Another Measure, in the storm

See what the Public printed on our group tix!

[I started this post on 11/8 and left it unfinished for a week or so. As the news continues from Weinstein to Moore to Franken, Measure seems more and more the play of our moment.]

On a stormy election night in downtown Manhattan, I watched Elevator Repair Services Measure for Measure for a second time, in the company of the few straggling students who made it out in the rain. The first time I saw the show it was at the end of its previews on Sept 29, almost six weeks earlier. I blogged then about experimental acting and textualizing the stage, about the intermission-less breakneck pace, about time and emotion, and about clowning. Six weeks later — after the six weeks that began with this Times story about Harvey Weinstein — all I could see on stage was sexual aggression.

The word consent appears three times in the play. The last of the three echoed in my head as I piloted the good ship Subaru north through rainy highways. “I will not consent to die this day,” says the murderer Barnadine. His jailers listen to him. White male privilege works even among condemned criminals. Why can’t anyone else withhold consent in Barnadine’s imperious and impervious way?

Angelo had previously sexualized the word in order to sharpen his assault on Isabella. “Fit thy consent to my sharp appetite,” he commands. She resists — but the Duke-Friar, and the play, require that she collude with and eventually reward his aggression.

The word’s third appearance comes in the mouth of the Duke-Friar, asking and manipulating Mariana into taking Isabella’s place in Angelo’s bed: “It is not my consent, but my entreaty too.”

All three times consent appears in male mouths, voicing Barnadine’s resistance, Angelo’s assault, and the Duke machinations. Isabella never offers her consent, though the men in the play do nothing but ask her to comply with their various desires. It’s not just bad men like Angelo or ambivalent ones like Lucio who bully her; the Duke does too, and so does her condemned brother. “Sweet sister, let me live,” Claudio implores. I’ve never heard so clearly as during this performance that her reply is a response to yet another attempt to dominate her: “Is’t not a kind of incest, to take life / From thine own sister’s shame?”

Isabella’s silence after the Duke’s last-minute proposal is a famous theatrical crux; I’ve seen it played with a full range of emotions, from ecstasy to defiance to horror. In Elevator Repair Service’s rendition, Isabella seemed mystified as the Duke ran off stage alone.

Is there a legible resistance in her silence? If not, can we build or imagine one? We need resisting Isabellas. Not to mention morally conscious Dukes.



Richard III @ Queens Theatre

This play is always a star vehicle, and Lloyd Mulvey’s Richard put everyone else into shadow. He smiled, limped, cringed, and gamboled his way across center stage. A faint conspiratorial grin shadowed his face throughout the whole play, even lingering when he bellowed for his horse in the final battle. He hooked his audience early and reeled us in all night. More comic than terrible and more devious than tyrannous, he played the evil king as nihilistic trickster. No, it didn’t remind me of anyone. Besides we saw the show several days before Indictment Monday.

One of the textual changes Titan Theatre made was opening with a few lines from Queen Margaret’s curse before shifting to Richard’s winter of discontent. The curses, growled out with power, dignity, and supporting stage lighting by Angela Iannone as Margaret, formed a narrative backbone around which Richard twined his plots, speeches, and assassinations. By foregrounding Iannone’s Margaret, and later emphasizing that nearly every one of Richard’s victims remembered her curse before dying, the production emphasized a battle of the sexes topos, in which victimized women resisted Richard, at first ineffectively but finally decisively.

Lloyd Mulvey as Richard

The most powerful scene of the production for me was the seduction of Lady Anne (1.2). Watching Richard bully and cajole her is always painful, but in post-Weinstein America certain elements of the scene stood out. Maggie Wetzel’s Anne emphasized youth, beauty, and a kind of naiveté, so that her line, “I would I knew thy heart,” felt oddly moving and revealing of her vulnerability. She started fierce, defending a casket that in this production contained the body of her dead husband (killed by Richard) instead of her father-in-law and former monarch (also killed by Richard). In addition to offering her his breast to stab, Richard in this staging grabbed Anne hard by the wrist and held her, thus performing a physical domination that was shocking and, in my memory of past productions, not always so explicit. Richard would repeat the grab later (4.4) when negotiating with Queen Elizabeth, whose sons he had just murdered, for the hand of her daughter. In the latter scene, Richard punctuated his not-seduction with a forceful and painfully non-consensual kiss on Elizabeth’s lips. I often read the second attempted seduction as a failure and an index that Richard in act 4 has lost some of the sinister charisma the drove his schemes in act 1. The forced kiss in this production suggested otherwise, at least in terms of his aggression.

Richard grabs Anne

After the brutal wooing of Anne, Richard in soliloquy solicited the audience for approval. “Was ever woman in this humor wooed?” he cackled to the front row of the small theater. “Was ever woman in this humor won?” The audience laughed with him, as he wanted us to. I felt ashamed that we did. The patriarchal culture that values “winning” over consent isn’t just a matter of Hollywood studios or, let’s say, New York real estate moguls with politics in their futures. It’s part of our literary and dramatic heritage, and Shakespeare knew well how hard it is to resist.

Last year in early November, just before the world turned orange, I saw a brilliant and searing performance of Richard by the Dutch actor Hans Kesting that showed how irresistible narcissism and unbounded need can be. On our way out of the BAM opera house that night, my buddy Erik turned to me in admiration and said, “Well, I guess I don’t ever need to see Richard III again.” I felt the same way at that moment, that Kesting had hit the part so hard that it felt like a definitive Richard for the looming Age of Trump. (Rebecca Mead in the New Yorker later called that show “The First Great Theatrical Work of the Trump Era.“)

But of course I eagerly took students to this much less Trump-centered production by Titan at the Queens Theatre last Friday. There can be no final or absolute Richard, only a spool of performances of the iconic villain of Shakespearean politics, who fascinates by betraying his family and his audiences with painful pleasure.

King Edward and doomed family

In the Titan production, each time Richard killed someone or had someone killed, he painted a red vertical stripe on the back wall of the stage. Three vertical red strips present at the opening also marked the “III” of his royal name. The wall grew messy and full of red paint over the two hours traffic of the stage, bearing witness to the bodies that sit behind the theatrical pain we love to watch.

Especially in a world in which fairy-tale Richmond / Henry VII’s are hard to discern on the horizon, Richard III feels like a hard but necessary play. 


Dark Ecology of Newtown Creek (visit 10/14/17)

Steps into creek

There seem to me two essential questions about what to do with this post-Nature nature:

  1. Will it hurt us?
  2. Can we love it?

The answer to both questions seems to be yes.

Walking the Newtown Creek Nature Walk on the border of Queens and Brooklyn with the Field Guide provided by the Floating Studio for Dark Ecologies reminds you that moving past “nature” will be disorienting. We need to do it, but it won’t be easy. Some parts of post-naturing seem clear enough: I’m ready to move beyond the pure Romantic green that constructs the nonhuman environment as passive background to human striving and a resource to be exploited. But what are we supposed to do about the brown post-industrial spaces left behind after the end of the green? How do they make us feel? Might they still participate in the great goddess Natura’s creating magic?

Toxic Water

The image that’s stuck with me after my first walk through non-Nature nature was the water. On a warm October afternoon, standing on stone steps that dropped down into the edge of the creek so that the bottom step was covered by three inches of water, I stared down and saw — nothing. The water, famously toxic, lapped the granite steps in transparent placidness. It didn’t look like anything at all. Nothing unnatural to see here.

Even if I’m not going to swim, I like to put my fingers into bodies of water, to get the touch, the smell, sometimes a little taste, especially in a brackish estuary like Newtown Creek. I was careful not to do that this time.

Epochal step

Black mayonnaise

I’m not sure how deep Newtown Creek is at the junction of Whale Creek near the “digester eggs” that process New York’s sewage. But everyone knows what’s on the bottom of these creeks. “Black mayonnaise.” The sludgy remains of decades of coal and oil-fired industry, including in this case the discharge of the 1978 Greenpoint Oil spill, which released into the confined waters of the creek three times as much oil as was released in the Exxon Valdez spill of 1989. Back in the summer of ’89 I was a vagabond college graduate who traveled to Alaska to shovel tar and oil off a beach about 400 miles southwest of the initial site of the spill. In Greenpoint, three times as much oil as would later foul 1300 miles of Alaskan coastline was contained inside two tiny sluggish creeks Little Leaguers could play catch over. There’s a lotta mayo down beneath. The Field Guide says there is a “15-25 feet layer lining Newtown Creek’s bottom…a toxic admixture the consistency of mayonnaise. Oil, arsenic, polychlorinated biphenyls, and incinerated ash are some of the organic and inorganic pollutants that the EPA is quantifying in their Superfund assessment” (5).

I remember the gas station smell of the beach in Windy Bay, Alaska, when we shoveled oil residue into industrial plastic bags in the summer of ’89. I couldn’t smell anything like that on the steps in Newtown Creek. Just a faint salt tinge, carried by a breeze that barely made the surface flutter.

Epochal steps

The steps leading down to the creek fan out like a small amphitheater, asking you to face the creek as if to watch a performance whose dark center you can’t see. Each step has a name inscribed on it. Some are geological epochs: “Jurassic.” Others name local plant species: “Angiosperm.” “Tracheophyta.” These names were inscribed according to the design of environmental sculptor George Trakas when the Nature Walk was built in 2007. Walking down to the water feels like walking down into time, though I suppose it’s more like walking into a post-nature future. What would have happened if I had taken one more wet step?

Looking toward midtown


The audio tour calls it the hellmouth. The sign above the opening reads: “CAUTION. Wet weather discharge point.” The smell made it clear what was coming out of that mouth into the creek, even though we visited on a dry afternoon.


One of the questions the Floating Studio for Dark Ecologies asks of people who have walked through the Creek with their audio tour is, “What did you not expect to see?” There was plenty of life in the post-Nature, including spartina grass and many other healthy-looking plant species. There was plenty of post-natural debris, what the Floating Studio calls “floatables.” We joked that at one point that we thought we saw a dog swimming, but it turned out to be plastic. But the thing we didn’t expect, certainly, was a fisherman.

He was a young hipster-ish local presumably from Greenpoint, casting his line for the same striped bass that my neighbors fish for off the CT shoreline in mid-October. He said he often caught bass in Whale Creek. We watched him cast a few times, with the sci-fi digester eggs visible over his shoulder. I didn’t get a good picture. He didn’t get a fish.

Underwater step

Plastic you can see through

My favorite bit of floating debris was a sheet of semi-translucent plastic that floated on Whale Creek’s still water like a pane of fragile glass. I watched it slowly revolve, an undegradable petrochemical solid resting atop ten or fifteen feet of toxic water, both of them perched above a thick, invisible, omnipresent swamp of oil mayo. Floating is a bit like flying, in that it holds a body just at the top of a larger fluid body. The plastic was doing the thing that I wanted to do but could not do — that is, swimming in post-Nature.

Floating plastic

Digester eggs

Installed in 2010 as part of the Wastewater Treatment Plant renovation, these eight “shiny spaceships” light up in the North Brooklyn night. Watching them from across Whale Creek they appeared fantastical. All of us wanted to come back at night to see the purple glow.

These eggs display the techo-aesthetic of industrial environmentalism, a new post-Nature system that takes in about 1.5 million gallons of sludge each day from New York City, processes it with heat, time, and “burping,” and generates carbon dioxide, water, methane, and biosolids. Garbage goes in, and sustenance comes out. Long Island City locals call the array “shit tits.”

Fragrance Garden

The last stop on the audio tour, underneath the stairs that lead up into the path to the water, was a fragrance garden. On our way out of the Nature Walk, we turned beneath the steps and followed a low path through to the garden beneath. We’d seen flowers already on our walk; a Virginia Rose back across from the digester eggs had even quoted Juliet: “That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet.” A pretty good joke, I thought, given how close the flowers were to the smellmouth.

But the garden beneath the steps was a bizarre under-metal smellword and antidote to the occasional toxic whiff the creek had given off. Shaded by the steps, the fragrance garden provided a respite and conceptual bridge back into Greenpoint.

Twenty minutes later we were at a rooftop bar drinking overpriced cocktails.

Exiting the Nature Walk

Post-natural thoughts —

I went there looking for toxins but found multiplicity.

I was trying to unsee Nature as a unitary object and find post-Nature in networks.

One strange thing: I kept thinking about beauty, and about design. I always think clear water is beautiful, no matter what’s beneath the surface. The plastic floatable bears a semi-translucent charm. What do we want beauty to do for us?

I also thought about one of Marina Zurkow’s phrases about urban ecology and design, that I first heard her describe at the Oceanic New York event at St. John’s in 2013. “Soft edges” are what we need, especially when it’s hard to fit things together. I was thinking about that when looking at the locking-gear design of the creek’s shoreline, the graceful curves of the digester eggs, and the step that was submerged in creek water. Where exactly are the edges?

What I always want in nature is to be porous, to let some bit of the not-human seep into me. To be porous in Newtown Creek, that painfully apt representation of our Anthropocene future, requires us to be both toxic and digesting. We can’t get too close. But we must get close.

I’m going back next week. Maybe at night.

In the fragrance garden

Looking toward the LIE


Measure at the Public (Elevator Repair Service)

Time’s the thing. The moving thing.

On the long drive back to Connecticut last night I was thinking about time in performance. The brilliant and occasionally bizarre performance of Measure for Measure I’d just seen had lasted pretty close to the canonical “two hours traffic of our stage.” I clocked the show at 2:10, with no intermission and relentless narrative drive — but those two hours contained as varied and variable an experience of theatrical time as I’ve encountered. Rushing and lingering, goofy and intense, unpredictable but also submerged in high concept: so much inside two short hours!

The most emotionally intense scene of the night, the slowest, and one of the most moving Shakespeare scenes I’ve seen in a while, was Isabella’s interview with Claudio in prison (3.1) On opposite sides of a set filled with tables, speaking to each other via old-school rotary phones, Rinne Groff’s emotionally contained Isabella faced off against Greig Sargeant’s empathetic Claudio, who’s just been instructed by the Duke that he should “Be absolute for death.” He was not buying the fatalism: his stillness and contemplative intensity oozed life. His voice demanded his sister’s (and the audience’s) attention. Why not, he seemed to say, just sleep with the prenzie Angelo in order to save my life? I’ve seen quite a few productions of this play, but I’ve not heard his lines before with such human urgency: “Ay, but to die, and go we know not where; / To lie in cold obstruction and to rot…” The Program Note from John Collins, Artistic Director of Elevator Repair Service, says that the company realized they wanted to play Measure after doing a reading of this scene. It showed.

Pete Simpson as Angelo, and the text

My second and contrasting takeaway from the show was its technical innovation and varied fast-and-slow pacing, which worked in an almost perfect inversion of the emotional clarity of the prison scene. With “teleprompter software” designed by Scott Shepherd, the Wooster Group and ERS regular who also played the Duke, the company projected Shakespeare’s words on a screen on the back wall of the theater. The actors often spoke their lines with their eyes fixed in that distance. Sometimes the projected lines also appeared on stage. In a gambit that echoed Shepherd’s quite amazing performance in the Wooster Group Hamlet (2007), the company spoke its Shakespeare in visible dialogue with an onscreen and on-stage text.

I find Shepherd a fascinating and sometimes frustrating performer. He played the Duke in multiple over-broad accents, some English and some southern American, and often ran his lines so fast that even I couldn’t follow them — and I’m a Shakespearean who just finished teaching this play for the umpteenth time two weeks ago. He’s technically brilliant as an actor, but he also willfully refuses audience engagement. I’ve seen him quite a few times: back in 2007 in Wooster Group’s wonderfully bizarre Hamlet, and more recently in three different versions of his Wooster Troilus, between 2012 and 2015. In the middle performance of the three, in the group’s downtown Performing Garage space at 33 Wooster Street on a bitterly cold January night, Shepherd’s complex in-ear microphone arrangement broke mid-performance, and we all waited for 15 min with the house lights on for them to re-cue the technology. He’s clearly committed to a cyber-practice, in which human engagement with machines must be paramount. It can be alienating, but also dazzling. In this Measure it’s both.

Scott Shepherd in rehearsal

The Duke is an ambivalent figure, and a good match for Shepherd’s own ambivalence. He’s the beneficent manipulator in contrast to his deputy Angelo’s tyrant, but he also remains shadowy, a “fantastical Duke of dark corners” (4.3) in Lucio’s apt slander. Shepherd’s performance maximized the Duke’s elusive nature. He is hard to follow and never quite available to his followers, including the audience. His exchanges with Mike Iveson’s Lucio showed a regal annoyance that was perhaps his most straightforward human reaction. His intentions toward Claudio, Escalus, and Isabella were harder to read. By the end, Shepherd’s concealing mania, tangible as the Duke rounded up his subjects for the final reversals and rewards, hinted at a depth that wasn’t quite legible as emotion but was moving nonetheless.

Speaking of divided selves, Pete Simpson’s Angelo combined comic egotism with violence and desire. He enjoyed swinging the medallion of authority around his neck in a circle, and he also gargled ostentatiously and spritzed himself with cologne before seeing Isabella, He also performed, in some moments, a looming and often silent menace. The physical breaks he performed became easier for me to understand after a quick morning google showed me that he’s a member of the Blue Man Group, and he has logged over 4,000 (!) performances for the long-running show whose home base is across the street from the Public. He wasn’t always a frightening Angelo, nor perhaps an entirely sympathetic one — but he was fun to watch. I’ve never seen this part played as a half-clown before. It perhaps unduly minimized his threat to Isabella, and perhaps also his super-hero of virtue self-conception, but it led to some interesting stage comedy.

Given a Duke so off-kilter and an Angelo so goofy, the center-around-which-we-revolved became Isabella. Rinne Groff provided the human heart inside the technological and performative hijinks. Most powerful when facing off with her brother Claudio, Groff’s Isabella humanized almost everyone she touched: the Provost, Mariana, Lucio, even Escalus. The staging emphasized one on one conversations, and in those situations Groff’s empathetic performance shone. Her separation from the underworld figures of Pompey and Mistress Overdone allowed their comic play to entertain without great consequence, because we could tell they were there mostly for fun.

I’m going again to see this production with my students on Nov 7, and in the interest of avoiding spoilers I’ll not describe the quite brilliant solution director John Collins devised for the puzzling final moment of this play, except to say that it very neatly located both Shepherd’s Duke and Groff’s Isabella in their social and human contexts.

Greig Sargeat as Claudio, Pete Simpson as Angelo, Vin Knight as Escalus, Maggie Hoffman as Provost

I’m not sure how my seats are still available between now and Nov 12 — but go see it if you can!



Nashe’s Voices in Shakespeare’s House

Our man Thom (in leg irons)

A bunch of academics talking in a windowless underground room don’t amount to anyone’s idea of a revolution. But as we Nashers gnashed at the Folger’s weekend symposium on the works and contexts of the Elizabethan writer Thomas Nashe, I kept thinking about sudden, violent, unexpected change. Maybe it was the hurricane roaring through Cuba on its way to Florida. Maybe it was Nashe’s incandescent, maddening, dizzying prose style. Maybe my own years-ago joke-and-fantasy that The Age of Thomas Nashe might displace those other proper names we assign to the late sixteenth century (Elizabeth, some guy named Will). Something was in the air this past weekend.

The #NasheBash represented a collaboration between the Folger and the Thomas Nashe Project, a mostly UK-based effort spear-headed by Jennifer Richards, Andrew Hadfield, Cathy Shrank, and (in Amherst, MA) Joe Black. It was a treat to have the four lead editors and other members of the Nsshe tem in DC this past weekend, so that the particular challenges of editing Nashe — in addition to reading him, writing about him, and teaching his works — structured our conversation. Jenny and Andrew’s opening talk oscillated between a desire to materialize or oralize this figure — I’m still mulling Jenny’s fascinating thoughts about how to conceptualize and make tangible “Nashe’s voice” — and also to respond adequately to Nashe’s breathtaking range of reference and allusion. In some ways these are opposite projects: to write good notes for Nashe means building an intellectual superstructure to support and contain his wayward prose, but to attend to Nashe’s voice might include feeling lost at sea.

Gabriel Harvey

The two-voicedness of the opening talk that Jenny and Andrew gave us on Thursday night also set a great example of exchange and dialogue. We talked a lot this weekend about insults — Nashe was a brilliant writer of invective, and his pamphlet war with Gabriel Harvey generated some extraordinary invented works and bafflingly ornate sentences. All weekend I kept hearing Nashe in two voices — as in Kate De Rycker’s performance script for Terrors of the Night, which I sadly missed this past May at the Globe’s indoor theater — and sometimes those voices were Jenny’s and Andrew’s, though of course there were may others of us speaking, some thirty-odd in total.

I won’t try to re-cap the dozen short talks, each presented in groups of two, or David Scott Kasten’s eloquent closing remarks, including an intriguing turn to the “Englishing” ambitions of late sixteenth-century English authors. Instead I’ll reimagine the discussions through some keywords that percolated through our discussion. Apologies in advance for elements of our conversations that I won’t get to, not to mention failing to cite all the brilliant things said by so many people. I’m writing on the 6 am northbound Amtrak, bouncing through Maryland just now, and not every book of memory is perfectly clear.

A possible signatur?


Might energy — intensity, power, force — be a defining characteristic of Nashe’s prose? We gestured several times toward enargia as a classical rhetorical trope (though without citing Puttenham I don’t think), and many of us in different ways — Bob Hornback discussing Nashe’s debt to post-Tarlton extemporaneity in prose, Reid Barbour on a preacherly style, Joan Pong Linton on performance, Adam Zucker on pedantry as anti-model and, oddly, also ideal — responded to the coiled-spring quality of Nashe’s prose. Perhaps my favorite moments in the many talks, and the wonderfully capacious hour-plus of conversation that followed each pair of talks, happened when we let Nashe’s phrases and coinages and glorious insane sentences wash over us. It’s an old idea — C.S. Lewis’s idea, in fact — that Nashe is best understood as a “pure” stylist. I’d resist Lewis’s somewhat disembodied or abstract Nashe, but he’s not entirely wrong about style.


Poop jokes are the best jokes, and an early morning trip through Nashe’s scatological obsessiveness by way of Alan Stewart’s editing of the letter to William Cotton and its attacks on Gabriel Harvey showed everyone, with almost uncomfortable physicality, how deep into the shit Nashe dove. Alan’s notion, which Adam Zucker later suggested might plausibly represent a foundational claim in Nashe studies since McKerrow’s early 20c edition, that Nashe is somehow the heart or quintessence of “the Elizabethan” (or maybe the 1590s?) emerges from the breadth of reference in his short career. I learned about many new and utterly convincing Nashean intertexts, from patristic writings to London sermons, clown prose in print, almanacks, commonplace books, Aretino’s varied career (he’s not just a pornographer!) and even Apuleius’s Latin “Greek romance,” The Golden Ass. Nashe is a maze, a plurality, sometimes an editorial nightmare — the melancholy in Andrew’s voice describing the baffling nature of some sentences in Have With You to Saffron-Walden was palpable — but always a step or three ahead of conceptual pursuit.

Nashe had a way with titles


Jenny’s efforts to unpack the oral/aural nature of Nashe’s prose, and to connect his works to Elizabethan and later traditions of performance made a valuable through-line over the weekend. Joan Pong LInton and Adam explored Nashe’s connections to Elizabethan drama, Heidi Brayman guideed our attention to reading practices including oral reading, via a lovely manuscript compression of Greene’s Menaphon, in the paratextual margins of which Nashe first entered print. Andy Fleck’s survey of routes into Nashe, from EEBO to the old Penguin paperback edition to the in-progress OUP set and the Broadview teaching edition of The Unfortunate Travleler he’s currently editing also emphasized the variety of the ways into this career.


I tried, in my talk on “Nashe’s geographies,” to build off Kristen Bennett’s great discussion of cosmological disorientation to get at Nashe’s peculiar charm.. I’m not sure I got all the way there, and at times over the weekend I worried just a little bit that our collective love for our guy Tom might slightly obscure his less attractive habits, including violent rhetorical excess and a studied misogyny that extends to quasi-feminine genres such as romance. But I do still like a formulation I uncovered early in my talk: Nahse chooses “velocity over identity.” That seems to me to start to account for both his attraction, for Nashers like us, and also his off-putting qualities, for readers from Gabriel Harvey to at least some of the students on whom we have foisted, and will continue to foist, our favorite Elizabethan proser.


A book written against Nashe

Sam Fallon, one of many early-career scholars who I was delighted to meet this weekend, gave a smart talk on Nashe’s plural and unstable genre practices. He suggested that parody as a “characteristic mode” more than a generic kind might be a useful organizing principle. I very much agree, and I think the “para” in “parody” might be useful to think with in making sense of Nashe’s dense referentiality and also his violent energy. As with early texts such as the Anatomy of Absurdity and the prefaces to Sidney and Greene, Nashe performs a quasi-critical and partially parasitical engagement with 1590s literary culture. Maybe that’s why we lit crit types love him?

I especially value the sense in Sam’s talk of how parody, and other of our shared terms such as referentiality and even energy, flow from Nashe’s engaging with heterogeneity. I was struck by how many non-London landscapes got evoked in our conversation, from Great Yarmouth to the Isle of Wight to (in Kristen’s talk) the cosmological spheres. There’s an old tradition, that I suspect McKerrow’s early and bibliographically important edition helped motivate, of reading Nashe through terms such as “singularity” (as in Stephen Hilliard’s book) or “the scandal of authorship” (Jonathan Crewe’s term). There’s something to that reading, certainly,but I also like to think about Nashe in and through collectives — including the collective body of Nashe scholars, some of whom assembled in the Folger this weekend. “My people,” as quite a few people said over the course of the weekend.

Ephemerality and Extemporaneity

Jenny Anderson’s paper on the pamphlet as material format and discursive type dove-tailed wonderfully with Ian Moulton’s provocative talk on the “bad career move” of Nashe’s unremarked death and his failure to consolidate a laureate career like his sometime collaborator Ben Jonson. I think the ephemeral is a great term to think Nashe with, both because of its material connection to his printed output and also because the material fragility of the pamphlet echoes or resonates with his obsession with the extemporal. Bob’s quite stunning talk had already powerfully connected Nashe to extemporal post-Tarlton clowning  in print, and also with Falstaff. I also think Nashe associates the “extemporal vein” with his sometime friend, mentor, and semi-rival, Robert Greene. I suspect more could be said about Nashe and Greene in the first few years of the 1590s: Greene’s prose romances had in the 1580s the popular success that Nashe never quite managed to achieve, but the final turns of Greene’s career before (and shortly after) his death in 1592 indicate a Nashean restlessness. Nashe’s genre experiments in the mid-90s respond  to the genre-scatterplot of Greene’s his final turns to crime pamphlets, repentance tracts, and anti-Harvey invective – but given Greene’s penniless death, one wonders what Nashe thought he was following.

Partial Belonging


In trying to make sense of Nashe’s waywardness across several levels, including  geographic ideas, generic variety, and syntactic complexity, I suggested the term “partial belonging” as a kind of analytical hedge: it signals Nashe’s double-facedness, his desire to be both “in” and “out,” plural and singular, knowing and unknowable. It’s also a term that for me speaks to the nature of early modern genre in theory and practice, which both operate as modes of categorization and appeal to hybrid contamination and the building of new kinds.

I’m left, after an “exhilarating” weekend (to repurpose one of David Scott Kasten’s closing descriptions of Nashe) thinking about the paradox of how a microscopic exploration of a single idiosyncratic figure can open up vistas. Alan’s notion that Nashe, if we could understand him (which we can’t), could explain all of Elizabethan culture points in one direction, and Ian’s provocative connections between Nashean invective and the vitriol of internet troll culture in another. I want to go both ways, and all the other ways too. Symposia such as this one are always about addition — I’ve come away with a long list of things I want to read, and projects I can’t wait to see emerge into print — and even more about engagement and entanglement. I’m not sure what I’ll next write about Nashe, but I’m so happy to see his works driving so many conversations.

Two last things, in a Nashean spirit of excess: first, one element of the joke of The Age of Thomas Nashe, which had its origins in a Shakespeare Association of America seminar co-run by Joan Pong Linton and Stephen Guy-Bray, was that we’d plan a hostile takeover and rebrand the SAA as the Nashe Association. Nashe might have chafed at being cooped up in the bottom floor of Shakespeare’s house, or even at sharing space at our wine-reception with a First Folio yesterday evening. But Nashe, who never found the patron he desperately wanted in his lifetime, was housed so well beneath the Folger’s capacious umbrella, under which premodern culture thrives and flourishes. We only talked a little Shakespeare this weekend, and didn’t really take up the question of how closely Moth in Love’s Labors Lost is meant to represent Nashe, but the old guy felt more beneficent than he sometimes can.

Lastly — the pleasures of the weekend were also made possible by all the other symposium participants whose names I’ve not mentioned and whose contributions came by way of after-talk discussion, not to mention hallway banter and around the bar extrapolation. There are some great projects-in-process that involve Nashe, and I look forward to seeing them move forward. It was a pleasure to meet new people and hear new voices.

Among with rare books (with Jenny Richards)

After-lastly, in hasty postscript: thanks to the Folger itself, especially Kathleen, Owen, and Elyse. I didn’t have time to sneak into the Reading Room on this trip, but I’ll be back in DC in March or April. As always, I’m Amtrak-ing northward this morning with an eye on my next southbound train.

Happy travels to all Nashers and (to borrow one last phrase from our weekend) Nashe-adjacents!





Hamlet at the Public (2017)

Melancholy Rebel Pilot

A man’s body lies prone, face up with eyes closed. The image repeats itself, with different bodies, some living, some ghostly, some just playing dead. In the opening scene, a young man in black stares at the body of his father. By the last scene, we’re staring at the young man’s body.

The Public Theater’s current Hamlet features Star Wars: The Force Awakens leading man Oscar Isaac as the body everyone loves to watch, but it’s also notable for Sam Gold’s aggressive direction and some other great performances, especially Peter Friedman as Polonius and Ritchie Coster, double-cast as Claudius and the ghost of Old Hamlet — which meant the brother and his murderer were the same man. What Queen could leave “this fair mountain” to “batten on this moor” (3.4) expostulated Hamlet in the closet scene, holding up two pictures of the same face. No wonder Gertrude thought he’s mad!

Isaac’s was the face that brought me and my fourteen year-old daughter eagerly to a nearly four-hour show, and we both agree that he was worth every minute. I’ve not seen too many of the movie star Hamlets in recent circulation — no Cumberbatch, Fiennes, or Tennant for me — but it’s hard to imagine that any of them were as engaging, moving, or constantly entertaining as Isaac. From the intense gaze with which he stared at his father’s corpse in the opening through a wonderfully playful series of scenes in antic underwear — as many reviews have noted, this is a four-hour Hamlet that takes the comic undersong seriously — he simply dazzled. In a performance dedicated to his recently deceased mother, as movingly detailed in this Times article,  Isaac surfaced an emotional availability and communicative force that captures the true “purpose of playing” (3.2). I know that as a card-carrying Shakespearean academic I’m not supposed to swoon for a Rebel Pilot, but he really was great. Olivia thought so too.

Keegan-Michael Key as Horatio

One of my favorite moments in Isaac’s performance was his intense delivery of the advice to the Players, in particular the admonition that the clowns not overplay their parts. He delivered those lines directly to the comedian Keegan-Michael Key, who was the Player King in the dumbshow and also an authoritative Horatio. As Player King, Key rejected Hamlet’s advice in a wonderfully excessive scenery chewing death. The dumbshow placed Key’s body in the “rest position” of the production, lying on his back, receiving poison in his ear, like a patient etherized on a table, as another poet says. In some ways the dumbshow, in which Key’s comic gyrations insisted that even the dead aren’t quite dead yet, seems to me the “heart’s core” (3.2) of this production: his body lay prone like the Ghost’s, Polonius’s, and eventually Hamlet’s, but his writhing antics showed motion under death’s silence.

There was lots more to like about Isaac’s Hamlet. He started the old chestnut of “To be or not to be” from rest position on the table, staring up at the ceiling, and in slow cadences engaging the overfamiliar lines. At this point we the audience wanted, and for a time could not have, his actorly attention: looking up and away from all three sides of the crowd, he played his death-seeking soliloquy as refusal to perform, to look at us, to play. For most of the performance he was a prince who loved playing and loved people, most of all Horatio but even — in some of my favorite exchanges of the performance — Polonius, whose old-man pseudo-wit projected the regal dignity that Coster’s violent Claudius eschewed. Was this the only Polonius I’ve seen that really showed, beneath his foolish pomposity and staleness of wit, the stature on which Claudius relies? “The head is not more native to the heart,” says the king about his advisor, perhaps aping Polonius’s own cadences, nor “The hand more instrumental to the mouth” (1.2).

Olivia outside the Public

Sometimes I think my increasing taste for Polonius might have to do with my having just entered my own 5th decade, at which point it seems pretty clear that I am not prince Hamlet nor was meant to be, though I still sometimes play insufferable Dad to a brilliant daughter. Polonius may be a poor father and indifferent wit, but he’s a lively genre-theorist and, at least in this production, a charismatic presence. Like many other reviewers, I was a bit perplexed by the scene in which he’s barking orders from the almost onstage toilet (2.1), but in general he was a highlight. He was much missed after his death in 3.4, which also marked the second interval. (Incidental & perhaps trivial aside: the between-intervals section of this production ran from “To be or not to be” [3.1] through the disposal of Polonius’s body [4.3] — is there a more relentless hour of theater in the language?) Even after being killed Polonius had one last comic turn, when antic Hamlet, seeking a place to stow the dead body, asked the audience member across the stairwell from me to move, propped Polonius up in her seat, put sunglasses on him and a Playbill in his hand. He sat there quietly, “most still, most secret, and most grave / Who in life was a foolish peating knave” (3.4).

A few scenes later, after his body was mock-buried by Ophelia with dirt she lugged in from planters in the lobby, Friedman started up from his prone rest to play the gravedigger. In this last role he brought comic life back to a stage that, after its second intermission, was missing its strongest actors, both the prince (for a few scenes) and Polonius. The skullplay that followed was as broad as by this point we expected — since the second gravedigger was cross-cast with Ophelia, we even get a skull-as-baby-being-born gag — but Isaac’s Hamlet had by this point cleaned himself up, put black pants over antic undies, washed his face, and chastened his gaze. He even, when the poor Yorick speech briefly shifted into iambic verse, broke into song:

Imperious Caesar, dead and turned to clay

Might stop a hole to keep the wind away.

O, that that earth which longer kept the world in awe

Should patch a wall t’expel the water’s flaw. (5.1.202-05)

I tend to think that Hamlet’s sparrow-philosophy in act 5 is pretty thin beer and unable to account for the play’s violence. Isaac’s soulful delivery almost convinced me otherwise.

The Players playing

Not every part was as brilliantly played as the trio of Hamlet-Claudius-Polonius. Some reviewers liked Gayle Rankin’s Ophelia; I enjoyed the manic energy she put into the role, from binge-eating a massive tray of lasagne in act 2 to singing her mad songs in a “Skip to m’Lou” beat. But her lament for Hamlet’s loss of his powers — “O, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown” (3.1) — felt tepid. Her performance was emotionally opaque, which meant that when Isaac gushed, “I loved Ophelia” (5.1) in the graveyard scene, even in retrospect the relationship did not move. I loved Charlayne Woddard in Red Bull’s Witch of Edmonton in 2011, but her Gertrude never quite figured itself out. Roberta Colindrez and Matthew Saldivar were uncharacteristically sympathetic and memorable as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, but Anatol Yusef’s Laertes seemed a bit by-the-numbers.

In the play’s final clinch, Hamlet squirted poison into his uncle’s ear from a syringe (lots of syringes in this production), and the two dying men held each other up in a staggering embrace. Ritchie Coster had just taken his shirt off, which costume change usually signaled the shift from Claudius to Old Hamlet. Playing both good father and bad uncle at the moment that he’s killed by our prince, Coster’s final moment wasn’t especially subtle — yes, all the men in the Danish royal line really are murderous Machiavels — but this last turn was, after nearly four hours, quite moving. The two men loved each other and killed each other.

The Fortinbras foreign-policy plot having been excised, Key’s charismatic Horatio closed the curtain by claiming that he could  “truly deliver” all the story of Denmark’s tragedy. I often spend classroom time on that speech, treating its summary of “accidental judgments, casual slaughters” (5.2) as a misreading of the play’s ambivalence about action. But in that moment, staring at the finally-still body of Oscar Isaac prone in rest position on the table, I felt convinced by this Horatio. He could, and the show had, truly delivered.

Hamlet and his not-father in law

It’s sold out of course, but if you can finagle tickets before Sept 3, it’s worth the whole afternoon or evening!


Against Tyranny (Shakespeare, Snyder, Milton, and “Brutus”)

Books against Tyranny

This week brings to an end a short and intense online summer grad course on the suddenly topical subject of “Tyranny.” An intrepid band of students joined me to engage with Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (2017), Shakespeare’s Macbeth (1606), the pseudonymously published Huguenot resistance tract Vindiciae contra tyrannos (1579), and Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667/1674). We had a lot to say, and our scant five weeks left us little room to shoe-horn in the public debate on Julius Caesar occasioned by the Breitbart-ing of the Public’s production in Central Park.

I’ve distilled my swirling thoughts into five takeaway lessons, or just 25% of Snyder’s longer list. No time for more just now!

My organizing thought, in part responding to a wonderfully restrained production of Macbeth we saw in Rowaytan CT last week, is that literary culture teaches patience, vigilance, and (alas that it is so) guarded pessimism in the long struggle against tyranny. Literature teaches that we cannot always avoid tyranny, but we can resist it and limit it, some of the time.

The fiery slogan sic semper tyrannis, “thus always to tyrants,” which Brutus may or may not have said when stabbing Caesar but which John Wilkes Booth (whose father was named Brutus) wrote in his diary after he shot Abraham Lincoln, has a grim notoriety among American Shakespeareans. Booth and his brothers had played Shakespeare’s Caesar-killing conspirators in a benefit performance in 1864. The funds from that production erected a statue of Shakespeare that still stands in Central Park. The most famous actor among the Booth boys, Edwin, played Brutus; John Wilkes, the year before he killed the President, played Antony, who revenges the play’s assassination. The American legacy of the tyrant-killer’s motto should disturb more than just Shakespeareans: the phrase appears in both innocuous places, such as Maryland’s state song, and horrific ones, such as Timothy McVeigh’s t-shirt when he was arrested following the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995.

Plus one more that snuck in this summer

What I was looking for in the works we read this summer, and what we found, is something less sudden than regime-change and less history-breaking than impeachment. I found things that resist, affirm, and sustain.

Here are my five lessons:

First Lesson: Read until the end.

I’ve been thinking about endings since Breitbart News suggested that Julius Caesar ends after the title character’s death and should be understood as a pro-regicide play. Everyone who sticks around for the civil war and collapse of the Republic during the next two-and-a-half acts knows better. But I wonder if the point might be generalizable: to understand a historical event requires knowing both its origins and consequences. Did Zhou Enlai really say it was “too early to tell” about the French Revolution in 1972?

One advantage of literary texts is that they can imagine possible endings that aren’t readily available in historical contexts. Endings can be hard to find in history, especially contemporary history, but literary texts all have endings, generic forms, and ideas that emerge from these forms.

To a literary scholar, Timothy Snyder’s twenty maxims against tyranny collectively explore choices of generic form: must Americans today accept conscription into a blood-and-soil history play, or can we #resist in the name of humanistic globalism? Can we write comic unifications rather than violent attempts to divide? Into what genre do we fit our historical present?

The tragic narrative of tyranny, as Snyder observes, dominated European history in the middle of the last century. After 1989, the West in his view entered an extended flirtation with what he calls a “politics of inevitability” (118), in which history ceased to be a struggle and instead became an accretion of technical and incremental progress. Against this thin inevitability, nationalist and authoritarian recrudescences in Europe, the UK, and last fall in the USA advocate a “politics of eternity” (121) that conjures a largely fantasized past. Snyder asks for a renewed sense of history to combat both false views.

But from a literary perspective, the open-ness of “history,” which Snyder defines as “the company of those who have done and suffered more than we have” (125), minimizes the need to imagine an end toward which we are progressing. Literary endings, from the tragedies of Julius Caesar and Macbeth to the more ambivalent “wandering steps and slow” (12.648) which guide Adam and Eve out of Eden, provide models against which to measure the ends of human actions. Snyder’s heroes, both the American Founding Fathers and 20c anti-fascists in Central Europe, followed literary as well as historical lessons. Some, such as Czeslaw Milosz and Vaclav Havel, were themselves major literary figures. Entwining historical observation with literary speculation requires that we imagine literary endings as models for historically-unfolding events — and that we revise those models as facts change. We think with and through real and imagined endings.

Second Lesson: Time and tyrants.

Watching Macbeth in a CT park the other night, I kept re-hearing the characters’ aversions to time. “I feel now,” says freshly unsexed Lady Macbeth to her husband, “The future in the instant” (1.5.57-58). Macbeth wants to “jump the life to come” (1.7.7) and after the murder he returns to his wife’s word for timelessness: “from this instant / There’s nothing serious in mortality” (2.3.93-94). Maybe the couple’s bloody ambition aims to escape time as much as ascend the throne?

Milton’s Satan, too, rebels against temporality when he vaunts to his fellow devils that he bears “A mind not to be chang’d by Place or Time” (1.253). Something there is about tyranny that can’t abide temporal progression?

It’s not enough to say that all tyrants will and must be defeated by and in time, since such a formula elides the need for human solidarity in present struggle. It also falsifies the historical record; lots of tyrants don’t lose. But learning to live contingently in time, with patience and labor, seems to be what tyrants eschew. Living in time as time moves on: it’s tedious, excruciating, necessary.

Third Lesson: “Kings receive laws from the people.”

This maxim comes from the Vindiciae contra tryannos (3.53-54), a #resistance tract published under the pseudonym “Brutus Celta” by French Protestant authors in 1579, possibly in response to the bloody St Bartholomew’s Day massacre of Protestants in Paris in 1572. In a striking inversion of how we think kings (and Presidents) operate, this lesson stresses the monarch’s dependence on the people and their duty to “receive” national laws. Before the Enlightenment theories of democratic politics on which Snyder draws, these sixteenth-century authors find #peoplepower in examples from an eclectic mix of classical, Biblical, and Renaissance sources: from Cyrus the Great to Lycurgus of Sparta; Kings Saul and David of Israel; Romulus and Augustus Caesar; even the sixteenth-century monarchs of France, England, Spain, Poland, Hungary, and other nations.

It’s possible to read the historical and classical record differently, as Machiavelli does in The Prince, drawing on some of the same texts. But it’s striking to see the seeds of #resistance to monarchal power in this pre-democratic text. The people, according to this fictional “Brutus,” are not an unruly mob but the source of national law.

This point seems especially compelling in June 2017 in the context of the US Senate’s secretive and dishonest attempt to legislate an end to publicly supported health insurance for 22 million people whose voices the Republican party is trying very hard not to hear.

Fourth Lesson: “If thou beest he; But O how fall’n!” (1.84)

Paradise Lost provides a fun-house mirror of tyrants, from ambitious Satan to placid God, mansplaining angels, controlling Adam, and curious Eve. Tyranny — if by that term we mean a desire to control more of creation than can be controlled — appears to be a generalized consequence of the Fall. As with other postlapserian qualities, we can glimpse it even in angels and the seat of Heaven. Presumably we see God as a tyrant only because we see with Fallen eyes. But it’s hard to see Him any other way!

Satan’s first words in the epic describe his fellow devil Beelzebub as irremediably changed by their Fall, but his echo of Isaiah 14:11 reflects that fall back onto himself. To Fall and be fall’n (the elision in the word “fallen” fits the pentameter, but surely the poet also intends an audible diminution) means to experience irredeemable loss. Satan faces fall’n-ness without submitting, but the properly human (and, in Snyder’s sense, historical) response must be to accept limitations imposed by the Fall. To borrow a political phrase, we can never be “great again.” All we can do is persist, “hand in hand,” beyond Paradise. #strongertogether

Fifth Lesson Don’t believe in the sameness of “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.” 

Listening once again last week in Rowaytan to Macbeth’s glorious speech that ends up “Signifying nothing” (5.5.22), it struck me that this lyric gorgeousness precisely inverts what Snyder calls a sense of history, which “permits us to be responsible: not for everything, but for something” (125). Macbeth loses all sense of history, responsibility, and human connection after the death of his wife; he’s left only with “th’equivocation of the fiend / That lies like truth” (5.5.42-43).

The anti-tyrannical lesson of Macbeth and perhaps of all these texts requires historical and imaginative discipline to eschew the “walking shadow” (5.5.23) and believe better things are possible, even today.

Anti-tyrannist authors including Shakespeare imagine that non-tyrannical destinies are possible, even when the historical record suggests, as Snyder reminds us, that the “history of modern democracy is also one of decline and fall” (10).

Thanks to my students for a stimulating summer of anti-tyrannical texts!

Further dilations on this tyrannous theme will follow at panels I’m chairing at MLA (New York City, January 2018) and RSA (New Orleans, April 2018).


Macbeth (Shakespeare on the Sound 2017)

Before last night’s terrific production of Macbeth by Shakespeare on the Sound in Rowaytan, CT, my students and I had a great chat with Claire Kelly, who directed this show, and with Emily Bryan, who prepared the script for performance (and who I’ve known for some time in academic Shakespeare circles).

Claire observed something about the Weird Sisters that I’ve noticed also — the first Witch speaks about the past, the second about the present, the third about the future — and she used that insight to structure her casting, with the first sister played by the adult Jessica van Neil, the second by twenty-something Meghan Grover, and the third, with dazzling energy, by twelve-year old Beatrice Shannon. With that prompt, I re-heard all the language about time and simultaneity in the play, from Macbeth’s urge to “jump the life to come” (1.7.7) to the urgent futurity of Lady Macbeth’s “all-hail hereafter” (1.5.55) to the resonant glories of “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” (5.5.16-27). It’s not a new thought to say that the polytemporal Sisters and the Macbeth’s ambition drive the play’s headlong reckless pace. But it felt urgent and all around me last night.

Lines of Kings

Another great pleasure of this outdoor production was the fractured set. Pinkney Park, a small green space by a salt-water estuary a few hundred yards from Long Island Sound, is a natural depression. The stage spread around the space in many parts: a central circle like a well, a banquet table, witches’s heath, and battlefield, not to mention several scenes that were played among audience members on beach blankets and folding chairs. With help from Emily Bryan, our group reserved a blanket down at the center, which meant a lot of turning and neck-craning to locate scene changes, but also a wonderful feeling of being at the center of things.

The distributed set did in space what Shakespeare’s language does in time and Kelly’s casting did with the Sisters: it made everything present simultaneously, rejecting lineal progression in favor of multiple points of access. Even the vision of Banquo’s line of kings, “stretch[ing] out to th’ crack of doom” (4.3.116) stretched both ways, radiating out in two directions from the centrally-placed Banquo, played with wonderful charisma by Calvin Smith.

Sound too encircled us: in place of a musical score, the disembodied voices of the Sisters echoed chorus-like over the audio system during scenes and transitions. Solitary words swirled out of fog-machine fog: “Macbeth…Treason…Murder…Macbeth.”

Graham Stevens as Macbeth. Winsome Brown as Lady Macbeth.

Of the performances, my favorite was Winsome Brown as a daring and pleasure-loving Lady Macbeth. Prompted by my thinking about time and simultaneity in the play, I heard in her reading of her husband’s letter ( an abrupt embrace of the play’s headlong rush toward dark futures: “Glamis thou art, and Cawdor, and shalt be / What thou art promised” (1.5.15-16). When she fears his “milk of human kindness” (1.5.17) she’s anticipating her husband’s dilatory nature, the slow thickness of his reasoning and his poetic languors. Her world is faster and more eager. To set up the “unsex me here” soliloquy, Brown walked slowly down to the well at the center of the stage area. She paced around the well’s circular edge, slowly pouring the dregs of her glass of red wine into the grass a few feet from my Birkenstock’d toes. Then she stood at the center of the circle and addressed the sky. “Come you spirits / That tend on mortal thoughts…” (1.5..40-41) It’s hard to perform these familiar lines distinctly, but Brown soared them last night.

I’ve seen a few recent productions that emphasize the passion in the marriage, but I’ve seldom seen a Lady Macbeth show herself more bereft at her husband’s withdrawal in the second half of the play. The final lines of her mad hand-washing speech, which were also her final lines in the play — ”To bed, to bed, to bed” (5.1.67) — voiced marital solitude and alienation.

Graham Stevens

Graham Stevens was as likeable and persuasive as one might ask a Macbeth to be — perhaps even too sympathetic for a tyrant and killer. His measured delivery emphasized how much of his spoken part poses doubts, anxieties, a troubled conscience. “He’s here in double trust” (1.7.12) Stevens explained. We don’t see him perform kill his king, though we watch him wash clean his “hangman’s hands” (2.2.28), “I have done the deed” (2.2.15), he reports to his wife. But we never see him at it.

The rest of the cast was strong and compelling, especially Lucy van Atta as Lady Macduff and the compellingly quadruple-cast John Hardin (also of the awesome Adirondack Shakespeare Company), who developed a bitter and funny through-line as Porter, Old Man, First Murderer, and Doctor. Nicholas Urda brought enough taught violence to the part of Macduff that I wondered what he would’ve done in the title role.

My students and I came to the production prepped by our online summer class in “Tyranny,” having read Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and the 16c Huguenot resistance tract Vindiciae contra tyrannos alongside Macbeth. We’ve been having intense and often Trump-y conversations about how literary culture represents tyranny, resistance, and political catastrophe. This production avoided flash points and has not been harassed by Breitbart-reading trolls. But it left me thinking about how seductive the rush to violent change can be. Even with supernatural accomplices, tyranny looked very human on this outdoor stage. As Macbeth says to the phantom dagger, “Thou marshell’st me the way that I was going, / And such an instrument I was to use” (2.1.42-43).

Go see it before it closes July 2!

Winsome Brown, reading the letter


Passions of Bloom: #artsideas17

It’s not often a literature professor gets to listen to his own profession sung in gorgeous oratorio, in seven voices, backed by twenty-three musicians from the Yale Philharmonic. In a dozen songs written and composed by Martin Bresnick, Passions of Bloom brought together poetry by Whitman and Dickinson, Melville’s prose, and organizing snippets and bits of melancholy autobiography from Harold Bloom, mostly extracted from his 2015 book The Daemon Knows: Greatness and the American Sublime

Like many of the literary critics at whom Bloom’s been sniping since before I finished grad school — I did my PhD at Yale but didn’t take his course on Shakespeare — I’m ambivalent about his popularizing celebrations of a traditional, mostly white and mostly male canon. But in this new format, Bloom’s memoir-tinged engagements with great works of literature, voiced by members of Yale Choral Artists, produced brilliant, humanizing, engaging art. 

It turns out that the old familiar masters, set to new music and sung with aching beauty, can do quite a lot.

At the post-performance champagne toast, Bresnick quipped that he hadn’t expected the references to Bloom still teaching after 54 years and also to a “dreary” November morning in New Haven to be laugh lines, as they were last night. I imagine there were quite a few other professors in the crowd, though I only recognized one member of the Yale English department from my students days in the ’90s. Probably I missed a few others.

The vocal parts included two tenors, singing the parts of Bloom and Walt Whitman, a Bass-Baritone as Melville, a basso prufundo dredging the roar of Ahab up from deep in his stomach, a Baritone as Ishmael, and two different women singing the parts of Emily Dickinson, in Mezzo-Soprano and Soprano. I’m not expert enough to judge the singing, but I thought all brilliant: James Taylor as Bloom hinted melancholy beneath the ego, and both the women who sang Dickinson — one for the poems, another for an excerpt from a letter — were breathtaking performers. 

The opening set of songs featured Bloom and Whitman, tracing Bloom’s reading of Walt as “American Adam” and prophet of an American Gnosticism and national religion of the self. (I’ve not read The Daemon Knows, but Bloom’s been making this argument for decades.) The opening line and title of the second song, “I have aged into a firm conviction that true criticism recognizes itself as a mode of memoir,” reveals the human pathos of the Bloom-figure, both his massive egotism and the openness to literary experience that self-regard enables. Is it possible to read so voraciously without deeply contemplating the self?

After Whitman comes Melville in three voices: the author, Ahab, and Ishmael. The show-stopper here was Glenn Miller’s deeper-than-deep bass voice, thundering Ahab’s wish to “strike the sun if it insulted me.” This section of the oratorio ended with Bloom’s query, “Are all Americans Ahab?” — which, to me at least, emphasized that the reading of Moby-Dick presented in these songs was Ahabic rather than Ishmael-ish. The bow oarsman and lone survivor does get some music, including a rehearsal of his “playbill” about the Grand Contested Election and war in Afghanistan, which Bloom and Bresnick note were current news in 1850 (when Moby-Dick was published), 2015 (when The Daemon Knows appeared) and again today. 

But I can hardly blame Bloom for not responding to a fully Ishmael-ist reading of the novel when I’ve only just started my own version of such a thing, when I published the first three poems of Sailing without Ahab in April.

Third and last came Emily Dickinson in poems and a letter. The two poems, “The Saddest Noise, the Sweetest Noise” and “Tell all the truth but tell it slant,” called less upon the power of interpretation than of celebration, as he admitted that Emily was beyond his critical grasp. An excerpt from one of her letters to Thomas Higginson, in which she names “myself the only kangaroo among the beauty,” made gorgeous contrast with the canonical verses, though Martin Bresnick admitted afterward that the ‘roo was a hidden nod to his Australian wife.

All the voices appeared on stage together for “Bloom’s Daemon” and “The Lesson Done,” the last of which brought the full house to its feet in joy.

I learned after the show that Harold Bloom is not well enough to have been there last night, but he hopes to watch a video feed of the performance today. He should feel gratified, hearing the musical rewards of a life’s reading and grappling with poetry’s oblique promises. 

One of Bloom’s lines described sitting down to write his chapter on Melville on “November 13th,” on a day in which New Haven’s air smelled of the ocean. When Ishmael feels that “damp drizzly November in my soul” he takes to sea. When Bloom feels it — or when I do — he opens a book. All of us looking for the same thing?

Such a pleasure to follow this musical version of the literary journey in New Haven last night! 




Dylan in 2017

Driving home from Father’s Day Dylan at the Oakdale Center last night, I got the feeling we’d seen three different shows. I was buzzing over juxtapositions from the long career, thinking that maybe Bob, like me, thinks Tempest is his best album of the 21st century, and scratching my head about the Sinatra phase. Alinor said she couldn’t understand the words to any song except “Stormy Weather,” and when Bob started gravel-crooning “Melancholy Mood,” she leaned over to me to say, appropriately, “What the fuck?”

Olivia, who came along with her eighth-grade buddy who likes what she calls “hippie music,” asked if she could go see Beyonce next time. I said OK.

Maybe Bob’s only for the already-converted in 2017?

Here’s the set list from last night:

  1. Things Have Changed (Modern Love, 2005)
  2. It Ain’t Me, Babe (Another Side, 1964)
  3. Highway 61 Revisited (Highway 61 Revisited, 1965)
  4. Stormy Weather (Harold Arlen cover)
  5. Summer Days (Love and Theft, 2001)
  6. Scarlet Town (Tempest, 2012)
  7. Duquesne Whistle (Tempest 2012)
  8. Melancholy Mood (Frank Sinatra cover)
  9. Once Upon a Time (Tony Bennett cover) (live debut by Bob Dylan)
  10. Pay in Blood (Tempest 2012)
  11. Why Try to Change Me Now (Cy Coleman cover)
  12. Early Roman Kings (Tempest 2012)
  13. Desolation Row (Highway 61 Revisited 1965)
  14. All or Nothing at All (Frank Sinatra cover)
  15. Soon After Midnight (Tempest 2012)
  16. That Old Black Magic (Johnny Mercer cover)
  17. Long and Wasted Years (Tempest 2012)
  18. Autumn Leaves (Yves Montand cover)
  19. Encore: Blowin’ in the Wind (Freewheelin‘ 1963)
  20. Encore: Ballad of a Thin Man (Highway 61 Revisited 1965)

By chronology: 5 from the ’60s, none from ’70s-90s, 8 from ’00s, 7 covers

By disc: 1 from Freewheelin‘ (1963), 1 from Another Side (1964), 3 from Highway 61 Revisited (1965), 1 from Love and Theft (2001), 1 from Modern Love (2005), 6 from Tempest (2012), 7 covers (probably on last 3 studio albums 2015-17)

A quick google of recent setlists from this tour shows that the songs from Tempest and the covers are almost always in the mix, but we missed some nice oldies: Baby Blue, Simple Twist of Fate (from the 70s!), To Ramona, Don’t Think Twice, Blind Willie McTell (which I would’ve loved to hear), Hard Rain.

All the songs from Tempest were great, though I missed my favorite of all, the title track, an 11-minute waltz (!) about the sinking of the Titanic, about which I dilated in scholarly prose in my last book, Shipwreck Modernity (162-66). Not sure that song lends itself to live performance, but who knows.

The Sinatra / Johnny Mercer / Tony Bennett stuff is powerfully weird. Dylan doesn’t play piano or guitar for those numbers, just dances or shuffles awkwardly with a stand-up microphone and croons through gravel. In a few places, especially “Stormy Weather” and “Once Upon a Time,” I thought I glimpsed a conceit: the idea might be to transform the Great American Songbook into Dylan songs, and to increase the challenge he’ll do it without changing any words. Can Bob rob Frank just with phrasing and nasal twang? I’m a pretty devoted fan, and I appreciate the extremity of this latest phrase, but I’m not sure what to make of it.

Back in the early 90s, after a pretty fallow period — I like some songs on Empire Burlesque (1985), but it’s an acquired taste — Bob released two great albums covering traditional folk songs, Good as I Been to You (1992) and World Gone Wrong (1993). Does the Sinatra turn — four albums long, since 2015 — herald another turn and promise something to come as good as Tempest?

I must say I doubt it. He’s growling strong, but at times he looks as if he feels his 76 years. It’s great to hear him rework old material — my favorite of the night was Desolation Row, though interestingly he cut the penultimate verse with T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and the mermaids.

I wondered going into the show if he’d address the current kerfluffle about plagiarism, SparkNotes, and his Nobel Prize Lecture. (Here’s my reading of the lecture.) I didn’t expect him to, but the opening two numbers probably give a pretty direct answer, one he’s been repeated for decades:

  1. [I used to care, but] Things Have Changed

  2. It Ain’t Me, Babe

Good times at the Oakdale Center!