it (we presume – the movie ends when he is swimming to the surface picked up).
Both movies appear to be paradigmatic “man (or woman) versus wild” contests. But both are ultimately more interested in charting an internal spiritual journey than in showing an audience how human beings can win a round in the endless war against pitiless nature. It’s in the differences between those journeys, and between the two movie star protagonists, that the contrast between the films primarily lies. Where one film runs before the wind of our era, the other tacks against it.
* * *
When I saw “Gravity,” I went into the theater thinking about “Apollo 13,” the Ron Howard film about the successful effort to bring the astronauts home from a failed moon shot. That film focused on the grit and practical ingenuity of the men who made America’s adventure in space possible. It was about a set of virtues, and more specifically about watching those virtues in action. And, because it told the story of a failed mission, it was also (like “Argo,”) very much a movie about America in the 1970s, about certain classic American virtues being pressed into service to salvage as much as possible from a mission that is doomed to fail.
But “Gravity” isn’t really that kind of movie – because it isn’t really interested in practical ingenuity. There’s a contradiction at the heart of “Gravity” with respect to realism. Enormous effort has been put into getting the physics right, and that effort pays off magnificently. The film is stunningly beautiful – more than that, it is sublime (to use the Burkean distinction). The opening shot, which must be something like fifteen minutes long, will leave your jaw slack, and when you’ve stopped staring you’ll realize that, amazingly, you’ve been able to keep oriented when there is no up nor down. That’s a heck of a cinematographic achievement. Even when things start to go wrong, and the frame fills with objects moving in trajectories we never see them follow on earth, we still somehow always know where we are. And then there are the little directorial choices here have a huge impact in terms of creating a feeling of realism – for example, it’s amazing how much is communicated simply by massive collisions between space ships produce no sound. Cuarón’s primary commitment in this film is to give us some sense of what movement looks like up there in orbit, and hence to what walking in space might feel like. He succeeds entirely.
But what actually happens in the film requires enormous suspension of disbelief. [Spoilers follow.] Sandra Bullock’s character, Ryan Stone, doesn’t just survive being thrown from the structure where she’s working when the space debris hits. She makes her way to a space station 100 kilometers away. She crawls inside that station, only to be nearly trapped by a fire that breaks out inside. She escapes the fire into the reentry craft, and figures out how to launch the craft away from the station, only to discover that the chute, which has deployed prematurely, has gotten tangled around the struts of the station. She gets back out and frees the craft from the tangled parachute – in the middle of a hailstorm of space debris that annihilates the space station. She escapes the millions of fragments of flying debris, gets back into the spaceship, only to discover it’s out of fuel. She figures out how to jerry-rig it to fly anyway, and makes her way to yet another space station (a Chinese one). She’s got no thrusters to maneuver with, so she bails out of the ship and pilots herself successfully to that station using a fire extinguisher. She gets into the other station’s reentry vehicle, figures out how to fly it even though all instructions are in Chinese, and finally survives a reentry even though her capsule is tumbling rump over teakettle.
That’s rather more than six impossible things to believe before breakfast. Which is fine – this is a movie. But the fact that Stone is able to pull off this series of wildly improbably feats tells us what kind of movie we’re in. For all it’s commitment to realism in the depiction of this strange and hostile environment, we’re not in a movie about what it takes to survive in that environment, in terms of practical knowledge or native virtues. And the proper point of comparison isn’t “Apollo 13″ but “Life of Pi.”
Early on in the film, we learn that Stone is emotionally dead as a consequence of the death of her young daughter. (She’s not named “Stone” for nothing.) There’s no mention of a husband or any other family; so far as we know, she is entirely alone, nobody looking up at her, waiting for her to come home. (The weakest sequences in “Apollo 13,” by the way, were the shots of the “home front” – none of the astronauts’ wives had any character, and they had nothing much to do but look worried.) But she has a mentor figure: Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), commander of her mission. He draws her out, rescues her from her space tumble, and then heroically (and completely stoically) sacrifices himself so that she might live.
Kowalski’s there to remind her of a reason to live, but also to communicate the message that if you know that reason – if your soul is properly oriented – you will always either find a way to live, or face death with his extraordinary equanimity. In the most ultimate sense, your fate is entirely in your hands, and is determined by how in tune you are with the universe. He even appears later as a ghost to give her the crucial insight that enables her to finish her journey – which she finishes flying her ship essentially by intuition, without instruments (since they are all in Chinese anyway). He might as well be named Obi Wan Kenobi.
Stone’s personal journey, meanwhile, is clearly signposted as such over and over again. All of the spaceships she pilots have a religious figure above what I can only think of as the dashboard (an icon on the Russian craft, a smiling Buddha on the Chinese – this cheerful ecumenical approach to religiosity is another similarity to “Life of Pi”). When Bullock first makes it into the ISS, she pulls off her space suit and gulps in the air (she had run out just before getting in), then floats, for a moment, before the airlock, in a semi-fetal position, the tube from her suit floating just behind her in the position of an umbilicus. And when she gets back to earth, she blows the hatch immediately upon landing (wouldn’t you know – there’s another fire) and has to escape the capsule into the ocean, shed her space suit skin, and swim to shore. A verdantly Edenic shore – but uninhabited.
That emptiness is not an accident. For all that Stone’s journey is supposedly about re-awakening to human connection – getting over the loss of her daughter and finding someone to look up at her and hope that she comes home safely – solitude is fundamental to her journey. The stoic Kowalski, though he won’t stop talking for even a second, is ultimately self-sufficient enough to be content to die gazing at the beauty of the Ganges (note, not the Amazon or the Danube, but a religiously potent river) from space. And one doesn’t get the feeling that he has anybody looking up at him, hoping he’ll come home.
At the end, Stone is alive again, and the world is alive as well; she’s no longer in the cold darkness of space. But she is defiantly solitary. Because she’s found what she needs inside her.
* * *
It’s not incidental that an essential self-sufficiency – cheerful, adaptable, ready for any challenge – is our civilization’s paramount economic virtue. And it’s what the Robert Redford character embodies at the start of “All Is Lost,” a radically different film from “Gravity” even though it has a very similar premise.
Redford is the only person in the film, and he present himself as quite thoroughly self-sufficent – he must be, or he wouldn’t be sailing the middle of the Indian Ocean without a crew. And he doesn’t even paint a volleyball to talk to; there is virtually no dialogue, far less than in “Gravity,” a film that takes place in a world without air and, hence, without sound. (I assume that a major motivation for Chandor to make this film was just to see if it could be done – to make a nearly dialogue-free, one-man movie. Kudos to him even for trying, but the more impressive fact is that he succeeded.) He’s self-motivated as well – he is not in the middle of the ocean performing any social function, or on any assignment. He’s there because he’s there. In any event, he is alone, and plainly considers himself sufficient as such. And we know that he is supposed to be a representative character, a symbol of our age, right from his name. Which he doesn’t have. In the script, he’s known simply as “Our Man.”
What kind of man he is we have to infer, because, unlike “Gravity,” “All Is Lost” declines to give us any backstory. We open on a calm sea in flat, bleak light, and hear Robert Redford in voice over reading a last letter to – well, we don’t know to whom; he names no wife, no children. It is addressed, it would seem, to the universe at large. And it’s an apology, but Our Man doesn’t say what he’s sorry for, what he did wrong or to whom. He says with some pride that he fought until the end, but he wonders whether that means anything. All he knows is that he’s sorry. The letter is almost a perfect inversion of the sentiment on which Ryan Stone concludes her journey.
But, as we flash back to the accident that put Our Man adrift, details accumulate that enable us to infer what kind of man he is. His ship is a late-1970s-era yacht, nicely appointed but not particularly up to date. This is a wealthy man, but not a billionaire, and a man who harkens back to an earlier era, when he was in his prime. He wakes to seawater pouring in through a hole in the hull, and ruining his electronics – none of which are waterproof; our first indication that this is not a man actually prepared for any eventuality. It’s a bad break, but Our Man doesn’t panic. He investigates the hole – his sailboat was hulled by an errant shipping container of sneakers. He gets the sailboat off the container and sets to work, methodically, setting the ship right – patching the hull, pumping out the water, and rinsing the salt out of his ruined radio. Then, climbing the mast to repair a broken circuit, Our Man spots a storm coming. He battens down the hatches – and then he shaves, expertly enough that there’s not a nick on him.
The shaving scene is crucial for telling us what kind of man this is. He is not shaving to make an impression on anybody else (as, if I may juxtapose the sublime and the ridiculous, Crocodile Dundee did); he’s not preening for the cameras like a character on a Discovery Channel show. (I suspect many will come to this movie expecting a version of that kind of ersatz survivalism – more to the point, I wonder whether Our Man came up with the idea for this voyage by watching too much Bear Grylls.) Because there is nobody else there, nobody to impress but himself. This is a man, the gesture says, of stable habits that have served him well, that he doesn’t intend to abandon in a moment of crisis, and also a man of some personal vanity. And this is the moment that tells us: this man is not going to make it.
It’s been fascinating to read the comments by experienced sailors on this film, because they are generally contemptuous of Our Man, calling him a weekend sailor, in over his head, and making one rookie mistake after another. As a non-sailor, I couldn’t possibly see most of these, but it was clear to me watching the film that we were not supposed to infer Our Man’s great skill so much as we were to infer his calm self-confidence – true self-confidence, not mere arrogance. This is a man who has seen successfully through many crises before. It makes sense that he assumes he can handle this one. It also makes sense that he would make rookie mistakes, because he is in over his head. But he makes them calmly, confidently, making the best decisions he knows how all along the way.
Another difference: “All Is Lost” is much less invested in showing us the extraordinary environment of the ocean than “Gravity” is in showing us space. That’s partly a function of the different vantage point you have in orbit versus on the ocean’s surface, but it’s also a difference in the stories being told. In “Gravity” we get lots of panoramic footage that places us in context, that displays all the splendor of Earth, the cold vastness of the heavens, and the fragile elegance of our creations that hover between. We have the filmmaker’s God’s-eye view of reality. In “All Is Lost,” by contrast, the camera stays on Redford nearly all of the time, and so we experience the storm from an entirely human vantage point. When Our Man gets tossed overboard, we go over with him, and frankly we can’t see much. When the yacht is overturned by a particularly ferocious wave, we’re below decks with Our Man; the picture tumbles as the floor becomes the ceiling and then the floor again, but we don’t see the vessel dismasted – an obvious shot for a movie about a storm and shipwreck – until Our Man comes up and sees the damage himself. Budgetary considerations were undoubtedly one reason for that choice, but Chandor makes a virtue of necessity. He doesn’t personify nature as an antagonist. Nature is just reality.
Once his sailboat is wrecked, Our Man abandons ship into an inflatable life raft, and hopes for rescue. He charts his drift into the shipping lanes between East Asia and the Cape, and stands at the ready when he’s in the zone. But he’s rebuffed by two enormous container ships (the vessels responsible for his desperate situation in the first place) that pass extremely close to his little raft; nobody even notices his flares. It’s perhaps too direct a symbol – the indifference of commerce to anyone tossed overboard – and I wondered: isn’t anybody ever on deck on these ships? But perhaps that’s really the point: there’s almost no crew, and nobody is on deck. The economic system is more like pitiless nature than like anything human.
His last hope lost, Our Man prepares for death by sending his empty final message in the proverbial glass vessel (a jar in this case rather than a bottle). And then, an unexpected hope flickers. In the middle of a dark night, he sees a light on the water. He has only one flare left, and, clearly worried it will be insufficient, he lights a fire, setting the lifeboat itself aflame, and jumps into the water. Before the fire is even out, he sinks below the surface, clearly exhausted, and watches the circle of fire and the echoing circle of the moon from below as he sinks. The image is striking, and clearly intended as a symbol – it was the first image in the film to hit me that way, and for that reason it jarred. And, lo and behold, the fire trick works. A small (human-scale) boat comes to rescue him, and, surprised by his sudden good fortune, Our Man swims to the surface, and to safety.
It is, again, a reversal of the progression in “Gravity.” Where Ryan Stone learned self-sufficiency from a kind of stoic, that with enough confidence and grit you can overcome any obstacle (or face death calmly when there truly is no way), Our Man learns, finally, his utter insufficiency. He faces death not calmly, but exhausted, emptied, having burned his last earthly refuge and surrendered to the waves. And then, when he has finally given up, he’s saved.
I admit, I wasn’t crazy about that ending. It felt like a note of grace that was unconnected to the rest of the film, which didn’t traffic in those kinds of quasi-theological notions. Our Man is deluded about his self-sufficiency, yes, but I didn’t think he was deluded about the pitilessness of the universe. To put it another way, I’m pretty sure Werner Herzog would have let him drown.
But if we must carry around a “notion” about the universe, the idea that we have to surrender our earthly hopes to experience the gratitude of salvation sits better with me than the uplift of “Gravity.”
Oh, good: a new blogger to argue with.
Micah Mattix quotes C.S. Lewis on Milton’s Satan:
In all but a few writers the “good” characters are the least successful, and every one who has ever tried to make even the humblest story ought to know why. To make a character worse than oneself it is only necessary to release imaginatively from control some of the bad passions which, in real life, are always straining at the leash; the Satan, the Iago, the Becky Sharp, within each of us, is always there and only too ready, the moment the leash is slipped, to come out and have in our books that holiday we try to deny them in our lives. But if you try to draw a character better than yourself, all you can do is to take the best moments you have had and to imagine them prolonged and more consistently embodied in action. But the real high virtues which we do not possess at all, we cannot depict except in a purely external fashion. We do not really know what it feels like to be a man much better than ourselves. His whole inner landscape is one we have never seen, and when we guess it we blunder.
Hmm. This is interesting. It suggests, among other things, that C. S. Lewis saw himself as insufficiently “good” to provide himself the basis in knowledge for creating a “good” character – that, in fact, he possessed none of the “real high virtues.” Indeed, he uses the plural in talking about who does not possess these virtues – “we” do not posses those “high virtues.” At all.
To my mind, that raises the question of whether the premise – that there are good and evil characters as such, and that virtues are “possessed” rather than exercised – is simply false. It certainly isn’t Christian, at least if we’re talking about human characters – Christians believe we’re all inherently sinful and, but for God’s grace, would be deserving of death. It isn’t Jewish either – the classic Jewish notion is that we all possess a good and an evil impulse (and even that isn’t right – better would be a “selfish” and an “altruistic” impulse).
I’m genuinely perplexed what Lewis is talking about. Is he under the impression that the history of literature is bereft of heroes? Presumably, those would be people possessed of “high virtues” if the phrase has any meaning at all. I suspect Achilles wouldn’t pass muster for him as “good” – but if he’s not possessed of “high virtues” then I don’t know what the word means. Or does he think that bourgeois virtue is pale and boring? Is he under the impression that Dorothea Brooke is an uninteresting character? Or Leopold Bloom? Or John Ames?
And what about those evil characters? Iago, yeah, he’s a pretty rotten piece of fruit. But is Othello evil? What about Anna Karenina? Or Captain Ahab? For that matter, is Edgar really less-interesting than Edmund? Really? Are you sure?
And dare I mention in this regard Huck Finn’s own estimation of his damnedness, versus our own estimation of his heroism?
Saying “all it takes” to write a successful character is to release one’s own pent-up desire to do evil is akin to saying that “all it takes” to make a hit movie or television show is to show a little skin. Which is to say: it isn’t correct at all. Writing a successful villain is extremely difficult – because writing any kind of successful character is extremely difficult. What would be more correct to say is that in bad writing, the only points of interest may be acts of violence or of prurient sexuality. That doesn’t say anything about good writing, though.
Meanwhile, what about good old Milton?
When people say that he was of the devil’s party without his knowing, they aren’t just saying something about his Satan. They are saying something about his God – and, hence, about the cosmology that he has created. Personally, I fully understand Philip Pullman’s reaction to the Miltonic cosmology. What’s ironic is that, to my mind at least, his anti-Miltonic cosmology, a conspiracy of good rebel angels against the Authority, is no less ridiculous, because equally inhuman. We, after all, are humans, and so we respond to human characters that say something about being human.
The titanic figures in the Hebrew Scriptures – Abraham, Joseph, Moses, Ruth, David, etc. – are profoundly human even if they have “high virtues” that we don’t seem to possess. And, of course, the big deal about the man from Nazareth is that he (according to Christian doctrine) was both wholly divine and wholly human.
Milton’s Jesus? Not so much.
Have I ever seen a Julius Caesar that I entirely liked? I’m not sure. I’ve seen it done in its “proper” setting, in Ancient Rome, as well as in a kind of Star-Trekkian abstraction thereof; in Obama-era America; in post-colonial Africa - but I’m not sure the play has ever entirely worked for me as a play, however well the individual set pieces are staged.
So the first credit I can give to the Donmar Warehouse production currently being performed at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn is that it is all of a piece. It does not flag or falter; what works, works all the way through.
The conceit of the production (directed by Phyllida Lloyd) is that the play is being staged in a women’s prison, by the inmates. The audience enters through a loading area under harsh fluorescent lights attended by uniformed guards, under whose watchful gaze we file into the theater proper, a bare cinder block recreation area fronted by steel bleachers. When it’s time for the play to begin, the actors march in wearing gray sweats and hoodies, and break immediately into a frenzied dance with dialogue loosely related to the opening scene of the play. They are the inmates of this prison; Caesar (Frances Barber) is some kind of head inmate, leader of the girl gang, but with none of the maternal qualities of a character like Red from “Orange Is the New Black.” She mocks the horoscope shown her by the soothsayer (Carrie Rock, playing her as a child-woman, complete with tricycle and teddy bear), warning her about the ides of March, and mashes face with a curvy and phony-tough Antony (Cush Jumbo). And then the noisy crowd disperses, and we are left with the quietly noble Brutus (Harriet Walter) and an itchy, seething Cassius (Jenny Jules) – and a return to Shakespeare’s proper dialogue.
The opening was certainly energetic, but left me more puzzled than moved. The frame, that we were in a prison, was established – but I was not clear on what the status of this production was within that frame. Was this an authorized prison activity? Who were we – were we there, known to the inmates? Were the inmates trying to communicate with us through this play? Or were they staging it for their own purposes, for themselves?
For a while I forgot these meta-theatrical questions, as I let myself relax into the performances. Barber’s Caesar is a shallow character forcefully realized, while Walter’s Brutus is about as noble as I’ve ever seen him – and considerably more emotional, not only in his relationship with Cassius (which works wonderfully all through the play), but even in his feelings for Caesar, whom he plainly loves (though I can’t think why). The play, in other words, is entirely on Brutus’s side, but that, at least, makes sense for the setting; if you set Julius Caesar in a prison, you should expect the production to take the side of the one who fells the tyrant.
But the questions came back with greater urgency as, over the course of the play, the production engaged in more and more meta-theatrical gestures. Some examples:
- When Caesar is executed, Barber engages in some deliberately over-the-top bad acting of the death – reminding us that this is just a play.
- When Antony is giving his funeral oration, he literally conducts his audience’s emotional reactions, raising and lowering their voices by raising and lowering his hands – reminding us that he is manipulating them, and preventing us from being manipulated similarly.
- The “Cinna the Poet” scene is interrupted twice, first by the actress playing Cinna (I think it was Carrie Rock again) being sent by the guards for her meds, then when her replacement (Helen Cripps) has her nose smashed into a pole by another inmate, and breaks character to call for help from the guards (who, surprisingly, do not stop the play).
- When Brutus and Cassius are arguing in their tent, Brutus hears the other actors chattering behind a curtain, and breaks character to curse them out, then has to walk about a bit muttering before she can get back into character.
- When Brutus is found dead, Antony speaks his eulogy about his being the “noblest Roman of them all” and the only one who acted from patriotic motives rather than envy to a camera, clearly turning it into a political speech condemning the other conspirators; this device is repeated again by a winking and sneering Octavius (a visibly pregnant Clare Dunne, who also plays a very moving Portia) at the close of the play.
These are all Brechtian distancing devices, designed to remind us that we are watching a play, keeping us from being moved by what we see and reminding us to look for the structures of authority that shape the actions of the drama. I’m always a bit ambivalent about these, because I want to be moved – but more to the point, they made it all the more urgent for me to understand what those structures were – who, in fact, is staging this play, and for whom.
At the very, very end of the play, we find out. A buzzer sounds, and Caesar – who never left the stage; he just hung around, sometimes leaning against a wall, observing, sometimes playing the drums, haunting not only Brutus but the entire production – comes forward, removes his costume – and is revealed to be another member of the prison staff, a senior guard or possibly even a warden. It’s five minutes to lock down, and the prisoners abruptly file out to go to their cells, Brutus only lingering behind, still overcome by the experience of the play.
So the play was, apparently, authorized, at least by the authority nearest to hand. And this, in retrospect, shapes everything we’ve seen. The fact that Caesar obviously has a sexual relationship with Antony implies a similar relationship between guard and inmate – which, in turn, tells us something about how this prison is run. Brutus’s melancholy, and his genuine affection for Caesar, says something about that inmate’s one-time position vis-a-vis that authority. And out position as invited audience is highly ambiguous – it says one thing if the authorities are willing to let the inmates act out their fantasies of rebellion and their tragic recognition that they must make their peace with authority, even to the point of sexual submission. But it says something quite different if the wardens are willing to let the outside world come in and watch.
It’s a chilling ending, but I wonder if it didn’t come too late for me – if the production didn’t partly lose me a bit earlier on because I was worrying over these questions without grasping the thread of the answer. Brecht, I think, would not have saved that kind of revelation for the end, as a “twist” to surprise the audience. He would have wanted us to know up front, because he would have wanted us to understand the structure of authority. Ditto for Peter Weiss, whose play, Marat/Sade, clearly lurks in the background, along with the work of Genet.
Or perhaps I’m just not very clever, and it was clear to everyone else from the beginning.
Or, perhaps, my difficulty lay elsewhere, in a sexual suspicion of the whole women-in-prison genre. But – in this case if not in the case of the Netflix series – that’s probably my own hangup. The sexuality on display here is not aimed to titillate.
In any event, Julius Caesar is a play that you need to play with if it is going to play for a contemporary audience. And this the women of Donmar Warehouse – and of this unnamed prison – did. More power to them.
Julius Caesar runs at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn through November 9th.
The good folks at Elevator Repair Service are doing text-driven theater in a very contemporary mode; over at their still-new home at the Lucille Lortel, Red Bull Theater (whose board – full disclosure – I recently joined) makes a much more old-fashioned approach seem just as contemporary. Red Bull’s mission is to stage the lesser-known classics of the Elizabethan and Jacobean theater, and, more generally, to stage plays from any period that rely on “heightened” language. So they’ve staged Fletcher and Middleton and Ford and Ben Jonson – but they’ve also done Strindberg and Genet and this year will be doing Joe Orton and Charles Ludlam. By focusing on the language, they connect us back with the origins of our theatrical tradition, and with the much-devalued word, but their approach is the opposite of antiquarian or stuffy.
One of the glories of the company is their reading series, which runs on many Monday nights from October through May. They get truly phenomenal casts for these, and the theatrical experience can be just as powerful or even more powerful than many full-scale productions, notwithstanding that the actors typically have only a few hours to rehearse before they must perform.
Their kickoff reading for the series this year was John Ford’s, Tis Pity She’s a Whore, a fascinating document of the Jacobean mind. It’s a tragic romance, like Romeo and Juliet – except that the lovers in this case are brother and sister. They carry on their incestuous affair in secret, until pregnancy makes further secrecy impossible, and she agrees to be married off to hide her dishonor. But the brother turns out to be jealous, and he fulfills the oath the mutually made earlier in the play, to kill each other if they cannot be together. He doesn’t just kill her, though: he cuts out her heart and carries it into the next scene where much of the rest of the cast meets its doom.
It’s fully as twisted as anything contemporary cable television could cook up. But it’s also very foreign, particularly in the degree to which everyone in the play sees the incestuous love as just another instance (if a rather extreme one) of out-of-control lust, rather than evidence of some more intractable malady. And that’s one reason to explore these works: to learn how little changes over time, and also how much does.
Their second offering was Milton’s Samson Agonistes, a dramatic poem that the author expressly stated should never be performed. It’s a dense and difficult text to follow – I wish I’d had the chance to read it closely before attending the performance. And it’s also a fascinating document of Milton’s mind. Milton melds the conventions of Greek tragedy with a Puritan sensibility and world-view that really isn’t very compatible (to begin with, the Puritans closed the theaters). The chorus wavers between resembling a Greek chorus and resembling Job’s comforters; Samson himself appears to be a tragic figure in epilogue, like Oedipus at Colonus, but then his final act is not cathartic to the audience but redemptive to him personally.
Or so his father avers. There’s that pervasive sense with Milton that he was in perpetual agon with himself. He wrote this poem apparently to glorify Samson (and, as it was paired with Paradise Regained, to compare him implicitly to Jesus), but the closing words by Samson’s father and the chorus feel grossly false, just as Milton’s Satan is a more approachable figure than his God.
I found myself, after the reading (which was followed by an excellent talkback with the director, members of the cast, and a professor from Montclair State University), musing on the possible relationship between Milton’s poem and Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
- Both are tragedies with a rising rather than a falling action – Hamlet starts his tragedy a mess, unable even to articulate a clear speech much less do what his father’s ghost demands, and slowly works his way towards his “readiness is all” moment of serenity; so, too, Milton’s Samson starts out wailing, blaming himself, doubting his destiny and God’s providence, and over the course of the poem comes to a point where he knows what he must do, and does it.
- Both are invited to their fatal ends by foppish messengers – indeed, the actor who played the messenger in the Red Bull reading seemed, I thought, to be channeling Osric.
- Hamlet contemplates suicide continuously through the play; Samson ultimately commits suicide, albeit he’s exonerated from the charge of such by the argument that his death was not the object of his action but merely unavoidable collateral damage.
- And both, in their deaths, are described as having become who they were finally destined to be, achieving an elusive selfhood at the price of ending the self altogether.
I don’t know whether there’s been anything written about a connection there, but I’d be curious. It certainly seemed like a vivid possibility to me in the moment.
In any event, I cannot recommend the series highly enough. The next four readings that round out this calendar year are:
- November 4th:DINNER+
by Moira Buffini
The dinner party as revenge – served up in a deliciously dark contemporary British comedy.
Directed by David Esbjornson
With Mercedes Ruehl, J. Smith-Cameron, Daniel Gerroll, Laura Campbell, Brian Hutchison, and David Pittu
- November 18th:PROMETHEUS UNBOUND
by Percy Bysshe Shelley
The defiant, tormented Prometheus is released to the world in this exquisite romantic fantasia.
Directed by Craig Baldwin
With John Douglas Thompson and Jennifer Ikeda
- December 9th:THE TRAGEDY OF MR. MORN
New York Premiere of a play by Vladimir Nabokov
A dazzling verse romance by the precocious 24-year old author, responding to Revolution with a bloody tale of desire.
Translated by Thomas Karshan and Anastasia Tolstoy
Directed by Rachel Chavkin
With Quincy Tyler Bernstine and David Greenspan
- December 16th:TOO CLEVER BY HALF
by Alexander Ostrovsky
An anarchic, side-splitting satire about a smooth-talking opportunist and his ruthless climb to the top.
Directed by Daniel Sullivan
With Stephen Spinella
What makes something theater?
It’s a question that increasingly preoccupies me, even as my own artistic ambitions don’t seem to have flowed yet in that particular stream. The theater is a primary art form, like dance and painting and music, engaged in intuitively by small children, but it occupies a strange locus in a culture like ours defined by mediated experience, where people sitting across from each other at a table communicate by text. Thanks to Baumel’s Cost Disease, live theater keeps getting more and more expensive, but it also keeps getting more and precious. And as it does, theater artists necessarily ask more and more what is essential to that experience, and how to make what is essential more predominant.
I’ve written a lot about immersive theater as one direction theater can go to emphasize what makes it distinctive as an art form – the interaction between audience and performer. But there are plenty of other directions to go. And one of my favorite theater companies is exploring an entirely different path.
The company is Elevator Repair Service, and their particular “thing” is exploring the relationship between text and performance. We tend to think of drama in terms of roles – characters that the actors pretend to be – and the text as the dialogue that these characters say. But there’s an older concept of theater according to which the text itself is the thing to be performed by the actor, the role referring merely to the selection of text that is a particular actor’s responsibility.
In their most celebrated work, GATZ, Elevator Repair Service scrambled these two conceptions of how theater works. GATZ was, on one level, an eight-hour reading of the entirety of The Great Gatsby. In that sense, it was a performance of the text – not an adaptation of the text for performance, but the use of the actor’s voice to make the text come alive in our minds. But GATZ was much more than that, in that the actors didn’t speak the text as themselves; they spoke them as a set of characters. GATZ is set in a depressing basement office of some nondescript company in the age of the hulking desk-top PC. When said PCs won’t turn on one morning, one of the office grunts starts flipping through his Rolodex, and happens upon a copy of The Great Gatsby therein. He starts reading – and bit by bit, his office-mates join the game, passing the book around to take different parts.
What made GATZ so compelling was the combination of disjunctions and convergences between these office characters and the characters in the novel, the ways in which we saw them merging into one another and the ways in which we saw the yawning gap between them. That pattern, in turn, said something about our own relationships, as readers, to a book like The Great Gatsby - a classic, something from a different time, about people from a different society, but containing something universal that we relate to across that distance. When the burly, beer-bellied maintenance guy reads Tom Buchanan, a comment is being made about where Tom’s personality and views resonate in our world – what kind of man might think, hey, Tom’s actually got a point or two – particularly about Gatsby.
Well, ERS has a new show out now, not as profound in its effects as GATZ, but a whole lot of fun. And they continue to explore the intersection of text and performance, in this case with material that is explicitly about that intersection – and the question of when performance communicates meaning.
Their new piece, Arguendo, currently on view at the Public Theater in New York, is a performance of the oral argument before the Supreme Court in Barnes vs. Glen Theatre. Barnes was a First Amendment case, a suit brought by a group of go-go dancers challenging an Indiana law that banned public nudity, which had been construed to prohibit nude dancing at strip clubs.
The substance of the case is somewhat abstruse. As quickly emerges, the two key questions are whether nude dancing is, as such, expressive, and, if so, whether the Indiana ban on public nudity was an acceptable infringement on freedom of expression because it was content-neutral. The former provides occasion for a great deal of the humor. Can nudity itself be a message? If so, isn’t everything expressive? On the other hand, counsel isn’t suggesting that hanging a sign saying “this performance is intended to convey an erotic message” on each side of the stage would suddenly trigger First Amendment protection for the dance?
But the latter is really the heart of the case, and the plaintiff’s argument rested on the thin reed of an Indiana Supreme Court case opining that the ban on public nudity would not apply to works that necessarily would be protected by the First Amendment, such as, for example, a performance of the musical, Hair. I call that a thin reed because the statute itself is content-neutral, and I don’t see why the Supreme Court would be obliged to endorse the Indiana Supreme Court’s First Amendment analysis – if the Court found that a content-neutral statute were permitted to ban performances of Hair that included the nude scene, then the Indiana Supreme Court ruling would not, in fact, have carved out an exception for such a performance, and we’d be dealing with a content-neutral statute that had the effect of preventing certain types of speech or expression.
The audience, of course, is free to disagree about the merits of the case and the constitutional analysis – ERS’s point isn’t to convince the audience that the Indiana law was or was not constitutionally valid (though I suspect they were out, in part, to prove that it was silly). So what is their point – and why is the show so much fun?
First of all, the text itself is wonderfully theatrical, and the personalities involved are fascinating. You really get a sense of who Scalia, O’Connor, Rehnquist, White, and the other Justices are. And if the two lawyers appear to be more types, they are types that connect immediately to their respective positions on the law – the counsel for the defense buttoned-up and nervous (and wearing a dreadfully dead-looking toupee), the counsel for the plaintiff loose-limbed as a disco dancer and condescending as a, well, as a Harvard-trained lawyer (and wearing an exceptionally silly curly gray wig). You also see how many of the Justices – Scalia in particular – enjoy the process of argumentation, of whittling an argument down to its defensible proportions, irrespective of whether they are ultimately inclined for or against.
But more than that, it’s a fascinating experiment in performing a text. Trials are classic examples of real-life theater, with lawyers and judges playing prescribed roles and speaking in “unrealistic” rhetorical language. But ERS didn’t simply stage the trial. They messed with it, having actors jump from playing one Justice to another, or to one of the counselors, or to one of the members of the press (or a go-go dancer from Michigan who showed up to observe), doing impersonations that, like any good caricature, captured the character better than a pure imitation would. They acted out the emotional dynamics of a situation in expressionistic fashion – rolling their chairs close to counsel to make him uncomfortable, flipping through legal references on a huge screen behind, or, finally, stripping naked and dancing through a parodic rendition of Wilde’s Salome to bring the trial to a crescendo.
They didn’t stage the trial; they staged a play using the trial transcript as a text. But what is the play? As with GATZ, there are two layers – the text, which has its own theatrical power, and the performance, which demonstrates, with its every move and gesture, every swivel of a chair, adjustment of a scalp rug, or jettisoning of the undies, how essential performance as such is to communicating meaning (and hence knocking the stuffing out of the defense’s contention that it isn’t). This is a case for theater as a uniquely expressive medium and also for the Dadaist notion that every action is theater.
And then, when all has returned to stillness, there’s an epilogue that makes an even more compelling argument in favor of the expressive value of costume (or, presumably, lack thereof) than all the wildness at the trial. The epilogue is the transcript of a press conference that Justices Ginsburg and Rehnquist held the latter had a bunch of gold stripes added to the sleeves of his robes. They were an allusion to the robes worn in a production of Iolanthe that the Chief Justice had seen and, as Justice Ginsburg relates, an effort to increase the theatricality of the Chief Justice’s appearance so that he wouldn’t be upstaged by the female Justices, who had taken to wearing decorative collars with their robes. It’s a delightful little text, and beautifully acted, and makes its point quietly and more effectively than the wild dancing that preceded it could ever do.
But that’s just my aesthetic judgment. Not a legal or Constitutional one.
Arguendo will be performed at New York’s Public Theater through October 27th – and will then go on tour around the country. See here for dates in other cities.
I want to jump off from something Rod Dreher said about how movement conservatism confuses politics with religion. Dreher says:
I’m always fascinated by the question of how we know what we know, and was thinking this morning about what kind of mind sees what just happened as either a victory, or a defeat that happened not because the cause was hopeless, but because the cause was betrayed, its noble defenders stabbed in the back by faithless RINO traitors. Because that is the emerging narrative within the right-wing bubble.
Can the Tea Partiers’ beliefs be falsified? I don’t think they can be. I mean, is there any evidence that could convince them that the fault here lies with themselves, in the way they conceive politics, and in the way they behaved? It sure doesn’t look like it. In that sense, they think of politics as a kind of religion. . . .
There has long been a sense on the Right that the movement must be vigilant against the backsliders and compromisers, who will Betray True Conservatism if you give them the chance. Again, the religious mindset: politics as a purity test. In this worldview, a politician who compromises sells out the True Faith — and faith, by definition, does not depend on empirical observation to justify itself.
I think this is quite correct, and I want to agree with Dreher that the point isn’t that there’s a problem with bringing a religious sensibility or religious convictions into the public square and into politics; the problem is conceiving politics in religious terms.
I want to make an additional practical point in this regard. The narrative of acquiring religious convictions is one of conversion. Whether it happens at a stroke on the way to Damascus or through some more gradual process, we’re talking about a fundamental change from one state, and one group affiliation, to another. That process produces strong incentives to retain the new affiliation once it’s adopted. But it also raises high barriers to entry (at least if one cares about the conversion being sincere). The sorts of people who try on Buddhism one week and Kabbalah the next are not the sorts of people who any religious group is really trying to get in the pews.
The incentives in politics, meanwhile, cut largely the other way. The median voter theorem dictates that, in a well-functioning two-party democracy, both parties will tend to earn 50% of the votes. They will constantly be competing for the most fickle portion of the electorate – because that’s where victory lies. Barriers to entry need to be as low as possible. And the goal isn’t to convert people, but to persuade them – to vote for you and your compatriots. Obviously, political parties want more rather than less loyal supporters. But loyalty is necessarily secondary to actually cobbling together a majority, because without a majority you lose.
In order to persuade someone, you have to be willing to entertain the possibility that there are multiple ways of looking at something, that there are arguments on both sides (albeit presumably better ones on your own), and that it is right and proper for someone to expect to be persuaded of the rightness of your position rather than merely be told what it is. That the truth is not self-evident, but contested, continuously. If entertaining that possibility is threatening to your faith, you won’t do it. If you don’t do it, you won’t be very persuasive to people who don’t already believe. Of course, you make make some converts of people who are looking for a new faith. But those who don’t convert will remain unpersuaded.
A political party that tried to build itself like a church could only succeed if it had monopoly control of the state – if, in other words, it was the ruling party of a totalitarian system. Under a situation of free competition, those principles of organization will inevitably lead to perpetual minority status. By the same token, as I’m sure Dreher would agree, a church that focused overwhelmingly on marketing, and on the most-fickle, least-committed “persuadables,” would be headed for disaster.
(As an aside, not all persuasion is rational. Most marketing, a strategy of persuasion, operated on an emotional, appetitive level rather than at the level of reasoned argumentation. But an ad that persuades you to buy Coca Cola by suggesting you will be cooler and get more dates if you do is not trying to make you into a Coca Cola-ite who will never even try Pepsi because he’s convinced it tastes like sewage. By the same token, not all conversion narratives are based on experiences that are not accessible to reason. I know people who have argued themselves into the conviction that they must believe. But what they are thereby convinced of is much deeper and more powerful than simply a preference. That’s my point.)
I love these kinds of games, mostly because I love giving and receiving recommendations. So, below, find my own list of ten.
Actually, let me say a couple of words about the argument, and about some of the books on Gracy Olmstead’s list. I’m always a little wary of children’s books that are a bit too didactic, as well as those that are a bit too eager to flatter their readers. I remember reacting negatively to The Phantom Tollbooth as a kid because of its didacticism, and I remember my son reacting negatively to, of all things, A Wrinkle In Time (which I loved as a kid) because the author clearly thought her protagonist kids were so darned special.
As it happens that assertion of specialness was part of what I responded to positively as a kid. Which goes to show that not all kids are made the same. More particularly, natural readers – kids who gravitate to books – are very different from kids who are reluctant readers, or find reading difficult, or who are more easily engaged by tactile reality than by the world of words. We parents still want them to read, of course – both to be educated and, on a more practical level, to develop greater fluency. But it’s vital to be attuned to what kind of writing will nourish the mind of a particular child.
And now, my list of 10:
The Bat Poet, by Randall Jarrell. A phenomenal introduction to poetry by one of the great American poets of the twentieth century, but also a great depiction of the character of a writer. And a great animal story to boot. I’m shocked it isn’t better known.
The Light In The Forest, by Conrad Richter. Another forgotten gem, the novel, set in colonial New England, tells the story of a boy kidnapped by an American Indian tribe as a young child, and raised by the tribe’s chief as his own son, who must be returned to his white parents as part of a peace agreement. It’s a real page-turner, but also a real heart-breaker.
Danny, Champion of the World, by Roald Dahl. Not nearly so well-known as Matilda or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or James and the Giant Peach, this is my favorite book by Dahl. A beautiful father-son story, and coming-of-age story, and also a beautiful evocation of a rural England that has largely passed into history.
Watership Down, by Richard Adams. A true modern epic, one of the greatest adventure stories I’ve ever read, and just gorgeously written. This one’s not a secret, but I’m still shocked when I meet people who haven’t read it.
In the Keep of Time, by Margaret J. Anderson. Want to instill a love of history in your children? Give them time-travel stories – good ones, written by authors who have a similar love of history. I must have read this novel a dozen times as a kid.
Snow Treasure, by Marie McSwigan. A true-story adventure tale of plucky sledding kids against Nazis? Where do I sign up?
A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K. Le Guin. Leguin self-consciously set out to create a fantasy world that was rooted in a mythology distant from the Germanic world familiar from Tolkien. The Taoism underpinning the Earthsea world is fascinating, but the book is also just a wonderful story, and Ged an extremely compelling hero.
Peter Pan, by J. M. Barrie. I’ve tried to avoid books I’m assuming everybody either reads or intends to read – the Alice books, or Charlotte’s Web, and so forth – but lots and lots of people have never read Peter Pan. And it’s a treasure – and quite different from either the Disney movie or the musical.
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, by Mark Twain. This was actually my introduction to King Arthur and the knights of the round table, as well as my introduction to Mark Twain, and it’s stayed with me so well that you may just find me waking up in the middle of the night shouting “Hello, Central!”
Twisted Tales From Shakespeare, by Richard Armour. Sometimes, the very best way into a classic is through a parody. Want your kids to get into Shakespeare? Give them Twisted Tales – they’ll need to learn something about the real thing to get the jokes.
Feel free to make your own recommendations in the comments. I’d love to hear them.
Finally: last but certainly not least, Mary Stuart.
I’ve only seen this play once before, and never studied it; what I remember best about the last production I saw was the rain storm. Antoni Cimolino has no objection to water on stage (he staged a heck of a rain storm for The Grapes of Wrath, in addition to a proper river for the actors to jump into), but he has staged Mary Stuart at the Paterson Theater at the Stratford Festival, which is a long runway stage with seating on three sides. So the forecast was always for clear skies.
Structurally and thematically, the play bears some resemblance to Robert Bolt’s A Man For All Seasons. Both plays feature a confrontation between personalities that is also a conflict of principles. Both feature a monarch who must do something arguably quite evil for reasons of state, and who labors to salve his or her conscience by blaming others for not blessing the action. Both have a big scene where the character in the dock finally gets to say what he or she really thinks but has been holding in for fear of sealing his or her doom. Both end with a long-anticipated but dubiously ordered execution. Both turn on questions of religion, more specifically, the conflict between English Protestantism and the old religion of Catholicism. And both can consequently seem quite dry.
The big difference is that Mary Stuart has sex, and Bolt’s play has none, notwithstanding that the reigning monarch in A Man For All Seasons is Henry VIII. And we are very lucky that Cimolino has decided that the sex matters a lot more than the religion or the politics – that is to say, what matters most is the full-blooded human drama not the drama of ideas.
He puts his actors in period costumes, but the set (designed by Eo Sharp) is a hodge-podge of period and modern, letting us know that this isn’t a story confined to period (and hence not beholden to either the politics of Elizabeth and Mary’s day or of Schiller’s). And the whole stage is surrounded by barbed wire – which, because it remains in place (perforce) for both the scenes in Mary’s prison and the scenes at Elizabeth’s court, which drives home the message that this isn’t a play with a particular political axe to grind, but a play about people who are imprisoned by their roles whether they have theoretically absolute power or are subject to it.
The other thing we’re lucky about is that he has such titanically strong actresses to play Queens Elizabeth and Mary. Elizabeth can come off as a distinctly unappealing character – the play sets things up so that Mary is the romantic one in both senses of the word, with Elizabeth both cold and calculating and, underneath, kind of needy (Leicester manipulates her rather easily because of this). And, of course, by the time the play begins, Mary has repented of her tempestuous past (if not yet the idea of regaining her freedom, and her throne in Scotland), and found Jesus, a conversion that is portrayed as entirely authentic, so she can get us both ways, as the more fun sinner and as the incipient saint.
Seana McKenna, though, plays Elizabeth not as psychologically insecure but as institutionally so – someone acutely aware of the inherent vulnerability of her position, and working very hard to play the game well enough to stay on top. She comes off as a fundamentally sad, lonely woman, but neither cold nor needy. And Lucy Peacock’s Mary is a marvel. It takes a very particular kind of woman to decide, on the way to the executioner’s block, having already made confession and renounced this life and her own more-than-checkered past, to stop to turn the head of an old admirer who just betrayed her. That’s what Mary does – and the greatness of Peacock’s performance lies in the fact that there’s nothing calculating about her action, that there’s no awareness of any contradiction between those two personae, the saint and the coquette. It’s a moment that really shows us why men adored her so, and why she was so terribly dangerous to the state.
(As an aside: by saying that “the sex matters, not the politics” I may appear to be endorsing the CW approach to period drama. So let me just say for the record that if those young hotties can muster one tenth the sex appeal of McKenna and Peacock by the time they are half their age, they will melt the cameras.)
The supporting cast are not afforded the same opportunity to stretch to a full three dimensions. These men each have a specific part to play in the drama, and they play it. Elizabeth can trust Lord Burleigh (Ben Carlson) for his absolute loyalty; Shrewsbury (Brian Dennehy) for his integrity of character; Leicester (Geraint Wyn Davies), well, she can’t really trust him at all, and she knows it, but damn he looks good (and he’s a good bit cleverer than anyone else in her court). Ian Lake does a scary turn as a raving fanatic, Mortimer, who positions himself as a double agent but isn’t nearly clever enough to pull it off, and Patricia Collins cuts a noble figure as Mary’s loyal lady in waiting, Hanna Kennedy. On some level, the circling lords’ agendas and complicated politics matter, but they are really only more bits of scenery. The play is the confrontation between these two women, and these two ways of being a powerful woman.
Mary Stuart plays at the Stratford Festival’s Paterson stage through October 19th.
I have been extraordinarily remiss in finishing up my Stratford reviews. The season is almost over now, and there are two shows I never wrote up, both excellent, and both directed by the current Artistic Director, Antoni Cimolino. I’ll try to redress both omissions now.
The first, given a lavish production (the gorgeous set was designed by Douglas Paraschuk) on the Festival Stage, is The Merchant of Venice. I’ve written at length about the play before, and no doubt will do so again; I feel like it’s a challenge that I need to rise to. So I’ll try not to talk too much about the play itself, and focus on the production.
Cimolino has set his Merchant in Italy in 1938, at the point where Italian Fascism swerved in an explicitly anti-Semitic direction under the influence of their new German ally. Prior to the introduction of racial laws, Jews were extremely well-integrated into Italian society and, in fact, were very influential within the Fascist movement (as they were among the Communists, and among the liberal parties as well). So it was something of a shock to discover that their position was not nearly so secure as they thought it was.
That’s a peculiar setting for Merchant which presumes that the Jewish population of Venice is a distinct and separate society. Shylock’s challenge to the Venetian state is to uphold their laws neutrally, not because he deserves equal treatment, but because the prosperity of the state depends on providing it. If they do not, then aliens – like himself – who are essential to the commerce of the city will not trust Venetian justice, and take their business elsewhere. Shylock, in other words, does not demand justice as a Venetian; he demands justice explicitly as an outsider. But Jews in the 1930s were not outsiders in Italian society.
Cimolino seems to know that this is a problem for the story he needs to tell, and so he creates a world of gabardine-clad bearded Jews (Shylock’s friend, Tubal, is one of these) that was foreign to Italy – and, indeed, to much of Western Europe, where any such would most likely be refugees from further east rather than natives. Shylock himself is much less distinctive looking – when we first meet him, he’s dressed far more soberly and less stylishly than his Christian counterparts, but he’s clean-shaven and his only explicitly Jewish accoutrement is a skullcap. But he’s of a world that is set apart. Why? Or, rather, why set your play in Italy if you want to create this sharp visual distinction between Jew and Christian?
I wondered about that question in the background even as I enjoyed the exquisite performances by the major players. Scott Wentworth creates a fully rounded character as Shylock. There’s no overt bitterness in him when he first appears – he’s tickled that Antonio needs to borrow money. When Wentworth’s Shylock says he hates Antonio chiefly for being a business competitor rather than for being an anti-Semite, we believe him – that’s how he’s behaving, like someone delighted to have a rival over a barrel. Wentworth’s Shylock is an unpleasant character – we entirely understand Jessica’s yearning to be free of his house – but he’s not obviously bent on violence until Jessica is stolen away. I’ve long thought there was a kinship between Shylock and Rigoletto, and I certainly saw that here (and I also saw a kinship between Wentworth’s Shylock and his Tevye, which was delightful to recognize).
The merchant of the play’s title is not Shylock, but Antonio, and Tom McCamus’s interpretation was delightfully understated, emphasizing his world-weariness, his inexplicable sadness without trying to ground it (in a homosexual passion for Bassanio or in anything else, really). He’s pleased to give Shylock his proposed bond not because he’s pleased to see a Jew show his true colors, nor because he’s confident in success, but because with his life on the line the whole subject has finally become interesting to him.
Portia, meanwhile, was played by Michelle Giroux, whom I usual love best in traditionally comic roles (she was a perfect Elvira in Blithe Spirit). She certainly knows how to wear the gorgeous gowns Charlotte Dean has built for her, and her turn as the legal advisor to the court, disguised as a young man, felt like it drew on screwball cross-dressing from the ’30s and ’40s. But Portia is a complicated and ambiguous figure in the drama, and I got the feeling that Cimolino was using her as a vehicle to express his answer to the question I posed above.
Here’s the thing: Merchant is often turned into a play about (and against) anti-Semitism, and I frequently find that doesn’t work, for ideological and structural reasons. The ideological reason is that Shylock does in fact descend into outright embodiment of the most terrifying anti-Semitic caricatures. He plans to murder a Christian, in an open courtroom, even sharpening his knife for everyone to see. So, implicitly, making this a play about anti-Semitism confirms that caricature – because you can’t excuse Shylock’s behavior as having been caused by anti-Semitism without implying that his behavior requires explanation.
The structural reason is that it makes the two parts of the play, the Shylock plot and the courtship of Portia by Bassanio, clash badly; as Harold Bloom put it, Shylock’s entry into the drama feels like an Arthur Miller hero stumbling into a Cole Porter musical. A solution to this problem, which I’ve seen tried more than once, is to make the romance as ugly as possible – to make Bassanio and Lorenzo transparent gold-diggers, Portia a frightful snob, etc. This, however, just makes the play thoroughly unpleasant.
So I am very pleased that Cimolino did not go that route. Shylock is up to some tricks from the first, but he seeks Antonio’s life primarily because of the loss of his daughter. He’s a human being, who has suffered a profound human wrong, and it is this human loss that, emotionally, he is compelled to avenge in blood. Portia is not a dreadful snob; she’s a somewhat clueless heiress (she doesn’t seem to notice her lady’s maid is black when she makes comments about the King of Morocco’s complexion), but when she errs she repents quickly, and she seems genuinely taken with Bassanio. And, more to the point, Bassanio (Tyrell Crews) is a completely sincere lover – and a sincere friend to Antonio. It’s impossible not to be on his side. For that matter, the roustabout casual bigot Gratiano (Jonathan Goad) is a charming fellow you can’t help liking.
Even Lorenzo, whose love for Jessica reads as deeply suspect to me on the page, is played (by Tyrone Savage) in this production as completely sincere. There’s a bit, late in the play, when Lorenzo and Jessica are up late in Portia’s mansion, when Jessica and Lorenzo trade classical allusions – in such a night did so and so do such and such with so and so – running through pairs of storied lovers. But the pairings are all disastrous – Troilus and Cressida, Pyramus and Thisbe, Dido and Aeneas. I’ve come to expect that this scene will be played as one of suppressed marital discord bursting forth unbidden, but these lovers played it as if ignorant of the portent of their own allusions.
And then Lorenzo turns on the radio. Jessica (lovely newcomer Sara Farb) has her line about never being merry when she hears sweet music, which is usually a throwaway (the line may be an allusion to her Jewishness, by the way – she’s not attuned to the music of the spheres – or may be an indication that her – and Shylock’s – Jewishness are intended actually to represent Puritanism, a religious persuasion that actually mattered in Shakespeare’s England; neither of these possible meanings are playable in a modern production, of course). But in this production it had a novel resonance. When Lorenzo puts on the radio, he can’t seem to avoid tuning in to stations broadcasting Fascist and Nazi propaganda speeches.
This struck many reviewers as a ham-handed choice, but I don’t agree; I actually think it was subtle – perhaps too subtle to be properly understood. You see, if Lorenzo and Bassanio are sincere, then why, exactly, isn’t the ending a basically happy one? Which is to say, why isn’t conversion the right answer – at a minimum, the right answer for Jessica, if not for Shylock who has to be forced to it? One answer comes, plainly and clearly, from the setting: 1938.
Which is to say: Cimolino deliberately didn’t depict the situation of the Jews of Italy in 1938 accurately. He doesn’t depict a community fully integrated into Italian life that is suddenly and violently expelled. Instead, he depicts an allegory of assimilation, achieved through force in Shylock’s case, through sincere love in Jessica’s. That requires starting from a position of distance; hence the gabardine. But we know, because this is 1938, that what is structurally a happy ending – and Merchant is, structurally, a comedy - cannot be happy. It’s not that the anti-Semitism aimed at Shylock is going to cause the Holocaust. It’s that the coming Holocaust is going to reveal as a fantasy genteel society’s notions of how the Jewish “problem” might readily be “solved” – notions that had, in fact, worked perfectly well in Italy prior to 1938.
Portia is the vehicle for that realization. She recognizes that violence has been done to Shylock (even if he really did ask for it), and that this violence portends more violence. And when she (miraculously) restores Antonio’s ships to him, she’s interrupted by the sound of an air-raid siren. Portia often comes off as more than merely human, and here she seems to expand to represent a certain class and spirit, an aristocracy still barely capable of engineering the desired happy ending for everyone they care about (which very much includes Jessica). A class and spirit about to be obliterated by forces they don’t have a prayer of appeasing.
The Merchant of Venice plays on Stratford’s Festival Stage through October 18th.
I have to date refrained from commenting on the antics of the Congressional Republicans because I can’t bear to follow the story in excruciating detail and plenty of other people on this site have been doing a fine job at expressing the appropriate horror.
That having been said, it occurred to me that I once wrote something about crazies in one’s tent that is strikingly apropos to the real question of the day, to whit, what on earth is to be done about the crazies in the tent?
The title of the post was “I Want To Keep The Crazies Inside The Tent – And Pissing On The Sleeping Bags.”
Usually, the debate is about do you want him outside the tent pissing in versus inside the tent pissing out. Either way, the kind of guy we’re talking about is the kind of guy who can’t hold it for a few minutes to go behind a tree.
In real life, there’s no way you’re going to let a guy like that anywhere near your tent, no matter which way he’s inclined to piss. So, this metaphor is not to be taken too literally.
Now that we’re not taking it too literally, here’s my thinking. There’s a great deal of craziness in the world. A surprising percentage of the people who give any kind of a damn about politics believe some seriously crazy things. Plenty of my people in my own family believe things that are pretty crazy. I’ve believed a few things that are pretty crazy in my time – and I think I’m really quite sane.
Precisely because I’m a naturally cautious and centrist type of person, and precisely because I do tend to measure the reasonableness of opinion in part by what kind of people find it credible, I don’t want the crazies to all be sent off to their own corners where they only have each other for company, work each other up into ever-greater heights of craziness, and become a perpetual threat to the “normal” political system. . . .
By the same token, I don’t want to try to manipulate them into training their craziness exclusively on the other “team” – which is what I take to be the point about having them inside pissing out. Ultimately, that makes you beholden to the crazies, and there may come a point where you can’t tell the difference between them and you.
If they are inside, pissing on the sleeping bag, you aren’t going to get any sleep, you aren’t going to forget they are there, and you aren’t going to forget they are crazy. But you’re going to know where they are and what they are up to, and they are going to be warm and dry. (Warmer and drier than your sleeping bag, anyway.)
I don’t want to anybody thrown out of the GOP because they believe insane things about the President – and, by the same token, I don’t want the President to feel obliged to fire a guy who spent his career hobnobbing with nutters in San Francisco.
I want them inside the tent, pissing on the sleeping bags, so the sane people who are also inside the tent will yell at them to STOP PISSING ON THE SLEEPING BAGS!
If that makes any sense.
It made sense to me at the time – a time when “crazy” meant “thinks the President is a Kenyan Marxist atheist Muslim pal of Bill Ayers” rather than “is prepared to destroy America’s credit rating because . . . well, basically for no reason whatsoever other than pique at not being in charge of the country.”
Since then, the crazies have been pissing inside the tent with a vengeance, and it’s trivial to find conservatives who say they’ve done a huge amount of damage to the GOP. But even though the sleeping bags are pretty well soaked, they just keep on pissing.
Personally, I’ve responded by leaving the tent, because I don’t just think the GOP is incompetent and reckless; I think they are wrong. They are using unsound methods to fight a war that I wouldn’t want them to win anyway. But it’s still kind of important that there be two big tents where citizens can shelter from the storm. So I really do care, not just in a concern-troll-y way, about the state of the GOP. And I wonder if there is any alternative to my 2009-era advice.
I’m worried there isn’t. Daniel Larison’s reply to David Frum’s suggestion that the GOP would benefit from a Tea Party walk out on that score is depressingly cogent, as is Ross Douthat’s point that the “bad populists” are also the primary members of the GOP caucus who are trying to think past the debacle of the Bush years.
I’m not actually that much more pessimistic about the GOP’s chances in the next couple of elections as a consequence of their manifest insanity. The electorate is fickle, after all. For that very reason, though, I’m quite pessimistic about the quality of governance in this country going forward.