“Something”: An Oceanic Splash toward the Ending of Inherent Vice

[A bloggy present for my summer grad students, laboring away this lovely weekend on papers for our class, “Pynchon’s California and the Promise of Theory”]

The foggy ending of Inherent Vice is a favorite California dreamscape for Pynchonistas, but this time through I spotted an internal echo I hadn’t seen before. At novel’s end, Doc like Oedipa in Lot 49 awaits revelation:

Something like the photo in St Flip's pad

Something like the photo in St Flip’s pad

For the fog to burn away, and for something else this time, somehow, to be there instead. (369)

There are plenty of candidates for that “something else,” from the Golden Fang to Shasta Fay (who’s actually there with Doc in the chickenshit romance version of the scene in the movie), but the phrasing also reaches back to another minor savant in the novel, Sauncho Smilax, the maritime lawyer who plays Skipper to Doc’s Gilligan and knows all about inherent vice. His gorgeous “sea of time” speech (341) may, it’s true, only be in Doc’s dream or the movie’s voice-over, but when the two hopeful desperadoes sail out after the good ship Golden Fang / Preserved, they discover, at a typically Pynchonian angle to reality, another kind of ending. Here is what they see:

“Something,” Sauncho said.

“Good.” (357)

Their short boat trip takes them to a place from which Doc’s beach town looks different, smaller, and less threatening:

Gordita Beach emerged from the haze, gently flaking away in the salt breezes, the ramshackle town in a spill of weather-beaten colors, like paint chips at some out-of-the-way hardware store, and the hillside up to Dunecrest, which Doc had always thought of, especially after nights of excess, as steep, a grade everybody sooner or later wiped their clutch trying to get up and out of town on, looking from out here strangely flat, hardly there at all. (354)

In the otherworld of Ocean, flatland problems look, well, flat. At first only surfers float alongside Doc and Sauncho, “bobbing up and down, like Easter Island in reverse” (355). It’s a brief trip outside History, punctuated by a vision of a fleet young hippie outrunning a lumbering CHP motorcycle cop on the sand.

Coming around the corner of Palos Verdes Point and into the domain of uber-baddie Crocker Fenway reveals the promised treasure, Sauncho’s nautical obsession, and the boat that may hold all the novel’s secrets:

…there in the distance, out from San Pedro with all her staysails and jibs set, blooming like a cubist rose, came the schooner. The look on Sauncho’s face was of pure unrequited love. (355-56)inherent-vice

Fantasy is always pursued by History in Pynchon (or is it the other way around?), so it’s not surprising to see a Coast Guard cutter and DOJ vessel chasing the ship. Three shadowy figures — members of the Tristero? Coy, Hope, and Amethyst? some Trinity or other? — flee before the ship is impounded, but the crucial encounter isn’t with the Man but with the Wave:

Doc put the sets rolling in at them from the northwest at thirty and maybe even thirty-five feet from crest to trough — curling massively, flaring in the sun, breaking in repeated explosion….It was St. Flip of Lawndale’s mythical break, also known to old-timers as Death’s Doorstill. (357-58).

St Flip of Lawndale, one of my favorite characters in the novel who didn’t make it into the movie, is also the Gordita Beach-er whose flit to Maui opened up a place for Shasta to crash upon re-entry, which wave-decorated pad also hosts her strange reunion scene with Doc in a day outside of History. With his piece of the True Board and surfer’s understanding of what it means to walk on water, St Flip might represent a happy if opaque to Doc engagement with the watery half of beachy Gordita. To Doc, the wavespray inhibits vision, makes it hard to see the revelation he craves:

Something [sic] was also happening to the light, as if the air ahead of them were thickening with unknown weather. Even with binoculars it was hard to keep the schooner in view. (357)

It doesn’t last. It never does. The Coast Guard takes the ship. But smiling Sauncho has one last trick to play, the possibility of a “legal marine policy” (359) which, if no shadowy owners come into the light to claim the Fang/Preserved for a year and a day, might pass the beloved ship to a devoted owner. “If there’s litigation,” Saunch sez, “I’ll be in on it” (359).

Maybe that’s the best we can hope for?


Wet Work for How We Write



I’m very excited to be joining Suzanne Conklin Akbari’s fast-moving project, How We Write: Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blank Page. The project asks a variety of academic writers from assorted professional levels and disciplines, to write about how we (really) get words onto pages.

I wrote about what I usually write about:

What if we think of writing as an encounter with all the alien environments outside us? When I think about writing as process, metaphorically and physically, I return to the central obsession of my recent work, the human encounter with an alien globe best represented (to me, anyway) by the ocean. But the wet work of writing also includes encounters with an infant’s scream or an indecipherable manuscript. There’s no “right” way to pursue this encounter and make words from it, only a series of techniques through which we can put off being overwhelmed. Writing emerges from putting little bodies in contact with vast seas. If we try too hard to stay in control we’re treating language as a mere tool, something we can master. Words are the best machines humans have constructed, but they are also perhaps our least ready to hand, most mystifying and frustrating. Wet work: it’s through our efforts to employ language that we’re reminded most insistently of the limits of body and mind.

Freestyle looking up

Freestyle looking up

Writing is like fishing in that it involves flashing a lure into the unknown and hoping that something bites. It also resembles fishing in that there’s a wanton cruelty to dragging living meanings up to the surface so that we can see them. Sometimes it feels as if they should stay in the water.

Writing like swimming requires a naked encounter with unimaginable seas. I started writing about the sea by way of Northrop Frye and James Cameron: an odd combination. The great Canadian professor joked that shipwreck was the “standard means of transportation” in Greek romances and their early modern imitators (Sidney, Greene, Lodge, Nashe) about whom I wrote my dissertation and first book. The American filmmaker’s sugar-sweet movie about the great ship going down showed me that shipwreck retains its potency even inside melodrama, not secret so much as unspoken, because it doesn’t require words.

            Writing as swimming floats in the cold water where Leo goes down. It treads water happily, patiently, knowingly, waiting for insight. It’s not comfortable and it can’t last. We’re not in control.

This essay also has more baseball in it than usual:

For this child of the New Jersey suburbs, sports still has the best metaphors. Here’s one I start with:

Flying away

Flying away

Writing Maxim #1: “Swing hard, in case you hit the ball.”

The baseball metaphor highlights chance and difficulty: some key parts of the writing process, as I semi-understand it, remain out of the author’s control. The maxim encourages getting comfortable with failure, because that’s what happens most of the time. So much of writing feels like chance and failure – you practice and practice, get your swing just right, hope for contact, and most of the time you miss the ball. Writing isn’t about control, no matter how hard we work at it. “You can’t aim the baseball,” intones the sonorous announcer’s voice that accompanies me on my evening commute from April to (if we’re lucky) October. It takes all your skill just to make contact, and then hope something good happens. If not, take another swing.

And more combat academic parenting:

I’ve got a picture, somewhere, that must have been taken in February 2001. I’m drafting a paper for the Shakespeare Association of America conference about economic thinking in The Merchant of Venice. (You can find a later version of it in the 2003 collection Money and the Age of Shakespeare, edited by Linda Woodbridge.) In the picture, I’m sitting in a chair with a paperback open to Launcelot Gobbo’s great speech about the pleasures of being an unscrupulous middle-man: “The fiend gives the more friendly counsel, I will run, fiend, my heels are at your commandment” (2.2.1-32). On my shoulder is my month-old son, red-faced and screaming. A colicky infant, he gave us about three or four hours of high-volume serenade each day for his first year or so. I was reading my paper to him – I’d started with The Odyssey in the hospital, sentimentalist that I am – and writing it at the same time. Surely some of his rage and force found its way into my sentences. I thought I was writing about the “new economic criticism,” about which I didn’t really know that much, except what I’d just started reading. But the picture shows that I was writing with and to him. In other words: rage and love, along with money and exchange.

      It’d be easy to look at that picture and say I was distracted, and to think that the only responsible and professional way to write a “real” SAA paper would be in a quiet space, preferably a library carrel or a child-free office. But I don’t think that would have birthed a better paper, even if I had been able to find such a place that noisy winter. The shock of fatherhood was so new to me then – he’s fourteen now, but it still feels new – that there’s no way I could have not been writing about it, through it, with it. I remember being frustrated that the paper wasn’t as polished as I could have wished – I didn’t really know at that point about the multiple drafts and revisions between conference paper and published article; another practical secret I could have benefitted from hearing earlier. But now I think of that paper as a transition, the first writing I did as a parent, an introduction to the distracted and emotional way I’ve been writing and living ever since.

I have two favorite parts. I like the pictures posted here that my daughter Olivia took of me today, in my summer writing office.

Headless freestyle

Headless freestyle

This paragraph is my other favorite part:

Here’s the thing: you can only write what you’re ready to write, in a moment, in the encounter. You can’t aim the baseball. You can prepare yourself – block off time, face the page or keyboard, assemble notes and outlines, sit pinioned in a too-small airplane seat – but you can’t control what happens in the writing moment. I don’t know what’s happening in this moment, now, not entirely. That’s the good news: it’s through writing that humanists create new knowledge. It’s good to surprise ourselves, when we can.


Stone, Fire, Water, Smoke, Fish

The Churchill River from above

The Churchill River from above

I’m back from the Churchill River lake country northwest of Lac La Ronge Provincial Park in Saskatchewan, from a week of fishing & family. On the flight home I finished Jeffrey Cohen’s new book Stone, a gorgeous lovesong to lithic form, narrative endurance, and the urgent need to connect. A great match of place and book!

My favorite thing about Stone is its sinuous form. It’s more slippery than it looks, or than we might generally expect a book (mostly) about medieval literary culture to be. Authors, texts, and intimations swirl into view, vanish, and then return: Isidore’s Etymologies, Albertus Magnus’s Book of Minerals, the history-romance-travel narratives of Geoffrey of Monmouth, John Mandeville, and many others, including the wayward hero Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, whose itineraries take him from Bordeaux to Paris, Scotland, Berlin, and finally Iceland. He’s a good traveling companion, and he travels with good companions.

Stone’s slipperiness came home to me last Thursday morning, on our second day of fishing, when my father, braving the north woods in, I’m sorry to report, not quite the right shoes, slipped on a sloping rock getting out of the boat. I grabbed him before he could slide into the deep pool, but it was a treacherous moment: we expect stone to be solid, except when it’s not. Water makes it slick. Stone betrays, sometimes.

Black Bear at Black Bear Lake

Black Bear at Black Bear Lake

Academics reading Stone will notice the informal “Excursus” interchapters, which narrate the Cohen family travels to various stoney sites. Stonehenge recurs in each substantial chapter, until the too-familiar stones, which I confess I cannot see in my mind’s eye without hearing a Spinal Tap soundtrack, seem old friends. The careful movement from textual analysis to material ecotheory to family story makes Stone a deeply personal book, and a moving one to read. Early on, Cohen quotes one of my favorite lines from ecotheorist Stacy Alaimo. “If nature is to matter,” he quotes, “we need more potent, more complex understandings of materiality” (6-7). I think something similar emerges as the enduring gambit of this book: if we want academic books to matter (and we should), we need more potent and more personal understandings of our critical projects. More experimental books, please!

Not fifteen minutes after fishing my Dad off the slippery rock, I felt a hard thwack on the crown of my head, followed by a sharp tugging pain. I’d been hooked! An errant back-cast in a small boat re-routed my afternoon away from the lake to a lodge-bound portage, fortuitously-timed float plane, and rural Emergency Room in La Ronge, SK. No big deal, said the doctor. We pull hooks out of fishermen about once a week in the summer. He showed me a cork board in the tiny hospital where last year’s hooks were proudly displayed, with names and home towns of the anglers. Connecticut would soon make an appearance.

Fishing, like stone, abounds with allegories.

Distant fires

Distant fires

Perhaps my favorite section of Stone imagines a “zoe-egalatarian ethics” (228), which would reframe Bruno Latour’s “Parliament of Things” to include not just “bare or animal life but a force (call it life, wildness, desire, vibrancy, creatureliness) that is materiality in action” (228). Lithic formations, both those shaped by humans and those unwrought, serve in Cohen’s telling as limit cases that prompt and repay intense thinking: do all stones crave and create stories, as the not-always-hidden former title of this book, “Stories of Stone,” suggests? Or is the case of stone an extreme example of human eagerness to populate the material universe with meanings? In the Stone <–> Story equation, which direction does the arrow point first?

The waterworld of the Churchill River system, which the local Cree people, including our fishing guides, call Missinipe or Big Water, is full of exposed glacial stone, big shallow lakes, and waterfalls, but last week we saw the moving force of fire. Unseasonably hot weather two weeks earlier had been followed by thunderstorms and a lightning fire that burned hundreds of acres, including maybe a half-dozen unoccupied cabins. (Many were winter trapping cabins, unoccupied in the summer, our guides said.) The day we started fishing the fires were out. It was raining and cold, maybe 50 degrees, but on Thursday afternoon the sun peeked through and the temperature started to climb. When I flew back to La Ronge to have my head de-hooked that afternoon, I spotted maybe three or four places where the smoldering blaze had re-erupted, sending tendrils of smoke high into the hazy sky.

After two more sunny days of fishing, we flew home through clouds of smoke. The water level was down maybe two feet below last year. The fire was back — but such fires, we were told, were common in the summer.

Smoke on the return flight

Smoke on the return flight

Stone exists, in Cohen’s telling, as an “intimate alien” (249), deeply prized and fundamentally opaque. Like the forms of materiality we misname “nature,” stone abides at an angle to human desires, receptive, resilient, and, alas, not always fully responsive. What was the smoke we flew through but a thin layer of rock, a dispersed grit pushed aloft by heat and wind?

Finishing the book on the plane into Connecticut Sunday night, I thought about curiosity as an ecological force: fire’s desire to know the forest all the way to the shoreline; a black bear’s desire to know what we were doing, floating in the middle of the lake in a shiny tub; the fish’s desire, which fixes the hook in its mouth; the academic’s unrelenting curiosity, the slow patient unfolding of meanings and connections. Plus of course my own peculiar curiosities, the hooks I flash into so many waters, the smoke and fire and water through which I splash.

Humans, formed of clay, are on a basic level “mobile rocks” (222) as St. Augustine reminds us via Jeffrey Cohen. Books are wooden (or digital) versions of engraved stones, passed from hand to hand. “Every stone desires” (239), and even “catastrophe is entanglement” (65). This book teems with lists, questions, speculations, assertions, engagements, flows, collaborators, “appositives” (8) (!), histories, fictions, and emotions.

Ian with his fish

Ian with his fish

It’s also, more than any other academic study I can think of, a book about family. Every time Wendy, Katherine, and Alex appear — mostly, but not only, in the personal “Excursus” sections that punctuate and structure the volume — they seem to the reader welcome friends and standing stones, mobile but stable, spinning and moving and dancing. If Stone is about family, it also includes the vast imaginative families that Jeffrey Cohen and his many collaborators have gathered together at In the Middle, BABEL, punctum books, GW-MEMSI, and other venues, permanent or provisional. For the past five years or so, I’m been privileged and inspired to be a wandering early modernist among these mostly-medieval pilgrims. Like northern Saskatchewan, it’s a good place to be.

Ian and me in the boat

Ian and me in the boat


At its core, Stone seems to me a book that risks following metaphor all the way into materiality and seeing what comes out the other side. That’s an eco-critical project I’m also invested in, and one that I think needs pursuing in our age of ecological instability and change.

Putting my hand to the stitch in my scalp where the hook bit a few days ago, I wonder about comparable projects about fishing or swimming or writing. Academic imagination seeks and finds matter all around us, in a swirl of ecological curiosity and analytical pressure. Empedocles’s answer is still the best one: all things in this world, stones and families and fish and words and ideas, come together and part through Love and Strife.


The Anthrobscene by Jussi Parikka

2015-06-12 08.03.48This short book, one of U. Minnesota P’s new “Forerunners” series, is a great little one-nighter for those of us weighing Anthropocene thoughts. The Press blurb tells it — “This is gray literature publishing: where intense thinking, change, and speculation take place in scholarship.”

Jussi Parikka teaches aesthetic theory and technological culture at the Winchester School of Art in Southampton. His play on the age of Anthropos emphasizes the obscene nature of despoiling wild spaces:

To call it “anthrobscene” is just to emphasize what we knew but perhaps shied away from acting on: a horrific human-caused drive toward a sixth mass extinction of species (6).

It’s a book about media cultures and geology, with special attention to the history of resource extraction through mining. The best part is the careful layering and sedimentation of different modes: high theory, material history, literary responses. For Parikka, “deep time” functions “both as temporality and as geological materiality” (29).

He emphasizes the wide reach and complexity of contemporary geologic extraction:

We have shifted from being a society that until mid-twentieth century was based on a very restricted list of materials (wood, brick, iron, copper, gold, silver, and a few plastics) to one in which a computer chip is composed of 60 different elements (15).

Perhaps more pointedly:  iPhones are

“geological extracts,” drawing across the globe earth resources and supported by a multiplicity of infrastructures. The bits of earth you carry around … include material from the Red Dog pit mine in Alaska (zinc ores) which are then refined into indium in Trail, Canada (37).

He turns Pynchon-y at the end, with a conclusion about technologies of light in Against the Day (2007). Pynchon reads modernity as the amalgamation of alchemy + money: “Maybe capitalism decided it didn’t need the old magic anymore” (55; Against the Day 88).

Nice closing lines too:

Data mining might be a leading hype term for our digital age of the moment but it is enabled only by the sort of mining that we associate with the ground and its ungrounding. Digital culture starts in the depths and deep times of the planet. Sadly, the story is most often more obscene than something to be celebrated with awe. (56)


McElroy Shakespeare Celebration

Me speaking before the show

Me speaking before the show

It’s been almost a month since the McElroy Shakespeare Celebration at Loyola University in Chicago, and I’ve still got it buzzing in my head. Seeing a brilliant cast of six students, two professional actors, student techs, and a faculty director bring my blue and green eco-theories about The Winter’s Tale to a live stage was the sort of thing that happens seldom in an academic career.


The bear


The cast takes a bow




Statue scene

This post is partly a photo gallery, featuring images taken by Loyola grad student Lydia Craig.


Sheep-shearing scene

In putting my contrast between green pastoral stasis and blue oceanic dynamism into practice, the actors reminded me how much stage choices get expressed through human bodies, rather than — or perhaps in addition to — language. We professors have a habit of digging down into words, while actors use bodies. It’s another reason we should work together sometimes.

I saw the difference performance makes most clearly in the staging of the famous “great creating Nature” exchange between Perdita and Florizel. In the second, “blue” and disruptive version of the scene, I asked the actors to look for ways to move past harmony into dynamism. They responded with two great performance choices that I’ll think about each time I return to this scene. When Perdita offered Polixenes “flowers of middle summer” (4.4.107) after he has bullied her into agreeing with his homily about Art and Nature, he refused to accept them. The visible lack of harmony between the two actors accented the lack of intellectual agreement in their argument. A few lines later, a leering Camillo grabbed Perdita’s arm and held her close to him when he spoke of leaving off “grazing” and living “only by gazing” (4.4.129-30), were he of her flock. I could feel the threat in my front-row seat.

The performed exchange emphasized the unsolved conflict between Perdita’s vision of youthful promise and the older aristocrats’ insistence on artistic and political control.

I’m left feeling unsettled about the core exchange itself. Perdita’s refusal to hybridize flowers seems like an intellectual mistake; Polixenes’s argument for an “art / Which does mend Nature — change it rather — but / The art itself is Nature” (4.4.95-97) makes a strong rational case. But the play’s sympathies are overwhelmingly with the young lovers. Polixenes uses logic and poetry, but the play casts its lot with Perdita’s feeling.

She’s the “Queen of curds and cream” (4.4.161), but perhaps also, as Florizel describes her, a blue creature of the Bohemian coast:

When you do dance, I wish you

A wave o’th’sea, that you might ever do

Nothing but that, move still, still on,

And own no other function. (4.4.140-43)


Cast takes a bow

At some point I’ll try to untangle this play’s engagement with blue and green, error and Nature, logic and love. When I do, I’ll credit the McElroy Shakespeare Celebration for helping me.

The Clown rescues Perdita

The Clown rescues Perdita


Tis Pity by Red Bull at the Duke

PosterThe bloody half of my semester’s-end theater treat was Red Bull’s Tis Pity last night, back in the company’s old haunts at the Duke Theater on 42nd Street. Nothing like a high-spirited incest tragedy to send me off onto dark highways heading home. I’m feeling a bit sentimental, not to mention tired, today. Classes are over, spring and all is here – heart on my sleeve, perhaps, or on a knife’s point, take your pick…

The Red Bull Theater, one of my favorite local NYC companies, is dedicated to bringing (mostly) non-Shakespearean 17c plays to modern stages. John Ford’s gruesome send-up of Romeo and Juliet — let’s see what happens if we make them brother and sister?! — plays to the company’s strengths: clarity, forcefulness, a dazzlingly consistent and brilliant cast.  It’s hard not to have a special appreciation for Everett Quinton, a stage veteran who was a mainstay at Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company. In this show he played the oily Signor Donado, whose foppish son Bergetto, gleefully camped up by Ryan Garbayo, has no chance of getting the girl. But really the entire cast was fantastic. The assembled suitors of the lovely Annabella (Amelia Pedlow) were each distinct types: dashing Lord Soranzo (Clifton Duncan), foolish Bergetto, the violent soldier Grimaldi (Tramell Tillman).

Brother and sister

Brother and sister

The bloody heart of any production of this play is the incestuous couple, and here I was struck by the difference between Red Bull’s show and an excellent version of the play by London-based Cheek by Jowl that I saw at BAM in 2012. In the 2012 version, the set was all interior: we spent the night in Annabella’s bedroom. In Red Bull’s version, we were outside on the street, surrounded by corruption. The bed appeared from behind a stage recess for only two scenes: the couple’s first night together, and the scene in which Giovanni kills his sister before cutting out her heart and carrying with him on a bloody dagger up to the play’s end. Red Bull always works in and as a company, distributing our attention almost evenly around the busy stage. Their focus wasn’t only on the lovers.

That’s not to say that Amelia Pedlow’s Annabella and Matthew Amendt’s Giovanni weren’t compelling and disturbing. But for many scenes, especially early in the play, the central pair stood off to the side while Ford’s cartoonish Italy displayed its decadent wares. Giovanni especially seemed slightly less stage-filling than his rival suitors, though that’s perhaps because he only needed to woo for a few early scenes.

Cheek by Jowl’s production ended with Annabella’s ghost holding her brother’s hand, but that level of sentimental sympathy wasn’t the point in Red Bull’s version. A brilliant small-part turn by Rocco Sisto as the corrupt Cardinal who eagerly hoovered up money for the Pope’s coffers provided this production’s center. This  play’s theatrical Italy was a social maze of greed and predation that chewed up any and all lovers. The Cardinal gleefully closed the play by pronouncing judgment on Annabella’s corpse:

Annabella's marriage

Annabella’s marriage

Of one so young, so rich in nature’s store,

Who could not say, ‘tis pity she’s a whore?

Listening to Ford’s language, I kept hearing the special charge on certain words: heart, fate, lust, love. I was even more impressed this time around by the play itself, a dark meditation on and extension of Romeo and Juliet.

My favorite line was from Bergetto, with just the right mix of philosophy and farce

Time’s a blockhead. (3.5)

Soranzo and Annabella

Soranzo and Annabella

Go see it before it closes on May 16!


Fiasco’s Two Gents at Tfana

2-gents-artwork-websiteThe first half of my classes-are-over theater treat was Fiasco Theater’s high-spirited romp of Two Gents, playing at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn. Perfect for a festive May Day!

If you love her, you cannot see her. (2.1)

Played with intriguing cross-casting — the true lover Valentine was also Crab the beloved but ill-mannered dog! — by just six actors with some judicious cuts, this production was fast, happy, and funny. Leaving Sir Eglamour on the cutting room floor, it presented the classic love parallelogram, in which Proteus loves Julia, Valentine loves Sylvia, then changeable Proteus mirrors his best friend’s affections by turning to Sylvia, etc, etc.

The full cast

The full cast

She woos you by a figure. (2.1)

Part of the charge of this early play is watching the young Shakespeare try out tricks he’ll later deepen, from sea voyages, which here inexplicably ferry the lovers from Verona to Milan, to wandering disguised lovers to sudden jealousy. Stage business involving torn letters, a glove, and the scene-stealing dog guide the paper-thin plot raft forward.

I am the dog. No, the dog is himself, and I am the dog. Oh! the dog is me, and I am myself. (2.3)

The servant Launce’s devotion to his dog, in whose stead he is whipped and beaten, set a high bar for the less constant human lovers. Having Crab played by a human actor, unlike the trained pooch I saw in Stratford last summer, focused this idealistic mirror. Are Launce and Crab the most devoted couple in all of Shakespeare?

I know him as myself. (2.4)

The two gents of the title lose themselves in a Rene Girard-esque tangle of emulation, love, and friendship. If I love my friend as myself and now he loves her, how can I not love her too? Proteus’s egotism tips him into betrayal, while Valentine’s constancy exiles him repeatedly, first to Milan and later to an unexpectedly hospitable forest. To know some other person, friend or lover, “as myself” may be to know only “slenderly,” as a daughter in a later play with a sharper view of human nature observes.

Andy Groteleuschen as Launce and Zachary Fine as Crab  (Photo NY Post)

Andy Groteleuschen as Launce and Zachary Fine as Crab
(Photo NY Post)

…discourse of disability (2.4)

Shakespeare’s only use of the word “disability” comes in this play, in reference to Proteus’s pleas to Sylvia that he is “too mean” for such a noble lady. The juxtaposition of discourse and disability suggests that the play probes the capacities and lacks of language in relation to emotion. What if we can never say just what we feel?

I cannot now prove constant to myself. (2.6)

The tangled plot of the first half of the play should have been easy to untie — every gent goes back to the first lady he loved — but it turned violent. The exiled bandits turned out to be friendly and Proteus’s last-minute attempt to rape Sylvia was interrupted, but the happy ease of the first half of the plays went into exile with Launce and Crab.

The hardest part to stage, I think, is Valentine’s offer of “all that was mine in Sylvia” to his treacherous and violent friend. In a rare miss of an on-stage connection, Zachary Fine’s Valentine did not look at Sylvia when he tried to give her away. This good-hearted production couldn’t bear to show it.

The problem here, I think, was the dramatic insufficiency of the transformation that preceded the misogynistic offer. Proteus mouthed the pieties of repentance, albeit in the conditional: “if hearty sorrow / Be a sufficient ransom for offense, / I tender’t here” (5.4). I didn’t feel it in the first row, and I’m not convinced Shakespeare did either.

Zachary Fine and Noah Brody as the Two Gents

Zachary Fine and Noah Brody as the Two Gents

Repentance was a central trope of late sixteenth-century English theology, and also a key narrative feature of the Elizabethan prose romances that Shakespeare drew on in many plays. (I wrote a book about those romances in 2006, with special attention to the king of repentance, Robert Greene.) I think Shakespeare recognized in the awkward ending of Two Gents that simple repentance was undramatic. His plays present change perhaps more than any other thing — but the simple pieties of repentance tend to be relegated to off stage moments, as with Oliver and Duke Frederick in As You Like It, another play directly tied to Elizabethan prose fiction.

I might say more about repentance on stage at some point — I’ve got a proposal in to Blackfriars 2015 about the faux-conversion of Autolycus in The Winter’s Tale  – but in this play it gives a slightly bitter twist to a wonderful romp. The sour taste doesn’t last, but it’s noticeable.

Get down to Fort Greene to catch this one before May 24!

Photo Sara Krulwich New York Times

Photo Sara Krulwich
New York Times


Othello by Titan Theatre Company

2015-04-24 19.00.06 copyRoughly seven hours before the curtain went up on the Titan Theatre’s all-female Othello, I was talking with my brilliant graduate student Tara Bradway about how she prepares to play male roles, including most recently Shakespeare’s King Richard II. (Check out her fabulous Adirondack Shakespeare Company & go see their plays if you’re upstate!) She insisted that female bodies should and can play male parts, and although she talked about a few physical tricks that she used — changing her walk, the way she held her arms, etc — basically her claim was that women can play all the parts, just as men (and boys) did in Shakespeare’s own company.

I didn’t know that conversation would be such good preparation for seeing Titan’s Othello later that night at the lovely Queens Theatre in the middle of Corona Park, in the shadow of the historic New York State Pavilion, built for the 1964-65 World’s Fair. 2015-04-24 18.58.10 copy

In Lenny Banovez’s production, women played all the roles as women. Instead of insisting, as most same-sex productions do, that any body can play any part as written, this production dug into the language and feminized (almost) everything: Brabantio became Desdemona’s “mother,” all pronouns were “she” and “her,” and in a few cases the language was re-structured to avoid sex-specific terms. (No “circumcised dog” in this version of Othello’s last speech.) They kept “Lord” as a term of rank, and a few sirs, and I heard one (perhaps mistaken?) reference to Othello’s father, who gave his mother the “antique token” of the handkerchief (5.2). While they did not feminize any of the Italian names — it remained Othello and Cassio, as opposed to Emilia and Desdemona — the single-gender fiction seemed determined and almost complete. There were two different kinds of female performers on stage, some in boots and pants and carrying swords, the others unarmed,  in dresses, wearing sandals or soft shoes. But they were all women.

Laura Fray as Iago and Leah Gabriel as Roderigo. (Photo Queens Gazette)

Laura Fray as Iago and Leah Gabriel as Roderigo. (Photo Queens Gazette)

The result was strange, more disorienting that I would have thought, and a powerful reminder of how thoroughly gendered English speech and stage conventions are. I’m not quite sure what I think about it — I remember disliking Helen Mirren’s performance as “Prospera,” the maternal mage at the center of Julie Taymor’s film The Tempest, though I think not because of the gender gambit. In places the shift felt awkward, though perhaps a good reminder of how thoroughly we’ve naturalized English’s gender conventions. I spent much of the show thinking about a world without men, and about how the play’s mix of jealousy, violence, and attachment changes in an all-female world.

The night’s revelation was Laura Frye’s Iago. Especially in the first half of the play, she charmed with stage presence and charisma. The motive hunting soliloquies were playful, inviting, even flirtatious —

I know not if’t be true

But I for mere suspicion in that kind

Will do as if for surety. (1.3.87-89).

Leah Dutchin as Othello and Laura Frye as Iago. (Photo Queens Gazette)

Leah Dutchin as Othello and Laura Frye as Iago. (Photo Queens Gazette)

As the play grew more violent and entangled in its plots — the direction was fast, the cuts numerous, and the action sudden, with actors waiting in chairs onstage ready to re-enter as fast as they could — Iago turned. I thought of Tamora, Queen of the Goths in Titus, which I saw with my students this past winter. I wondered about the gendered conventions of stage villainy. Is it sexist to find a female Iago less empathetic than the hearty soldier we’re used to? Did Frye’s blazing smile, and her barely contained loathing of the more typically feminine Emilia and Desdemona, collude with a deep misogynist fantasy that wants to keep women away from certain kinds of power even in our supposedly feminist age?

As I watched this Iago I worried about Hillary Clinton and what our culture feels when we see powerful women.

Perhaps the female Othello should have occupied this thought more directly, but I didn’t find Leah Dutchin’s performance quite as compelling as did the Queens Gazette. She spoke the Othello music with authority, and the romance-inflected “story of my life” passage to Brabantio was gorgeous, but she could not really compete for center stage with Iago. Dutchin’s Moor seemed a bit over-matched, as I suppose Othello always does when faced with Iago. I don’t think it was the gender switch that diminished the general — though it is true that her rage does not fit easily into the Medea-frame through which we tend to read murderous female jealousy.

Publicity Poster

Publicity Poster

Sierra Tothero as Desdemona (Photo Queens Gazette)

Emily Trask as Desdemona (Photo Queens Gazette)

The text was chopped and compressed, including moving the great exchange of vows between Othello and Iago from the play’s middle (3.3) to quite a bit later during the second half of the action. One striking change that I did not like was treating Othello’s wounding of Iago in the final scene as a death-wound, so that the villain’s “I bleed, sir, but not killed” (5.2.285) seemed false bravado. At the final curtain the fatal bed held four bodies: smothered Desdemona, stabbed Emilia, self-stabbed Othello, but also Iago, clinging to her last breaths. Iago’s final lines are among the most chilling in all of Shakespeare —

Demand me nothing. What you know, you know.

From this time forth I never will speak word (5.2.300-01)

I missed the violent independence that I think those lines demand.

But I was pleased to make the acquaintance of the Titans in their new home at the Queens Theatre. Get into Corona Park before the run ends on May 2!


“Cry, Trojans” by The Wooster Group

PosterThinking about this play today, I hear the first word in the gravel-mouthed syllables of Martin Prochazka, a great Czech Shakespearean who I first met at a bar in Prague about four years ago:


That’s what it’s all about. Or at least that’s what I thought about after seeing this show at St. Ann’s on March 27 with an eager dozen or so of my students.

Without digging too deeply in Deluezian & Guattarian weeds, the deterratorializing impulse in The Wooster’s Group’s latest (and third) iteration of Troilus and Cressida, now entitled “Cry, Trojans,” organizes this still-bizarre but unexpectedly streamlined version of their Red Indian take on the Trojan half of Shakespeare’s Trojan war play. Casting Trojans as Native Americans, whose costumes and stage dancing inhabited visual cliches made manifest in the “spirit guide” video monitors arranged on the four corners of the stage, relocated classical heroism into a landscape at once prehistoric and celluloid. Ben Brantley didn’t like it, but he didn’t try very hard to figure it out.

I’ve been thinking and writing about this production for several years. I saw it first in Stratford in 2012, at the International Shakespeare Conference, and then a second time in the bitter cold in January 2013, downtown at the Performing Garage. That was a workshop production, in preparation for the current run at St Ann’s in Brooklyn.2015-03-27 20.00.23

You’d think after three evenings with these Woosters I’d have a pretty good sense of what’s happening. But the strangeness lingers.

Deterratorialization works to unsettle, even unmoor familiar associations. What are we left with when we watch a story of the Trojan War with no Greeks and Trojans who spend their time starting a video screens we the audience can’t see very well?

My experience of this Wooster production makes me hyper-aware of how theater requires us to parse out attention, looking now as Scott Shepard’s stoic Troilus, now at Kate Valk’s erotic and playful Cressida, sometimes at the video monitors showing Splendor in the Grass or The Fast Runner. Where’s the right place to put your attention? Watching this play means deterratorializing your eyes.

The second word is mediation. This term has become my Wooster-watchword, first pronounced in 2012 to a pint-quaffing gathering of mostly hostile Shakespeare professors at The Dirty Duck, the Stratford pub where we gathered after seeing the 2012 production of this play, in which the Woosters’ Trojans stage-fought against the heroic stalwarts of the Royal Shakespeare Company. “It’s extreme mediation,” I said to the skeptics. “That’s what the screens do. It’s how we live today. What do we all look at when we stare at our tiny beloved screens?”

After the workshop in the Garage last winter, I managed to get Liz Lecompte, the play’s director and co-founder of the Wooster Group, on the phone. I spun her my theory that their production sliced most of the epic warfare off this love-and/as-war play, so that the alienating moves almost but not quite prevented our access to the core melodrama. I said I thought Pandarus’s song was the key thing: “Love, love, Nothing but love…”

(It turns out the the love-and-violence subplot of the play extended to the original cast back in 2012, according to the Times.)

They cut most of that song in the new version, and in a few ways that streamlining unsettled the emotional reading I gave the play in 2013. The 2015 version was a clearer, more foreceful Cry, Trojans than what we saw in the Garage — the playbill is, especially for the Woosters, a model of clarity — but perhaps also a darker one.

Kate Valk as Cressida (Photo from NY Times)

Kate Valk as Cressida (Photo from NY Times)

My students were shocked that the love scene pantomimed rape, with Troilus scooping Cressida over his shoulder and running in circles while she flailed with her fists and wailed — not with full emotional force, perhaps, but in a kind of symbolic dance. After he put her back on her feet, she pronounced the invitation that scandalized the play’s Victorian editors:

Will you walk in, my lord?

In Valk’s pouty delivery, this line does to Troilus what he’s just done to her by carrying her across his shoulder: embarrasses with raw eroticism. Her sexuality unnerves him, assails him, and the two, like the gorgeous doomed lovers played by Warren Beaty and Natalie wood on the monitors, have their once-separate selves over-written by the roaring waterfall of eros. There seems no more choice in their passion than in Cressida’s later ambivalent yielding to Diomedes in the Greek camp. Love is not choice but submission to a story that writes the self, not a story we can write ourselves.

(Speaking a story we can’t write ourselves, the Woosters invited me to do a short dialogue about the play earlier this spring — but when my train ran late, they went on without me. Oh well. I have answers for those questions, if the occasion ever re-arises…)

Greg Mehrten as Pandarus

Greg Mehrton as Pandarus

This darker and more entangled extrapolation of the love plot makes the central figure of the play not so much either of the lovers but the go-between, Pandarus. As played by Greg Mehrten, who also plays King Priam and, briefly, the satiric Greek Thersites, the “sleazy uncle” (as my students called him) occupied the uncomfortable heart of the drama. In an atypical move for Shakespeare, this figure of moderate rank gets the last word at play’s end, and bequeaths that audience his “diseases.”

When I teach that moment I like to talk about Troilus as satire, exposing the elite martial codes and the plays that celebrate them, including among others Shakespeare’s Henry V. But this time through I also felt Pandarus spoke for the lost lovers and the meet cute during wartime plot he’d almost smuggled past the epic censors. What if his sleazy love-plot is the disease, and we’ve all caught it? They may have mostly cut his song but I still heard it when I was driving home on midnight highways —


Scott Shepherd as Troilus

“Love, love, nothing but love…”

Running through April 19th in DUMBO!


Transition, Scale, and Catastrophe @ GW MEMSI 3/20/15

transition poster w correct dateThe walls didn’t fall. No flood, nor fire. The AV worked smoothly for everyone, and we even had time to luxuriate twice in Lynn Tomlinson’s gorgeous animated short film, The Ballad of Holland Island House. The bar did run out of dark rum, but by that time of night it was hard to call that a catastrophe.

So what about last Friday’s symposium makes me feel stretched, exhausted, exhilarated but also vulnerable like an oyster without a shell?

In the middle of my talk I quoted Primo Levi on almost but not quite getting right to the heart of the matter, unlocking impossible questions — what are transition, scale, and catastrophe, really? — with no working tools other than words:

Perhaps, despite the wan translation and the pedestrian, rushed commentary, he has received the message, he has felt that it has to do with him, that it has to do with all of us who toil, and with we two in particular, who dare to reason of these things with the poles for soup on our shoulders (114).

His story of Dante and the whirlpool ends the same place as Lynn’s film —

And over our heads the hollow seas closed up (114).

 We went there, but not to stay.

It’s hard to reassemble it all now, the “fierce joy” and collective willingness to play and imagine together. I remember some stray lines, rushed into coherence with a borrowed pen. I’ll stick them here like the petroleum-based clay Lynn used to build her animated house: shapes brought together into structure. A series of alternatives to the catastrophic turns that fell to the ground outside as over-large flakes of wet, late-season snow:

Karl Steel: “as optimistically as possible” “post-agentic optimism” (the latter is my phrase but Karl’s insight)

Stephanie LeManager:  “an archive of sensory knowledge” “calling out witnesses” “weathering” (I wanted to ask more about the last term)

Lynn Tomlinson: “animate art” “jellyfish feel nostalgia for the age of humans”

Anne Harris: “every work of art is a remembered ecological crisis”

Stacy Alaimo: “thinking the Anthropocene at sea”

Me: “Something always washes up on the beach”

Those words don’t get it. Not quite. Lynn’s film comes closer, from its seagull opening to the flash of the yellow perch entering the flooded house near the end: finding home in a post-catastrophic world.

Lynn's Perch

These things depend on so much that I can’t write down: on gesture, tone, community, a shared willingness to imagine. Oysters are allegories, and also exposed asymmetrical flesh, salt and patient. We all depended on Jeffrey Cohen‘s ring-master timing, bringing us forward, two by two. On the generosity of the audience. On asking ourselves to change in response to others.

The running gag during the lead-up to the symposium was that we were courting Catastrophe: that was the subject line of weeks of emails. Catastrophe is coming to DC! But for me the best things about this too-soon-over event weren’t the sudden turns of insight or brilliance, though those will linger and inform my thinking for days and years to come. Best of all were the unexpected transitions, the “anamorphic breaks” laid bare by Anne’s brilliant discussion of The Ambassadors, the possibility that an entire other thing might be there, waiting for us, visible if we only allow our eyes to turn, just so, a little more, close one eye to focus: there it is!

What we glimpsed wasn’t Holbein’s allegorical skull. Something else. Something better?

Such a pleasure to gather at GW MEMSI to reason of these things! Holbein