The matter of hatred is its own topic.
Just coincidentally, as a followup to yesterday’s post about Greta Thunberg, a Facebook posting she made yesterday just came through my feed this morning, and I have likewise shared it. The link is here, and it is a succinct essay putting forth her explanation of what she is doing and why, in the face of misrepresentation and hatred that she has been on the receiving end of.
You may note I refer to Ms. Thunberg as “one of my few living heroes.” There is a tad of hyperbole in that statement—I believe we are surrounded by unsung heroes whom we may not even know about, and some that we do that have nowise achieved sufficient public status to become the recipient of large amounts of hatred. (Here in the USA, as I have lately waxed poetic on, the stirring up of hatred is largely coterminous with one popular group that self-signifies by the wearing of red hats.) Needless to say many of the true heroes of our day are not those commonly lauded as such by our politicians.
The matter of hatred is its own topic.
Greta Thunberg has called out on humanity “to panic.” I am trying to heed her words, though it is hard to know what to do to make that panic actionable. One feels a little that helplessness of Szmul Zygielbojm upon being given the message carried by Jan Karski about the condition of European Jewry during the Second World War.
Certainly one thing we can do is to talk about the problem, and keep it before our attentions at all times.
It feels this supersedes literary preoccupations, and many others.
“[I]t is hard to live with the fact that the nightmare has become my actual life.”
I dreamt of you last night, a man
Whom I but know because the news—
And you are hated, even than
Some other, more because your views
On justice and equality:
The men who hate, would have you die,
Entrenched deep in hypocrisy
Because they richly reap thereby.
It augured worried days ahead,
The dream, but only time will tell
If such a murder brings you dead
To heaven, casting them to hell.
“Why would I want to live four years of my life in an armoured car with bodyguards? Four years of my life when I can’t just go where I want to go?”
When Marielle Franco died,
Assassinated in the dark
By culprits whom the shadows hide,
They knew well to obscure the mark
Of personal identity,
Although they acted guiltily,
Their grisly deed unpretty
Done by directive of Committee.
She died, yet legacy persists
In wake of tragic martyrdom,
Her goodness shining through the mists
Of obfuscation as they come,
Promoted by her enemies.
The foes of equity and peace,
All gangsters and goodfellas
Carving their wealth from the favelas.
President Bolsonaro’s clan
Knows Marielle represents
The love of freedom: woman, man
And child know—barring “accidents”
Arranged by men in power—they
Would like to be like her someday
Esteemed in heaven’s chorus
By martyrs who have gone before us.
The wealth that men accumulate
By crooks and criminals who scheme
Eventually must dissipate
As life proves an elusive dream,
But the integrity of one
Like Marielle is not done:
Death claims great men and sparrows,
But heaven needs no Bolsonaros.
Ignominy persists a while,
Yet even infamy expires,
But Marielle’s honest style
Remains a beacon hope admires,
And in her kind of righteousness
Love may survive: while fancy dress
Of hypocrites that flatter
Themselves do into darkness scatter.
So let me see. I said I would try not to be so negative. The play was not so bad, really. It was of the moment, discussing today’s issues in today’s words in a way I never could. It almost felt like I was on Facebook. 😂 It left me with questions about the author's modus. That's all I can say.
They donned their hats to make display
Of malice mobilized, and they
Peacocked for all to see.
“This is the emblem of my hate,
This hat I proudly bear,
To make indifference only great
And boast, ‘We do not care.’”
The message loudly they expressed
Through hoots and howls escaping,
“Our postures are the manliest
(With women ripe for raping),
While other persons, poor and dark
Deserve mere denigration,
And if given the chance, we’ll mark
Them with our indignation.
Think not that we will hesitate
To kill, upon this course,
For we ourselves consider great,
Not ye inferiors.”
They proudly wore their hats, and even
The church them sanctified,
Proclaiming bullies get to heaven,
And even Christ showed pride.
“[T]he interpolation of stage business which is not indicated by the words is the chief weapon of modern reinterpretations of old plays[.]”
—Oliver Taplin, Greek Tragedy in Action
I referred to these previously as “embellishments,” as good a word as any to describe the non-necessary activities and geegaws appearing on stage, particularly (as with Barbara Gaines in Chicago) in the staging of old chestnuts.
I vowed last year to be less negative (see my last post of the year), but it is hard to restrain oneself, especially after seeing such a piece of work as National Theatre Live’s Anthony and Cleopatra shown yesterday near me. The acting was bad, especially of Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo, though you have the impression that they were directed to play everything so camp.
It was impossible to escape the impression that the play itself is ridiculous. Surely the real historical persons were more substantial—Octavian referred to in the play as Caesar, Cleopatra portrayed not as a queen but a diva; and Mark Antony whom Shakespeare tries to work out as some kind of Othello. It felt like a grab bag of leftovers or recycled items from other Shakespearean plays: there’s the madness of Lear, the mistaken belief that the beloved has committed suicide, and so on. The action of a tragedy in which every character dies by suicide leaves something to be desired—maybe the Greeks done it but Shakespeare failed to make it plausible. (One line by Cleopatra about not wanting to be paraded in the streets of Rome hit the mark; but the “star-crossed lovers” motif failed especially when the supposed great love between the two protagonists was hardly supported until the post-mortem soliloquies.)
It would be fair to give Shakespeare the benefit of the doubt: how would a well-acted, less campy and more restrained production come off? Besides, the script was disjointed with elements being presented out of sequence, such that the dramatic line felt broken, and everything drawn out too long. (I regret in my playwriting career that I followed Shakespeare’s model as to length and verbosity—at the time I began writing two-acts were in vogue, whereas now all is 70-90 minutes sans interval—when the model of Plautus or Terence might have served me better.) Alas, my life remaining does not have an extra 3.5 hours to spare for Anthony and Cleopatra no matter how good the next production is reputed to be.
In the introduction to his Aspects of Antiquity (an essay titled “Desperately Foreign”), M.I. Finley looks at On Aristotle and Greek Tragedy by John Jones and writes: “The refrain runs through the book that Greek drama ‘remains desperately foreign’, ‘very alien’. ‘Probably not much of the ancient tragic experience is recoverable by us.’ The best we can do is to foster ‘what awareness we can of its near-inaccessibility’.” Finley continues:
This judgement is ambiguous and seems paradoxical. Certain things are, to be sure, irrevocably lost. We possess only a fraction of fifth-century tragedy, none at all from the fourth century. We have altogether lost the components of music and dance; Mr Jones quite properly reminds us that our approach is therefore ‘almost bound to be over-literary’ and, to that extent, false. Nevertheless, it is not all that obvious in what sense he means that Greek tragedy is nearly inaccessible. In its ideas, its moral considerations and resolutions, just because they are so different from our own? We may not fully comprehend what Aeschylus or Sophocles believed about the workings of divine order, for example, but, with Mr Jones’s help, do we not comprehend a great deal?
My copy of Greek Tragedy in Action by Oliver Taplin has come, a book eagerly expected since last year. In his first chapter, Taplin mentions: “[I]t is not until Aristotle’s Poetics… that we first encounter the notion that plays might be best read. Though he is ambivalent on this—and he is unbalanced by his reaction against Plato who fiercely criticized the theatre—Aristotle sows the suggestion that the performance is a distracting encumbrance, a province of rude mechanicals; and since then his view has been widespread (especially in the nineteenth century). But these days all but a lunatic fringe of students of Greek drama would accept the primacy of performance, and I take it as read without laboring the argument.” My familiarity with Greek plays is slim—partly because I seldom read them and wait for a production. Court Theatre’s “Greek cycle” was eye-opening to me (Iphigenia in Aulis, Agamemnon, and Electra), and a rarity (I have never seen the classical comedies).
A corollary to his “claim… that it is the action which takes place on stage which is important, and is part of what the play is about” which I quoted approvingly, might be his examination of staging—what you might call the necessary staging as opposed to embellishment:
Now, when I urge that Greek tragedy must be visualized, must be seen to be believed, I am not talking about the mechanics of the staging. The permanent features of the theatre—the stage building, machinery, etc.—are interesting enough; but my concern is not so much with how the play was stage-managed as with what is being acted out within it. It is the dramatized visible event, with the unique significance its context gives it, that I am after. This means, in effect, the movements and stances of the participants, the objects they hold and exchange, the things they do to each other, their shifting spatial relationships, and the overall shaping of the stage events into meaningful patterns and sequences.
This is what Charles Newell did so well in his Agamemnon, less well but not without effect in the other two of his triad. One wishes Chicago theater had a place for the exclusive staging of “classical” drama, as the purely literary approach leaves much to be desired.
Taplin concludes: “[A]ncient Greek culture was in many ways the archetype of European culture. Moreover it constantly attempted to look behind or through life to human universals, or, rather, seize on the universals within the multifariousness of life—Eliot’s ‘unity of Greek’. Greek tragedy is not all foreign; much is very close to home, often too close for comfort.”
The “Eliot” referred to is T.S. Eliot in what Taplin calls an “extraordinarily succinct and perceptive passage” (from “Seneca in Elizabethan Translations”):
Behind the dialogue of Greek drama we are always conscious of a concrete visual actuality, and behind that of a specific emotional actuality. Behind the drama of words is the drama of action, the timbre of voice and voice, the uplifted hand or tense muscle, and the particular emotion. The spoken play, the words which we read, are symbols, a shorthand, and often, as in the best of Shakespeare, a very abbreviated shorthand indeed, for the actual and felt play, which is always the real thing. The phrase, beautiful as it may be, stands for a greater beauty still. This is merely a particular case of the amazing unity of Greek, the unity of concrete and abstract in philosophy, the unity of thought and feeling, action and speculation in life.
This expresses Taplin’s aim in his book (which I look forward to): “Behind the words of Greek tragedy there is action, behind the action emotion: the abstract and concrete are made one, the emotion and the meaning are indivisible. The actual and felt play is my subject. Greek tragedy is often thought of as static, verbal, didactic and irretrievably alien: I hope to show, rather, how it is theatrical, emotional, absorbing—and so can still speak directly to us.” (I might dispute somewhat his premise, in the part about emotion; but then, comedy has been my forte, a different animal if you will.)
Except for the introduction Finley’s book is not at all specific to theater—but back to the book under his scrutiny he sums up his own view (in a typically dramatic fashion):
Mr Jones can argue most powerfully for near inaccessibility. But then, when he writes that ‘it turns out to be our bad luck that Greek tragedy is superficially intelligible in a modern way’, we part company. There is an implication here of moral fault, as if preceding generations of critics and scholars had somehow sinned, even wilfully, against the tragedians and Aristotle by modernizing them.
Taplin may not carry it so far.
(I don’t know how far I will read into Taplin’s book: my interest is piqued, of course, the topic perennially of interest, but I have other things I’m looking at and my attentions cannot bear too much subdividing these days.)
Granted I went almost too far, earlier, when I opined: “Newell’s tenure [at Court Theatre]... collapsed almost immediately into unvarying dullness and disappointment unbroken until Agamemnon.” A bit egregious maybe? Let me learn to be temperate and moderate in my artistic judgements!
As a “broad stroke” it covers the truth of my opinion well enough. But my enthusiasm, when I first heard that Court’s new director would be transforming the company to a repertory model was perhaps over-the-top, so when the idea was scrapped almost immediately the enthusiasm dropped twice as hard. (Then there is also the “sour grapes” of Court Theatre’s casual dismissal of any would-be submissions from me.)
An Agamemnon like Newell’s may redeem a career, or ought to in my opinion. For almost as long as I’ve been dissing Newell at Court I’ve been expressing as much about Michael Halberstam at Writers Theatre in Glencoe. Same unvarying diet of mediocre pablum. Even without the grapes (I never sought to submit on the North Shore) my opinion was harsh—much harsher even than of Newell.
Then suddenly this season seemingly out of nowhere Halberstam himself directs a solid version of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Blindsided me. It was not to the level of Agamemnon, but it was certainly as good as if not better than Richard Monette’s staging twenty years ago at the Stratford Festival, the last I saw. (The ending sticks out in my memory but I have forgotten the show; Monette’s "anything-for-a-joke style" was not a favorite either.)
Theater being a business, allowance must be made for the crude panderings of a Newell or Halberstam. I may not like it very much; but when either of these entrepreneurial mavericks asserts “we’ll strive to please you every day” let me recall they are speaking not to me but to season subscribers.
Let that be my New Year’s resolution: temperance and moderation!
One of the greatest moments of my playgoing career, as I have posted, was seeing a staging of Agamemnon by Aeschylus directed by Charles Newell at Court Theatre in Chicago. I’ve lamented my little understanding of tragedy, but, if I didn’t understand the mechanics behind what I was seeing nevertheless I felt the power. (Newell’s tenure, initially much promising, with plays by Molière and Stoppard running in repertory, collapsed almost immediately into unvarying dullness and disappointment unbroken until Agamemnon.)
While I was shuffling stacks around the other day, I found Oxford Readings in Greek Tragedy which I had purchased from the dollar bin then promptly forgot about. It is a compilation of some nearly thirty essays edited by Erich Segal. Persons of my generation tend to know Segal as the author behind the film Love Story and its book; his career as a classical scholar was unknown to me. So I peeked into it, figuring I might educate myself a little. The first essay is by Oliver Taplin and titled “Emotion and Meaning in Greek Tragedy”. It is an excerpted chapter from his book Greek Tragedy in Action (I believe), which I have not seen but intend to order.
A lot of what we think we know about Greek tragedy is wrong, writes Taplin, so he explains that he must disabuse popular misconceptions:
“My working assumption throughout has been that the tragedians were free in their use of theatrical techniques, that they chose to convey their meaning by certain actions and sequences of action rather than others, and that this artistic choice directs us to their purpose. But most critics have written not of freedom but of constraints, limitations, rules. In some ways Aristotle’s Poetics sets the example for this approach, though at least Aristotle was being prescriptive, not descriptive. But in his wake more petty and more authoritarian critics have so extended and rigidly codified the ‘rules’ of Greek tragedy as to obscure and even deny its lively freedom. Overgeneralizations and simplifications have become common text-book doctrine; and instead of illuminating tragedy these clichés have mortified and alienated it. Some will have to be cleared out of the way in order both to justify the claims of this book and to approach finally the experience of the audience of a Greek tragedy. This negative progress will, I hope, constantly be bringing our positive goal nearer. To react against the imposition of rules by critics is not for a moment to deny that the Athenian theatre was in many respects highly conventional. Innumerable conventions governing diction, tone and propriety defined the genre and sustained its elevation. Others regulated, and at the same time made familiar, the technical medium. Some may strike us as awkwardly restrictive (e.g., those governing the handling of the chorus or stichomythia); others are still dramatic common sense and seem too obvious to notice (e.g., only one character speaks at a time, characters normally speak on entry). Very few of these ‘laws’ are unbreakable. Two conventions, for instance—both with sound practical justification—are that the chorus should not go off in the middle of the play, and that wounds and death should not be presented on stage. Yet there are counter-examples to both within the nine plays taken in this book, the former in Eum and Ajax, the latter in Ajax, OT and Hipp. These unwritten laws are not really restrictions or limitations, they are rather the familiar framework which supports any great cultural florescence. When the artist has accepted forms and his audience shares a complex of expectations, then, since the audience is more sensitive and receptive, the art form can be accordingly more highly developed. So the circumscriptions are liberating (most, if not all, worthwhile human activities need rules). It is only after the flowering is over that the rules become a bondage and the art tends either towards lifeless imitation (like the tragedy of later antiquity) or towards an indiscriminate formlessness (like today?). These flexible defining rules of the game are not like the stiffly distorting overgeneralizations I am complaining of.
“Take this, for instance: ‘all the important action in Greek tragedy takes place off stage: on stage it is merely spoken and sung about.’ If this book has not scotched that common misconception then it has achieved nothing. My claim is, on the contrary, that it is the action which takes place on stage which is important, and is part of what the play is about: the action off-stage is only of interest in so far as it is given attention on stage. The error comes about from a simple-minded preconception of what constitutes action; it only counts the huge violent events of narrative history—battles, riots, miracles, natural disasters and so forth. This is to miss the point that the stuff of tragedy is the individual response to such events; not the blood, but the tears. It is the life-sized actions of this personal dimension which are the dramatist’s concern, and which he puts on stage. (It is above all the film which, for better or for worse, has obscured this distinction.)”
I could not have explained better dramatic “action” than Taplin does here. Making an online comment at an Ibsen review on Witness Performance website this past summer, I stumbled over the thought that “[i]n Chicago, our audiences have not been trained to look for drama.” When I say “drama” or “the dramatic line” in essence what I am thinking about is “action.” But I have never known how to define it or precisely indicate what I mean. The “simple-minded preconception of what constitutes action” had perplexed me, even though—as a playwright—I felt I knew what I meant; but I could not say it. Taplin provides a text I can point to.
Some of his insights appear rudimentary (or basic) and yet supremely well stated:
“But even if the myths were much more rigidly laid down than my argument claims, this would still be of minimal consequence for the literary criticism of tragedy, since the mere story, such as may be excerpted in a collection of ‘Greek Myths’, has no significant bearing on the quality of the play. The mere story is shared by good and bad dramatists alike—it may be indistinguishable in Sophocles and in a fifth-rate hack. What matters, for the dramatist and his audience, is the way he has shaped the story, the way he has turned it into drama. The constraint is minimal: the scope for artistry enormous.”
This also harks back to my somewhat inept comment in which I express disdain for “story,” that ubiquitous catchphrase in theatrical “Mission Statements” across Chicagoland at least. (The “story” is not the thing!) Taplin also discusses “anachronism” in Greek Tragedy:
“[R]elatively few critics” fall into “what might be called the ‘propaganda fallacy’. This is the supposition that a Greek tragedy was primarily or significantly shaped by the desire to promote a certain line on a specific contemporary issue (in politics or philosophy or whatever). The advocates of such a view will have for a start to allow that such propaganda is cryptic, if it is true that there is not one single specific allusion to a contemporary person or event in all of Greek tragedy. So far as I can see this is in fact the case. There is not one anachronism to be noted as such, no overt rupture of the dramatic illusion of the remote heroic world. To avert misunderstanding, I hasten to grant that in a sense—in the most important sense—Greek tragedy is entirely topical and the mirror of its own times. It was composed for the audience of fifth-century Athenians, not for a Bronze Age audience; and its general preoccupations, moral, social and emotional, are those of its age. Thus, it is a tissue of technical anachronisms in the strictest historical sense: my point is that they are not to be noticed as such, they are admitted only as long as they are congruous with the heroic world of the far past in which the play is set.”
Taplin discusses the nature of tragedy:
“[T]he following passage, which comes from [Gorgias’] virtuoso apologia for Helen, surely has tragedy in mind. ‘All poetry I consider and define as discourse in metre. There comes over the audience of poetry a fearful horror and tearful pity and doleful yearning. By means of the discourse their spirit feels a personal emotion on account of the good and bad fortune of others.’ This passage alone should be enough to rescue Gorgias from the common slander that he was merely a word-juggler. Above all he sees that emotions are at the heart of tragic poetry. And what is more he has put his finger on one of the most vital and remarkable features of this experience: that the emotions are generous—altruistic almost—that we feel disturbed personally for other people, for people who have no direct connection with us and indeed belong to another world from ours.”
This is a useful pointer for me should I one day attempt to write tragedy; the prospect is unlikely, but, should occasion arise, I will need all the help I can get. (Taplin also takes the moment to get in a swipe at a famous German philosopher and cultural critic of note: “[H]ow deluded Nietzsche was in claiming the Greeks as his authority for denouncing pity”!)
No deconstruction of the tragic form is on offer; yet Taplin again points to the distinguishing features of the drama:
“The characteristic tragic emotions—pity, horror, fascination, indignation, and so forth—are felt in many other situations besides in the theatre. Above all we suffer them in the face of the misfortunes of real life, of course. What distinguishes the experience of a great tragedy? For one thing, as already remarked, we feel for the fortunes of people who have no direct personal relation to us: while this does not decrease the intensity of the emotion, it affords us some distance and perspective. We can feel and at the same time observe from outside. But does this distinguish tragedy from other ‘contrived’ emotional experiences (most of them tending to the anti-intellectual) for example an animal hunt, a football match, an encounter group, reading a thriller, or watching a horror movie? Well, the experience of tragedy is by no means a random series of sensations. Our emotional involvement has perspective and context at the same time, and not just in retrospect. Thus the events of the tragedy are in an ordered sequence, a sequence which gives shape and comprehensibility to what we feel. And, most important of all, the affairs of the characters which move us are given a moral setting which is argued and explored in the play. They act and suffer within situations of moral conflict, of social, intellectual and theological conflict. The quality of the tragedy depends both on its power to arouse our emotions and on the setting of those emotions in a sequence of moral and intellectual complications which is set out and examined. Tragedy evokes our feelings for others, like much else; but it is distinguished by the order and significance it imparts to suffering. So if the audience is not moved, then the tragedy, however intellectual, is a total failure: if its passions are aroused, but in a thoughtless, amorphous way, then it is merely a bad tragedy, sensational, melodramatic.”
This being one essay of nearly thirty, I look forward to “peeking” in further. Also, as I say, I intend to get a look at Taplin’s original book—it having achieved the status as a “classic” according to its blurb. Other of Taplin’s books look intriguing; particularly as regarding theatrics as portrayed on Greek vases—but those lie outside of my price range at this time.
I may or may not charge ahead further into the Oxford book; but for now this gives me plenty to think on.
A new poem is always news to the poet.