Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Love-Child of Shakespeare and the Kabbalah

When I did a little research on The Tempest a few weeks back, I found this amazing chart:

I’ve been trying for weeks to decipher this nutty thing. It’s an attempt by scholar G. Wilson Knight to map Shakespeare’s cosmic order, which he dubbed “Shakespeare’s Dramatic Universe”. Knight wrote one of the 20C’s great works of Shakespearean scholarship, The Wheel of Fire, but this looks like something a mad kabbalist would’ve come up with. The source is The Shakespearian [sic] Tempest, which I finally dug up, only to find it as impenetrable as the chart:

The opposition of tempests and music is itself regarded as provisional, since tempests are part of 'great creating nature', and indeed themselves a music. They are thus more ultimate than 'disorder' or 'death', which remain negative and provisional—you cannot use the words without some sense of the deplorable, or the bad (disorder always sounds nasty)—while the Shakespearian heart is, and must be, a grand positive, beyond all moral or metaphysical negations.

Since I found this chart, I’ve been trying to decode its mysteries. I’ll only bore you for a minute…

Bisecting the chart is a “line of poetic insight”; I have no idea what that means. But it acts as a mirror, so that the social realm on its left has its reflection in the personal on the right. Similarly, at the equator, “tempest” merges into “order” above and into strife (“armed opposition”) below. Now, you see the little arrows near the “harmonies” that point off the chart? At first I read them like a “straight” line at the poles on a Mercator map, which on a globe would be a circle. So if you head up on the left, you’d arc back on the right. But according to Knight’s notes, they’re actually like the warp tunnels in Pac-Man: if you go up from the top, you come out at the bottom.

Enough of that. This chart exerts a magnetic tug, pulling me into its madness. We can map the cosmos of Dante or Milton or Blake, since their works were themselves cosmic visions. But Shakespeare had no conceptual unity in the 37+ plays he wrote over 20+ years. That’s not to say he started each new script with a blank worldview. But his poetic imagery and plot & character arcs don’t translate naturally to spatial terms. In fact, to call Macbeth’s metamorphosis from Act 1 to Act 5 a “character arc” is to rely on a conventional metaphor, and maybe not the most accurate one.

So I’m trying to develop an alternative to “Shakespeare’s Dramatic Universe”. One of the flaws in a spatial representation of Shakespeare's cosmos is that it doesn’t account for the plasticity from play to play. Elements such as tempests and battles, strong queens and canny fools, forests and courts, England and Rome, father-daughter pairs and plays-within-plays, even styles of prose and poetry, may loom large or fade into the background, fuse into one chimera-symbol, or get ignored entirely. A project in this blog will be tracking these and other tropes from play to play, deducing their meaning within the play's context and in the larger scope of Shakespearean dramaturgy.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

The NY Times earns an F in Shakespeare

Last weekend, the NY Times published an astonishingly lazy “dialogue” by theater critic Charles Isherwood. Isherwood asks himself why he often feels resistant towards seeing Shakespearean drama. Part of what makes the piece so galling is that Isherwood, one of the few American critics to earn a living writing about the stage, has the opportunity to write his thoughts out on the most popular dramatist and poet of the English language—and he half-asses it:
HIM …But I’ve got to tell you, I hate Shakespeare.

ME I understand that. Now tell me why.
HIM Because it’s boring.
ME [After a pause] Let’s stipulate, for a moment, that Shakespeare can be boring.
HIM Dude, you didn’t really rock it in debate class, did you? Whose side are you on anyway?
ME The side of right and virtue and truth and beauty, of course, the side of the greatest dramatist and poet who ever trod the earth. But let me continue. Of course, bad Shakespeare is boring…

Then he says “listen to this” and quotes some Hamlet. Isherwood and his boss, Arts & Leisure Editor Sia Michel, should be embarrassed.

But what’s even more infuriating is that this inane article poses an extremely important question (for theater, anyway). Why produce Shakespeare’s plays? Why attend them? After all, there are legitimate, compelling reasons not to produce his work. One of the most important is that, according to 2010 back-of-the-envelope calculations by Parabasis, American theaters out-produce Shakespearean dramas against other playwrights works by a factor of 10. And that’s for modern masters like Stoppard and Mamet, Tennessee and August. For truly contemporary playwrights, the ratio is closer to 100:1. Forget dominant playwright: William Shakespeare, dead 400 years, may effectively constitute the dominant genre of American theater in the 21C.

Furthermore, Shakespeare’s plays are fiendishly difficult to act, since they’re verse dramas in an age where actors and audiences both are used to realism. Shakespeare’s worldview is deeply outmoded: a royalist in a democratic era, a Christian in a secular epoch, a pastoralist in an urban civilization, a racist and sexist in a pluralistic culture.

The Times critic mentions none of these obstacles to enjoying the immensely popular, brilliant, and problematic dramatist. He does, however, take up the cultural impediments that work against audience satisfaction. To summarize his points, Shakespeare is full of:

  • Difficult poetry
  • Unfunny comedy
  • Unrealistic plots
  • Too little action
  • Men in tights
He also argues implicitly that Shakespeare (and perhaps theater as a whole) can’t compete with TV and video games for a person’s attention.

That list, mirroring the article's style, reads like one that a C student would dash off during study hall before English class. Isherwood's responses, in turn, sound like those of a mediocre English teacher’s rejoinders. That's when he manages to respond at all, since he often switches topics mid-argument. Again, audiences have legitimate reasons not to see Shakespeare's plays. Yet they also prefer to see his work over everyone else's. Rather than reason out that paradox, Isherwood ignores it—or is unaware of it.

Ultimately, however, what frustrates me the most about this article is that its subject is one I continuously grapple with. These days, my obligations have outstripped my schedule, and I’ve had to concentrate my limited time and energy on the theater I love the most. So I’ve decided that, if I’m going to write, I want to write about Shakespeare. But to reiterate, there are enormous issues, doubts, and contradictions in focusing on his work. As I shift this blog’s attention to Shakespeare in New York, I plan to address these quandaries from many angles. I suppose that, if Isherwood’s article does nothing else, it serves me as an object reminder of what not to write.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Public Works and populist Shakespeare

A few weeks ago now, the Public Theater debuted its Public Works project, which aims to revive Joe Papp’s populism. Its mission lives up to the WPA-like handle: hundreds of New Yorkers, professional and amateur, from across the five boroughs, performed on the Delacorte stage for the inaugural production, The Tempest (which I reviewed last week). These people are members of local arts groups that contribute to the artistic life of their neighborhoods. Public Works, in turn, imports theater to those local communities—not, it seems, by parachuting in like a SWAT team of thespians (although it does have a “Mobile Shakespeare Unit”), but by actually collaborating with the local artists. The result, in the case of The Tempest, felt more civic, and not incidentally more electrifying, than the standard format of Shakespeare in the Park. Just as the production envisioned a new approach to Shakespearean production, the program presents a mode of civic arts that feels new.

It isn’t, of course. As a work of artistic populism, Lear deBesonnet, director of both The Tempest and of Public Works generally, was inspired by a 1916 theatrical event, Caliban by the Yellow Sands, which you can read here. As an artifact, the script is typical of that era’s experimental theater. It aims to invent a radical yet accessible new dramaturgy, but instead it gets caught up in symbolic abstractions (think of Konstantin & Nina’s play in The Seagull). In this case, Caliban deliberately echoes the scenarios for Jacobean masques, with their allegorical characters, communal pageantry, and mass participation. At the center of the spectacle, Caliban aims to better himself by learning his master’s magic. It’s easily read as a member of the underclass who elevates himself by his encounter with sublime art. With such intellectual content and poetical style, the 1916 show would seem to have missed its target. Yet it was spectacularly successful: over 1,500 performers entertained 20K viewers per night!

The Public Works’ Tempest didn’t come close to that level of attendance, but it did display a similar sense of pageantry and civic engagement. And as fun as The Tempest was on an aesthetic level, I’m more engaged by the artistic philosophy that links it to Caliban by the Yellow Sands. In New York, as public funding has been withdrawn, the arts have increasingly followed a patronage system. The stories onstage and the audiences in the house have mirrored this shift, coming to reflect the world of the corporate backers and corporate-derived private foundations. This collaboration, however, begins to redress that homogenization and elitism by crossing lines of class and race. In the language of both 1916 and 2013, its aims are progressive. The civic participation has populist underpinnings as well as aesthetic innovation, and works on a scale that befits its Gotham setting. It’s possible to imagine a future production that extends the model of The Tempest to invite creative participation from the audience.

As for The Tempest itself, Shakespeare’s play does have its political and racial themes, and although they didn’t form the production’s spine, they did supply some subtext. The show—in which non-white, non-privileged artists have been imported from the outer boroughs for a standard Manhattan audience—could have been iffy. But deBessonet turns that subtext on its side by casting the arts groups as the island’s spirits. The Calpulli Mexican Dancers; members of Domestic Workers United; the Middle Church Jerriese Johnson Gospel Choir: these performers inhabit Shakespeare’s magical isle, whereas the Italianate courtiers and fools merely visit. The effect is to suggest the vast and diverse underclass of New Yorkers who live in this city, effectively unseen by the white, white-collar 1%. This facet was visible to those who looked, but it didn’t eclipse the show’s atmosphere of inclusiveness. I’ll look forward to more theater from the Public Works project, to see where deBessonet and company take these ideas.


photo credit: Joan Marcus

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Shakespeare notebook: The Tempest

Public Works at the Delacorte Theater
directed by Lear deBessonet
Sept. 7, 2013

The Tempest (at the Delacorte last weekend only) might showcased the biggest cast I’ve ever seen—and I’m up to nearly 2000 shows in my two decades of theatergoing. As the inaugural production of the Public Theater’s Public Works program, The Tempest engages the talents of a dozen NYC arts organizations, from gospel choirs to Japanese drummers to a NYC public school’s ballet program. The result ravishes the audience’s senses, conjuring the magic and music of Shakespeare’s drama superbly and modeling perfectly the ideal of Public founder Joseph Papp’s to stage Shakespeare for the locals.

Created by director Lear deBessonet and composer Todd Almond, this Tempest takes liberties with Shakespeare’s play but stays laudably faithful to its spirit. The duo raise the role of music and dance to the same level of importance as the script—a reasonable alteration since the script draws parallels between magic and theater, music, and dance. More radically, they alter the play such that Prospero initially sets out to avenge his political exile and only in Act 4 softens. Further, Prospero is demoted from protagonist, usurped by Ariel. Played superbly by Almond as a glam MC in white and silver, the spirit speaks modern prose rather than Shakespearean poetry. His desire for emancipation from his servitude is the show’s strongest emotional component. These alterations suggest one path forward for Shakespearean theater: not by shrifting the playwright or altering his intent but by adding to the play’s scope and vision.

The island's spirits enjoy the show
as much as the Delacorte audience
(photo credit: Joan Marcus)
The success of this Tempest, then, is mainly its conjuring of the island setting. Rather than relying mostly on scenery and lighting (and not to shortchange the respective work of designers Saunders and Micoleau), the production takes advantage of NYC’s local arts organizations. Though the island is mostly uninhabited by humans, it’s home to scores of “spirits”, played by a local choir whose members grin widely as Ariel banters with them about the foolery and complots of the island’s mortal visitors. This chorus of locals, mostly black and mostly female, wears the primary colors and flowery patterns of tropical cultures. That fashion helps to set the location and contrasts nicely with the stock doublet-and-hose of the play’s characters. Finally and most vitally, their talent for song gives life and character to the island. The company’s presence suggests that the Shakespeareans are interlopers; it’s not Prospero’s island, it’s theirs.