Metamomusphosis Friday, Mar 5 2010 

Okay, so here’s the deal. I know this blog was supposed to be all about books and movies and I know it was kind of fun while it lasted, and I know that if you’re reading this then chances are that you, like me, have been waiting for the day it makes a comeback.

But let’s face it. It’s been two and a half years since I last posted on this site. This parrot is dead, dead, dead. (more…)

A fine imbalance Thursday, Dec 1 2005 

William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure

there is so great a fever on goodness, that the dissolution of it must cure it: novelty is only in request; and it is as dangerous to be aged in any kind of course, as it is virtuous to be constant in any undertaking. There is scarce truth enough alive to make societies secure; but security enough to make fellowships accurst: much upon this riddle runs the wisdom of the world. This news is old enough, yet it is every day’s news.”

– William Shakespeare

Three things amaze me each time I watch a Shakespeare play performed:

First, I am always stunned by how well the humour comes across. That Shakespeare’s great poetry still works is hardly surprising – it’s not just that the words are timeless and the ideas universal, it’s also that long years of use has made Shakespeare’s fine phrases an inherent part of the language, so that to hear the great monologues delivered is to revisit the English tongue in its essence. It’s the jokes that surprise me, the silly little puns, many of them employing meanings no longer familiar to modern ears; the sly little witticisms that on the page seem dull and cloying, but erupt on the stage in cheerful spontaneity. Every time I hear an audience laughing at Shakespeare’s jokes, every time the genius of his comedy forces a loud chuckle from my throat, I wonder at the greatness of the gift that can still connect to its audience four hundred years after the lines were written.

Second, and this is particularly true of the ‘lesser’ comedies, I’m always amazed by the sheer baroque richness of Shakespeare – the way that, even though you may have read the play half a dozen times before, some phrase or speech that had escaped your attention thus far will ambush you, catch you by the ear. How lines that you may have glanced over without really paying attention to, will suddenly take on a new significance. The quote above is a good example – it’s a line spoken by the Duke in Act 3 Scene 2 of the play, a line that I, for one, had no memory of, until the performance I attended last night (it’s coming, it’s coming) brought it alive for me. It’s such an apt comment about the times we live in, yet it’s a throwaway line in the play, one of the thousands of mini-speeches that Shakespeare intersperses his dialogue with.

The third thing that always impresses me about Shakespeare is how flexible his plays are, how open to interpretation. It’s not just the psychological richness of his characters allows for wider exploration, it’s also the magical way in which the words themselves manage to be interpretable without being ambiguous or indecipherable. This is one of the reasons that I’m so wary of ‘experimental’ Shakespeare – it’s no so much that I’m a purist (though there’s that too) it’s more that I fundamentally believe that Shakespeare is protean enough so that every performance of his plays is an experiment in itself. You don’t need to change settings or alter dialogues, even if you stuck rigidly to the text there are a myriad different interpretations you could try out.

And so to last night’s performance. The Globe Theatre Company is down in Philadelphia, and performed Measure for Measure at the Annenberg Centre last night. It was a very ‘proper’, traditional performance – complete with live music from authentic 16th century instruments (jew’s harps, bagpipes, dulcimers, hautboys), all male performers, and Elizabethan dancing. And yet, it managed, despite sticking strictly to the text, to make me see the play in a way I never had before.

But first, the play itself. Measure for Measure has always been, and continues to be, one of the least impressive of Shakespeare’s plays. I’ve always thought of it as half a good play – the first two acts are exceedingly well done, and the third has promise, but by the fourth act it feels like the play is already over, and the finale goes on and on beyond the point of tedium. This is extraordinarily uncharacteristic for Shakespeare – it’s possibly the only play of his where the dramatic intensity peters out so swiftly, leaving you impatient for the play to end. The problem is, I think, that Measure for Measure is a play stuck in limbo between the serious and the comic. It’s not really light-hearted enough to sparkle as a comedy and carry you along in the sheer exuberance of its prose, nor is it grim or threatening enough to be taken seriously. There is no real tension in the end of the play, you know already what is going to happen, and so the drawn out machinations by which the Duke finally brings the play to its final (inevitable) close seem contrived and overdone, like the ending to a Brahms symphony. It’s nice enough, but you wish he’d get on with it.

Much has been said about the themes of sexuality that the play explores. Personally, I find this the least interesting part of the play. For one, the exploration of sexuality here seems too explicit, too overblown. Admittedly, Shakespeare lays out the central issues well, and much of the speech making on either side has the shock of the familiar. But that’s precisely the trouble – it’s all speech making – this is the kind of preachiness one expects from Marlowe, not from Shakespeare. The other problem, of course, is that in many ways the ‘debate’ itself seems dated, almost irrelevant. Granted there are still people around in our world who cling to the ridiculous idea of chastity, but how many of them spend their free time reading Shakespeare? My other, larger point, however, is that in my own reading of the play the issue is not so much sex as justice. Shakespeare makes no real claims for either repression or liberation, his key point is simply the problem of consistency, the great battle between justice and mercy, between compassion and logic. In many ways, the bulk of the second Act of Measure for Measure feels like a dress rehearsal for the courtroom scene in Merchant of Venice, except that Portia and Shylock are much richer characters than Isabella and Angelo, and the language in Merchant of Venice is sharper, more acute.

This, I think, is the more interesting theme of Measure for Measure – this principle of things balancing, things cancelling out (it’s ironic that the play that tries to lay this out is dramatically the most unbalanced of Shakespeare’s plays – with an exciting opening and a tedious end). A large part of the action in the play is motivated by the Duke’s desire to given Angelo every benefit of doubt, so that the entire play becomes, in some sense, a thrilling exercise in falsification, a study of analytics and evidence unparalleled in Shakespeare’s other work. That the Duke goes to such lengths to allow Angelo leniency is, of course, the key contrast of the play, and becomes the cornerstone of a deeper meditation on government, authority and the use of power. Shakespeare’s great insight in Measure for Measure is that the use of power is best ceded to those who do not desire it, and it is this that lies at the heart of the play – the sexuality is just a red herring.

The Duke himself is, by far, the most interesting character in the play, the most difficult to get a hold of. The reason for this, I think, is that at there is a flaw in the heart of the Duke’s character, whether placed there intentionally or otherwise I would not presume to say. The flaw is this – in a play that claims to set tyranny against compassion, the Duke is, in some sense, the coldest and least humane of all the characters. Even Angelo, for all his barbarism, is motivated by his own weaknesses, his own appetites. But what is it that motivates the duke, other than a whimsical self-absorption? This is a man who subjects all the others in the play (not to mention the audience) to protracted sequence of accusation and suffering, merely so he can, in the end, make it all come out ‘right’ with the glee of a schoolyard conjuror. The Duke’s own explanation for this is that he is testing the others, but that in itself is hardly the picture of compassion we would like to believe in, and besides it is a hard explanation to swallow. The truth, I think, is that the Duke is entirely self-obssessed, and shows mercy to others only as a way of glorifying himself, of creating an effect (it is instructive that the one man the Duke finds himself unable to forgive is the one man he claims slanders him – yet is this really slander? Is it not likely that Lucio is telling the truth, and it is the Duke who is not willing to hear this of himself). The Duke would like us to believe, no doubt, that in sparing Angelo’s life he is being merciful, yet did not he almost knowingly set up Angelo for the fall that Angelo takes. Did he not, in fact, select Angelo to replace him for a while, precisely so that Angelo would take the letter of the law too literally and allow the Duke to return to show off his ‘wisdom’. The best that can be said of the Duke, I think, is that he has no truly malafide intent. He does not mean to actively harm anyone, would prefer to leave others better off if he can, but is primarily concerned only with himself.

What was Shakespeare trying to suggest here? At one level, the Duke is a stand-in for the writer himself – certainly he shares with many of Shakespeare’s great characters a considerable level of self-awareness. And equally he is very much the orchestrator of the whole play, the others being little more than puppets who he shamelessly manipulates into the contrived ‘glory’ of his self-celebrating ending. At another level, it has always seemed to me (though this might be more my own perspective than anything else) that the Duke exemplifies a vision of God as a self-important though ultimately well-meaning overlord. Religion is a constant presence in the play – from Isabella’s incipient sisterhood, to Angelo’s soliloquy about prayer, to the notion of Claudio as a sort of inverted Christ figure (it is hardly coincidence that two men – a murderer and a man who most believe to be innocent are to be executed on the same day; and that Angelo – as Pilate – makes the choice that Claudio be executed first; only this time the Duke intervenes – giving us Shakespeare’s version of how the Passion of Christ should have played out if God were truly merciful). Reading the play with this lens makes for a fascinating interpretation – the idea of a dispossessed God, ineffectual and pompous, roaming the world trying to set things right, but jealous of his own reputation, and concerned more with the impression he makes than with the people he is trying to help.

(This is not, of course, the only such figure that Shakespeare created. Again, there is much about the Duke that seems like a preliminary sketch of that greatest of all God-figures – Prospero; the key differences are that Prospero is both sterner in execution and less selfish in design – if that last Act of the Tempest is one of the finest things Shakespeare ever wrote, it is because Prospero himself is sacrificed, foresworn, forced to give up his powers in order to make the happy ending come truly alive. As a metaphor for what it takes out of a writer to write a really good play I can think of nothing better. It is a lesson Shakespeare clearly hadn’t learnt in Measure for Measure)

Yesterday’s performance did an excellent job of exploring the Duke’s character. As played by Mark Rylance, the Duke is an ineffectual, petty and fumbling man, his greatest speeches turned to the ramblings of a self-important yet nervous pedant. That such a man, so clearly opposed to our idea of a great leader, should turn out to be the one to make the things come out right, is a wonderful insight – and an interpretation of the Duke that I’d honestly never considered before.

The other character in the play who didn’t agree with my own image of her was Isabella. In my mind, Isabella has always been a meek, shy and withdrawn person, an innocent and pure being who is plunged into the intrigues of Angelo’s lust and the politics of the time by the need to rescue her brother. As such she is a fragile, grieving figure, eminently sensible and strong in virtue, but with nowhere near the liveliness or confidence of Shakespeare’s great heroines – Viola, Rosalind, Portia, Katherine. That’s not how Edward Hogg played her though. In the performance last night, Isabella was haughty and proud, a puritan in the truest sense of the word. If anything troubles this Isabella, it is not so much grief as frustration at her own powerlessness. This is not an interpretation of Isabella I agree with. It seems to me to fit fairly dubiously with either Isabella’s own lines in the play or the action surrounding her, and it further sterilises a play that is already fairly hollow emotionally. It would have been better, I think, if Isabella had been a gentler, more waif-like creature.

Overall, it was a wonderful performance of the play though – one that supplied new insight while still managing to satisfy the purist in me. Measure for Measure is still not a play I care for much (at least as Shakespeare plays go) but yesterday’s performance made me appreciate it more than I had before.

Not so Good Thursday, Oct 13 2005 

Eve Ensler’s The Good Body

Question: What is the worst thing that can happen to an artist?
Answer: Celebrity Status.

If you don’t believe me, just go watch Eve Ensler’s new play, The Good Body. You’ll be treated to the fairly grotesque spectacle of a woman trying, and failing, to crawl out of her own artistic vagina.

Ensler, as everyone in the English speaking world knows by now, is the author of The Vagina Monologues, a hard-hitting and brilliant gem of a play about vaginas and the women that go with them. With its compelling and focussed exploration of an issue (and a part of the body) that no one ever talks about, The Vagina Monologues is one long, blustering statement of woman power, that has achieved that holiest of cultural epithets – Cult Status.

But where The Vagina Monologues is forceful and outspoken, The Good Body is predictable and trite (you can almost tell from the names, can’t you?). The truth is that even The Vagina Monologues isn’t a particularly well-written play – it succeeds by being constantly surprising, almost shocking, combining a witty risqueness with some deeply emotional content. Ensler’s writing is often shrill and a little forced, like the writing of someone trying too hard to impress, but the sheer impact of The Vagina Monologues means that you don’t notice this.

You do notice it in The Good Body. The Good Body is a play where Ensler tries to take on the issue of physical beauty, of the tortures women will endure in order to fit some conventional standard of good looks. This is a valid issue (though Ensler seems to assume that the only people who care about losing weight are women trying to look more beautiful; that men might want / need to look good, or that people might actually want to lose weight in order to be healthy, seems not to have occured to her) but it’s hardly uncharted territory. The Good Body is little more than a marginally clever amalgam of all the standard jokes / rants / discussions about the need to conform to some socially defined image of beauty, strung together by the whinings of a woman who (sadly) can no longer see beyond her own neuroses. The big message of the play (just to give you a sense of how banal it is) is that women don’t need to conform to some stereotypical image, that they must celebrate their own bodies and enjoy being who they are. For people who call themselves feminists, Ensler and her fans must be the last people on the planet to realise this.

And it’s not just the content of the play that seems formulaic. Ensler has clearly decided that the monologue form works for her, so that once again, the ‘play’ (if one can call a collection of haphazardly thrown together scenes that) consists of monologues by a dozen women from all across the world strung together by Ensler’s narration. Ensler (who performs the play herself) does a creditable job of reproducing the speech patterns of women from different parts of the world, but the very fact that she has to resort to so cheap a trick to keep her audience’s interest, tells you how little she has to say. Even where Ensler tries to be serious and touching the sentiment rings false, almost put on. It’s the sort of cheap ‘feminism’ one finds in low-brow chick flicks.

Don’t get me wrong. There are some wonderfully sharp and eminently quotable one-liners here [1]. It’s just that that’s all there is to the play – it’s just a lot of clever observations strung together, as though someone had decided to read out some of the better posts from their blog. The Good Body is entertaining enough – in a slap-dash, preppy sort of way – but it’s a play that says nothing new. When Vagina Monologues came out and made Ensler famous, one wondered how she was ever going to top it. Now we know she isn’t going to.

Notes:

[1] There are some glimpses of the old Ensler here, mostly in the parts where she manages to step out of herself and make ironic points about the ridiculousness of her own situation – one relates to the last few scenes because they express what one has been feeling all along, that this is a play about a silly American woman who should grow up and realise that there are bigger problems in the world than having the perfect stomach.

Kiss and Tell Sunday, Jul 24 2005 

A brilliant review of Chekhov's short story, The Kiss. Highly recommended (the story, not the review; though that too!)

Another interesting parallel (though a somewhat darker one) could be with Part II of Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground where the narrator becomes totally obsessed with some small slight that an officer has done him (he brushed him aside without seeming to notice him), and spends years moping about it, planning his revenge – which consists finally of nothing more drastic than bumping into the officer on the street one day! There is the same sense of a trivial incident that no one else cares about or has even noticed, becoming inflated in the narrator's mind to become almost the purpose of his life.

Ten Great Comics on the Web Saturday, Jul 16 2005 

Given how much time I spend at Comics.com and on other web-sites checking out random web comics, I figured I might as well put a post with the ten top comics that brighten up my mornings every day.

1. Pearls before Swine*

Hands down my favourite comic strip – Stephan Pastis’s quirky, irreverent cast of animal characters make for incredible humour, combining attitude with simplicity, far-fetched conceits with dead-pan matter of factness, inimitable silliness with stop-you-in-your-tracks insights into the world we live in. A winner.

2. Toothpaste for Dinner

One of my biggest discoveries on the Web – Toothpaste for Dinner combines really, really bad drawing with a mean, scathing, arbitrary and profoundly brilliant view of the world. Drew’s cartoons have this raw, unpolished feel to them, they are rants against a world that Drew sees as fundamentally stupid and unworthy of any respect whatsoever (political correctness? What’s that?). Toothpaste for Dinner is extremely inconsistent – it can go on for days without the slightest spark – but then suddenly out of nowhere there’ll be this line that you’ll never ever be able to get out of your head again – a line so mindblowingly brilliant, it’ll make it worth checking out the site every single day. (E.g. “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the precipitate” and “Fun Fact: Did you know that the sound that most people call ‘silence’ is actually the sound that mountain lions make when they walk around outside your house?”)

Available at www.toothpastefordinner.com

3. Ballard Street*

One of the subtlest, most stylish comic strips I’ve ever read – Ballard Street is practically a work of art all by itself. Jerry Van Amerongen is the Chekhov of comic artists – his unique talent is for imagining the most outlandish, quirky and plain wierd characters and then introducing them in the most mundane of settings, with an understated, matter of the fact punch-line added to the single frame comic. This means that every new comic is a character sketch all by itself, so that it feels almost like you read through a whole novel (or at least a short story) just to get to this one hilarious scene. Ballard Street may not be to everyone’s taste (some people may find it too dull) but IMHO it’s one of the funniest comics ever.

4. Dilbert*

Need I say more? If you’re not already into Dilbert then you’re either still recovering from your lobotomy or have pointy hair. The really amazing thing is that all these years and all the hype later, Scott Adams can still find things to say that stun you with their simple brilliance and leave you rolling about on the floor of your cubicle.

5. Reality Check / Rubes / Speed Bump*

Frankly, I’ve never been able to keep these three apart in my head. There’s nothing really distinctive about them except that all three are among the finest of the many, many derivative efforts to continue the legacy of that greatest of all comics, ever [voice hushed in awe] The Far Side**. The humour here is trademark Gary Larson – alternate riffs on history, stock phrases, scenes from popular culture; everyday situations extrapolated to animals / objects. Again, the quality is fairly inconsistent here, but if you read all three every day, you’re sure to find at least one that is really, really funny.

6. Doonesbury

Okay, so I’m a confirmed blue-stater. Doonesbury is a true classic – not really laugh out funny (or very rarely so) but just read it for a while and Trudeau’s thoughtful, deeply human humour will ultimately get to you. Probably the most important reason to read the New York Times every single day (available at www.nytimes.com)

7. Herman*

I can’t complete a list of my top comics without including Jim Unger’s trademark long-nosed, chinless men and women. Herman is a glorious read precisely because of this sort of comic baldness – reading it, you never get the sense that Unger is trying to impress / be clever – rather the comics have a flat, almost irritated feel to them, so that you’re almost not sure whether he’s trying to be funny and whether you should be laughing. But laugh you will, because behind his dour tone, Unger is sparkling wit – a genius at seeing the everyday through his own special lens. For sheer ingenuity, Herman doesn’t really compare to the earlier three comics (see number 5 above), but it has a style like no other, and that’s what makes it special.

8. Committed*

It’s a major tribute to Michael Fry’s talent that one of my favourite comics on the web is primarily an exploration of parenting and being married – two activities that I have nothing but disdain for. Part of the reason is that Fry often seems to share my disdain, staying away from any tendency to get sentimental about family life. The home is a battlefield here, a setting in which Fry can explore the arbitrariness of both parents and young children, showing them in all their weary misery (who else could come up with the suggestion that mothers should come with a warning label that says it is not safe to approach them until they have had their first cup of coffee). Any joy that the characters get in these comics comes from the small victories they achieve over each other, and yet the overall effect is strangely funny-sweet. The other thing I love about it is the double whammy of the comic itself and the little extra punch-line on top. Talk about fine excess.

9. Tom Toles

I’m not in general a big fan of political cartoons (it’s probably because I’m not that interested in politics anyway) but I can’t put up 10 comics without mentioning Tom Toles – who is the other major reason for checking out the New York Times every morning. Toles’ take on current events is always bitterly scathing (he is NOT a Bush supporter) but also incredibly creative and effortlessly unique. Whatever the issue, Toles will always find the perfect way to express his point of view – he is easily my favourite political cartoonist. Oh, and as in Committed, don’t miss the little mini-comic at the bottom, that smart-alec-y comment that’s just sitting there waiting for you to finish laughing over the main page.

10. PhD comics

This one is strictly for PhD students only – though the flow of ideas seems to have dried up a little of late, PhD is at once the funniest and most scarily true depiction of PhD life ever. PhD is the Dilbert of academia – it would be funny if your life wasn’t exactly like that!

* All available at www.comics.com
**Other wanna-bes on Comics.com include Strange Brew, Off the Mark and Flight Deck – these are good, but they don’t quite match the three above

Review – Strindberg’s ‘The Stronger’ Wednesday, Jun 8 2005 

The Stronger

On the surface, there’s nothing particularly complicated about Strindberg’s play ‘The Stronger’. Two women – two actresses – run into each other in a restaurant on Christmas Eve. One is married and has been out shopping for presents for her family, the other is unmarried and is sitting alone in the restaurant reading magazines and drinking. We are told almost nothing about these women – they are not even important enough to have names; Strindberg calls them simply Mrs. X and Miss Y. And the entire play (all 6 pages of it) consists of nothing more than a single conversation between these two women. There is no action, no real plot development, nothing particularly out of the ordinary. In fact, one of the women, Miss Y, doesn’t even speak in the entire performance.

And yet, in this one simple scene Strindberg creates an episode of incredible, poetic power – a snapshot of life so intense, so powerful, that it rivals Beckett at his best. Like a Kafka short story, ‘The Stronger’ is rich in allegory and lends itself to many layers of interpretation; it is a play that takes little more than ten minutes to read / perform, but that one can easily spend hours thinking about afterwards. It is moreover, a powerful play, one that makes a deep impression, and leaves one with the illusion that one has travelled far and seen much, even though the entire thing is actually incredibly short.

What is it that makes the play so powerful? To begin with, it is an immaculate piece of stagecraft. It is a tribute to Strindberg’s genius that despite the fact that Miss Y says nothing right through the play, the interaction between her and Mrs X is in every sense of the term a dialogue. Strindberg uses a combination of stage directions and reactions from Mrs. X to ensure that Miss Y is more than a passive listener and that her responses (or at any rate, Mrs. X’s interpretations of her responses) influence and guide the thread of the scene.

Second, ‘The Stronger’ is one of those fascinating pieces of writing that lend themselves to multiple (and conflicting) interpretations. As the play progresses, we discover that Miss Y and Mrs. X are rivals for more than theatre roles – Miss Y is having / has had an affair with Mrs. X’s husband. Except that the play never really corroborates this – we only know that by the end of the scene Mrs. X believes that this is true. So the play lends itself to two very different readings: in the first, Mrs. X is an astute wife who discovers the truth about Miss Y and her husband; in the second, Mrs. X is a pathetic and paranoid woman who’s insecurity about her marriage has brought her to slander. This in turn, leaves the question of who is ‘The Stronger’ one (which is, after all, the key to the play) open. Is Miss Y, who chooses to maintain her silence against Mrs X’s accusations (whether false or true) stronger in her independence? Or, as Mrs. X would have it, is she the stronger one, because she has accepted the truth about her husband and found a way to go on?

This divergence of interpretation brings us to the first of the allegories implicit in the play – the debate about gender roles. In this simple little episode, Strindberg captures wonderfully the fundamental duality of the role women play in society. In Mrs. X we have the woman as caring mother and devoted wife, a person who has lost all individuality and been completely reshaped by the demands of her husband, a woman who glories in the stability and warmth of the family life she has achieved. On the other hand, we have Y, who is the independent woman, who lives her life her own way and is able, because of her independence to shape others to her personality, but who ultimately ends up alone in a restaurant on Christmas Eve. Obviously these are stereotypes, but Strindberg’s point is precisely to make them stereotypes and set them off against each other, so that what is essentially a quarrel between two women, becomes a larger debate about the role of women in society. What makes this particularly interesting, of course, is that Strindberg is not a writer one associates with sensitive portrayals of women (see for instance, the grotesque caricature that is Miss Julia).

But there is, I think, a deeper allegory here. In choosing to silence the character of Miss Y and showing us how Mrs X is able to carry on a conversation (making accusations, drawing inferences) with someone who never actually speaks to her at all, Strindberg has created an image of man’s interaction with God. In the play, Miss Y is not really an individual, but more a sort of human mirror that Mrs X uses to understand and interpret her own life, surfacing her discontent and insecurity and reconciling herself to them by means of a dialogue that is entirely one sided. Miss Y does not need to say anything, and what she thinks or knows has no part in the development of the story. Even the facts are irrelevant here – by the end of the play we do not know what has actually happened, we only know what Mrs. X believes. ‘The Stronger’ is thus a fascinating portrait of both the way individuals can think through the contradictions in their own lives, using another (or the idea of another) as a mere sounding board for their own thought processes, and of the fundamentally conditional nature of truth.

(‘The Stronger’: A Scene. 1890. August Strindberg. Included in ‘Eight Best Plays’ Urwin Brothers, 1979. Translation by Edwin Bjorkman)

Note :

There’s a biography of Strindberg athttp://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/strindbe.htm.
There’s a version of the play available online at http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/8499(pages 120 – 124 in the ebook).