randy_byers: (2009-05-10)
Shakespeare an ungentle life.jpgI confess it took me until the day after I finished this book to understand the title. I was thinking, "His life wasn't *that* ungentle," and then I realized she was playing off of the fact that Shakespeare tried to move up in social class by buying himself "gentle" status, as in the gentry. My failure to grasp this allusion early on probably reflects my American unfamiliarity with the idea of gentry. Duncan-Jones spends quite a bit of time talking about Shakespeare's machinations in acquiring gentle status, but the ins and outs of the process didn't mean a lot to me. What I did get out of her analysis of this aspect of his life was that he was a social climber, and it was something that probably caused him anxiety and pretty clearly provoked a certain amount of mockery from figures such as Ben Jonson. (Jonson, like Shakespeare, was not of the gentle class. He had a better education than Shakespeare, but like Shakespeare he did not go to university. Unlike Shakespeare, he did not try to buy his way into gentle status.)

I had never read a biography of Shakespeare before, and this one came to me as a gift from [livejournal.com profile] ron_drummond. The thing that inspired me to give it a go was reading Angela Carter's Shakespearean novel, Wise Children. It ended up being quite a fascinating read, although a bit dry and academic. (Duncan-Jones a professor of English literature at Oxford.) I had picked up various tidbits about Shakespeare's life over the years, but it was worthwhile getting a more holistic understanding of his life and career. For example, I had never really grasped how much acting he did, especially early in his career. I'd heard about his will leaving his second best bed to his wife, Anne Hathaway, but I didn't know how estranged he'd been from her for most of their married life. I knew he hadn't gotten a university education, but I only knew that because of the bizarre theories about how he couldn't possibly have written the plays his name is on, and I certainly didn't know that he suffered from anxiety about his social status in his own time.

Indeed, Shakespeare: An Ungentle Life is in part a subtle reproof (and disproof) of the anti-Stratfordians -- that is, the people who believe that Shakespeare couldn't possibly have written the plays attributed to Shakespeare. By showing that his lack of a university education was an issue even during his lifetime, it just reinforces how dumb and prejudiced the "controversy" is. Nobody at the time questioned that Shakespeare could be the author of the plays, but snobs then as now used his commoner status as a club to question and undermine him. It's just that when he was alive he was mocked for being an upstart with artistic pretensions above his class, or so Duncan-Jones would have it.

But that's only a slight and unstated part of what Duncan-Jones is up to. Mostly she's more interested in portraying his social climbing, his apparent lack of humanitarianism toward the poor, his misogyny, his avoidance of church fees and pursuit of rent for his various properties, and other odd bits of evidence of an "ungentle" nature, with "ungentle" having a connotation of meanness of spirit as well as of a lower social status. Not that it's all about what a boor he was -- nor does it argue that he was a boor because he wasn't gentry -- but it does feel like Duncan-Jones is interested in bringing Shakespeare down off the romantic pedestal of Genius. She even points out that the busts placed on those pedestals indicate that the wealthy Shakespeare may have been a bit too fond of food and drink. In the process she paints an interesting picture of the times and the country as well, with many outbreaks of plague and a transition between ruling royal families. Reading something like this makes me want to go out and read all the other Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights and poets. I've read works by Marlowe, Kyd, Webster, and Middleton, but I don't believe I've read anything by Jonson, for example, let alone Fletcher (except Cymbeline, which he co-wrote with Shakespeare) or Beaumont.

Anyway, I do feel I got a better grasp of Shakespeare's life and times from this book, even if it feels highly speculative and infers too much biography from the plays. It is clearly taking part in a long scholarly discussion of Shakespeare's life, and I have no doubt that other books have very different takes on what Shakespeare was like.
randy_byers: (2009-05-10)
Carter Heroes and Villains.jpgIt appears that I've embarked upon a deep dive into the works of Angela Carter. One thing I'd intended to do for a while now was to re-read Heroes and Villains, which was the first book of hers I read. It must have been in the early '90s sometime, because my edition was published after she died of lung cancer in 1992 at age 51. My recollection is that I didn't care for it much, but I obviously didn't dislike it enough to get rid of the book. I can no longer remember exactly what I thought of it, but having now re-read it my guess is that I found the characters unlikeable. That's still something that can cause me problems with a story, especially the first time through. It also portrays the relationship between the sexes as wounding, which I can well imagine was not something I liked to see at a time when I was more idealistic and hopeful for my own chances at a relationship.

So I'm happy to report that I did like the novel the second time through. It has been called post-apocalyptic science fiction, but it works more like a literary fable. (That could be another thing that threw me off the first time, if I was looking for an attempt at plausible science fictional world-building.) In any event, the story is set after the collapse of civilization. I don't think the location is specified, but because Carter was British I assumed it was Great Britain. Marianne is a daughter of the Professors, who live in armed enclaves that strive to maintain some semblance of the old agricultural civilization. Outside their gates roam the squalid Barbarians, who live through hunting and gathering and raids on the Professors. Marianne is a cold, unhappy character who doesn't like the constraints of civilized life, so she is halfway ready to go when she's kidnapped by the handsome barbarian chief named Jewel.

One thing that struck me repeatedly as I read the book, which was first published in 1969, was the feeling that the Professors and the Barbarians were oblique renderings of the Establishment versus the Counterculture. The Barbarians in particular, with their muddy feet, pagan accoutrements, and tattoos felt very much like hippies at times. (Well, the tattoos actually seemed very modern -- counterculturally speaking -- and not very hippy at all.) But while the premise is absurd, Carter delves into it much deeper than such a simplistic analogy might suggest. She's more focused on the Barbarians and thus examines more closely their childish brutality and hand-to-mouth lifestyle, camping out in the ruins of the lost civilization. This is not a Romantic story, but there are elements of romanticism in the exotic, sensuous details of this lifestyle, and in the moments of beauty she conjures amongst the abject terrors of mundane human existence.

As I alluded to in passing above, the relationship between Marianne and Jewel is fraught, difficult, and painful. Carter flirts with all the old romantic cliches, such as a rape followed by what looks like real intimacy, but she always maintains a tension of conflict even in moments of relative calm and warmth. Intimacy is never transcendence of difference or antagonism. Nothing is ever resolved, wounds are never healed, and she maintains this unfinished feeling to the beautiful last line. Again and again I was reminded of Ted Hughes' poem "Lovesong," about his conflicted relationship with Sylvia Plath: "His whispers were whips and jackboots/Her kisses were lawyers steadily writing." (That probably sent half my readers -- all four of you! -- rushing for the exits.) I was also reminded repeatedly, as I have been by other works by Carter, of Joanna Russ, with her gorgeous lyrical prose expressing the harshest truths and shifting tones between glib, abstract, lush, and acidic with amazing ease, although I suspect Carter was more of an old-fashioned humanist than Russ was. Maybe.

Carter Wise Children.jpgOr at least Carter's last two novels, Nights at the Circus (1984) and Wise Children (1991) feel warmer than Russ' last novels. Richard Boston, in his NYTimes review of Heroes and Villains, mentions the many literary allusions to be found in it, including to Shakespeare's The Tempest, and Wise Children courts comparisons to Shakespeare with reckless glee. It is a family saga about several generations of stage performers, the oldest of whom where per-eminent Shakespeareans. The novel opens with a quote from Ellen Terry, "How many times Shakespeare draws fathers and daughters, never mothers and daughters," and it's narrated by Dora Chance, who is one of the illegitimate and unacknowledged twin daughters of the great Shakespearean actor, Melchior Hazard. Melchior is also a twin, and an orphan of a different type. The whole family is riddled with twins, unacknowledged children, adultery, illegitimacy, incest, and the makeshift, ad hoc families that fill the void where biological family fails to meet the need for ties that bind.

I confess that I didn't notice myself one significant structural aspect of the novel, which is that it has five chapters, just as most of Shakespeare's plays had five acts. There is so much going on in the book, and it weaves back and forth in time so regularly, that I'm unable to say from one reading whether the five chapters can be read as a dramatic progression on the pattern of a Shakespeare play. It covers the Victorian era up through, hm, maybe the 1980s. (Dora and Nora were born in 1915, I believe, and are in their '70s when Dora writes the book.) The twin sisters are not actresses themselves, but rather a music hall dancing act -- the Lucky Chances. They are Cockney by upbringing, too, and Carter definitely has her eye on the highs and lows of social class, as well as of the theater, where various family members are involved in not only Shakespeare and the music hall, but Hollywood (where they work on a film adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream) and daytime TV.

It's a big, bustling, lively book with a large cast of characters and an abundance of history, witty literary references, bawdy jokes, tragic turns, and unlikely resurrections. One of the big differences between Wise Children and Heroes and Villains is the sense of humor. I don't suppose Heroes and Villains actually has no sense of humor, but its humor is more satirical and biting, where the humor of Wise Children is more rowdy and rollicking. More Shakespearean, perhaps, with plenty of gags on naughty bits. There's a celebratory feel amongst the yearning after lost mothers, paternal recognition, and impossible love. Life's hazardous (Carter knew she had cancer when she started writing the book), so you have to grab your chances when they come.
randy_byers: (blonde venus)
Well, I'll be wanting to see this one again.

Update: Okay, now that I've had something to eat, here are some actual thoughts about the film. Perhaps above all, Miranda and Ferdinand are vivid and appealing in a way they have never been for me before as the innocent young lovers. Mirren is powerful as Prospera, and yet at times I wondered if the anger other characters say they feel from her is more in the text than in the performance. Prospera is more melancholy and stern than angry in this version. Speaking of which, the cast is pretty much perfect from stem to stern.

There are some major cuts, especially in the final act. The wedding masque is gone, replaced by a beautiful piece of symbolic astral animation that still feels a little abrupt on first viewing. Yet despite cuts and modifications, this is true to the play. So much so that in some ways it doesn't feel like a Julie Taymor film. Or maybe that's because there are no puppets.

As an interpretation, I guess the other thing that stuck out for me was Prospera's relationship with Ariel, which is tender and sweet, except for the scene where Ariel demands freedom and Prospera rebukes him/her. (Ariel is depicted as a sort of sexless hermaphrodite.) But on that level, this version wasn't as good as the live version I saw last year at showing Ariel pushing Propero toward forgiveness in the end. That scene, in itself, plays very well here, but Prospera seems more sympathetic from the get-go than you need to feel a real conversion.

Djimon Hounsou's Caliban is also fascinating -- almost moreso visually than as a performance, although his performance is very fine too. He is a patched, piebald creature -- a black man-monster with patches of white and one blue eye. One of the best interpolations in the film is a silent exchange of glances between Caliban and Prospera as they part at the end.

I'll have to see it again to digest it further. It's full of beautiful intimacies and cold distances. The heavy metal guitar chords are jolting in more ways than one. Does it modernize the play, or does it lend it newly pearly eyes? It's a live act of interpretation and embodiment, gritty and eccentric, lyric and layered. I think there's something there to chew on.
randy_byers: (Default)

Oberon prepares to ensorcel Tytania


Britten's opera centers on the fairy world, opening with Oberon and Tytania (as her name is spelled here) ill-met by moonlight, which is the beginning of Act 2 in the play. This 1981 film of a production at the Glyndebourne Festival features a wonderfully dark, mysterious forest in which the fairies, the mechanicals, and the lost lovers roam. One weird element of the production design is that some of the trees are played by people wearing tree costumes who move around the stage. The tree on the left in the still above is such a one. It's one of several things in this production that made me think of Tolkien, who was famously critical of Shakespeare's diminutive fairies. Britten's fairy music is eerie, brooding, and lyrical. I would love to hear his music for Tolkien's Lothlorien and Fangorn, although as a pacifist Britten probably wouldn't have been too interested in the battle scenes in LOTR.

I've been trying to read up on 20th century opera, but I'm still not very knowledgeable. What I'm getting so far is that people who like Britten like his operas, but a A Midsummer Night's Dream, while admired, isn't rated as highly as some of his others. People who like opera acknowledge Britten as an important figure as far as 20th century composers go, but A Midsummer Night's Dream doesn't really rear its head in their calculations, which tend to focus above all on Peter Grimes and to a lesser extent on The Turn of the Screw and Billy Budd. Haven't seen or heard any of those, so for all I know they really are that much better. However, I love the music of A Midsummer Night's Dream, so if the others are better, they must be truly great. I've ordered Britten's recording of The Turn of the Screw to check it out next.

It's true that the opera radically restructures Shakespeare's play, although almost every word is taken from it. (One line was created to bridge cut material.) Theseus and Hippolyta aren't seen until the third (of three) acts. The lovers lines are probably cut next most, leaving the fairies and mechanicals least reduced, with Bottom and Tytania's tryst at the center of the action. I can't honestly say if the story works as well in the opera as in the play, because I've mostly just been listening to the music without focusing on the story. The Glyndebourne production is beautiful both musically and visually, but since I watched Act 3 a day after the first two, I wasn't sure how well it connected. Half the appeal is just hearing Shakespeare's familiar words set to such beguiling music.

By the way, I got this DVD from Netflix, which seems to have a lot of opera DVDs. I could go hog wild just on opera, if I had the time.
randy_byers: (2010-08-15)
So I finally signed up for Netflix. It was the streaming that finally got me. I'll probably take advantage of the DVD-by-mail system now that I'm signed up, but I prefer the freedom of streaming. Now I need to look into getting some kind of device that would allow us to stream to the TV. I knew that various game consoles like Wii and X-Box would work, but there's a whole list of devices Netflix supports, many of which I'd never heard of before. I don't know which would be cheapest. Anybody have any ideas?

To test the streaming on my computer, I watched two movies yesterday. The first was the 1981 BBC production of A Midsummer Night's Dream with Helen Mirren as Titania. I watched the 1968 version last weekend, so this was for parallax. One thing I've taken away from watching these two productions of the play back-to-back is that Oberon is one harsh fairy. He basically makes Titania eat shit and like it. On the other hand, he does ultimately solve the problems of the lovers, and he ends up blessing the three marriages at the end of the play. But his abuse of Titania is part of a dark undercurrent to the frothy comedy, in which love can seem largely mechanical and very malleable and impermanent indeed. It's an anti-romantic romance, and even the farcical play-within-a-play hints at the tragic possibilities of love. [livejournal.com profile] ron_drummond pointed out to me that this play is often seen as a thematic partner to Romeo and Juliet, which, as it was argued in comments on that earlier Shakespeare post, looks a lot like a marriage comedy before it turns tragic.

Then, because Netflix doesn't offer streaming for the DVD of Britten's opera of A Midsummer Night's Dream (I put the DVD on my wishlist), I streamed Were the World Mine (2008). This is about a gay high school kid at a private boys school who gets involved in a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream and then somehow creates the love potion from the play and turns all the homophobes gay. I had wanted to see this in the theater, but didn't make it. It's maybe a little over-determined in its messaging, but it's really sweet and well done. There are some very good musical numbers, and some funny fetishing, such as the scene were the rugby team (under the influence of the potion) does an erotic dance number. All's well that ends well, and the movie does a good job of using Shakespeare's play to explore and expose the irrationality of homophobia (or fear of the fairy).

There's a lot more Shakespeare to explore on Netflix. Next up may be Helen Mirren as Rosalind in the BBC production of As You Like It (1978). (Boy, the IMDb comments on these BBC productions are all over the map. These are apparently the best of films and the worst of films.)
randy_byers: (2010-08-15)
So I've been on a minor Shakespeare jag lately, it seems. Friday night I followed up the Shakespeare in the Park production of Romeo and Juliet with Baz Luhrmann's 1996 film version, which I've watched many times previously. It was interesting to watch it right on the heels of a production that included much more of the play's text, because it was more obvious what was cut. I mostly really like the cuts in the film, and one of the things I think is very artful is the way that some long speeches are reduced to a single perfect line. I love the production design, too, and the way that Shakespearean text is used in billboards and logos and graffiti as a visual element.

Yesterday I finally rented the 1968 film of A Midsummer Night's Dream with a cast featuring Helen Mirren, Diana Rigg, Judi Dench, Ian Holm, and David Warner. Again, it includes much more of the text than the 1999 version with Kevin Klein and Michelle Pfeiffer, which I've watched several times. Amazingly enough, this is the first time it has ever sunk in that both Lysander and Demetrius' affections switch from Hermia to Helena, before then settling on the "proper" lover. I've always had it in my head that they essentially swapped partners and then swapped back. Uh, Shakespeare-comprehension fail. Just goes to show that I've never found the lovers all that interesting and have always focused more on the fairies and the mechanicals.

Which is sort of what Benjamin Britten did in his opera version of the play, which I've been listening to constantly for the past week or so. I haven't really read through the libretto yet, but the focus is on the fairies, with a much reduced role for Theseus and Hippolyta and a fair amount of cutting of the lovers as well. In fact, the entirety of Act I is cut. The performance of Pyramis and Thisbe is done as a parody of opera conventions. Commentators point out that Britten uses a different musical style for the three groups of characters: the fairies, the lovers, and the mechanicals. The fairy music is eerie and lyrical (Oberon is sung by a counter tenor), the mechanicals music is bumptious and comedic, but I haven't really worked out what the style is for the lovers. I guess it's a romantic style. I'm really enjoying the opera so far, and I may write more about it when I've had a chance to read the libretto.

One thing I wondered while watching the 1968 film yesterday is whether Oberon ever makes it clear why he wants the Indian boy that he's feuding with Titania about. I see that he tells her he wants the boy to be his henchman, but it seems a flimsy thing to cause such epic anger. Fickle fairies, I guess. Always getting their weeds in a twist about something pointless.
randy_byers: (Default)


William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet (1996)

Away to heaven, respective lenity,
And fire-eyed fury be my conduct now.
randy_byers: (2009-05-10)
So I went to Shakespeare in the Park's production of Romeo and Juliet last night, and I didn't like it very much. The lovers had no chemistry (a fatal flaw!), poor acting made many of the characters tiresome (particularly the ranting Mercutio, played by a woman), and the direction was so incoherent that the whole thing felt like a ramshackle contraption of mechanical contrivances. Since I was bored, I started to wonder about the source of the tragedy in the play. One traditional way to think about tragedy is to look for Aristotelian hamartia -- the protagonist's tragic flaw -- e.g., Hamlet's indecisiveness, Othello's jealousy, Macbeth's ambition. But what is Romeo's flaw? What is Juliet's? Immaturity? Rashness? An excess of passion? It's actually hard to pin down, especially when it comes to Juliet. Is she just a victim of Romeo's lack of self-control? In reality, they both seem to be victims of fate and the vengeful flaws of their society. (Lady Capulet was played as a real villain in this version, screaming for Romeo's blood.) In the end, the Prince blames the parents for the deaths of their children, but of course the deaths are also the result of blind bad luck. Is that a flaw in the play? In a poor production, with people running past each other failing to deliver messages in plain sight, it begins to seem so. In a good one, we curse the stars along with Romeo.
randy_byers: (Default)


'Keats catches precisely this quality in his ode "To Autumn" where he defines the perfection of the autumn day by reminding the reader of those things that threaten it -- the hint of transience in the "soft-dying day" and in the "gathering swallows", about to depart to escape the approach of winter. And he might be describing the quality of Twelfth Night itself when he writes in his "Ode on Melancholy" that "in the very temple of delight | Veil'd Melancholy has her sovran shrine".'

-- Roger Warren & Stanley Wells, introduction to Twelfth Night (Oxford, 1994)

'Tis not so sweet now as it was before )
randy_byers: (2009-05-10)
It's been a good weekend so far. Friday evening I went to a production of Shakespeare's As You Like It in Woodland Park. Shakespeare in the Park is in its 22nd year, but this is the first production of theirs I've seen. It was very good. The play was much funnier live than it was on the page, and it wasn't just because of the mugging of the players, although there was some excellent mugging. It's just that the jokes were more obvious when spoken. Perhaps even more interesting is that I found Touchstone insufferable on the page, but he was a real joy on the stage. Nice setting for a forest-set play, too, of course. Unfortunately, sitting on the ground for over two hours wasn't exactly a comfortable experience. Still, well worth the suffering, and I hope to catch their production of Romeo and Juliet as well. In fact, I had planned to catch last night's performance, but I decided I didn't want to go through the physical discomfort two evenings in a row.

We've hired my friend Hazel to fix the water damage in the living room ceiling (finally!) and repaint it. Since part of one wall needs to be repainted too, Denys came up with the idea of painting that wall a different color. The ceiling and walls are already two different colors, so this will introduce a third color. Hazel came over yesterday and we went down to Daly's to look at colors. We bought a couple of samples and painted swatches on the wall so that D. and I can look at them in changing light over the next couple of days. It's fun hanging out with Hazel again. We have our twisted history, but it goes back almost twenty years now. There's a nice feeling of familiarity after that much time, whatever the twists of history. She feels like an old friend now, even though I hardly ever see her anymore and actually wouldn't have been surprised if I never saw her again.

Then in the late afternoon, after working in the sunny garden for a couple of hours, I went to see I Am Love again. I had previously seen it exactly a week ago (same day, same time). In the meantime I had learned that the cinematographer, Yorick Le Saux, has worked with Olivier Assayas in the past, and I assumed it was on demonlover, although it turns out he was only the second unit DP on demonlover, while he was the head cinematographer on Boarding Gate. He was also DP on Ozon's excellent Vertigo-homage, Swimming Pool. Anyway, I've seen some criticism of I Am Love along the lines that the editing and camera movement are extravagant for the sake of extravagance and don't actually communicate anything. I think it's actually pretty clear that the rhythms of the movie, both in the editing and the camera movement (and the music, for that matter) are meant to communicate Emma's subjective restlessness and disorientation. At first she's bored and lost within herself (a fact communicated purely on a nonverbal level), and then she's thrown off-balance by a dangerous, disruptive love. The visual style does remind me of demonlover, with it's restlessness, shifting focus within shots, and off-center compositions. There's a propulsive feel to it, as though the camera is chasing something elusive, looking in nooks and crannies, circling the room.

The movie was very different the second time through, yet it still left me in an altered state of mind at the end. Love is presented as a primal force that brings disaster as well as transformation. The disaster -- a death -- has a symbolic feel, and yet it's a narrative element, which causes an amazing, almost absurd, tension in the final scenes.
randy_byers: (2009-05-10)
So I spent the three-day weekend with my family in Central Oregon. Felt sort of overwhelmed when I got home yesterday. I don't know what all it is; maybe just a confluence of powerful emotions. My niece and her husband were there with another couple from Portland. Friday night my niece asked about Sharee, and we had a pretty emotional conversation about her. My sister is on her way to Chile for a six month stint teaching ESL in Santiago. My younger nephew flew to Paris for two weeks on Saturday. My older nephew is still on the yacht off the coast of Honduras and going on a rollercoaster about whether he wants to stick with the gig. (It's boring, the owner is an arrogant prick, welcome to the real world.) My sister-in-law is freaking out about the empty nest. We had a number of pretty intense conversations about it. My brother was sailing in a regatta in Klamath Falls but came up on Sunday. We talked about the boys and argued about politics. My parents are doing fine, but they are beginning to investigate moving into a retirement center of some sort. Lots of talk about the past, intense stories about my mom's older brother, Lester, who drowned when he was eleven, and my dad's younger brother, Russ, who died of kidney failure in his 20s, just before dialysis became available. Lots of gossip about various cousins and aunts and uncles. Lots of stories, lots of lives, the human condition.

I spent the weekend fighting a rearguard battle against feelings of inadequacy. Probably a sign that I'm not sure what I should be doing right now. Family roles are shifting. What is mine? I'm still learning.

I read Shakespeare's As You Like It for the first time, thanks to a recommendation from [livejournal.com profile] ron_drummond. Shakespeare's comedies are tougher for me than the tragedies, because I often don't understand the jokes without explanations. I hope to see Shakespeare in the Park's production of this in the next couple of weeks, which will help. I want to see Rosalind in the flesh. I also finished my little fanzine article about Lemuria, which is for Rich Coad's Sense of Wonder Stories. Nice to write about something other than my usual fannish gossip. Read the latest Banana Wings on the plane down and back. A bastion of the community; I always feel that I belong.

And yet, and yet. What would I be without my uncertainty? How can you be found if you're not lost?

Parade day

Jun. 20th, 2010 08:49 am
randy_byers: (2009-05-10)
I woke up in a crappy mood yesterday, but nonetheless I got a fair bit done in the morning, including some writing, hurrah. As usual, I started off with breakfast at Roxy's, and the streets of Fremont were already lined with chairs and blankets that people were laying down in anticipation of the Solstice Parade. It was raining. I was in a crappy mood. Let's call the whole thing off?

The neighbors were setting up down by Nectar, which was too jammed with people for my taste, so when time I wandered down Albion to the same intersection where I've watched many an edition of the parade. The rain had relented, but I was irritated by all the people being people -- saying stupid things, wanting to walk through the space where I was standing, and having a good time when I was not. I had also come down late enough that I missed the nude bicyclists but early enough that I had to wait 45 minutes for the parade to get there. Still, after all that, the parade was the usual fun and worked a bit of magic on my mood. Probably the standout float was a Yellow Submarine, with a full complement of Blue Meanies and Beatles (including one cross-dresser, of course) singing songs from the movie. There was also a pretty great Shakespeare puppet advertising Shakespeare in the Park. I spotted Sarah, who used to be a barista at Bulldog but quit to focus on her acting career -- which includes doing Shakespeare in the Park this summer. Before she quit she invited me to come see Romeo and Juliet, in which she's playing Lady Capulet. Sounds like fun.

After the parade I went to the neighbors' for a BBQ. (This meant I had to miss [livejournal.com profile] jackwilliambell's tiki birthday party, for which I apologize, but it seemed like a good day to stay close to home.) The other guests this year were other parents and children from the school the neighbors' daughter attends. With my crappy mood and all, I was dubious about hanging out with strangers, but it was fine. The mothers were all a kick in the pants, in fact, full of bawdy good humor and good-natured flirtation. It was interesting to watch them parenting, as well, as the various kids went through their various spats and stumbles. Other than the almost chilly weather, it was a perfectly pleasant way to spend a few hours out on the back deck. Probably good for me to get out of my comfort zone and rediscover that I can do just fine out there, even if the lives these people lead and responsibilities they deal with are far beyond my capacity. I guess the charismatic drunken uncle role I've learned to play comes in handy in other situations too.

After the BBQ I watched Julie Taymor's Titus (1999) all the way through for the second time (the first was in the theater -- a special showing at the Cinerama with Taymor in attendance). This is her adaptation of Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus, and I can't say I like the story much. I've never read the play or seen another production, so I can't really compare the movie to anything. It's visually gorgeous, and there are a number of powerful scenes. However, the villains are so over the top that I find them very hard to take, and Titus is just about as difficult as Lear to sympathize with. The only truly sympathetic character is Lavinia, and even she is a bit unfeeling in her comments to the Goths just before they exact their revenge on Titus against her. Still, an amazing scene when she begs Tamora to kill her rather than let her sons rape her. But the series of savage atrocities wears on me as it goes on. Terrible people doing terrible things to each other, and a villainous Moor giving mwa-ha-ha speeches worthy of a comic book. Not sure what to make of the final image either. New day rising? Whence this sense of hope and renewal? Well, I give Taymor a lot of credit for taking on such a challenging, difficult project as her calling card in the film world.

Le weekend

Nov. 9th, 2009 09:51 am
randy_byers: (2009-05-10)
Another quiet weekend. Yesterday the weather was nice enough that I got out in the yard and raked leaves and transplanted some daisies. (A fitting coda to Experiment Perilous, which begins and ends in a field of daisies.) Once again it felt good to do something physical. There was a recent study that argued that getting dirt on your skin is actually good for your mental health, although I don't remember why. Anyway, it works for me, so there's your proof.

I'm reading Hope Mirrlees 1926 fantasy novel, Lud-in-the-Mist. It appears to be an answer to the question I had after my first reading of Dunsany's The King of Elfland's Daughter back in the '90s: What are the other great novels about Elfland? Although it's called Fairyland in Mirrlees' novel, and we haven't actually entered the perilous realm directly yet. But the town of Lud-in-the-Mist is set on the border, and a river from Fairyland runs through it. The mercantile townfolk are trying to suppress the cross-border influence. Wonderfully eccentric and vivid, full of characters with names like Moonlove Honeysuckle. Reminiscent of Mervyn Peake as well as Dunsany.

I watched a 1980 BBC production of The Tempest, thanks to [livejournal.com profile] ron_drummond. The actors were much more comfortable with the language than those I saw last Wednesday, which made what they said more comprehensible. Prospero was not such an imperious jerk in this version, and Ariel was feyer and less important. Miranda and Ferdinand were more vivid, Caliban less so. I'm not sure what I took away from this production. It seemed less fantastical than the UW's current version. It felt less eventful, yet precisely detailed. I think I actually preferred the UW production, despite the fact that the acting wasn't as good.

I didn't get to watch the UO football game on Saturday, which ended up being a good thing as they crashed back to earth, losing to Stanford 51-42. Ah well, it was fun while it lasted, and they're still in pretty good shape.
randy_byers: (2009-05-10)
Last night I saw the first production of The Tempest I've ever seen, at the UW's renovated and renamed Jones Playhouse. I'm guessing the choice of this play as the post-renovation debut at the Playhouse was deliberate, since it made full use of the new catwalks, trapdoors, lifts, and other technical and mechanical features. It's a small, intimate theater, with a thrust stage instead of a proscenium arch.

The stage was a swoop of blue that was faintly filigreed with silver patterns that suggest a Renaissance celestial map. It looked like an abstract towering ocean wave, except with a window cut into its upper curve, with a tree branch growing through -- so that part was a bit of sky perhaps. It also served as wall and slide at various points in the performance. The costuming ranged from contemporary to nineteenth-century to timeless (Caliban's black leather pants, also filigreed). Many of the male characters were played by women, including Alonso, Gonzalo, Antonio, the Boatswain, Trinculo, and Ariel (whose gender in the text is perhaps debatable?). The performances ranged in quality, with the woman playing Ariel perhaps being the standout, although I was also impressed with Alonso and Trinculo. The performance of Prospero was a little harder to judge, for reasons I'll get to.

I went to the show because I wanted to get a better sense of the play, which I had only read before. It really did help a lot to see it staged, although it also really helped to have read the play (and the critical analysis in the introduction to the edition I have) before I saw this performance. I always had a sense of what was being said even when I couldn't make out the words. As usual, seeing the characters interact physically really helped me understand all the relationships better, and I also got a much stronger sense of the use of magic in the story than I had gotten from reading the text. That may have been the biggest eye-opener in a lot of ways.

Some of my gut impressions from my most recent reading were given support, even though I had begun to doubt them after reading further commentary by others. The young lovers, Miranda and Ferdinand, came off as superficial and slight. This could have been a performance problem, because I didn't think either of the actors was very good with the language. Above all, Prospero came across as kind of an asshole. He shouts, he bellows, he manipulates, he abuses. The stentorian tones seemed like an interpretation, for which they found evidence in the text, but I'll be curious to see how other productions of the play might differ. Prospero was a very dark character in this version, and his conversion to a forgiving sort who resigns his awesome power was difficult to accept.

However, the one thing that his conversion hinged on was a scene that points to a major difference between my recent gut impressions and the impression I got from seeing the performance. I came away from my reading feeling that Ariel was a subservient little ass-kisser, but came away from the performance feeling that Ariel was the key to Prospero's conversion. It was played that way very deliberately, with an emphasis on the scene where Ariel reports on the torment of the castaways, particularly the tears of Gonzalo. I was surprised at how moving this speech of Ariel's was. I had completely missed it in my reading. Ariel's empathy melts Prospero's bitterness, and from there we move to his acts of forgiveness. The power of that pivotal scene was enough to make this transition seem at least initially understandable.

Over all, Ariel was a much more interesting character on the stage. I had also missed the brief show of rebellion fairly early in the play, which prompts Prospero to threats and to a barking expository lump about how he saved Ariel from captivity. There was also a terrific rendition of Ariel's own threatening speech to the castaways after the false feast, in which Ariel dropped from the catwalks in a black costume with bat wings and bat feet. The only problem with that scene was the electronic processing of Ariel's voice, which obscured the words.

Amongst the other characters, Alonso came across as more sympathetic than I anticipated (an emphasis on his mourning for his lost son and joy at the reunion), Gonzalo was more annoying (prating old fool), and Caliban perhaps less sympathetic. Not sure about that last, however. Caliban remains a captivating figure, but the buffoonish bellowing of this performance, at least, made him pretty annoying as well. (Interestingly, the actors playing Ariel and Caliban may have been husband and wife or family of some kind. They had the same last name.)

[livejournal.com profile] ron_drummond reports that he has mailed me a DVD of a BBC production from the '70s, so I'll probably watch that next. I'm also curious about Derek Jarman's film adaptation, which is apparently very idiosyncratic and moves scenes around. It should probably wait until I've seen another traditional adaptation. (No doubt it was reading about Jarman's movie that made me associate Tilda Swinton with Ariel, although alas, he didn't use her in this film in any role.)
randy_byers: (Default)


French was followed in 1934, both at the Old Vic and at Sadler's Wells, by Elsa Lanchester, playing a very art-deco and decidedly feminine Ariel in a silver tunic, wings, and a cape, and wearing lipstick and mascara. James Agate praised her extravagantly for the lightness and radiance she brought to the part, compared her (perversely, surely) to Nijinsky's Faun, and claimed that 'until Miss Elsa Lanchester the part of Ariel has never been acted'.

-- Stephen Orgel, Introduction to The Tempest, Oxford University Press, 1987

Ariel as Tinkerbell? Makes me wish, possibly obscurely, that Julie Taymor was using Tilda Swinton as Ariel in her movie adaptation. And yes, that's also Charles Laughton as Prospero.
randy_byers: (uo)
1) Haven't gotten much done this weekend. The main productive thing I've done is some work in the yard. There's a fair amount of autumnal clean-up work to do, and I've busted more sod in the front yard. The goal, still, is to plant a bee-friendly garden out front, although at this point I'm using up a lot of the new bed space transplanting things that have been overgrown by sprawling plants in other parts of the garden.

2) I've been reading the introduction to my copy of The Tempest, which is an Oxford University Press edition. Great stuff, and it's helping me understand the play better. "Cannibalism, Utopia, and free love reappear throughout the century as defining elements of New-World societies." Shades of Stranger in a Strange Land!

3) The University of Oregon football team beat USC 47-20 yesterday. I can't even begin to express what a huge game that was. I've been a University of Oregon fan since I was a kid, so I've been watching the Duckies lose to the Trojans for four decades. I've seen them win a few too, but I've never before seen them completely trounce the Trojans, who amongst other things have been the Pac-10 champions for seven straight years and national champions twice in that same period.

4) It's been a beautiful, sunny weekend, so I think it's time to swing by the Sunday Market for tacos and then find a place to read more of the intro to The Tempest.

QOTD

Oct. 31st, 2009 04:56 pm
randy_byers: (2009-05-10)
You taught me language, and my profit on't
Is I know how to curse.


-- Caliban in The Tempest, Act 1, Scene 2
randy_byers: (2009-05-10)
I finished reading Shakespeare's The Tempest last night. It's the third or fourth time that I've read it, going back to college, and it remains pretty opaque to me. I think I really need to see it performed to get a better sense of the dramatics. What is the dramatic core of this story? Is it the restoration of the rightful political order? What is the climax? The betrothal of Ferdinand and Miranda? Prospero's confrontation with his brother and the King?

One of the problematic aspects of the play is that Prospero is an ambiguous character. He has clearly been wronged in the past when he was deposed as Duke of Milan and sent into exile, but he is so powerful and manipulative in the course of the play that it's hard to feel very sympathetic with him. It's also a hard to understand why he gives up his magical power in the end. I suppose this is a case of asking Shakespeare to write a different story, but I'm left wondering where that power came from and why someone else wouldn't take it up and take over the world. Perhaps the mysterious island where the action takes place is a fissure into another, more magical world, and the power only exists in that locale.

The relationship between Ferdinand and Miranda is also problematic. Why do they fall in love? Okay, she's never seen any other young man, so it's a first fancy. Meanwhile, he is smitten with her beauty and innocence. Still, it seems fairly flimsy, doesn't it? This is especially true when we realize (as I only did for the first time on this reading) that the events of the play occur within the space of three hours. It's love at first sight, I guess, but it's hard not to feel that Prospero has manipulated them into falling in love. Perhaps A Midsummer Night's Dream isn't the only place where Shakespeare comments on the artificiality and superficiality of love.

What's more clear is the way the various plot threads comment on political power, humorously in the case of Trinculo, Stephano, and Caliban drunkenly plotting their inane parody of a coup against Prospero, more threatening in the plotting of Antonio and Sebastian against Alonso, the king, which echoes the historical plot of Antonio against his own brother, Prospero. Yet I still don't follow all this very clearly, so I don't fully understand the sense of restoration at the end. Part of my confusion, I guess, is that all the malefactors are pardoned for their crimes. Nobody dies of their vaulting ambition.

Caliban is the most compelling character in many ways. Despite all his threats and plotting, he comes off as more of a buffoon than an actual monster. Prospero seems crueler than Caliban in actual actions taken. Caliban resents his enslavement, and he seems more human in that than the subservient Ariel, although Ariel is also fascinating for his very inhuman aura. Maybe too it is that we see Caliban remembering his mother.

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