I hope this comes in handy. You’re welcome.
(click to enlarge)
It’s Shakespeare’s Birthday. It has become a regular holiday for me. I always feel compelled to write about it in some way. You can read previous Shakespeare related posts here, here, and here. But this year I’ll just share a few passages that have been on my mind lately. Enjoy.
KING LEAR. I feel this more with each passing day.
No, no, no, no! Come, let’s away to prison:
We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage:
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down,
And ask of thee forgiveness: so we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too,
Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out;
And take upon’s the mystery of things,
As if we were God’s spies: and we’ll wear out,
In a wall’d prison, packs and sects of great ones,
That ebb and flow by the moon.
TIMON. For more than a year now, I have been drawn to Timon. It is so rare in Shakespeare for a leading character to spiral into a complete loss of hope. Macbeth clings to power. Iago clings to destruction. Timon clings to nothing.
I have a tree, which grows here in my close,
That mine own use invites me to cut down,
And shortly must I fell it: tell my friends,
Tell Athens, in the sequence of degree
From high to low throughout, that whoso please
To stop affliction, let him take his haste,
Come hither, ere my tree hath felt the axe,
And hang himself. I pray you, do my greeting.
RICHARD II. I used to think of Richard as being forced into depth of character. I now think the play is much more interesting if the depth is there from the beginning. Along with the rashness and pettiness.
Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs;
Make dust our paper and with rainy eyes
Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth,
Let’s choose executors and talk of wills:
And yet not so, for what can we bequeath
Save our deposed bodies to the ground?
Our lands, our lives and all are Bolingbroke’s,
And nothing can we call our own but death
And that small model of the barren earth
Which serves as paste and cover to our bones.
For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings
CLEOPATRA. She is simply the most amazing female character Shakespeare wrote. I am convinced that he couldn’t stand young men playing his tragic heroines. This passage is the most blatant clue, but there are others.
Will catch at us, like strumpets; and scald rhymers
Ballad us out o’ tune: the quick comedians
Extemporally will stage us, and present
Our Alexandrian revels; Antony
Shall be brought drunken forth, and I shall see
Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness
I’ the posture of a whore.
PROSPERO. This passage never gets old.
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
In his review of The Tree of Life, Roger Ebert said, “There were once several directors who yearned to make no less than a masterpiece, but now there are only a few.” I have observed this same thing in poetry and theater. This is largely due to what the academy has done with the word “Romantic” over the past century. But that’s for another post.
Ebert goes on to say that Terrence Malick, a true Romantic, sets out to create a masterpiece every time he makes a film. I agree. And Malick’s latest, To the Wonder, is no exception. It is soulful and wild. It is bold in these most timid of times.
But my intent is not to write a review. It’s just that when I experience a masterpiece I want to share it.
The Tree of Life cracked me open immediately. To the Wonder took longer. I think this is because I was ready to deal with the me in The Tree of Life. I was not ready to deal with the me in To the Wonder. Where The Tree of Life deals with filial love, To the Wonder deals with the love between a man and a woman, and the love between God and people.
Near the beginning of the film, the priest quotes Ephesians 5:25. I don’t know what translation he quotes, but here is the KJV:
Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it.
I have known this scripture since I was very young. I always took it to mean that husbands should love their wives in the perfect way that Christ loves his people. But Malick turns it on its head. He shows us a priest struggling to commune with God as he spends his days with the sick and the poor. God seems distant and cold to this priest. He longs for God to pour out his love on himself and the people with whom he works. Malick also shows us a woman who yearns to have the love of her husband the way she once had it. What if the correct translation of the scripture, the film seems to ask, is that God loves his people in the emotionally distant way husbands often love their wives?
There is another scripture that says the love of God is the one thing that never runs out or ceases. The film never directly references this scripture, but it does lace this idea throughout. Near the end the woman’s voice says, “Love that loves us… Thank you.”
We climbed the steps…
to the Wonder.
Just over a couple of weeks ago, I began writing a new stage version of Rip Van Winkle. I finished it a few days ago. I have always loved the story, but it was the last play I directed, The Odyssey, that opened my eyes to a whole new way of seeing Rip. He is Odysseus––a strange Odysseus, yes, but Odysseus none the less.
Odysseus is gone for twenty years. So is Rip. Odysseus visits the dead and serves them a drink. So does Rip. Odysseus has a fleeting encounter with his dog when he returns. So does Rip.
But, of course, Rip is also very different from Odysseus. Odysseus faces danger and conflict head-on. Rip avoids confrontation. Odysseus goes from one adventure to another. Rip doesn’t even get in on the game of nine-pins the ghosts are playing. He just watches. Odysseus is restless, obsessed with his goal. Rip is a daydreamer. He sleeps through his odyssey. To quote Stephen Dunn again, Rip belongs to “the untested part [of a man], which never has transcended dread, / or the liar part, which always [speaks] like a citizen.”
Rip might dream of being Odysseus, but he never does anything about it. His inaction becomes a coma. He wakes, suddenly old, most of his contemporaries have passed, and he is in a different country. (He falls asleep before the American revolution, and wakes up after.) How many of our elderly have described their position in a similar way? Old age seems to happen all of a sudden, they say. Loved ones are gone, the country in which they grew up has changed so much that it is unrecognizable.
In this sense, Rip Van Winkle is a wonderful and melancholy Everyman story. Are most of us like Rip? Is Odysseus the part of being human we only dream of? If Odysseus were an actual human being, would he have spent his life merely dreaming of being Odysseus?
Whatever the answer, it is the actual passage of time that is the strongest connection between Rip and Odysseus. As I wrote the play, I spent a lot of time in my office foraging through my bookshelves, reacquainting myself with my favorite poems on the passage of time. When I came to Carl Sandburg’s Timesweep, I read this:
There are hungers
for a nameless bread
out of the dust
of the hard earth,
out of the blaze
of the calm sun.
The bread is nameless. The hunger is time. In the end, will we wake having only dreamt of feeding it?
Listen to Yeats and his ceremony of rhythm.
The Lake Isle of Innisfree
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee,
And live alone in the bee loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.
Last night we closed The Odyssey. As you might imagine, the play had a lot of moving parts. Getting it on its feet was no small task. It’s a long play, and we had a truncated rehearsal schedule. All of this led to our great surprise when our audiences loved the show. But then I remembered that a similar thing happened when I acted in a production of the same script in New York. It was a great deal of work, and we weren’t sure we could pull it off. But then, too, the audiences loved it, and the reviews were great.
What is it about Odysseus’ story that continues to thrill us? I’ve loved it ever since I first read Homer’s telling. And last night when I locked the doors of the theater, I loved it even more.
Most classroom conversations about The Odyssey degenerate into skim milk denouncements of Odysseus’ perceived infidelities, as if the value of a piece of literature depends upon the mores of an ancient culture conforming to our own. What a waste. I’ve tried to imagine an Odyssey wherein Odysseus lives up to our standards, but it ends before he even gets to Troy. He gets an axe to the back of the head for suggesting that his men start a community garden on the ship.
No. The Odyssey thrives to this day because it is so rich in iconography, poetry, symmetry, humanity, and most of all, adventure. It’s a wonderful adventure. It makes our hearts come alive. It makes us want to transcend dread and stop speaking like citizens. It makes us want to quit our land-loving and find our shipwrecks.
“The heart is a compass.”
At first he thought only of home, and Penelope.
But after a few years, like anyone on his own,
he couldn’t separate what he’d chosen
from what had chosen him. Calypso, the Lotus-eaters, Circe;
a man could forget where he lived.
He had a gift for getting in and out of trouble,
a prodigious, human gift. To survive Cyclops
and withstand the Sirens’ song––
just those words survive, withstand, in his mind became a music
he moved to and lived by.
How could govern, even love, compete?
They belonged to a different part of a man,
the untested part, which never has transcended dread,
or the liar part, which always spoke like a citizen. The larger the man, though,
the more he needed to be reminded
he was a man. Lightning, high winds;
for every excess a punishment.
Penelope was dear to him, full of character and fine in bed.
But by the middle years this other life
had become his life. That was Odysseus’s secret,
kept even from himself. When he talked about return
he thought he meant what he said. Twenty years to get home?
A man finds his shipwrecks,
tells himself the necessary stories.
Whatever gods are––our own fearful voices
or intimations from the unseen order
of things, the gods finally released him, cleared the way.
Odysseus boarded that Phaeacian ship, suddenly tired
of the road’s dangerous enchantments,
and sailed through storm and wild sea
as if his beloved were all that ever mattered.
For me, Chekhov is second only to Shakespeare. His plays move me, excite me, bowl me over, delight me. And so it is regretful that I rarely see his plays done well.
Now, I say that, and I realize it sounds very college-boy snobby. But that is not the sentiment at all. When I say “regretful,” I mean it. When I go to see Chekhov, I want it to transport me as I know it can. I want the director, actors, designers, and technicians to succeed. And yet I have to admit that I am often disappointed. I have only seen two productions that I felt succeeded.
Why is that? Can a playwright really be great if his plays are rarely done well? Obviously I believe the answer to that is yes. So is it about education? Do you have to be a literary person who has studied writing and plays to really get it? Absolutely not. Boo. Rubbish. No. I have seen people who rarely ever go to plays and who don’t give a two dollar damn about “great writers” like Chekhov moved to laughter and tears by his plays. So what is it?
Here’s what I think: it’s about understanding how our capacity to feel works. We have been taught to separate tragedy and comedy. If one is present, the other is absent. Now, this is not how we experience our own tragedy and comedy, it’s just how we have been taught to think about it. Chekhov saw that tragedy and comedy are intrinsically connected. He realized that as we open ourselves to comedy, we, at the same time, open ourselves to tragedy––the more we are able to laugh, the more we are able to cry. This is what is meant by “Chekhovian.” (Incidentally, this is exactly the way Beckett works. Beckett was hugely influenced by Chekhov.)
Directors often miss the mark with Chekhov, because they get caught up in the beautiful, profound, deep tragedy of it all. They neglect the comedy, because they so want the audience to get all that other stuff. But, ironically, by neglecting the comedy they make it impossible for the audience to completely experience the tragedy. With Chekhov (and with Beckett), you cannot sound the depths of the tragedy without immersing yourself in the comedy. The comedy is the path to the tragedy. What is brutal and sad in Chekhov is also––at the very same moment––hilarious.
Happy birthday to Anton Chekhov.
While they are talking, Arkadina and Polina are setting up a card table in the middle of the room.
TRIGORIN: Not a very nice welcome from the weather. You couldn’t fish in this wind. If it dies down by morning, I’ll go out to the lake. Incidentally, I want to take a look at that place in the garden––where you had your play. I’ve got a new story and I want to refresh my memory of the scene.
MASHA: Father, can you let Semion have a horse, he has to get home.
SHAMRAEV: A horse? Get home? See for yourself, they’ve only just been to the station. I can’t send them out again.
MASHA: They aren’t the only horses. Talking to you is like…
MEDVEDENKO: I’ll walk, Masha, really…
POLINA: Walk, in this weather… Come along, then, everyone who’s playing.
MEDVEDENKO: It’s only a few miles. Goodbye. (Kisses Masha’s hand.) Goodbye, Mother.
Polina reluctantly holds out her hand for him to kiss.
MEDVEDENKO: I wouldn’t have wanted to be a nuisance, but the baby… Well… goodbye. (He bows to everyone and goes out apologetically.)
SHAMRAEV: He’ll make it alright.
(from a version by Tom Stoppard)