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Checking in

So, I was going to write something witty and insightful about my personal life (i.e. how theatre has consumed it, or how the more fun it gets the less I update my blog), but instead I have only one thing to leave you with.



A Little Shakespeare

There are a handful of things that I believe are incontrovertibly worth saying about Shakespeare.

I’m not talking biographical details, or trivia — though it’s certainly interesting that Shakespeare passed away on his 52nd birthday (the same day that, across the ocean, Miguel de Cervantes died), or that he famously willed his wife his “second-best bed,” or that his most famous detractor was killed by a dish of spoiled pickled herring, none of those factoids are critical to an understanding of Shakespeare.

10. Shakespeare wrote for voices, not eyes.
In a number of Elizabethan grammar schools, teachers would have their students perform plays, usually morality parables or tales from Greek mythology, as a way of quietly forcing them to learn and understand the material. Whatever else might be said about the critically flawed Renaissance-era school system, I think this is an absolutely brilliant idea. I’m not saying that every class on Shakespeare must begin with a performance — though I wouldn’t turn that down — but any teacher who refers to “Julius Caesar” as a “book” and assigns readings, or who begins and ends an entire Shakespeare course without forcing students to act any of the text, ought not to be teaching Shakespeare. Textual interpretation for playwrights is based so much on the realities of human voices and rhythms; after all, the plays were written as such. It’s much, much easier to understand Shakespeare when you’re not only reading it aloud, but reading it with appropriate passion — suddenly, meanings flow out of inflection and movement that would have been undetectable on the page. Expecting students to understand Shakespeare while treating him like a novelist is like expecting students to understand “Moulin Rouge” from an in-depth silent reading of the screenplay: it’s counterintuitive.

9. There’s no reason Shakespeare should be anyone other than Shakespeare.
Some people may insist that Shakespeare wasn’t William Shakespeare, a grammar-school-educated glover’s son from Stratford-upon-Avon; he was instead Francis Bacon, or Edward de Vere, or Christopher Marlowe, or (I swear to God I’ve heard this) Queen Elizabeth herself. This is a ridiculous belief. There is a good deal of evidence, beginning with the conveniently similar name, that Shakespeare was Shakespeare. There is no evidence whatsoever that Shakespeare was anyone other than Shakespeare, and the evidence provided is either fudged (e.g. theories that have Marlowe writing “Hamlet” after his confirmed date of death) or cryptic enough that it could prove anything from Shakespeare’s secret homosexuality to Shakespeare’s past life as a potato. As such, it is — like Santa Claus, or the Easter Bunny, or, say, Bertrand Russell’s invisible teapot — impossible to rationally disprove, as it is so based in fervent anti-realistic faith that no argument will sway it. And what could possibly be the motivation for such a faith? Why on earth would so many aristocrats, public intellectuals and “beautiful people” steadfastly believe that a middle-class, public- and self-educated prole could never be the real Shakespeare, despite largely irrefutable evidence? Why, when pressed to offer new candidates, are those candidates always moneyed, titled Renaissance celebrities, and not artisans or priests or schoolteachers or even actors? Guess.

8. Shakespeare loved spectacle.
And that doesn’t mean you can’t do a minimalist production of Shakespeare — far from it. Some of the best Shakespeare shows I’ve seen were minimalist; some of the worst were as lavish as shows can be. Spectacle need not be based in money: it can be music, or dance, or “performance art,” or the frantic waving of 75-cent sheets of colored cotton. And Shakespeare, even with his set-less, effect-less venue, wrote a tremendous amount of spectacle into his plays, and to deny that spectacle when it appears is to deny a quintessential element of Shakespearean writing. If you’re doing it consciously, to subvert the general spectacular conventions of “Cymbeline” or “Pericles” or what have you, the more power to you; if you’re just doing it because spectacle doesn’t seem right on a modern stage, you really should be directing another playwright’s play. Shakespeare, in part because of his mistreatment onstage, has come to seem dry, stuffy, devoid of visual beauty. He — this man who filled Twelfth Night with music, who ordered ships to wreck onstage and statues to come alive and gods to descend from the heavens — would be furious.

7. Shakespeare loved sex.
There is nothing I can say about this except: When the Victorians held up Shakespeare as an exemplar of morality, they had no idea what they were getting themselves into.

6. Shakespeare was almost certainly homosexual, bisexual, or heterosexual. There is no evidence to determine which. — paraphrased from Stephen Booth.
We can assume nothing. The sonnets, though beautiful pieces of writing, cannot count as historical proof; they are an assortment of love poems to people whose identities we will never know. We don’t know if he was in love with the Dark Lady or the Fair Youth or the Rival Poet. We don’t know if their genders were changed, or their situations fudged for artistic merit, or if they existed at all. They could have been the crepuscules of a brilliant mind. One thing is certain: we cannot take stereotypes and vague poetic hints as concrete evidence that Shakespeare “swung” one way or the other.

6. Despite his little “Richard II” slip-up,* Shakespeare displayed amazing political savvy.
Why is Henry Tudor a god and Richard III a monster? Because Henry Tudor was Queen Elizabeth’s grandfather. One thing is certain: Shakespeare knew how to choose a subject. Note that he conveniently saved “Henry VIII” until after Elizabeth’s death, and avoided all historical subject matter that might defame the Tudors, instead opting for patriotic material and the occasional bit of revisionism. This behavior wasn’t restricted to Elizabeth’s reign: King James was Scottish, and “Macbeth” was born. And our playwright was a favorite of both rulers. Well played, Mr. Shakespeare.

* After a performance of “Richard II,” a play in which a philosophical but ineffective ruler is violently deposed, Elizabeth famously said “I am Richard II, know ye not that?” and demanded an audience the troupe. We don’t know what happened in that audience, but luckily, if heads rolled, they weren’t the actors’.

5. Just because Harold Bloom disagrees with them doesn’t mean they’re worthless.
The famous curmudgeon may claim that those demon Marxist-feminist-multicultural-revisionist-neo-historicist critics today are destroying Shakespeare, but that says more about Harold Bloom than the state of contemporary Shakespeare criticism. Modern critics — even (or, I might say, especially) those peering at Shakespeare through a specific lens — have breathed new life into a stagnating discipline powered by professorial white men; whether or not you concur with their perspectives on Shakespeare, writers like Gary Taylor and Gail Kern Paster have raised points and provided food for thought that thoroughly energized the field. (And everyone interested in history and/or literature should read Taylor’s revolutionary Reinventing Shakespeare, a fabulous, though surely not Harold Bloom-approved, upending of what we might call “the Shakespeare myth.” It may not always be easy to agree with, but it’s an excellent read.) Harold Bloom… well, he will always be Harold Bloom, and he will always feel it his responsibility to bring back the good old Victorian days. It’s nothing but a fancy. Let it pass.

4. Shakespeare’s tragedies were funny, and his comedies were sad.
It’s one of his great virtues as a writer (and, while working on Ariel Dorfman’s relentlessly high-drama “Death and the Maiden,” one comes to appreciate it even more) — he calls life as he sees it. And his situations may be exaggerated, and they may be far beyond anything we plebeians will ever experience, but they have those little elements of emotional variation that ring true. No life is pure tragedy, or pure comedy; there will always be a drunk doorman to greet you after the murder, or a nasty rumor to spoil the fun of a new relationship, or a friend spitting potty jokes into the face of death. So it is in Shakespeare.

3. Shakespeare’s women were ahead of their time.
He wasn’t, of course, the first writer to give us an engaging heroine — the Greeks supplied a few, even if they were often closer to ciphers than fully fleshed characters. Still, he created the first real female characters in Renaissance drama. Cleopatra, Rosalind, Imogen, Isabella, Beatrice all dominate the worlds they inhabit; many more of the women he wrote, Lady Macbeth and Juliet being prime examples, are equal to the men in personality, humor, intelligence, character. Virginia Woolf was the first to point out how unusual, and how extraordinary, this was. After all, Shakespeare drew these remarkable stage women at a time when real women were forcibly kept illiterate and treated as their husbands’ property, and where the women of literature (despite Queen Elizabeth’s prominent presence) were universally chaste sex objects or broad, low-comedy wives. Shakespeare saw more variety and depth in women than an entire culture could, and this leap of faith in itself would be enough to rank him in our literary canon.

2. Shakespeare wasn’t perfect.
He was a decidedly privileged inhabitant of a decidedly insular world; as such, we cannot expect him to be immune from the prejudices of his day. He was certainly racist. He was arguably an anti-Semite, though a convincing argument can be made either way. He had that peculiar bourgeois attitude wherein he hated money and its “corrupting influence” but set absolute faith in the class system; he was classist and a philosophical proponent of divine right. He believed — or so his writings would imply — that nobles were inherently more graceful, more beautiful, on the whole better people than poorer folk. (The rural poor are not, as some would argue, exempt; he romanticizes their pastoral lifestyle while simultaneously portraying them as dolts, oafs, clowns undeserving the paradise they inhabit.) This doesn’t invalidate contemporary readings of his work; we have the right to subvert the text, or to reinterpret it. Such is a benefit of theater. But, in the general absence of evidence for the defense and profusion of evidence for the prosecution, we can’t assume that he originally spoke in irony or in sympathy, no matter how much we would like to.

1. Shakespeare is our most underrated poet. — Stephen Booth
And that is a fact.

San Francisco: Day 1 (12/17)

We interrupt this program to bring you: The San Francisco Travelogue!

As many of you know, I was recently in San Francisco for approximately a week.  Over the course of the next week I will endeavor to post daily entries describing one day each of my trip; I hope this will be vaguely entertaining, or at the very least tolerable.  I may post some Deep Thoughts in addition, but my after-the-fact travel diary will remain regular.

I’m actually starting here with day 0, seeing as our traveling began the day before we reached San Francisco, then proceeding to day 1.  Forgive me for the inconsistency.

12/16: I packed my bags, slipped behind the wheel, and pulled out of the driveway almost immediately after my Spanish exam; we reached the Dulles airport just before dinner.  It being the week before Christmas, we were deluged by carols on arrival — including “It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year,” which would quickly become a theme throughout our travels.*  After a long ordeal at the security counters and a swift bite at Chipotle (vegetarian burrito with black beans, rice, grilled peppers and onions, tomato salsa, corn salsa, and guacamole, with half a shared pineapple smoothie from Greenleaf’s on the side; for those of you who care, I will try to describe my meals in as elaborate detail as possible, even without awesome photos) my father and I boarded our flight.

The ride that followed was remarkably uneventful, especially when compared to our return trip; suffice it to say that it included a minute sliver of study time, a whole lot of iPod time, a book of Doris Lessing’s essays, and free club soda.  (I could write an entire post on either of the latter, but particularly Lessing; she is a brilliant, well-read critic and analyst who gets a number of things royally, dumbfoundingly wrong.  She is also one of those writers who laments the “scourge of political correctness” without either defining her terms or backing up her statements with any kind of evidence.  But that’s another story.)  The highlight of our trip?  When changing flights in Minneapolis, the temperature was — in the pilot’s own words — “a toasty nine degrees Fahrenheit.”   Snow had accumulated inside the tunnels between planes.

We arrived at the San Francisco airport around 12:30 Pacific time (3:30 Eastern time) and just made the hotel’s final Complimentary Courtesy Shuttle.  The next morning

12/17: we woke up in South San Francisco Industrial City — no kidding, that’s the name of the town.  It’s splayed across the prominent hills in Hollywood sign-esque letters — and had breakfast at IHOP, the least egregious of the many chain restaurants that studded the streets around our Comfort Inn.  My dad ordered gingerbread pancakes, an enormous holiday-themed platter that came with hash browns and sodden scrambled eggs; I had the surprisingly good Garden Crepes, which (ordered without the toxic-waste-like Hollandaise sauce) consist of thin, slightly sweet crepes wrapped around scrambled veggies and Provolone cheese.  Thus sated, we headed back to the airport and took the BART train into San Francisco proper.

On the BART, it is worth noting, we spent the entire time puzzling out a mysterious red advertisement:

“Jacques Binet could have read this.  Can you?

Neither of us, needless to say, found the answer — in part because (spoiler alert!) we were barking up the wrong Binet.  If any of you can, please feel free to comment, and I’ll worship you forever if you get it right.

From the windows of the train, San Francisco looks much bigger than it is.  This may be a fluke of the hilly terrain, or the colorful, eye-catching houses, or the route that the BART takes through the city; nonetheless, the city seems to sprawl out endlessly in all directions.  It’s one of America’s smallest Big Cities, measuring in at only 49 square miles (7×7), and that size was abundantly clear while walking later in the trip — and yet, for that moment, we were surrounded from all sides, as far as the eye can see, by San Francisco.

We got off the train at the Civic Center stop and stashed our bags at the hotel: a Holiday Inn, cheap, convenient, and centrally located.  From there, we decided to take an exploratory stroll of the area and were quickly drawn in by City Hall.

San Francisco’s City Hall is among the most impressive buildings I’ve ever seen, and though I really haven’t seen that many buildings I count that as high praise — especially when you take into account that the entire thing was destroyed by one earthquake, rebuilt, then critically damaged by another.  (It is now officially “earthquake-proof,” meaning that, like many of San Francisco’s other impressive buildings, it can sway and pivot in case of seismic disturbance.  Personally, I don’t find this too comforting.)  The inside is no less awe-inspiring: built entirely out of pink marble, its primary feature is the steep, Cinderella-style staircase that dominates the rotunda.  This flight of stairs is a popular location for school trips, choral concerts and weddings (the latter as much because of the dirt-cheap rental fee as the beauty); accordingly, in our hour-long City Hall sojourn, we witnessed a school choral concert and two different weddings.  City Hall offers free guided tours on the half-hour, which we hadn’t known going in but were very pleased to learn.  While the docents may be uneven in skill and experience, the politics and general background of the spot were absolutely fascinating, and the guided nature of the tours allow for access to areas that ordinary tourists wouldn’t see.  Case in point: the mayor’s office, where George Moscone served until his assassination in 1978.  Busts of Moscone and Harvey Milk were prominently featured on the building’s upper floor, and though the Supervisor’s Office where Milk worked and died is closed to the public, one got the sense that many of the City Hall visitors had come in part to pay their respects.

After the tour, we continued with our walk; from one of City Hall’s uppermost windows, we’d seen an odd building bearing the legend “TRUTH” and wanted to investigate.  Turns out that TRUTH was just TRUTH, painted in massive black and white letters on what appeared to be a defunct boardinghouse.  After walking a few more blocks, we stopped for lunch at Soup Freaks — a disappointment in my book.  This restaurant, which claims to specialize in soups of all kinds, only had one meatless soup, and in our quest to split a meal that would sustain us we were forced to order a sandwich in addition.  Unacceptable, though the tomato bisque was quite good (the mozzarella-arugula-pesto sandwich, not so much), and the pitcher behind the counter had cucumber floating in the water, giving the water a cool, fresh taste.

We proceeded to walk for two or three miles, going in a wide square around Yerba Buena Gardens and only stopping when we hit a large highway; despite its peripheral proximity to the famously funky Mission District, the area we found ourselves in was swank, manicured and studded with museums.  It was also the home of San Francisco’s resident art school, and as such was overrun by young adults in startingly hip outfits, many of which were clearly DIY.  (Looking down at my blue jeans, green Power Shift T-shirt, quickly deteriorating corduroy jacket, and Payless boots, I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of embarrassment.)  Coffee shops were in abundance, particularly independent ones and small chains; after spending much of my life in DC, this came as a surprise.

Finally, we stopped in Yerba Buena Gardens: large, green, very pretty, unabashedly touristy in parts, and with a lovely independent arts gallery/center.  After a quick rest in the sun and some deliberation, we ducked into the Contemporary Jewish Museum, which far exceeded both our expectations.  The museum, far from the simplistic Jewishness-in-140-word-captions approach I’d feared, thankfully steered away from the “summarize Judaism and its millennia of history” challenge entirely and chose to feature interesting snippets, well-curated and in depth, of Jewish life.  A thoughtful exhibit on Maurice Sendak, full to the brim with interviews and original sketches, explored the influence of Sendak’s own family and beliefs on his work; a room bearing the title “Jews on Vinyl” invited visitors to listen to thousands of Jewish-themed records, both by Jewish and non-Jewish artists, and as such provided an unorthodox exploration of the American Jewish experience.  And finally, the museum recently commissioned a local artist to write an entire Torah scroll; the exhibit that followed, combining information about the creation of a Torah with firsthand testimony from the scribe herself and modern artistic interpretations of the text, was a revelation.

Hungry and tired (and still stuck in Eastern time), we walked back to the hotel, first stopping for dinner at the excellent Ananda Fuara.  An all-vegetarian restaurant run by followers of Sri Chinmoy, Ananda Fuara is one of the most popular vegetarian eateries in San Francisco — and, in general, a bargain.  My father ordered a rather disappointing vegetable curry with rice, served with the best mango chutney that either of us had ever tasted; I opted for the “neatloaf,” a delicious, if visually unappealing, tofu concoction served with gravy-laced mashed potatoes and an exceptionally fresh side salad.

And that was that.  We went back to the hotel, relaxed.  The amazing value of the hotel rooms created a virtual two-for-the-price-of-one deal, so we each had our own room; this luxurious privacy, coupled with a welcome independence from my father’s snoring, lulled me to sleep in minutes.

To be continued!

A Brief Summation of the Days Since We Last Spoke

24 days, to be exact.

In that time I’ve literally circled the country, if only from the detached vantage point of an airplane window. I’ve visited family, spent time with friends, and mounted a full-length Shakespeare play in a week. I’ve gone swimming in December, nearly fallen off a cable car, passed judgment on Doris Lessing, sampled the mysteriously named, vaguely Furby-like Gluten Puff. I read ad nauseam about the attempted bombing of a flight en route to Detroit, and grew very, very sick of the general nastiness that ensued.

And I didn’t read nearly enough, didn’t write a single song, fell down on my newfound jogging routine. I was lonely every so often. I lost my official D.C. credentials, having missed our grandest snowstorm in more than 60 years. I gained a handful of pounds from sheer miserable inactivity. I didn’t find a job. My deepest thoughts were confined to food and a few flimsy theories on the gender binary.

Still, all in all, I’ve had a good time.

Over the course of the next few weeks I will provide you with a San Francisco travelogue, a chronicle of a drastically accelerated dramatic process, and (hopefully) a few worthwhile insights along the way. You’ll see the usual comments on sexism, classism and education reform, not to mention food and music and a post on body image and “lifestyle activism” that has been months in the making. In the meantime, welcome back; please continue to send me ideas, responses, and whatever strikes your fancy.

Why I Haven’t Blogged Lately

And I apologize.

Reason #1: I’m sick.

My throat and sinuses are killing me, enough so that it hurts to breathe. Talking is out of the question. Sleep is perpetually far more tempting than it should be. The thought of food makes my esophagus want to cry. Is this mysterious malady swine flu? I don’t know, but it’s gross.

Reason #2: I’ve been busy.
With legit progressive stuff, no less. Free theater, student environmental advocacy conference at UMD, volunteer work at NARAL gala, the whole shebang. I figure there’s a convenient excuse that my few-but-radical readers will eat up with a spoon.

Reason #3
But that’s not the real reason at all, and it would be deception to call it so. The truth is, I genuinely have nothing worth saying. At least for now, I’m done voicing opinions; my voiced opinions are moralistic, unoriginal, ill-argued, and generally come from a place of self-absorbed privilege that humiliates me the moment I see it in print. And even should my opinions have any lasting worth in the blogosphere, they amount to little more than — and I really don’t mean anything by quoting “The Baader-Meinhof Complex” here — theoretical masturbation. Which, in its ego-based, sitting-pretty futility, seems fairly emblematic of my political “engagement” thus far. It doesn’t help that my supposed activist passion is a bit of a fair-weather friend, ebbing at the most inconvenient times and leaving me wondering whether I really should be involved in the first place. No, I don’t feel qualified to write any more polemics, and to be honest I’d rather not.

But what does that leave to write about? Food, for one thing, or theater: elite pleasures that, when I discuss them, are taken for granted in the most flippant of ways. And I understand that the societally deemed “elite-ness” of an item is no reason to forbid enjoyment of it; nonetheless, posts on the subjects seem both exclusive and inconsequential, certainly not worth the time it takes to write an entry. The latter adjective is also applicable to film, music or movie reviews; it seems snotty/self-obsessed/hyperprivileged to push my opinion of a work on others, and ultimately a worthless endeavor.

Which means, of course, that maybe in the long run I shouldn’t be blogging. The whole idea is to share ideas that one deems worthwhile, and I have very few of those. Before I write any more, it might be worthwhile for me to gain some more life experience, not to mention flesh out my flimsy and poorly defended convictions; in the meantime, I may not be posting quite as often as I have in past. Though, if any Eureka moments show up, I may pop in every so often. Thanks to anyone who’s been reading regularly, and if you’d like to stage a temporary takeover of this site (or even contribute a post), please feel free to let me know.