Her small grey head peaked out of the swell about twenty feet away from us. The curve of her back echoed the small waves rolling in through the slate-green Pacific off Venice Beach. In all the years I’ve been swimming in this little slice of ocean, down the street from where I lived in 1993-1994 right before grad school, I’d never had one of these creatures swim with me before. A selkie totem for #shax2018, the seal’s nearness startled us and calmed our shivering flesh. She swam between where we splashed into the water and where neoprene-armored surfers caught a few small waves. I lost sight of her after I body-surfed one little roller into shore. I don’t have a pic — I was phoneless in the water when we saw her — but that seal is my utopian totem for #shax2018. The benediction of nonhuman presence in the ocean!
- The last of four conversation topics in “The SAA, Shakespeare, and Us,” the seminar I co-lead with Carla Della Gatta, with incisive and generous respondant-ing by Erika Lin, asked the room for possible SAA-utopias. The floodgates of the wonder-world gushed forth: we sought communities of labor, changes in infrastructure and scale, “psychosocial mentoring” (which clarifying term Erika brought to us via Tracy Davis of Northwestern and ASTR) , recurrent seminars, more streamed or recorded sessions, “Half-assed Shakespeare,” the value of allowing ourselves to be wrong, “radical hospitality” (via Becky Fall and the Public Theatre, though I also thought of the glories of the BABEL Working Group), stewardship, service, public-facing events, “conflict is part of community” (paraphrased from Erika). What is “Shakespeare”? Who is “us”? What can and should the SAA become? So many good questions to keep asking!
- My core takeaways from the two hours traffic of our seminar swirled around support and especially mentorship, how it happens and what it could be. The topic came up again in the brilliant and necessary “Shakespeare beyond the Research University” session on Saturday, the second iteration of the “Shakespearean Futures” initiative that started with “The Color of Membership” last year in stormy Atlanta. I personally feel deeply fortunate to have been mentored by the SAA, both by many discrete individuals and more diffusely by the organization itself, since I started coming to the conference in the mid-1990s. Drafting this post Sat night as I wait to board a red-eye back to JFK while #shax2018 still dances, I’m abuzz with ideas to extend and support that process in the new & larger 21c SAA. We don’t need to start from zero: RSA and ASTR have ongoing mentorship programs, both among members (I have been in touch this year with two early career mentees via RSA) and at the conference itself (a student of mine was lucky to be matched with my co-seminar leader Carla Della Gatta at ASTR this past fall). We should formalize something, perhaps in time for #shax2019 in DC. #mentorhappyhour (with EANABs = “Equally Attractive Non-Alcoholic Beverages”)?
- Thursday afternoon’s NextGenPlen set the bar high for two reasons that I suspect are interwoven: the five early career speakers presented brilliant and innovative projects in queer theory, theater history, race theory, drag, and transgender rhetoric — and all five kept to time and dazzled the room with precise & powerful language. It made me think that ten minute talks are always better than twenty, because the short form prioritizes direct argument. It also made me eager to watch these young scholars develop their work and change our field!
- I suspect that few Native American languages have previously been spoken from the plenary stage at SAA. I found the Friday morning session with Scott Stevens, Lehua Yim, Terence Reilly, and James Lujan powerful and moving. The cultural and global dominance of Shakespeare represents, in a troubling way that the panel helped reveal, a global-cultural settler colonialism, in that the Bard goes everywhere and never leaves. There’s a lot of great scholarship on Global Shakespeares today — but I’d not encountered indigenous responses and approaches at the SAA before. During the panel I remembered my post-undergrad summer of 1989, when I was in Windy Bay, Alaska, laboring in the vain clean up of Exxon Valdez oil and sharing a fishing boat with perhaps two dozen members of an Athabascan community, mostly from English Bay. I’m embarrassed to say that I now can’t remember any of the tiny vocabulary I developed in Athabascan that summer.
- The first question we asked in our seminar was “What is Shakespeare?” And — importantly, I think — we supplemented that question with “Do we all have to agree about the answer?” The first question was hard to contain, but I think the answer to the second question must be no. Too much agreement is bad for conversation.
- Our seminar’s second major exchange took up another key word in our title: “Who is ‘us'”? We had lots to say again, and our discussion balanced honesty and generosity in ways that made me really happy. For me, I think the best possible answers to both “Shax” and “us” emerge from conscious and cultivated differences: we and our symbolic center must be many things, multitudinous things. It’s through allowing differences in all their discomfort, challenge, and surprise that we navigate our seminars, conferences, and oceans. I also recognize that myriad-mindedness has long been a canonical & perhaps even neoimperial cliche, effectively confining while purportedly open. Does it make sense to ask now for different and tangible differences, rather than just the same old infinite variety? That’s a project I’d like to continue exploring, and I hope the members of the seminar will continue to pursue it also.
- The 8 am ocean swim on Saturday morning kept me from the “End of Study,” alas, but my adventure with surfers, seal, and maritime companion Lowell Duckert drew me back to my early ’90s haunts in Venice Beach, from which locale I launched myself into graduate school and the professional life I’m living now. In some sense Venice in those days was my last stop before Shakespeare, the moment at which I found a fork in young adulthood and turned. I loved being back there, and I no doubt bored Lowell by showing him my favorite coffee shop (the Rose Cafe), my old apartment building on Westminster Ave, the sandy bike path on which I roller bladed and where musicians, artists, and hippies were setting up in the early morning mist. We ate breakfast at the Sidewalk Cafe, my old local, where I ate with my neighbors during the eerie dawn just after the Northridge MLK Day earthquake of 1994, which had jolted us out of bed. The electricity was out that morning but the gas stoves worked, so the Cafe made us all omelettes that we paid for later. We watched the sun come up behind the beach and hoped the ground would stop shaking. #anothermetaphor?
- What should the SAA become? I loved the “Lena Orlena” pageant and Wendy Wall’s multi-genred luncheon speech. No scholarly gathering makes me feel so at home and so eager to engage with people I don’t know yet as well as old friends and colleagues. “Beyond the Research University,” organized by Sharon O’Dair and Deborah Uman, seemed to me to get close to the heart of the matter. The diverse populations of SAA have much to learn from each other. Highlighting the worlds and labors of colleagues teaching at HBCUs, community colleges, and other non-elite places seems to me an essential step forward. Looking back now through the #shax2018 hashtag reveals outflows of generosity, curiosity, and playfulness. More of this, please! Excess of it!
My only moment of real discomfort all weekend, other than fatigue, came when I considered the symbolism of matching the roundtable on “Beyond the Research University” against a brilliant research panel on “Slavery, Service, and Fictions of Consent” in the Saturday 11 am slot. What does that choice represent for the SAA as a collective: must we choose between research and beyond-research? I have deep regard & affection for the leadership of SAA and recognize the challenge of too many sessions angling for finite time — but I believe it was a mistake not to make the Futures session, which spoke to the experience of the majority of the SAA membership, a Plenary with no competing sessions. For most of our near half-century as an organization, the SAA has imagined the R1 experience as at least aspirationally normative — but as much as I value humanities research, that’s an error we should have the honesty to stop making. One striking moment in the Roundtable called for the demolition of the “myth of academic meritocracy.” We need that demolition so much — and, if we could do it, or even begin to unravel that foundational myth of academia, it could lead, I believe, to better things, even in hard times.
- The Futures session was well-attended, including by the incoming Executive Director, though I was sorry that only a small fraction of the Trustees were there. I don’t mean to blame the people who were next door. I’d previously heard a snippet of one project on early modern slavery that was presented in that session, and I think it’s as brilliant as any new project I know in our field. But that’s why I think it was problematic to force that choice on the membership. A session on the careers that the majority of SAA members present and future live “beyond the research university” should not have to compete for its audience with the fruits of research. The SAA can, does, and should support both cutting-edge research and inquiry into state of our profession. We don’t need to put th0se conversations in competition with each other, even implicitly. Or at least that’s what I think.
- I’ll wrap up this overlong blog post with another story of nonhuman intervention. This second encounter will provide an alternative allegory for our gathering. As our pomo architectural sage Fredric Jameson didn’t say, #alwaysallegorize! This one erupted during the “Shax and Us” seminar, just before we opened the conversation to the full room of auditors. It wasn’t a seal in the surf but a cockroach on the table: I don’t know if the bug actually crawled out from beneath a pile of seminar papers, or if that image of reading as unearthing the hidden is just the way I like to imagine all seminars. Carla moved fast when she saw it, and I think she swept the roach onto the floor. I jumped out of my chair, but by the time I got to the other side of the long table the beastie had scuttled away & besides what would I have done with or to it?
One afternoon, as our conversation turned toward anxious visions of futurity, #shax2018 woke to discover that while we sat together around the table our collective conversation had been transformed into a monstrous bug.
- #shaxfutures #whatwillwebecome? #metamorphoses!
- It’s our task to love the nonhuman, to welcome interruptions, and to imagine capaciously in the face of challenges. Which creature best represents Shakespeare as settler colonialist and superlative poet? The graceful seal gliding through Pacific waves, or the impervious bug whose resilient carapace will outlast nuclear and ecological catastrophes? Which do we want our bald playwright hero to represent? #sealorbug?
- We know what the answer must be.
- Both seal and roach, utopia and dystopia. #forward!
- See everyone in DC!
Here’s a quick post of my awe in response to yesterday’s #marchforourlives anti-gun protests around the US and the world, spearheaded by students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL, where 17 students and faculty were killed with an Ar-15 on Feb 14, 2018.
I was in New Orleans for the Renaissance Society of America conference, and I marched from the Elysian Fields through the French Quarter with several thousand students and adults. As we turned up Canal St, a young woman lead the chant: “What do we want?” “Gun control!” “When do we need it?” “Now!”
Before the march started, I chatted with one of the organizers who, like me, was wearing a #MSDStrong t-shirt, made by members of the Parkland FL community. His nephew is a sophomore at MSD, and they were marching in Washington.
My niece Maddie King, who’s a junior at MSD and was in her physics class during the attack, was in Denver. She was the last of eleven speakers to rally 200,000 people before their march. My sister and my brother in law posted her full speech on Facebook live, and CNN also ran a lengthy excerpt from her speech as well as an interview with her after. I’m so impressed by and proud of this poised and powerful young woman. Little about American culture makes me as optimistic as the idea that these kids will be adults soon.
UPDATE: Here’s a YouTube of the full speech:
I’ll also add here the heart-rending speech that Maddie’s friend Emma Gonzalez gave to the DC march. These kids will change the world.
Alinor and Olivia marched locally in Guilford, CT, where our local CT state senator, Edward Kennedy, Jr., spoke about how it felt to him to lose his two uncles, John F. and Robert Kennedy, to gun violence.
[Orig published 12/31/17]
Some year-end gathering on a cold morning.
Last year one resolve was to write more for public venues, such as the Glasgow Review of Books, Stanford’s Arcade, and Hypocrite Reader. I didn’t keep at it as resolutely as I might have — 2017 was for me a year of not-finishing things and getting lost in the middle — but here are some beginnings —
He Must See Ghosts: Richard III, Trump, and the Future in Hypocrite Reader (Dec 2016)
Reads of 2016 (Jan) in the Glasgow Review: Irina Dumitrescu’s Roomba under Fire, Jeremy Davies Birth of the Anthropocene, Emily Dickinson’s Envelope Poems.
Motion Sickness for Stanford Arcade (Jan)
The Two Anachronisms for the Glasgow Review (Feb)
The Neologismcene for Stanford Arcade (April)
Sailing without Ahab for the Glasgow Review (April)
Reads of 2017 for the Glasgow Review (December): Joseph North Literary Criticism, James Scott Against the Grain, Jeff Goodell, The Water Will Come
I also kept up my flow of a dozen blog-review of theater & musical productions —
The Tempest at St Ann’s / Donmar Warehouse
Slices from Dylan’s Nobel Lecture (a kind of performance?)
Passions of Bloom: Arts & Ideas Festival
Macbeth (Shakespeare on the Sound)
Hamlet (at the Public Theater)
Measure for Measure (Public Theater / Elevator Repair Service)
Richard III (Queens Theater)
A second response to Measure (Public / ERS)
Twelfth Night (Fiasco / Classic Stage Co)
Pericles (Hunger & Thirst Theater / Guerrilla Shakespeare Project)
I’ve already summarized four long posts on Newtown Creek, which I’ve been obsessed with all fall.
Other stats: 32 posts (same as 2016!), most in June (8) and Dec (6); least in May (0). 10,481 page views & 5900 users — a bit down from 2016. Maybe people aren’t reading blogs anymore? (Some of my web-writing has migrated to places like Glasgow Review and Arcade.)
During the messy middle of 2017, I lost track of my swimming progress, which means it’ll be the first year since 2012 that I’ve not hit my annual mileage goal. I estimate that I swam just a bit under 150 miles this year, well below the 250 I swam in 2016 and 225 in 2015, though still more than the 100-ish that I managed 2012-2014. I’m planning to start my weekly FLOG (Fitness log) again in 2018, aiming for at least 200 miles in the water.
[Orig published 1/9/18]
Around six pm on Saturday night, turning into the home stretch of #mla18, I left after a blazingly powerful session on Approaching 1492 from the Middle Ages that left the submerged resonance of the year 1000 pinballing around my imagination — the date of the Vinland settlement and also the start, according to Callum Roberts’s magisterial Unnatural History of the Sea, of a decline in fresh-water fish in continental Europe that drove fisherman out onto the salt flood. Walking out of the Hilton, I picked up around ten increasingly urgent text and voice messages: my family’s voyage home from San Francisco that day, already jostled by Delta’s canceling of their early flight into JFK, had encountered stomach flu over the Rockies. It wasn’t clear if they’d be allowed to board the connection into Hartford, or even if that connection would go. After some confused consultation, I rush-packed and taxi-ed to Grand Central, emailing myself out of dinner plans & hoping Metro North would get me home in time to help whoever made it to CT. It was a long cold return: all three of them made it, but not until after 1 am, by which time the temp dipped down to 2 degrees below zero. The three travelers were sick, exhausted, and cold. It was good to be able to welcome them to a warmed-up house and to offer food that no stomach wanted.
That intrusion of reality wasn’t quite the end of my #mla18. While travelers slept on Pacific time the next morning, I drove back to midtown for the Site Specifics panel that closed us out at noon on Sunday. But my disorienting shift out of the MLA’s intellectual flow and into the embodied intensity of parenting sick kids whiplashed me into thinking differently about the conference, its demands and pleasures, and the pressure we put on ourselves and those around us in order to make MLA possible. I usually think about the ethics of MLA in terms of the way it tortures grad students and job seekers, which horrors are being partly transformed by the innovation of first-round Skype interviews, now pretty common, and I hope fast becoming the new norm. After this year’s storm-and-freeze, I’m thinking also about what we’re asking of ourselves.
If we decouple the conference from hotel-room-job-interviews, what is MLA for? Can we reimagine and remake it into something new? What would that new thing be?
I’m not sure I have answers to these questions, but they are the things I’m thinking about as I mull MLA during this week’s slow thaw.
I went to ten brilliant panels in four days:
Thursday: s17: Early Modern Biopolitics; s84 Anthropocene Reading
Friday: s254 Tyranny ; s437 Early English Consent
Sat: s472 Marlowe’s Aesthetics; s507 Precarious Bonds in Shakespeare; s564 Weak Environmentalism; s614 Texts and Localities in Early Modern England; s702 Approaching 1492 from the Middle Ages
Sun: s821: Site Specifics
I hauled back ten books that have no places on my overflowing bookshelves:
Kellie Robertson, Nature Speaks (Penn)
Lisa Lowe, The Intimacies of Four Continents (Duke)
Dexter Zavalaza Hough-Snee and Alexander Sotelo Eastman, eds., The Critical Surf Studies Reader (Duke)
Heidi Brayman, Jesse Lander, Zachary Lesser, eds., The Book in History, The Book as History (Yale)
Two Object Lessons (Bloomsbury): Bill Germano, Eye Chart & Paul Josephson, Traffic
Four Forerunners (Minnesota): Andrew Culp, Dark Deleuze, William Connelly, Aspirational Fascism, John Hartigan, Jr. Aesop’s Anthropology, Davide Panagia, Ten Theses for an Aesthetics of Politics
But that pair of tens doesn’t capture the swirling riches of midtown in deep freeze, muffled in snow and academic discourses.
I’ll unravel three bread-crumb threads from my circuitous #mla18:
Sixteenth-Century English Literature
I’m on my second of five years as a member of the 16c English Literature Forum, and we supported three great panels this year. I chaired a session on Tyranny with papers from Henry Turner, Stephanie Elsky, and Drew Daniel that was so thrilling and painfully apt that we’re going to reprise it at #RSA18 in NOLA in a few months. We co-sponsored a panel on Early English Consent with the Chaucer group; that session lost its paper on Measure for Measure and its feminist theoretical respondent to the bomb cyclone, but the remaining papers, William Quinn on Chaucer and Maggie Solberg on late medieval Mariolotry, were really strong. The last session on Texts and Localities featured Vim Pasupathi’s brilliant archival work on military musters on and off English stages and Eric Weiskott’s excavation of prophetic texts from the 13th to 16th centuries. Over our dinner meeting, the Forum board talked mostly about the panels we want to sponsor, but we also speculated a bit about the shape(s) of the field. My fantasy-future MLA will have more field-shaping.
St. John’s English PhD Happy Hour!
The most joyous event of the weekend — which I nearly neglected in my zeal to write about all the academic panels before they vanished into non-memory — was the Happy Hour on Friday night for the St. John’s English PhD. The event, which gathered together about two dozen grad students and a hearty cadre of maybe ten faculty in a repurposed conference room in the Sheraton, celebrated our efforts, over the past dozen or so years, to reimagine and recreate the English graduate program at St. John’s. Building our case for many different audiences, from the SJU administration and Board of Trustees to a pair of eagle-eyed academic reviewers and eventually New York State’s Board of Ed, we relied on consistently on the same refrain: we have brilliant students. I had to skip out of the Happy Hour mid-bash to get to my 16c English forum dinner, but throughout the conference I was deeply impressed by the insights and dedication of the SJU students that I saw and heard speak at panels, roundtables, and other events. Plus — in an event sure to warm the heart of any ex-DGS — it was a treat to talk with one SJU student negotiating a job offer in mid-MLA!
Ecocrit and the Environmental Humanities
I also followed, as I usually do, the raft of Environmental Humanities panels. On Th afternoon we filled an overheated Hilton ballroom for a roundtable on the new book Anthropocene Reading, which featured seven of the contributors but, alas, neither Tobias Menely nor Jesse Oak Taylor, our brilliant West-coast editors. I’ve really loved being in this collection, and short talks about Emily Dickinson, indigenous writing traditions, J. M. Coetzee, and semi-randomized Anthropocene pedagogy gave me lots to think with. The high moment of the panel was Dana Luciano’s stunning “Dear Anthropocene” epistolary performance, in which she voiced her powerful ambivalence about this increasingly dominant term in the eco-humanities. Saturday noon featured an all-star lineup for Weak Environmentalism, featuring Jane Bennett, Jeffrey Cohen, Wai Chee Dimock, Paul Saint-Amour, and Susan Wolfson. What is the relationship between weakness and strength?
The last panel of the conference, Site Specifics, about eco-crit in post-industrial New York, was my favorite event of the weekend and a highlight of over two decades of MLAs. Katie Hogan started us off with a shrewd and persuasive reading of urban-rural hybridity via Fun Home. Caroline Holland entangled Mayor Bloomberg’s Million Trees Campaign with John Ashberry’s lyric vision. Anthony Lloi asked us to image rats as undercitizens, oysters as infracitizens, and imaginary creatures as ur-citizens of the metropolis. Kathleen Coyne Kelly presented on speculative futures of Manhattan, via both sci-fi and architectural design competitions. I revealed my obsession with Newtown Creek. Orchid Tierney closed us out with a brilliant reading of Fresh Kills in Staten Island as a subject of Anthropocene poetry and as itself a more-than-human artwork.
I can’t remember enjoying a session more, or feeling more part of something brilliant, new, and generative coming into being as at that final panel, in which the on-stage party of seven (six presenters plus Byron Caminero-Santangelo as chair) more than doubled our three hardy audience members, who themselves contributed great and searching questions in our too-short time frame. Site Specifics represents the future I want for MLA: a short time of intense and speculative sharing, working across time periods and methodologies, willing new things into being through conversation and imagination. Give me excess of it, as the lovesick Duke says in Twelfth Night!
December 1, 2017, was a glorious spring afternoon in the anti-climate. For the first time since I brought some of my favorite people with me in October, I wasn’t alone in post-Nature. Coming back to Newtown Creek was like coming into community with entities that I don’t yet know well.
For this trip I walked with words, as I had not during my two November visits. I listened carefully during each stage of the walk to the audio tour recorded by the FSDE (Floating Studio for Dark Ecologies). I’ll use the thirteen tracks on the audio tour as a running narrative of the day’s encounters. (Here’s the NYC Parks flyer that also describes the space.)
TK1: The Rock
The tour starts with a boulder on the corner of Paidge and Provost Streets in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. The voice asks you to put your hand on the ancient stone. “The boundary of human time can be porous,” the tour intones in the words of John McPhee.
TK2: Paige Avenue
Next you walk down Paidge toward the stairs that lead up into the Walk proper. “This neighborhood has harbored industry for almost two centuries,” the voice continues. “Nature has never been natural,” it explains, paraphrasing and idea from the philosopher Graham Harman.
Preparing yourself to enter the Walk, you feel “some mixture of expectancy and revulsion.” It’s a form of anticipation. I usually walk this part quickly.
TK3: The Vessel
The first section of the walk is shaped long and narrow like a boat, with portholes on the right side looking onto an industrial landscape.
TK4: The Creek
Even on my fourth trip this fall, my steps quicken as I near the edge. Here’s one of my favorite things: the honey locust tree that was ablaze in orange in early November.
No yellow leaves left in December. The honey locust marks the Creek’s edge, as the glacial erratic marks the edge of the Nature Walk itself. As winter nears, the tree seems as bare as the rock.
“Naming,” the tour continues, “has a Biblical power.” In my November blog, I forgot the name of the honey locust tree.
At the water’s edge you can’t avoid thinking about things below the surface that you can’t see. “The shit will be here until we transform it again,” the voice intones, “or it transforms us.”
TK5: The Steps
“I’d like to tell you to enter the water here, but I won’t.”
“Consider the poetry of sewage water, in a city where you are one of the shitters.”
My first companion on this not-wintry December day was a mostly submerged plastic floatable. I watched it swim just below the surface of the clear cold water I would not enter. It was gorgeous, fluid, florid. I stared at it for a long time. I took several pictures.
TK6: The Watershed Bollard
The table is shaped like a shipping bollard, “a cylindrical post used to secure ships in port.” On top of the stone surface is a map of the watershed as it was before European contact. “The etching has a slight gradient, so falling raindrops can replicate the journey of the Creek’s own, original waters, albeit on a much smaller scale. A small, brass pin on the shore indicates your position on the watershed map.”
“A suggestion floats by,” from the Floating Studio voice: “if we could name everything in this Creek, maybe we could master it.”
TK7: The Digester Eggs
“What do we do with the biosolids?” asks the audio tour, but I’ve already seen the answer, all 150-feet of steel simplicity: the Sludge Barge Rockaway.
She’s a big beauty, an industrial powerhouse that hauls away the biosolid cakes that are all that’s left after the Digester Eggs have done their work. I walk alongside the ship for around 20 minutes, taking pictures and marveling at the massive vessel. Big ships like these have small crews in the automated age, but I did see a crewmember come out on deck for a little while, to smoke a cigarette in the afternoon sun.
The sludge barge almost filled up Whale Creek; if I’d taken a running start, I might have been able to jump from shore to her deck rail. After that I could have walked across the deck to the far side. This afternoon, the Creek was almost crossable.
TK8: The Garden
This day, the garden space at the end of Whale Creek sits in the shadow of the big barge.”You might notice that it’s cooler here,” says the Floating Studio voice.
I chatted for a few minutes with a pair of documentary filmmakers, who were working on a project for NYU Journalism school on industrial composting in New York City. They wanted to know if I could get them closer to the Digester Eggs. I didn’t have any good ideas, though we looked at the maps etched into stone tables. The maps made it look as if the Nature Walk may expand in the future, and the extended path might lead closer to the Eggs.
TK9: The Fountain
“Take a drink. Trust me,” says the voice. But the water fountain in the garden isn’t working right now.
TK10: A Return
Walking out of the Nature Walk and returning to the outside world means seeing a postcard view of the Empire State Building and also wondering if any part of that unsettling mixture of smell, toxic unease, and beauty will travel back out with you.
The Floating Studio asks us to leave with some questions. Here’s my favorite:
“How large would the placard need to be to include all the things you can name here?”
I’ll give the last two tracks over to the voice of the Floating Studio —
“If Newtown Creek had a voice, what would it say to you as you are leaving?…Will it miss you? And will you miss it?”
“Can you carry out some of the everythingness?”
“All roads lead back to Manhattan.”
TK13: The Fragrance Garden
“Here is the end…the Nature Walk at its most awkward.”
“Imagination is vital to restoration.””We have to hold the refuse and the labor and the wildlife all together. Can you hear the pungent, salvageable poetry of Newtown Creek composed to a meter both human and nonhuman?”
[A delayed blog-review: I saw this show on Nov 17, just before the first round of holiday madness. It’s now long since closed, but the performance was inventive and moving enough for me to want to keep an eye on these two companies going forward.]
One good reason to keep seeing 400-year-old plays is because they speak to human needs. I don’t believe in timeless genius, but I like 21st-century productions of Shakespeare that eschew false authenticity in order to build something distinctive.
In a little upper West Side theater space upstairs in a church on W. 86th, Hunger & Thirst Theater and the Guerrilla Shakespeare Project played a wonderfully inverted and compressed Pericles, with a cast of only five and an elaborate frame narrative. I walked out of the small space abuzz with feeling, and humming the homeward bound shanty, Leave Her Johnny, traditionally sung by sailors being paid off after a long voyage:
For the voyage is done, and the winds don’t blow
And it’s time for us to leave her
The song’s melancholy doesn’t capture the same feeling of redemption that the reunions of Pericles with long-lost daughter and wife generate at the play’s end — but this production wasn’t really after redemption, at least not the wish-fulfillment part of it, and besides they cut the return of Thaisa. Instead, the modern-dress frame tale explored the death of an old sea captain named John Gower on the same stormy night when his grand-daughter was born. Going through the old man’s things, his daughter and son-in-law find a journal which provides them a script for the story of Pericles, “a song that old was sung.” The force of the inset performance of (most of) Shakespeare’s play reconciled the family to loss and birth, instead of substituting the miraculous return of “the voice of dead Thaisa” (5.3).
I liked the twist, and I liked the company: they were funny in the right places, a compelling mix of goofy and dramatic during the storms, and tender throughout.
My favorite staging-element was the repetition of the opening scene: old man John Gower opened the play in a wheelchair grumping at his daughter. That same scene was reprised in the inset narrative, when Marina found Pericles on board his ship. While the “real” daughter had not been able to reach her dying father in the opeing, the “fictional” Marina coaxed language out of Pericles with music.
I’ll keep an eye on these performers. And I’ll think more about how the fantasy-endings of romance, in which so many lost things return, might speak to human losses beyond the stage.
Shakespeare and sea shanties are two of my favorite things, so when Fiasco Theater’s production of Twelfth Night opened with a rendition of the old clipper ship song “Marco Polo,” I was feeling pretty good about my evening. The cast sang all together as they staged the voyage interrupted by shipwreck that preceded the play’s opening scene. Crooning about “the fastest ship in all the world” — the Marco Polo was a three-masted clipper ship that sailed for the Black Ball Line in the 1850s and later wrecked off Prince Edward Island in 1883 — the cast sounded wonderfully cohesive. Sitting on one side of the thrust stage with a dozen St. John’s students, looking across at a dozen or so who’d made the trip downtown from Columbia U., we all felt in good hands.
For the first half of the production nearly every scene change was marked by a new shantey; I didn’t recognize all the songs, though I did catch the homeward bound capstan shantey, “Leave her, Johnny,” one of my favorites. Shanteys have a place in popular music today, but during the Age of Sail they were working songs, designed in their rhythm to help mariners bring their laboring bodies into unity. Certain songs matched certain tasks: a capstan shantey kept time while the crew hauled up a long anchor chain, and other songs were for furling, bunting, etc. Music served as a form of labor: a pretty good match for Twelfth Night, it seems to me, particularly in a production co-directed by Ben Steinfeld, the Fiasco regular who also played Feste and who in that role led the evening’s final song.
Fiasco Theater, one of several local companies made up in part of graduates of the fantastic MFA program at Brown / Trinity Rep in Providence, has been producing excellent Shakespearean and other plays since around 2012. I missed their much-praised Cymbeline, but enjoyed both Two Gentlemen of Verona and the uncharacteristically sympathetic Measure for Measure, both of which I saw in 2015.
Stand out performances in Twelfth Night included Andy Grotelueschen as a wonderfully disordered Sir Toby and Ben Steinfeld’s empathetic Feste. Especially in the comic sub-plot, I was struck by how affectionate the characters were with each other: in this version, Maria and Toby in particular seemed very much in accord and planning their marriage from their first scene together. The revelation of that marriage at the play’s end, which in Shakespeare’s text is given to Fabian, was re-assigned to Maria herself, and her evident pleasure in the announcement suggested that matrimony had been their plan all along. Malvolio’s torment felt excessive, but not haunting or mean-spirited. Even Feste’s melancholy songs, “Come away, death” and “The rain it raineth every day,” created a happy choral unity.
The most striking note of suffering in the play came early: Emily Young’s Viola spit out a mouthful of water as the “Marco Polo” chorus broke down into shipwreck. The brief emission of water from her mouth, just a splash really, lingered in my mind as she waited for time, not her, to untangle the complex plot of loss and reunification. The physical cost of salt water on human flesh?
Lots of other fun things in the production, including Paul Coffey’s intense Malvolio, which reminded me of his earlier portrayal of the Duke in Measure, and co-director Noah Brody’s winningly self-regarding Orsino.
Go see this one at the Classic Stage Company before it closes on Jan 6!
After my first visit to Newtown Creek on Oct 14, I walked through Post-Nature again twice in November.
On a cold rainy afternoon on Election Day no one else walked with me.
On a crisp sunny Friday ten days later, I saw two boats zip through the Creek’s still water. The first was a fast outboard cruiser, with its pilot snug inside a small cabin. The second was an open zodiac with two men in dark winter body-suits, put-putting along slowly. Neither looked toward me as I stood on the concrete steps with my iphone taking their picture.
7 November: The most striking thing on that wet early November day was the fire-orange of the first tree I encountered on the way in. It sits by itself surrounded by stones when you first emerge near the water’s edge. Its year-end colors blazed amid the granite like a promise that you suspect won’t be kept. I spent a little while looking closely at the veins on its leaves as the rain fell on my shoulders and wool hat.
17 November: When I came back to that spot ten days later, most of the leaves were down in the water. I gave in to my occupation’s hazard and mumbled a few favorite lines of poetry —
That time of year thou mayst in me behold,
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs that shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where yet the sweet birds sang. (Sonnet #73)
Nature catches human emotions. The poet’s words snare those reflected feelings in an effort to peer back into himself. What happens when we stare at yellow leaves inside a Nature that echoes with humming freeways rather than sweet birdsong? Can we sing verses to the invisible black mayonnaise beneath the water?
7 November: During my first November visit, it was wet and cold on the slippery epochal steps. I could imagine falling into time and toxicity. In October, on a warm dry day, I had felt tempted to wet my fingers, but not this time. I stopped two steps above the waterline.
17 November: On a cold dry day, the water found its beauty again. It became crowded, with the two boats but also with the last leaves of fall and more floatables (to borrow Marina Zurkow’s term for surface trash) than I’d seen the last time. But even with these things in it, the water was still, clear, transparent, alluring.
7 November: Election Day has cast an anxious shadow most of my adult life, all the more so now, this close to the horror of 2016. Walking through post-Nature and the ravages of industrialization while our national and local democratic wills walked into election booths made me think about the Anthropos in Anthropocene. Who is the debilitated old Man whose century-old excess made all this mess? How can we find him, touch him, hold him to account? Will he listen to us?
17 November: Plastic debris hugged the shoreline of Whale Creek like a vision of our shared future. In the company of plastic — that’s the world we’re moving into. In chilly sunshine, the bright colors looked just a bit inviting.
7 November: On this visit I read the description of the Nature Walk on a sign that presumably had been written by George Trakas, who designed the space in 2007. The area was meant to represent a “vibrant intersection where multiple histories, cultural identities, and geologic epochs coexist.” I like that capacious vision in which multiplicity and uneasiness together create ecological art. Shivering a little on this wet afternoon, I wondered about coexistence and its difficult durations.
17 November: The creek boasted a new sign today, from DEP: “No swimming or wading.” Good advice.
I’ll be back on December 1 and again on January 2. At least those two days.
[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.
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.
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.
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.
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.