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Coriolanus in Trumpland (Red Bull @ Barrow St, 11/17/16)

posterWhat would it have been like to have seen Red Bull’s blazing production of Coriolanus before our national day of reckoning? Could watching this painful and bloody tragedy of egotism and political betrayal in 2016 have been experienced, before the fateful election, as a muted triumph, in which female resistance manages in the end to save civilization from masculine violence? I suppose I’ll never know, though I’ll bet some of you reading this review saw this show in October…

There’s a moment near the center of the action in which the citizens, having more or less willingly given the war hero their voices and their red-colored ballots, realize, with a little help from the slightly smarmy Tribunes, that they can change their minds. They rebel, and they retract their support. Sounds like a good idea!

Probably the most unexpectedly powerful performance of the night was Broadway vet Patrick Page as Menenius. In a dapper suit with tie and suspenders, often sipping a tumbler of bourbon, he played the Senator with old school Southern charm, reminding at least some of the older members of the audience (like me) of the days when white men with accents were the face of American liberal politics. corioanus

Another surprise was the Rebecca Franks’s charismatic and quiet Virgilia, the hero’s wife. Tall and fierce, she was upstaged by tiger mother Volumnia but not as conclusively as can often be the case. Her silence, juxtaposed with her mother in law’s volubility, suggested a different kind of bond. With her husband, kisses were a silent eloquence.

Dion Johnstone’s excellent Coriolanus showed us no visible wounds, even while wearing the track suit and red baseball hat “of humility,” but his powerful body, black, beautiful, and finally devoured by hungry Volscians, was the star of the night. Bloodied before the gates of Corioles in act 1, when he sacked the city, and again in act 5, when its angry citizens took their final revenge, he performed towering male violence held tightly close and closed, unable to open himself up, afraid of the people and (of course) of his mother.

How did Volumnia beat her son down before the gates of Rome, after he’d rejected his comrades, wife, and son? Partly, as Lisa Harrow’s performance showed, by wearing him down: her speech to him was long, varied, a bit suffocating. She would not let him turn away, and then when he did turn, she kept talking until he turned back. husband-and-wife

The famous stage direction, in which the warrior “holds her by the hand, silent,” marks the hero’s surrender to his mother and the preservation of Roman civilization. It wasn’t perfectly staged, since he had to walk too far downstage to reach her hand, but the next moment, in which he knelt before her, still holding her hands, was devastating:

O mother, mother! O!

You have won a happy victory for Rome,

But for your son, believe it, O, believe it

Most dangerously you have with him prevailed

If not most mortal to him. (5.3)

She stood stoic but his pain hit me in my seat against the back wall of the theater.

The set was festooned with ballots and balloons, dropped when Coriolanus was presented to the people and popped loudly when the riots began. The last painful set of electoral props for November 2016?

I’m left thinking what I always think about in Shakespeare’s Roman plays: what is the human and bodily cost of political ambition? Who does the wolf love? (2.1).

mother-and-sonI also wonder today about the Tribunes, Brecht’s Marxist heroes, enemies of the aristocracy. Is this play about the failures of democracy in governing a republic? Does that remind us of anything we might have experienced recently?

What will the monument to Volumnia look like? Will she stand beneath it, thinking of her dead son?

But more than anything I’m left today replaying one pure irresponsible stage moment of anti-democratic rage, when a nameless citizen jumped up onto center stage and hammered the blunt end of a sledge into a ballot box. It took a few hard blows, but she scattered the red cards of endorsement all over the stage. Votes don’t always last.

What is the city but the people? (3.1).

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Kings of War: 11/4/16 @ BAM

The most brilliant, painful, and astounding performance was the last — but I’ll take the kings in chronological order. Six of themkings-of-war_640x359, lined up in a long row.

Henry IV

The dying old man laid out prone on the white hospital bed dropped wisdom on the son who’d already begun playing with the English crown. There’s an easy way toavoid trouble at home, the old man advised: “Busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels.”

So started four-and-a-half hours of Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s brilliant and searing Kings of War, directed by Ivo van Hove, which is spending the pre-election weekend at the BAM opera house. A master class in domination, violence, and strategy, it was just the thing to redirect political jitters for a few hours on Friday night. Politics as bloodsport and play, not exactly as Shakespeare wrote it — the performance was in Dutch with supertitles, and stripping down five plays into one night required aggressive cuts — but certainly as Machiavelli understood it.

Henry V

The first crowned monarch — all the kings were crowned on the same red carpet, followed by the same single file line, stretching out to the edge of the stage — started quietly. Ramsey Nasr played Henry V with no visible traces of Prince Hal, and he invaded France  without any leavening from Welsh or Scottish captains, fiery Pistol, or tears at Sir John’s death. Playing against the patriotic swellings we remember from Olivier’s and Branaugh’s films, this Henry V was frightening because he was just a little bit opaque, not quite accessible. Thinking back over the long arc of the full production, I see Henry V as a tactical serpent, exporting to fertile France the destructive forces that would bloody England during successive reigns. Watching his army’s march through Harfleur to Agincourt as a preface to Rose War rather than the culmination of Hal’s journey makes the wastrel-king harder to read. In the sort of outrageous theatrical coup that Toneelgroep has been specializing in for years — here’s my gushing review of their Roman Tragedies, which I saw at BAM in 2012 — the king spoke the Crispin’s day speech as voice-over on a bare stage. The band of brothers, with its fantasy of an organic (masculine) political body unified through royal rhetoric, was nowhere to be seen. Perhaps it doesn’t really exist?theatre-marathon

The stage was set in the first half of the production (a touch of H4, H5 and the first two parts of H6) to resemble Churchill’s War Rooms, now a museum in London, with maps, desks, and a single bed (in which Henry VI would sleep after kneeling in prayer). The great innovation of the staging, however, was several backstage hallways, which were included in the action via stedicam footage that was projected on a massive central video screen. The screen showed some backstage murders, conspiracies, and even, during a memorable speech in which King Henry VI indulges in a pastoral metaphor, a flock of sheep (or goats, maybe?). With the exception of the livestock, most or all of the filmed action was live, but it was only visible to us via video feed. The result was as seamless an intermingling of live and filmed action as I’ve even seen, making even the Wooster Group‘s pyrotechnics appear a bit labored. Another patterned staging showed figures of authority — York and Richard III, especially — seated with their backs to the audience but with their faces shown in close up on the big screen. The combination of contempt for and intimacy with the masses was potent and disturbing.

This staging of Henry V moved without a pause from his securing the hand of Princess Katherine to the conquering monarch’s funeral, which opens Part 1 of Henry VI. This staging of wooing scene, often a semi-comic break from the relentless battles, showed the king’s emotional neediness more than his mastery. In a sharp inversion of common practice, the scene suggested that Katherine understood the king’s English but he cannot fully decipher her French. His sometimes comic lines about being a soldier who cannot speak love-verses built to his petulant fists pounding on the table in frustration. The princess, and the off-stage negotiators of the Anglo-French treaty, rescued Henry — but the sense of not-fully-visible violence, like the rapine and pillaging the king had threatened but not visited on Harfluer, lingered after the conqueror passed.

Henry VI

Eelco Smits’s boyish Henry VI looked out of place in his pajamas among the senior military men dressed in suits. Crowned at six months old and never quite growing into his father’s bloody shoes, this Henry brought the play’s action back to England and civil war. All Shakespeare’s French scenes, except Suffolk’s wooing of Margaret, were cut, and to the list of missing figures these plays added Joan of Arc, Jack Cade, and several others. The cabinet room now overflowed with rivalries: the Cardinal and York and Suffolk plotting against Henry’s uncle, Duke Humphrey of Gloucester, whose losing hand was played with brilliant frustration by Aus Greidanus, Jr., who would later play Buckingham in Richard III. But the blazing star of the Henry VI plays, and one of the two incandescent performances of the evening, was Janni Goslinga as Queen Margaret of Anjou. 2016-11-05-01-40-11

Margaret, “the she-wolf of France,” dominated the Henry VI plays, especially in a production like this one that cuts Joan of Arc and Jack Cade and minimized Warwick the Kingmaker. Goslinga’s performance ratcheted up the human intensity of the political intrigue, which shifted from Henry V’s war-strategy to a complex multi-party civil war. King Henry VI’s famous piety saw him kneeling in pajamas at his cot while the senior administrators continued their business meeting, but this abdication frustrated Margaret’s ambition for herself and her husband. She burst into rage when Henry VI disinherited their son in order to prevent his rival, the Duke of York, from pushing him off the throne. While the production skipped most of the final stages of the civil war, including almost all of Henry VI, Part 3, which includes Margaret’s great despairing speech — “Say you can swim; alas, tis but a while” — but she dominated the middle section of the performance.

Edward IV

In a nod toward clarity, Kings of War crowned the Duke of York, rather than his son, who was also named Edward. The key scene featured York with seated at a conference table with his back to us, holding aloft a lit cigarette in his right hand. The video screen displayed his impassive face. We watched the smoke curl up as the Duke let his silence negotiate with an increasingly frantic King Henry VI. At the end, York was named heir, Margaret raged against an impotent Henry, and the Lancastran forces were routed. In Shakespeare’s dramatic cycle, completing project takes several more battles and campaigns — but York’s stillness and the implacable control of Bart Sleggers’s performance stood in nicely for all that violence. When the curtain at last came down after two and a half hours (only one interval!), the white rose of York was firmly in command, though the arrival of a certain son, Richard Duke of Gloucester, whose late self-atomizing speeches were almost all Toneelgroep kept of Henry VI, Part 3, promised futures troubles.

Richard III

Hans Kesting, who I’d previously seen play Antony in Toneelgroep’s Roman Tragedies, gave the part of Richard III a sinuous intensity that I don’t think I’ve ever seen equalled on stage before. Without any elaborate physical hijinks or props, except a wine-colored stain under one eye, he carried Richard’s dark ambition and restlessness through his body. He threatened just by standing still: I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen a more ominous stage moment than watching him stand on one side of the stage, staring at his reflection in a full-length mirror, while other characters pretended that they controlled the kingdom. I’ve seen Ian McKellen and Kevin Spacey give strong live performances of King Richard — but Kesting roared over all of them. As my buddy Erik said after the curtain, “I guess I don’t need to see Richard III ever again.” richard-crowned

It’s hard to describe the impact of seeing Kesting’s Richard on stage. I think it had something to do with the way he held his body, and also something to do with the way I’d been holding my body for the past 3 hours when he finally arrived on stage. Kesting walked gingerly, as if he were a coiled spring, with his hips slightly forward and arms back, enough to disturb but not enough to be a caricature. At one point his cascaded into full ridiculousness, wearing the crown he’d not yet claimed, draping a rug over his shoulders, and running around the stage in a parody of the humpbacked king. Most of the time he was just alien enough to disturb but not disrupt.

I also think the way the show made us wait for Richard made a difference. By the time he appeared, we’d been sitting still for over two and a half hours, and the late arrival of the man we knew would be the last titular king in the sequence focused our attention. If Henry V, conqueror of France, was understated and his play oddly calm, Richard III arrived to upstage him — though of course the final turn to Richmond, the future Henry VII, also returned Ramsey Nasr, who’d played Henry V, to center stage.

phones

Hanging up on Barack

A few moments of Kesting’s Richard particularly linger. When he was sure he was about to be crowned, he sat at the war room table in front of three brightly colored hotline phones. He lifted the red phone, drawls into in in a fake American accent: “Hallo?…Barack?!” Guffawing, full of himself, he next grabbed the green phone and spoke in German to Angela Merkel. To the blue phone he barked at Putin in Russian, then mocked the Russian leader as a “pussy” after he hung up.

Especially after reading the harrowing reporting from Trump’s gold-plated plane in this morning’s Times, I’ve been mulling how Kesting’s Richard combined ruthless domination with near-absolute neediness. The seduction of Lady Anne, about which Richard crowed when she left the stage, played itself out through utter desperation and need. When he bared his breast and offered her the knife, his brutal control operated through his urgent need to be at the center, the most hated and the most loved, the only one who matters:

Lo here I lend thee this sharp-pointed sword,

Which if thou please to hide in this true breast,

And let the soul forth that adoreth thee,

I lay it naked to thy deadly stroke.

No wonder Anne couldn’t kill him. Who could strike in the face of so much need?

Hans Kesting (Richard lll) in Kings Of War by Toneelgroep Amsterdam @ Barbican. Directed by Ivo van Hove (Opening 22-04-16) ©Tristram Kenton 04/16 (3 Raveley Street, LONDON NW5 2HX TEL 0207 267 5550 Mob 07973 617 355)email: tristram@tristramkenton.com

Hans Kesting (Richard lll) in Kings Of War by Toneelgroep Amsterdam @ Barbican.

Richard’s successful wooing of Anne to be his wife gets inverse-mirrored late in the play by his failure to convince Elizabeth to woo her daughter to be his next bride (4.4). Chris Nietvelt, who had previously played the French herald Montjoy, staged Elizabeth as Richard’s match, in a way that Anne and even Margaret had not been. After she left the stage, having not agreed to his proposed match for her daughter, Richard gave the Brooklyn theater one last crowd-pleasing ad lib: “nasty woman.”

The night before the battle showed Richard seated in the position of power on a bare stage with his back to us, staring at his own massive image on the video screen. Slowly, the features blurred to reveal, superimposed, the faces of his victims: Edward, Henry VI, Clarence, the two young princes, Lady Anne. Their presences drove the king mad, and as the screen faded to blood red he galloped around the stage bellowing, “a horse, a horse, My kingdom for a horse!” The famous line reimagined itself as pure physical need, desire for a stronger and more durable body, a vehicle for Richard’s boundless ambition and drive. We never saw him die: as he galloped horseless around the red stage, the video curtain pulled up to reveal the entire cast, now dressed as supporters of Richmond’s invading army, with Richmond himself at the head. Richard snaked through the crowd and vanished into the backstage hallway, not to return until the ovation.

Henry VII

What did the new king mean? The cycle closed with another Henry and another coronation for Ramsey Nasr, who had started us off as Henry V. The circular turning and absence of the tyrant’s body suggested that not all evils have been firmly banished. “The dog is dead,” said Richmond, as he prepared to marry to white rose to the red. Would that all political divisions were so easily sutured.

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Radical Hope and Early Modern Ecologies: MLA #598 1/7 @ 3:30 pm

2016-11-02-17-56-43Here’s our line-up for MLA session #598, coming to Philly on Sat 1/7 at 3:30 pm in the Convention center. Please join us for Radical Hope!

 

Speakers:       Daniel Brayton, Middlebury College

Jennifer Munroe, UNC Charlotte

Lynne Bruckner, Chatham University

Steve Mentz, St. John’s University

Respondent:  Tiffany Jo Werth, Simon Fraser University

Organizer:      Steve Mentz, St. John’s University

 

Environmentalist thinking in our catastrophic present oscillates between tragic visions of apocalyptic futures and technology-inspired fantasies of redemption. Either we are all doomed, or electronic cars will save us just the way we are. This panel, featuring five major voices in early modern ecocritical scholarship, proposes that the plurality of premodern visions of the relationship between human beings and the nonhuman environment can provide alternative ways to imagine our changing ecological future. Treating early modern texts as examples of speculative ecological thinking makes new possibilities visible.

Today’s favorite new term, “Anthropocene,” over-emphasizes the supposed novelty of our latest Age of Man. Neither human-driven environmental change nor ecological catastrophes are entirely new, as Native American populations destroyed by European diseases in the early modern period grimly testify. Twenty-first century conceptions of the Anthropocene often fall into patterns that resemble Romantic or industrial visions of Nature. Supplementing these modern views with a more fully historicized sense of the plural relationships between humans and the nonhuman environment enables humanities scholarship to use alien understandings from our shared past to reconsider our fragile present. Seeking radical alternatives in early modern ecologies, we offer plurality and historical difference.

The roundtable of short papers opens with Daniel Brayton’s “Oceans of Excess,” which argues that European encounters with the World Ocean in the early modern period sparked a new sense of global scale and fascination with the alien sea. He suggests that the vastness of the global ocean created in early modern English literature a language for dynamic, catastrophic, and post-sustainable ecosystems. The marine environment exceeds the capacity of the firmament to contain it and calls into question the human ability to conceptualize nature. Man, as Vico claimed, may make himself the measure of the universe, but the ocean engulfs that yardstick. For literary figures such as Shakespeare and Andrew Marvell the ocean evokes literal and conceptual measurelessness. In Marvell’s “The Garden,” mind and ocean are equally unfathomable. Today’s marine environment continues to exceed our ability to conceptualize the totality of the biosphere. In that excess early modern poets can help us uncover hope, for resilience lies in the gap between what we know about and do to the ocean and what we cannot and do not.

Next Lynne Bruckner will turn from global observations to the local history of a narrative poem, Shakespeare’s “The Rape of Lucrece.” Bruckner suggests that the figures of Tarquin and Lucrece offer contrasting ecological visions. Her analysis focuses on wind as narrative co-actant and figure for a living nature; wind enmeshes itself with Lucrece but refuses to touch Tarquin. Shakespeare’s bivalent poem both isolates the masculine rape of nature and also makes available via Lucrece’s hybrid porousness an alternative to that separation. In the contrast between an impermeable assault on natural entanglement and an early modern anticipation of trans-coporeal enmeshment, the poem constructs an alternative to ecological despair that anticipates the “transcorporeal” mode articulated by influential contemporary eco-theorist Stacy Alaimo.

Following this analysis of narrative verse will be Jennifer Munroe’s archival intervention, “Premodern Kitchen Ecologies: ‘Sustainable Becoming.’” Munroe seeks a sustainable “common” future by revising histories of sustainability to account for the diverse practices of the past. Histories of sustainability have tended to seek the origins of our current environmental crises near the advent of industrialism. Such histories, located as far back as perhaps the seventeenth century in England, pinpoint moments when things changed, implying that the human relationship with nature was before that moment otherwise, as if articulating those differences might help remediate our current ecological crises Neither our past nor our future is “common” but rather peppered with racial, gender, and class inequity. Munroe proposes that we find hope not in an imagined ideal past but rather by moving from the global into the local, to focus on the “micro-practices of everyday life” Rosi Braidotti describes as necessary to “sustainable becoming” that articulates both the embeddedness of human-nonhuman relations and the way that those relations depended in the past, as they do now, on inequities. A focus on the “micro-practices” recipe books articulate not only helps us locate alternative histories of sustainability that revise dominant representations of human-nonhuman relationships, but they also provide alternative approaches to how we might interrogate what we mean by “sustainability” in the first place.

The last contributor to the roundtable will be Steve Mentz’s “Two Tempests,” which explores literary representations of tempestuous storms in two canonical works, Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. Considering the relationship between tempest and time – both terms derived from the Latin tempus – he uncovers in Spenser’s catastrophic image of a “tempest of…wrathfulneese” (2.12.83.4) an attempt to amalgamate human and divine destructives powers. The theatrical spectacle of Shakespeare’s play, by contrast, in which the storm is as much stage trope as natural force, imagines a human wizard presiding on the upper stage over salvageable devastation. These two tempests reflect alternate ways of responding to the challenges of chaotic environments and ameliorative responses.

Finally, Tiffany Jo Werth will respond to the panel papers, drawing on her study of premodern ecomaterialism and considering its resonance for a twenty-first century context.

The roundtable aims to provide a forum to explore multiple forms of early modern radical hope. The alternatives it offers are not utopian solutions or ways to “save the world,” but instead ways of engaging intimately with disorder. This group’s premodern examples demonstrate ways to pluralize our eco-thinking while recognizing the deep embeddedness of human bodies in nonhuman nature. The session emphasizes meaningful parallels between early modern materials and elements of twenty-first century critical thought, especially ecomaterialism, object-oriented thinking, and actor-network models. By framing our appeals to ecological difference through historical alterity we hope to provide an alternative to the relentlessly grim language of ecological catastrophe in the present.

 

Bios:

Dan Brayton is an associate professor at Middlebury College, where he is a member of the Department of English and American Literatures and the Program in Environmental Studies. He earned his doctorate from Cornell University in 2001. His book, Shakespeare’s Ocean: An Ecocritical Exploration, published in 2012 by the University of Virginia Press, won the 2012 Northeast Modern Language Association Book Prize. He has published an edited volume, Ecocritical Shakespeare (Ashgate 2011; with Lynne Bruckner) and numerous articles on early modern English literature, maritime literature, and ecocriticism. He also teaches aboard sailing vessels in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Caribbean and has held visiting appointments with Sea Education Association, the Williams-Mystic Program in American Maritime Studies, and Semester-at-Sea.

 

Lynne Bruckner is Professor of English at Chatham University. She is co-editor of Ecocritical Shakespeare with Dan Brayton (Ashgate 2011) and Ecological Approaches to Early Modern English Texts: A Field Guide to Reading and Teaching with Jennifer Munroe and Edward Geisweit (Ashgate 2015). Bruckner has contributed ecocritical chapters to Ecofeminist Approaches to Early Modernity, eds. Munroe and Laroche (Palgrave 2011) and Shakespeare and the Urgency of Now, eds. DiPietro and Grady (Palgrave 2013). Bruckner’s publications also include articles and book chapters on Chaucer, Sidney, Shakespeare, Jonson, Atwood, and Finding Nemo. Bruckner has developed and taught multiple environmental and ecocritical courses, including Literary Approaches to the Environment, Ecofeminist Literature, Shakespeare: ecocriticism, Children’s Environmental Fiction and Film, and Organic Gardening. She earned her doctorate in English from Rutgers University in 1997.

 

Jennifer Munroe is Associate Professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She is author of Gender and the Garden in Early Modern English Literature (Ashgate, 2008) and co-author with Rebecca Laroche of Shakespeare and Ecofeminist Theory (forthcoming. Arden, 2016). She has co-edited Ecofeminist Approaches to Early Modernity (Palgrave, 2011) and Ecological Approaches to Early Modern Texts: A Field Guide to Reading and Teaching (Ashgate, 2015). In addition, she has published articles in Shakespeare Studies, Tulsa Studies for Women’s Literature, Prose Studies, Early Modern Studies Journal, Renaissance Studies, and Pedagogy. Munroe is also a founding member and blogger for EMROC (Early Modern Recipes Online Collective), which is creating a public-access database of transcribed early modern manuscript receipt books.

 

Steve Mentz is Professor of English at St. John’s University in New York City. His ecocritical publications include Shipwreck Modernity: Ecologies of Globalization, 1550 – 1719 (Minnesota 2015); At the Bottom of Shakespeare’s Ocean (Continuum 2009); the edited collection Oceanic New York (Punctum 2015); and numerous articles and chapters. He has also published on Shakespeare, early modern fiction, and book history, including Romance for Sale in Early Modern England (2006) and the co-edited collections The Age of Thomas Nashe (2014) and Rogues and Early Modern English Culture (2004).

 

Tiffany Jo Werth is Associate Professor of English at Simon Fraser University. Her work on the vexed relationship of romance to the long English Reformation has appeared in article form in The Shakespearean International Yearbook (2008) and English Literary Renaissance (2010) and as The Fabulous Dark Cloister: Romance in England after the Reformation (Johns Hopkins University Press 2011). Recently, she guest edited a special issue on “Shakespeare and the Human” for The Shakespearean International Yearbook (2015). Her current book project, entitled The English Lithic Imagination from More to Milton, argues that the mineral offers an unsettling touchstone for re-thinking Renaissance humanism. Article-length versions have previewed in The Indistinct Human in Renaissance Literature (2012), Literature Compass Online (2013), Upstart a Journal of English Renaissance Studies (2014), and a special issue of Spenser Studies on “Spenser and the Human” (2015).

 

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REFUGE (GWMEMSI 10/28/16)

The panel at rest

The panel at rest

One story (Odyssey) returns to rest with comfort and stability. Another (Iliad) seeks disruptive change. Sometimes, for a little while, the two stories entangle in a happy way. That gets us to Utopia, whether by that invented word we mean an imaginary 500-year old island or a Parkway in Queens.

Thinking about the great REFUGE symposium that Jeffrey Cohen and Jonathan Hsy put on at George Washington University’s Medieval and Early Modern Studies institute last Friday — here’s Jeffrey Cohen’s blog-encomium about its the joys and struggles — I’m recalling now the ways we interlaced the home-story with the change-story.

Dinner

Dinner

Three academic speakers were book-ended by two glorious creative artists. I’ll start with the last one first.

D.J. Spooky, who’d flown all night after a concert in Seattle to get to his onetime home in DC, closed us out with Utopia and more. In a dizzyingly “non-linear” talk, in which he browsed us through images from his ipad rather than following a straight-line slideshow, he skated from Thomas More to Einstein and Tagore, Antarctica as symbol of de-politicized territory, deterratorialization via Delueze and Guattari, DJ-ing as the “folk vernacular” of the twenty-first century, and much more.

His speech, like his arrival, radiated motion: utopia as a constantly shifting palace of pleasures and enthusiasms, always moving but never unavailable. Not a stable refuge so much as a happy journey.

A gift from GWMEMSI

A gift from GWMEMSI

On the low-tech opening side of the evening was the poet Patience Agbabi, who gave a profoundly moving and gorgeous reading of her long poem “The Refugee’s Tale,” in which she re-fashioned the story of a Somali refugee seeking asylum in Great Britain into a “heroic crown” or double corona of sonnets. The form comprises fifteen sonnets, the first fourteen of which are linked by having the last line of one poem become the starting line of the next. The fifteenth poem crowns the whole by combining all fourteen previously shared lines. Listening to the intricate play of repetition and variation structuring a Sudanese Coptic woman’s deeply contemporary international odyssey, with its dangers and fears and frustration, shows how formal poetics still works with contemporary matter.

Patience’s poem ends in stable refuge, with memories of motion insinuating themselves still:

The story ends where you put the frame

but however it begins, remember my name.

What did we three literature professors do to fill up the space between Patience’s formal beauty and DJ Spooky’s playful movement?

Pam Troyer’s “At What Cost?” juxtaposed Chaucer’s “Man of Law’s Tale” with the legal and personal tribulations of twenty-first century refugees, in particular young “train-surfers” entering the US from Mexico. Tales of relentless motion and struggle.

I spoke about “Motion Sickness” and the disorienting feeling of being at sea, with help from David Hadbawnik’s Aeneid, Caroline Bergvall’s Drift, and Stephen Collis’s “The Lawyer’s Tale.” Motion without rest.

Jonathan Hsy showcased several academic and para-academic projects, especially Je suis avec eux, a photo project in solidarity with 21c migrants, and the historical database, “England’s Immigrants 1330-1550.” Jonathan showed that refuge can be found, sometimes, with difficulty. The data visualization of premodern immigrants in an England that contemporary nationalists often assume to have been monoracial and monocultural gestures toward a less nostalgic and more varied history of multicultural Europe — a historical vision, as several people mentioned, that is increasingly under siege in these post-Brexit days.

#darcyshirt (Seen at the Folger)

#darcysshirt (Seen at the Folger)

I’ve seldom been part of a symposium that was so deeply intertwined, not just because several of us responded to the Refugee Tales book and project in which Patience’s poem and one of my three primary texts was published this past June. Even more, the engagement between all of our thinking, during and after the presentations, flowed out of an attempt to think across controlling master-narratives, the home-genre (Odyssey) and disruption-genre (Iliad). We used both kinds of stories to think ourselves into sympathy with radically other lives.

We need both stories, home and disruption, and we need to think them in dialogue with each other. As a parent of teenagers, I’m becoming acutely aware that home is a place to leave as well as to seek refuge. Events like this one untangle and sometimes re-interlace our craving for rest with restless curiosity.

Such a pleasure to think with the imaginative people of GWMEMSI again!

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Premodern Ecologies: Boulder, 10/20-22

Boulder Creek

Boulder Creek

I arrived home today to find Philip John Usher’s wonderfully detailed recap of our event at Boulder this past weekend. It’s great, and frees me up for some more speculative and personal thoughts on a blazing trip to the Rocky Mountains. I scratched out most of this while on an eastbound plane this morning —

“Critique is care,” quipped the sagacious Anne Harris near the end of our 60+ hour hothouse conference this weekend at the U of Colorado at Boulder. Our fearless leader Scott Bruce instantly proposed collective tattoos. The leap from intellectual practice to arts of the body caught the spirit of our weekend exactly right. I miss Boulder already!

I won’t attempt to taxonomize the weekend’s nearly two dozen talks, because Philip already has and because that Herculean labor already fell to one of our fellows, the distinguished economic and environmental historian of the Middle Ages, Richard Hoffman. In blog-synthesizing some scattered thoughts about the conference, I’m responding to Rich’s generous closing reflections, in particular his grappling with the plural methodologies, archives, and styles that our crew of historians, art historians, and literary scholars tossed into our shared ring. My abiding sense of this great weekend comprises wrestling with difference and diverse methods in Colorado. In the face of rapid and painful ecological change, we offered different things.

The CMEMS Hedgehog

The CMEMS Hedgehog

A few keywords, assembled over the weekend:

adaptation

resilience

management (mainly used of forests, sometimes of fisheries)

scale

urbanization

entanglement

defraction

exchange

Miri Rubin started us off on Th evening with a gorgeous iteration of the James Field Willard Lecture in Medieval History, exploring urbanization and its cultural expressions. Her implicit engagement with the environmental humanities ensured that urbanization would become one of the forcing pressures spanning our nearly millennia long chronology for the rest of the weekend. Miri’s fireball curiosity and vast appetite for knowledge surged through the conference: she in fact treated Anne and me to a private second-breakfast plenary on religious art in the hotel restaurant around 7 am Sat morning, as well as (I believe) inhaling articles by assorted panelists during the coffee breaks. The joy and at times exhaustion of conferences like these consists of discovering new people and new ideas. Miri’s voracity was inspiring. She also shares my appetite for electoral minutiae in this anxious political season, which made for a lively backchannel. There is so much fear of change in our politics and environmental cultures, and so much need for bravery and humor.

For years I’ve been treating the Columbian Exchange as an ecophysical model for premodern cultural disruption, so it was wonderfully welcome for me to hear Paolo Squatriti’s searching plenary on weeds, agriculture, and what he calls the “Mediterranean Exchange,” in the context of Islamic expansion after the 7th century. The bumper-sticker slogan I promoted the next morning, “Pluralize the Anthropocene!” was still a day away when I heard Paolo’s talk on Fri, and as with so many of the weekend’s contributions I wished I could have integrated it into my thinking before my turn came around.

Flying home on Sunday on just a few post-microbrew hours of sleep, the panels swim in my sleepy imagination as enticing schools of French forests, watermills, Icelandic annals, Anglo-Saxon cosmologies, mines, trees, stones, cloisters, and many other strange and wonderful things. Infinite riches in a little room, as the doomed poet says.

Anne Harris, whose recent turn to upper administration at DePauw is bringing light to the dark side, gathered us together after a long and intense day on Fri with a wonderfully intricate talk on the “entanglement” of stone and will in polytemporal Brittany. Weaving together Neolithic standing stones assembled at Carnac and Monteneuf with two separate “fellings” of the Montneuf stones by medieval Christians around 700 and 1000, the re-standing of the stones by the French tourist office since the 1970s, and her recent wintertime visit there with her lucky students, Anne narrated a moving and beautiful tale of exchange and affective response. Stone entangles human wills and feelings.

Like my Hamlet-izing the next morning, Anne’s talk wasn’t argument in an experimental or testable sense, though it was deeply persuasive. There are things humanities scholarship does by layering narrative into persuasion. This sort of storifying is not a new development, and also not limited to interpretive fields like literary studies or Art History, as brilliant historians like Natalie Zemon Davis and Carlo Ginzberg have long since shown. The pluralizing project of humanist inquiry requires both story and argument, facts and feelings — and also theories, numbers, data sets, and images, not to mention poems, plays, and pictures.

I felt a bit out of place the next morning with my very literary reading of hyper-familiar Hamlet, amid the blazing variety of new discoveries. But I think there remains a place for re-firing the old canon, because out of the prince of Denmark’s famliar words and actions changes still appear. Even our Deadest Whitest Baldest Male Authors can perhaps help Pluralize the Anthropocene in our dissolving present.

Lunch at the Shakespeare Festival Stage

Lunch at the Shakespeare Festival Stage

I’ll offer one last strange thing that’s echoing for me after this weekend’s head-spinning events. At an interdisciplinary event such as this one, at which I was the lone literary scholar among the plenary quartet, it’s hard not to feel as if personal affinities somehow allegorize intellectual alliances. (Another bumper sticker from a previous Western event: Always allegorize!) To some extent, Rich Hoffman and I represented deeply dissimilar approaches and methods this weekend: economic history v literary interpretation, facts v plays, positivism v theory. But we also, strangely and wonderfully, share a personal history with the same obscure body of salt water. In the late 1960s, when I was a mewling infant on the suburban plains of New Jersey, Rich was a grad student at Yale, living in the Short Beach neighborhood of Branford near the mouth of the Farm River and Long Island Sound. Decades later, at the millennium’s turn, I moved into the same neighborhood to raise my own babies near the warm salt waters of Short Beach. Our respective houses were maybe 1/3 mile apart; I walked my dogs up toward Rich’s old place today, after I got home. Environmental humanists connected by an environment!

I’m thinking now about grad student Rich flashing his lure into the silty bay where I swim every day in the summer. I’ve taken some fish out of those waters too, albeit fewer now that my son is a teenager with better things to do than fish with Dad. Living near water, which has come to indicate economic privilege in the modern world and may also become a site of precarity in the stormy Anthropocene, marks us both. We respond, in our different ways, to water’s inhuman pressures and entanglements.

I look forward to extending and complicating the conversations of this past weekend in the mountains! Special thanks to Scott Bruce and Anne Lester for welcoming us into their vibrant community

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NYSX’s “Lucrece”

lucreceI was feeling a bit nervous about this one.

Every semester I bring my undergrad Shakespeare classes to live productions so that they can see how Shakespeare speaks to contemporary concerns. But this new play, based on Shakespeare’s narrative poem, “The Rape of Lucrece” (1594), seemed just a bit too on the nose in October 2016. The New York Shakespeare Exchange has been working for over eighteen months on the production,  but they could not have guessed that its opening week would see repeated claims of sexual assault dominating the final turns of a Presidential election campaign. Sex, politics, assault, male domination: maybe a bit much, even for a class on Shakespeare and Political Rhetoric?

I was worried, at this painful and unsettled moment in American politics, about bringing a class of college English majors, mostly women, to a play about politicized sexual assault. In the end I trusted the collective wisdom of theater: the actors, the playwright, Shakespeare’s language, this ancient Roman story, the audience. I also trusted my amazing students, who both in class and at The Clemente on the Lower East Side last Thursday night, faced up to the long and living history of political misogyny that the story both represents and responds to.

The evening started about ninety minutes before curtain with a pre-show conversation between a half-dozen brave students and a trio from the company: Cristina Lundy, the director; Jessica Cauttero, the dramaturg; and Kevin Brewer, the playwright. The students volunteered their thoughts about the poem’s oblique and painful nature, the insufficiency of the rapist’s banishment as punishment, and the imaginative consequences of following Tarquin into Lucrece’s bedchamber. I didn’t know it at the time, but the conversation helped set up the split that NYSX emphasized in their rendition of Shakespeare’s narrative. We talked about the politics of ancient Rome, and the way the eternal city’s mythic history builds itself atop stories of sexual violation: the mysterious pregnancy that leads to the birth of Romulus and Remus, which Jessica suggested may have been a way of concealing a rape story; the rape of the Sabine women; the story of Lucrece. As in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the story that must be repeated, survived, and out-lived, begins with male sexual aggression.

We talked about Trump. How could we not? Cristina noted the play would feature armed camp talk, the Roman equivalent of locker room talk. We also talked about the Mockingjay, and the dehumanizing consequences, for Lucrece in Roman history and Katniss in the third book of the Hunger Games trilogy, of having a woman’s wounded body become a political symbol.

I’m thinking about that question now, in the wake of Michelle Obama’s deeply moving speech in New Hampshire. Might that brilliant speech have discovered a new language to respond to the ancient and brutal story of powerful men and victimized women? Might the examples of so many women coming forward over the past week to tell once-hidden stories suggest that Lucrece’s ancient example of shame and self-harm is no longer the most powerful response to these crimes? I hope so.

In addition to its implicit commentary on national politics, this play of “Lucrece” also managed to include almost everything we’ve discussed in the first two months of the semester. A new character added to the play was the young Caius Martius, who when he grows up will become the Roman hero Coriolanus, in a play our class finished last week. The production also added material about Lucius Junius Brutus, a friend of Lucrece’s husband Collatine who would use the occasion of Lucrece’s rape to banish the Tarquin family and, according to legend, found the Roman Republic. In a gambit that my students recognized from Hamlet, this Brutus pretended during the first half of the play to be a drunken fool, only to spring the trap and lead the forces assembled against Tarquin at the play’s end.

Aaliyah Habeeb’s Lucrece and Leighton Samuels’s Tarquin occupied the play’s center with charisma and aplomb. They were particularly strong in a long added-in section in which Lucrece showed the visiting Tarquin a set of statues from Greek epic. When she answered Northrop Frye’s which-Homer-are-you question by telling Tarquin that she loves the Iliad more than the Odyssey, I admired the deftness of playwright Kevin Brewer’s construction: Lucrece’s high-minded aspiration to tragic epic would preclude any subtle strategies for survival like the slight of hand with which Odysseus’s wife Penelope kept her suitors at bay, unweaving by night what she wove by day.

But among a series of excellent performances, including the versatile Brandon Garegnani as Brutus and Shawn Williams as Collatinus, the stand-out for me was Gabby Beans as Mirabelle, Lucrece’s servant and another addition to the story. Moving back and forth between the army’s camp at Ardea and Lucrece’s house at Rome, she served as an emotional register, suspecting Tarquin before anyone else, concerned about Lucrece, aware that after the assault, when Lucrece’s male allies including her father and husband, start talking politics they are likely to forget about her.

The private-v-public split, which oscillated between considering Lucrece as an individual and treating her rape as a political symbol, became particularly stark in the final sections of the play. Lucrece’s suicide came when Mirabelle was briefly offstage and Lucrece’s male allies were distracted by political strategy. Once Lucrece has become the symbol of their Republic — their Mockingjay — she ceased to be present for them as a person. It was shocking to watch her stab herself while half the stage was filled up by men who love her not watching.

I don’t want to give away the surprise addition to the story in a scene that appears neither in Shakespeare nor Livy —  go see the play before Oct 22 to learn what happens at the end! — except to note that it extends the divergence between Lucrece as symbol, who enables Brutus and his allies to expel Tarquin and found the Republic, and Lucrece as woman, whose cruel fate must be mourned and also requited.

On our way out, one of my  male students, told me, “This was much better than Shakespeare’s version.” It makes me happy to think that, even as current events show us that male sexual assault still brutally punctuates our political debates, young men and women are recognizing that these cruel old stories need better and more just endings.

 

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#dylansprize

dylan

  1. Before we start trying to decide whether to re-read the unbearable Tarantula (1971) or brilliant Chronicles (2004), a few thoughts on Dylan’s prize.
  2. I think the Swedish Academy wants to send two signals with this selection: both that they have an expansive view of what counts as the greatest and most influential world “literature” (see also the journalist Svetlana Alexievich who won last year) and also because elevating Dylan recalls a deeply American anti-Trump culture. He’s a figure from what Greil Marcus calls the “old, weird America.” They are right about Dylan as linguistic experimentalist, but he’s been more house of mirrors than politically progressive since the mid-80s. (Josh Marshall has a great write-up of Dylan’s non-plussed visit to the White House in 2010.)
  3. On the “is he literary enough?” pearl-clutching front, let’s not kid ourselves: Dylan is the most generative, chimerical, and restless American writer of the generation that’s now passing. I love Delillo, Oates, Pynchon, Roth, Atwood, and many of the other names that get bandied around each year — but in terms of global stature and an expansive sense of what linguistic invention can do, Bob’s a good choice.
  4. Right after I heard this news yesterday morning, I gave a short lecture to the St. John’s International Conference on Languages and Literature on the 400th deathaversary of Miguel de Cervantes and William Shakespeare. As Facebook worried over the definition of “poet,” I remembered that both of these writers made their careers in what were then low-status, even sub-literary forms, prose fiction and the public stage. Modern novels and lyric poems do not define the entiretly of literary culture.
  5. A personal confession: as popular giants have been dying off and generating massive social media outflows of mourning and celebration, I’ve been hoarding a private and selfish reaction. Much as I miss Bowie and Prince, I had the same thought each time: at least it’s not Bob.
  6. It’ll be fun to read all the pre-written obits reshaped as Nobel celebrations over the next few days.

Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky
With one hand waving free
Silhouetted by the sea
Circled by the circus sands
With all memory and fate
Driven deep beneath the waves
Let me forget about today until tomorrow….

 

 

 

 

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Dead Horse Lear: After the Storm

2016-09-19-18-58-32What if, after the world ends, all that’s left is beauty?

Not decoration, or symmetry, or even geometric regularity, but a broken and fragmentary scattering of things that aren’t any more what they once were, objects that don’t quite fit, refuse that refuses to go away. What if these sorts of things turn out to have an enduring and alluring beauty, inviting us out into places that aren’t easy to get to?

I was thinking about the gorgeousness of the fractured world yesterday after the rainstorm as we gathered on Dead Horse Beach to talk about Posthuman Lear with Craig Dionne. The sand fleas pinched my neck as he described Utopia, animal bodies, and human desires. Plus King Lear, and science fiction.

Beach reading

Beach reading

Thou art the thing itself… (3.4)

The day started wet. A 5:30 am I was piloting the good ship Subaru down the highway, worried about getting everyone out to the beach. I spent the morning hitting refresh on the Weather Channel. Would the storm pass in time?

What is the cause of thunder? (3.4)

Intermittent clearing kept us on tenterhooks, but Craig and I convinced ourselves after a dry (damp) run out to the beach that we’d be OK in a light drizzle. The forecast rolled ambivalently through an early afternoon downpour into a clearing projection. Our collaborators from underwaternewyork.com elected, quite sensibly, to stay dry. But we still wanted to go.

Written in stone

Written in stone

Festina lente: “Make haste slowly” (Erasmus)

So we went. Four cars navigated the van Wyck, Jackie Robinson, Belt, and other traffic-clogged expressways. The path for our ten minute hike out to the beach had some standing water, but was negotiable even in my non-hiking shoes. The clouds pressed low and traffic hummed on the Marine Parkway Bridge behind us as we wandered the beach just after low tide, looking at glass, leather, plastic, the refuse of industrial modernity. It was beautiful, in a pained way.

Is this the promised end? (5.2) 2016-09-19-14-17-44

We leaned against a graffiti-painted fiberglass boat for Craig’s talk. As he ranged from sci fi to Shakespeare’s father’s illegal trade practices to “unaccommodated man,” his talk rippled over the beach. Counterpoint was provided by some Canada geese overhead, the cries of gulls, hum of automobile traffic, and the slow changing of the light at day’s end.

The talk ended precisely at sunset (6:58 pm, according to the Weather Channel), but in a few unrepeatable minutes before that, the drooping sun peaked below the daylong clouds and flamed rose-pink transcendence out across sand and sky. The light caught Craig’s hair and glinted across the shallow ripples of the incoming tide.

It’s a silly thing to say about a sunset, but in that moment I felt I’d never seen anything quite like it before. Roses, after the storm.

See better, Lear! (1.1) 2016-09-19-18-53-22

The day ended with lobster tacos at Clemente’s in Sheepshead Bay, and then a long drive through the wilds of Brooklyn and Queens dropping off the remaining Dead Horsers before I pointed my prow north toward home. What a day!

Thanks to all who came out, or followed along!

2016-09-19-18-36-11

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Dead Horse Lear! (Sept 19)

learCome hear a four-hundred year old tragedy speak to twenty-first century environmental catastrophe! The storm-poetry will rage at low tide at Dead Horse Bay’s Glass Bottle Beach on Sept 19 at 5:30 pm!

Join me and the students in my Open King Lear grad seminar to walk this amazing beach, the site of a nineteenth-century landfill and horse rendering plant, with Professor Craig Dionne, author most recently of Posthuman Lear: Reading Shakespeare in the Anthropocene (Punctum Books, 2015).

We’ll look and listen to sounds of long-ago and still ongoing disasters, talk about how human bodies encounter hostile environments, and explore the boundaries of literary representation and ecological understanding. Professor Dionne will speak about how King Lear reimagines language and humanity in and after catastrophe.

Praise the world to the angel (Rilke)

160210posthumanlear-coverfront-1

We’ll also be joined by St. John’s Professor Elizabeth Albert and the editors of underwaternewyork.com, who have recently collaborated on the gorgeous volume Silent Beaches, Untold Stories, which explores the forgotten history and artistic present of New York’s waterways.

Reason not the need! (Lear)

All are welcome! We’ll meet in the parking lot at Floyd Bennet Field / 50 Aviator Road and together walk the 15 min trail out to the beach.

Please contact Steve Mentz ([email protected]) if you’d like to join us!

Glass Bottle Beach

Glass Bottle Beach

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New York Theater (F16)

MobileUnitHamlet_headerSome of these dates might shift around, but I’ve got a rough schedule of plays that I’ll be bringing members of my election-season Shakespeare class to this fall in New York. It should be a great line up!

Th 9/22: Public Theater’s Mobile Unit Hamlet (7 pm, 425 Lafayette St, Manhattan)

Th 10/13: New York Shakespeare Exchange’s Lucrece (7:30 pm; Teatro Latea at the Clemente, 107 Suffolk #200, between Delancy and Rivington) Rape of Lucrece

Th 11/17: Red Bull’s Coriolanus (location and time tbd)

I’m also going to Ivo van HovKings-of-War_2000x762-3e’s four-and-a-half hour extravaganza Kings of War, a mashup of Henry V, all three parts of Henry VI, and Richard III, performed in Dutch at the BAM opera house on Nov 4 — but I’m not dragging my students to that one!

Please contact me if you’d like to come along!