Friday, June 26, 2009


Eastside Road, Healdsburg, June 25, 2009—
NEARLY THREE YEARS AGO I wrote here about a production of Jean Racine's magnificent tragedy Phèdre, which we'd just seen in Glendale, performed by the repertory company A Noise Within. Tonight we saw a very different edition, a performance by London's National Theatre, filmed for "live" broadcast into cinemas. (In fact it was billed as "live capture": the actual performance was given in London earlier today.)

This was a very different take on the play, using a rather talky, prose translation by Ted Hughes where NW had given it in Richard Wilbur's remarkable poetic translation, more faithful to Racine's French I think and certainly more evocative. Leaving aside for the moment the differences between live theater in a house and filmed theater on a screen, the NT production seemed not Greek or French but English; not fateful but relentless; not tragic but dramatic.

It is a favorite play of mine: but it is disgusting. Disgusting not so much because of its subject, incest, but because of its vehicle, maniacal obsession. Disgusting and extremely troubling, because Racine doubles the stark immediacy inherent in the original Euripides tragedy. This play is about the extent to which our human lives can be overtaken by the emotions we're all prey to. Euripides was arguably among the first generations of humans consciously aware of these matters, not merely existentially inflamed by them. If Myth has among its sources and utilities the explanation of perplexing phenomena, Greek tragedy is the poetic elevation of Myth, through individual creative (and intuitive) genius.

Euripides was First Generation, you might say. (Well, Aeschylus was a little ahead of him.) His tragedy Hippolytus, which I confess I don't know, is about the title character's unnatural commitment to chastity; his stepmother Phaedra plays a relatively small role in the action, if not in the subject of the play. Racine's version reverses this authorial position, fixing on Phedre's obsession as the real center of the tragedy.

You can argue that the central theme of the Greek mythology as we know it is concerned with reproduction, with the urge and the need of individuals to obey a natural commandment to reproduce the species. The issue is issue, you might say; the individual will to defeat death by living on in subsequent generations; and in the case of the excessively egomaniacal (as we would say today) the drive extends not only progressively, into the future, but also laterally, spilling beyond the confines of the individual to assert dominion within all of society.

At the time of Pericles this drive was being examined primarily as it involves a social (and, inescapably, historical) context, beginning tribally, then moving into a more complex and codified political structure. To attend to the Theseus story-line is to study uneasy neighbor kingdoms: Troezen, Crete, Athens. By Racine's time the political implications cannot be questioned outright; Racine's king, Louis XIV, was divinely ordained. (Phedre's grandfather was the Sun; Louis XIV was the Sun King.) Racine examines the Theseus-Phaedra-Hippolytus story from the point of view of individual obsession, not familial succession.

Racine's play squarely mediates, I think, between an almost archaic classicism, fully aware and respectful of his ancient Greek sources, and the incipient romanticism of his own day, a century before the French Revolution. We don't yet see, in Racine's play, the possible sources and resolutions of Phedre's severe psychological disturbance, but we are continually assaulted by its presence. And in this Racine puts his audience squarely within his heroine's quandary: in good hands — translation, direction, and acting — we are inevitably thrust into identification with her.

This is Racine's violation of Aristotle's outline of tragedy: identifying with Phedre, we find no catharsis. We don't leave the play purged of tragic flaw; we leave still reeling from the injustice (to use a pathetic term) of the tragic situation inevitably accompanying Phedre's obsession. The Greeks of Phaedra's day were right, in a sense, to give up the attempt to understand these things, whose sources were simply attributed to willful and inherently ineffable natural urges, tides one might say, personified as Aphrodite or Poseidon or Zeus.
All this said, what of the National Theatre production?

I came away of two minds — three, actually. As to acting, direction, and physical production, with one important reservation, I was quite persuaded. Helen Mirren is a remarkable Phedre, somehow (partly perhaps through Nicholas Hytner's direction), bringing Racine's tragic heroine somehow closer to one of Ingmar Bergman's. I wasn't quite so persuaded by Margaret Tyzack's performance as Phedre's nurse, Oenone; there was something a little too automatic in it, too much residue of Juliet's nurse, let's say. Dominic Cooper managed to personify the young, strong, proud Hippolytus, especially as bewildered by the first pangs of love; and Ruth Negga was his equal as Aricia: this was a beautifully balanced pair of tragic young lovers; one wants to see their Romeo and Juliet.

John Shrapnel played Theramene; he should have been cast as Theseus. He was complex, interesting, subtle, as remarkable in his silences as in his lines. Stanley Townsend, who did play Theseus, seemed to me all bluster and boredom by comparison. But with his single exception the cast rallied to what may have been an exceptional challenge, playing simultaneously to the 900-seat National Theater and to the cameras and microphones bringing them much larger than life to the international closed-circuit audiences.

In the end, I don't think I saw legitimate theater. The performance may have been real-time, but on the screen, whether in close-up or depicted on the full stage, the look of the characters is flat. Further, there's a confused sense of audience: you're aware of the live theater audience, but much more aware of the real people around you in the cinema. Worse yet, you're aware the actors are completely unaware of you: you're eavesdropping on a theatrical dialogue between actors and their own, real audience, more privileged because actually present before the stage.

(This quality is exacerbated by certain sonic problems: the microphones drop away when charactes turn their backs; and the actors' suppression of sibilants, especially final sibilants, occasionally produces a curious lisp probably unnoticed by the live audience. "Theseuth," one hears, too often.)

Worst of all, to my mind, was the effect of Ted Hughes's free-verse translation. It had two negative results: bringing the vocabulary and vocal expression to an informal (though relatively heightened) contemporary context, it simplified and even trivialized Racine's intent, sometimes producing inappropriate laughter in the audience.

It also made the production uniquely British. The English language is now universal, and in our time if Greek or French is to be translated into English it seems to me the reason should be to render it accessible internationally. I suppose you could argue that Racine frenchifies Euripides, but I don't believe it: and to the extent that he does, he does in order to point out the parallels and dissonances between the Greek and French contexts of his story. Hughes seems simply to make a naturalized British subject of his Phedre, though he retains the French spelling of her name — minus, in more ways than one, her accent grave.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Squeak Carnwath

Eastside Road, Healdsburg, June 25, 2009—
FOR A NUMBER OF YEARS now I've been enjoying (inadequate word, that) the painting of the Oakland artist Squeak Carnwath. She's squarely within the Bay Area tradition of painting; if you know that painting over the last forty years you'll see how she fits in.

Right now she has a big show up at the Oakland Museum of California, forty big paintings or so, beautifully installed in the capacious Great Hall, handsomely lit, well separated from one another but close enough to converse.

At lunch after seeing the show we mentioned it to a friend, who asked, reasonably enough, what Squeak's painting is like. Um, well. Like all good mature painters she has her recognizable style: you can't miss it. But what is it? You can place her in that tradition I mention above, narrowing in by calling the roll of the Bay Area painters she clearly has affinities with, some well known, others not: William Wiley, Ciel Bergman, Pia Stern, Inez Storer, Phil Linhares, …

She has a repertory of visual devices that recur from canvas to canvas: an outline standing rabbit, a Greek urn, black LP records, tally-marks, color samples. The paintings are big, five feet square and bigger; and many have light-colored grounds, whites inflected more by texture than shading, with these devices pushing forward, sometimes small, sometimes dominating almost the entire painting.
Squeak Carnwath, Stolen Borrowed, 2004. Oil and alkyd on canvas over panel, 195.6 x 195.6 cm (77 x 77 in.).
Collection of the artist, courtesy of Nielsen Gallery, Boston, MA. © Squeak Carnwath/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

Above all her canvases tend to incorporate counted numerals — 1, 2, 3, 4, … — and the (hand-)written word, often phrases or titles or whole sentences, sometimes perhaps overheard from a radio program playing in the studio as she works, or jumping off the page of a newspaper.

Now and then a painting will be muted, in grays or grayed beiges; but most often the colors are bold: primaries, secondaries.

She sounds like Ray Saunders, our friend said over her lunch. Well, yes, I can see that, Saunders belongs to this group too: but Squeak Carnwath paints, I think, though I know it's politically incorrect to say so, with a woman's intelligence and sensibility. This is dangerous ground because so often we react to the classification implied by the statement, rather than the characterization that I mean.

What I like about Squeak's painting is its contemplativeness, the depth of its understanding, the range of its vision, the faithfulness of its address. I feel comfortable with her and her work, both because and in a way despite its depth and intelligence and immense sympathy. I continually refer to her here by her first name precisely because I am comfortable with her; and while I know she sees more, probably knows more, and certainly paints better than I ever could, there's nothing daunting in that.

Painting like hers goes beyond the question of Abstraction or Representation. Her canvases are arrangements of emblems, two-dimensional visible things that stand for something or suggest or recall something. It fascinates me that among the earliest modern paintings of this sort is Marcel Duchamp's enigmatic Tu m’; much of the apparently philosophical content of Dada grows out of this approach.

(Though the 19th-century fool-the-eye paintings of, for example, John Peto announce this development in visual art; and I suppose certain elements of Dutch still-life painting play into it.)

You pour yourself into these paintings of Squeak's, taking them in entire in their balanced compositions, inflected as they are by apparently quick gestures and decisions. You count off their numerals and tallies, read their words and phrases. (Many of them have their titles painted on their thick edges, which advertise them, in a way, as you approach them.)

Then you move in if you like, examining the surfaces close too; I like to do this looking with one eye through a cupped-hand framer, as if I were flying close over an absorbing terrain, enjoying improbable juxtapositions of isolated complex colors. At one point I found myself dancing backward away from a canvas, still looking at it with one eye, whirling slowly to find the other canvases moving into view, assuming new relationships. This gallery should be a ballroom; the music would be profound and enchanting, and the dance exhilarating and refreshing.

Squeak's paintings are important. They carry meaning and experience. Seeing them, imagining the dedication and skill and humility that creates them, you're reassured: none of us experience our Human Condition alone; we all confront life and death, joy and sorrow, awareness and perplexity. When one of us, doing all that, can record those confrontations with such humor, intelligence, and beauty, she does it for each of us, for all of us. I for one am profoundly grateful.

Squeak Carnwath: Painting Is No Ordinary Object :
The Oakland Museum of California, 1000 Oak St.; tel. 510/238-2022
Wednesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m; Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.,
through Aug. 23

Sunday, June 21, 2009


THE MODERN THEATER BEGINS with Chekhov, say I. By Modern Theater I mean theater that primarily addresses the modern condition, which puts us in a constant triangulation of self, society, and history. Well, The Modern Theater begins with The Winter's Tale, of course; it only resumes with Chekhov: but it resumes after so long a stretch — since the French Baroque theater, writing and thinking here off the top of my head — that it's virtually a new beginning.
Last night we went to Santa Rosa, a twenty-minute drive, to see three one-act plays of Chekhov's: On the Injuriousness of Tobacco; A Tragic Man Despite Himself; The Proposal, produced by The Imaginists in their loft-style theater — no proscenium, wings, or backstage.
These short plays make me think of so much early-20th-century work: Gertrude Stein's chamber plays, the short stories of Saki, the experimental one- and two-page fictions of Virginia Woolf. Chekhov positions himself between the concrete realism of narrative and the abstract pointlessness — well, apparent pointlessness — of the Theater of the Absurd.
I love his great full-length plays: The Sea-gull; The Three Sisters; Uncle Vanya; The Cherry Orchard. They are marvelous examples of scale and proportion. But these shorter plays are just as carefully proportioned, but tense and alarming in their quick jumps and alternations. They're extremely psychological, of course; more so perhaps than the more extensive, conversational three-act plays.
A curiously determinate, even fateful number-scheme underlay the Imaginists' presentation On the Injuriousness of Tobacco is a monologue portraying an anxious lecturer; A Tragic Man Despite Himself is a two-man play; The Proposal adds an actress to the number.
Brent Lindsay was brilliant in all three vehicles, with perfect control of pitch, facial expression, body language, timing, and voice: I don't see how anyone could have done any of it better.
Eliot Fintushel was nearly his match in the supporting roles in the other two plays, and Tessa Rissacher was marvelous as the canny, down-to-earth would-be bride of The Proposal, an early play (1889) that lifts farce toward the 20th-century Absurdists.
Staged in a neutral space, directed with style and enterprise by Amy Pinto, the production repeats June 25, 26, and 27 at 8 pm, and we're going back: it was that good.
  • The Imaginists Theatre Collective, 461 Sebastopol Ave., Santa Rosa; tel. 707-528-7554;

  • Green Integer has published these texts in George Malko's translation, which is the version used by The Imaginists; the web page linked here describes the publication and offers a review, by John Stokes (originally run in TLS), with interesting comments on On the Injuriousness of Tobacco, which Chekhov revised five times and completed only in 1902, the year of Uncle Vanya.