Archive for the 'drama' Category

Shakespeare: Henry VI Part 3

October 4, 2021

The nobles continue their bloody wrangling over the rival claims of the houses of Lancaster and York to the throne; battles and bloodshed become ever more frenzied, driven by Henry’s ambitious and demented queen and the overweening kingmaker Warwick. Some of the most horrific battles in English history took place at this time.

There are still many static scenes where characters merely stand and declaim, with much repetitive and redundant speechifying. Interestingly, Henry’s lengthy soliloquy on time, just before one of the battles, seems to foreshadow the much more famous one given to Richard II (a play yet to be written, though earlier in real time). Shakespeare certainly knew how to reuse and recycle his material… Another scene reminded me of the well-known scene with the gardeners, also in Richard II.

The horrors of civil war are brought powerfully home in the cameo of the son who unknowingly kills his father in battle, but this is then overdone immediately with an identical one where a father kills his son.

The main theme of this play, though, is the emergence of the evil genius of the man who will become Richard III; he is given more soliloquies where he can gradually reveal his scheming to the audience. It’s fascinating to see the processes through which Shakespeare seems to have developed as a dramatist, as he realises the potential in the soliloquy form, but has not yet attainted the succinctness and power which he gives to these in the later tragedies.

There is also more of a sense of pace to this play, particularly as it moves towards its end, Warwick changing sides again and eventually getting his comeuppance, and Edward taking the throne for the house of York after Richard has murdered Henry, but there is still no resolution or end to the bloodshed, as we know what Richard’s as-yet unrealised plans are…

Shakespeare: Henry VI Part 2

October 3, 2021

More factional infighting between the nobles supporting the Yorkist and Lancastrian claims to the throne continues and worsens, gets even more complicated and tiresome. So many conspiracies and counter-conspiracies and subterfuges, none of it helped by a weak and wet king and a scheming queen. All my prejudices about royalty and aristocracy are confirmed…

It’s a bit less monotonous than part 1, as there is some suspense and Shakespeare gains dramatic effect of a kind from switching from one side to the other in fairly quick-moving scenes, even though there’s a lot of posturing speechifying too. We now get soliloquies – and do we need them! – to help us follow all the plotting and double-crossing, the deviousness and the treachery.

The best bit is Jack Cade’s popular uprising, which is partly comic and partly deadly serious as Shakespeare shows how completely anarchy can take over when those of a higher degree do not do what their social status requires of them. Ordinary folk take control; of course, at that time they have to make a total hash of things, but then, so do their supposed betters.

The further I got, the more I realised how skilfully Shakespeare was creating the lasting impression of a country in a state of anarchy, a non-stop series of plots, murders, battles and rebellions… utter chaos, and completely flying in the face of the natural order of things as he conceived it. There is an utterly hopeless and ineffectual king who just watches chaos developing; he can do nothing to sort it out. In a lot of ways it’s beginning to remind me a little of the state of the UK at the moment, but let’s stick with Shakespeare. We end in medias res once again, with the Yorkists victorious in battle. Part 3 beckons.

Shakespeare: Henry VI Part 1

September 30, 2021

I always feel a little outfaced whenever I tackle Shakespeare’s history plays, because so much background information is needed to follow them in any detail, and there are so many characters – and I’ve never been wildly interested in the historical periods he brought to life, and the squabbling, entitled upper classes. But I try and remind myself of context: the relatively recent end of decades of civil wars, as well as the chaos of the Reformation, and Shakespeare telling a national backstory which for him ends up with the relative peace and quiet of his present, and the ongoing emergence of England as a power on the international scene. It reminds me quite a bit of our own, current messy situation and the wish of so many people who ought to know better, to live on our past glories, empire days, and ‘winning’ the Second World War…

Here, in the first part of Henry VI, Shakespeare contrasts the divided and factious England, with its squabbling nobles and interfering bishops after the death of the great hero Henry V, with the French, united and rebellious and inspired by Joan of Arc, determined to throw off the English yoke. It’s pretty much a hotchpotch of random scenes and events with no real thread except the background of the Hundred Years’ War, and the only unity coming through the character of Talbot on the English side and Joan on the fRench. We can see the Wars of the Roses shaping up in the future.

It’s interesting that the English immediately picture Joan as a witch, a whore, in league with satanic powers; towards the end of the play Shakespeare confirms this in a bizarre scene where she calls upon various devilish powers for assistance as her campaign finally unravels.

Shakespeare’s inventiveness is restricted by the actualities of history, and his chronicle sources. I find the language fairly pedestrian, and the tone pretty monotonous, to be honest; there’s little sense of drama or suspense: it feels like a school history lesson. Necessarily it ends without a resolution: there is more chaos, more warfare ahead, and the audience can easily see that the leading characters’ fine words are just that. But the dramatist is just setting out on the road to his present, showing a real nation emerging from all this chaos at the end of Richard III

Shakespeare: The Taming of the Shrew

September 29, 2021

The induction is a practical joke by a bored nobleman, in which a poor yokel’s world is turned upside down; in my attempts to make sense of this play, especially its problematic ending, I’m reflecting on whether the whole thing is about the world turned up side down.

Compared with the Two Gentlemen of Verona, the plot is a good deal more complicated, with layers of subplots; we can see the master’s progress as a dramatist, perhaps. There’s more humour, though still a good deal of over-the-top wordplay and punning, and there’s more of a sense of a dramatist and a play with ideas to explore here.

The problem is the ending, and specifically Katherina’s “submission” speech: what does it say, what does it imply? I’ve always found it rather hard to judge that she is playing a game in that speech, that she has somehow won and is putting one over on Petruchio and the others. It’s a play of its time, and there was a hierarchy of people in the famous Elizabethan world order, and no evidence that Shakespeare ever really challenged or went against this. So Kate has a place, a status, and it’s below her husband’s.

And yet, it’s Shakespeare, and entertainment, and so it seemed in the twentieth century that there had to be an explanation or interpretation that would make the ending acceptable somehow to a contemporary audience. The Arden Shakespeare second series is now regarded as pretty old, but it has always been my go-to text, and the introduction, which comes from the 1980s, is quite interesting on this issue and I recommend it to any others who may be puzzling in the same way as I have been.

What we need to notice is the love that has emerged between Katherina and Petruchio, more than anything else, and to remember that for Shakespeare, real love is paramount in so many of his plays, as opposed to pretences. So there is a solid base to their relationship in sixteenth century terms, which will probably not be played out in the simplistic dominance/submission trope implied by a superficial reading of the speech. Equally, I found myself remembering my comment to students that Shakespeare does not offer simple and clear-cut solutions or endings: there are often several strands/ideas/opinions being played out, as one might expect from a dramatist of his calibre. There are several different balls being juggled here, and you can’t necessarily keep your eye on all of them at the same time, but that doesn’t mean they’re not up there… and I found that helpful.

Shakespeare: Two Gentlemen of Verona

September 29, 2021

The wit and wordplay of early Shakespeare nowadays feels over-contrived and overdone, tiresome even, and it’s certainly the case for me in this play. And the wooing is stylised, not really reflecting any genuine feeling or conviction. To me it’s as though Shakespeare is ‘getting there’ in what’s probably his first play, but hasn’t quite got the measure of how he will succeed…

Don’t get me wrong, it’s entertaining enough, light and frothy with plenty of misunderstandings, contretemps and confusions. What struck me most strongly on this re-read, is just how much of the later Romeo and Juliet is foreshadowed in Two Gentlemen, even though this is a comedy, not a tragedy, and this is because of his source material, apparently. There are similar love tropes, there’s a plotted elopement using a rope-ladder, there’s the need for a lover to flee because he has been banished, there’s a scheme for passing letters to-and-fro, there’s even a Friar Laurence. But it is predictable, light-weight, geared to a comic ending; there’s no seriousness here.

Another thing is how easy early Shakespeare is to read, on the page, for me: I fairly rattled through this one. The more tortuous language and syntax of the later plays is by no means as straightforward. I had decided that it was time to do some revisiting of the plays after my encounters with the sonnets over the summer. I’m not offering any academic analysis, just a personal reaction to my readings…

Rolf Hochhuth: The Representative

July 31, 2021

     Hochhuth was certainly a controversialist: in Soldiers he suggested that the Polish wartime leader Sikorski’s death in a helicopter crash in 1943 was no accident, but sabotage designed to rid Churchill of a troublesome ally, and the fact that various related documents continue to remain secret for far longer than the normal period has not entirely dispelled this accusation. Here Hochhuth’s target is the Catholic Church, the papacy, and specifically Pius XII for doing nothing to openly protest about the extermination of the Jews, of which he was fully aware, and indeed he could see the deportations of the Jews of Rome from his rooms in the Vatican…

We see the Pope as a businessman first of all, keen to protect the Vatican’s investments and income streams. We see how his obsessive fear of communism and its perceived threat to the Church leads him to see Hitler as an ally, even while priests are murdered by the thousand in Poland. Hitler may be committing sins, but first and foremost, Nazi Germany is a bulwark against a threat to the Church, which has, to a certain extent, become trapped by its earlier stances towards Hitler’s regime. It is very hard to suppress one’s outrage faced with the wilful and deliberate blindness shown by Pius XII, and the astonishing moral and mental gymnastics of all those who defend and justify his inaction and weasel words, partly on political and partly on theological grounds. The stain – by no means the only one – on the Catholic Church has not faded sixty years later.

It’s a flawed play, in the sense that it’s laden with very dense and interpretive stage directions, the full import of which would never be conveyed to an audience in production; equally, fully to understand Hochhuth’s accusations, one needs many pages of supporting documentation, found at the end of the text. At times, the feel is very melodramatic, perhaps to emphasise the moral horrors and the dilemmas of the participants. But in 1963, ugly truths needed airing and exposing, and he certainly managed to do this. It is a very Sixties style of drama, wordy, cinematic, didactic even; politics and religion do not often sit well together, particularly on stage. The final act, set in Auschwitz, is bizarre. The contradictions between the moral teachings and the actions of the Church have been exposed. The end result is, of course, the 1984 effect: the play, its damning accusations and moral minefields, have vanished into the memory-hole of history. Who reads, who puts on this play now?

 

On ageing and growing older

May 20, 2021

At my age – I recently became a state pensioner, if you’re that curious – I quite often find myself thinking about ageing, growing older, and what that has in store, both generally, and for me in particular, and I’ve also been reflecting on what literature has to say about it all.

Way back in my teenage years, studying for A Level Latin, we met Horace’s famous ode “Eheu fugaces” to his friend Postumus (I always thought he was a particularly apt addressee, given the subject of the poem): the years slipping inevitably and unstoppably by, and nothing able to halt the remorseless slide towards senility and death: money, wine and pleasures were available, yes, but did nothing to stave off the end. Even at the age of seventeen, to me it was a powerful warning of what was to come, one day.

At the same time, I was also studying Shakespeare’s King Lear, which among other things presents old age as a time of loss of faculties; Lear loses his common sense and his judgement, before finally losing his sanity. He learns much during the unfolding of the tragedy, including what things are really of value in one’s later years, but at what an awful cost: he cannot survive the experiences.

And as part of my French literature studies, we read Ionesco’s Le Roi Se Meurt, in which it is announced that the time has come for the king to die, but, of course, he wants none of it, and the play is his struggle with the inevitable, aided by the queen who wants him to see sense and accept the necessary and inevitable, and the other queen who urges him to resist and deny it. And of course, he dies in the end.

As I write, I’m struck by the fact that so much of my studies in my teens focused on these last things, and wonder if it was the product of an education provided by Catholic priests: not exactly a conspiracy, as I know that examination syllabuses were pretty narrow and devoid of choice in those long-gone days, but a kind of memento mori nevertheless, to get us stroppy teenagers into line…

Later, at university, I was to encounter Mr Woodhouse, Jane Austen’s ‘valetudinarian’ – (what a marvellous word that is!) father of Emma – someone who was old before his time, fearful of life and everything that might go wrong, and therefore too cautious to enjoy anything. In many ways he is a silly man, and the butt of much humour, but he does reflect a certain stage in our own story, the notion that we are not immortal, and that there are many ways to die, as was said about Cleopatra after her end. I’m also reminded of Wilfred Owen’s Disabled, where the young man lies about his age in order to sign up and returns from the front a tetraplegic; at nineteen we do not think about it all ending, nor at twenty-nine or thirty-nine perhaps, but soon after that the truth dawns.

One of the ways to die is from disease. This can be gradual, or announced almost like a death sentence. The most affecting, if not chilling, presentation I’ve come across of this is in Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Illich. There is the gradual unwellness, the realisation of doom and its confirmation by the doctors, and the reactions of those around him, who, while sympathetic, are not so immediately doomed and therefore must carry on with their ‘normal’ everyday lives; the suffering Ivan is ultimately alone in his dying.

One of the things associated (sometimes) with older age is wisdom; I think the jury is still out on my case, although I do feel less and less like voicing my opinions nowadays, partly because I feel they are of diminishing significance as the world changes so fast, and moves past me, partly because the world isn’t likely to change in tune with my opinions, and certainly not in time for me to enjoy it… I’m with Qoheleth (Ecclesiastes to some of you), the writer of my favourite book in the Bible, who focuses on the ultimate vanity of everything.

The older we grow, the more memories we accumulate, and the more memories we can and do recall. I’m always astonished at how much is actually filed away there on my internal hard drive, when a memory from years ago suddenly surfaces. The computer analogy works for me: I have about 0.7 of a terabyte of stuff on my backup hard disk, and I collect all sorts of stuff, and have scanned and saved vast amounts of old paperwork; how many terabytes of memories and information must be squirrelled away in my brain? And all to be effortlessly erased one day. Proust is the writer par excellence associated with memory, and that famous incident with the madeleine that is so astonishing, and so convincing when you actually read it. All sorts of weird and unexpected things trigger memories, and I think they become more poignant and more sad the older I become. The events were real pleasures once, back in the dim and distant past, now just recollections.

I’m not sure where all of this gets me, in the end. Perhaps I have to leave the last words to Shakespeare’s Jacques, in that famous Seven Ages of Man speech in As You Like It, which seems to sum it all up very well. Each consequent stage of life is new territory to explore; we bring some accumulated knowledge, perhaps wisdom, along with us from the earlier stages which is a little help, but there is always a certain measure of advancing into unknown territory…

RSC: The Winter’s Tale

April 26, 2021

I’ve only ever taught The Winter’s Tale twice, I think; it’s one of those rather difficult plays for a modern audience in that it clashes with our expectations of how a drama works and unfolds. Some of my regular readers may recall that I had – pre-COVID – been in the habit of attending a Shakespeare course and seeing plays at the RSC in Stratford each spring, and in 2020 was expecting to see both The Winter’s Tale and The Comedy of Errors. Now, the former play has been rehearsed and filmed under the COVID restrictions in force, and shown on BBC4. And what a treat it was: I’d lost sight of the sheer power of Shakespeare and the wonders of the RSC over the last year or so. Though it was very strange to catch an occasional glimpse of the empty seats in the auditorium during the performance, and I was also reminded of the limitations of television, in that when you are seeing a close-up shot, you cannot see what the other characters onstage are doing, and this can be very telling…

The Winter’s Tale is, alongside Othello, a very powerful play about the effects of sexual jealousy; in both plays the effect is shocking, but in The Winter’s Tale Leontes’ jealousy is completely generated within himself: there is no villain like Iago there to engender it. This makes the madness different, and puts the focus more sharply and squarely on Leontes. He was very effectively played, and I got a very strong sense of ‘it’s all about me’ from both the situation and how he developed the role.

It’s one of Shakespeare’s later plays which are sometimes grouped under the heading ‘romances’ because despite potentially tragic situations developing, Shakespeare brings about a happy ending of sorts, involving marriage. In the Tale, our credulity is stretched to the limits as the dramatist engineers a sixteen-year gap in the action in the middle of the play, and ultimately has us believe that Hermione was not dead but alive all that time, concealed by Paulina… and one of the things that struck me most powerfully in this production was that the immense emotional shock on Hermione of the entire horrific business became stunningly evident – and more effective because of TV close-up – in the final reunion scene, where her face showed the strain and she could not look at Leontes…

I said it’s a difficult play for a contemporary audience: there is an incredibly long comic scene (the longest scene in any Shakespeare play) with rustics and dancing, involving the courtship of Florizel and Perdita, which to us seems very incongruent sandwiched between the jealousy scenes and the staged reunion and happy ending. Shakespeare was giving his audiences what they were used to, and what they wanted, and, towards the end of his writing career, what was now possible in the newer types of theatre coming into existence. We may find it weird, and we just have to accept it. Here, using an almost hippy setting for the scene, and a strong female Autolycus, the RSC made it work very well.

I’ve long been impressed by what the RSC has done about inclusion in terms of its actors: gender is no longer determinant in roles, and actors with disabilities are regularly cast; in this production actors with speech disabilities took part. I suppose what I’m saying is that I briefly notice these casting choices and then I don’t, for the production is a production with all the actors together and it works, and that, surely, is what really matters. And I’m really grateful to the RSC for sharing the performance – it would have cost more than £50 for my theatre seat last year – and cheering me up immensely.

On being inarticulate

April 13, 2021

 

If you’re a regular visitor to this blog, you may feel that I can write reasonably clearly and in detail about literature and explain what it is I like or dislike when I’ve read a book. I’ve found myself provoked to think about why this is so much harder when it comes to art and music. On and off over a couple of days recently I slowly leafed through a hefty tome about Monet, which was copiously illustrated with reproductions of his paintings. I loved it. But why?

The simple answer to my question about art and music compared with literature is that I suppose I have some kind of expertise in the field of literature, as studying and teaching it has been pretty much my life’s work. So I can explain in detail what it is in a novel or poem, whether plot, character, themes and ideas, language or whatever, that I like or dislike; I understand and can explain how words and writers work Getting beyond the gut response ‘I like it!’ is much harder for me in other fields.

I really enjoy visiting art exhibitions, and some paintings I will happily sit and stare at for hours. I recall a Turner exhibition in Edinburgh about ten years ago; I fell in love with Modern Rome so much that I now have a copy of it on the wall at home. And an exhibition in Berlin a few years ago which juxtaposed impressionist and expressionist paintings took my breath away.

Thinking about Monet and Turner in particular, I realise that a great part of what attracts or fascinates me about many of their paintings is the attention they pay to light. Monet painted certain scenes – most famously, perhaps, the front of Rouen Cathedral – many times, at different times of day and at different seasons, presumably because he was so fascinated by the changes of lighting. Another thing that I find myself reflecting on is the difference between art and photography; to me it seems to have been liberating for artists not to feel obliged to focus on achieving some ‘realistic’ or recognisably ‘accurate’ reproduction of their subject. So the idea of impressionism speaks to me as an evocation of certain places or objects, with associated ideas and feelings, which are sketched out (wrong word, I know) for the viewer to fill out the gaps for her/himself as they choose; there’s an openness to interpretation I like about such art.

Music is even harder. J S Bach I can listen to for hours; I am in heaven. But how? Why? What does he do to me? I get headaches trying to understand anything about musical theory, and one of the regrets I do have is never learning an instrument. But without music, I don’t know where I’d be.

That’s as far as I get, and it doesn’t feel very far, compared with what I can say about literature. Is it because art (and music, for that matter) is rather more open, and rather more likely to affect one emotionally, whereas literature, though it can and does affect our emotions, is rather more analytical, rather more susceptible to analysis and deconstruction?

Karel Čapek: R.U.R.

February 6, 2021

     I think it’s pretty well-known that the word robot comes from the Czech word for work, and was coined by Karel Čapek in his 1922 play R.U.R. (which stands for Rossum’s Universal Robots). I’ve just gone back to the play, which I first sought out in the 1980s.

Rossum originally set out to make artificial humans, but his son realised that a simplified, and more functional version would be cheaper and more profitable; soon these creations flood the world and take over almost all human tasks. The unbelieving heroine is shown as unable to tell the difference between human and robot, and then we are in the territory of, is there any real difference? Aren’t these creatures de-humanising humans by taking over their tasks? Our heroine belongs to an organisation that would give robots ‘human rights’; their creator thinks that everything will be produced so cheaply and plentifully that humans will be able to just help themselves to whatever they need…

It’s a play, and the dialogue is rather wooden. It reminds me of some of Shaw’s plays, though a kinder comparison would be with the kind of theatre Brecht was developing around the same time.

Things do not turn out as planned. Five years elapse between the first act and the remainder of the play, during which time humans have used robots as soldiers, wars are being fought everywhere, it’s clear that sometimes robots go berserk, and that they increasingly despise inefficient and useless human beings, who are gradually dying out because they have no real purpose any more. The robots set about eliminating the last of our species. Unfortunately, the papers detailing how the robots are made, are destroyed.

Only one human survives, and the robots expect him to be able to reconstruct the recipe for making more of them, as they only have a 20-year lifespan. He cannot, and strangely, the robots become more despairing as they foresee their eventual disappearance; there is some essence of humanity in the final robot prototype and the last human finds himself in the position of God in Genesis; the ending is at once blindingly obvious, very clever and also highly satirical.

The play R.U.R. is now a curiosity more than anything, I think, and yet extremely prophetic in the issues it raises and foregrounds, and it deserves revisiting in these days of AI, if only for the purpose of making us think a little more deeply and clearly about what is going on, and what we may be preparing for our futures. Military use of robotics is already, frighteningly, well under-way. Human redundancy in many areas of the workplace has already begun. Can we be sure that robots will always act in our best interests, benevolently obeying Asimov’s famous Three Laws of Robotics? We should not be so complacent…

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