Don’t Hate Me Because I’m Beautiful: Shakespeare and the Neo-Puritans

Shakespeare Penn
The Offending Portrait

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.

UCLAThis 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.

Graves Shakespeare QuoteYou 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.

He’s still smiling.

Billy

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Start With a Murdered Dog

…while we have and occasionally use the capacity to let art veer toward and partake of that awe in the religion from which it was untimely ripped, so we also have the capacity to pervert these impulses toward the dramatic, to oppress and to enslave each other. (Please note that as we exercise these impulses, we do not say we wish to “oppress and enslave”––we say we want to “help, teach, and correct.” But the end is oppression.) –David Mamet

Curious-West-End-June15-16
Royal National Theatre production photo

I recently saw The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. I read the play some time ago, and thought it was just ok. But when I learned that the movement directors of this production were the guys from Frantic Assembly, I knew I needed to see it. Their production of Lovesong had a lasting impact on me. They really understand how to take a script and make it into theater.

The show was excellent. I recommend it.

I saw it with a group of my students. I often speak to them about understanding the difference between ritual and propaganda, since so much of the art world they experience is really just pamphleteering for some issue or other. It’s not often I get to simply sit and experience a piece of contemporary ritual with them.

There’s a lot of talk about how art leaves us with things to think about. But that’s actually not what great art does. (That’s what propaganda tries to do, though it usually only succeeds in telling you what to think. While ritual opens the mind, propaganda directs the mind and calls that directing “opening.”). Great art leaves us with what Samuel Beckett calls “profounds of mind.” And as he points out, these profounds of mind are not thoughts. Thought is a familiar, daily experience. Profounds of mind are more rare. They feel different than thoughts, but they are not emotions. They are of the mind without exactly being thought. They tend to occur not only when the heart is in a state of vulnerability, but when the mind is as well. They are not arrived at. They bloom. Curious Incident left me with profounds of mind.

The play afforded this experience without a message. There was no agenda. No moral. No pitch. No supposedly unanswered questions (which conveniently have only one acceptable answer). No trite exposé. No false conflict set up to give the illusion of two sides of the argument. No attempt to teach, or nudge the audience toward a particular worldview. No horrific meddling by some ludicrous centralized beneficence.

Just ritual. Just depth and humanity.

Ritual opens the heart. It leaves the heart raw and vulnerable. And in that state, the heart is ready to listen and love. Ritual is more powerful than any propaganda. Theatrical ritual will make the world a better place more effectively than any play about making the world a better place.

It’s important to understand that theater––real theater––is ritual. Western theater came from Dionysus worship in Ancient Greece. When it all but disappeared during the dark ages, its re-emergence came through the churches of Catholic/early Protestant Europe. But it’s not religion that matters. It’s the act of ritual. It’s the act of telling stories with our voices and bodies, not to arrive at some tidy conclusion, but to arrive at a moment of transcendence, a moment of contact with the intangible part of what it is to be human.

And, yes, ritual is difficult. Sometimes exquisitely difficult. Propaganda is easy. Shamefully easy. That is why most of what we see is propaganda. Ritual requires the artist to let go of prejudice––not just the prejudice we see as bad, but all prejudice. Propaganda is, by definition, prejudice. Ritual requires the artist to understand what Keats meant when he wrote about Negative Capability, the artist’s ability to disappear from the offered piece.

How does one do that? Well, that’s the same question as “how does one create art,” since Negative Capability is at the core of artistic creation. But that’s another, very involved blog post––or book, for that matter. Suffice it to say it’s mostly hard work and letting go. Curious Incident started with a murdered dog. Give that a shot.

When the play was done, I didn’t have to say anything. The students and their red-rimmed eyes knew what had happened.

Some of them will go on to study theater in college, where they will likely be told it is their moral duty to make propaganda, to become political worker bees. And some of them will buy into it.

But some of them will take to heart experiences like seeing Curious Incident, let those experiences carry their understanding of ritual forward, and become artists.

A Man Finds His Shipwrecks: The Odyssey

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’ 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.”

The Odyssey

Odysseus’s Secret

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. –Stephen Dunn

Rehearsal Shot: Campfire on the Island of Thrinacia
Rehearsal Shot: Campfire on the Island of Thrinacia