Thursday, September 30, 2010

Summer Reading: Inferno (canto 33)

In an oubliette, one man sits atop another, gnawing thru the skull to his brain. The cannibal is Count Ugolino; his victim a Pisan archbishop. The prelate accused Ugolino of treachery (evidently justly, since here the Count is!). But Ugolino focuses on how he was imprisoned with his sons; it's ambiguous but probable that he ate them to survive. Dante slides downward to Ptolomea, resting place of those who murder their guests. Faces upward, their tears freeze in their sockets! Here we learn that, the moment a person betrays, a devil overtakes its body & casts its soul into Hell.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Summer Reading: Inferno (canto 32)

Silence hangs over the final circle, where the rivers of Hell empty into a frozen lake. Here, the worst sinners are immobilized in icy oubliettes, thousands of heads sticking out with blue faces & clacking teeth. There are four concentric rings of sinners, distinguished only by the position of the heads. In the first, Caina (named for the first murderer & holding sinners who betrayed relatives, naturally), heads face down. In the second, Antenora (betrayers of their homelands, after a Trojan turncoat), eyes look forward. All the while, gravity grows stronger as we near the Earth's center.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Summer Reading: Inferno (canto 31)

This deep into the Inferno, the murk fouls up Dante's sense of perspective: what he mistakes for towers ringing the edge of the Malebolge are actually giants, 70 feet tall or more, standing just beyond the Malebolge in Tenth Circle! One speaks a barbarous nonsense, the language of Babel; another is straitjacketed in chains; a third, the tallest yet, lowers Dante to the floor of Hell at Virgil's command. Many of them are the titans that attempted to overthrow Jove. Link that to Babel, and you realize that the Tenth Circle holds, among others, those who would depose God Himself!

Monday, September 27, 2010

Summer Reading: Inferno (canto 30)

Add to the alchemists, counterfeitors and con artists of the tenth Malebolge impersonators (exemplified by Myrra, an Ovidian character who disguised herself to seduce her father) and misrepresentors (especially Potiphar's wife, who failed to seduce Joseph & so accused him of rape in Genesis). Fraud is the overarching sin of the Ninth Ring, and the most damnable fraud is false creation, a lie that impersonates or enacts a fiction and, in a sense, overwrites the truth. That's why Dante is so very careful to proclaim his creative cosmology as divinely ordained: the orthodox might accuse him of this very sin.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Summer Reading: Inferno (canto 29)

Once again, Dante weeps at the sight of so many damned souls; once again, Virgil chastises him for his too-soft heart & reminds him that all the torture is divinely ordered. This repetition reminds me that Dante's in-poem self is a medieval character, not a modern one: his essence doesn't change. But in this Christian context (& the allegorical style of medieval narrative), Dante's tears & mercy ally him with the Son of God. So, clockwise and down into the final Malebolge, where alchemists, counterfeitors, & other con artists are literally plagued: covered with diseased scabs & festering sores.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Summer Reading: Inferno (canto 28)

Here's a surprise: Mohammad languishes in the ninth Malebolge among the schismatics, not with the blasphemers in the seventh Ring. Evidently, Dante sees Islam as a (particularly perverse) offshoot of Christianity rather than a religion unto itself. The Prophet and his fellows in this ditch are, fittingly, hacked and severed like men on a battlefield, a concrete symbol of the dissension they fomented among the faithful. Dante begins the canto with a striking description of a battlefield. Here and elsewhere, he alludes to his service in the Battle of Campaldino, a decisive event in Florence's civil wars—another schism, of course!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Summer Reading: Inferno (canto 27)

The central character of this canto goes unnamed but his actions are supplied in such detail that he must be a Dante's near-contemporary. Like Ulysses, the soul gave shifty advice with a silver tongue. And he counseled a pope who waged war upon his fellow Christians. From what I've read, I'd say Dante's not too enamored of popes, but maybe that's just because I've only read Inferno so far? There's an Italian proto-nationalism that looks back to Rome & Troy and lingers (Virgil-like) over the geography of the peninsula. But Dante's political philosophy is hard to make out.

Theater: Title Bout (September 23)

Every week, I compose listings on the week's new plays for Metromix NY. I'm often disappointed by the titles that playwrights choose for their work, so I'm reviewing their titles now. Not the shows (I haven't seen them yet) just the titles. To read about the content of each show, click through its link to my listings on Metromix NY.

The title doesn't allude to La Belle et la Bete (AKA the French fairy tale Beauty & the Beast), but that's an easy mistake to make. But why use the French? It's confusing & pretentious. I'll bet it even drives away potential ticket-buyers. And sadly, I've noticed sites listing this as Le Bete and ignoring the caret over the first 'e' (or, in Metromix's case, unable to find the correct coding). Shoddy titles like La Bete are why I began this column.

I covered this one Off-Broadway in my second Title Bout ever. But to revisit. This biodrama follows the convention of titling itself after its subject. But the doubling of “Bloody” adds a kick & a rhythm, implying the musical genre. It also adds a touch of shame to the president's name/legacy, which is cool.

One-word titles are better with concepts like this than with names & objects. Delusion isn't thrilling but it's got potential, since delusion can be a powerful motivation, a theme treated with complexity, or the implication of an expressionistic style.

As usual, a festival gets an ugly utilitarian title. “Downtown” does imply a certain style of theater―which the fest's content delivers―but it's uninspired. And I'll bet there's no Spring Downtown Festival, which would make the “Fall” necessary. If only it were a pun instead.

I'm of two minds here. This is a clever way to suggest an adaptation of The Great Gatsby, and it avoids the clumsy convention of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. But it's also esoteric: a reference to Jay Gatsby's real name, which only Fitz-o-philes will recognize without prompting. I'll call it a win, just because a title that makes you think is better than one that doesn't.

Not bad: an open phrase implying a theme and a state of being. But not great either: it's pretty generic, too bland to tempt an audience.

It's precise, which is surprisingly rare for a title. You can also infer the subject (linguistics) pretty confidently. The slightly technical sound hints at a hard style & possibly scientific or academic setting. But that's all conjecture; there's an enigma to The Language Archive that works in its favor.

For a wordsmith, Mamet isn't the best at names. Glengarry Glen Ross has euphony, Sexual Perversion in Chicago has sex. But most of his titles are bland, with this one as an especially dull case. At least we know the genre: a backstage drama.

Another biodrama with its subject on the marquee. The fame of NFL's greatest coach has tarnished over the decades, as fame inevitably does (he's due for a mention on Mad Men, isn't he? I guess Super Bowl I is next season). But if you're the audience for Lombardi, you recognize the name.

You could opine that this phrase is insubstantial―that it merely builds theme or atmosphere, not plot or subject. That it's vague, unless the show's about the nature of time (unlike, though I'd like that). But I like it for those reasons. It's slightly abstract and also poetic, albeit a bit cliché. I've got to admit it's not great but I kind of like it.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Summer Reading: Inferno (canto 26)

Into the ninth crevasse of the Malebolge and one of the most highly praised episodes of Dante's Comedy. Here, dissemblers are consumed by fire. One flame contains Ulysses (AKA Odysseus), punished for his diabolical stratagem of the Trojan Horse. Or maybe it's his hubris: Ulysses relates how he urged his sailors beyond Gibraltar. Far to the south, he saw—not Hades, as Homer had it, but the tallest mountain on Earth. It's the Mount of Purgatory, which Dante is heading towards! Dante sees himself in the intrepid warrior, but unlike the dissembler, his exploration will confirm God's truths.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Summer Reading: Inferno (canto 25)

There's no break in action between the cantos 24 & 25: to punctuate his hatred of good, a thief gives God the fig with both thumbs! His burst of blasphemy prefaces the darkest, most horrific episode of the entire Inferno. A six-legged serpent scurries up to another robber and latches itself to his torso. Then it melds with him, turning him into a hideous monster. A second lizard stabs another person in the belly. The dumbfounded soul and his reptilian torturer mingle essences till they resemble each other: two deformed hybrids scuttle off. Thus does sin deform the soul!

Monday, September 20, 2010

Summer Reading: Inferno (canto 24)

With the bridges in the Malebolge collapsed, Dante must climb the scree to continue. In a strange twist of medieval physics, Virgil (who is weightless, being a soul without a body) hoists Dante from below. Finally, they reach the eighth ditch, which is filled with snakes! These vipers stab right through the terrorized sinners, who catch fire, turn to ash, and then, in a parody of the Resurrection, are reconstituted. Chilling! Dante recognizes one soul, a Florentine damned for jacking a church. The man prophecies that his party, the Blacks, will triumph over Dante's Whites—and so they would.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Summer Reading: Inferno (canto 23)

Virgil hustles his charge away from their demonic escort (Dante compares him to a mother rescuing her child from fire), over a berm and into the next crevasse. The Malebolge's sixth ditch holds the hypocrites, clad in lead cloaks. Dante chats with a pair of Florentine officials who sold the city out to the Pope, then he notices Caiaphas, the Pharisee who convinced Pilate to execute Christ. The priest, ironically, is also crucified: nailed to the ground so his fellow hypocrites walk over him. To the poet, then, hypocrisy is a sort of betrayal of political beliefs.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Summer Reading: Inferno (canto 22)

This comedic canto is straight out of a medieval play. The damned in this ditch arch their backs to ease their cramping and so, dolphin-like, break the surface of the molten pitch. Dante's demonic escort hooks one with a harpoon and starts tearing his flesh. But like his fellows in this area, the poor bastard is a barrator (a lawyer who repeatedly files suits simply to harrass) and he manages to start an argument among the demons! As they fight, they let go of him and then, when they give chase, they tumble into the burning tar. Slapstick!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Summer Reading: Inferno (canto 21)

Part one of a two-canto arc. At the Malebolge's fifth ditch, winged demons use hooks to snag & torture the unfortunate souls who lift their heads out of burning pitch. It's a folk vision of Hell, especially the runty, farting demons with ugly Italian names like Scarmiglione. Their captain tells Virgil that one of the stone bridges which span the Malebolge collapsed 1266 years ago (that's 34 AD, when the Crucifixion caused an earthquake). A squad of demons are appointed to guide them through. Dante, never a courageous tourist, thinks an escort is a bad idea…

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Theater: Title Bout (September 9)

Every week, I compose listings on the week's new plays for Metromix NY. I'm often disappointed by the titles that playwrights choose for their work, so I'm reviewing their titles now. Not the shows (I haven't seen them yet) just the titles. To read about the content of each show, click through its link to my listings on Metromix NY.

This punchy title does a good job of focusing our attention. Viewers know to pay attention to whether the characters earn forgiveness for their transgressions, and whether they deserve it.

The phrase suggests a cultural flashpoint, with the bigoted nativism of modern American politics. But the use of the plural makes the title more abstract, giving it a hint of postmodern philosophy (“liminal blah blah”). That makes me shy away a bit.

I get a kick out of this title, which sounds like it was invented by a local Chamber of Commerce (“Idaho: we're not small potatoes!”). Knowing the rotten state of the economy & the tendency of drama to portray the American West in a cynical twilight, I'll bet the title's ironic.

An adaptation of a Noel Coward drama & its film version by David Lean. Marketers won't love it: it's too generic & doesn't state outright that it's an adaptation. But the title has a repressed tenor—it's not tells us more than it has to about two people meeting—that fits with the show's content.

In this context, 'Sister' suggests a nun. But by calling her 'divine' rather than 'holy', this title gets a little showy and flamboyant. Not bad.

Generally, I lump words like 'there' with pronouns as too vague. This one tests my rule of thumb, since I suspect it's using 'there' in a euphemistic way, as genitals or hell. Or maybe not, maybe it's just a basement. A savvy writer will the ambiguity and refer to all these connotations.

Sounds like a Beckett play, doesn't it? 'Slash' titles feel awfully post-modern & dated in their use of symbols. And Exit/Entrance is also self-conscious about its theater terminology. Still, the writer gets a point for getting the action backwards: this play occurs between the exit and the entrance, not visa-versa.

I always wonder why The New York City International Fringe Festival is abbreviated FringeNYC. Why not NYCFringe? Either way, the compression into one word is only good in a URL. At least 'Encores' has a theatrical connotation that lifts this above the merely functional.

You can't go wrong with Shakespeare or the Bible. Lillian Hellman quotes The Song of Songs: “Take us the foxes, the little foxes that spoil the vines | For our vines have tender grapes.” Most theologians (mis)interpret this warning as little foxes being casual sins. But in the context of a love poem, the warning's from a frisky gal to her guy. Either way, the meaning's obscure. I'll admit it, I'm not sure what Lil's going for here.

I've always liked the name Orlando, it sounds so exotic. This show adapts Virginia Woolf's novel, not the epic romance or the opera based on it. But I'm glad the producers don't call it “Virginia Woolf's Orlando”, not just cuz that's inaccurate (it's Sarah Ruhl's Orlando) but also cuz that sort of marketing is odious. (See also Brief Encounter, above)

Speaking of romances, this title sounds like a Gothic novel. Why's it so catchy? Check how it's a pair three-syllable feet, stress in the middle. In both, the first syllable's an 'uh' vowel, the middle one's a short 'o'. In the third, 'Prophet' ends in another short vowel, but the long 'o' of 'Monto' caps the phrase. That's poetry.

This sounds to me like a sequel to The Rehearsal (a Restoration comedy), but I doubt most audiences think of that. 'Revival' has a theatrical meaning & a religious one (the American Christian movement, with its tent meetings). The latter also implies a character arc—will the protagonist be reborn?—something for an audience to watch for.

Great title, lots of fun. 'Roadkill' alone is a graphic compound word that's totally American. Then 'Confidential' suggests a true crime exposé (in these cases, it's used ironically). Plus, that enhances the 'kill' in 'roadkill', as if the show's about a killer who uses his car as the murder weapon. Hard to stage, but it sounds awesome!

A little vague. The allusion's clear enough—that Welsh ballad usually translated as “All Through the Night”. Plus this title has the sense of a journey, either literal or figurative. But as I said, it's vague.

An enigmatic phrase, which I simultaneously find mildly compelling & mildly frustrating. I have no idea what this show might be about. But it's also sloppy writing: should we assume the writer forgot a comma? That is, is the phrase an order to tigers, or is it a descriptive phrase about tigers in Black American dialect? The more I look at this one, the less I like it.

Summer Reading: Inferno (canto 20)

Another ditch in the Malebolge holds the diviners. They've had their necks twisted so they can only look backwards, a particularly gruesome and fitting punishment for false prophets. Dante is horrified, but once again he's admonished by his guide for his tears. We're to understand that pity for the damned is a form of blasphemy. The Comedy stresses that Christian justice exists, & that it's the guiding principle of the cosmic order. Also, Virgil gives an extended description (20 lines) of the rivers of Italy. Dante glorifies Florence a lot, but he's also got a streak of pan-Italian patriotism.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Summer Reading: Inferno (canto 19)

The Malebolge is divided into ten ditches; we've come to the third, which houses the simoniacs. They're wedged upside-down into holes; new arrivals get stacked upon the old, crushing them into the rock. FYI, simony is the practice of selling posts in the Church. A century later, Chaucer also sounded off against this type of sin, but I'd say he portrayed their corruption as part of the fallen nature of Man. Dante views them as truly wicked holy men who follow “a god of gold and silver”, putting them into a cosmic perspective, not a human one.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Theater: Title Bout (September 1)

Every week, I compose listings on the week's new plays for Metromix NY. I'm often disappointed by the titles that playwrights choose for their work, so I'm reviewing their titles now. Not the shows (I haven't seen them yet) just the titles. To read about the content of each show, click through its link to my listings on Metromix NY.

(Note: August has been a slow month for new shows. Only two opened last week, & none the week before. So I saved them for this week's list. Enjoy!)

Not bad. It's not a cliché, though it's reminiscent of 'end of the world' & 'top of the world'. And it is an allusion―to a Tom Waits song, which only heightens the bluesiness of the image.

Another allusion, this one to the sinister nursery rhyme about falling babies. But it does its job cleverly, eliminating the context and drawing attention away from the famous source. The modal form of 'to rock' (ie “will”) brings a sense of either destiny or threat to the title, flipping the usually quiet action of a cradle on its head. It's one of my favorites, actually.

What a generic string of words! Only the 'must' has any kick to it. Shakespeare can get away with impersonal pronouns (eg As You Like It), but not many others can. (I'm looking at you, Pirandello.)

See previous note. Plus, this grammatical construction of the first-person singular pronoun is a conventional phrase and, in titles, a cliché. I'm not sorry to have the De La Soul track stuck in my head, but it's the best of a dozen songs with the title.

Shaw's one of my favorite playwrights, but he's not great at titles. To give you some context, this is one of his best. It uses his favorite tool, misdirection, in a few ways. It pulls our focus off the protagonist (Vivie Warren) to the antagonist (her mother) and then to the conflict between them. And in 1894 England, Shaw is subverting Victorian prudery by using euphemism to draw attention to a taboo subject (prostitution).

Smooshing all your words together is so '90s, especially if you capitalize the first letter of each word―think of all those websites mid-decade whose ads used that device. Too bad: the phrase itself is okay. It's specific and singular. It has the ominous air of a child's nightmare, yet “underneath” is the grammar of an adult.

Summer Reading: Inferno (canto 18)

We're at the volume's halfway point! The Eighth Circle is a massive network of trenches, moats, and earthworks called Malebolge (or “Evil Ditches”). Like the demon Geryon in the previous canto, the Malebolge is entirely Dante's creation, and at 13 cantos, it's the single largest corner of Hell in his Inferno. That adds to the sense that Dante is getting more confident in his writing. His metaphors are more robust and his descriptions are more vivid. Traversing the Malebolge, he recognizes pimps, seducers, and flatterers from Florence, while Virgil points out the mythical Jason.