Three Phases of #NCS14 in Iceland

Me swimming between tectonic plates at Silfra

Diving between tectonic plates at Silfra

The panel was on ice, but the trip was surrounded by water in all phases. This post is mostly photos, with stops in gas, solid, and liquid.

Mist @ Guilfoss

Iceland teems with waterfalls, and once you’ve spent even a little time driving around the country it’s hard to work up the energy to stop for another one. But Guilfoss — the Golden Falls — is the best. It roars down off the central highlands a little northeast from Þingvellir, where the Icelandic Parliament has been meeting since 930, though only ceremonially in recent years.



The waterfall is really two falls, with a sharp turn in between them, and the second cascade disappearing into mist. It’s a place of raw elemental power, water surging within the rocky border it slowly erodes — but what I remember is the cold mist on my face and hands. Pulverized water in the air.

The island is built on magma and its economy runs on hot water, but in places like Guilfoss the force of water is visible, tangible, audible.

Ice @ Solheimajokull

"Hugh Willoughby Talks to the Seafarer about ice"

“Hugh Willoughby Talks to the Seafarer about ice”

The day before we’d been walking near Vatnajokull and had heard the glacier rumble, like thunder but intimate and hidden, tantalizingly close. We didn’t hear anything as we ice-scholars walked in a group up Solheimajokull but we could feel the ice living. Oddur Sigurdson, the glaciologist who accompanied us, told the history of science’s discovery that ice flows like other forms of water. He also explained the features of

The family gets geo-thermal at the Blue Lagoon

The family gets geo-thermal at the Blue Lagoon

the glacier as we walked up them, including cone-like formations covered with fine black volcanic ash and deadly moulin sink-holes, the edges of which we carefully avoided.

The ice was wet and covered in places with volcanic grit, twin testaments to forces working to minimize its presence: volcanic heat from below, and solar radiation from above. Oddur recalled that there will be no glaciers 200 years from now in Iceland, but to emphasize the mass of ice on our planet, he reported that if we assembled all the nuclear weapons on the planet and exploded them beneath the Antarctic ice shelf, only 1% of the total ice would be destroyed.

My paper for the next morning was partly about loving ice as it kills you, and while walking up the glacier I wanted to write it all over again, though I’m not sure what exactly I would have changed.

On the way down, I struck up a conversation with Jonno, our Malysian ice guide, who is a Himalayan climber who’s climbed on the Lhotze Face and trained with Rob Hall’s company, though he joined them after Hall’s death on Everest in 1996, as chronicled by Krakauer in Into Thin Air.

The ice panel on Solheimajokull

The ice panel on Solheimajokull

Water @ Silfra

The narrow canyons of Silfra, near Þingvellir, show the tectonic plates separating the American from the Eurasian continents. Their water is fed by the glacier above, and it takes 35 years for the melt to filter slowly downhill. The result is perfectly clear, cold (2 degrees C) water. It’s become a  destination site for scuba enthusiasts. I went for a snorkel with my son Ian and niece Maddie.

I’d never worn a dry suit before, and by far the hardest part of the adventure was getting into harness. The rubber gaskets at my wrists and neck chafed tight, and we also wore a quilted jump-suit underneath. But it kept us (mostly) warm and (mostly) dry, though my hands, in 7mm neoprene mittens, got cold, as did the

Ian thinking about (on) millennia old ice

Ian thinking about (on) millennia old ice

exposed skin of my face.

But the water in Silfra was a blue I’ve never seen through before.

It was an amazing thing to swim there, look down, and know that I was looking into no continent. There was a sandy and rocky bottom about 25m down, perfectly visible from the surface, but that was fill, growing wider each year by a couple cm, at least when more dramatic activity didn’t open up and change the rifts entirely.

The cold water is full of life: pale lime-colored algae and supposedly very small fish, though they are almost impossible to see.

It’s hard to get beneath the surface of the water in a drysuit with no weight belt, but I managed it, swimming hard with my arms until I could get my fins underwater to kick. I probably only went 10-12 feet under before heading back up, but for that moment, fighting my own buoyancy, in that clear cold blue, I thought about water. Alien and intimate water, all around me but barely wetting my skin. Water filling this a-continental space, and me inside it.

Troll attack!

Troll attack!

Iceland is like no other place I’ve been.


Fishing, from the Globe to Waterworld

Telegraph UKThe most joyous moment in this summer’s production of Antony and Cleopatra at the Globe in London involved fishing. One reason I’ve not posted a review of the show since I saw it on June 13 with my awesome onetime student Jaquon Heath is that after I got home I left immediately for a fishing trip in the waterworld of northern Saskatchewan, as part of my first multi-country trip of the summer.

Eve Best, who played a winning and funny Cleopatra, though perhaps just a touch shy of transcendence, reached down fairly early in the play to a young boy in the front of the standing area. Cupping his face, she rhapsodized about fishing with Antony:

Give me mine angle; we’ll to the river: there, 
My music playing far off, I will betray 
Tawny-finn’d fishes; my bended hook shall pierce 
Their slimy jaws; and, as I draw them up, 
I’ll think them every one an Antony, 
And say ‘Ah, ha! you’re caught (2.5).

Embracing the boy’s neck and kissing his forehead, she threatened to draw him up onstage to replace then-missing Antony. It was a classic Globe move, leveraging the intimacy of the replica theater and the feeling it creates of sharing a hidden space, between Thames outside and planes overhead, of theatrical privacy. For an instant, we were all right there with Cleopatra.Promo

There were some other fine moments in the production: a great drinking-and-dancing party on Pompey’s boat, an aggressive performance by Phillip Corella as Pompey, in what’s becoming my favorite part in this play, and some fast-paced battle scenes. Enobarbus as played by Phil Daniels was sharp but rather more sour than I like for the only Roman who dies of heartbreak.

This play thrives on its two stars, and I was only halfway won over. Eve Best was great fun, but the decision to enthrone her in death at the end spoke, it seemed to me, to a need to add regal stature to her performance. Clive Wood’s Antony was engaging and broad-shouldered, but not really convincing as a political player. I’d love to see him play Falstaff — but actually I have the feeling I already have seen much of that role in his Antony. It makes me wonder about an alternative version of the fat knight who’s not as physically ludicrous as he is usually played: what if Sir John has gone to seed, but you can still see the steel underneath? I’d be interested to see Wood play that part.Guardian

Fishing isn’t a bad metaphor for live theater: the project is, as Cleopatra says, to catch us and draw us up. I’ve never had a bad night at the Globe, though I’ve seen better productions there.

The key element of the play that this production didn’t quite capture, not even in Jolyon Coy’s razor-focused Caesar, was power politics. To become “sole sir o’ the world” (5.2) requires massive concentration, resourcefulness, and obsessive focus. Antony gives it all away, but I like a production that shows him able to grasp it first. Cleopatra’s parting shot, “Tis paltry to be Caesar” (5.2), works best if it’s clear that she understands power.

I kept thinking about power on my next trip, because in the Churchill River system in northern Saskatchewan I fished for the creature that teaches Wart about power in The Sword in the StoneThe pike teaches a simple lesson:

the Power of the body decides everything in the end, and only Might is Right.

The Churchill River from above

The Churchill River from above

T. H. White, about whom I’ve just read a fascinating mini-bio in Phillip Hoare’s The Sea Inside, doesn’t mean the pike’s lesson to be the final word in the eduction of young King Arthur, but there’s a lesson there nonetheless.

I thought about that while fishing for northern pike in the Churchill River.

We caught a few big ones, and released them back into the water. Some of the smaller ones we ate for lunch.

Lessons about Power

Lessons about Power



Two Red Things

Red towel in Short Beach

Red towel in Short Beach

Here’s a link to an essay on mine for Underwater New York’s Waterfronts series, co-published with LA-based magazine Trop.

Here’s a different link to the West Coast version in Trop.


A little splash of the text too –

The ocean has many colors. Whenever I look into its blue or green or gray or foaming white face, I think it’s telling a story. It’s remembering something, splashing together lost histories. What does froth murmur?

The Atlantic is childhood.

The Pacific is youth.

I grew up near the Jersey shore and spent many hours walking its uneven sands. That beach is still the landscape through which I read all waterfronts: a gently sloping expanse of gritty beige sand, punctuated by tar-stained wooden jetties that may or may not contain beach erosion. The water is warm in the summer, and the surf rolls on a human scale. Lots of kids start with boogie boards and graduate to surfing, but not me. I never rode the waves any way but on my belly, head down, hands knifing the water in front of me like the prow of a blind boat. If you catch the wave right, it carries you all the way up the beach and leaves you high and dry, face down, eating sand.


Haroun’s Ocean

My copy

My 1990 copy

Now that Olivia’s done with school for the summer, she’s in a reading and writing group organized by Alison Moncreif Bromage, a poet and former teacher at the Foote School in New Haven. They started yesterday with limericks and also with an old favorite of mine, Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990).  I read Rushdie’s fable when it first came out, and I also taught it in Los Angeles in the early ’90s. I remember having a class discussion of the novel interrupted by an aftershock of the Martin Luther King Day earthquake in January 1994.  It’s more modest than The Satanic Verses (1988) and not as politically powerful as Midnight’s Children (1981), but I think it’s Rushdie’s most perfect novel, the ideal match of writer and subject, sentiment and vision. Olivia’s writing a page this week in response to its key question: “What is the use of stories that aren’t even true?”

What I hadn’t remembered, until I re-read the novel over the past few days, was how oceanic and ecocritical Haroun is. As if it anticipated or even shaped my own future intellectual trajectory!

Rushdie’s celebration of narrative fecundity, it turns out, is a hymn to the great god Ocean. Haroun learns this underwater:

The Source of Stories was a hole or chasm or crater in the sea-bed, and through that hole, as Haroun watched, the glowing flow of pure, unpolluted stories came bubbling up from the very heart of Kahani. There were so many Streams of Story, of so many different colours, all pouring out of the Source at once, that it looked like a huge underwater fountain of shining white light. In that moment Haroun understood that if he could preserve the Source from being Plugged, everything would eventually be all right again. The renewed Streams of Story would cleanse the polluted waters, and Khattam-Shud’s plan would fail (167-68).

The underlying fantasy goes back at least to Euripedes: “the sea can wash away all evil” (Iphigenia at Tauris). As Kimberly Patton has written, this phrase crystalizes an ancient ambivalence about oceanic space, which purifies any possible pollution. In this vision the ocean represents an void on which human efforts make no lasting marks. It’s easy enough to say in 2014 that this 1990-vision of Oceanic cleansing doesn’t hold. What’s harder to figure out is what happens next. “The sea demands a reckoning” (122), writes Patton.

Olivia's edition

Olivia’s new edition

It is no longer possible, in the age of the IPCC report and Hurricane Sandy, to believe in oceanic auto-renewal. But the moral dilemma at the center of Rushdie’s novel remains daunting:

Say what you will…but a Person must come before an Ocean, no matter how great the peril to both! (136)

That plea for the primacy of human lives over environmental cleansing comes from the idiot Prince Bolo, and the novel of course manages to save both Princess and Ocean. But Bolo’s question speaks to current tensions between human and nonhuman concerns. Must human desires, including the desire to pollute, come before the ocean, always? What happens when there are no more pure Streams to cleanse the great waters?

My favorite moment in Haroun comes near the end, after Khattam-Shud has been defeated, when the Walrus, chief of the Eggheads, summons our young hero for a private meeting in P2C2E House, where they build Processes-Too-Complicated-To-Explain. Haroun is granted one wish, the basic imperative of fable: “a happy ending” (201). The Walrus knows how to fix Haroun’s story:

“It is precisely because happy endings are so rare,” the Walrus continued, “that we at P2C2E House have learnt how to synthesize them artificially. In plain language: we make them up.” (201)

That punch-line inverts the Oceanic fantasy of endless Source; for the Walrus, the best stories are invented, not harvested. Rushdie’s novel braids together two visions of Story, one in which narrative flows from an endless more-than-natural Ocean, and another in which the best stories must be made up, invented, synthesized.

Haroun 2The professor in me worries about the conflict between these two systems, the way that mythic certainties about cleansing oceans contribute to heedless pollution, and the converse way in which too much faith in technical ingenuity imagines the environmental crisis as something we can “solve” or “save.”

But it’s hard not to admire Rushdie’s narrative verve. Writing under the Ayatollah’s fatwa, he sang story against silence, ocean against night, hope against politics. For a while I’ve been reading Shakespeare and premodern narratives in order to craft responses to a post-sustainability ecology. This novel merits a place on that shelf too.

Haroun 3


Branagh’s Macbeth in New York

20140606-MACBETH-slide-TLJE-superJumboMy favorite theatrical experience this week was watching my daughter Olivia play Clotho the spinner, eldest of the Fates, in her class play about Sisyphus. I also enjoyed seeing Sir Kenneth Branagh as Macbeth.

This production of Macbeth represents Branagh’s New York debut and the twenty-fifth production of Shakespeare with which he’s been involved. He played the Scottish king and also co-directed with Rob Ashford.

The production had been performed in a deconsecrated church in Manchester in summer 2013, and has just come to the Park Avenue Armory for a three-week run.

I won’t gush as much as Ben Brantley in today’s Times, but I enjoyed the show. I was pleased to see Branagh try some new things, though in some ways he’s an odd match for this play’s anti-hero: perhaps our most lucid Shakespearean actor taking on a warrior who follows the daggers in his mind. I only really loved Branagh’s performance for a line and a half, but the spectacle was something to see. Sisters

When I got there, the castle just about stole the show. I’d never been to the Park Avenue Armory before. It’s amazing: a massive brick building squatting along Park between 66th and 67th with Tiffany interiors, it once housed the 7th New York militia and has in the past decade been reconfigured as a high-rent arts venue. At its center is the old Drill Room, a cavernous 55,000-square foot space temporarily reconfigured as blasted heath, pseudo-Stonehenge, and muddy stage. Waiting in the dark for the show to begin, I wondered what the space would have looked like empty, or back in its day, filled with soldiers. The audience sat on uncomfortable benches perched steeply on either side of a narrow sand-filled pit of a stage, like spectators at a tennis match. At the open end, which we walked past to take our seats, was a Stonehenge-like array of monoliths, over 20’ high. On the far end was a chancel structure and a collection of burning candles, with a balcony on top, on which Lady Macbeth later washed her hands. Most of the action took place down in the sand. During the opening battle against the rebel forces, which was staged at length though it’s not in the play, rain poured onto the stage. Mud stained the hem of Lady Macbeth’s gown when she arrived a few scenes later.

A sketch of the stage (from the program)

A sketch of the stage

In a slightly Game-of-Thrones touch, all the audience members were assigned clans. We gathered together before entering the Drill Room and walked to our seats as a group. I was assigned to Macduff, which I had not thought was a clan name, since he’s thane of Fife. We assembled at 6:10, were guided downstairs and together cried our choral response to the bell that summoned us to enter: “Lay on, Macduff!” It’s Macbeth’s line in the play, but it was good fun.

There were some interesting touches in the staging. King Duncan woke before Macbeth killed him, and the murder took place on stage. I’m not sure I liked this move, but I understood it: Branagh as usual opted for maximum clarity, leaving no footnote unstaged. (That’s how I understand the staging of the battle scene to open the play, also. Plus the stage design was good for battles.) The production slimmed the play down to a fast two hours with no intermission, but I didn’t miss much of what they cut, except some of the Porter’s ramblings. The battlefield choreography in the mud and rain was stunning, especially from my overhead view in the upper seats. Like watching football from the upper tier! Maybe the vibe was more World Cup than Game of Thrones.

MacsetBoth Macbeth and his wife voiced their famous lines aggressively. Alex Kingston’s Lady Macbeth drew a circle in the sand and stepped into it before asking the spirits to “Unsex me here.” Kingston was strong and charismatic; her ambition projected all the way up to the unseen roof of the Drill Hall. She delivered this famous speech alone on the stage that had just been vacated by a troupe of armored men, and she filled up the space.

Branagh’s Macbeth, I felt, sacrificed a little fury in favor of his trademark clarity. His diction and evenness of tone made even the mad lines — “Is this a dagger?” “if the assassination / Could trammel up the consequence, and catch / With his surcease success” — sound reasonable.  That’s a great quality in an actor, but I’m not sure it’s right for Macbeth, who needs (for me) to feel more dangerous.

My clan bracelet

My clan bracelet

He got there by the end, or almost there. I loved the staging of his last visit to the Weird Sisters, in which writhing bodies underneath a large parachute belched forth the line of Banquo, which processed across the sand pit “to the crack of doom.” Branagh’s performance got looser and more physical as it neared its end. The stage fighting remained excellent and was probably the best thing in the show, but there was one other moment I’ll remember, part of the old chestnut about his wife’s death, “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.”

Outside the Armory

Outside the Armory

He started off flat, and I squirmed in my seat as he trotted evenly through “to the last syllable of recorded time.” But as he neared the too-well-known end, the poetry started to work. It strained his body, bent him over a little, made him too “full of sound and fury” to speak. He stopped a line and a half from the end. I loved the pause, the rupture in the verse’s even movement. “Signifying nothing,” when it came, had a raw asymmetry that departed from Sir Kenneth’s mostly clean performance. A human mess amid the genius. He went back to the gorgeous fighting, and to his dramatic confrontations with young Siward and Macduff, but in that fractured line, Branagh hit his high note. A good place to put it, I suppose.

I stood with the crowd when the cast took their bows – after sitting on a backless bench for over two hours, I was glad to stand up – but I don’t think it was the best Macbeth I’ve seen. The staging was great, and many performances were strong: the Weird Sisters were playful and malicious, Richard Coyle a valiant Macduff (my clan leader!), and Scarlett Strallen stole her scene as Lady Macduff.

Clotho the Spinner

Clotho the Spinner

Filing out, I thought about that huge space, filled with soldiers in training from 1880 forward, and about military force. I want a bloodier, more dangerous Macbeth, but until then, this one will do.


Caroline Bergvall’s Drift

DriftThe first story in this amazing book is one I always love: an old sailor on icy seas, looking for home but not finding it because “seafaring is seafodder heart / humbling” (26).

I can make my sorry tale right soggy truth. (25)

Blow wind / blow, anon am I. (25)

The second story is the true history of the “Left-to-Die Boat,” packed full of Algerian refugees, seen but not rescued by assorted NATO vessels in March 2011.

Show me the wind. (46)

Caroline Bergvall’s Drift was my first post-grading book of the summer. It was so good that I stayed up late to finish it, then re-read it twice more the next two nights. Gorgeous, intricate, impassioned writing. Bits of it may figure in my NCS talk in July, which is also about the Seafarer – but for now I want to luxuriate in its rawness, its ambition, and its willingness to engage.

Let the tides shake your life. (110)

There’s so much to love in this mash-up of of twenty-first century tragedy and Anglo-Saxon lament. Bergvall mines the medieval poem “The Seafarer” for the core experience of oceanic disorientation, the bitter flavor of that “salt of the mind” (159), the partial recompense of the “ship of song” (144),

Page 6

Page 6

For a minute there I lose myself. (42)

She starts with some line drawings before the poem begins.

One of the places she takes us is “hafville.” “Did not know where I was going hafville. Had fear wildering hafville” (42). We are not alone there:

Major Tom hafville

Li Bai hafville

Rimbaud hafville

Shelley hafville

Amelia Aerhart hafville

Jeff Buckley hafville

Spalding Gray hafville…

Later on, in the Log section, she tells us what hafville is: “sea wilderness, sea wildering” (153).

To north oneself. To come to song. (156)

B. readingShe paints my favorite picture, the image of shipwreck, with words. The word-wreck starts with a few lost letters:

We mbarkt and sailed but a fog so th but a fog so

th but a fog so th th th th thik k overed us that we could scarcely see

the poop or the prow of the boa t (37)

A few pages later everything’s lost (40-41).

Pages 40-41

Shipwreck (Pages 40-41)

And eventually found again:

For a minute there I lost myself Totally at sea lost myway tossed misted

lost mywill in the fog hafville my love (42)

I also love the long set of Navigation instructions (140, 142, 146, 158 (x2), 160). They range from the practical

Stay calm (14)

to the historical, in her last entry, “Medieval navigation” (160), which finishes with

No NATO Naval and Aeriel monitoring

no coffee

no cocoa

All together, it’s the best new sea-poem I’ve read this year.

Let me come in from the cold cold way, Seafarer (166)

BergvallRead it! And go see the performance if you’re in London in July.



The Wooster Group’s Rumstick Road

RUmstick Road

Filmed set of Rumstick Road

“What did you like about the piece?” reverse-interviewed Liz LeCompte after the screening of her film Rumstick Road, which she and Ken Kobland back-formed out of archival audio and video footage from the celebrated 1977 stage production she co-wrote with Spalding Gray, in the Wooster Group‘s originary performance. “It’s kinda morbid, now.”

The play and the film build themselves around audio interviews of Gray’s family that discuss his mother’s suicide in 1967, when Gray was in his mid-twenties. The film shows images of Gray and three other members of the Wooster Group on stage in 1977, screened along with crackling audio feauturing the voices of Gray’s father, two grandmothers, and the doctor who treated his mother in the 60s. The combined effect is powerful and eerie. Gray’s probable suicide in 2004, as well as the subsequent artistic histories of the Woosters and Gray himself, create a disorienting multi-temporality, inside and outside of the 1960s, 1970s, and 2010s. As Ben Brantley wrote in the Times, there were ghosts on the screen.


Ron Vawter and LIbby Howes

“It was like a scientific inquiry,” LeCompte said in her post-screening discussion with Richard Maxwell of New York City Players. The film showed “Rumstick Road” to have been intensely fractured, with moments of almost unbearable power. Libby Howes, playing the part of “Woman” and perhaps thinking of Gray’s mother, dominated one long scene by bowing her body forward furiously for perhaps ten full minutes. In a display of physical abandon she flung her torso forward recklessly, repeatedly, with full extension and flowing hair, as the voices of the family discussed Gray’s mother’s depression, her Christian Science beliefs, her devotion to Mary Baker Eddy.

My favorite moment, perhaps, was the lone speech by Gray’s maternal grandmother, “Gramma Horton,” who quoted Mary Baker Eddy’s teachings on the absolute superiority of spirit to flesh. Gray’s preface to this recording revealed that Gramma Horton had not wanted him to share her words on stage.

The emotional charge of the show flows from its compulsive open-ness, Gray’s defiant exposure of Gramma Horton’s urge to keep something private, of his father’s New England reserve, of Gram Gray’s being “not in sympathy” with her daughter-in-law’s religious intensity.

A book I bought before the show at St. Mark's Bookstore

A book I bought before the show at St. Mark’s Bookstore

Everything, on stage and now on film, gets laid bare.

2014-05-02 11.43.40

Back page of my program

My working theory about the Wooster Group’s more recent plays —  I’m writing a piece on “Cry, Trojans,” for the International Shakespeare Conference this summer — is that they build alienating structures in order to overcome them, at least partly, with emotion. Theatrical pleasure operates on both sides of coherence, sympathy, and identification.

In the film’s final moment the eternally thirty-six year old celluloid ghost-Gray looks up at the audience and thanks them for coming. At that point the camera pans back, revealing in front of the stage the arrow-point of the fifty-person audience upstairs at the Performing Garage in 1977. A sketch by LeCompte in the program shows that the stage and audience together formed an X, the vertex of which was right in front of Gray’s face. Marking the spot.

LeCompte also said something about how she chooses work for the Wooster Group. “I try to find something that I don’t understand,” she said, “and something I love.”


Lear at Tfana

Bianca Amato as Regan (Broadwayworld)

Bianca Amato as Regan (Broadwayworld)

“If I had written King Lear,” writes Fernando Pessoa via the semi-heteronym Bernando Soares, “I would be plagued by remorse for the rest of my life.”  He gets at least one thing right: it’s a play that keeps coming after you. If it does not get you one way, it will another.

I saw the new Theatre for a New Audience production in Brooklyn last Thursday, directed by Arin Arbus and starring Michael Pennington. Perhaps to match the intimate space of Tfana’s new home, the Polonsky Shakespeare Center, the production pitched this massive tragedy toward the smaller, more domestic scale, as Ben Brantley noted a little while back in the Times.

It lacked some of the high-tragic rage and politics, as Stuart Elden notes, but I have never seen a production of Lear with better performances by women.

Regan and Lear (Broadwayworld)

Regan and Lear (Broadwayworld)

The start of the show, unlikely as it may seem, was Bianca Amato as Regan. When the middle daughter stepped forward to follow her sister Goneril, who was played very powerfully by Rachel Pickup, they two of them pinned their father to the floor. Regan’s speech, like her sister’s, was glib, oily, and rhetorical, but it was a performance of terrific power. When she looked at the king and insisted that she was made of “that selfsame metal as my sister is,” she got him. “Only,” she continued, twisting the knife, “she comes too short.” Regan in the end pronounced herself “alone felicitate / In your dear Highness’ love.” The poor old guy never had a chance.

Hearing Amato transform this hollow speech into a brutally effective display of inter-familial cruelty was one of the high points of the evening.

Cordelia’s a trickier part, and although Lily Englert was stronger here than she had been as Hermia in Tfana’s debut production of Midsummer last fall, I’m still waiting for a Cordelia to be as powerful as either of the other sisters in this production. Englert pouted well: the blank defiance of her “nothing” had me thinking of my own eleven-year old daughter and the almost-visible pressure of emotion just barely held in check. The opening scene’s tightly-wound domestic drama saw two supremely powerful  daughters, squired around by the barely-adequate Albany and Cornwall, respond to being displaced in their father’s eye by an upstart younger sibling. That family story pushed aside all darker and broader purposes.

Blinding Gloucester (Broadwayworld)

Blinding Gloucester (Broadwayworld)

The other highlight of the show was the blinding of Gloucester (3.7), and again the heart of the scene revolved around the two elder sisters. It was in Goneril’s words that the idea of blinding the Earl first entered the scene, but, as in the first scene, the two sisters engaged in competition. Regan asked that Cornwall, “Hang him instantly,” to which her not-to-be-outdone sister added, “Pluck out his eyes.” But it was in the face of Regan’s insistence later in the scene that Gloucester admitted he sent the mad king to Dover: “Because I would not see thy cruel nails / Pluck out his poor old eyes.” Cornwall squeezed the jelly, but the sisters set the scene. The blinding itself saw Gloucester inverted on a chair, trying frantically to scoot himself offstage while Saxon Palmer’s Cornwall burst the blood-capsules and Regan looked on in ecstasy.

Nothing really topped that moment for me. Pennington’s King was most emotionally moving when entangled with his intransigent youngest daughter, and most revealingly clueless when assailing his eldest. In my newly Regan-centric reading of the play, I noticed that he cursed Goneril but did not tangle much with the middle sister. The final falls through the play’s trap-door structure, from the Howls to the Nevers to the feather which might or might not move, were potent but not painful. Shall I confess that I started to lose focus when Regan pronounced herself, “Sick, O sick”?

The bulk of the male cast was not able to match the sisters or even the father.  Jake Horowitz’s shallow Fool was the weakest of the bunch, though I can’t really say many good things about Chandler Williams’s relatively bland Edmund or Jacob Fishel’s only slightly better Edgar. Christopher McCann’s Gloucester had a dapper and courtly bounce to his step in the early scenes, duly ground of of him with the blood from his eye sockets.

Lear and Cordelia (Carol Rosegg / Broadwayworld)

Lear and Cordelia (Carol Rosegg / Broadwayworld)

I saw the show the night the world learned that Gabriel Garcia Marquez had died, and I spent the night with the whirling yet somehow joyous tragedies of Macondo spinning alongside the play. Regan and Goneril struggled with family curses and their needs for primacy like Ursula or Colonel Aureliano. Lear presided impotently over the wreckage of his family like the mad Jose Arcadio Buendia when he was at last tied to a tree in the yard. Family tragedies can become global in scope, Gabo’s masterpiece reminds us. In this Lear, only the women sounded the master’s voice.




SAA 2014: St. Louis

Rising WatersSo many pleasures at SAA, and so many lingering, insinuating questions. As I was leaving, the music of an imaginary Q&A echoed in my head. I wonder if anyone else heard it? A gentle espirit d’escalier that drapes itself over tired professorial shoulders and sounds in imagination-crammed ears, as we’re waiting to board homeward-bound jets?

Still-audible voices wafted me home through crowded planes and airports.


With Shanti during Irene

In retrospect, I was a bit jumpy this year. The paper session I organized on “Catastrophic Ecologies” is near to my heart as well as my academic work, and I wanted people to like it. My visual aid, a slideshow of pictures of New York City and my neighborhood in Connecticut during Hurricanes Sandy and Irene, trespassed somewhat on academic decorum. I wanted the images to comprise a parallel text of catastrophic aesthetics alongside my reading of Antony and Cleopatra. The slideshow rolled through its forty-odd pictures five or six times during the talk. I wonder how many audience members noticed that one picture was of me, in shorts and sandals, holding my dog in my arms? She’d run barking out of the house toward the flooded street at the end of Hurricane Irene, and I was carrying her home.

(In a can’t-make-it-up coincidence, the rescued dog’s name, Shanti, figured in Diana Henderson’s Presidential Address. She quoted the name from her primary poetic intertext, St. Louis native T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, which ends with the Sanskrit word for peace: shanti shanti shanti. That’s the poem from which we lifted the dog’s name – with the intended joke that a puppy brings love but not peace to a busy household, plus a happy near-pun on sea shanties.)

There was a lot of humanity amid the Shakespeare this year. Autobiographical musings filled the Plenary Session and Presidential Addresses, from erotic fantasies in (about?) the Folger vault to mayhem at MIT. The session on Shakespeare and the Humanities brought the Hegel harder that I expected, but I think it was seeking the human side of the human sciences, wanting to know what moves us. That’s what I want to know, too.Short Beach

As always, I flew home chewing on what felt like a too-small slice of SAA. I missed most of the surging tide of Digital Humanities projects, though I did talk about some at the bar. I was taxi-ing to the airport during sessions on Auerbach and on Feminism, but the helpful #shakeass14 hashtag informed me that they featured human stories too. I hesitate to mention the brilliant scholar who fainted during her talk, except to say that in that shocking instant, our knowledge of the dependence of intellect on the physical body was frighteningly redoubled. Even Shakespeareans are human creatures, it turns out. (I’m relieved to say that she reported feeling much better an hour or so later.)

One of the best questions I got after the Flood talk was from a UCSB grad student named Chris Foley, who noted that my swimmer poetics, which puts little bodies into vast seas, emphasizes individual experience, possibly at the expense of human collectivity. That was the question I lingered over throughout the conference.

2014-04-09 08.07.15I’m not altogether sure you can have one without the other. Fleeting entanglements of individuals into and out of collectives make up the great Lucretian / Latourian dances of matter and of society. I want both!

But the collectives I’ve been mulling are academic as much as ecological. There are few collectivity-making machines that I like more than SAA. Each year I rejoin a not-quite-the-same body of shared thinkers, teachers, and writers. Whatever niggling doubts I sometimes entertain about hyper-canonicity or Shakespeare exceptionalism – why not Middleton? Why not Nashe? — mostly vanish in a happy haze of cocktails and conversations.

I loved giving the Flood talk in the catastrophe collective. It was great to share the podium with Randall Martin’s humane exploration of gunpowder ecology in Macbeth, and to listen to Simon Palfrey bring the stylistic fireworks with his fictionalized fragments bursting out of the same play, voiced by Abigail Rokison and co-written with Ewan Fernie. One idea of the session – I wonder how well this sort of thing communicates across a crowded hall – was to push experimental forms within Shakespeare studies, and to splash around in atypical histories, images, and fictions. We wanted the difference-machine of ecological thinking to change our formal as well as analytical methods.

Rivers sharks in the Mississippi

Rivers sharks in the Mississippi are actually floating logs

There was lots of meta-commentary at the conference around the shapes of our profession, past and present. Many people engaged a now-perennial debate: “We must historize, or…what did you say was our other option?” I wonder what an unapologetic pluralism might look like. Historicism is a powerful, indispensable archive and set of tools – but no single key unlocks the kingdom. Wanting to do things with Shakespeare in the world may require a willingness to be errant, to stray, to make discoveries.

SAA collectives are affective and intellectual, human bonds that assemble voluntarily (mostly) and disperse more or less the same way. Political action wasn’t my topic this year, but its imperatives demand attention.

The political questions that we academics must respond to today, it seems to me, are practical and institutional: redressing adjunctification, promoting equitable pay and stable employment, and reshaping humanities departments in a shifting cultural-economic landscape.

Some of my happiest moments at the conference came when I was talking with grad students. I heard a few job-related success stories, which amazing achievements are always welcome in the current climate, and talked about many great projects. The larger professional picture remains grim, but I find it hard to despair altogether about a profession that is helping to produce such smart, self-aware, sophisticated, resourceful thinkers. One task of those of us with stable jobs is to build systems worthy of such excellence inside and beyond the university.

I want a Shakespeare studies that might still speak with the dead but also addresses hurricanes and the squeeze of economic disenfranchisement. I want to confront these forces in varied languages that include the aesthetic, the performative, the overtly playful, and the utopian. Among many others!

2014-04-09 07.57.10I suppose it reveals my lack of activist fire that I turn invitations to rekindle the Marxist fire into experiments in form. I recognize that institutional problems require collective solutions, and I’m a happily paid-up member of both the faculty unions on my home campus. But at the end of the day, the force of Shakespeare (and even of Radical Tragedy) for me is aesthetic as well as political.

I’m left recalling an odd departure, the peregrinations of the two-part “Object Oriented Environs” seminar led by Jeffrey Cohen and Julian Yates. (As usual, Jeffrey beat me to the blog.) After whipping their participants into a collective froth of intellectual ferment, with provocations provided by respondents Julia Lupton, Drew Daniel, Eileen Joy, and Vin Nardizzi, the seminar took a collective step back, paused, opened its doors (against SAA regulations, I believe), and took a short walk outside the room. Some participants rode the escalators up and down. This quirky and compelling performance reminded everyone that “openness” need not only be a metaphor.

Looking forward to Vancouver already!Beach


Red Velvet at St. Ann’s


Adrian Lester as Ira Aldridge's Moor

Adrian Lester as Ira Aldridge’s Moor

Live theater is a machine for intensifying emotion. The show I saw last night at St. Ann’s Warehouse in DUMBO poured me into my northbound drive home quivering with feeling.

Red Velvet stages scenes from the life of Ira Aldridge, the first African-American actor to play major Shakespearean roles in New York, London, and on the continent from the 1820s – 1860s. Lolita Chakrabarti’s play, which debuted in London eighteen months ago, is directed by Indhu Rubasingham and stars a brilliant, raging Adrian Lester as Aldridge. Theater, this play insists, runs on ambition and emotion. It forces rawness out of human bodies all the way to the back row. I’m still feeling it today.

Formal acting style

Formal acting poses

The core scenario, told inside a pair of flashbacks that present an older Aldridge playing a solo tour in remote Poland, has the young fireball replacing the sick Edmund Kean. The legendary English actor had been playing Othello in blackface to packed houses in Covent Garden. When he can’t go on, the theater manager, a Frenchman with radical politics in his background (Eugene O’Hare), brings in Aldridge to play the Moor. The Kean family company, including the great man’s son, Charles (Oliver Ryan), and Charles’s finacee, Ellen Tree (Charlotte Lucas), respond to the the radical idea of a dark-skinned actor with a range of different attitudes, from tentative support among the younger members to outright revolt from Charles Kean. Ellen Tree, cast as Desdemona and also Charles Kean’s fiancee, is willing to rehearse. They choose the post-storm reunion of Othello and Desdemona on Cyprus (2.1).  In a wonderfully delicate theatrical back-and-forth, she eventually responds to Aldridge’s fireball charisma. They play a few nights to packed houses before virulent, racist reviews shut them down.

The political parable of elite hypocrisy — the older members of the Kean family don’t believe in slavery, mostly, but they do like plenty of sugar in their tea, even though they know about the conditions on sugar plantations — generates its heat as a tale of two acting styles. Ellen Tree as Desdemona and Charles Kean as Iago perform through classical mannerisms, striking poses and staring out at the audience rather than looking at the other actors. Aldrige’s Moor poses too, but he also reaches out his arms and touches them, insisting that they look at his face. Acting is feeling, he tells them. They’ve got to see you feeling it.

The confrontation between Charles Kean and Ira Aldrige drives the son temporarily out of his father’s company. As the unquestioned lead Aldridge lights a fire that can’t be controlled. The first act closes a wonderfully intense performance of the handkerchief scene (3.4) by Aldridge and Tree that’s a breakneck master’s class in acting technique. Watch her strike a pose! Watch his eyes seek out hers! They circle warily. She plays the verse’s rhythm like a perfectly tuned instrument. He barges through some of his lines. But now she distracted! He can’t bear to look when she mentions Cassio’s name! “There’s magic in the web of it,” says the Moor about the missing handkerchief. The magic, this play tells us, surges out of their bodies into the seated bodies in the dark house. The feeling communicates itself through words and eyes and movement. It’s hard to tell what controls it. Maybe it’s that magic square of missing cloth. “The handkerchief” thunders Aldridge as the curtain closes.

Adrian Lester as Ira Aldridge's Moor

Rehearsing the murder

I spent the interval hoping that they’d bring Charles Kean back into the company so that I could watch Adrian Lester go toe-to-toe with Oliver Ryan, blazing charisma against controlled form, emotion flowing into reticence, modern against classical acting styles. It didn’t happen, and maybe it would not have worked; certainly the ambivalent relationship sketched between Aldridge and Ellen Tree had a delicacy that such a direct confrontation could not have matched.

The best element in the second half was the opening up of Connie, the Jamaican maid played by Natasha Gordon. She spent the first half of the show pouring tea, listening to sanctimony from the liberal English actors and staying as silent as Chekov’s gun. She went off in the second act when she was alone on stage with Aldridge. “Why did you kill your wife?” she accuses. I took the point to be that if acting works through emotion, emotions so powerful as to reach the high balconies and cheap seats, then Aldrige’s method is about killing his wife, repeatedly, every night. One of the scandals that the racist newspapers peddles, that Ellen Tree as Desdemona has bruises on her arm where Adridge’s Moor grabbed her, becomes in Connie’s hyper-literalism the logical end-point of theatrical intensity. Emotions crave to be made flesh.

The frame-story shows a grand but sick old Aldridge in Poland, proud of the honors he’s received from the Czar, alienated from the London stage from which he was excluded. (Chakrabarti finesses the details of his stage career, but for good dramatic purpose.) The solitary actor lacks co-stars, not to mention a revolutionary French production manager to get him onto the big stage. Being interviewed by a feisty young Polish  reporter, played by Rachel Finnegan, who also plays the actor’s English wife earlier in the show, he slowly makes himself up in whiteface, wig, robe, and crown to play his next role, “the King.” Staring out at the audience as if we were all his evil daughters, he roared out his aging-lion final lines:

They are not men of their words!

They told me I was everything. (4.6)

I can still feel the force of it. Get down to St. Ann’s before April 20th.Lester 2