My roommate in college was film noir's #1 fan, and we went through a long period of time trying to get caught up on every noir ever made. It was in thMy roommate in college was film noir's #1 fan, and we went through a long period of time trying to get caught up on every noir ever made. It was in that mood that said roommate and I took one of my favorite college classes, which we affectionately called Shakespeare Boot Camp. The two-week long class consisted of a week of studying plays and a week of living in Ashland, Oregon while going to see those plays on stage at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Brilliant! I was really psyched up to see the stage performance of Troilus and Cressida, because I had decided that it was film noir from start to finish.
Unfortunately, the director of the production we saw decided that Cressida was pretty much the Greek equivalent of a misunderstood vapid cheerleader. Sucks how Shakespeare is so open to interpretation like that. In my mind she was the ultimate femme fatale - the mastermind behind the betrayals that are the essence of this story. To the director of that production, she was the pawn of the big, strong (gay) men. In all fairness, that production focused on the relationship between Patroclus and Achilles, and the actual story of Troilus and Cressida was almost incidental. When Cressida was on stage, however, she pranced around in her golden locks until blood was practically pouring out of my ears. I took it personally. If we're going to write a female stereotype, I prefer the villain to the idiot. At least the villain has some power.
When we returned from Shakespeare Camp I decided to adopt a black cat and name her "Cressida as Ava Gardner's Character Kitty Collins in The Killers", so that when people met her they would know that Cressida is e-vil. That's exactly what I did. Ironically, Cat Cressida is kind of cuddly and sweet it turns out, and she makes friends with all the neighbors. But I think deep down she has betrayal in her heart. She's just waiting for the right moment to spring it on us. Anyway, spread the word people. Cressida may be a bitch, but she ain't nobody else's bitch, ya know?...more
It is a joke of a cliché to talk about the indefinable nature of love, but it is also obviously one of those things that is cliché for a reason. It isIt is a joke of a cliché to talk about the indefinable nature of love, but it is also obviously one of those things that is cliché for a reason. It is so mysterious how love can suddenly appear in our lives and then, just as suddenly, disappear. I am a big believer in accurately and honestly defining relationships according to what they are, not what we wish they would be, and so I might be even more baffled than the average person by the relationships around me. How do some people cultivate and maintain long-term love in their lives without even seeming to try? How do others live with people whom they hate and who hate them? How do people use the words of love to describe what looks like contempt or addiction to me? Language isn’t enough.
I have a friend playing the part of Emma in The Language Archive in Seattle, and she suggested a couple of us read it and talk about it, so I read it. And I really loved it. For me, it is about the indefinable nature of love, and, maybe obviously, about language – how language is too broad, and not broad enough, to describe what love is. Maybe it is more centrally about how love is always about communication. George communicates through the study of languages, but struggles to actually express any emotion. Mary communicates through bread. Alta and Resten save English for their fights and speak in their native language when talking of love. Emma struggles to communicate at all.
It is not a long play. Mary and George are married; Emma works with George at the Lanugage Archive. Alta and Resten are a couple that has been married for years, and they come in to the Language Archive to record their native language, which is dying. Mary leaves George, and Emma struggles to tell George she is in love with him.
The rest of what I’m going to talk about is a spoiler, but I’m not going to hide it because, even though it tells you some of how the play turns out, I don’t really think that ruins the play. I think the play stands alone, regardless of whether you know the ending.
So, Mary leaves George, which devastates him, but which the play makes pretty clear is a good choice. They have this conversation at one point where George says to Mary that her leaving means that their whole language is dead. He says that sometimes one of them could say, “Did you take the garbage out?” or something like that, and it could mean many different things from, “I’m really angry that you never do housework” to “I couldn’t live without you” and those types of varied meanings created their language. And he asks her if she knows what he means. She responds that she doesn’t and that she’s never known what he’s meant. She says, “Here, have this bread and you’ll understand,” and the bread is meaningless to him. I think it is a simple, but beautiful, way of showing that they’re wrong for each other, that they could never understand each other.
And then, Emma and George communicate perfectly, but Emma tells the audience in the end that George never falls in love with her. So, that is something I keep coming back to. What does it mean that George and Emma communicate perfectly and work together for years, but that he never loves her? How does she know that? Does he know that? Was he actually in love with Mary, as he says he is, when he couldn’t understand or communicate with her? How is that love? It would be simple if you could say, well, he wanted to have sex with Mary and not with Emma, ergo . . . but that obviously makes no sense for defining love either. So, I keep wondering, over and over, and thinking about the relationships of these couples and the non-fictional couples I know.
It seems to me that every relationship exists outside of the naming of it, even though naming it can cause the relationship to change. People can be committed to each other in some sort of eternal way without calling it marriage, and people can be married without any kind of love or commitment. People can love each other without ever naming it, and people can hate each other and call it love. Even though the naming of it interacts with the experience of the relationship, I don’t think it creates the relationship. But, I don’t know what creates or maintains a relationship, and the way the naming of it molds and bends the relationship itself is a mystery to me, too. I have known so many couples where the woman told the man they were in love, and he believed her, and so their love existed. That is a mystery to me.
Because Emma tells us that George never loves her, and she tells us believably, I do believe her, but I don’t understand. If he had said he loved her, would that have made it so? Because he said he loved Mary, did that make it so, even though he never really saw her? I can’t wrap my mind around those ideas.
There is that monologue Nick Cage delivers so beautifully in Moonstruck, here. The play put it into my head, and it is something I understand about the play and about love, and it is something I love about love. It is something about love that you can sink your teeth into. It goes like this:
“Loretta, I love you. Not like they told you love is, and I didn't know this either, but love don't make things nice - it ruins everything. It breaks your heart. It makes things a mess. We aren't here to make things perfect. The snowflakes are perfect. The stars are perfect. Not us. Not us! We are here to ruin ourselves and to break our hearts and love the wrong people and die. The storybooks are bullshit. Now I want you to come upstairs with me and get in my bed!”
Maybe George just needed to hear a speech like that, and he would have snapped out of it. Maybe not, though; I have no idea....more
In high school, I made the mistake of thinking that Hamlet was an angst-ridden loser who was pissed about having to take algebra when he “knew he wasIn high school, I made the mistake of thinking that Hamlet was an angst-ridden loser who was pissed about having to take algebra when he “knew he was never going to use it.” Not that I had any problems with angst. Big fan. I just thought he failed at angst. He wasn’t the dreamy eyed poet, he was the kid in class who made everyone cringe by shooting his hand up to complain about the abstract unfairness of the school system (or universe. Whatever). I saw the beautiful words, but they only meant words, they didn’t mean anything. When I read the play again in college, the profound beauty and compassion for humanity devastated me, and I realized that it is not about angst of any variety. Hamlet still breaks my heart, probably more than any other story.
I saw a staged production of Hamlet for the first time last month. A live show is almost always a good experience, and this certainly was. I grew up living pretty near the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and I’ve gone to productions there as much as possible since high school. It’s a magical place (not so much in a ren-fest way, though a little. More in a professional-live-show-for-cheap way). It’s about three hours away from me now, so I took a couple of days, drove down, and stayed in a hostel across the street from the OSF. I’m assuming in this review that everyone has read or seen Hamlet, but if you haven’t (and this might drive some people nuts) I actually really like the Mel Gibson version. I’ve seen it a kagillion times, and I think it’s a solid version. Who better to play Ophelia than Helena Bonham Carter? (Other than Rachel McAdams in Slings and Arrows.) Anyway, like I say, seeing Hamlet in the wonderful Bowmer theater was a really good experience. I do, however, have a lot of problems with the production, all of which I will gladly share with you now.
A couple of things that don’t work in any production of a Shakespeare tragedy: hammy heroes, pyrotechnics, rapping and hip hop dancing, sign language that is not used for communication, extended martial arts scenes, and Kenneth Branagh. If I think of more, I’ll let you know. Mostly, when I see a play, I want to see the play, not the MTV version of the play. I find it insulting that directors seem to think I’ll understand Hamlet better if it’s MC Hammered at me. And I get that stage fighting is fun, but unfortunately TV fights look better. Maybe it makes it confusing that those things tend to work in the comedies, and directors get caught up in the comedy momentum. There’s some kind of self-reflexive irony framed by larger irony, though, when Polonius says, “brevity is the soul of wit,” and not only is Polonius a pompous old fool, but the entire production is also a pompous old fool.
So, in this version we didn’t have Kenneth Branagh or an extended martial arts scene, which is a mercy. They did, however, have everyone dressed like they were in an emo band. It worked at first, and then got really annoying. Also, there was this gimmick about the ghost speaking sign language, and that kind of kills me. And the play-within-the-play was a free-style hip-hop show. So painful. The thing is, it would be kind of cool to see Hamlet in all sign language with the words voiced over in the theater (or even subtitled). I would probably dig that. But, the way they did this was all wrong. The ghost said something in sign language, and then Hamlet, who apparently was the only character who spoke sign language, would say his lines. Then Hamlet would say his own lines. Fail. I’m not positive Hamlet was the only one who spoke sign language because there was a lot of exaggerated gesturing all around. Like when Hamlet mimed a shotgun to his head when he said, “To be or not to be.”
If Hamlet is not about hip hop and angst, then, what is it about? Hamlet is about being totally unprepared to face reality. Because what is more real than death? Hamlet is about the coolest kid in school (a prince, no less), not about a soulful nerd. Hamlet’s dad could beat up all the other dads; Hamlet has a beautiful girlfriend; Hamlet is spoiled, maybe even a little bit of an asshole, and then, suddenly, his father’s death forces him to recognize that the universe could be a hostile place. Don’t get me wrong – when the play starts he’s not the golden child he was the month before. He goes from being privileged and sheltered to having to face real loss, grief, and betrayal. He wants revenge, but also asks if life is really worth living in a world where those you love the most are the ones plotting against your life. But he didn’t start that way – it’s not just his nature to be melancholy. Fate cut him into shreds the minute before the play starts. Ophelia, too, (but during the play) loses the security of a happy ending, loses her love, loses her father. Both of these bright, advantaged, unprepared children wake up to the brutality of the world around them, and ultimately that awakening destroys them.
That type of tragedy profoundly resonates with me. I realized that both this play and the other favorite I saw in Ashland, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, are about rich people who trust the world to bring only good and then are crushed by reality. Maybe it resonates because of my own personal experiences, but I think there is also something about Hamlet that both transcends cultures and is immediate to American culture. As Nahum says, "Hamlet will be Hamlet. An ineffable tragedy of the human spirit that still resonates, even today." It used to be that the people sheltered from the realities of death were princes, but now look at us, with our hot running water, packaged meat, and sanitized hospitals. Tragedy and death are not part of our everyday lives, and I think many of us are as unprepared to deal with a hostile universe as Hamlet and Ophelia are. When we see our own mortality, we are not eased into it, but caught unawares by a specter we never knew was following us. We are in many ways perpetual children, like Hamlet and Ophelia.
Even then, maybe Hamlet is not tragic. Is it more horrifying to be surprised by death or to live a childhood that causes you to expect it? Although it is not my experience, the latter was probably more common at the time the play was written and probably continues to be so today. Nevertheless, that experience of betrayal by life must, on some level, be universal, whether people experience it young or old, once or many times. There is something innocent and wise and deeply human about both Hamlet and Ophelia because of it....more