Archive for the ‘Drama’ Category
As my regular readers know I’ve been having quite the ball with Ted Hughes’ A Choice of Shakespeare’s Verse. One of its pleasant side effects is that I’m remembering particular performances of plays which is great as the delivery and inflection is almost always better than what I can come up with on my own. There are also some speeches that sound awfully familiar but when I check the index it’s from a play I didn’t even remember that Shakespeare wrote it. A great example of this is Gaunt’s speech in King Richard II which appears to be a popular and very selectively quoted excerpt. Here is the bit everyone online loves:
This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,—
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.
and here is the rest of it.
This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,
Fear’d by their breed and famous by their birth,
Renowned for their deeds as far from home,—
For Christian service and true chivalry,—
As is the sepulchre in stubborn Jewry
Of the world’s ransom, blessed Mary’s Son:
This land of such dear souls, this dear, dear land,
Dear for her reputation through the world,
Is now leas’d out,—I die pronouncing it,—
Like to a tenement, or pelting farm:
England, bound in with the triumphant sea,
Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege
Of watery Neptune, is now bound in with shame,
With inky blots, and rotten parchment bonds:
That England, that was wont to conquer others,
Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.
(Probably not the best choice if you’re interested in recalling England’s glory.)
But what I want to get everyone excited about is the 1953 Julius Caesar starring Marlon Brando as Antony. When I first saw it earlier this year I was rather sceptical of how Brando would make out. I’d only seen Sayonara, The Godfather, and had vague memories about A Streetcar Named Desire and Guys and Dolls. Popular raptures about the mafia film and On The Waterfront aside, I thought, this is Shakespeare and I’m kind of horrified at all the ways I easily imagine he could wrangle it. Still, it’s Shakespeare so I want to see it. And I did and I was very, very pleased. He’s pretty much my Marc Anthony so when I came across two of the characters speeches I could only imagine Brando reaching out to the crowd, giving sly side-way glances at Brutus, assuring us that he was “an honourable man” if misguided.
To close Sunday Salon I’m leaving with you a clip of the climatic “dogs of war” speech that Antony says over Caesar’s corpse. It gives me chills every time I see or imagine it.
One of the Christmas gifts I’ve been enjoying lately, that offered fresh relief from crazy wizard punching bags, and, a stimulating change when trying to lengthen my time with James Hogg’s more proactive lunatic, is A Choice of Shakespeare’s Verse by Ted Hughes, first printed in 1971. I first thought it would contain sonnets, perhaps songs and similarly obvious poetry-like pieces from his drama, and maybe some other poems that I did not know about. Hughes did pick from there but also pulled liberally from Shakespeare’s plays, culling famous passages like “Now is the winter of our discontent” and longer excerpts from works like the Rape of Lucrece ( which I’d never heard of before).
Hughes’ introduction is, in one aspect, what I first imagined introductions to classics were like before I studied them in high school: very light on analysis, brief and, well, introductory. The “Notes”, placed after the main, is where he delves into examining the writer, his time, and his works. I tied this arrangement to Hughes’ opinion that “the great speeches of his [Shakespeare's] plays…taken out of context…are no more difficult to understand an appropriate than poems by other great poets”. Keeping to that he also left citation of each selections sources to the index, so one is not immediately of which play, scene, or character of any verse unless it is one with which one is already familiar. Hughes even showed how readily and or more understandable Shakespeare’s drama excerpts could be by comparing one from Macbeth with an abstruse Yeats poem.
The lack of visible labelling made me grumble initially but I quickly warmed to it. It’s quite fun trying to figure out which speech is from which play, especially when the lines strum along the neurons easily but I discover that I’ve never read the play before. It was rather uncanny how quickly I connected a soliloquy to Richard III (before he got to the “look how ugly I am” bits) even though he said it, not in his own drama, but in Henry IV.
And afterall, if Shakespeare’s plays really do cover and encompass every human emotion and experience, as its so popularly said, that should make parts of them perfectly suitable for parcelling.
An outrageous conversation on the merits of keeping one’s virginity from All’s Well That Ends Well — “Virginity, being once lost, may be ten times found: by being ever kept, it is ever lost. ‘Tis too cold a companion: away with’t!” — is one of the most memorable I’ve come across so far, but it is the Henry IV excerpts that have my fingers wriggling for a full-length copy. Those, together with the ones from King John, create a picture of an England in turmoil, a beloved country about to or already run over by scum and ruffians, influential persons who lack all good judgement and in no position to offer good stewardship. It’s developed in such a way so as to connect to a higher, more general sense of worldly , even cosmological disorder, and to the characters’ personal, conflicting emotions and dilemmas. All of that hits at my Shakespearean weak spots; contrary to my taste in all other areas of fiction, it is his tragedies and historical dramas that I love. In those worlds the stakes — personal, political, moral, spiritual — are always high and that feeling that world is on the brink of destruction, or at the very least influx, demands my attention and anticipation. The comedies, with their fairies, cross-dressing women and silly forest romps cannot compete with that. (So says I who have only readAs You Like It and part of The Tempest. Yes, I know that the second has a bit of that, especially with the post-colonial readings, but it’s just not the same.)
But it all starts and ends with the lines and, boy, Henry IV is full of it. Not only did Richard III’s “Well, say there is no kingdom for Richard” beat “Now is the winter” in his own self-titled play, I finally got a before and after of the famous “Up, vanity!” which cemented the play’s inevitable addition to my TBR pile. Here was a character who felt as impotent (in this speech, at least) as Hamlet in the face of an usurper, but who registered a pain and rage that felt more red hot and closer to bursting at the tethers. (Granted, Hamlet did seem pretty het up when he caught Claudius praying in the church.) The speech’s closing image in the last two lines of a desolate England was a clincher.
O! thou will be a wilderness again,
Peopled with wolves, thy old inhabitants.
Or what about these in a scene where an obviously older character warns an “ungracious boy” against the company he keeps?
Why dost thou converse with that trunk of humours, that bolting-hutch of bestliness, that swoln parcel of dropsies, that huge bombard of sack, that stuffed cloakbag of guts, that roasted Manningtree ox with the pudding in his belly, that reverend vice, that grey iniquity, that father ruffian, that vanity in years? Wherein is he good but to taste sack and drink it? wherein neat and cleanly but to carve a capon and eat it? wherein cunning but in craft? wherein crafty but in villainy? wherein villanous but in all things? wherein worthy but in nothing?
Wow. In the boy’s place I’d probably pledge to drop all unapproved pals immediately. (Naturally, the hyperbolic vitriol calls it all into question. Still, imagine standing in the onslaught of that tirade.) Lest you think Henry IV is all spit-flying rage and animosity, Hughes also selected a hilarious monologue on “a good sherris-sacks“‘ positive mental and physical effects (spoken by the fellow excoriated in the previous passage).
The sonnets astonish with their cleverness, as usual, but rarely ever rise to the enviable position of favourites. I leave you with some lines that hint at the possibility that I underestimate the comedies’ potential. I was certainly surprised when I flipped to the index to find their source. (Probably false advertising. No doubt they’re doing a jig while they sing accompanied by a kazoo or something.)
Now the hungry lion roars,
And the wolf behowls the moon;
Whilst the heavy ploughman snores,
All with weary task fordone,
Now the wasted brands do glow,
Whilst the screech-owl, screeching loud,
Puts the wretch that lies in woe
In remembrance of a shroud.
Now it is the time of night
That the graves, all gaping wide,
Every one lets forth his sprite,
In the church-way paths to glide:
And we fairies, that do run
By the triple Hecate’s team,
From the presence of the sun,
Following darkness like a dream,
Now are frolic; not a mouse
Shall disturb the hallow’d house;
I am sent with broom before,
To sweep the dust behind the door.
I own a vague memory of reading this play in grade 9 but I may as well have come to it for the first time for this second read. In a rare turn of events the preface, written by Shaw, is as energetic and memorable a piece as the play. He displayed dissatisfaction with previous historical and fictional accounts of Joan of Arc’s life; exhibited a Protestant take on the saint’s actions while rejecting (what he described as) the virulent anti-Catholicism in the Victorian Protestant perspective; briefly elucidated religious, historical and political aspects of medieval Catholic Christendom, often by comparing it to his modern times; and tops it off by concurrently explaining certain authorial decisions and puncturing shallow, fashionable interest in theatre. It may seem like quite a lot to take in but Shaw deals with his many points in only one or two pages, often less, and revealed a wonderful capability of treating serious ideas both sombrely and with humour, one that is reflected in the play.
He makes some very good points on how an understanding of Joan is often hindered by the typical mistakes people make by confusing the middle ages with the dark ages, the blanket assumption that the participants in the Vatican’s Inquisition were morally dark monsters, engaging in the most heinous acts at the slightest provocation, and the modern persons smug assurance that the human race has only been on a steady, wholesale march to improvement from then on.
As to the assessor’s [at Joan d'Arc's trial], the objection to them is not that they were a row of uniform rascals, but that they were political partisans of Joan’s enemies. This is a valid objection to all such trials; but in the absence of neutral tribunals they are unavoidable. A trial by Joan’s French partisans would have been as unfair as the trial by her French opponents; an an equally mixed tribunal would have produced a deadlock. Such recent rials as Edith Cavell by a German tribunal and Roger Casement by an English one were open to the same objection; but they went forward to the death nevertheless, because neutral tribunals were not available. Edith, like Joan, was an arch heretic: in the middle of the war she declared before the world that ‘Patriotism is not enough’. She nursed enemies back to health, and assisted their prisoners to escape, making it abundantly clear that she would help any fugitive or distressed person without asking whose side he was on, and acknowledging no distinction before Christ between Tommy and Jerry and Pitou the poilu. Well might Edith have wished that she could bring the Middle Ages back, and have fifty civilians, learned in the law or vowed to the service of God, to support two skilled judges in trying her case according to the Catholic law of Christendom, and to argue it out with her at sitting after sitting for many weeks. The modern military Inquisition was not so squeamish. It shot her out of hand; and her countrymen, seeing in this a good opportunity for lecturing the enemy on his intolerance, put up a statue to her, but took particular care not to inscribe on the pedestal ‘Patriotism is not enough’, for which omission, and the lie it implies, they will need Edith’s intercession when they are themselves brought to judgment, if any heavenly power think such moral cowards capable of pleading to an intelligible indictment.
The point need be no further laboured. Joan was persecuted essentially as she would be persecuted today. The change from burning to hanging or shooting may strikes us as a change for the better. The change from careful trial under ordinary law to recklessly summary military terrorism may strike us as a change for the worse. But as far as toleration is concerned the trail and execution in Rouen in 1431 might have been an event of today; and we may charge our consciences accordingly. If Joan had to be dealt with by us in London she would be treated with no more toleration that Miss Sylvia Pankhurst, or the Peculiar People, or the parents who keep their children from the elementary school, or any of the others who cross the line we have to draw, rightly or wrongly, between the tolerable and the intolerable.
Shaw wrote the preface in 1924 and I do not find the core of his remarks less salient close to a century later. As a reader I found myself stubbornly holding on to my assumptions as Shaw did his best to wrest them away in his criticism of the Catholic church at the time with his dedicated stance to analysing the situation as any proper historian would — in the context of the times, with an eye to the moral, philosophical, social, and practical constraints of the time rather than with the hindsight of the 20th century values. (In other words, I was looking for comfortable blanket condemnation and was presented with something more complex. How awful of him.) His criticism of scientists and the scientific community I found to be considerably weaker. He rightly mocked, in an almost merciless manner, how the general public takes as gospel any new piece of information scientists provide without being able to even attempt a simple explanation of any of it.
In the Middle Ages people believed that the earth was flat, for which they had at least the evidence of their senses: we believe it to be round, not because as many as one percent of us could give the physical reasons for so quaint a belief, but because modern science has convinced us that nothing that is obvious is true, and that everything that is magical, improbably, extraordinary, gigantic, microscopic, heartless, or outrageous is scientific.
He was quick to assert that he only wishes to defend his “own age against the charge of being less imaginative than the Middle Ages” but I could not shake the impression that he held something more than a healthy scepticism about the existence of atoms. He presented the differences between the ages in too simplified a difference for my taste, and does it throughout, perhaps in an admittedly acknowledged attempt and knocking down assumptions we hold about the past and the present. In any case, it was only 1924.
From the quotes one can see that Shaw is pretty in-your-face about his ideas and Saint Joan, while a more subtle work in comparison the preface, is not so to a remarkable difference. Words like “Nationalism” and “Protestantism” are sprinkled into the script, and Shaw’s ideas about English patriotism, as mentioned in the preface, are easily discerned in the actions and lines of certain characters. My disappointment at the ideas being so readily discernible, at least superficially not being under the impression that I’ve understood the book inside out, did not significantly impede on the play’s quality until the horrid epilogue. (Is there a good one in existence, I’d like to know.) Shaw damns subtlety and goes for an all out maudlin reunion of Joan d’Arc’s and all her colleagues’ ghosts in the bedroom of King Charles VII, the man she crowned King. They are even visited by a Vatican official from the future who lets her know that she became a saint.
The play’s plot charts selected major moments of Joan’s life, from her fateful meeting with Robert de Baudricourt in order to gain access to the Dauphin to her excommunication by the Catholic church and burning by the “secular arm” of rule. To my delight Shaw did not skimp on stage directions, and the reader is able to imagine the actors moving on stage and intoning lines as the writer intended. (Perhaps this is how it is with modern plays?) In fact, I would often re-read lines because I did not think that my mind’s reading voice matched Shaw’s direction.
Joan as a character on the page did make the deep impression Shaw intended, particularly during her brief speeches in which she expressed the most fervour. With her and with other characters Shaw, as in his preface, is able to combine humour satisfactorily with weighty issues, which makes his thinly veiled ideas a lot easier to swallow. No character was written without given some breadth or hint of multi-dimensions, not even the spoiled, cowardly Dauphin who complained when his army was losing, when he was crowned, and when his stance had been made secure by a rehabilitation of Joan’s reputation after her death.
The only strange thing I noticed was how British the play was even though it was about a French, Roman Catholic figure. When I first started reading I tried to impose a French accent on the dialogue, but gave up on the second page because the characters’ cadence and idiom were distinctly English. I’m sure there’s something in that but I’m a bit too tired to think about what that is at the moment, so my apologies.
All in all, a very good read. I’m looking forward to reading more plays while I still remain interested in the form, from Shaw and other writers. If you’d like to recommend any in comments, please do so.
Cross-posted at Outmoded Authors with some changes.
I wanted to share some links that I’ve had whiling away in mental compartments, waiting for a neat crook to be placed in. It never materialised so, here you go.
I have not posted about my beloved BBC Radio 3 for some time. I neglected it only to be punished by sharp heart spasms when I saw that I had missed a “Town and Country” themed “Words and Music” and a radio play of Gilgamesh and Wilde’s An Ideal Husband on Drama 3. Well, never mind. There are Shakespeare celebrations of which to partake: a “semi-staged” Glyndebourne production of Verdi’s Macbeth, backed by London Philharmonic orchestra and conducted by Vladimir Jurowski. The conductor described it as a piece that “challenges opera”.
This week’s Essay featured Ian Sansom, a “self-confessed bibliomaniac” who, from Monday to Thursday, set out to explore the historical background and culture of the “condition”. Last part airs tonight 6:00 PM eastern but all are available for a week afterwards, as usual.
Drama on 3 is all about Shakespeare as well. Last week’s offering was an adaptation of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (still available for the usual 7 days after airing) and this Sunday it is The Two Gentleman of Valasna adapted from a Shakespeare play of a similar name. It’s set and therefore was in India with an all Indian cast so that makes it all the more intriguing, yes?
Last week on “Word and Music” was a childhood themed affair complete with poetry by Sylvia Plath, prose by William Golding and music from Rufus Wainwright and Schumann. This Sunday’s schedule makes a leap to the beast, so look forward to lots of goodies from Ted Hughes, Lewis Carrol and Elizabeth Bishop. All audio links require Real Player.
We move from England to France. Last week at A Different Stripe a little catalogue having to do with everything French, from food to literature to art, was made available for download as a small commemoration for Bastille Day. It’s an orgy of goodies, trust me. Of course I scrolled down for my beloved classics and mooned at all the novels I have yet to buy. I only have four from the lot so far, but my Dundy should be on its way and Dirt For Art’s Sake has made me eye Flaubert and Madame Bovary: A Double Portrait with new interest. (I know, I know: me and a biographical study? Stranger things have happened.)
Finally we have a sale! Poking around the Yale Press blog and website led me to its 50% off sale. This is quite a catch as many university press books are notoriously expensive. Their catalogues do tend to be diverse and interesting though. Sure enough my eyes snagged on Intrigue by Allan Hepburn, a book all about British, Irish and American spy fiction: how its responded to “historical contingencies” and why one finds them so attractive. Solovoki just sounds rather awesome: “Located in the northernmost reaches of Russia, the islands of Solovki are among the most remote in the world. And yet from the Bronze Age through the twentieth century, the islands have attracted an astonishing cast of saints and scoundrels, soldiers and politicians.” I’m attracted to Mary Through the Centuries primarily because of the detail of the Martini painting that graces the cover. And for the performing arts there’s Sleeping Beauty, a Legend in Progress by Tim Scholl.
Those are only from the “Humanities” section. The opportunity of getting a uni press book for $20 is thrilling. I usually have to spare my pocket and borrow from the library.