The Books of My Numberless Dreams

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 thought this would be an interesting excerpt in light of the posts I’ve been doing recently on so-called “obscene” novels. It features one of the longest questions I’ve ever come across in a Paris Review interview and is entirely the fault of the floundering interviewer, the playwright’s pal.


A critic recently wrote the following paragraph, “Mr. Albee complained with Tiny Alice that people asked questions and would not let the play merely occur to them. He complains of those critics who judge a play’s matter and do not restrict themselves to its manner. Both of these statements tend to a view much in vogue — that art consists principally of style, an encounter between us and the figurative surface of the work. This view reduces ideas to decoration, character to pageant, symbol and feeling to a conveyor belt for effects. It is to shrink art to no more than a sensual response, one kind or another of happening. To some of us this modish view is nihilistic, not progressive.” Now the critic in question has come fairly close to defining a theory that might be got out of, say, Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation or her essay on style. I wonder how closely the critic’s interpretations of your remarks — of the remarks, I guess, that you made most specifically at the Tiny Alice press conference — are true to your own understanding of them.


Well, this critic is a sophist. What he’s done is to misinterpret my attitudes, Miss Sontag’s attitudes, and the attitudes of most respectable creative people. What I said is that I thought it was not valid for a critic to criticize a play for its matter rather than its manner — that what was constituted then was a type of censorship. To give an extreme example, I was suggesting that if a man writes a brilliant enough play in praise of something that is universally loathed, that the play, if it is good and well enough written, should not be knocked down because of its approach to its subject. If the work of art is good enough, it must not be criticized for its theme. I don’t think it can be argued. In the thirties a whole school of criticism bogged down intellectually in those agitprop, social-realistic days. A play had to be progressive. A number of plays by playwrights who were thought very highly of then — they were very bad playwrights — were highly praised because their themes were intellectually and politically proper. This intellectual morass is very dangerous, it seems to me. A form of censorship. You may dislike the intention enormously but your judgment of the artistic merit of the work must not be based on your view of what it’s about. The work of art must be judged by how well it succeeds in its intention.


In other words, what you’re saying is that a critic should separate what he takes to be the thematic substance of a play from the success or lack of success that the author brings to its presentation.


It’s that simple. And critics who do otherwise are damn fools and dangerous, even destructive people. I don’t think it can be argued.

From “The Art of Theater” No. 4 interview with Edward Albee, The Paris Review No. 39, 1966

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.

I wasn’t sure about how things would go at the start. Half of the introduction was devoted to minute observations on the interior design of his country abode and the various bric-a-bracs that reminded me of those awful InStyle celebrity home spreads. The other half was more similar to the introductions done under Gourevitch’s hand, a casual mention of the moments immediately before the participants settle down to chat; under Brigid Hughes’ they were more of a detailed time line of the interviewees literary career up to that point. Unlike either we are given no overview of Miller’s.

Anyway you can imagine my relief when the interview gets going and I realise it’s going to be all about the work. (Hooray!) It’s one of the best interviews I’ve read so far, for Miller shared interesting views with an authoritative tone that was quite mesmerising. It’s also great to read his takes on radio plays, the faults of the younger generation of playwrights and the potential of television drama.

Simply, it’s hard to get good movies, it’s hard to get good novels, it’s hard to get good poetry — it’s impossible to get good television because in addition to the indigenous difficulties there’s the whole question of it being a medium that’s controlled by big business. It took TV seventeen years to do Death of a Salesman here. It’s been done on TV in every country in the world at least once, but it’s critical of the business world and the content is downbeat.

Another intriguing part of the interview is that Miller spent some time on current problems of the theatre world, specifically a controversy with a permanent repertory group that had been trying to get off the ground but was rejected by most of the acting community. Miller explained that few actors wanted to commit themselves to a contract for a number of years in case they missed their big Hollywood chance. I don’t that the PR interviews ever do that now except in the most general way.

Did you know that The Crucible had anything to do with McCarthyism? I did not. I  had borrowed it from a friend in 6th form, vaguely recalled something about a film starring Winona Ryder (did she?) and was intrigued by the fact that it involved witches.

Overall I got the sense that this was a very interesting, exciting time in the literary establishment and Miller seemed to have so many links with theatre, with Hollywood, that he was in the middle of it all and could tell you so much about it; and on a larger scale, the political landscape with the changing ideas of politics in relation to one’s personal life. You should read it: it’s freely available at the website. (PDF format)

I’ll leave you with Miller on “Method” acting taking over and whether it was right for theatre. He just discussed the reasons for the failure of the permanent repertory company and the interviewer asked him if Lee Strasberg, a director, had influenced the actors.


He’s a great force, and (in my unique opinion, evidently) a force which is not for the good in theatre. He makes actors secret people and he makes acting secret, and it’s the most communicative art known to man; I mean, that’s what the actor’s supposed to be doing. But I wouldn’t blame the Repertory Theater failures on him, because the people in there were not Actors Studio people at all; so he is not responsible for that. But the Method is in the air: the actor is defending himself from the Philistine, vulgar public. I had a girl in my play I couldn’t hear, and the acoustics in that little theatre we were using were simply magnificent. I said to her, “I can’t hear you,” and I kept on saying, “I can’t hear you.” She finally got furious and said to me, in effect, that she was acting the truth, and that she was not going to prostitute herself to the audience. That was the living end! It reminded me of Walter Hampden’s comment — because we had a similar problem in The Crucible with some actors — he said they play a cello with the most perfect bowing and the fingering is magnificent but there are no strings on the instrument. The problem is that the actor is now working out his private fate through his role, and the idea of communicating the meaning of the play is the last thing that occurs to him. In the Actors Studio, despite denials, the actor is told that the text is really the framework for his emotions; I’ve heard actors change the order of lines in my work and tell me that the lines are only, so to speak, the libretto for the music — that the actor is the main force that the audience is watching and that the playwright is his servant. They are told that the analysis of the text, and the rhythm of the text, the verbal texture, is of no importance whatever. This is Method, as they are teaching it, which is, of course, a perversion of it, if you go back to the beginning. But there was always a tendency in that direction. Chekhov, himself, said that Stanislavsky had perverted The Seagull.


What about Method acting in the movies?


Well in the movies, curiously enough, the Method works better. Because the camera can come right up to an actor’s nostrils and suck out of him a communicative gesture; a look in the eye, a wrinkle of his grin, and so on, which registers nothing on stage. The stage is, after all, a verbal medium. You’ve got to make large gestures if they’re going to be able to see it all. In other words, you’ve got to be unnatural. You’ve got to say, “I am out to move into that audience; that’s my job.” In a movie you don’t do that; as a matter of fact, that’s bad movie-acting, it’s overacting. Movies are wonderful for private acting.


Which playwrights did you most admire when you were young?



Well, first the Greeks, for their magnificent form, the symmetry. Half the time I couldn’t really repeat the story because the characters in the mythology were completely blank to me. I had no background at that time to know really what was involved in these plays, but the architecture was clear. One looks at some building of the past whose use one is ignorant of, and yet it has a modernity. It had its own specific gravity. That form has never left me; I suppose it just got burned in.



You were particularly drawn to tragedy, then?



It seemed to me the only form there was. The rest of it was all either attempts at it, or escape from it. But tragedy was the basic pillar.



When Death of a Salesman opened, you said to the New York Times in an interview that the tragic feeling is evoked in us when we’re in the presence of a character who is ready to lay down his life, if need be, to secure one thing — his sense of personal dignity. Do you consider your plays modern tragedies?



I changed my mind about it several times. I think that to make a direct or arithmetical comparison between any contemporary work and the classic tragedies is impossible because of the question of religion and power, which was taken for granted and is an a priori consideration in any classic tragedy. Like a religious ceremony, where they finally reached the objective by the sacrifice. It has to do with the community sacrificing some man whom they both adore and despise in order to reach its basic and fundamental laws and, therefore, justify its existence and feel safe.



In After The Fall, although Maggie was “sacrificed” the central character Quentin survives. Did you see him as tragic or in any degree potentially tragic?



I can’t answer that, because I can’t, quite frankly, separate in my mind tragedy from death. In some people’s minds I know there’s no reason to put them together. I can’t break it — for one reason, and that is, to coin a phrase: there’s nothing like death. Dying isn’t like it, you know. There’s no substitute for the impact on the mind of the spectacle of death. And there is no possibility, it seems to me, of speaking of tragedy without it. Because if the total demise of the person we watch for two or three hours doesn’t occur, if he just walks away, no matter how damaged, no matter how he suffers…


From “The Art of the Theater” No. 2 interview with Arthur Miller, Paris Review No. 38, 1966


(Edited for time change)

My mind is fuzzy, my nostril is blocked, my throat feels icky and the best video rental place in town does not have the version of Jane Eyre that I wanted.

But the owner, shocked and horrified that he did not have a copy ordered it–“Samantha Morton sells it, for me”– and BBC Radio 3 has loads of excellent programming during its Abolition Season, starting Sunday, March 25th. I only mention the items that immediately grabbed my attention; you should go to the website for full listings.

There will be an abolitionist theme to the Choral Evensong for all you Anglicans out there at 11:00 am EDT. This Sunday the service will be aired from Portsmouth Anglican Cathedral. This appears to be something that has been going on for a bit as I happened to catch the one on March 11th and the Reverend’s homily, given at Bristol Cathedral, shared the same theme. His touched on Bristol’s part in the slave trade, being a common port for slave-trade ships. The one at Portsmouth will have a more positive note as the Royal Navy in Portsmouth played a part in suppressing the transatlantic slave trade.

The Lamplighters by Jackie Kay will be on Drama on 3 at 4:00 pm EDT. It’s described as “the lyrical drama [that] explores the heart of enslavement through the experiences of four women, Constance, Mary, Black Harriot and The Lamplighter”. She will also be presenting Words & Music, which follows right after at 5:30 pm, with the usual round of poetry, prose and music, this time chosen for their themes of “slavery and freedom”. Among the artists chosen you’ll be hearing the poetry of Langston Hughes, Emily Dickinson and James Weldon Johnson and the music of Bessie Smith (!!), Beethoven and the Blind Boys of Alabama (who I’ve never heard of so this is bound to be interesting).

For more information on Jackie Kay herself there’s an intriguing introduction to her life and works at Literary Encylopedia which asserts that “The story of Jackie Kay’s life is as fascinating and complex as her literary works. The comparison is significant because several of Kay’s pieces spring from her biography and they are all concerned with the intricate nature of identity.”

Odd note: I got all excited when I spied details of a Sunday feature involving Kwame Dawes where he “evokes the legacy of slavery today in a small town in the American South, incorporating the performance of poetry and music, and interviews with an older generation of black men and women.” But it isn’t until October. What’s the point of mentioning it now? Phooey.

On to the poem. As usual it will have nothing to do with what I’ve typed before. I was in the mood for comfort poetry, what with my nose leaking, so I grabbed Atlas by Jorge Luis Borges, a very hypnotic travelogue that beckons the reader, through prose, poetry and photographs, to travel through countries, histories of philosophy and literature, even the cosmos. I zone out when I read this book. Borges takes you to other dimensions. In one you may come upon Socrates and Parmenides in dialogue and in another you stare at strange creatures…


Sea without end. Fish without
end. Green enclosing cosmogonic serpent–
green serpent and green sea–
the earth encircled. The serpent’s mouth
bites its tail, though it comes from afar,
from the nether confine. The stern
ring pressing us is a tempest’s splendour,
reflections of reflections, shadow and murmur.
It is also the amphisbaena. Its many eyes gaze
eternally one upon another, in an absence
of horror. Each head grossly scents
the irons of war and its spoils.
It was dreamed in Iceland. The gaping seas
have witness it and trembled.
It will return with the cursed
ship armed with dead men’s nails.
Its inconceivable shadow will loom
high above the pale world on the day
of high wolves and splendid agony
of a twilight without name.
Its imaginary image darkens the air.
Toward dawn I saw it all in nightmare.

Jorge Luis Borges translated by Anthony Kerrigan

Before I get into things please tell me what you think of the New Yorker makeover? I’m not fond of it. I don’t appreciate the way graphics dominate the top of the page (on my screen) and I have to scroll, scroll to get to the content. What’s the big deal about that huge embedded cartoon…thing? Eh. Everything else looks all right.

I’ve fallen in love with BBC Radio 3, with its Speech and Drama programmes specifically. This Sunday, the 18th at 4:oo pm EDT it will be Harold Pinter’s play, The Homecoming for Drama on 3. The ads for it were simply delicious. Some fellow was going on about how he simply couldn’t go without his daddy tucking them in at night (when he was younger?), and didn’t daddy simply love to do it, prompting his brother for confirmation in the most sly and insolent way imaginable. I tell you there’s nothing like to the breath of dirty, dirty going ons to get one interested in high brow literature.

And if you love the sea as much as I do, you’ll want to tune in later at 6:30 for “By the Sea”, a Words and Music programme in which Alex Jennings and Fiona Shaw will read sea themed poetry and prose by Bishop, Masefield, Hugo Williams and Charles Dickens interspersed with music written by Britten (!!), Mendelssohn and Mozart, among others.

Saturday will be your last chance to listen to the remarkable Crossing the Bar which is a mixture of any Tennyson poetry to do with the sea, arranged around his long Enoch Arden, with sea songs performed by the excellent acappella trio Coope, Boyes and Simpson. It’s really, really lovely with some fantastic readings of Kraken and The Sea-Fairies. The second is now a favourite of mine due to the way they handled the reading–really made them sound like sirens!

Right then, on to the poem. I’ve had a few Jack Gilbert poems that were printed in The Paris Review waiting to be posted. “Ovid in Tears” has nothing to do with St. Patrick’s Day or the ocean but it’s created a space for itself in my personal landscape.

Ovid in Tears

Love is like a garden in the heart, he said.
They asked him what he meant by garden.
He explained about gardens. “In the cities,”
he said, “there are places walled off where color
and decorum are magnified into a civilization.
Like a beautiful woman,” he said. How like
a woman, they asked. He remembered their wives
and said garden was just a figure of speech,
then called for drinks all around. Two rounds
later he was crying. Talking about how Charlemagne
couldn’t read but still made a world. About Hagia
Sophia and putting a round dome on a square
base after nine hundred years of failure.
The hand holding him slipped and he fell.
“White stone in the white sunlight,” he said
as they picked him up. “Not the great fires
built on the edge of the world.” His voice grew
fainter as they carried him away. “Both the melody
and the symphony. The imperfect dancing
in the beautiful dance. The dance most of all.”