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:



management (mainly used of forests, sometimes of fisheries)






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


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.





  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….






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 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!



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)


We’ll also be joined by St. John’s Professor Elizabeth Albert and the editors of, 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


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!



Globe 2016: Shrew and Macbeth

Last night put the bow on UK theater for this summer: 6 plays in eight nights, working around a couple WSC receptions and family vacation. The last two nights I was at the Globe, sitting down in that theater for the first time, since I usually buy the cheap yard tickets. The stage looks really great from the upper deck, it turns out.

ShrewAn Irish Shrew

I heard the Irish director Caroline Byrne on Saturday morning talk to the WSC about her production of Shrew, set during the Easter 1916 rising in Ireland. She talked about how Irish women had been airbrushed out of the history of 1916, and also out of the commemorations in 2016. She told the assembled academics that in this play directors get paid for Kate’s final speech, and also that she wanted her play to take a stand for equality.

I kept wondering how she would pull it off, given that the language of that long, complex, sometimes maddening speech celebrates subjection and passivity — “A woman moved is a fountain troubled” — and ends with Kate laying her hand beneath her husband’s foot. The most striking innovations of Byrne’s staging of Shrew spliced in an Irish liberty ballad that drew on Yeats’s “Easter 1916” into the text. Aofie Duffin’s fiery Kate opened and closed the play by singing the ballad, and I couldn’t help but think that in returning to it at the moment Kate’s long speech ended registered the production’s slight distrust of the early modern material. I like the idea of a performance of this speech that really makes a play for equality: it’s important that Kate lectures and dominates the other wives, that she wins a tidy sum for herself and Petruchio in the bet that, just maybe, Grumio has had time to tell her about offstage, and that she speaks the longest and most rhetorically compelling speech in the play. Can that be enough to redeem the speech in a feminist age? I’m still not sure, and this production didn’t quite let me find out.

Petruchio had lost his voice the night I saw the show, which was in fact the very last show of the run. Edward MacLiam carried himself well, but his growling laddish brutality wore thin pretty quickly. I’m somewhat attached to a reading of the play in which Petruchio finds in Kate’s wit and aggression a match for his own intelligence and lack of care for social norms — but this production played the misogyny pretty straight.

The most reliable bits in this show were the subplot and the servants. All the servant parts were played by women, thus emphasizing the patriarchal structure of the social world, but the servants were often able to resist, reconfigure, or otherwise re-route the power structures under which they served. In the tragic romance main plot, with its echoes of Irish revolutionary tragedy, that mobility was hard to find.

Wordless Macbethmacbeth

I have a strange feeling — perhaps more in the nature of a forlorn hope — that there may have been some compelling interpretive choices in Iqbal Khan’s staging of Macbeth. But the acting was so terrible — so frankly and shockingly incompetent at times — that it was hard to think about the stylized witches, the nameless boy who never spoke but ended up preceding Malcolm to the throne, and the interesting stage business with the center-stage pit and the yard. Or maybe I liked those things because they meant that at least for a while neither Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, nor Duncan were speaking?

I really don’t understand why these actors spoke so strangely, with widely varied pacing and at times meaning-destroying pauses between words. They rushed past such lines as “Unsex me here” and “Make the green one red” as if they had someplace they needed to be. I understand wanting to try to remake or individualize these old chestnuts, but in practice they just seemed erased.

The play was full of shouting, dearest chuck! I suppose we have to blame those sorts of things on the director, unless we assume he was distracted with his larger stylistic choices and just forgot to listen to his actors? Alas, I couldn’t quite mange that myself.

The silent child was never explained, but perhaps gestures toward Lady Macbeth’s lines about nursing (spoken at an incomprehensible roar). The boy’s presence on stage added some drama or at least mystery — but it didn’t add up to much in the end.

Oh well — not all productions work. I’d thought for a while that I’d never seen a bad production at the Globe, because the audience engagement pulled everything up to at least the level of good fun. Didn’t quite get there this time.

The Porter was great fun, and the Malcolm/Macduff scene was nicely played, as well as being a welcome break from the lead actors.

No plays for the rest of my travels — but some good things will be coming to New York in the fall!




WSC 2016, Day 3: Alchemist and Faustus

alchemistWhat is theater if it’s not a con, a gull, a way of looking at things and people and seeing something other than what they are?

The Alchemist was Olivia’s and my favorite of this year’s Stratford plays. With a large, uniformly excellent cast headlined by Ken Nwosu as Face, Mark Lockyer at Subtle, and Siobhan McSweeny as Doll — the trio of reprobates who play while Master Lovewit is away — it’s the purest fun we’ve seen on stage so far. Olivia was especially taken by Joshua McCord’s Dapper, the lawyer’s clerk who at one point in the second half of the play was forgotten in a back room of the house until he chewed through his gag to remind Face that he was supposed to have an interview with the Faerie Queene. Doll’s cynical and magical turn did not disappoint. My favorite was probably Ian Bedford’s Sir Epicure Mammon, whose visions of global plenty — dolphin’s milk, rivers of gold, silver only for giving to beggars — distracted him even from his assignation with Doll. The half-dozen or so subplots crossed and converged in the fast-paced second act, with the return of formerly absent Lovewit eventually leading Face to resume his servant’s name, Jeremy, while Doll and Subtle hot-footed it over the back gate.

Face wasn’t quite done with us — he introduced the epilogue by flashing some RSC tickets, and counting up the total take in the house was that night. “Thirty-five quid each for the ground level,” he grinned. It came to quite a sum, though he didn’t reveal the full accounting, and he didn’t push the point too hard. We the audience were happy gulls, perhaps open-eyed gulls — but each time the curtain rises the money flows only one way, out of our wallets. It didn’t really darken a joyful production, but it left us thinking.

What is theater if it’s not a dream of power, a vision of unearthly beauty, a gamble that might be worth its price?faustus

Maria Aberg’s direction of Faustus was the most conceptually ambitious  of the four Stratford plays. Part dance, part fantasia, and occasionally a penetrating dive into ambition as an impossible dream, the play began with two actors facing each other, striking matches, and waiting to see whose will go out first. As I understand it, based partly on the wisdom of the pub, whoever’s match burns down first plays Faustus, and the other Mephistophilis. I don’t know if the actors can tip the scales or take turns somehow. We saw Sandry Grierson as Faustus and Oliver Ryan as Mephistophilis, though I kept imagining what it would have been like the other way round. Striking moments included the pageant of Seven Deadly Sins and, perhaps most of all, Faustus’s slow painting of the magical star-in-circle design onto the center of the stage floor, his labors standing in for the conversion of the scholarly books he tossed aside at the play’s opening into necromantic visions of power.

The other shocking bit was the appearance of perhaps 12-year old Jade Croot  as Helen of Troy, the final gift Faustus asks Mephistophilis to bring him. (UPDATE: I’ve been assured she is at least 16, as required by UK child labor laws, since she performs every night.) Croot is a young theatrical pro, with stage productions of Oliver, Grease, Les Mis, and TV’s Doctor Who to her credit already — but the staging n of a young girl as the greatest temptress in literary history was hard to watch, especially since I was sitting next to my own 13-year old daughter in the theater! The Helen-Faustus pas de deux was very carefully staged: she had lots of agency and stage power, and the dance ended up not eroticizing their relationship, and perhaps emphasizing that Faustus could not access anything like real love. At the end I wasn’t quite sure why Helen was a child, despite the power of the scene.

I did think that this Faustus, like last night’s Hamlet, was a play about deep & unquenchable loneliness. No one could touch either the Danish Prince or the German magus onstage. What did Faustus really want from Mephistophilis, as his hour neared and he grew more and more frantic? Human connection was the thing he could not even name, from the start of the play when he rejected all forms of non-magical learning to the drama’s end when his demon-servant came to claim Lucifer’s reward. Non-human Mephistophilis was all that remained to the doomed Doctor, and the kiss that fallen angel gave to the dying man came just after midnight, too late, too inhuman. That perhaps unfelt kiss made a powerful ending to the play, partly because the chance for real emotional fulfillment seems to have been just missed.

Heading for London today, where Shrew and Macbeth wait at the Globe!


WSC, Day 2: Hamlet

RSC HamletPaapa Essiedu’s antic scenes as Hamlet were amazing. Powerful, graceful, physical, unpredictable, his presence at the heart of  the RSC’s anniversary-year Hamlet created real urgency and danger in what was (I must admit) a pretty long-feeling production. Once he put his antic disposition on, with the help of an inventive paint-smeared costume, he pulled away from the other actors into his own private manic dance.

It’s a play about a solitary melancholic, but I thought it was telling that only one of the two soldiers on watch in the first scene seemed to have met the Prince before. This Hamlet wasn’t easy to know. Ophelia showed us love letters and even an “H & O” hand-painted t-shirt, but she couldn’t reach him either.

In those mad moments and the soliloquies, Essiedu’s Hamlet was gorgeous and inventive, powerful to watch. I did wonder a bit about the old-fashioned “objective correlative” business, in that it was hard to believe that this Hamlet could have loved his father (or anyone) as much as he professed. In general, he seemed brilliant but loveless and deeply unattached: the eventual graveyard expostulation, “I loved Ophelia,” came across as a bit unconvincing. Who was there?

But perhaps that flatness emerged because the graveyard scene came after Hamlet replaced his madness with a red wool knit cap of sanity, having returned from the pirates, condemned his treacherous friends Rozencrantz and Guildenstern, and apparently believing his own Providentialist boilerplate about the fall of a sparrow. I tend to see this final Hamlet as still violent and unstable, but that wasn’t apparent in this production, at least not until the (quite striking and visually great) stick-fighting-as-swordplay scene.

Of the surrounding players, I though Gertrude was very weak and unconnected to the other figures on stage. (I admit I missed the closet scene, b/c I was bringing Olivia home at the interval. Too much nihilism for her!) Ophelia started well, in a winningly comic fashion with her father and brother, but her mad songs, which should be heart-wrenching, didn’t for me match Hamlet’s preceding insanity. The prince who was but mad in craft put her in shadow.

There was a moment in the final scene, when Laertes and Hamlet have been cut with venomed blades and Gertrude has drunk the poison, in which Claudius stood alone on stage, caught as his villainy was being revealed. I had the odd sensation that in that short gap of time, he should run: none of the wounded men could have caught him, and surely the guards would remain loyal to their sovereign. I spotted Clarence Smith, who played Claudius, at the pub after the show and almost asked him about it — but I figured that would have been a bit obnoxious. “Have your ever thought about just running offstage just before Hamlet gets up…?”

The other performance I loved in this production was Cyril Nri as Polonius. Some of the air that went out of the second half of the play for me had to do with missing his stage presence and (admittedly forced) cohesiveness. I’m becoming increasingly interested in Polonius as an alternative center in the play; he presents distinctive theories of acting, of genre, and of politics. Does that make me sound like the old suburban Dad that I am? Yesterday I liked Cloten, today Polonius. What is Stratford doing to me?


WSC, Day 1: Cymbeline

The thought snuck up on me last night while I was watching. It’s not the sort of thing one likes to admit. Probably if I’d made it to the pub I’d have been argued out of it, but I needed to bring my daughter Olivia back to the B&B, and it was raining, and I wanted to be able to get up and swim this morning — which I did, despite lingering jet lag.

Maybe it’s just #slatepitchy and counter-intuitive, or an attempt to find some clarity in a wildly digressive production (paper dolls! dialogue in Latin, French, and Italian! Cymbeline as a Queen!), but I’ve never before seen a Cymbeline in which I was so sympathetic to Cloten. He actually underplayed his nativist faux-Brexit rhetoric, which uncomfortably transforms John of Gaunt’s rousing patriotism into small-minded farce. But — and perhaps this is testament to a somewhat uncentered show — watching last night I found Cloten’s politics felt equally as compelling (or not) as the bland internationalism of Posthumus and Caius Lucius. What, I wondered, if this play were really performed for Leave voters, or Trumpkins on holiday? Could Cloten be the failed hero? They didn’t go all the way there  last night, but I had the strange feeling that they weren’t that far from it.

It’s not possible to sympathize with Cloten all the way through. He’s a fool, an attempted murderer, and he dies aspiring to a rape he can never get himself into position to attempt. But, as Olivia reminded me, in his violence and misogyny he’s not very different from his rival Posthumus. Each of these two men thinks Innogen has chosen another. Posthumus reacts by ordering her death, Cloten by chasing her into Wales with intent to ravish. Why is it that we prefer the first suitor again?

Olivia also observed that last night’s Cloten had “nice hair.” I’m sure she and I are both responding to Marcus Griffeths’s oddly cast physical charisma, which made Cloten overshadow Posthumus. I imagine the RSC will find some better parts for him soon!

In my Cloten-centric speculation, I wonder if the play might suggest that both British chauvinism and Roman internationalism are bad? Not equally so, perhaps, but…

Olivia also observed that of Innogen’s suitors, the only one who took no for an answer was Iachimo, who never quite assaults or attacks her, despite his creepy leering while she’s asleep. Maybe, Olivia suggested, Imogen should dump both Posthumus and Cloten, smooch a bit with pretty Iachimo, and then run off into the woods and be a bad ass with her Welsh siblings. A Katniss Everdeen revision of Shakespeare?

The brother-and-sister pair of pastoral heroes, the elder of whom kills Cloten and tosses his bloody clod pole into a mountain stream, suggest that there are better nativisims than Cloten’s, or the 21c nativisms of assorted orange-maned clowns on either side of the Atlantic.  It struck me last night that the off-stage moment when Guideria/us cut off Cloten’s head without knowing his identity has a political subtext, in which a natural Britain decapitates the island’s false heir. The Welsh foresters who are here long-lost siblings seem better matches for Innogen than any of the courtly characters — except possibly for Caius Lucius, to whom she sidled up to toward the end of the very long final scene during which I lost sight of Posthumus entirely for some time.

Cloten wasn’t there, of course, since he died in the previous act. But Queen Cymbeline’s ambivalent back and forth with Rome, Britain’s military victory, the return of her heirs from their pastoral education, and the general mayhem of this play’s over-plottedness suggested — at least to me, at least a little bit — that we missed his awkward voicing of patriotism. Just a little bit.

I doubt that any staging of Cymbeline will ever want to go fully pro-Cloten. But amid the whirl of this messy production, I saw a different side of the buffoon. That, plus a wonderfully clear and moving performance by Bethan Culinane as Innogen, made a nice start to this week in Stratford.