MY TOP SHELF – 39 – CHEKHOV

 

[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.  The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]

39

THREE PLAYS

Anton Chekhov (1904)

Limited Editions Club, New York, 1966.  Translated by Constance Garnett; illustrated by Lajos Szalay; introduction by John Gielgud.  Blue capeskin spine with gold embossing; boards covered in intricately worked scarlet and black silk; signed by the illustrator.

A play ought to be written in which the people should come and go, dine, talk of the weather, or play cards, not because the author wants it, but because that is what happens in real life.  Life on the stage should be as it really is, and the people, too, should be as they are, and not stilted.

Chekhov has for some a kind of spare astringency that makes him something of an acquired taste – rather like oysters.  But, as with Ibsen, you can for a nominal sum get the BBC collection of all his plays delivered in your home by theatre royalty.  For example, there are two versions of The Cherry Orchard.  The first comes from 1962, by the Royal Shakespeare Company in Peter Hall’s first season with the company.  The cast included Peggy Ashcroft, John Gielgud, Dorothy Tutin, Judi Dench and Ian Holm.  Beat that for a cast – any time, any purpose.  The second comes from 1981, when Judi Dench then played the part played by Peggy Ashcroft in the first – and won the BAFTA.

Chekhov graduated as a doctor, but worked as a writer, writing short stories of the first rank, and plays.  The citation above shows his innovation that is essential to our modern theatre.  His fame now as a playwright rests on four plays.

The Sea Gull, like The Master Builder of Ibsen, reflects the struggle between the older and younger generations.  It was booed on its first outing in St Petersburg in 1896.  It would take the profession a long time to come to terms with the understated subtlety required of the actors   Uncle Vanya depicts the rights of passage from youth to old age.  (The BBC set has versions by David Warner (with Ian Holm) and Anthony Hopkins.)  The Three Sisters shows intelligent and educated members of provincial gentry losing hope.  The Cherry Orchard is an elegiac treatment of the passing of the old order.  It is like The Leopard of Lampedusa, especially in the version in the Visconti film.

The literary career of Chekhov lasted less than twenty-five years and was cut tragically short by his death from tuberculosis in 1904.  Unlike Tolstoy, Chekhov steered away from politics in his work, and Tolstoy correctly perceived, for one who had dreadful ideas about theatre, that the gift of Chekhov was universal: ‘Chekhov is an incomparable artist, an artist of life.  And the worth of his creation consists in his – he is understood and accepted not only by every Russian, but by all humanity.’  People say the same of Tolstoy – somehow his very Russianness is what makes him so indelibly human.

In the Introduction to this beautifully produced volume, Sir John Gielgud says:

In his plays, he uses a variety of natural sound effects, while his naturalistic dialogue alternates between long silences, sudden bursts of chatter, pause, and gaps in conversation.  He takes care to emphasize the exact time of day or night, the season of the year, filling in every detail with the accuracy and passion of one of the great Dutch painters, and evolving with exquisite delicacy, in both atmosphere and dialogue, the tone and mood of the situation he is contriving, the exact moment of truth that he looks for in every scene…..His genius for orchestration is unsurpassed…..

The extraordinary compassion of Chekhov, his musical sense of balance and rhythm, his feeling for nature, the capacity of his characters for acute loneliness or gaiety of fellowship, his passion for selective detail – these qualities seem to bring out in a company of players the very best, most generous side of their art and skill.

In The Cherry Orchard, Madame Ranevsky (Peggy Ashcroft) and her brother Gaev (Gielgud) are landed gentry whose country estate has to be sold because they cannot pay their debts.  Anya is Madame’s natural daughter (Judi Dench) and Varya (Dorothy Tutin) is an adopted daughter.  Lopahin comes from a serf background but is the ultimate in nouveau riche trying to get the owners to subdivide to solve their problems.  Trofimov (Ian Holm) is the eternal student with an eye for Anya and similar optimism for the future.  Firs (Roy Dotrice) is a butler old enough to be part of the furniture.  Yasha is a young student, and the dark side of the future, a taker.  Other characters supply light relief, but it is a mystery how to see or play this piece as a comedy – at least as that word is generally understood.  The whole house is like a commune, but the owners just drift about in their own bubbles immunized from the reality that we call the world.  They leave the orchard for the last time forgetting the old servant as the world will forget them.  The final text before the curtain is: All is still again, and there is heard nothing but the strokes of the axe far away in the orchard.

Sir Lewis Namier was fond of saying that the English aristocracy could live with money – the French and Russian could not, and they went under.  This régime was not just ancien, but defunct.  This play is as close to the Russian as the French, but before it.  Trofimov prefigures the Russian, but Chekhov could not have foreseen the horror that would be brought to Russia by an arrogant intellectual who had never been one of the people.

The Three Sisters can be hard work.  Olga knows she is doomed to spinsterhood.  Masha made a big mistake in marrying Kulygin, a thick teacher and crashing bore, and is ready to have an affair with Vershinin, a weak, unattractive, boring colonel who is married.  Irina, the youngest, dreams of getting out of the provinces to go back to Moscow, as do they all.  A young baron who has no brains at all is pursuing her but he runs foul of a psychopathic snob called Soleni who makes clucking sounds to annoy others, including the audience.  The brother is a failed academic who becomes a drunk and a gambler, and loses the house.  He marries a rolled gold five star bitch who alienates everyone.  All this is the subject of a commentary from an old doctor who is mad, and who giggles compulsively, and breaks into ditties (as does Masha).  A lot of them speak of work; none of them knows what the word means.  No character is level or pleasant; most operate on you like a nail on a blackboard; you do not get relief from irony or humour as in the other plays; it can therefore be a hard night out.

Let us conclude where we began.  When Chekhov’s body was returned from Germany to Moscow for burial, the mourners found that they were following the wrong casket.  They finally found the remains in a dirty green freight truck marked ‘For Oysters.’  Maxim Gorki wrote: ‘Vulgarity was Chekhov’s enemy.  All his life he had contended with it.  It was vulgarity he had mocked and depicted with a dispassionate sharp-pointed pen…And vulgarity avenged itself upon him with a most abominable little prank…the dirty green blotch of that freight car seems to me nothing else than that huge grin of vulgarity, triumphant over its wearied foe.’  Like Chekhov himself, the incident was nothing if not Russian.

The Cordelia Syndrome – Unaccommodated Man and the High Price of Rigidity

The mad scenes in King Lear may be the most elemental in our literature after Prometheus Bound.  (They frightened Verdi off any opera based on the play.)  The king loses his mind as one by one all the props of civilisation are taken from him and he is left looking up to a gibbering, naked beggar.  He is left alone – like the Marshal in High Noon, to the power of ten.  (There is a similarly affecting moment in Titus Andronicus – another hero left alone on a rock.)  The storm outside in the heath matches that inside Lear’s head.  We get this elemental question: ‘Is man no more than this?….Thou art the thing itself, unaccommodated man…’(3.6.105-109).

Meanwhile, two of his daughters are completing their descent into evil.  The descent is so complete and so mutually annihilating that it represents a different kind of denial of humanity.  How far removed are we from the primeval slime from which we emerged at the beginning?  The question posed by the daughters is this: ‘Is there any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts?’ (3.6.75-77).

The two questions are simple enough.  What is it to be human?  What is it to be evil?  If you put to one side magic and the supernatural, it is hard to think of a more basic question.

How did this come about?   Cordelia was too inflexible – too rigid – to accommodate (that word again) her father’s wishes.  This was one of those ticklish family crises where you just needed some sense and sensibility to navigate your way through.  It happens in most families at Christmas lunch.  (In the U S, Thanksgiving poses similar threats – who could forget Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman going after the rest of the family like a blind, gored bull?)  These are moments of truth that call for anything but the truth.  Most of us wriggle through with the blank insincerity that inevitably underlies any statement beginning ‘I am delighted…’But even that was too much for the good Cordelia.

I remarked elsewhere:

Cordelia has come out of this exercise with a remarkably good press.  For the want of just a touch of politesse, a kingdom was lost, and she and her father are both lost in the maelstrom.  But Cordelia is ‘ensainted’.  This process may reflect the prejudices of Victorian and Edwardian English dons.  Nowadays, Isabella (Measure for Measure) gets a dreadful press, at least from some quarters, for preferring her name and virtue to her brother’s life.  People who are prepared to sacrifice – that is the word, ‘sacrifice’ – real people for abstract ideas make us very nervous.

We know that sparks can fly between a father and daughter infected with the same pride, prejudice, or narrowness, but what we here see is that the uncalculating moral purity of a daughter may be just as wounding to an aging volatile proud father as the calculated immoral conduct of his older daughters.

The certainty of youth has an inherently incendiary character.  It is a certainty that is unimpressed by doubt and uninfected with defeat, and it is commonly dead wrong.  Here, the father is all or nothing, black and white; the daughter is incapable of the compromise that communal life depends on; conflict is therefore inevitable, and disaster is probable.  In truth, the conflict of this father and daughter may remind you of a remark made by Kant before the white people settled here: ‘Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity.’

The Edwardian sensibility I had in mind may have been that of A C Bradley.  Bradley ‘refuses to admit…..any kind of imperfection, and is outraged when any share in her father’s sufferings is attributed to the part she plays in the opening scene.’  I don’t know whether the professor survived bringing up two or more daughters – it is, among other things, instructive – but the great man faltered when he sought to justify his suggestion that Cordelia could not ‘have made the unreasonable old King feel that he was fondly loved.  Cordelia cannot, because she is Cordelia’.  That circular proposition is about as helpful as saying that had she pacified her father, we would not have had the play.

Well, we all make mistakes – and on the previous page, Bradley had given us my favourite bell-ringer in all criticism.  ‘She grew up with Goneril and Regan for sisters.’  That is a very sobering statement that entitles Cordelia to be cut some slack – as they say Stateside.  (And that is the kind of thing Bradley is criticised for by some who have come later and are not so learned – he treats the characters as if they were real people.  No one has ever been able to make the alternative clear to me.)

This inability of Cordelia to adjust herself to accommodate others is the kind personal failing that underlies so much failure and friction in our public life.  There is a lack of tolerance and restraint that goes beyond a mere want of courtesy.  We see a ruthless assertion or promotion of self that takes its stand on the standard of our time – the selfy.  It is the denial of community and assertion of self you see when two tradies go to a café for a pie and immediately retire into their own pones and zones.  The ceremony of courtesy is drowned.  Is it little more than pure selfishness that reaches its apotheosis in people like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson?  Do you notice that some people get ill at ease if you turn the discussion away from them?  It’s as if you are talking to a brick wall.  They have no interest in any world without them.  When we see that syndrome in action, we may reflect on the observation of Blaise Pascal that ‘all of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.’

Language itself becomes unaccommodated at the end of this play.  It is pared down to the elements, strangled monosyllabic utterances.  The speech in 5.3 beginning ‘And my poor fool is hanged: no, no, no life’ led Bradley to say:

The imagination that produced Lear’s curse or his defiance of the storm may be paralleled in its kind, but where else are we to seek the imagination that would venture to that cry of ‘Never’ with such a phrase as ‘undo this button’, and yet could leave us on the topmost peaks of poetry.

That is why King Lear is our Everest.  Did this author, or any other, ever get a better fusion of drama and poetry than in these lines?

No, no, no, no! Come, let’s away to prison:
We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage:
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down,
And ask of thee forgiveness: so we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too,
Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out;
And take upon’s the mystery of things,
As if we were God’s spies: and we’ll wear out,
In a wall’d prison, packs and sects of great ones,
That ebb and flow by the moon.

Lear and Cordelia share a problem of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson.  They lack discretion.  They are low on judgement.  (The quality you look for in a trustee is prudence and the want of that quality in people like Trump or Johnson shows how unfit they are for public office.)

Prometheus had the same problem – big time.  I remarked elsewhere:

They do not get more elemental than this.  Big epics tend to start with feuds in heaven – The Iliad, Paradise Lost, Mahabharata, and Wagner’s Ring Cycle.  There was a power struggle between the Greek gods that would have warmed the heart of a local apparatchik.  Prometheus – ‘forethought’ – stole fire from heaven to ease the lot of mankind.  Zeus, who makes the Old Testament God look like a maiden aunt, takes exception and binds Prometheus to a rock during the pleasure of Zeus. 

Lear loses all the props of mankind.  Prometheus had sought to restore them.  The last epithet you would apply to stealing fire from heaven is discretion.  It’s not surprising then that Hermes lays into him.  ‘But you have not yet learned a wise discretion.’  ‘Bring your proud heart to know a true discretion.’  Hermes then gives Prometheus a real spray:

You are a colt new broken, with the bit

Clenched in its teeth, fighting against the reins,

And bolting.  You are far too strong and confident

In your weak cleverness.  For obstinacy

Standing alone is the weakest of all things

In one whose mind is not possessed by wisdom.

‘Weak cleverness is a massive put-down, that bears upon others referred to here, and might sum up politics now in general, but in fairness to Prometheus, he had learned enough to pass on advice to others who might also be after sole power.

This is a sickness, it seems, that goes along with

Dictatorship – inability to trust one’s friends.

Put differently, loyalty is a one-way affair for those who lust after and are corrupted by power.  (That translation is by Rex Warner in Limited Editions, 1965 from Bodley Head; the other citations were translated by David Grene for Folio, 2011).

Prometheus was chained upon a rock.  King Lear was bound upon a wheel of fire.  One took on God.  The other tried to convert a crown to the trinity – something beyond even Newton.  Each came to see the writing on the wall – which was just as well, because each had done most of the writing.

These plays are part of the title deeds of our civilisation.  It is therefore not surprising that in his introduction to his translation of Prometheus, Rex Warner referred to a Harvard scholar who ‘well compares the Prometheus with The Brothers Karamazov and King Lear, all works which have the quality of ‘touching final doubts.’  Here, then, we are truly among the very big hitters.

MY TOP SHELF – 30

 

[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.  The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]

30

FOUR PLAYS

Henrik Ibsen (1890)

Oxford University Press, The Franklin library, 1983; translated by Eva Le Gallienne; illustrated by Tony Eubanks; fully bound in black leather, worked and embossed in gold, with humped spine moiré pearl endpapers and ribbon; gold edged pages.

Play-time is over now.

Henrik Ibsen left Norway because he was stifled by it.  He said he wanted to put a torpedo under the ark.  He went to Rome and was captivated by Michelangelo and Bernini because, he said, ‘they had the courage to commit a little madness now and then.’  That is a very revealing remark.  He was a member of the Scandinavian Club, that was doubtless as conservative as ex-pat groups tend to be.  The torpedo launched in Rome was a proposal to give women at the Club the vote.  This was 1879.  The motion was narrowly lost.  Members were uneasy about how Ibsen might react.

No one would have guessed it – but Ibsen came.  He looked magnificent, in full panoply, with medals to boot.  He ran his hand ceaselessly through his rich, grizzled hair, greeting no one in particular, but everyone in general.  There was a deep peace in his face, but his eyes were watchful, so watchful.  He sat alone.  We all thought that he had forgiven his fellow mortals, and some even supposed him penitent…Then he began, softly, but with a terrifying earnestness.  He had recently wished to do the Club a service, he might almost say a great favour, by bringing its members abreast with contemporary ideas.  No one could escape these mighty developments.  Not even here – in this community – in this duckpond!….Now he was no longer speaking calmly, no longer thoughtfully stroking his hair.  He shook his head with its grey mane.  He folded his arms across his chest.  His eyes shone.  His voice shook, his mouth trembled…He resembled a lion; nay, more – he resembled that future enemy of the people, Dr Stockmann….He repeated, and repeated: what kind of women are these….?

Thump!  A lady, Countess B, fell to the floor.  She, like the rest of us, flinched from the unspeakable.  So she took time by the forelock and swooned.  She was carried out.  Ibsen continued.  Perhaps slightly more calmly.  But eloquently and lucidly, never searching for a word.  …He looked remote and ecstatic….And when he was done, he went out unto the hall, took his overcoat and walked home.  Calm and silent.

(Could all Scandinavian people write like that back then?)

This volume has four of the plays – A Doll’s House, Ghosts, The Wild Duck, and Hedda Gabler.  With The Master Builder, they are the plays most put on now.  After these, the going gets tough.  For example, Romersholm ends on a double suicide and in Little Eyeolf a child is crippled while his parents are making love and becomes subject to the whiles of the Rat-woman leaving his parents to make Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf sound like a nursery rhyme.

It is hard for us now to recapture just how shocking A Doll’s House was.  Nora is treated like a doll by her husband until she can take it no longer and she just walks out.  The last words before the curtain are: From below is heard the reverberation of a heavy door closing.  That sound must have echoed round Stockholm and Berlin like a rifle shot.  Women just did not do that – walking out was not an option.

Helmer, the husband, is insufferably patronising.  ‘When a man forgives his wife wholeheartedly – as I have you – it fills him with such tenderness, such peace.  She seems to belong to him in a double sense.’  But it is not long before he is staring into the abyss.

It doesn’t occur to you, does it, that though we’ve been married for eight years, this is the first time that we two, man and wife, have sat down for a serious talk…..You never loved me.  You just thought it was fun to be in love with me….I’ve been your doll wife, just as at home I was Papa’s doll-child.  And the children in turn have been my dolls.  I thought it fun when you played games with me….I have another duty just as sacred…my duty toward myself…..But don’t you see – I don’t really know what religion is.

Then the husband says that he could not sacrifice honor for the sake of love, and he walks straight into this bell-ringer.

Millions of women do it every day.

This would have been all Mandarin in the south, but it electrified the nations of the north.  People sent dinner invitations endorsed ‘We will not discuss THAT play.’  One traditionalist complained that ‘one does not leave this play in the mood of exaltation which, ever since the days of the Greeks, has been regarded as the sine qua non for every work of art and literature.’  You can therefore see Ibsen’s contribution to modernism.  As with King Lear, some demanded a happy ending.  But as Michael Meyer observes in his wonderful biography: ‘So explosive was the message of A Doll’s House –that a marriage was not sacrosanct, that a man’s authority in his home should not go unchallenged, and that the prime duty of every person was to find out who he or she really was and become that person – that the technical originality of the play is often forgotten.  It achieved the most powerful and moving effect by the highly untraditional methods of extreme simplicity and economy of language….’

Hedda Gabler is another snap of heathens living in a world that calls itself Christian.  It must be the most lacerating role known to the stage.  The ‘trolls’ have stalked mankind right into civilized society.  Hedda is caught between a twerp of a husband and a sleazy judicial pants man.  She is left to face the roles of mother and mistress and she rejects both of them.  She is like a caged animal, and she becomes both vicious and lethal.  She is revolted by any kind of intimacy and cannot bring herself to use ‘du’ with her husband’s aunt.  Her only release is in inflicting pain.

I sometimes think there’s only one thing in this world I’m really fitted for….Boring myself to death…..I say there is beauty in this.  [Suicide of a former lover.]  Ejlert Lovborg has made up his own account with life.  He had the courage to do – the one right thing…..It gives me a sense of freedom to know that an act of deliberate courage is still possible in this world – an act of spontaneous beauty.

We are near the realm of Ayn Rand or something worse.  This play could just be a study in fascism.

For once in my life I want the power to shape a human destiny.

There is something demonic about Hedda.  Ibsen said ‘She really wants to live the whole life of a man.’  In the result her exit comes with a different sort of bang, and she might just be the most terrifying creature ever put on the stage.  The last way anyone would want to go to God would be with Hedda’s vine leaves in their hair.  Fascists are empty incomplete people who live on front and insignia.  They see their heroes – themselves – as champions wreathed in laurels.  They are also fascinated by guns.  Guns are a source of power to shape human destiny.  The external insignia of fascists betoken their internal emptiness.  They are an uncomely husk of humanity, a sad, pale mockery.  Hedda Gabler is indeed a very dark and evil invention.  This is a chick who kills for kicks.

On film, you can choose between Juliet Stephenson and Claire Bloom for Nora and between Ingrid Bergman and Diana Rigg for Hedda.  If the plays have a structural problem, it is that the men are door-mats.  Michael Redgrave is as wet a wimp as you could find for Hedda’s husband and Ralph Richardson is just nauseating as the revolting Judge Brack – he reminds you of the whining, insinuating Iago of Cyril Cusack.

Ibsen may be the only playwright who can hold a candle to Shakespeare.  One difference is that there is hardly any comedy.  But they both have one important thing in common.  They were both devoted to theatre and they both spent their professional lives writing plays for profit with the view to giving the public a good night out at the theatre.  The rest, I suspect, may be little more than moonshine.

Here and there – Shakespeare on Chivalry

 

 

The Iliad of Homer ends: ‘So the Trojans buried Hector breaker of horses.’  The death of Hector marks the end of the play Troilus and Cressida of Shakespeare written more than 2000 years after the Iliad.  This, then, is an enduring myth.  Horses hardly figure in the Iliad, but later they became decisive in war.  The medieval knight on a horse (cheval) was their Panzer tank.  Tales were told about the deeds of knights (chevaliers).  They had their own code – chivalry – and it in turn was a fertile source of myth.

What does the word ‘chivalry’ denote?  ‘The character of the ideal knight, disinterested bravery, honour and courtesy’ (OED).  The word ‘ideal’ suggests that we may be near romance.  There is much romance in the epic tales of chivalry – like those of Arthur and Roland.  They speak of knightly love, and they end in tragedy.  They are also full of blood and guts, but Kenneth Clark in Civilisation got lyrical about it all.  He thought that the age of chivalry now looks ‘infinitely strange and remote’.

It is as enchanting, as luminous, as transcendental as the stained glass that is its glory – and, in the ordinary meaning of the word, as unreal.

That unreality had been revealed by two of the great characters of Western letters.  Don Quixote and Falstaff came to us at about the same time.  Each was a torpedo under the ark of chivalry and knightly love.  Falstaff was a dangerous ratbag, but we have too much of that in each of us to let that put us off a man who makes us laugh so much at our betters – and ourselves.  Don Quixote was dead-set mad, but we have the insight that we all tip-toe around that particular volcano, and the Don comes down to us as kind of off-centre Christ.  These are two of our most loved characters.  You would have to have to be really mad to describe either as ‘disinterested.’

By contrast, Troilus and Cressida is a far more brutal demolition job on chivalry and knightly love, and there is hardly a decent person in it.

So, how does Troilus start?  In the second line we get one of those nuggets that this author puts in our path.  The Greek princes sailed for Troy, we are told, ‘their high blood chafed.’  Those four words tell us the story of this pointless war.  What were they chafed about?  A wife of one of their princes has shot through – with a bloody Asian!  Well, at least that romance was consensual.  When the Greeks get to Troy, Achilles is sulking because his king has pinched his Trojan trophy, a woman that Achilles has taken a shine to – notwithstanding his love for Patroclus (who is here described as a ‘male whore’).  Then our two lovers no sooner get into bed than Cressida is traded for a Trojan prisoner.  And when she gets traded, she starts to enjoy herself sexually far too quickly.  Her uncle, Pandarus, is a pimp who has set up the consummation.  Her father, who is a priest and a traitor, sets up the trade.  Women are just tradeable commodities, handy in bed if your taste goes that way, but otherwise useless.  So much for courtly love.

When Don Quixote could not think of a better way to start a fight, he would demand that his protagonist acknowledge the supreme beauty of Dulcinea (who did not exist).  That is how single combat is set up in this play.  The protagonists go to defend the honour of their ladies  Aeneas, a very unpleasant puppet-master, taunts the Greeks in his challenge saying that unless they accept the challenge, the Trojans will say that ‘Grecian dames are sunburnt and not worth the splinter of a lance.’  The slippery Ulysses pulls the levers so that the mad Ajax goes to fight Hector.  But by this time, Achilles, who is not too bright, realises that his ‘reputation is at stake’ and that his fame is ‘shrewdly gored.’  When he runs into Hector, the two confront each other like ruckmen before the bounce in a grand final.  And when he comes across Hector unarmed, he instructs his version of the Waffen SS to murder Hector in cold blood.  So much for chivalry.

The repudiation of chivalry is express.  Troilus taxes Hector for sparing the lives of vanquished Greeks.  Hector actually uses the term ‘fair play.’  Troilus responds with ‘fool’s play’.  Troilus was dead right.  The unarmed Hector asks Achilles to ‘forgo this vantage’ in vain.  In this play, the ball-tamperers win.  Those who don’t cheat are losers and bloody idiots – and this play has lots of references to fools and idiots.

At the start, we are told that ‘expectation, tickling skittish spirits…sets all on hazard.’  But young Troilus experiences the kind of emptiness felt by young Prince Hal.  He thinks there are fools on both sides.  ‘I cannot fight upon this argument….It is too starved a subject for my sword.’  But when the Greeks offer to call it off if they get Helen back – she presumably not being consulted – Paris and Troilus fall out with their brother Hector.  Hector says Helen is not worth the cost of her keeping.  Troilus refers to that weasel word ‘manhood’ and the most lethal word in the language – ‘honor’.  He then equates worth, or dignity, with value.  Hector asks the kind of question that some of us might ask about our role in Iraq and Afghanistan.

…..Or is your blood

So madly hot that no discourse of reason,

Nor fear of bad success in a bad cause,

Can qualify the same?  (2.2. 115 – 118)

Troilus is a shallow sulk.  He tamely lets Cressida go.  His first concern is that Aeneas does not reveal that he found Troilus in the same house as Cressida so early in the morning.

But Cressida gets what might be called the full Anita Hill treatment.  That unfortunate woman was branded ‘a little bit sluttish’.  When Cressida gets handed over to the Greeks, the big hitters take it in turns to kiss her.  ‘Lewd’ is the word.  Ulysses says:

…..Her wanton spirits look out

At every joint and motive of her body…

……Set them down

For sluttish spoils of opportunity

And daughters of the game.  (4.5.56 – 63)

The last line is scarily modern.  And revolting.  The appalling behaviour of these ageing white males may in part be behind the insight offered to us by Tony Tanner that there ‘is a kind of hapless honesty about Cressida.’  Beside her male elders, including her own family, she comes across like a saint.

This play may be the most brutal repudiation of war outside of Goya.  As you would expect of a classic, it still speaks to us now.

Ulysses and Aeneas are political operatives – manipulators.  Like our shock jocks now, they embody what a wise man called power without responsibility, the ‘prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages’.  They think that they can manipulate the politicians – by, for example, playing on the hideous vanity of Achilles – and then get the mob to take the bait because they are mostly fools or idiots.

They do all this in a world that has no moral base.  We saw that Troilus equated dignity with value.  Ulysses says that ‘no man is the lord of anything’ until he communicates to others and that he will not know himself until he sees himself realised in the applause of others.  (Just ask yourself if any of this catalogue does not apply word for word to Donald Trump.)

How some men creep in skittish Fortune’s hall,

While others play the idiots in her eyes!

How one man eats into another’s pride,

While pride is fasting in his wantonness.  (3.3. 134 – 137)

In this moral desert – ‘war and lechery confound all’ – the political leaders treat the people with contempt.  It is a measure of the empty vanity of Achilles that he tolerates Thersites, the most crude cynic of our stage, but this nasty clown sums up the play when he says that Achilles is the ‘idol of idiot-worshipers.’

They are of course heavily into spin and fake news.  No sooner is Hector murdered, than Achilles is telling his bodyguard to broadcast that ‘Achilles hath the mighty Hector slain.’  They even have alternative facts.  When Pandarus and Cressida discuss the complexion of Troilus, Pandarus says ‘to say truth, brown and not brown’ and Cressida says ‘To say the truth, true and not true.’  When Troilus sees Cressida being too fresh too fast with the Greeks, he says that it is not Cressida – at least not his Cressida.  Or as the President of the United States says ‘There is no proof of anything.’  Reality has just gone.

So, this play was written by someone who could have seen at firsthand the heartless inanity of a Trump rally, or the workings in the inner sanctum of an Australian political party.  The play still, therefore, has a lot to say to us.

But it is painfully long.  Cassandra, Pandarus and Thersites are all ghastly to listen to.  For our taste, there is too much word-play of the type that students of rhetoric enjoyed in the early comedies.  And if Qantas plonked Ulysses beside you on a flight to New York, you would want to sue the airline.  The full version of the play is painful in the Wagnerian sense.  The BBC version is repulsive.  This play really is a problem play in production – as difficult for me as Cymbeline.

At the risk of upsetting some, I would suggest that we would enjoy the play a lot more, and take more home from it, if it was cut – say, in half.  For our taste, the play as written breaches the first rule of advocacy – if you have a good point, make it, and don’t bugger it up by banging on.

Since starting this note, I see that I have referred before to the bad press on chivalry in a book about the middle ages.

But the prize for the most appalling hypocrisy must go to the members of the ruling class called knights.  They invented this wonderful code of chivalry about defending the helpless and maintaining the right.  It was almost entirely pure bullshit.  They became mercenaries for hire – the Knight of Canterbury Tales might be a paradigm.  They depended on and lived by violence.  If the Crusades had not been ordained by God, chivalry would have had to invent it to satisfy their lust for blood and booty.  Their crimes against innocent Jews and Muslims are a perpetual stain not just on Christianity, but on humanity at large.  Dante put Saladin in a pleasing part of hell for answering back so handsomely.

Then, after they got home, and whipped their serfs into line, the knights would drift into some dreamy, droopy adolescent puppy love – for another man’s wife, a mother substitute.  If they succeeded in consummating their affair, which we may suspect was almost never, and they got caught, the same code of chivalry would have required them to fight to the death on a point of honour; and, depending on the jurisdiction, and the ripeness of the detection, the guilty wife might have been run through on the spot.

And enfin, do you know what really gets on our wicks about these knights?  Their high blood chafes far too easily.  They had too many tickets on themselves.  That’s why Cervantes and Shakespeare took them down.

Here and there -An Italian Composer and an English Playwright

 

Nearly twenty years ago, I attended the first of what would be many summer schools at Cambridge or Oxford.  It was at Oxford and the subject was Verdi and Shakespeare.  The tutor was a very entertaining musician who played the tuba.  According to my notes – which are far more extensive than those for later courses – George Bernard Shaw said that Othello was the only tragedy written as grand opera.  I well remember our analysis of the last act of Otello.  The tutor detected an application of the Golden Ratio (or Rule), or the Fibonacci Principle, in the last act.  My notes say a: b; b: a + b.  The numerical progression is, I think, 0, 1, 1, 3, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, and 55.  That is how a pine cone is shaped.  It is hard to explain but easy enough to see in the layout of a Jeffrey Smart painting.  The question was: did Verdi consciously apply this ratio, or was this just an illustration of his native genius?  You will be happy to learn that we settled on the latter – possibly because we were struggling to understand the ratio itself.  As for Shaw’s remark, it sounds bright enough, but what does it signify?

Verdi read Shakespeare mostly in translation.  He venerated the playwright as a god.  He based three of his operas on the plays.

The first was Macbeth and that was composed before the full flowering of Verdi’s artHe thought that Macbeth was ‘one of mankind’s greatest creations.’  He wrote to London to find out how Banquo’s ghost was normally brought on stage.  He sketched out the opera and he usually left the orchestration until rehearsals.  Then at the ripe age of thirty-four, Verdi nearly drove his leads mad rehearsing the duet in the first act more than one hundred and fifty times.  It had to be more spoken than sung.  He behaved like a theatrical tyrant and well before Wagner, he had begun a revolution in the staging of opera.

In his biography, George Martin said that ‘Verdi is ‘unique in the roles he gave to baritones, and in a sense he created the voice.’

There was of course much in the opera that was exactly as expected.  There was a conspirators’ chorus, this time of assassins gathering to kill Banquo; a patriotic chorus of Scottish exiles which, as always, aroused great enthusiasm; and some jiggy witches’ music….To modern ears these parts of the opera sound dated and incongruous beside the more dramatic writing.  And if this mixture of styles kept Macbeth from being as great as Rigoletto or La Traviata, both of which came after it and were more of a piece, it probably also made it possible for the opera, as a very early venture into dramatic writing to survive at all.

But when someone accused Verdi of not knowing Shakespeare, he said:

Perhaps I did not render Macbeth well, but….Shakespeare is one of my favourite poets.  I have had him in my hands since my earliest childhood and I read and re-read him continually.

Verdi had predicted that Macbeth would be a triumph and it was.  The locals were astonished at its despair and ferocity.  In Italy it was known ‘l’opera senza amore’ – the loveless opera.

Otello was written toward the end of Verdi’s life – after the death of Wagner.  Verdi admired the German, but he resisted the ‘infection’ of an Italian art form by ‘Germanism.’  He spent almost two years working on it.  It was to be his first new opera in sixteen years and widely thought to have been his last.  By cutting the first act of the play, Boito (the librettist) could set the entire action in Cyprus and make each act follow its predecessor almost exactly in time.

Not unusually, Verdi had trouble with his leads.  One tiff with the title role led Verdi to write a note to the conductor which reminded me of what I felt driven to say occasionally to counsel for the Crown in tax cases – ‘Do you think that you might persuade the tenor to perform something approximating to what has been laid down?’  We are told that the choice for Desdemona was not ideal, but that the conductor had an interest in her that was not exclusively musical.

The disintegration of Otello is ruthlessly presented – this is what makes both the play and the opera so difficult for some of the more squeamish of us to follow.  Verdi’s Desdemona is firmer and more modern.  When in the play Othello calls her false, she replies ‘To whom, my lord, with whom?  How am I false?’  In the opera she replies ‘I am honest’ and the stage direction is ‘looking firmly at him.’  For all I know, they may have had in mind the question that Hamlet posed to Ophelia, but there is a bit of #MeToo there.

Although the composition was very novel in many respects, Verdi made use of Italian operatic idioms, such as the storm scene, the victory chorus and the drinking song.  Nowadays someone would mumble some nonsense about bums on seats, but the consensus is and always has been that this work of art is a masterpiece.

Throughout his career, Verdi had to put up with censors – and idiots.  People said that an opera seria had to have a happy ending.  So, Verdi had to write a version where Desdemona persuades the Moor of her innocence.  Well, some drongo would do the same to King Lear.  We should not be surprised when fresh insults are offered all the time to the art of the greatest playwright the world has seen.  It’s like putting a fig leaf or condom on the David of Michelangelo, or some pink lippy on the Mona Lisa – select your own location.  Or – how would you like it if you rocked up to a concert of a late Beethoven string quartet, and the band turned up in black shirts, jackboots, Storm trackies – and tats?  Where is the moral right of the artist to be immune from this form of desecration?

The premiere was of course an event.  Tout le monde was there.  A nineteen year old from Parma played the second cello.  He was so moved that when he got home, he woke up his mother, told her that Otello was a masterpiece, got her out bed, and insisted that she kneel beside him and repeat ‘Viva Verdi.’  That young man was Arturo Toscanini.  The Italians, like all of us, can get a lot wrong, but there is a continuing thread to their gift of opera to the world.

The final opera was Falstaff.  Rossini had fed blood to a tiger when he said that ‘Verdi was incapable of writing a comic opera.’  Verdi spent years on the project, trying to keep it secret.  Although in his eightieth year, Verdi spent hours each day at rehearsals.  He reduced the opera to two episodes.  He conducted the first night.  It was at La Scala, with which Verdi had had at best an off and on relationship, and it was hailed as another masterpiece.  As someone correctly said, the whole cast is the star of Falstaff.

My attitude to Falstaff has changed over the years.  This character is mainly from The Merry Wives of Windsor and is quite unlike the ultimately unlovely hero of King Henry IV Parts I and II  – although Verdi did bring in parts of the speeches in the history plays.  Some might then see this opera as lightweight.  A stunning performance by the AO a few years back and constant replaying have made this opera now my favourite.  This for me now is music drama at its most evolved.  Eat your heart out, Waggers.

Wagner had claimed to have written a comedy in opera – Die Meistersinger.  Some time ago I was offered two of the best seats in the house to hear this work.  I declined them.  My back can no longer take that kind of punishment, and ‘comedy’ does not trip lightly off the lips with ‘Wagner’.  As Mr Martin reminds us, the whole of Falstaff takes less time in performance than the last act of Die Meistersinger.

As for recordings, if you don’t mind Lady Macbeth stealing the show – and I don’t in either the play (Harriet Walter completely changed the way I see it) or the opera – then the live La Scala 1952 recording with Callas and de Sabata is the go.  For Otello,  the RCA boxed set of Toscanini has his 1947 recording with Ramon Vinay, who was said to be the Otello, but I prefer the 1955 version of Serafin with Vickers and Gobbi – Jon Vickers had a power in his voice that young people would call awesome.  For Falstaff you must get the 1956 Karajan with Gobbo and Schwarzkopf.  Kant would have called it ‘transcendental.’

On many occasions, Verdi longed to try King Lear.   He believed that sixteenth century Elizabethan drama was very close to nineteenth century Italian opera.  There is oratorical blood and thunder, aria-like soliloquies, a storm scene, a mad scene, and the trumpets of royalty.  What more could he ask for?  Mascagni asked him why he had not gone ahead with this opera.  Verdi closed his eyes and replied slowly and softly: ‘The scene in which King Lear finds himself on the heath terrified me.’  That was wise.  Too many directors are not scared enough.  In truth, the maestro knew the limitations of his art.  When his second wife died, Verdi said:

Great grief does not demand great expression; it asks for silence, isolation, I would even say the torture of reflection.  There is something superficial about all exteriorization; it is a profanation.

Plato would have been pleased.

Here and there – The Courtiers of King Henry VIII and President Donald Trump

 

A very long time ago – about, say, five or six centuries – the kings of England did not just reign, they ruled, and their subjects owed fealty to them personally.  Then you could still sensibly speak of an absolute monarchy, as was certainly the case in France, and the rule of law was an idea whose time had not yet come.  That was the case – more or less – with Henry VIII.

Donald Trump thinks that it should be the case for him – and he behaves as if it is.  He is about half a millennium out of date, as are those despotic regimes, like Russia and Saudi Arabia, which Trump most admires.

His gross appearance, his blustering demeanour, his vulgarity, his arrogance, his sensuality, his cruelty, his hypocrisy, his want of common decency, are marked in strong lines.

Every word applies to Donald Trump, but it was written by a famous English critic (Hazlitt) about Henry VIII as seen by Shakespeare in the play of that name – and his Harry might be thought to be mild compared to the historical king.  The play ends with the birth of the future Queen Elizabeth and before King Henry VIII became a retail terminator of his wives and first ministers.

Both Trump and Henry are – I will use the present tense for both – blustering, arrogant, sensual, cruel, hypocritical and lacking common decency.  The essential thing about them is that each of them is so full of himself that there is no room for anyone else.  Being a courtier to either is therefore tricky.  No courtier, no matter how high, ever knows when his time might be up.  The Prologue speaks of great people followed by a thousand friends –

…….Then in a moment, see

How soon this mightiness meets misery….(29-30)

Before looking at what Trump may have in common with Henry VIII – both in history and on the stage – we should notice some differences.  Henry is intelligent, religious and intent on doing the right thing by the country he rules.  None of that is true for Trump.  He is a stupid man with no room in his ego for God or his nation.  Sir Geoffrey Elton said that Henry was ‘intelligent, a capable musician, quite well-seen in theology, a patron of the arts and learning’ and that ‘foreign ambassadors as well as his own subjects praised him to the skies.’  How very different is Trump.  But Elton also said:

Of all Henry VIII’s follies none cost his country dearer than his illusion that he was an old and experienced king who knew his business and needed no one to do it for him.

That’s Trump to his toe nails.

There are other differences.  Young Harry was very well educated.  Young Donald was not.  Henry was fluent in four languages.  Trump has trouble putting a sentence together in one.  You would have as much chance of getting a definition of ‘subject’ and ‘predicate’ from Trump as you would of seeing his school report cards.

King Henry disrupted the body politic in order to give the nation a secure heir to the throne.  That was his duty.  President Trump disrupted the body politic in order to secure places for his family.  That was a breach of his duty, and this vulgar family intrusion continues to generate conflicts of interest that would be laughable if they were not so gross.

What then do they have in common?

Each of the King and the President is a monument to the wisdom of the admonition ‘Put not your trust in princes’ (Psalm, 146:3).  Indeed, one of Harry’s principal victims (Cardinal Wolsey) echoed just those words:

…..O, how wretched

Is that poor man that hangs on princes’ favours!

There is betwixt that smile we would aspire to,

That sweet aspect of princes and their ruin,

More pangs and fears that wars or women have.

And when he falls, he falls like Lucifer,

Never to hope again.  (III, ii, 366-372)

A strong leader does not have to claim the authoritarian powers of Stalin or Hitler before he reduces his senior advisers to nervous wrecks who look like menials – and whose consequent apparent weakness makes them only a more likely target.  They are made to look and feel servile.  Trump and Harry have this in common with dogs – they can sense fear and this arouses them.  They pleasure themselves by exploiting fear in others.  For each of them, it is a double hit of showing off his power.  They live to put people down and this means that neither has the mettle of a leader.

On this ground, too, neither has a sense of humour.  That is one way that the rest of us oil our humanity, but for each of these man-eaters, a joke is just a badly disguised kick to the groin.

The play Henry VIII sees the fall of three eminent persons – the Duke of Buckingham, Queen Katherine, and Cardinal Wolsey – all engineered by the King.  We also have a putsch against Archbishop Cranmer that is scotched by the King (and what high theatre we have there).  The later execution of Anne Boleyn was little more than judicial murder.  Whether it was more cruel than the casting off of Queen Katherine is a question on which reasonable minds may differ.  The first minister, Cromwell, the prime author of the legislation giving effect to the Reformation in England, would also fall.  And if he fell like Lucifer, the fall was also far more terminal – what Buckingham refers to as ‘the long divorce of steel.’  Wolsey escaped the axe; Cromwell and More did not.  Some of Henry’s victims suffered death, but the list of Trump’s victims is so much longer – and in a much shorter time.

And yet, at least in the play, they all go quietly in the end.  As did most victims of Stalin.  The lethal reputation of the ruler induces a kind of resignation and acceptance.

This looks to be the case with the victims of Trump.  With the exception of James Comey, of the FBI, most went quietly to their end, although as often as not that end was pronounced in the most cowardly and vulgar manner.

Henry VIII appears to be as much a bully as Trump is.  The flip side of the bully is the coward.  Harry fancies himself as a latterday medieval man of steel.  Medieval kings had to rule in a personal way that does not apply to current presidents – at least outside of world war.  The cowardice of Trump is notorious – from his evasion of military service, to his refusal to show his tax returns, to his cringing before real despots – but at least in one respect Harry shares that cowardice.  In his recent biography Thomas Cromwell, A Life, Diarmaid MacCulloch says that Henry is ‘a thorough coward’ when it comes to ‘personal confrontations.’  Trump always gets a minion – like a demeaned three star general – to deliver the pink slip, and he could not bring himself to listen to the tape of the murder of a journalist – before he went ahead to acquit the murderer.

Although Henry is far more intelligent than Trump, we get the impression that both could be unduly swayed by the last person either spoke to.  That disability is nigh on terminal for a judge, but it also creates disharmony in the court of a ruler.  Courtiers suspected that both Wolsey and Cromwell had got to a position of dominance with King Henry.

He dives into the King’s soul, and there scatters

Dangers, doubts, wringing of the conscience,

Fears and despairs.  (II, ii, 26-28)

That is precisely what we could have heard from some in the White House when Mr Bannon was closeted alone with the President, or when Mr Kushner gets to be so now.  Both those gentlemen have the misfortune to look to be at their most dangerous when they look to be doing nothing.  (It is hard to imagine anyone showing outright blankness in the way Mr Kushner does.  Is anyone ever at home?)

Both rulers are relentlessly insensitive.  Eleven days after Anne Boleyn’s execution, Henry VIII married Jane Seymour.  It was rumoured that he was pleasuring himself at the moment of her decapitation, but Harry has a capacity for self-deception – delusion – quite equal to that of Trump.  As he saw it, this marriage – his third – was his first proper one.  On the day of the execution of Cromwell, Henry diverted himself by marrying Katherine Howard.  Perhaps intercourse eases decapitation.  Both Henry and Trump have an alarming capacity to violate basic decency.

Some may think it is hard to accuse Trump of hypocrisy.  If you don’t believe anything, what is there that you can betray?  But with our Harry, Shakespeare lays it on with a shovel.  The middle aged man who is about to trade in his middle aged wife for a new model fairly wallows in his own moonshine.

O, my lord,

Would it not grieve an able man to leave

So sweet a bedfellow?  But, conscience, conscience!

O, ‘tis a tender place, and I must leave her.  (II, ii, 140-143)

Each ruler fairly glows with any praise.  MacCulloch says that ‘Henry always showed a touching confidence in other people’s admiration of his abilities as a ruler, and the prospect of anyone in mainland Europe expressing unalloyed support for his marital troubles was additionally thrilling.’  For Harry to get sympathy in Europe for his penchant for divorce would be like Trump getting support in Europe for his soft spot for coal.

Each is very touchy and easily kindled to incandescent rage and a lust for revenge.  Each is a born hater.  ‘Anne was now victim of Henry’s ability to turn deep affection into deep hatred, and then to believe any old nonsense to reinforce his new point of view.’

That is vintage Trump.  The original attraction may well have been affected, although the felt need to live in the present could make a sucker of both rulers; but the later loathing was sincerity itself.  Indeed, both claim to have been let down so badly so often that they must concede that they cannot pick the right people to have with them.  That is not a good result for a ruler.

Because neither can be trusted and each rules by fear, their court is a deeply unhappy place.  One of Harry’s courtiers laments ‘he will never give credit against you, whatsoever is laid to your charge; but let me or any other of the Council be complained of, his Grace will most seriously chide and fall out with us’  It is notorious that loyalty flows in only one direction for Trump, but this Tudor cri de coeur leads MacCulloch to comment that ‘the leading men at Court eyed one another and judged the moment to plant a negative thought in the mind of their terrifyingly unpredictable royal master.’

It is hard to think of a better description of what goes on in the White House – except that things are much, much worse there because of the close involvement of the members of the family of the ruler, none of whom knows what to do.  What you get is courtiers looking at each other with what Keats called ‘wild surmise.’

In truth, it is downright dangerous to walk into either court.  Three different fates might await you.  You might get it wrong, in which case a mere firing is an act of mercy.  Or you may have to take a hit for the ruler because it is universally acknowledged that he can do no wrong.  Or worse, you may put part of his gleam in the shade in which case you are really for it.

The Oxford History of England says that King Henry VIII was a ‘great king’.  Their criteria for greatness may be a bit wobbly, since they also say:

Henry VIII was brutal, crafty, selfish, and ungenerous….and as the years passed, what there was in him of magnanimity was eaten up by his all-devouring egoism.  His triumphant ride through life carried him unheeding over the bodies of his broken servants, and though he had an outward affability for use at will, he was faux bonhomme.

There again is Donald Trump á la lettre. David Hume said that Henry may have been great but not good, and that ‘every one dreaded a contest with a man who was known never to yield or to forgive, and who, in every controversy, was determined to ruin either himself or his antagonist.’

Courtiers are companions and councillors.  Both suffer under each of the king and the president.  ‘This enormous man was the nightmare of his advisers.  Once a scheme was fixed in his mind he could seldom be turned from it; resistance only made him more stubborn; and once embarked, he always tended to go too far unless restrained….The only secret of managing him, both Wolsey and Cromwell disclosed after they had fallen, was to see that dangerous ideas were not permitted to reach him.’  Churchill said that of King Henry; Bob Woodward said much the same of President Trump.

It is remarkable how many good lives and careers have been ruined when people have strayed into the court of this king or this president.  They seem to taint all whom they touch.  So many were crooked before they entered the orbit of Trump that for some time now he has had trouble attracting decent people.  Time spent with Trump does not look good on your C V now – how bad might it look in a few years’ time?

We had need pray,

And heartily, for our deliverance,

Or this imperious man will work us all

From princes into pages.  All men’s honours,

Lie like one lump before him, to be fashioned

Into what pitch he pleases.  (II, ii, 44-49)

Now let us see another difference.  Trump has no time or respect for the Constitution or its organs.  It would be silly to say he might leave a good legacy.  The future is not his shtick.

There was next to nothing about religion in the Reformation in England.  It was all about politics and England was much better off politically for getting its version of Home Rule.  And because King Henry chose to split with Rome by acts of Parliament – mere royal fiats would not have done the job – its status was greatly advanced.  We were on our way to the sovereignty of Parliament and the rule of law – and the colonies that would become the United States would be prime beneficiaries of this ascent.

Now may we end with something else that President Trump and King Henry VIII have in common?  For some of us, hardly a day goes by with Donald Trump when we are not reminded of the deathless words of a Boston attorney named Joseph Welch who, after another outrage committed by Senator McCarthy, asked: ‘Have you no sense of decency, Sir, at long last?’  Nowhere is that want of decency more on show in this king and in this president than in their hunt for skirt and in their complete lack of judgment in how to go about it.

Well, at least the Tudors did not have to put up with wall-to-wall and coast to coast centrefolds, and the women allotted to King Henry were alleged to have some form of pedigree if not some kind of mind.  These things are sadly different now in this uncomely Playboy swamp in the New World.

Here and there – Shakespeare on film – a first XI

 

Someone suggested that I do a note on my favourite films of Shakespeare – recognising that the list today might change radically tomorrow.  Here then is today’s first XI – in alphabetical order.

All’s Well that Ends Well is the only play by this author I have not seen on stage.  The 1981 BBC version features two of my favourite actors, and not just in Shakespeare – Ian Charleson and Michael Hordern.  Bertram is a rotten role, but Charleson was so good.  Hordern for me is like Gielgud – they both look like they were born to play Shakespeare.  Hordern oozes Lafew.  There is a wonderful scene – Act V scene ii – where Parolles is wretched and roughly dealt with by the Clown, and Lafew takes him under his wing.  It is pure magic that can’t be taught.  No wonder Hordern terrified Richard Burton as a scene stealer.

The 1984 BBC Coriolanus has a spellbinding performance from Alan Howard in the lead.  He makes no effort to hide his contempt of the mob, and this author knew how to show politics in the gutter.  The sets the BBC employed are perfect for this plot.  Irene Worth is the mother-in-law from hell.  Riveting political drama that is relevant to our time.

I have never understood the fuss about Citizen Kane, but it is hard to avoid the word genius with Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight of 1965.  The film draws on all the Falstaff plays – except Merry Wives.  Somehow it manages to convey the essence of the author’s most famous character.  Gielgud plays the king, and Norman Rodwell is brilliant as a restless young prince wondering if he might be soulless. He was his father’s son.  (It was a bit rich for the producers to give second billing to the late Jean Moreau for Doll – she has about four lines.)

It’s hard to believe that Branagh’s Hamlet came out more than twenty years ago – in 1996.  I saw it four times at the Astor in packed houses.  Some of these dream cast jobs can get wearisome but not this one.  The late Richard Briers was a Branagh favourite and another professional scene stealer.  Rufus Sewell was perfect for Horatio – the kind of guy who would give you a very worrying night if he came to take out your daughter.  The late Robin Williams aired his magic as the courtier, and Gerard Depardieu shows what a wonderful screen presence he has as he stares down Richard Briers with the least lines in the play.

Branagh’s Henry V (1989) got flogged to death in my house when a daughter wrote a ballet to the music.  Branagh’s enthusiasm is infectious.  He broke off with Emma Thompson, but she is very sexy here – and backed up by the great Geraldine McEwan.  Ian Holm nearly steals the show as Fluellen, he having played the lead in the Harper Collins audio.  You also get the bonus of Brian Blessed as Exeter and Richard Briers as Bardolph. The other great scene stealer is Mountjoy, the French Herald.  Blessed is wonderful in confronting the French, and Scofield shows what a great actor he was.  (I’m sure Brian Blessed was in Z Cars and that Sergeant Barlow called him ‘a teddy boy in uniform’: that English frankness was a real revelation to me.)

The whole cast of the BBC Henry VIII (1979) is strong – led by John Stride and Claire Bloom – but Timothy West is splendid as the doomed Cardinal Wolsey – the very definition of a professional politician.  The phrase ‘spin doctor’ could have been coined for this great play.  The scene where the plot to unseat the Archbishop is foiled is unforgettable high politics.

When Brando did Julius Caesar in 1953, I was about eight.  This film helped introduce my girls to Shakespeare: ‘Golly, Dad, who’s that hunk?’  This is another wonderful political plot.  Brando is amazing in the big speech, but we tend to forget the dramatic power of the next two scenes.  Shakespeare wrote a lot about how easy it is to inflame the mob.  He would be horrified but not surprised by seeing the mob in action today.

Fantasy and slapstick are hard to put on the screen, but the 1998 Hollywood Midsummer Night’s Dream gives it a real shot.  Kevin Kline and the director, and clips from opera, make Bottom an intriguing star, but David Strathairn and Sophie Marceau are just right as royalty – and there is no doubt that Michelle Pfeiffer was Hollywood royalty.

The Branagh Much Ado about Nothing of 1994 has one of the most invigorating starts of a movie.  Emma Thompson is deadly as Beatrice, but Michael Keaton nearly runs off with show in the comic parts.

It would be churlish to skip Richard Burton and his then wife Elizabeth Taylor in the 1967 Taming of the Shrew directed by the great film and opera director, Franco Zeffirelli.  The screen is painted with something close to an Old Master level, and Michael Hordern as the unfortunate dad again shows his lethal scene stealing.

When I saw Julie Taymor’s debut as feature film director in Titus in 1999 at the cinema, on each occasion I could feel and hear the audience shift uneasily at the end when Anthony Hopkins appears on the screen ‘dressed as a cook’ – which I think is the stage direction.  This is for obvious reasons a difficult play to put on but I thought then and I think now that this production was a complete and gutsy success.  It is brilliantly set and choreographed.  Geraldine McEwen has a small part that finds the wrong end of a billiard cue.  While the sources are Roman, this film comes across as the archetypal Greek tragedy of a cursed house.  Hopkins is perfect as the square-jawed servant of public duty. Jessica Lange still conveys that sexy fatality.  As the play is developed in the film, it could be at the root of the great Westerns.  Most of the show is about how bad the bad guys are, so that when their dispatch comes at the end, the sense of relief is complete.  This is the revenge show of all revenge shows.  The film is also a demolition job on the notion that ancient Rome was civilised.

Well, there’s my first XI for today.  Imogen Stubbs and Helena Bonham Carter were both terrific in Twelfth Night of 1996, but the slapstick didn’t quite come off, and some of the boys got worried when they thought that Ms Stubbs – who I would have given an arm and a leg to see play the Jailer’s Daughter – looked sexiest when dressed as a copper and with a moustache.  That kind of thing may be unsettling, but she carried it off with her customary trade craft.

Well, whatever else may be said, we are not denied great offerings – and that’s without going to the Globe and other live productions.

Here and there – The Wars of the Roses on the BBC

 

In 1964, the year of the Demons’ last flag, the BBC made a televised recording called The Wars of the Roses.  It consisted of a heavily edited version of four plays: Henry VI Parts I, 2, and 3, and Richard III.  The editing didn’t involve just cutting – new dialogue was added.  You can if you like try to spot the additions.  I couldn’t be bothered (and I suspect that my ear may be as dodgy as my palate).  The issue may in one sense be sterile, since it is unlikely that anyone will chance their arms by putting on the whole of the Henry VI trilogy in this country – they don’t try it often in England.  We get either an abridgement, or nothing.

This TV show was a huge undertaking.  The set was both massive and novel, and the cast was of the kind called ‘stellar’ in the popular press, although the producers were prepared to chance their arms.  The show was recorded over eight weeks with many stars who had been involved in a recent Stratford production of the four plays.

One object of the production was to demonstrate the relevance of many themes of the plays to modern politics.  The director, Peter Hall, said:

I became more and more fascinated by the contortions of politicians, and by the corrupting seductions experienced by anybody who wields power.  

The RSC issued a three CD set of the trilogy in 2016.  The show was shot in black and white and its grainy appearance lacks the definition of High Noon, but it is a great and historical production.

Each of the three parts is punishingly long – far too long to be taken in one hit in comfort.  When the BBC replayed the series, they did so in eleven parts.  The truth is that all four of these plays are too long, at least for Australian audiences.  Many years ago, I saw the RSC do the Full Monty on Richard III at the Barbican, and it was an ordeal for back and bum of Wagnerian dimensions

Before watching the series, you may wish to look at the supplement that has interviews with two surviving stars – David Warner (Henry VI) and Janet Suzman (Joan of Arc and Lady Anne).  Both would go on to wonderful careers, but each was hesitant at this stage, and their selection carried risk.  Warner was offered his role after three auditions.  He said he couldn’t believe it, and that he spent the first few days apologising for his selection.  It was a great choice.  His face, which is on the cover, was made to express the pain and indecision of a pious disaster.  Of his part, Kenneth Tynan would say ‘I have seen nothing more Christ-like in modern theatre.’  Either the critic had a queer view of Christ, or he missed that part where this idle fop disinherited his son so that he could hold on to power for a few years more.  (And I am a Tynan fan.)

When offered the role of Joan la Pucelle, Suzman asked who was she?  ‘Joan of Arc, you bloody idiot.’  Then she turned up on the set, and all ‘the big guns were there.’  I’m not personally familiar with how the hierarchy in the theatre manifests itself to relative novices, but I imagine you could get the kind of snakiness you may find among some barristers and test cricketers – that is, naked bitchiness.  Suzman says the editing was a corrective to a ‘biblical’ view of Shakespeare.  Her features then, and fifty years on, radiate a kind of strength – of a kind, perhaps, that the Lady Anne lacked.

One of the big guns that may have put the wind up Janet Suzman was Peggy Ashcroft.  She plays Margaret of Anjou, the queen of Henry VI, and the ‘she-wolf of France.’  She appears in every segment, and is the driving force for a lot of the action as the proud wife of an anaemic king, and the protective mother of his betrayed heir.  She starts as the young French girl who is wooed into a negotiated marriage, becomes the de facto ruler of England, and the serial killer of the enemies of her house, and ends as a savage old hag at risk of being accused of witchcraft (which they all believed in back then.)

Since the actress was fifty-six when she played this part, pulling it off would be a feat – but pull it off, she did.  Here is how a contemporary critic saw what appears to have been the original stage production.

.. the quite marvellous, fearsome performance of Dame Peggy Ashcroft as Margaret of Anjou, who skipped on to the stage, a lightfooted, ginger, sub-deb sub-bitch at about 11.35 a.m. and was last seen, a bedraggled crone with glittering eye, rambling and cussing with undiminished fury, 11 hours later, having grown before our eyes into a vexed and contumacious queen, a battle-axe and a maniac monster of rage and cruelty.. even the stoniest gaze was momentarily lowered from this gorgon.

Peggy Ashcroft said of her part as Margaret that she was:

….a Dark Lady if ever there was one – and prototype for Cressida, Cleopatra, Lady Macbeth – was Shakespeare’s first ‘heroine’ – if such she can be called… It takes four plays to make her one of the great female characters in Shakespeare – and the full-length portrait has been seen only in The Wars of the Roses cycle – but she has facets that are not touched on in any other.

Margaret’s feral growls and hideous curses could cost you some sleep.

Janet Suzman is vital and gamin, and utterly followable as Joan of Arc.  The scene where the big hitters elect to pick either a white rose (York) or a red rose (Lancaster) resembles heavy chested Harley riders.  What are they missing that makes them show of so dangerously?  In truth these magnates resemble the Mafia more than the Hell’s Angels.  And the Mafia and the feudal system both evolve out of the same disorder – the failure of central government to provide security drives people to make other arrangements.  They seek protection elsewhere.  You look after me and I will look after you.

These lords and knights have that marvellous medieval accompaniment – their ‘powers’.  Their puissance, another word much used in these times, leads others to pledge allegiance – to their liege lords.  It is I suppose the kind of thing you see in shows like House of Cards, but there is something less prosaic about ‘powers’ than poll ratings or factions or unions or think tanks or talk shows.

We are talking about chess played with extreme prejudice.  The magnates are like the knights and bishops, or even rooks, except that the rules are there to be flouted.  The concept of allegiance was at best fluid.  The followers – the powers – of the Duke of Burgundy or Lord Gloucester were as solid and reliable as the Tory ministers of Mrs Theresa May.

I will not mention all the players.  The cast includes Roy Dotrice, Brewster Mason, Eric Porter, and the others mentioned here.  The rose pickers include Donald Sinden as Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York, and William Squire as Suffolk (the wooer and lover of Margaret).  Sinden’s voice reminds me of Drambuie.  There is something about it that makes it instantly recognizable, rather like the deflated Kevin Spacey.

When I lived in South Yarra, I could walk to and from work in the east end of Collins St, about thirty-five minutes each way, and in about four months listen to all thirty-eight plays.  (It was then that I was glad that I had seen Cymbeline and Troilus and Cressida because I would not be doing so again; and Cyril Cusack’s Iago put me off Othello for life.)  I suppose I had heard A Winter’s Tale on four or five occasions, before one day, out of nowhere, on the tan, I recognized the voice of the lead – there was no doubt it was William Squire who played Hunter in nearly all the twenty or so episodes of Callan.  And in this trilogy there is also a lot of that eyebrow rolling and nasally drawled incredulity.  It is bliss for Callan fans.

Gloucester (Paul Hardwick) is the definitive politician and the unfortunate Winchester (Nicholas Selby) is played like Joel Grey in Cabaret.  Both could have walked straight out of Yes, Minister.

The Jack Cade sequence was to my mind hopelessly over the top, and too violent.  Indeed, there are many scenes of horrific violence.  We get to see what a blood feud can really look like, generation after generation.  Janet Suzman remarked on the violence, and the role of cabbages in the decapitations.  She said people were fainting all over the place.

One of my favourite scenes from this playwright is the confrontation between Queen Margaret and the Duke of York.  She taunts him about his progeny.

And where’s that valiant crookback prodigy,

 Dicky your boy, that with his grumbling voice

Was wont to cheer his dad in mutinies?

Well, we’ll get to see this Dicky in full murderous flight in the next episode, but this French-born woman steels herself not just to extinguish her womanhood, but her humanity.  She will mock not just knighthood, but fatherhood.  She rubs the nose of York into the blood of Rutland (his son) on a handkerchief.  She says she mocks him to make him mad so that she can sing and dance.  She puts a paper crown on the head of the man who would be king and says:

Ay, marry, sir, now he looks like a king

Ay, this is he who took King Henry’s chair

And this is he was his adopted heir.

But how is it that great Plantagenet

Is crowned so soon, and broke his solemn oath?

Off with the crown, and with the crown his head!

And whilst we breathe, take time to do him dead!  

 

The BBC version is not for children.  Margaret by now is oozing hate, and we start to get that old Greek feeling of whole houses being cursed.  (In the McKellen film, Annette Bening as Queen Elizabeth gave meaning to the phrase ‘Ay me!  I see the ruin of my house’ – ‘Welcome destruction, blood, and massacre’.  She was right.)  The violence was perhaps not so surprising after the assassination of Kennedy, and the beginning of the war in Vietnam.  And the Cold War was stepping up, so mutilation by a sickle in the area of the groin may have then had different significance.  We have now been exposed to so much more horror, that this level of explicitness looks as unnecessary as it is unkind.

In the final part, we see evil made manifest in Richard III played by Ian Holm.  Richard III is a master class in the kind of stunt pulled by Peisistratus that was made whole by Mussolini and perfected by Hitler.  The part as played by Ian Holm is so threatening because it is underdone.  It’s as if the producers wanted to comment on the ‘banality of evil’ that Hannah Arendt saw in Eichmann.  (He was one of those mass murderers who went to work with mass death in his brief case.)  What we are presented with here is not motiveless malignity, but wanton evil.  Most people can get hot for sex; the world must be peopled; but some people, sadly, get hot for evil.

Ian Holm was born to act.  For this role he also brings the advantages of relative youth and shortness of size.  He said:

I played Richard very much as a cog in the historical wheel, and not as an individual character. We tried very hard to get away from the Olivier/Irving image of the great Machiavellian villain.

When Richard is confronted with his bloody past, we get the kind of apologia that Fox News reserves for Donald Trump.

Look, what is done cannot now be amended.

Men shall deal unadvisedly sometimes

Which afterhours gives leisure to repent.

 

The scene where Richard confronts Anne is difficult, because it is revolting.  But we have been rudely reminded that quite revolting people – including racist morons – might appeal to people who don’t mind being revolted, or who just don’t care.  And we are also reminded of the difference between the power of sex appeal – that this king had none of – and the sex appeal of power.  When we say that power corrupts, it is not just the wielder who can be corrupted, but those who come within its thrall.  The regimes we least admire work on dragging people down to their level and then locking them into the regime by their complicity.

All that and more is on show here in this remarkable trilogy for the preservation of which we owe much thanks.

PS. May I add a note about Hunter? Callan worked for the British spooks.  He was dragooned into it, and to do dirty hit jobs, because they got to him in the Big House.  He has come up the hard way.  His only mate is a scruffy Cockney cab driver called Lonely.  Hunter is from the Establishment.  So is another agent, Toby Meares.  They are observing from afar Callan on a dangerous mission to meet a deadly Russian killer.  Hunter scowls – he’s good at that – when Meares expresses a moral qualm about the danger to Callan.

Well, then, what would you do if you were in my position, Meares?

Well, on reflection, I think I would do nothing, Sir.

In that case, I would applaud your reticence, Meares.

Oh, don’t applaud, Sir – that way your right hand might know what your left hand is doing.

 

If you watch William Squire in The Wars of the Roses – he is Buckingham at the end – you will see immediately why he was a natural for the part of Hunter – and why he continues to play a substantial part in my entertainment.  As it happens, Buckingham is one of the most vapid and watery liars the world has known.  He is the Platonic form of the kind of politician who drives the rest of us mad.

Four centuries on – Shakespeare

Tomorrow, 23 April 2016, is a big anniversary.  I wrote the following in a book called The West Awakes.

William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616)

William Shakespeare was born in Stratford, England and he died there.  He had a good, solid education, and then he settled down to provide for his wife and children.  His business was to write plays, mainly in verse, and to manage drama in production at theatres like the Globe, and occasionally to act in them.  He prospered in that business and he appears to have died at peace with himself.  We know little about his life.  It looks quite unremarkable – except that his thirty-eight plays and his sonnets are thought to contain literature and drama as good as anything else in the world.  He is widely seen as the greatest genius in history.  His work continues to affect people in their lives all around the world.

You will not see the work of any dramatist set out in poetry in anything like what you get with Shakespeare.  Another distinction is the range of the work.  Shakespeare appears to have been as much at home with comedy as he was with tragedy, with English history plays as with Roman history plays, or with Romances.  Neither Ibsen nor Chekhov ever wrote a comedy, and you will probably get more laughs from a tragedy of Shakespeare than you will get from most of the plays of these great two playwrights.

We are talking about different categories of drama.  There is another way in which Shakespeare covered a greater range – it is the range of subject matter, the range of humanity.  Ibsen and Chekhov tended to focus on educated people of their country and their own time.  Shakespeare ranged from the Bronze Age (Troilus and Cressida) to his equivalent of a contemporary Neighbours (The Merry Wives of Windsor), from Vienna (Measure for Measure), to Athens (Timon), Elsinore (Hamlet) and Scone (Macbeth), but most importantly, from a great king (Henry V) to the drunken, cheating, womanising insult to chivalry (Falstaff); to the dregs of Eastcheap (Bardolph and Peto), and the drunken porter (Macbeth), and the whores and madams of Vienna (Measure for Measure).  Until the great king closes a loop by hanging Bardolph after repudiating Falstaff, and even afterwards, there is no way of saying where this writer was more at home, at the top of the social pile or at the bottom.  Has any other writer ever shown so much penetration and understanding of so many facets of the human condition?

But to Shakespeare the question was whether people were entertained by his plays.  They were and they still are.  To most people what comes first is the skill of the writer as a dramatist – the way he puts his story of characters on the stage and holds our interest – the way he entertains us for the duration of the play.  Poetry is for many a bonus, for some a distraction, and for others just a nuisance.

Two themes recur in the plays of this writer: the superiority of women to men; and the inferiority of the better people to the lesser people, the anti-establishment streak.  You do not find so much of these challenges to orthodoxy or these brushes with modernity in the works of Homer, Dante or Goethe.  What we have is a persistent streak of raw rebellion.  Ibsen wanted to put a torpedo under the ark of Scandinavian society, and his two most famous plays now, A Doll’s House and Hedda Gabler, gave voice to women in that bleak, tawdry Northern world, but does the voice of protest ring as loudly there as it did with Shakespeare?

To an uncommitted observer who comes to review these plays as a whole in performance, these two characteristics – the feeling for women and the feeling against the Establishment – are both obvious and striking.  Why are they so little remarked upon?  Part of the reason is, perhaps, that professional critics have tended to be ageing middle class academics who live off the public purse, but who do not go to the theatre enough – like Cassius in Julius Caesar, Act 1, Scene 2, they read a lot and think too much – and who have a cloistered unawareness of the rough edges of humanity, being more at home with their iambic pentameters and people who speak softly and politely.

There are at least three reasons why the plays of Shakespeare still enthral audiences and enlighten readers all around the world.

The first is their intrinsic excellence as dramas and as poetry.  Shakespeare may or may not have been equalled as a poet, but he was never equalled as a dramatist.

The second is the range of his material, not just geographically or historically, or across the various genres of the plays, but across the whole range of the human experience for all kinds and levels of humanity.  It is these two factors that give the sense of timelessness and universality possessed by great art.  When you add the ways that many of the plays challenged the status quo at the time the plays were written, in ways that can still seem at least relevant if not positively modern, you can see why each generation keeps coming back to the plays and keeps taking something different from them.

The third factor follows from what Nietzsche called ‘the death of God’.  Shakespeare wrote of a medieval world dominated by God and the Church.  That dominance had greatly been shaken by the time of Elizabeth I, not least because of the split in the church.  Now in England and in many of its former colonies, except the United States, God and the Church are minority interests, and the hunger for ritual and myth of the rest can be pathetic to observe.  There is only so far that Elvis Presley, the Princess of Wales, the Lions or Wallabies, or the All Blacks, or a couple of bottles of red, can go to fill the vacuum.  There are times when you can almost taste the void that is close to the heart of our communal life.

Shakespeare is part of our language, and part of the fabric of our history and intellectual life.  He is for us at least what Homer was to the Greeks.  Going to the theatre – to see Shakespeare or the opera – and drawing on our cultural history is as close as many can now get to the myth and ritual it seems that most humans crave.

The director Deborah Warner referred to the observation of Laurence Olivier that with Shakespeare we touch ‘the face of God’ and said:  ‘What Shakespeare does – whoever he was – he makes you proud to be human.’  Richard Burton said:

I wondered through the book for a long time, but no other writer hit me with quite the impact of William S.  What a stupendous God he was, he is.  What chance combination of genes went to the making of that towering imagination, that brilliant gift of words, that staggering compassion, that understanding of all human frailty, that total absence of pomposity, that wit, that pun, that joy in words and the later agony.  It seems that he wrote everything worth writing and the rest of his fraternity have merely fugued on his million themes…..

It was the mission of this poet to put us at ease with our humanity.  There is not much else to say, except that my favourite remark about Shakespeare was made by Ralph Waldo Emerson: ‘When I read Shakespeare, I actually shade my eyes.’