Trump Channels Lear and Caesar in Summer Stock

image via NY Times of Central Park performance of Julius Caesar

About a month ago, I posted a piece imagining Shakespeare writing a play about Trump’s presidency.

In that post, I suggested that Shakespeare would begin his Trump play with the inauguration speech, jazzing up clunkers like “for many decades we’ve enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry;/ Subsidized the armies of other countries while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military” with some thumping blank verse that foreshadows an upcoming shitshow.

Interestingly enough – call it synchronicity or cultural convergence – Shakespeare’s and Trump’s names have been linked at least twice this week. First, the Public Theater’s Central Park production has spray-painted, as it were, the tragic protagonist of Julius Caesar an obvious shade of Trumpian orange.

Via Jesse Green of the Times:

The line “If Caesar had stabbed their mothers, they would have done no less” has been updated by the insertion of the words “on Fifth Avenue” before the comma.

This production, not surprisingly, has generated controversy. Some on the right, people ignorant of the play, suggest that this version endorsees the assassination of Trump.[1] However, Shakespeare’s staging a pro-regicide play in Elizabethan England would be the equivalent of someone painting an obscene mural of Mohammad and Salman Rushdie in flagrante delicto on the side of a building in Tehran.

In other words, not a good idea for the non-suicidal.

In fact, Julius Caesar dramatizes the disastrous effects of the assassination, not only for the conspirators themselves, but also, more significantly, for the state of Rome.

Even though I’m no fan of violence, it is sort of fun imagining Republican cabinet plotting and carrying out an assassination on stage.

Et Tu, Jeff Sessions?

Speaking of Trump’s cabinet, no doubt you’ve read about or seen the cringe-worthy abasement Trump subjected his minions to in his first cabinet meeting when he forced them to utter what an honor it was to serve him, what a privilege, etc.

In other words, he reconstructed the opening scene of King Lear, the greatest and most awful of Shakespeare’s tragedy.

Compare these two clips.

It’s even more fun – at least for me – casting a Trumpian Lear – with Ivanka as Goneril, Eric Trump as Regan, and poor Tiffany as Cordelia. Maybe Dennis Miller or PJ O’Rourke as the Fool? Jared as Edmund?

PaulScholfieldAlecMcCowen

Bring it on, Chris Marino.


[1] Delta and the Bank of America have withdrawn financial backing. However, no one seemed to mind that Bob Melrose staged an Obama as Caesar production in 2012 that you nor I ever heard about at all.

The Druid Godot at Spoleto (A Review)

4/5 of the cast of the Druid Theater Company’s production of “Waiting for Godot”

This morning our local paper ran an article about audiences’ bailing during performances at this year’s Spoleto Festival. This happened at Thursday’s matinee performance of the Druid Theater Company’s killer production of Waiting for Godot. Certainly, I’m not one to mourn fewer philistines in my presence; I only wish the woman behind me. who found every furrowed brow tee-hee worthy, and the woman in front of me, whose incessant coughing brought to mind John Keats’s last days, would have left – or better yet moved to more advantageous vacated seats, because in all fairness, they seemed to be enjoying the show.

I could blame my impatience by claiming I’ve entered the Elisabeth Kübler-Ross anger stage of grieving. Certainly, in a less random, less bleak universe, Judy Birdsong would be sitting between Ned and me, but the truth of the matter is I have always been an irritable audience member too easily distracted by whispers, fake laughs, and lung-heaving coughing.

Now, you might be wondering why someone grieving would go to see a play that Brooks Atkinson described in his 1956 New York Times review as a drama conveying “melancholy truths about the hopeless destiny of the human race.”

Because misery loves company, that’s why. Sing it, Ponzo:

Have you not done tormenting me with your accursed time! It’s abominable! When! When! One day, is that not enough for you, one day he went dumb, one day I went blind, one day we’ll go deaf, one day we were born, one day we shall die, the same day, the same second, is that not enough for you? (Calmer.They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more. (emphasis Beckett)

Even in my woebegone state, I wouldn’t trade places with any of the characters.

Also, the play has more than its share of laughs, especially in this Druid production. Each actor, except for the boy, is a talented physical comedian. The twin protagonists, played by Aaron Monaghan (Estragon) and Marty Rea (Vladimir), are worthy of Laurel and Hardy, on whom Beckett modeled Estragon and Vladimir. Mick Lally in the Irish Times describes the two together on stage as looking “uncannily, like the marriage between a question mark and an exclamation point.” Like, well, Oliver and Hardy.

But most of all, I went because of the language of the play. Beckett’s own translation of his original French is quite beautiful, especially conveyed in the lilting Irish voices of Monaghan, Rea, and also in the voices of Rory Nolan (Pozzo), and Garrett Lombard (Lucky).

Beckett worked for a time as James Joyce’s secretary when Joyce was writing Finnegan’s Wake, and I could hear echoes in of that work in this production.

Here’s a snippet of Joyce reading from Finnegan’s Wake.

 

To me, tis lovely.

Here’s the trailer for the Druid production.

 

I suspect a bad production of Waiting for Godot would be wretched. If you don’t have an ear for the music of language, the plot might seem uneventful (and it is repetitive); therefore, it’s absolutely mandatory that you have topnotch actors like Bert Lahr, EG Marshall, Ian McKellen, and Patrick Stewart. The director (Garry Hynes), cast, and set designer (Francis O’Connor) all deserve high praise.

Pro tip: perhaps you should be familiar with a play before forking out $80 for a seat. I promise you, if you found this production boring, you’re not going to find a better one.

Of course, I’m no literary scholar, and you could overload an ocean freighter with various interpretations, but what Godot means to me is that the repetitiveness of life misdirects our eyes to a future in which we expect something different, not realizing that munching on a carrot across the table from your wife reading the paper can seem like sheer paradise in retrospect.

How do you say, “Relish the Moment” in Latin?

Ground or Air or Ought

If you need a poem to help you cope with death, Emily Dickinson is your gal. I’ve read Richard Sewell’s 2 volume biography, and she was, as Robert Frost famously put it, “acquainted with the night,” or as my now-over-a-decade-dead friend Tommy Evatt used to say, “no stranger to heartache.”

During Emily Dickinson’s 56 years, lots and lots of people she dearly loved died.

She spoke from experience:

 

After great pain, a formal feeling comes –

The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs –

The stiff Heart questions ‘was it He, that bore,’

And ‘Yesterday, or Centuries before’?

 

The Feet, mechanical, go round –

A Wooden way

Of Ground, or Air, or Ought –

Regardless grown,

A Quartz contentment, like a stone –

 

This is the Hour of Lead –

Remembered, if outlived,

As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow –

First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go –

 

In my case, I’m not at the “formal feeling” stage yet, probably somewhere between “Chill” and “Stupor,” but by having read Tennyson and having read Dickinson, I know someday I can look forward to “the letting go.”

I can’t stress vigorously enough to my former students how the best poetry can prepare you for (in my case, the second worse thing I can imagine happening to me) by vividly making concrete the pain of loss before it actually happens and by underscoring the universality suffering.

Metaphors fail me – dress rehearsal, inoculation?

Anyway, Miss Emily, please accept this thank you note.

On Literary Fiction, Fantasy, Sex, and Death

It’s that time in the academic year when we select books for summer reading, and, of course, one of the many considerations our department weighs is the suitability of the book for the age of the reader.  Not surprisingly, puritanical parents tend to be especially frightened of fiction’s potential to somehow harm their children. Even if a novel doesn’t contain, as the movie people put it, sexual situations, it might very well deal with death.  Sex and death are the yin and yang of possible parental complaints.

Actually, I think perhaps the greatest danger that novel reading might pose lies not in the depiction of sex and death but in the extremely slim possibility that novels’  heightened realities might, like the speaker in Yeats’s “The Stolen Child,” lure impressionable readers into magical worlds that seem so much more alluring than the soulless six-lane highways and cell towers of the real world.  In other words, the danger is that the child might become a bookworm, bury himself between the covers, and withdraw from the realm of people, places. and things.

Away with us he’s going,

The solemn-eyed:

He’ll hear no more the lowing

Of the calves on the warm hillside

Or the kettle on the hob

Sing peace into his breast,

Or see the brown mice bob

Round and round the oatmeal chest.

For he comes, the human child,

To the waters and the wild

With a faery, hand in hand,

For the world’s more full of weeping than he can understand.

Yeats, “The Stolen Child”

Arthur Rackham

However, the problem with fairyland is that like Eden/Paradise it ultimately bores predatory primates unless, like buddhas, we can dismantle our egos and embrace the sheer bliss of existence, and if we can do that, to turn a phrase of Milton’s Satan, then “we ourselves are paradise”  – or, if you prefer Hamlet, “[we] could be bound in a nutshell and consider [ourselves] king[s] of infinite space.”

The scene depicted above, for example, looks like fun, except when you start considering the question of the aging process, estrogen and testosterone.  As Wallace Stevens wrote, “Death is the mother of beauty,” and without Death’s majesty, we’re back in the undifferentiated sexless world of amoebas.

Unlike the magical world of Yeats’s poem, the fairyland of most children’s books is fraught with conflict, which is the very stuff of fiction, as Bruno Bettelheim expounded in The Uses of Enchantment.  According to him, fairy tales with their wicked stepmothers, ogres, crones, and abandonment provide a roadmap of sorts to help children negotiate the treacherous ascent to adulthood as the tales shed a flickering light on their subterranean  unconscious sexuality.  For example, according to Bettelheim, the familiar beginning of the “Snow White” introduces children to not only the concept of death, but also to the blood link of menstruation and procreation.

As she sewed she looked up at the snow and pricked her finger with her needle.  Three drops of blood fell into the snow.  The reed on the white looked so beautiful that she thought to herself, “If only I had a child as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as the wood in this frame.”

Soon afterward she had a little daughter who was as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as ebony wood, and therefore they called her Little Snow-White.  And as soon as the child was born, the queen died.

There you have them both– sex and death.

Several years ago I was congratulating an acquaintance on her daughter’s well-received first novel, and the mother said wistfully that she wished her daughter had written something less controversial, something more like, and she specifically cited this title, “Hansel and Gretel.”   In other words, a narrative about childhood abandonment and cannibalism is less horrible than a narrative about the various sexual encounters one experiences coming of age in a late empire.

Snow White, as we switch from Freud to Friedan, agrees to become a chaste hausfrau rather than take her chances wandering the wolf-prowled woods.  Yet, like her tower-incarcerated cousin Repuntzel, the pull of a sexual partner will liberate her from the narrow confines of chastity, in Snow White’s case, a glass coffin. Repuntzel, interesting enough, is the rescuer rather than the rescued as her tears of compassion restore the eyesight of the feral prince who has been wandering Oedipus-like in a barren desert.

Essentially Repuntzel is the story of how two become one and then three.

Ernst Liebermann

Of course, it’s not fairy tales that’s making the top-ten challenged books lists in high school but less subliminal fare like Love in the Time of Cholera, The Color Purple, and A Clockwork Orange. Actually, excellent literary novels tend by their very nature to be moral because they portray life realistically – promiscuity doesn’t bring happiness, avarice creates misery, and honor ennobles.  Also, good books, whether they contain sexual situations or violence, provide vicarious experience for the uninitiated.

In our discussion about summer reading last Wednesday, our department chair wanted to have his seniors read Margaret Atwood’s The Hand Maid’s Tale.  I lauded the novel but warned him that when I had been chair, I eventually removed the novel because of constant complaints from parents in consecutive years. One mother complained bitterly about how depressing the novel was and thought it dangerous for adolescents to be exposed to so much negativity.

Here’s a snippet from the letter I wrote her:

It is a legitimate question to ask why so much contemporary literature is so negative.  After all, looking towards Hollywood one rarely ever encounters an unhappy ending. However, unlike most movies, great literature provides students with a realistic portrait of the world and endows them with the vicarious experience that comes with experiencing the struggle, triumphs, and, yes, defeats of its characters.  For example, Hamlet — about as tragic a work of literature as you’ll ever encounter — provides a realistic portrait of a fallen father, a mother’s obscenely hasty remarriage, the dissolution of a love affair, and about as many corpses as will fit on a stage.  Yet, when we finish reading (or seeing) the play, we’re not depressed but can share in the nobility of a person’s battle against “a seas of troubles” and say with Hamlet “what a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason.”  Moreover, we can perhaps learn from Hamlet’s mistakes.  They have become a part of our experience because Hamlet is to us a fellow human being.

As far as The Hand Maid’s Tale is concerned, Margaret Atwood has said she wrote the novel in light of the subjugation of women in Iran and Afghanistan.  She does, I think, a masterful job of recreating that experience for American and European readers.  It’s much easier to emphasize with Offred, the protagonist, because she is of our world. We experience her shame and helplessness with her.  In addition, the central of the novel is a positive one: human love is unconquerable and very much worth dying for.

Ah, there it is again, that word dying.

She says, ‘But in contentment I still feel

The need of some imperishable bliss.’

Death is the mother of beauty; hence from her,

Alone, shall come fulfillment to our dreams

And our desires. Although she strews the leaves

Of sure obliteration on our paths,

The path sick sorrow took, the many paths

Where triumph rang its brassy phrase, or love

Whispered a little out of tenderness,

She makes the willow shiver in the sun

For maidens who were wont to sit and gaze

Upon the grass, relinquished to their feet.

She causes boys to pile new plums and pears

On disregarded plate. The maidens taste

And stray impassioned in the littering leaves.

I would also add that a life of reading great literature helps in a way to face death’s awful but necessary reality because as Hamlet himself says, “If it be now, ’tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all.”

By the way, we are going with The Hand Maid’s Tale.

On Star Wars, Samurais, and a Future So Bleak Everyone Will Wear Mining Helmets

by WLM 3 based on Zdzistaw Beksiński

I’m ashamed to say that I’ve never seen any of the Star Wars movies — not the blockbuster first installment of 1977 nor any of the vast array of sequels and prequels that in subsequent decades have rolled off the Lucas assembly line like so many gold-plated Model-Ts.

As a subscriber to the NY Times crossword puzzle, I have been punished for being ignorant of such worthies as Jabba the Hutt and Obi-Wan Kenobi, the same way I have punished for not having read any of the Harry Potter books.[1]

What’s the 5 letter word for first name of the astromech droid that appears in every Star War movie?

Search me.

I did try to read the first Potter novel but got about as far as I did when I attempted The Hobbit as an eighth grader. Blame my lack of interest on a leaden suspension of disbelief. I prefer Robin Hood to the Arthurian legends, the Lone Ranger to Flash Gordon, Sopwith Camels to starships. In other words, I don’t dig fantasy and most science fiction, which is not to say they’re not worthy genres. I don’t dig opera either, but I realize my lack of appreciation stems from ignorance and that I’m ultimately missing out on something truly wonderful.

But as far as Jabba the Hutt and Harry Potter go, personal predilections are no excuse for my ignorance. As a self-anointed anthropologist/social critic/prophet-of-doom, it should be my duty to study these cultural phenomena, these projections of our collective psyches, these myth-equivalents that shed light on “deep down things.” [now removing tongue from cheek]

Nevertheless, it ain’t gonna happen. I still haven’t read Proust or become closely acquainted with the films of the supposedly great Soviet director Tarkovsky so the idea of spending the ever decreasing number of my allotted Sunday afternoons matriculating into Hogwarts is way too much of a cross to bear.

What has brought these considerations to mind is that last week a candidate for a position in our English Department taught a demo class to my 9th graders as a sort of audition. Surprisingly, rather than reprising some proven boffo performance of poetic analysis from his past, something tried and true — as most aspirants do — he decided to go with what I am teaching, Orwell’s 1984.

He started the lesson by discussing Newspeak and the implications of the ruling party’s attempt to strip language of all nuance, a topic we’d already covered at length. Why complicate your life by having hundreds of words like grackle, wren, and bunting when the simple word bird would suffice? Does language play a role in helping us distinguish nuances?

Is the Jesuit Pope a communist from Argentina?

Do heavy, furry, hibernating, clawed mammals defecate in areas thickly covered with trees?

Are rhetorical questions possible in Newspeak?

Things got cracking when he shifted from language to genre. He said that he first read the novel as an undergraduate in a science fiction course. He asked the students to define science fiction and coaxed them into coming up with the idea that science fiction is a realistic depiction of the human condition featuring technology that doesn’t yet exist but is central to the plot.

He then asked if Star Wars were science fiction. One student said that no, it was fantasy, and the teacher agreed pointing out that each planet has a singular topography – desert or swamp or city or forest – so what we’re essentially dealing with is the planet earth. He added that the weapons are essentially swords, and spaceships lie well within the reality of current technology. He argued that we’re talking magic, not science here, and basically Star Wars is a Samurai movie set in outer space. As his name suggests, Obi-Wan Kenobi is in a sense a by-product of Japanese cinema, particularly Kurosawa’s 1958 samurai epic The Hidden Fortress.

The teacher then shifted back to Orwell, and the students identified telescreens[2] as the technology that qualifies 1984 to be considered as science fiction. In 1948, the year it was written, television was in its infancy, and telescreens did not exist (nor did they in the teacher’s undergraduate days).

They do now, however. After all, when I was with my wife in Houston at MD Anderson at the beginning of the school year, I taught this very class via Skype, which is essentially a telescreen but one that allows for two-way communication. So according to this line of thinking, 1984 can no longer be considered “science fiction.”

The teacher pulled his cell phone from his pocket and said, “Unlike the citizens of Oceania, we subscribe to our telescreens, actually pay Big Brother to collect the goods on us. (Of course, these aren’t the exact words he used).

Anyway, he went off on a rift on technology and dystopia and an era in the near future (about the time they’d be graduating from college) when automation might be eliminating quaint old human orchestrated procedures like cancer surgery. He mentioned nanobots replacing surgeons, and I imagined hordes of ravenous Pac-Men seeking out and devouring malignant cells.

A rather sobering and a subtle suggestion that future competition might be, shall we say, cut-throat, and that studying might be a good strategy, especially when it’s not only coal miners and sales clerks who will be out of work but also CPAs and surgeons.

At any rate, class ended, and the actors marched off leaving me alone in my room (101, by the way) contemplating a smog-smothered future where it’s always twilight or pitch black night, a future where hordes of the unemployed have devolved into urban tribal communities, in other words, the world of Blade Runner.

But, hey, fa-la-la-la live for today, in this case Sunday, 9 a.m EST. With Kim-Jong un, Putin, and the Donald rattling their lightsabers, we might not have to worry about the future at all.

So I think I’ll have a bloody mary and look out over the real life Darwin-themed drama my back deck provides.

Or maybe scrounge up a copy of À la recherche du temps perdu.

photo from our back deck of a wood stork


[1] As far as Star Wars goes, I do know that Darth Vader is evil, Princess Leia wears white, and that Luke Skywalker is the coming of age hero.

[2] Telescreens are ubiquitous two-way-mirror-like devices that allow the party to spy on citizens and to broadcast propaganda.

 

1984 Revisited — Doubleplusscary

orwell-1984-propaganda

Last year, I taught 1984 for the first time in decades, and when I finished, I slapped together a blog post to provide inexperienced teachers with an overarching plan to teach the novel.  I figured that this post would receive scant attention, given its small target audience: however, it has received 1,378 “views” since May.  Many more than far more brilliant posts like “Kafkaesque Security Questions,” (93) “Why I Ain’t Inviting Jesus to My Fantasy Dinner,” (101) and “What Kind of STD Are You?” (58)

How come?

Because, believe it or not, Orwell’s 68-year-old novel is now a very hot commodity.  It hit number #1 on the bestsellers’ list on January 25th, and today, April 4th, several art movie houses around the country are re-screening the 1985 film adaptation starring John Hurt and Richard Burton.[1]

Fake News Outlet CNN attributes the sudden spike in sales to Kellyanne Conway’s coinage of the phrase “alternative facts” when aiding and abetting Sean Spicer’s contention that the Trump Inauguration crowd was larger than Obama’s.  Indeed, both “alternative facts” and “fake news” embody the Orwellian concept of doublethink.

Doublethink is essentially paradox, a mental action in which inherent contradictions in a concept cast equal doubt on the antithetical alternatives that make up the concept. Here’s a description of the protagonist, Winston Smith, thinking about how to begin his diary.

His mind hovered for a moment round the doubtful date on the page, and then fetched up with a bump against the Newspeak word doublethink. For the first time the magnitude of what he had undertaken came home to him.  How could you communicate with the future?  It was of its nature impossible.  Either the future would resemble the present, in which case it would not listen to him, or it would be different from it, and his predicament would be meaningless.

Essentially doublethink results in confusion, if not paralysis.  Doubt is cast upon who and/or what to believe.

For example, the propagandist Trump organ Fox News, whose Orwellian tagline is “fair and balanced,” provides the President with “alternative facts” so that he declares any story with which he disagrees to be be “Fake News.”  Truth = lies, and lies = truth.

In other words, “Ignorance Is Strength.”

Meanwhile, Russian bots assume avatars on social media claiming to be Christian patriots who in turn disseminate “information” on Twitter and Facebook that Hillary Clinton is abducting, then cannibalizing, unvaccinated babies.

Vaccinations Are Doubly Deadly.

President Trump awards his Appalachian voters by allowing coal mining companies to dump slag in their streams.

Pollution Is Healthy.

An Intelligence Committee chair investigating the White House sneaks into the White House and receives classified information and returns to the White House the next day to share that information with the White House.

What Goes Around Comes Around/Treason Is Patriotic.

It’s doubleplusscary!


[1] Both, alas, now exiled to “that undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns.”  By the way, 4 April 1984 is the day Wilson Smith begins his diary.

Wesley’s Inferno, Canto 4

 

 

Canto 4

 

Once we disembarked

and reached the summit of a barren ridge,

a vista of innumerable parked

 

cars lay below. We drove through clouds of midges

swarming and stinging,

the cars’ occupants, naked and wedged

 

so tightly they couldn’t move their arms or legs, facing

a gigantic movie screen on which dead-eyed

chancre riddled junkies were forever fucking.

 

“This is my home circle,” Catullus said, “where I reside

when not giving tours. These Monicas and Bills must eternally endure

the stab of insects and the touch of flesh they can’t abide.

 

“During my earth time, I too was sex-obsessed. Nothing could cure

my cravings for Lesbia, Nihil sit, satis.

So now with them for my sins I must endure

 

the punishment of these stabbing stings, this looping film.” Catullus

then emoted a theatrical B-movie sigh.

“These punishments seem ludicrous,

 

“way over the top for a loving God,” I cried.

He broke into a sardonic laugh.

“Haven’t you read Nietzsche? God ain’t alive!

 

Literalism ain’t where it’s at!

Think of this night as a soul engendered hallucination,

Not a product of a bearded God’s wrath;

 

Think of it as a sort of game; think Play Station.”

“But this contradicts what you said before about reprieve!”

“Think of this as a trip,” he said, “a psychedelic vacation.”