The Uses and Abuses of Shakespeare in the Park

I experienced some shrill reading this morning when I encountered Daniel Larkin’s attack on the Public Theatre’s free Central Park production of The Merry Wives of Windsor. Our critic is not only annoyed that William Shakespeare’s farce isn’t the Bard’s most consequential work, he’s mad that the Public is carrying on Joseph Papp’s tradition of producing free Shakespeare in the summers at all. Writes Larkin:

“When Joseph Papp began staging Shakespeare in New York City parks in 1954, the city was 90% white, according to the official estimate. In a city that is now less than 50% white, it is no longer democratic, ethical, or representative to predominantly produce the work of a dead British man in this publicly owned outdoor theatre. How might this stage in Central Park — which purportedly belongs to everyone — more equally and authentically honor the heritage and culture of all its citizens.”

It’s stunning language. It’s no longer ethical to put on free Shakespeare in New York City? “It’s time to meet Lorraine Hansberry, Ntozake Shange, Joceyln Bioh, and other BIPOC playwrights,’ writes Larkin, as if Shakespeare is somehow crowding out the recently deceased Shange or as if summer crowds would gather for a light-hearted outdoor production of A Raisin in the Sun. Jocelyn Bioh, meanwhile, adapted Shakespeare’s script, to praise from The New York Times. I’m sure Bioh appreciated the opportunity and the artistry of the work, even if Larkin wishes better for her.

I’ve been reading through older scripts lately, because some surprises can be found and it’s amazing what you miss, even if you study theater. I’d only read Ibsen’s more realistic plays, for example, so I had no idea that Peer Gynt is a romp through northern European mythology, full or surrealism and surprises. Though I did wonder about the point of reading such a play in 2021 as I’m unlikely to see it produced or even to run into others who have read it or would show an interest.

Larkin wants to move some of these older writers out of the way, to make room for new voices. But there are always new things to explore even in history’s most celebrated plays and novels. People are best served by producing what inspires them.

I’m sure Larkin means well and we’re certainly beyond the point of hurting Shakespeare’s feelings. But not all traditions have to be swept away and the Public offers a diverse array of programming year round, both on its main stages, in Joe’s Pub and through its outdoor and travelling troupes.

The Public, and the public it serves, do not need Larkin’s advice.

Random Thoughts About Hamlet

I’m reading Twentieth Century Interpretations Of Hamlet: A Collection Of Critical Essays edited by national treasure, David Bevington, who died in 2019. It’s been awhile since I’ve thought about Hamlet and I studied it most closely in high school. My teachers liked to assign it to college bound seniors since Hamlet is a scholar who we meet at a pivotal moment in his life and graduation from high school is often equated with a time when we young people are first asked to make consequential decisions about what we are going to do next.

But, these essays remind me of some things that are easy to forget about Hamlet. Chiefly, he is not some Elizabethan version of Holden Caulfield. He is 30 years old. This is young for a prince, who might envision himself ruling over Denmark for decades starting in his 40s or 50s, ending an aged leader like Lear. But, he was no child. He was a sophisticated, highly eduated adult.

Another misconception I took from my high school years is that Hamlet is a man whose actions are throttled by thought and that this is a story about the dangers of too much philosophy and not enough action. But this is also not quite true. Hamlet is a remarkable swordsman and he is a killer, when pushed. He does not sit trembling in the face of action.

Along those lines, I think that when many of us first read or see Hamlet we have the story ruined for us. We’re told that while Hamlet is away at college his uncle Caludius murders his father the king and then assumes the throne of Denmark and takes Hamlet’s mother Gertrude as his bride. While it’s far too late to complain about Hamlet spoilers, knowing in advance that Claudius is guilty of everything he’s accused of by the ghost of Hamlet’s father can’t help but color how we take in the story and what we think about Hamlet’s character.

It’s easy to forget that from Hamlet’s point of view, Claudius isn’t a known criminal. Hamlet doesn’t know if the ghost is really his father and doesn’t know if he’s dealing with a just request from heaven or some malevolent spirit out to ruin him. Were Hamlet to simply take the ghost at his word and lop Claudius’ head off, we’d have to view him as rash and violent at the very least.

Hamlet, tarred by so many for his inaction, takes an active role in proving Claudius’ guilt, as best he can. There’s the mousetrap play, his own feigned madness and his inteorrogations of his betrothed Ophelia, her father Polonius, her brother Laertes and his own mother. He actively pursues evidence and certainty.

I also wonder if he doesn’t drive himself a little mad. Faking insanity is the best way to lose one’s mind. After all, you are what you think.

About the Bygone Greats

I won’t bother linking to it or calling out the writer by name, but I happened upon a piece today about Kanye West that spent it’s first several paragraphs railing against Norman Mailer, who the writer imagined must have been a difficult subject for critics back when he was considered one of America’s best writers. Mailer’s personality and non-literary deeds were analyzed and then the writer turned to Kanye, with some relief.

Along the way, the writer tried to relegate Mailer to the past, as if his works aren’t still among the best American writers have produced in the last hundred years. It’s nonsense. Think what you will of Mailer as a person (I never met the man), but if you don’t acknowledge his writing, you simply don’t write well enough to criticize art.

My favorite Mailer, by the way, is one of his least celebrated short novels: The Gospel According to the Son. I read it around the time I read The Last Temptation of Christ and I think about it now as I consider delving into Leo Tolstoy’s retelling of the gospels.

It seems like some people would like us to be in some sort of cultural interegnum, where we must slay the giants of the past so that new talens can be born. I think this is folly. We shoul celebrate our cultural legacy, improve upon it and advance it, without being so dismissive.

There’s a book to be written about all the good we’re throwing away, mistaking a hasty clearance of history for progress.

A Look Back at Franzen v. Oprah

Emily Gould had a depressing but fascinating piece about the state of fiction and novelists today. It’s realistic, it’s absurd and it’s bad for the culture. I think she and I agree there;s a lot of great stuff being written these days that is not finding an audience and that a broken industry is not able to provide livelihoods for writers, especially as the side gigs in journalism and academia have come under such pressure.

It’s frightening to think, but hard to escape feeling like society has finally looked back at long-form narrative storytellers on both stage and plays and said, “We don’t really care.” I should add “the screen” to that, as well, as art house theatres continue to disappear and we increasingly choose to stream our corporate-approved entertainment at home.

Stll, people who like to read (thank you, women!) really like to read. So everybody has a chance in what Gould describes as a high stakes casino game. You can probably still hit it big with the right art film, too. Not so sure about a non-musical stage play, partricularly if it isn’t based on a previously successful property.

One issue Gould mentioned was the Oprah book clubn controversey:

“Most people who care think that Franzen refused to appear on Oprah to promote The Corrections, but what actually happened was worse. The novel was anointed a book club pick (an honor that, when the show was on network television, could conservatively increase book sales by a factor of 10), and preparatory B-roll was shot in Franzen’s hometown of St. Louis. Then, in a preceding Fresh Air interview, he said, “I had some hope of actually reaching a male audience, and I’ve heard more than one reader in signing lines now at bookstores say, ‘If I hadn’t heard you, I would have been put off by the fact that it is an Oprah pick. I figure those books are for women. I would never touch it.’ Those are male readers speaking.” Oprah’s response: “Jonathan Franzen will not be on the Oprah Winfrey show because he is seemingly uncomfortable and conflicted about being chosen as a book club selection. It is never my intention to make anyone uncomfortable or cause anyone conflict. No one has ever been told to fuck off and die more politely.”

Truly, Franzen did exhibit snobbery regarding Oprah and he lacked appreciation for women readers of fiction at a time where they would carry the entire industry for decades. But, I worked in a chain bookstore during the Oprah years and he’s not wrong about how that label used to grab customers. Men flocked to the towers of John Grisham and Tom Clancy books we were required to erect and place at the front of the store. Men and women both flocked to the Steven King and Dean Koontz book temples that we built. Only women went to the Oprah Book Club display.

The author and book I most remember from those years was “She’s Come Undone” by Wally Lamb. Lamb’s been a working writer and teacher since 1981 but owes his widespread notoriety to that first Oprah pick. But he hasn’t had a career like Franzen’s, has he? It seems that Franzen’s old kerfuffle with Oprah has aged badly from the perspective of social criticism but that his desire to set his work apart from the Lambs of the world was the right one, if judged by his subsequent successes.

Pinter at the Movies

Great piece on LitHub about the creativity and genre-changing innovations that Harold Pinter brought to his film adaptations of classic novels, including The French Lieutenant’s Woman. We could really have more and better theatre in the United States if we also had a public television system well-funded enough to bring the talents of our best playwrights to screen like Britain did with the BBC during Pinter’s formative years.

This piece also makes me think of David Mamet, who adapted some of his own plays to film and did so in a style that preserved the theatricality. Oleanna is particularly well done in that regard.

I’d love to see more stage to screen out there.

Trump Continues to Be Pa Ubu

Everything about Donald Trump reminds me of the Ubu Plays by Alfred Jarry. Now, he’s telling supporters he expects to be re-installed as President, via coup, this summer. It’s a very Ubu move. Of course, it’s a grift, to keep the money flowing in from his more extreme supports who are willing to overlook everything that would have to go right for a coup of any type to succeed in the United States. These things would include:

Military support: From leadership on down, the military, currently led by Joe Biden appointees, would have to hand over control to Trump.

Intelligence community support: The president can’t run anything without the intelligence community sharing information or not actively undermining the administration.

Local support: How many governors would defy federal authority if an unelected president declared themselves to be in power?

Economic support: Face it, the economy would collapse. Who would buy Treasury bonds in the face of a successful coup?

President Ubu!

I could go on and on but I’ve gone too far. Like Pa Ubu, Trump has no intention of ever following through on this scheme. It’s just a transfer of wealth from his dumbest supporters to his family.

Polemics and Fiction

One idea George Saunders brings up in A Swim In A Pond in the Rain is the notion that fiction is a damned poor vehicle for an author to make philosophical or political arguments. While certainly an author’s ideas and tastes and Utopias will spill into creative work, the characters have to drive the abstractions into the story, not the other way around.

So, in the Tolstoy presented by Saunders, the idea of the saintly serf shows up twice — this is a Tolstoy trope. The servant is depicted as humble, ready to please, and beatific. But also, as Saunders remarks, there’s an element of the idiot here, that the serf is a sucker. Tolstoy doesn’t try to write around that. It’s just there for the reader to decide.

It takes a lot of humility to write that way and it also calls into question the purpose of fiction which is not, as some suspect, to teach the reader how to live a good, moral, productive or even happy life. Around the time I read the Saunders book I also read Fierce Poise: Helen Frankenthaler and 1950s New York by art historian Alexander Nemerov. I can’t find the exact quote but in it, the purpose of art is described as depicting what it’s like to be alive at a certain place and time. I suppose this would be the artist’s place and time, even if they paint something from the past or future, just as we view historic or science fiction as representative of the time it was created, rather than its fictional setting.

Either way, the accurate depiction of life in a time and place is just too complicated for polemic and if artists forever have to struggle with their most honest work existing in tension with their most fervent ideas.

Saunders & Gogol

I’m reading George Saunders’ A Swim in the Pond in The Rain where the celebrated author and fiction writing teacher takes us through stories by Chekhov, Tugenev, Tolstoy and Gogol and I have to admit that for days I’ve been dying to get to his discussion of Gogol’s story “The Nose” because Saunders’ fiction — inventive and absurd, reminds me much more of Gogol than the other writers. I almost wish he’d included Dosoevski’s “The Double” in the mix, for the same reasons.

One thing that occurs is that the master missed a slight detail in his discussion of “The Nose.” In the story, a social-climbing collegiate assessor named Kovalyov wakes to find that his nose has left his face in the night. The Nose then gallivants around the city, earning itself professional and social promotions until it is eventually caught by the police and returned to its owner, where it only reluctantly and after some time, rejoins his face. We’re left to imagine how the nose accomplished this. It seems, as times, to have arms, legs and a face and to be human sized and at other times it’s an ordinary nose. There’s a dreamlike quality to the narrative but an insistence by the narrator that though the story is strange and, well, doesn’t pass the smell test, that things like this happen to people all the time.

This is part of Saunders’ thesis as well — that the state of confusion and absurdity Gogol describes is really closer to the psychological state of our individual interactions with reality than the more objective renderings of Gogol’s contemporaries. We also get this sense readifn Kafka or (some of) Phillip Roth and of reading Saunders.

So, here’s the tiny thing I think Saunders missed: Kovayov goes to the newspaper to take out an advertisement offering a reward for the return of his proboscis. The newspaper clerk refuses on the grounds that such an odd notice might ruin the reputaton of the paper. The clerk also explains:

“A civil servant came in, just as you have, bringing a note, was billed two rubles seventy-three kopecks, and all the advertisement consisted of was that a black-coated poodle had run away. Doesn’t seem to amount to much, does it now? But it turned out to be a libel. This so-called poodle was treasurer of I don’t recall what institution.”

It’s just a bit of internal logic in Gogol that Saunders didn’t remark on but that I think backs up the contention of Gogol’s narrator — strange things happen.

This is a fabulous book. It really gets you reading the stories closely.

The Rise of Amazon and Regional Inequality

Today I wrote a review of Fulfillment for the Washington Independent Review of Books. It’s a meticulously reported story about how Amazon grew to behemoth proportions, taking advantage of the concentrations of wealth within specific American regions over the last two decades.

I’ll leave the review to the review and will instead wonder here what it means for a book like this to be published in an age where it will depend on Amazon for its distribution and success.

When I was writing this review, I went back into my Amazon history to find the first book I’d ordered from the service, which was back in 2000. It was a small press book written by my friend, true crime author and memoirist John Gilmore. I ordered from of Amazon because it was not readily available at the book stores I frequented at the time in Albuquerque.

It was a big change for me to order a book that way. In those days, if a book I wanted wasn’t in stock, I asked the store to order it for me and would generally receive it within a week, unless the book were rare or part of a a very small press run, which would take longer. Well, Amazon ended that relationship with book shops for me.

Years later I would go to Amazon, not a book shop, to pre-order Hapworth 16, the legendary JD Salinger story that was set to be published by a boutique press. I waited and waited but ther book never emerged, Salinger had canceled its publication.

Funny thing, though, the story had been available online at The New Yorker‘s archives and that’s how I eventually read it. I do wish I had the nice, promised edition, but I did get the story.

Back when I was learning to shop the Amazon way, I was concerned about the Barnes & Noble behemoth smothering small book shops with character and community ties out of business. Now, we worry about Barnes & Noble’s surival.

The Reading Writing Update

And, somehow a week’s gone by since my last post. I realize this website is shouting into the wind. Maybe it’s shouting at a wind that’s going the other way. I haven’t earned much of an audience, I guess. It’s difficult. There are many voices out there. Too many that I want to follow that aren’t my own, so I sympathize.

I picked up Drew Magary’s The Postmortal as a Bookbub bargain. I’m a bit over halfway through. It moves quickly, is funny and thoughtful, just like Magary’s journalism. I’ll write about it when I finished but can easily recommend it now.

I’m also slowly (pacing myself on purposes) reading a book I’ll be reviewing for a literary magazine. It’s experimental and very good.

The stacks in my office and by the bed include: Mimesis, Bullfinch’s Mythology, The Age of Innocence, Venus on the Half-Shell, Goblin Market and Cutting for Stone. All are in various states of progress, some are rereads, some I’m leafing through for ideas.

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