This performance of Bad is helping me stave off the inevitable collectivist creep today. Of all the cloying republics, the art world, with its relentless social righteousness, is often the most suffocating. Just doing my best to lead the hearts of a few artists astray.
Creating art is the process of surprising yourself. And when that happens, when your creation surprises you by what it becomes––by what it was able to become because you stopped trying to control it––there are few things more exhilarating. The same is true of children––of themselves and their creations. I was not prepared for the profundity of my children becoming artists.
In her room at the prow of the house
Where light breaks, and the windows are tossed with linden,
My daughter is writing a story.
I pause in the stairwell, hearing
From her shut door a commotion of typewriter-keys
Like a chain hauled over a gunwale.
Young as she is, the stuff
Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy:
I wish her a lucky passage.
But now it is she who pauses,
As if to reject my thought and its easy figure.
A stillness greatens, in which
The whole house seems to be thinking,
And then she is at it again with a bunched clamor
Of strokes, and again is silent.
I remember the dazed starling
Which was trapped in that very room, two years ago;
How we stole in, lifted a sash
And retreated, not to affright it;
And how for a helpless hour, through the crack of the door,
I thought it was the Pepsi ad. I thought, in the upside down world of progressivism, where fair is foul and foul is fair, this was the hierophantic moment. This was art doing the only thing they believe art is meant to do. This was art as savior, supremely confident in its own righteousness.
But the Pepsi ad turned out to be a mere harbinger––a voice crying in the wilderness. The real apotheosis of progressive art comes as a perfect mixture of millennial scientism and identity politics. It’s even on a show whose title includes the words “saves the world.” It’s so awful, so perfectly progressive, it makes me want to grab Bertolt Brecht by the chin and say, “Look at that, you sonofabitch! You did it! You finally did it!” (Netflix keeps taking the video down. No doubt they are horrified by it.)
Art must never be created to save the world. It must never try to convince Plato that it is worthy of inclusion in the Republic. Never.
To me, the progressive view of art is what Milosz called “dull unconscious power.” Like him, I am against that dull unconsciousness. Art––real art––is a calling up of consciousness.
Years ago, I read a certain interview with Sir Peter Hall. (I have since tried to find it many times, to no avail.) If I recall correctly, he talked about the crazy ways Shakespeare’s plays are sometimes directed and performed. This wasn’t a complaint. He made the point that, thus far, the undeniable quality of the plays has rendered them indestructible. He said something like this: Shakespeare is somewhere smiling; you simply cannot take him down.
But just a few months ago, a group of Neo-Puritan English majors at the University of Pennsylvania did just that. They took down Shakespeare. That is, they righteously took down a portrait of Shakespeare. His race, gender, and possible religious perspective lacked sufficient identity credit. Not even his ambiguous sexuality earned him indulgence.
Not surprisingly, these students learned their religion from the English department faculty. It’s they who originally voted to replace the offending portrait. Also not surprisingly, the faculty had a hard time coming up with an alternative. After all, this was Shakespeare they were trying to replace. Frustrated by the delay, the good students took matters into their own hands, and the space is now sanctified by a picture of Audre Lorde.
This religious revival can be found on campuses throughout the country, and Shakespeare is a favorite target. According to the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, only four of the top 52 universities and colleges in the country currently require an in-depth course on Shakespeare. Finesse your schedule just right, and you can get a degree in English literature from UCLA without ever reading the greatest writer in the English language. Where identity is the doctrine, English departments are the seminaries.
But it’s important to understand that, where Shakespeare is concerned, identity politics aren’t really the issue. They’re just the current weapon of choice in a centuries-long, fascinatingly strange movement to unseat the bard. I say movement, but that sounds too organized. Phenomenon is a better word. Shakespeare has weathered everything from scholars trying to take credit for his work to conspiracy theorists trying to credit others with his work. In To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf highlights the odd tendency of frustrated people to turn their frustration on Shakespeare––even people who have no connection to the literary or theater worlds.
Why? Because Shakespeare is, without question, the best. They hate Shakespeare because his work is so objectively good.
You see, it’s not that Audre Lorde is unworthy or shouldn’t be studied. No. Study her. English literature contains many more voices than it had or allowed in Shakespeare’s time. Make room for them. But here in 2017, like it or not, Shakespeare is still the greatest artist with a pen. Pretending that’s not true is perilous, sure, but it’s also stupid. Students who study literature-sans-Shakespeare learn an art and craft without experiencing its best practitioner. That’s just crazy. To excuse that omission because of Shakespeare’s race and gender––that’s even crazier.
Perhaps your attitude goes something like this: “Well, now you know how women and minorities have felt for millennia.” Fine. You can say that all day long, but at the end of the day you’re still just a bigot making value judgments based on race, gender, and religion.
Anyway, the numbers seem to suggest that the slow excommunication of Shakespeare is under way. And, who knows, perhaps they’ll eventually rid themselves of this insensitive writer who so crassly stands out as better than everyone else.
For my part, I hope they succeed. Again, I think they’re crazy for doing it. But I sincerely hope they succeed.
The Puritans of Shakespeare’s time tried to shut down theaters in the name of the church. The Puritans of our time are trying to turn theaters and academies into their churches. I say get Shakespeare out. Kick him to the other side of the river. Let him build a new Globe. He’s good at that.
In the middle ages, a nearly dead Western theatrical tradition found a new ritual from which to emerge inside the churches of Europe. When it was no longer allowed there, it didn’t die. It flourished because it was set free. Western theater was born again.
For too long our academies have tried to make Shakespeare preach their myopic socio-political sermons. Unsatisfied with the success of that project, they’ve now turned to disparaging him, just like the frustrated Mr. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse.
Good. Let them. Set Shakespeare free. His works will emerge from academia untarnished, showing that Peter Hall was right about their indestructibility. And free from the zealotry of these Neo-Puritans, the plays will be more beautiful than ever.
Shakespeare has faced off with Puritans before. He beat them then. He’ll beat them this time too. Let them do their worst.
THIS YEAR we celebrated 400 years of Shakespeare, and so I directed two Shakespeare plays and one play about Shakespeare. The year was peculiar in that it included three plays I wrote and one I created (This Bird). The remaining play was a Euripides.
At Waterford, we did the first three plays of the year on a beautiful stage built by Dan Whiting. Dan also painted the stage for Twelfth Night and Robin Hood. The mural was painted by Jason Sulivan. The stage was repainted by Madeline Ashton for Iphigenia in Aulis.
by Shakespeare (Waterford, February)
I love this play. This production was hilarious, and the music was beautiful. Twelfth Night and Hamlet mark Shakespeare’s shift from the heart clown to the brain clown. (He brings the heart clown back near the end of his career.) Feste and Sir Andrew are clowns, but they are not Kempe’s type. Sir Toby Belch seems like a character in the shape of Kempe, but lacking his heart––having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof. Falstaff has an intelligence not seen in the earlier Kempe clowns, and yet Shakespeare manages to keep Kempe’s heart the driving force of the character. But there’s no denying that Falstaff was a kind of evolving clown. I wonder if this evolution was what made Kempe leave the company. Sir Toby is a great character, but I think, given the chance, Kempe would have refused to play him. (Photos by Dusty Heuston.)
ROBIN HOOD by Javen Tanner. Directed by Tara Tanner (Waterford, May)
Tara wanted to stage the Robin Hood story, but she couldn’t find a script she liked. She asked if I would write one, and it turned out to be a great project. These annual Lower School plays at Waterford have been wonderful experiences for us over the past ten years. (Photos by Heather Mortenson.)
IPHIGENIA IN AULIS by Euripides (Waterford, May)
Along with Alcestis and The Cyclops, Iphigenia in Aulis is one of my favorite ancient Greek plays. You can read some of my thoughts about this play here. (Photos by Dusty Heuston.)
SLEEPING BEAUTY’S DREAM by Javen Tanner (Sting & Honey, July)
I feel like I’ve written a lot about this one. You can read my original post about writing the play here. It was first performed as a Waterford play, and then we produced a staged reading of it. It was always intended to be a play performed by adults for children and adults. It was lovely to see that happen this year. The cast was spectacular. Hopefully Sting & Honey will be able to produce more theater for young audiences. (Photos by Samantha Kofford Photography.)
THE KING’S MEN by Javen Tanner (Sting & Honey, September – October)
About a year ago, I had the idea for this play: Shakespeare’s company––men who play women––played by women, Shakespeare’s relationship with Anne and Susanna, and an appearance of the ghost of Queen Elizabeth. It turned into something I’m so proud of. I loved working with the women of the cast. It is the first of three plays about Shakespeare. (Photos by Jason Hermansen.)
THE MERCHANT OF VENICE by Shakespeare (Waterford, November)
Another great Shakespeare play. As I’ve watched productions of Merchant over the years, I’ve noticed directors have a hard time accepting the play as a comedy. Not only is it a comedy in the truest sense, it is at times incredibly silly. Most of the characters match up with Commedia stock characters. But the play is also heartwrenching and brutal. Shakespeare realized that laughter opens an audience to feeling tragedy in a deeper way. And Merchant is also a tragedy in the truest sense, meaning there is a sacrifice required. We see the same thing happen with Chekhov and Beckett: so many boring, “deep” productions of plays that are meant to make you laugh heartily so that you can feel deeply. With these plays, you cannot feel the extent of the tragedy without the commitment to the comedy. This Merchant of Venice was silly and heartbreaking, and I was very proud of it. (Photos by Dusty Heuston.)
THIS BIRD OF DAWNING by Javen Tanner (Sting & Honey, December)
This was our ninth year with this piece. I still love it so much. This photo is from last year. New photos coming soon. (Samantha Kofford Photography)
HAPPY NEW YEAR, folks. The Cherry Orchard starts rehearsals next week.
I’ve been thinking about Mars for the past few months. Not the planet, though. I’ve been thinking about the god (Ares, to be more specific).
I’ve just closed a production of Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis. One of the things I love about the play is that it subverts any reductive position you try to take on war. And unlike the traditional war play that focuses only on the men in charge who send our youth into battle, Iphigenia turns our focus to the youth themselves who heed the call and willingly offer their lives.
Is that a good thing? It’s a complicated question. Any thinking person has to be grateful that at certain points in history these young people have done just that. Was it right for Iphigenia? That depends on one’s cultural sense of honor. For Falstaff, probably not. But for Iphigenia, maybe so. Again, it’s complicated. For me it’s clear that there are times when tyranny must be fought, and we owe a great debt to the men and women who do the actual fighting.
So where is Ares in all of this? For most of my life I’ve thought of Ares as a quick-tempered, belligerent warmonger––the way he is portrayed in pop culture. But in working on Iphigenia, I’ve found something different.
I decided to have two choruses in the play. The first chorus was the one in the script, a chorus of women of Chalcis. I added the second chorus, a chorus of Greek soldiers. The main function of the second chorus was to be a visual representation of how Agamemnon allows the massive Greek army to get into his head and fill him with fear. But at one point in my production, this second chorus chanted Homer’s Hymn to Ares.
The Ares of the hymn is brave and ready, but he is also wise and slow to battle. He is a martial artist. His philosophy is peace, and so he understands when the rare occasion arises that peace can only be won through war.
Ares is indeed a god who teaches courage and preparation when it’s time to fight. He is a protector, an ally of order. (Tyranny may be orderly, but it is itself disorder.) However, for the most part, Ares is a god who understands war so well that he is able to steer his supplicants away from its horrors.
It’s appropriate then that last night, after I had locked up the theater, and as I walked to my car, I was thinking about how Ares, the god of war, could also be called a god of peace––that, in a sense, his nature is in opposition to his stewardship. Then I looked up and saw what they call the opposition of Mars, brilliant and “supremely strong.”
HYMN to ARES
Supremely strong Ares,
tough-hearted, shield carrying
guardian of cities,
bronze in armour, brave of hand,
the tireless, spear-sharp
rampart of Olympos,
father of war-winning victory,
the ally of Themis.
You are a tyrant to the rebellious,
a leader to the most just,
you carry the staff of manhood,
you whirl your disc of bright fire across the sky
among the seven tracks of the constellations
where blazing horses bear you forever
beyond the third orbit.
Hear me, helper of mortals,
whose gift is the courage of youth.
From high above, shine down upon our lives
your gentle light and your warrior’s power,
so I may drive away bitter cowardice from my head
and subdue my soul’s beguiling impulse,
so I may restrain the shrill rage in my heart
which excites me to charge
into the chilling din of battle.
Rather, blessed god, give me the courage
to stand my ground within the safe laws of peace,
shunning hostility and hatred
and the fate of a violent death.
This morning, I admit, I feel more like Duke Senior than Hamlet. I enjoy my weekly ritual of yard work, the quiet, the smell of water on the garden soil. Like the Duke, I find “tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, / Sermons in stones, and good in everything. / I would not change it.”
I’m glad the celebration in which I took part happened yesterday. I’m glad today––the actual day––is restful and contemplative.
As I read about the various celebrations happening throughout the world, I feel very connected. I see myself in others’ love for and dedication to the truly astonishing plays and poems of this un-universitied actor from Stratford on Avon.
I know the jealous and the ignorant have long thrown around words like “bardolotry,” but these people have not really looked at the work––not deeply. There is nothing in the world like the body of work written by William Shakespeare. I spend as much of my free time as possible reading poems, plays, and novels, and so I know excellent writing abounds. And I also know that one thing that ties so many of the great writers together is the way they often quote or talk about Shakespeare. He looms. Four hundred years after his death, he still looms.
Right now I am directing Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis, and I have not been surprised to find a phrase here or a line there that is clearly influenced by Shakespeare. I see this often in English translations of ancient works. In this way, Shakespeare continues to improve stories that came before him. I can’t help but think he is somewhere smiling about that.
Perhaps the most thrilling part of this celebration is to see the way Shakespeare is already alive in another generation. I love to see my children and my students fall in love with him as they play his characters. I love to see his words in their mouths like flames on their tongues. Though they do not yet fully comprehend the flame, the pleasurable burn of it will likely never be quelled.
Appropriately, this entire year has been set apart by Shakespeare lovers as a year of celebration. I will add my voice this fall with the first of three plays about Shakespeare, The King’s Men. (The other two are called Sycorax and Kempe.) The King’s Men will be my small offering, my mask on the Dionysian altar.
Four hundred years ago today, the man who wrote the greatest meditation on death set out for that undiscovered country. The shakey signature on his will leads me to believe that he knew it was coming. I wonder: as he contemplated death, did he perhaps consider revising some of Hamlet’s words? Or did he think them through and decide they still rang true?
To be or not to be––that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And, by opposing, end them. To die, to sleep––
No more––and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to––’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep––
To sleep, perchance to dream. Aye, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. There’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
Th’ oppressor’s wrong, the poor man’s contumely,
The pangs of disprized love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveler returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment,
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.