Saturday, July 30, 2011

Shakespeare at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Meaning is never monogamous.
                              — Susan Sontag
Eastside Road, July 28, 2011—
WE SAW FOUR SHAKESPEARE plays this year at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland; all they had scheduled. OSF runs through the entire Shakespeare canon, presenting the History Plays in historical chronological order, the Comedies and Tragedies in a less orderly fashion; and the Bard represents about a third of the entire OSF rep in any given year. (The complete production history of Shakespeare is listed here.)

My college major was English Literature, but my college career was disorderly, to say the least. The last two courses I took to complete my degree were intense summer-session classes in required subjects, oddly postponed far beyond logic: English 1B, the required freshman course in composition; and a survey course in Shakespeare. The latter was taught, I remember, by a fine old-school professor. We read, discussed, and wrote about thirteen of the plays, a third of the canon, taking Charles Jaspers Sisson's edition as our text.

In that class I learned that discussion of the plays and the playwright are endless and too often pointless; we can't be sure of the texts; establishing a chronology of the plays is problematic; and the language occupies what's now a no-man's-land between late Middle English and the standard English of the 19th Century, which is what we generally read and even spoke in class. And I learned that the plays themselves, individually and taken as a canon, are fascinating: not so much for their narratives, though those are often gripping; or their ideas or values, though those have much to give us; but for their elusiveness, complexity, surprise. The plays transcend, by far, their texts.

Susan Sontag, in the essay “Writing Itself: On Roland Barthes,”
…literature is first of all, last of all, language. It is language that is everything. … Barthes's view is irrevocably complex, self-conscious, refined, irresolute… He defines the writer as “the watcher who stands at the crossroads of all other discourses” — the opposite of an activist or a purveyor of doctrine…

Barthes called the life of the mind desire, and was concerned to defend “the plurality of desire.“ Meaning is never monogamous.

                            —Susan Sontag: Where the Stress Falls (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001)
We saw an early play and an early late play last week, and they both concern themselves literally with desire: the two history plays we saw, from about the same (middle) period, are more straightforward, but raise problems of polyvalence that proved insoluble, I think, in the OSF staging.

As I've written in the previous three reports from Ashland, I'm not in the business here of ”reviewing“ these productions. I'm not going to go through the laborious and generally pointless (and thankless) motions of assigning adjectives to individual actors, stage designers, costumers. At the Oregon Shakespeare Festival you can take for granted the skill, range, and effectiveness of all such components; besides, OSF has a well-designed website that gives an ”overview,“ cast and production credit details, short videos about the productions, and more about each play; index webpages for each can be found by clicking on the bulleted, boldfaced •titles below.

Instead, I'm afraid I'm going to be expressing my misgivings about the general approach that OSF seems to have adopted in its productions of the work that has for seventy-five years been, after all, its raison d'être.

As I noted the other day, OSF began in the spirit of Chautauqua, that uniquely American movement of the post-Civil War period whose purpose it was to bring education and culture to relatively isolated populations. Chautauqua included speechmaking, music, religion, politics under what was often literally a big tent, which often moved from site to site throughout the summer. The movement continued throughout the first half of the 20th century in spite of more technologically advanced competition, as Wikipedia's entry notes:
…by the turn of the century, other entertainment and educational opportunities, such as radio and movies, began to arrive in American towns to compete with Chautauqua lectures. With the advent of television and the automobile, people could now watch or travel to cultural events previously available only in urban areas, and the Chautauqua Movement lost popularity.
Chautauqua still lives, though; the original Institution in the New York town that gave the movement its name still presents lecture series, musical and dance performances, opera, and theater. (A few minutes on its website make it look pretty damn attractive.)

A Chautauqua building was erected, ”mostly by townspeople“ as OSF notes, in Ashland in 1893; it was enlarged twelve years later. ”Families traveled from all over Southern Oregon and Northern California to see such performers as John Phillip Sousa and William Jennings Bryan during the Ashland Chautauqua's 10-day seasons,“ continues the OSF archive, and by 1917 another building took its place, lasting until it was torn down in 1933. Soon thereafter a young teacher from the local teacher's college thought the remaining circular walls looked like sketches he'd seen of Elizabethan theaters, and proposed a production of two Shakespeare plays in conjunction with the city's Fourth of July celebration.

So OSF is grounded not only in Chautauqua but also in the Normal School movement, which developed in this country, in the 19th century, into colleges designed for the training of teachers. In California, for example, normal schools became teacher's colleges, later the campuses of the State College system (now the State Universities).

It's probably largely forgotten today how strong the liberal-arts ideal was in the generations leading up to 1957, when the Russian space satellite Sputnik awoke the United States to its relative complacency as to the teaching of mathematics, engineering, and the sciences. Until then the primacy of the liberal arts had been pretty much unquestioned. After the Eisenhower administration, though, arts and letters took a back seat in general education, not only in advanced education, but also in the earlier years.

Where math and the sciences provide the knowledge and methodology by which society achieves its purposes and goals, however, it's the liberal arts that provide the knowledge and methodology that define and determine them. Science is knowledge: how. The arts are wisdom: why. Shakespeare's plays provide a particularly rich store of wisdom and stand, of course, at the center of English literature, perhaps of world literature, and therefore at the center of our liberal arts.

(This is probably the place for another clarifier: by “liberal arts” I mean, as Wikipedia puts it,
a curriculum that imparts general knowledge and develops the student’s rational thought and intellectual capabilities, unlike the professional, vocational, and technical curricula emphasizing specialization.
“Liberal” because derived from Latin liber, “free”: the kind of education every free person was expected to have. This brings us inevitably to a consideration of social class; and perhaps a lingering reason the word “liberal” and the values of the liberal arts are questioned is the lingering notion that they are the province of snobs, of the idle rich, of an “elite” who consider themselves above the common man.)

But we are far off track. My point is, there are those in the arts industries who recognize and lament the lack of appreciation for the arts, for the values represented by, say, Shakespeare and Mozart and let me add Velasquez, among the general American public; and those people — artistic directors especially — do what they can to bring culture to the masses. OSF, for example, produced this year's Julius Caesar as “part of Shakespeare for a New Generation, a national theatre initiative sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts in cooperation with Arts Midwest, heavily adapting the play to “decontextualize” it, as an acquaintance pointed out, from its specifically historical moment.

Other productions were similarly adapted or interpreted, often with interpolations meant to appeal to contemporary audiences by referring to elements assumed to be within their common awareness. As Shakespeare could count on his audiences knowing about the Gunpowder Plot, say, or the defeat of the Spanish Armada, so OSF counts on audiences responding to allusions to Broadway tunes, rock songs, and standup comedy acts.

The danger here from my perspective is that by demystifying Shakespeare for today's high school students — and there are many of them at OSF productions — my own attention to the plays is distracted as I puzzle over the relevance of an interpolation referring to an item of pop culture of which I am utterly ignorant. But then, this presumably is the cross the younger audience hangs on as it deals with Shakespeare's original text. I'm seventy-five years old; I've read the plays; I've seen nearly all of them (Pericles, Timon of Athens and Cymbeline have eluded me, along with The Two Noble Kinsmen).

Best of all, as no bad interpretation ever truly spoils Mozart, neither can it destroy Shakespeare. We can always return in our memory to a great production seen in the past, or turn in our imagination to a great one yet to be seen, latent in the script. For the meantime, here's what I think about this year's productions:

•Love's Labor's Lost (1594): This early play seemed to me quite effective, set on the outdoor Elizabethan Theater stage, costumed in a vague late-20th-century style. Shana Cooper made her directorial debut at OSF in this production; she was Assistant director for Macbeth and Equivocation in 2009. A complex play, Love's Labor's Lost centers on the intention of the young King of Navarre, and three of his friends, to devote three years to study and sobriety. They are immediately distracted, however, by the visiting Princess of France and her three maids-in-waiting, and the oath is soon broken.

Shakespeare provides several layers in this play, as he did in A Midsummer Night's Dream, written soon after. The trick in casting and directing this play is to individuate these layers — clowns, simpletons, rustics, wits, scholars, and the nobility — and to keep them in balance while bringing out the potential within each. Some of Cooper's concepts threatened to run away with the show, notably the entrance of Navarre and his men disguised as Russians. (They dance in, parodying the Russian Dance from the second act of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker.) But the more outrageous such bits are, the more they succeed theatrically. Robin Goodrin Nordli, as Boyet, was memorable in a scene with a Martini. (Yes, Boyet is a woman in this production.)

(Bay Area audiences can see Shana Cooper's work this fall: she directs the California Shakespeare Theater's production of The Taming of the Shrew, running September 21-October 16.)

•Henry IV, Part Two (1598): None of us eight Ashlanders — four couples who spend a week together every year to see these plays — was happy with last year's production of Part One (my comments on that production here, and note particularly the comments), so we weren't looking forward to Part Two. In the event, though, it was more satisfying. Again, director Lisa Peterson stressed the comic scenes at the cost, I thought, of the serious ones. Too, casting and direction of the supporting nobility — Northumberland, Hastings, Prince John — seemed haphazard, un-integrated.

As usual at OSF, the comic roles were often beautifully characterized, often through small details; but the Cheapside elements — Mistress Quickly and Doll Tearsheet — were pushed nearly to burlesque, and the induction scene, with Silence, Shadow, Feeble, and Bullcalf, drowned the poignancy of mustering in further burlesque. (Again, however, the acting was superb.) I can see how this approach will attract audiences looking for laughs, but I'm not sure I see those audiences made aware of the darker side of the play. We'll see what happens next year in the conclusion, Henry V, a particularly dark play if you look between the lines.

•Julius Caesar (1599): like Shana Cooper and Lisa Peterson, Amanda Dehnert is a newcomer to OSF, having previously directed only All's Well That Ends Well here (in 2009). This was definitely a concept production, compressed and tightened to emphasize the muscles of betrayal and conspiracy; it reminded me of the similarly compressed Macbeth that opened this intimate New Theater back in 2002. That's fine: nothing wrong with adapting Caesar to such a concept. But setting the title role on a female actor seemed to present more problems than insights; and making her dream in Japanese seemed downright silly — why do this, if not simply because you have a dramatic Japanese actress on hand (the one-named Ako, memorable in last year's OSF Throne of Blood)?

The intent seemed to be to contrast Caesar's dreamy eloquence with Cassius's brutality and Brutus's political pragmatism, inherently an interesting idea except that Caesar's military successes are thereby cast into some doubt — though here too if the intention is to show up the unthinking support the citizens give him/her, the play gains both complexity and relevance to the present day. But in the end concept seemed to me to outweigh integrated presence; I felt that I'd seen interesting conversations about Shakespeare's play, more than a persuasive production of the play itself.

•Measure for Measure (1603): Disclaimer: I think this one of the greatest of all Shakespeare's plays, bringing to the familiar ideas and gimmicks almost a uniquely successful and persuasive degree of balance, thoughtfulness, and dramatic expression. You know the story: Duke, for motives never clearly stated (probably because they are complex and conflicting), absents himself, leaving his friend Angelo (never a name so ironically chosen) in charge; Angelo metes harsh justice, though himself both a past offender and a present hypocrite — possibly against his will. The play is a bookend to Merchant of Venice, with Isabela taking on Portia's role; and the oddly tangential ending recalls those of Love's Labor's Lost and The Winter's Tale.

We saw Measure for Measure in the temporary tent-pavilion erected for productions scheduled in the Bowmer Theater, closed for emergency repairs, and it's perhaps really not fair to fault the production in these circumstances. But I was dismayed by director Bill Rauch's decision to let his concept — setting the play's underclasses in a contemporary Latino context — so run away with the serious implications of the plot. Had Mistress Overdone not been made the maîtresse of a particularly obnoxious strip club, and the interpolations of an admittedly first-rate all-girl mariachi ensemble not so often been too loud, and the distracting subtitles at one side of the stage been allowed to translate the Spanish-language songs composed (very effectively) for the show, the concept might well have worked better; and perhaps they will once the show returns to its proper stage.

LIKE ALL CULTURAL INSTITUTIONS, Oregon Shakespeare is in a difficult spot. The economy; audiences; commercial entertainment; the historical moment; technology; politics — all these things intrude, oppress, distract, sideline, even attempt to trivialize the work that is at its core. But that was true in Shakespeare's day too; in fact, much of the power of his work consists precisely in his awareness of these things, in his grasp of their being both problems and subject-matter. I worry sometimes that OSF — and specifically Bill Rauch, its Artistic Director — too often thrashes about in conscious attention to methodologies designed to approach these matters, instead of basking in the riches of the literature, the company, and the place. The approaches being found to solving problems of audience and expense are too visible; they distract from the theater. But the successes continue to outweigh the shortfalls. We'll be back next year, perhaps sooner.
Oregon Shakespeare Festival, 15 S. Pioneer Street ,Ashland, Oregon 97520. 2012 season:

•Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet (dir. Laird Williamson), Troilus and Cressida (Rob Melrose), Henry V (Joseph Haj), As You Like It (Jessica Thebus)
•Repertory: Chekhov's Seagull (Libby Appel); Kaufman & Ryskind Animal Crackers (Allison Narver)
•Premieres: The White Snake (adapted by Mary Zimmerman, from the Chinese fable); Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella (ad. Bill Rauch and Tracy Young); Robert Schenkkan's All The Way (Bill Rauch); Universes'sParty People (Liesi Tommy); Alison Carey's The Very Merry Wives of Windsor, Iowa (Christopher Liam Moore)

Friday, July 29, 2011

Kenjilo Nanao

Eastside Road, July 29, 2011—
ON NOVEMBER 8, 1986, I apparently visited the faculty exhibition of art at California State University, Hayward, as it was then known. My journal for that year contains the page reproduced at the left. I have difficulty deciphering the handwriting at this point, a quarter-century later:
                      8 NOV

    Formative look.

       stains (?) now gone suggest 2 books —
       children's .

 G A: “hybrid.”

            Merwah — shafen — palm; script

And then the sketch of what is clearly a painting by Kenjilo Nanao, who we visited today, in his Oakland studio.

Impossible to know at this remove what is meant by the enigmatic notations in that journal. The adjacent pages offer no help, at first, though now I think about it this was the time we were producing my opera, which helps elucidate the notes on the previous page:
          7 Nov

•Finishing the production

•Booking production : Franklin. V Jan ; photos.

• Little version.
     Ch grinder (p 292 - 301 - sc. 5)
     [female section] ( from H-Martin )
     Military service - suffering

10 45  M Fisher
12  Geo Gelles
2  J Butterfield
3  R Friese
4  A Rockefeller

BUT THE POINT IS that today we visited Nanao's studio, where we saw really quite wonderful paintings, and soon I will be writing about him, and them… I have been thinking about his painting , seeing it in my mind, for twenty-five years…

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Function of Poetry

The Function of Poetry
For Kathryn

A man I didn't know died yesterday
His wife the childhood best friend of my daughter.
Forty years, three lives, two thousand miles
Displaced from me. We practiced different arts
And worshipped different gods; we might as well
Never have both read Donne or loved women
And children who, like Epicurean atoms,
Swerved from time to time improbably
Within a single delicate orbit. 

The question is whether the conscious mind
Transcends personal narrative in death,
Whether an unknown life now completed
Enlarges ours, its end informing ours
With its own fullness through the common points
Of unsuspected anecdotes. 
Is hardly more than random noted moments
In an otherwise neglected life,
Why are we here? Lou said, to tell stories,
To keep each other entertained along
The common road we travel through this life.
—July 27 2012

Sunday, July 24, 2011

New American Theater at Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Ashland, Oregon, July 24, 2011—
IN SPITE OF THE IMPLICATIONS of its name, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival has long been a significant proponent of new and recnt plays, as announced in the organization's "mission statement":
Inspired by Shakespeare’s work and the cultural richness of the United States, we reveal our collective humanity through illuminating interpretations of new and classic plays, deepened by the kaleidoscope of rotating repertory.
This year, in addition to Tony Taccone's important premiere Ghost Light (discussed here a few days ago), the repertory includes Tracy Letts's August: Osage County (premiered 2007), Carlyle Brown's The African Company Presents Richard III (1987), Julia Cho's The Language Archive (2009) (which closed last month after a four-month run), Christopher Sergel's adaptation of Harper Lee's novel To Kill a Mockingbird (1990), and the site-specific collaboratively developed WillFul, which opens August 7.

Of these, we saw Mockingbird and Language Archive four months ago, when the former impressed us greatly and the latter rather less. This week we've seen two others, in addition to Ghost Light — which, I'm afraid, throws a long shadow over them.

The African Company Presents Richard III seemed to me particularly weak in the theater. Of course the specific theater was the temporary tent-pavilion installed in Lithia Park while the August Bowmer Theater is closed for emergency repairs, and allowances have to be made. The tent works reasonably well, and probably serves as a reminder of the Festival's early days, back when that uniquely American institution the chautauqua was still vital. (Indeed the chautaqua idea is still alive at OSF, and quite influential in its productions of Shakespeare; I'll write about this season's examples in the near future.)

The biggest problem associated with this tent (once past the question of the discomfort of audience seating) is the acoustics: it's a dead house; after one production without amplifiction the actors were quickly fitted out with body mikes. I may be over-sensitive to the consequent problems, since I'm more an ear person than an eye one: microphone noise and imbalance of consonants and vowels to begin with. Worse, as far as I'm concerned, is the changed aural perspective: not only does the sound come from another location than the actor's, but intimacy and distance are confused. The result is dislocating, disorienting; and if that's only on a subconscious level it's nevertheless disturbing and ultimately fatiguing. (I can only imagine the effect on the actors themselves.)

Beyond this, though, The African Company Presents Richard III seemed to me lightweight, a History Channel show brought to the stage. In portraying the difficulties encountered by a black theater company producing Richard III in New York City in the 1820s it was funny, informative, and politically correct; but it didn't seem to me to flesh out its characters, to investigate narrative elements that might have proved even more interesting and rewarding. It joins an intriguing subset of OSF plays, plays about Shakespeare plays: last year we saw Throne of Blood, a samurai version of Macbeth; the previous year's Equivication also considers The Scottish Play. (In 2008 we saw The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler, another metadrama.)

Much more successful, to my way of thinking, was August: Osage County. A realistic narrative drama is not the kind of play I'm drawn to aesthetically; it seems to me Ibsen, O'Neill, Miller, and Albee have pretty well exhausted the vein: but then along comes another brilliant work in the genre and you're held, in my case against your prejudices, by a writing, direction, and acting that can only be called masterful. (And the defects of the temporary tent-pavilion theater disappear.)

It probably didn't hurt that as a child I lived a hard year not ninety miles from the bleak setting of the play (Pawhuska, Oklahoma). The accents, dress, even the food depicted in this realistic production were perfectly authentic and, to me, evocative. The dysfunctional family had different problems from those I knew: it's profane where mine was religious, pill-popping where mine tended toward alcohol. But the resulting repression, evasion, domination, manipulation, and cruelty, whether intended or not (I think not), was familiar.

I recalled Aristotle's definition of tragedy the other day: I do think August: Osage County, more than, for example, Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virgina Woolf?, conforms to the classic definition. These characters fall for no flaw of their own making, though the means by which they fall may be self-inflicted; and the enactment of their tragedy leaves the audience exhausted but, I think, purged.

I don't write these pieces as a theater critic. It's easy enough to find reviews of these productions online (though I haven't bothered this time), and cast lists and program notes are available on the well-designed OSF website. One of these days I may get around to writing about the impressive acting company OSF maintains: it's a real pleasure seeing such fine actors taking leads in one show, supporting roles in others, understudying elsewhere; and it's a pleasure seeing the results of productions with long and numerous rehearsals and runs long enough to develop fine-grained detail. This is not that day. Company information about these productions can be found on the links below:

• Tracy Letts: August: Osage County , directed by Christopher Liam Moore, through November 5
• Carlyle Brown: The African Company Presents Richard III, directed by Seret Scott, through November 5

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Molière at Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Ashland, Oregon, July 20, 2011—
MOLIERE'S COMEDIES ARE ALWAYS welcome, no matter the production. The jokes are always old, always funny. The politics are always old, always relevant. The productions, at least the ones I've seen over the years, are generally over the top, occasionally freighted with gimmickry, sometimes framed (in both senses of the word) with too much Concept, but Molière grits his teeth and plays right through, always triumphing in the end.

We've seen our share of Imaginary Invalid lately: along with Tartuffe and The Miser, it seems to speak to the contemporary American sensibility, at least as viewed by theater producers. Of course many, probably most of these producers feel it necessary to help contemporary audiences make the leap to Seventeenth-century France, and so we get productions like the one we saw Tuesday night, with musical interpolations inspired by Motown, and jokes about death panels and public options.

It won't surprise you to read that I have profound misgivings about these attempts at "updating." After all, Molière's relevant because he writes about eternal aspects of the human condition. I always have the nagging feeling that concentrating on the locally specific may detract from the universally constant, which is of course a greater value.

(And there are the occasions when directorial concentration on one aspect, say the comic scenes in a Shakespeare history play, comes at the cost of attention to another, say the serious scenes; throwing the entire play out of balance. This happened last night in Henry IV, Part Two: but that's not the subject at hand; I'll touch on the Shakespeare plays here later on.)

As it turns out, this Imaginary Invalid works beautifully. Molière provided his original play with intermèdes (entr'actes, interludes) and dance sequences, and the OSF production is probably right to think Aretha Franklin is closer to the contemporary sensibility than is Marc-Antoine Charpentier, who provided the original score. (And in any case, apparently only four songs have survived to our time.) Molière's comedies involve stock figures from the comic tradition stretching back centuries, and grow out of the commedia dell'arte tradition, which specialized in spicing material with topical jokes and allusions, blending the classical and vernacular — exactly as is the intention of such "updates" as this Imaginary Invalid.

We saw the play in the temporary tent-pavilion that's been installed in Lithia Park, just down from OSF's outdoor Elizabethan Theater, to accommodate plays originally scheduled for the indoor Bowmer Theater, now closed for structural repairs. (The total cost to the festival of these emergency repairs is estimated at over $2 million, according to a story in the local newspaper.) The tent's acoustics require the cast to wear microphones: this has hurt other plays, in my opinion, but The Imaginary Invalid less than others. Every member of the cast seemed perfectly cast and evenly in command of the role, and given the need to relocate the production the technical and scenic aspects of the play were outstanding. (Full credits here)

• Molière: The Imaginary Invalid, adapted by Oded Gross and Tracy Young, music by Paul James Prendergast, directed by Tracy Young: Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Ashland, through November 6, 2011.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Ghost Light at Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Tony Taccone, the stage director, artistic director of Berkeley Repertory Theatre, has written a play, Ghost Light, which we saw yesterday in its premier production here at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where it is directed by Jonathan Moscone, who as a friend and associate worked with Taccone on the concept and development of the play.

A psychological drama, Ghost Light centers on the unresolved relationship of a young man (Jon) and his memory of his father, the assassinated mayor of San Francisco, a champion of civil rights, including those we think of as "Gay Rights." That mayor was of course George Moscone, who was in fact Jonathan Moscone's father, making the "concept and development" of Ghost Light particularly complex and poignant — and, to a degree, inescapably irresolute and fluid.

Add to these qualities the theater-referentiality Taccone brings to this, his first script — the plot centers on Jon's difficulties staging a production of Hamlet — and the time-space travel negotiated onstage, with its flashbacks and journeys beyond death — and you have a play that gives you a lot to think about. Within the context of Oregon Shakespeare Festival, for example, Ghost Light fits within a cycle of new plays on "the American Experience" OSF has been commissioning; but it also falls within another cycle, of plays about theater itself in one way or another.

And within that, another sub-cycle, of plays about Shakespeare plays. Then there's the Play About Father(s), among which Hamlet stands out, of course: but so does Molière's The Imaginary Invalid, seen here last night. (I'll get to that later, perhaps.) Theater tends to be narrative; pre-Modernist theater tends to center on Search for Meaning. Aristotle famously defines tragedy:

“A tragedy, then, is the imitation of an action that is serious and also, as having magnitude, complete in itself; in language with pleasurable accessories, each kind brought in separately in the parts of the work; in a dramatic, not in a narrative form; with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions.” (Imgram Bywater: 35).

“Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action of high importance, complete and of some amplitude; in language enhanced by distinct and varying beauties; acted not narrated; by means of pity and fear effectuating its purgation of these emotions.” (L. J. Potts: 24).*

and Taccone (and, implicitly, Jonathan Moscone) clearly set out to achieve a contemporary expression of Tragedy in these terms. Contemporary not only because the elements of the plot derive from our own immediate past, but also because they involve means and meanings from our own time, as well as from the universal and even mythic content of tragedy from the ancient Greeks through Shakespeare. Here's what happens in Ghost Light: a fourteen-year-old boy is in shock following the sudden murder of his father. The same boy, thirty years later, is to direct Hamlet. Personifications from the confused memory of the murder and of his childhood — notably the boy's prison-guard grandfather and a policeman who tries to console the boy at the funeral — materialize from nightmares; another semi-fantastic personification materializes from an erotic e-mail correspondence. A costume designer, apparently hopelessly in love with the director, represents both herself, the immediate problems of the Hamlet production, and an ultimately maternal, nursing combination of consolation and urge to get on with things. (This is particularly pointed, contrasting with the fatuous offstage psychologist who begins the play's action: Aristotle's famous "catharsis" is nothing other than move-on-and-get-on-with-things.)

In a q-and-a session after the performance — such events are among OSF's many virtues — Peter Frechette, who plays a memorable (gay) film director in Ghost Light as well as the unseen psychologist, noted that the play changed a fair amount in the course of its development, and would likely continue to change as it moves through this first production. (It will travel to Berkeley Rep in January 2012, with much the same cast.) In much the same way, my take on the play has evolved greatly — and "evolution" is at the core of Aristotle's view of theater — since seeing the play, less than twenty-four hours ago.

My first impressions were of the fine grain and extensive scope of the play: too many details, too much ambition. It was like a meltdown of Hamlet, Our Town, and Cocteau's Orphée, with a little Buster Keaton thrown in, and maybe Thorne Smith's Topper. I saw references to Ibsen. Christopher Liam Moore's fine portrayal of Jon, the central character, seemed a caricature of the director Peter Sellars. The play's two acts run two and a half hours, it's bright and colorful, gunshots are fired, actors take a number of roles in some cases.

But my present impression is that this is an important play. Taccone has worked with a number of playwrights to help bring their ideas to the stage; here he seems to have worked through those experiences, and his close friendship with his collaborator Moscone, to achieve his own masterpiece, in the root meaning of the word; to effect a transition from director to playwright. I look forward to seeing the play again.

I won't comment on the play's credits here; you can find them, along with program notes, here on OSF's excellent website. The actors were superb, the staging powerful, the design, costumes, and lighting both resourceful and effective.

*These translations from Aristotle's Poetics are quoted from Ramón Paredes' essay "Aristotle's Definition of Tragedy".

Thursday, July 07, 2011

A Day with Picasso

Eastside Road, July 7, 2011—
IN THE SUMMER of 1916, ninety-five years ago, in Paris, Jean Cocteau took two dozen photographs of a number of friends. Sixty years later, in 1978, the Swedish-born artist Billy Klüver (1927–2004) (whose name is familiar to me from the Experiments in Art and Technology days), while he was researching documentation concerning the art community in Montparnasse in the early Twentieth Century, noticed that a number of photographs, found in various sources, fell into groups. Curious, he began investigating. Ultimately he was able to determine the sequence, location, date and time of the original exposures — and, of course, the identities of the people depicted.

Reading the most recent publication of the result of Klüver's work reminded me of one of my childhood fascinations, the recurring feature Photoquiz in the old Look magazine, which for a time my grandparents apparently subscribed to — uncharacteristically, it seems to me. Or perhaps more buried recollections of photo-sequencing components in intelligence tests I was subjected to in those days: you look at a number of photos and try to figure out the chronological sequence in which they were taken.

(Now that I think of it, these kinds of quizzes, along with the popular side-by-side “how do these differ” cartoons in the Sunday comics, all components of my childhood, are all examples, or instructions, in a preoccupation I've been developing lately concerning The Search for Meaning.)

Klüver's research was published here and there: sections in the magazine Art in America in September 1986, then in book form in German (1993) and French (1994). The American English-language edition, A Day with Picasso, was published in a handsome edition by MIT Press in 1997, then in paper in 1999. I find it thoroughly fascinating.
The book centers, of course, on the two dozen photographs, nicely reproduced — one can only wonder how much work went into restoring this ancient testimony to a summer day among friends. Eleven of the negatives survive in the Cocteau archives; another nine negatives are lost but original contact prints were also in that archive. Two photographs turned up in reproductions in old periodicals (Paris-Montparnasse, May 1929; Bravo, December 1930), and two others were found in other archives.

Some of the people in the photographs are easily identified: Picasso, Max Jacob, Modigliani. Through a series of interviews with surviving friends and associates of theirs, Klüver was able to identify the others. With the help of old cadastres and maps, and the French Bureau des Longitudes, he was able not only to determine the places depicted, and the probable camera locations, but even the time of day. Interviews and other research had already isolated the only possible date on which all but two were taken: Saturday, August 12, 1916.

(When recently did I read Ken Alder's The Measure of All Things, about that Bureau among other things, and why did I not write about it here?)

The MIT Press edition of A Day with Picasso includes as well as the photographs themselves, with nice running commentary, chapters on the methodology of Klüver's research, the dating and timing, the means whereby the model of Cocteau's camerawas determined, biographical notes on the people photographed, the Paris of the time, and the Salon d'Antin, where Picasso's Les demoiselles d'Avignon (as it was then retitled) was first shown publicly — this particular group of friends and acquaintances were together to some extent because they were all involved with that exhibition.

All this is extremely interesting. History, photography, research, methodology, and the essence of Community are the matter of Klüver's book, and he touched them all lightly yet thoroughly, and reveals how History is — not made, or written, but teased out.

A Day with Picasso is still in print, as far as I can tell. Since its publication in English, editions have appeared in Japan, Korea, and Italy. Klüver's Montparnasse researches resulted also in Kiki's Paris, about the legendary artist's model Kiki (Alice Prin); it was published in the U.S. in 1989 and went on to editions in France, Germany, Sweden, Spain, and Japan. He also co-edited and annotated Kiki's own memoirs, which appeared in 1930 but was then refused entry into the U.S. If these books are as graceful, informative, and entertaining as A Day with Picasso, I want to read them.

Monday, July 04, 2011

"Writing is like the drug I abhor and keep taking"

Found something new to read today here in the course of excusing myself for not having recently written. I've been not-reading Pessoa, that shadowy Portuguese master of a century ago, and this morning chanced on passage number

I’m astounded whenever I finish something. astounded and distressed. My perfectionist instinct should inhibit me from finishing it; it should inhibit me from even beginning. But I get distracted and start doing something. What I achieve is not the product of an act of my will but of my will’s surrender. I begin because I don’t have the strength to think; I finish because I don’t have the courage to quit. This book is my cowardice.

If I often interrupt a thought with a scenic description that in some way fits into the real or imagined scheme of my impressions, it’s because the scenery is a door through which I flee from my awareness of my creative impotence. In the middle of the conversations with myself that form the words of this book, I’ll feel the sudden need to talk to someone else, and so I’ll address the light which hovers, as now, over rooftops that glow as if they were damp, or I’ll turn to the urban hillside with its tall and gently swaying trees that seem strangely close and on the verge of silently collapsing, or to the steep houses that overlap like posters, with windows for letters, and the dying sun gilding their moist glue.

Why do I write, if I can’t write any better? But what would become of me if I didn’t write what I can, however inferior it may be to what I am? In my ambitions I’m a plebeian, because I try to achieve; like someone afraid of a dark room, I’m afraid to be silent. I’m like those who prize the medal more than the struggle to get it, and savour glory in a fur-lined cape.

For me, to write is self-deprecating, and yet I can’t quit doing it. Writing is like the drug I abhor and keep taking, the addiction I despise and depend on. There are necessary poisons, and some are extremely subtle, composed of ingredients from the soul, herbs collected from among the ruins of dreams, black poppies found next to the graves of our intentions, the long leaves of obscene trees whose branches sway on the echoing banks of the soul’s infernal rivers.

To write is to lose myself, yes, but everyone loses himself, because everything gets lost. I, however, lose myself without any joy – not like the river flowing into the sea for which it was secretly born, but like the puddle left on the beach by the high tide, its stranded water never returning to the ocean but merely sinking into the sand.

—Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet, tr. Richard Zenith
Penguin Books, 2003
To write is to lose myself, yes, but everyone loses himself, because everything gets lost.

Looking for anything anyone else might have had to say about these remarkable paragraphs of Pessoa's brought me to Vincent's blog A Wayfarer's Notes, which seems to be a gentle, graceful comtemplation of Nature, literature, and the human condition as lived in the English countryside. He mentions riding the bus:
I was going to talk about a bus-ride. It provided an opportunity to scribble in my notebook, at any rate when it stopped for passengers or traffic lights. These buses judder and jolt with no inhibition, setting their fittings all a-chatter in a syncopated rhythm like loose dentures. Never mind, they serve as a Whole Body Vibration Therapy for the poor and dispossessed, especially those of us with free bus passes.
We were in London for a couple of days a week or so ago, riding buses and the Underground as well as doing a few other things. Transportation in London is alarming. The noise on the Tube from Victoria to Heathrow was never less than 80 dB — we have sound meters on our iPhones — and a couple of hours in such noise and violence is enough to wear one out. (Of course the effect was heightened by contrast with Venice, where there is neither bus nor subway.)

Pessoa, I recall reading somewhere, seems to enjoy riding the tram, as much as he enjoys anything; he observes the strangers around him — ah, here it is:
I'm riding on a tram and, as usual, am closely observing all the details of the people around me. For me these details are like things, voices, phrases. …
All humanity's social existence lies before my eyes.
The Book of Disquiet, p. 253
The last ten days have been spent re-entering our "normal" life, after that five-week interruption of London and Venice. Reading and writing, not to mention conversation, have been largely shouldered aside by unpacking, both literally and figuratively, and mowing and such, and by the fatigue inevitably associated with re-entry. And when I do pick up a book, or even a blog, my attention wanders, I'm back in Venice, or in Pessoa's Lisbon. And when I do write,
I linger over the words, as before shop windows I don't really look at, and what remains are half-meanings and quasi-expressions, like the colors of fabrics I don't actually see…
The Book of Disquiet, p. 138