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Beyond ‘Art’ and ‘Not-Art’: Art, Videogames, and Beyond Good and Evil

Posted in art, criticism, literature, Uncategorized, video games with tags , , , , , , , on June 14, 2017 by drayfish

In honour of the wondrous announcement of Beyond Good and Evil 2 at this years E3 Conference, I thought I should repost this article of mine, originally published on PopMatters; a celebration of what might very well be my favourite game of all time…

Beyond Good and Evil

Stuck in a box

I am standing in a black-market boutique talking to a walrus wearing a kimono.  Beside me, in a tank lit iridescent green, a koi fish turns in lazy circles, his whole world bound by panes of glass through which he can peer, but never escape.  A paper lantern hangs overhead; sandstone cobbles line the floor; my pockets are filled with pearls.  The air throbs with the hum of a didgeridoo; of castanets, and a flute, and a Chinese violin (an erhu) all swirling together in a sonorous harmony.  For those not familiar with the game, it probably sounds like I am having some kind of imagistic seizure, but I am actually revisiting Beyond Good and Evil, a work that I still find to be one of the most exquisitely beautiful and thematically resonant gaming experiences ever crafted.

Indeed, it is a game so elegant in narrative and design that it has always been my first thought whenever the tedious argument of whether videogames can be considered ‘Art’ gets rehashed anew.  Others, no doubt, will turn their minds to works like Journey, or Fez, or Heavy Rain, but for me, as soon as I hear someone start bleating on about all games being merely gratuitous violence generators, or time-wasting amusements devoid of substance, I am struck by the memory of Michel Ancel’s Beyond Good and Evil – of the game’s tenacious protagonist, her devoted quest for truth, and the world that she fought to save, not through violence and aggression, but through compassion and conviction and belief.  I think of this koi fish, suspended in a world of wild contrast and dissonance, measuring out the limits of its entrapment as it swims on; an indomitable force of nature despite, blind to the habitual programming that keeps it constrained.

Beyond Good and Evil 3

‘I Don’t Know Art, But I Know What’s Not Art…’

Even if only by virtue of the grand platform his global readership offered, the figure who has come to be perceived as the most vocal detractor of videogames was the film critic Roger Ebert.  Ebert was not a fan of videogames.  As he himself proudly declared, he had never actually played one, was entirely ignorant of their workings, and went on to arbitrarily reduce their myriad forms and styles to little more than animated board games or electronic skill testers, however, Ebert nonetheless took it upon himself to definitively declare them unworthy of the label ‘Art’, denying even the suggestion that they were capable of artistic expression.*

Although one might look at such wilfully uncontextualised commentary as misguided at best, or completely hypocritical at worst (after all, film too had once been written off as merely a trivial fad incapable of artistic expression), for a burgeoning medium still struggling for critical legitimacy, Ebert’s opinions have been subsequently afforded a mystifyingly disproportionate cultural cache.  Amongst innumerable examples, he is evoked in Noah Davis’ compelling summation of the medium’s evolution in ‘Are Video Games the Next Great Art Form?’ in Pacific Standard.  He was the subject of designer Brian Moriarty’s speech delivered to the 2011 GDC; Moriarty heartily endorsed Ebert’s position, seeking to draw a more articulate (but still rather narrow) delineation between ‘kitsch’, or commercial art, and legitimate Art, which apparently must be deigned so by critics such as Ebert.  Ebert is still frequently the first figure quoted in introspective articles such as Phil Hartup’s ‘Killing Time’ in New Statesman, in industry portraits like Laura Parker’s ‘A Journey To Make Videogames Into Art’ in The New Yorker, and by consequentially – much to my chagrin – the counterargument bogeyman of this very article.

I must admit, it is a ubiquity of reference that I find profoundly peculiar.  I can think of no other instance in which the opinion of someone who gladly admitted that they have no interest in, personal experience of, or research into a subject – who offers little more than a preconceived surety that it should be dismissed on principle – has ever been treated with such deference.  Add to this that Ebert was a critic for a completely different medium, who came to argue that videogames failed to meet the criteria he expected of film, his position appears to be about as noteworthy as a book reviewer declaring music ‘not a thing’, or an audience booing Hamlet for not being ‘painting’ enough.

However, while I do not want to turn this into yet another screed about how adamantly one can disagree with Ebert’s contradictory position on this issue (I have already done so elsewhere), nor do I have any desire to continue giving legitimacy to an argument that was, and remained, wilfully ignorant of the materials it sought to denigrate, I must concede that it is nonetheless worth exploring at greater length his reasoning for why – in his opinion – videogames fail to meet his standard of Art.  Firstly, because Ebert’s comments offer a succinct summary of the most common criticisms levelled at games by those who wish to malign them as unworthy of serious consideration (a synopsis that also exhibits the wilfully prejudicial contradictions in such a position), but secondly, because they provide a suitably dogmatic set of rules about how Art apparently ‘must’ function – a set of arbitrary, restrictive requirements that, from my perspective, a game like Beyond Good and Evil not only effortlessly meets, but transcends in an unparalleled communicative engagement unique to its medium.

Perhaps the most concise expression of Ebert’s position was offered in response to a fan of his reviews who had sought to ask why he so adamantly and unreservedly considered videogames inferior to film and literature.  Years later he would go on to offer a longer (and rather more aggressive) reply to the TED talk of Kellee Santiago, founder of thatgamecompany, who had argued for the validity of her medium and her own artistic pursuit, but his initial reply to this inquisitive reader summarises much of the material upon which he would later elaborate.  He said:

‘I [do] indeed consider video games inherently inferior to film and literature.  There is a structural reason for that: Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control.

‘I am prepared to believe that video games can be elegant, subtle, sophisticated, challenging and visually wonderful.  But I believe the nature of the medium prevents it from moving beyond craftsmanship to the stature of art.  To my knowledge, no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers.  That a game can aspire to artistic importance as a visual experience, I accept.  But for most gamers, video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic.’

Alongside his principle complaint that they do not function in the way that films or novels do (again: a specious argument at best, given that a song does not operate the way a painting does, nor a play like a book), in Ebert’s opinion videogames were a literal waste of time because they are designed not to communicate anything, but to instead gratify selfish indulgence.  ‘Play’, he argued, is in this way the natural enemy of discernment; rather than expanding ourselves through the self-evaluation offered by Art, videogames instead lead us toward a state of atrophy – civility, culture and empathy are ignored as the player seeks nothing but transitory pleasure.  Games can be pretty, he conceded, they could be diverting, but they lack the capacity to cultivate our sense of selflessness, or to invite us to engage more adroitly with the world around us.**

Similarly (and for Ebert, most damningly) player choice or input negates the authorial control deemed necessary for meaning to be conveyed.  Having spent his life beholden to the mechanics of cinema, in which viewing a film is a rigidly linear experience, its every beat governed by the omnipresent hand of an auteur, Ebert transposed this requirement onto an entirely different medium.  He therefore concluded that simply the requirements of being a ‘game’ – of sculpting an interactive experience that allows the player to be complicit in the unfolding of the narrative – necessarily wrests authorship away from the artist, and disperses it into the audience, muddying the creator’s intent irreparably, and thus weakening the text’s thematic statement.  Ebert offers no explanation at all for why this would be so, nor does he explain how exactly this must always be problematic, but we can speculate for him.***  One might ask how Bioshock Infinite can be an exploration of determinism if some players spend their time walking awkwardly into a wall, accidentally blowing themselves up, or falling off the edge of Columbia to their deaths?  How can Red Dead Redemption be a sweeping, tragic coda for the western genre if some players spend their time just hunting for wolf pelts and playing dice?  How can The Witcher 2 be the sombre tale of a stoic pariah in a nebulous moral vacuum when players – by the game’s own design – will see entirely different narratives play out dependent upon the plot decisions they themselves make?

Of course, these are all criticisms that fall apart the moment they are put to any legitimate scrutiny, measured against any nonpartisan definition of Art, or compared to similar outdated criticisms that have been applied to countless other media in the past.  I shall return momentarily to the accusations of self-indulgence and time-wasting in my discussion of Beyond Good and Evil, but one can probably already see the logical fallacy at the heart of accusing a text of ‘failing’ to communicate because it requires audience engagement.  After all, how can movies be said to be Art if some of their viewers don’t watch the whole thing, or talk over the dialogue?  Are musical, dramatic, and poetic improvisation not Art forms because they too require spectator interaction?  Are not plays, because they necessitate an engagement with their audience that defines the rhythm of their performance?  Can documentaries never be Art because they require the auteur to be beholden to reality, and the truths of their subject?  If a piece of installation Art is only displayed for a few weeks, is it not Art, and never was, once it has been removed from public exhibition?  Eventually such conjecture becomes one long aimless, nay-saying navel-gazing plod of hypotheticals.  One ends up sighing into the wind asking, ‘If an artwork exists in the forest, and no one sees it, does it have a meaning?’

Thankfully, there is an answer to such speculative vagaries; and wholly unsurprisingly it reveals itself the same way it does for any other analysis of Art (if one can be bothered to try).  Instead of redundantly attempting to argue what all videogames are not, using erroneous equivalencies to Backgammon and Monopoly and speculating on the mindset of an audience neither known nor understood, critics can try performing a close reading of these texts (even a cursory one), experiencing them firsthand to see how they seek to communicate their themes, and how successfully, or not, this meaning is made manifest in their structure and design.

Recently, examples such as The Last of Us, Journey, and Fez have floated into the wider debate as exemplars to ‘prove’ the unique expressive potential of videogames, but they are by no means the earliest texts to elevate the medium – indeed, games like Space Invaders and Super Mario Bros. were inarguably elegant marriages of mechanical and artistic expression.  And so it is with this act of criticism in good faith in mind that one can turn to Michel Ancel’s Beyond Good and Evil, a platforming, light-stealth adventure game from publisher Ubisoft, and the image of that lone fish circling in that tank…

Beyond-Good-Evil 2

The Hillys are alive

To begin with the somewhat superficial, it is doubtful even a cynic like Ebert could deny that Beyond is a delight to the senses.  Despite being released on the previous generation of consoles (I played mine on the PS2 the first time around, but it has since been released on PC, and the version I am replaying now, upgraded with a  HD polish, was released on Xbox Arcade), the game still remains one of the most enchantingly eclectic settings ever depicted.  Beyond offers a sumptuous, watercolour aesthetic, with charmingly exaggerated creature designs (Rastafarian rhinos! Kabuki cats! Shark people! Goat kids! Loveable uncle pigs!) and lush, coastal landscapes dappled with the dying embers of day as twilight intrudes.  From its verdant untrammelled fields to its factories and mines and urban sprawl, sun-bleached stone streets and meandering Venetian canals are peppered with flickering holograms and ramshackle spaceships.  Reggae music swaggers alongside magisterial symphonic swells; the techno frolics of an illegal raceway are punctuated by a stripped bare, mournful piano reprise.

But amidst this scatological beauty, the game tells a story of corruption and totalitarian oppression.  Behind the idyllic splendour of this seafront environment of Hillys, this planet is revealed to be under the shadow of a galactic police state.  A military complex has been granted unchecked power by the threat of perpetual war, and with the consent of a terrified populace, has steadily stripped away the freedoms of each world under its ‘protection’.

Just as the villainous corporation in the game uses obfuscation to further their malevolent goals, the game itself, under the innocuous guise of a colourful fairytale, reveals itself to be telling a tale of political misdirection and inculcating propaganda.  But rather than asking you to storm your way through such a scenario, gunning people down and blowing things up, the game tasks you with unravelling the reality from the lies.  To hide, to sneak, to explore and follow the evidence you yourself observe.  It is little wonder then that the protagonist of the tale, Jade, is a tenacious, burgeoning journalist, a young woman devoted to her homeland, protective of her peoples, and eager to uncover truth, wherever it may lead.

Jade, the player-character protagonist is a young woman tasked with the care of a group of orphans displaced by the ongoing war.  Herself an orphan, she has a playful, affectionate relationship with her Uncle Pey’j, who raised her in the absence of her own parents, and has developed both a healthy scepticism toward the governmental force that has occupied her homeland, and a burgeoning desire to uncover the truth.

The first image the game provides of Jade presents her sitting on the outcrop of a cliff face, meditating, looking over the ocean, soaking in the tranquillity of a glistening sunset, lost in a moment of serenity.  The calm is soon broken by the wail of an air raid siren and the cacophony of a bombing invasion – but the echoing affect of this prologue remains potent.  Jade is a figure in search of equilibrium – ideological, emotional, and physical balance – and throughout the course of the game she will attempt to attain peace, both in herself and her society, by unravelling the deception under which they all subsist.  Thus, once the dust of this latest incursion has settled, and the alien invasion of the DomZ seemingly thwarted by the Alpha Section armed forces, Jade starts to question the veracity of the armada’s omnipresence, tasking herself with uncovering the truth of their motives beneath all the patriotic spin.  She offers he services as a reporter, and soon enough is approached by a band of subversive radicals likewise intent on exposing the military’s elaborate deception.

And it is in the means through which you the player actively pursue these unsavoury truths – the manner in which this work is so uniquely a game – that Beyond Good and Evil is most striking.  Rather than passively watch this world and its narrative play out before you, as one would experience a film or fiction, this is an experience in which the act of play itself informs the very way through which this fiction conveys its meaning.  This is an environment that necessarily must be moved through, lived in, reacted to – the act of interpretation bound inextricably to this cultivation of a bond with the environment you inhabit.  As Jade, you will sneak.  You will explore.  You will gather clues.  You will learn this land’s secrets, befriend its inhabitants, uncover its seedy underbelly.  You will meet hardworking entrepreneurs, pirate looters, soldiers, shell game sneaks, black market merchants, washed up alcoholics, street racers, slavers, subversive rebels trying to overthrow the government from beneath the city’s streets.  You will intrude upon clandestine networks and peek behind the masks of the tyrants.

The game invites you to fall in love with this land of Hillys, not only through its visual and auditory splendour, but through action.  The narrative compels you to explore its urban centres and delve into its uncharted caverns, to converse with each of its residents (many of whom Jade knows personally), to taste its produce (Starkos bars and K-Bups Berries), to photograph its fauna for the preservation of science and history, to uncover the deeper, unsettling truths that lie beneath the surface of its government and media.

Through exploring Hilly’s luscious landscapes, cataloguing its creatures, befriending its inhabitants, and learning of its myriad splendour – invited to literally preserve its wonder on film, through study, through social interaction – you invest in this world, belong to it.  And in doing so, you commit yourself to protecting it.  You see the injustice visited upon the people of Hillys, you see the fear and suspicion of a populace forced to live under an endless totalitarian police state; you feel their loss as they watch their friends and family lost to this endless, Orwellian ‘conflict’.  Indeed, it is for this reason that despite the constant fear of death and loss – the most omnipresent dread depicted in the game is that of kidnapping – of a severing of the communal and familial bonds that are so necessary in the face of such chaos.

Beyond Good and Evil reveals itself to be a parable about responsibility.  Personal responsibility, familial responsibility, social and environmental responsibility.  In this sense the game is about makeshift families built from the wreckage of a society devastated by war.  It is about the commitments such families pledge to each other, the resolve and strength that they draw from this interdependence.  Frequently (though not constantly), Jade therefore works alongside a companion in her journey through these landscapes – her adopted uncle Pey’j; a devoted soldier Double H – further heightening this sense of cooperation and reliance.  Quite literally, were it not for the support of your fellow NPC – in the encouragement and feedback they offer on the journey, and the physical boosts and battling that they offer to assist you – you would not be able to proceed.  By travelling alongside them, trusting them for support, you feel even more acutely the sense of communal bond that infuses the game’s fictional world, stirring you to save this blighted land from its omnipresent dread.

It is no accident, then, that the metaphorical space standing at the centre of this game – Jade’s home, where she, her Uncle, and their orphan charges gather in the shadow of looming corruption – is a lighthouse; a beacon of warning for the ship of state, the searching source of illumination amongst a treacherous, ignorant dark.  And there is a moment, early in the game, where the poignancy of this space is subtly, movingly acknowledged.  As Jade, at the player’s behest, explores this space, watching the children around her mingle and move about, joking, conversing, playing with the lighthouse dog, trying to distract themselves from the daily bombing raids and sirens and whispers of kidnapped citizens stolen away in the night, a piece of music penetrates the quiet to colour the experience profoundly.

Jade – you – ascend the staircase and come upon the orphan children’s makeshift bedroom. Toy’s lay scattered about.  A warm slant of sunlight cuts through the air.  And on the walls, sketched in crayon, are clumsy drawings of the lighthouse itself, of JJade and her uncle Pey’j, and the word ‘HOME’ scribbled beside them.

And at precisely that moment, looking in upon one safe-haven carved out of the detritus of a haunting, ceaseless war, you hear a lilting piano cue.  It’s soft, slow, even mournful, but so delicate, and so precious, that it sears itself in the mind.  A tune stripped utterly bare.  Just solo finger stickling across ivory.  A private melody, alone amongst the cacophony of harmony and discord swelling outside those walls.

It is a melody that recurs in various forms throughout the game – particularly in some tragic moments to come, when Jade will again feel profound personal loss – but it also resurges in some resounding moments of defiance and fight, a subconscious reminder of precisely what it is that you are fighting for.

By seeking out answers, Jade will eventually inspire her people to throw off their oppression, to react against the placation of their media, and to rise up to question the preconceptions into which they have blindly surrendered their faith.  The game unpacks conventional wisdom and manipulative jingoism in a time of war, revealing an expansive web of collusion and misinformation, inspiring a oppressed peoples to reclaim a homeland stolen from them not by force, but through the pernicious application of lies.

And so, for a game fundamentally concerned with the nature of societal indoctrination, one arguing that such willing apathy has to be examined and overthrown, the conceit of the final level is inspired.  Having led her fellow citizens to revolt, Jade confronts the High Priest of the DomZ and is forced to fight for her life.  During the conflict, however, the High Priest bombards Jade with a hypnotic pulse, pouring the sum total of the game’s thematic exploration of persuasion and ideological inculcation into one mesmerising blast.  Suddenly, after having faith in the mechanics with which the game has operated over the preceding hours, the game suddenly flips its control scheme entirely.  Up is now down; left is now right; the character suddenly behaves wholly contrary to the system that the player has trained into their muscle memory.

This metaphor for the reversal of convention that has played into every facet of the narrative, and its exploration of social and political dissent, is heightened by this final subversion of the player.  Just as Jade, who has had to undertake a journey into the heart of her homeland’s darkest recesses to cure herself of the systemic misinformation that has governed her life, so too must the player, in this concluding conflict, force themselves to unlearn what this game’s universe has gradually convinced them to invest in utterly.

In defeating this beast, symbolically tracing this skewed belief system back to its root and therapeutically dissolving the corruption that it has engendered, both Jade and the player, in a unity of purpose, excise the corrosive limitations that would choke this society, its freedom and its media, into atrophy.

beyond-good-and-evil-2

Treading Water

Back in Ming-Tsu’s shop, however, that koi fish keeps turning circles.

Programmed in an infinite reactive loop, he is forever walled in, enslaved by that emerald glass.  And in that sense he offers a fitting metaphor for the transformative nature of responsibility that this game explores.  Ancel’s masterwork invites us to see the limitations – both welcomed and imposed – that govern every aspect of our lives.  Those glass walls, in microcosm, become symbols of the conventional predispositions and rhetorical manipulations that can hold the uninquisitive in stasis.

In looking down at this poor, ensnared creature, Jade, and I playing her, are suddenly reminded that we are not that fish – not bound to some primitive reactive coding, swimming endlessly in place.  No, in this game, in this sumptuous but suffering world, Jade and I can transcend the inculcation of intransigent beliefs.  Instead, she and I can be reminded of the true intangible bonds and beliefs that define us, those that bind us in a happy enslavement to the things we hold most precious.

Through its narrative, its play, and the enchanting aesthetic of its environments and melodies, the game enables its players to invest in the world of Hillys, to feel a responsibility to its peoples and its future, and to redefine ourselves through the bond we feel to its familial, spatial and ideological constraints.  Indeed, as you are literally a character inhabiting this land, tasked with its preservation, this evokes a sense of ownership and obligation elevated far beyond the detached regard stirred by films or fiction.

Beyond Good and Evil is a game about and fuelled by empathy, about cooperation and selflessness, about testing the veracity of presumed truths.  Under the facade of its disarmingly innocuous beauty it is a game that compels its audience to question the media – even the media through which the artwork expresses itself.  By brushing up against the barriers of this world myself, empowered through my own agency within the narrative to question these restrictions – to scrutinise them – I become attuned to this environment, become one with it.  And in doing so, come to better know myself.

Ebert, and those like him, who see video games as nothing more than gratuitous, indulgent death-simulators – petty playthings that rob humanity ‘of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic’ – will doubtless never change their minds about this medium.  Ironically, they remain obstinately walled behind their own prejudices, unable to look beyond their bias to see the greater, more diverse possibility they have arbitrarily denied.

In contrast, I watch that koi fish circle and am reminded of how effortlessly this game proves such dismissive ignorance a lie: of the way that it renders an organic, breathing culture, in order to watch it fray under the threat of war; how it speaks to the nature of civilisation and the duty of personal responsibility; of the manner in which it so elegantly evokes and celebrates empathy as our greatest treasure (in videogame-speak: the greatest ‘skill’ we human beings can seek to ‘upgrade’).

Culture, civility, and empathy – all while necessitating that the player be an integral part of progressing the narrative and allowing them to be complicit in the enunciation of this altruistic theme; videogames, when crafted with the elegance and care of a work such as Beyond Good and Evil, more than prove themselves to exceed every arbitrary ‘requirement’ for Art demanded of them by those prejudicially inclined to deny them worth.  Despite being dismissed off hand, there are many such examples that transcend these limitations in their moment of experience, becoming something profoundly, intimately expressive in the act of granting the player agency within their worlds.

Does that mean that all videogames are therefore worthy of being held aloft alongside the pantheon of great composers, playwrights, and poets?  No, of course not.  But that is and always was a disingenuous argument to begin with.  The world of cinema has produced Vertigo, but it also gave us Norbit.  Music granted us Brahms, but it also gave us Rebecca Black.  Arguing that every single text has to justify the value of its entire medium or else they are all suspect is a reductive act of sophistry that knowingly chases its own tail.  It debases the whole discussion of Art by making it some rote test dictated by elitist patriarchs whose prejudices are already irrevocably calcified.  But just as Shakespeare’s artistic expression is not demeaned by the shaky 4th grade Christmas pageant I once participated in as a child, the entire span of potentiality evident in the videogame form is not dismissible because one thinks Call of Duty 19 looks like indulgent gush.

If, in contrast, those who imprudently disparage videogames actually bothered to try them – to free themselves from the mire of lazy bias and prove themselves capable of re-examining the constraints of imagination that such works so frequently embrace, they might not only find something worthy of exploration, but could well find a whole new experiential medium through which to explore the endlessly shifting limits of human expression. Otherwise, they just continue to spout the ‘conventional wisdom’ that games are indulgent toys gratifying insularity with nothing worthwhile to say.  And as Beyond Good and Evil articulates so adroitly, there’s nothing less beneficial to the progress of society, criticism and Art than simply regurgitating the same old tired party lines without ever exhibiting the capacity for self-reflection that they would demand of others.

They too reveal themselves to be like that fish – not urged to test their limitations, not inclined to seek for more; instead trapped in the same tired contrarian routine.  The circle their definition of Art in a infinite self-justifying stagnation, emboldened by their own limitation as they deny it the capacity to evolve.  As for me, I don’t presume to know definitively what Art is.  I’m too stunned by its diversity and magnitude to want to try.  And in here, in the living diorama Michel Ancel and his team have brought into being, I’ve got a head full of sweet melody, a pocket full of pearls, and a world to treasure.  I’ve been invited to help directly enact a message of audacity and hope, to fall in love with a land, and to believe that both it, one’s own curious, indomitable will are things that are precious, things worth preserving.

I know that might not be Roger Ebert’s definition of Art.  He would (and did) cry ‘selfishness’ and ‘time-wasting’ – declared them uncivilised, corrosive and childish.  But in truth that’s what all Art has always been.  Art itself is an act of play: the selfish imaginative pursuit of an artist, the indulgence of an enraptured audience; a sublime waste of time that consequentially reflects something resonant about the human condition, something enduring, back to us.  We are creatures that have stirred pigment into paint to decorate our caves; transformed religious festivals into the history of theatre; cultivated the carnival curiosity of moving pictures into the diversity of cinema; exploded the boundaries of Art to soup cans and signed urinals and sharks suspended in formaldehyde.  Why then must we be frightened off by our capacity to weave new environs to explore – new emotions, new engagements to inhabit – in pixels and electronic code?  It seems the height of complacent stagnation – a fish swimming up against the same glass walls, content to never extend beyond them, terrified to lose its way.

Beyond_Good_&_Evil_Ming-Tzu

*   *   *   *   *

* One can read Ebert’s dismissal of the medium, in response to game designer Kellee Santiago’s rousing TED, talk here.

** Something that the Big Momma trilogy and Transformers 2 can do, apparently.

*** Elsewhere, in his final, rather patronising opinion piece on this matter, titled ‘Okay, Kids, Play On My Lawn’, Ebert does use the example (repurposed from a debate with Clive Barker) of Romeo and Juliet.  In a game, he argues, the story would be rewritten so that the lovers might both live in the end, thereby destroying the whole tragic trajectory of the narrative.  But this too is a completely disingenuous argument.  Nowhere does the notion of videogame ‘interactivity’ dictate that all things must be possible at all times to everyone.  Multiple forking paths of narrative are a possibility of a certain form of videogame; not the requirement for every text.  Ebert’s position would be like arguing that because Pulp Fiction and Memento utilise non-linear storytelling, every other movie obviously must do the same – cinema is incapable of following a character’s life chronologically from birth to death.

VALE: John Clarke

Posted in criticism, literature, movies, stupidity, television, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , on April 19, 2017 by drayfish

This past week Australia lost one of its legends.  If you are not from Australia you may not know the name John Clarke, and if you don’t, I am sorry.  I am sorry that you never got to experience his brilliant work.  He was the country’s greatest satirist, delivering a virtuosic four decades of comic commentary on most every aspect of modern life (we might be lousy with Hollywood-ready actors, but quality satirists are fairly thin on the ground here; someone needs to place Shaun Micallef in some kind of cryogenic stasis for protection).  Clarke was also, I’m fairly certain, a genius, and by all accounts, an incredibly generous, warm, and kind human being.  There is little I can say to add to the richly deserved praise that has been offered to eulogise Clarke since his shock passing, but I have grown up admiring him, and thought I should say something anyway, for whatever little it is worth…

John Clarke umbrella

Words fail.

That’s a sentiment that people express when someone of great importance dies.  There seems to be no way to express, verbally, the loss.  Language is too small, too imprecise.  Ironically, it is precisely the right sentiment to embrace when hearing the tragic news of the loss of Australia and New Zealand’s greatest satirist, John Clarke.  Because Clarke’s greatest strength was his way of weekly exhibiting the way that words fail.

Clarke is perhaps best known, now, for his weekly satirical take on the news, but he was, in the true sense of the word, a polymath.  Over the course of his prolific career he wrote sketches, screenplays, stage plays, poems and novels; he was an actor; a director; a producer; a documentarian.  He worked in film, television, theatre, and radio; and he is warmly remembered by the innumerable comedians and creators with whom he collaborated, or inspired, or personally mentored and supported behind the scenes.  (Please be stunned by the breadth of his output here: http://mrjohnclarke.com/)  But throughout it all, uniting his disparate creative endeavours, was an abiding fascination with the fluidity of language – its use, and more frequent misuse – and the absurdities that resulted from this rift between truth and expression.

Born in New Zealand, he became famous in the 1970s for creating and performing the character Fred Dagg, a New Zealand farmer and social commentator with several sons named Trevor (the favourite son was Trevor).  Dagg was a sketch comedy character with a dry, unassuming delivery, but he allowed Clarke to indulge some deliriously nonsensical linguistic play.  In the voice of Dagg he could present a shambolic 21st birthday speech that was speckled with unintended insults, that intimated debaucherous anecdotes which cannot be told, cannot be told, that escalated into a recursion of well-meaning banalities (‘You’ll all here agree with me, more or less 100 percent, in going along with me, in joining with myself, in going along with Trev’s mother and I…’), and has poor old Mrs Ballis getting caught in the wool press.  Elsewhere he could recount how that story of Hamlet was just a rip off of a bit of trouble that happened up his way a few years ago to Herb Davison’s son, Trev.

When Clarke moved to Australia he was soon a principle writer and performer on The Gillies Report, a topical sketch program that employed the talents of its titular actor, Max Gilles, to impersonate sitting politicians.  A few years later, Clarke would continue this political satire in the form of brief sardonic dialogues that appeared weekly, in one form or another, for the majority of the next thirty years.  He and collaborator Brian Dawe would stage a mock interview that often involved Clarke playing the role of a real-world government official or public figure, someone embroiled in one of the week’s more pressing stories who was being asked to clarify their policy position, or explain the ‘official’ version of events.

John Clarke Clarke and Dawe

IMAGE: Clarke & Dawe

Unlike the parodic style that was the signature of The Gilles Report, in his Clarke & Dawe interviews Clarke did not try to offer a traditional impression of the people he portrayed – he was never made up to look like the person he was playing, hidden beneath stupid wigs and make-up – because it was never technically that specific public figure that was the target of his incisive wit (he did, however, have an acute ear for incorporating their turns of phrase into his dialogue).  Instead, what unfolded was a masterful account of the way in which the language of politics and media make a mockery of the pursuit of truth.  (The ABC have assembled a fairly good selection of their sketches – they miss a few great ones, but there is a nice cross-section of their work).

Just as he had no interest in affecting an impersonation of any one figure, he was similarly nonpartisan in his mockery over the years, skewering all sides of the political spectrum – because his real target was linguistic hypocrisy.  He explored the way that the logic of politicians could happily fold in on itself, how empty platitudes and a desperation to sanitise uncomfortable policy realities created a kind of pseudo speech, divorced from reason and clouded in self-delusion.  As one of his dialogues explains, an ‘Australian usage of the English language’ actually means the exploitation of language for political expediency:

Bryan (interviewer): What is it called when you say something you know to be false?

John (playing the role of Lars Torders): A policy.

Ironically, the result of Clarke’s linguistic play frequently presented some of the most incisive descriptions of the world’s most pressing issues.  From the ghoulish dehumanising of Australia’s asylum seeker policies, to his unsettlingly prescient critique of the modern media, either as an oversimplifying, reactionary ouroboros of Twitter clickbait (a point articulated in the immediate aftermath of the US election), or the distracted narrators of petty squabbles at the expense of legitimate analysis (such as in ‘It’s the Planet, Stupid’, a title with a crucial comma)  In the United States The Wall Street Journal once even cited a Clarke & Dawe video as the best summation of the European financial crisis.

Arguably Clarke’s most celebrated single work, The Games (1998-2000),  was a Logie and Australian Film Institute Award winning sitcom set behind the scenes of the preparations for the 2000 Sydney Olympic games.  (It was even popular enough to be allegedly ripped off by the BBC’s Twenty Twelve.)  The series, which ran for two seasons, was created and written by Clarke, in collaboration with Ross Stevenson.  It was the fictional account of a handful of bureaucrats, led by Clarke, Dawe, and Gina Riley, who were heading the organising committee of the games.  The series, brought to life with Clarke’s signature absurdist loops of dialogue, exposed the impossible position that such a committee was placed within.

John Clarke The Games
IMAGE: The Games

It was the ideal setting for his satire: an enterprise with superficially lofty ideals, mired in contradiction, spin, and compromise.  Because as Clarke revealed, beneath the grand symbolism of the Olympics as an athletic competition about human excellence, the truth was a nebulous confluence of differing agendas, one regimented by obsessive rules and protocols, propped up by advertisers dictating special treatment to push their wares, pestered by the needs of governments all over the world who were looking to bathe in the reflected glory while inoculating themselves from controversy, harassed by journalists incessantly sniffing around for stories of failure, and perpetually mere moments from disaster.

Consequentially, it was a series that allowed Clarke to explore his many avenues of satiric interest, wherever he cared to roam.  It simultaneously covered finance, government, marketing, media, myth making, and office politics (the mandated team-building episode in which John’s role-playing animal is an aphid is hysterical).  It catalogued the manipulation of budgets, the weathering of daily governmental point-scoring, and the placation of sporting bodies and sponsors.  It was able to ponder whether anyone really wants a ‘clean’ Olympic games, confront the dismaying inability of the then-sitting Australian Prime Minister’s unwillingness to apologise to the country’s Aboriginal people, and philosophise over whether a 100 metre running track really needs to be 100 metres.

Even with its tie to the minutia of the Sydney Olympic games, for anyone outside of Australia curious about Clarke’s comedy it remains perhaps the most accessible of his work.  It should be stated that it is also a series that does not get enough credit for its experimental style, which not only blurred the divide between fiction and reality – frequently employing real public figures and celebrities in its narrative – but also pioneered the now ubiquitous ‘mockumentary’ sitcom style of having a film crew act as the observers shaping the story.

Clarke’s contributions to cinema were diverse.  He was a scene-stealing presence in films such as Death in Brunswick (1990), playing a laconic gravedigger, and Never Say Die (1998), playing an uncharacteristically honest car salesman.  He was the voice of Wal in Footrot Flats: A Dog’s Tail (1986).  He wrote film adaptations for Shane Maloney’s modern suburban comic crime noirs Stiff (which he also directed) and The Brush Off, both of which were screened as television movies in 2004.

Despite being best remembered for his work in television and film, it is perhaps in his literary output that the extent of his genius is best glimpsed.  His book The Tournament (2002) (which I will admit to not yet finishing) transplants the Modernist movement into one long tennis tournament, refashioning the twentieth century’s greatest thinkers and artists into players, coaches, and commentators, playing out their intellectual disputes in a unifying sport metaphor.

He also wrote a collection of poetry, The Complete Book of Australian Verse (1989) (followed by an expanded reprinting, The Even More Complete Book of Australian Verse (1994)), which claimed to be a collection of all of the original Australian poets who had been ripped off by the English and American poets of the past.  Not only did Clarke expertly mimic the style and structure of the writers he was referencing – repurposing them into figures like Dylan Thompson, Sylvia Blath, W.H. Auding and Stewie Smith – he simultaneously parodied the themes of the original while speaking to quintessentially Australian experiences.

To use but one example: Kahil Gibran, author of the mystic philosophical prose/poem The Prophet becomes Kahlihliji Bran, whose ‘prophet’ is being sought out for horse-racing tips at a local bar, waxing lyrical in absurd contradictions (‘Paradox is that which is not paradoxical / Only the living know death.  Only the dead are living’) as he tries to weasel himself a free drink and escape before being called out for his nonsense.

For John Clarke, language was malleable and fragile.  Powerful, capable of descriptive elegance, but too frequently made to fail; too often twisted into dissembling vapidity.  And over the course of his career he exposed it all.  In the chicanery of political spin, in the cold dehumanising calculus of euphemism, in the nonsensical bellyflops of the media – like few others John Clarke could see through the facade of rhetoric, past the bluster and the fraud, to the cowardice and bewilderment and grasping beneath.  He dissected language surgically, and reassembled it as a ridiculous pantomime of itself, allowing even those of us blind to its tricks to be in on the joke.

And for several decades, on multiple platforms, across myriad subjects, John Clarke gifted his wit and insight and craft to the world, his skills only ever sharpening with time.

There is no satisfactory way to summarise a career and a life such as John Clarke’s.

Because words fail.

Even if he never did.

John Clarke

THE YEAR OF ‘SPEARE 06: The Spoiled Little Man-Child They Made King: Richard II, Donald Trump, and Regime Change

Posted in criticism, literature, movies, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , on January 12, 2017 by drayfish

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IMAGE: The Hollow Crown: Richard II (Neal Street Productions)

This was going to be a nice easy one.

Read Richard II; watch the BBC’s sumptuous Hollow Crown version of the play; make a bunch of snotty Justin Bieber references; sign off.

Bim.  Bam.  Boom.  No fuss, no muss.

Because if you’re bothering to keep track (although, why would you?), my ‘Year of ‘Speare’ has been a little slow going.  To say the least.  After twelve months, I’ve discussed, what?  Three?  Four plays?  I mean, at this point it’s not even 2016 anymore!  It’s the year after ‘Speare.  Ah, whatever.

So Richard II was meant to be a way to turn that around.  To put out something quick.

It’s a play that I love – one inexplicably undervalued in the Shakespeare canon; one that has some striking things to say about human nature – so I figured I could belt out a quick diatribe about what a hidden gem the play is, how it explores universal existential fears, and how it speaks directly to our modern preoccupations with fame.

Indeed, that’s where the Bieber stuff would have come in…

The point I was going to make was that from one perspective, at its core, Richard II is all about the perils of celebrity at a young age.  The titular character, Richard, is a young, calamitously un-liked king – one eventually so hated that effectively his entire country conspires to dethrone him.  But from a more sympathetic perspective, he is a victim of his rise to stardom.  Preceding the action of the play, he was appointed monarch at the age of ten after his grandfather, father, and brother all died, thinning what was otherwise a healthy line of succession.  Richard went from an indulged ten year old boy to God’s appointed ruler on Earth – literally told that he was anointed from on high by the sacred blood of monarchy.  And so, although originally appointed advisors to assist him, the young king grew up in privilege, pampered, praised, his every desire met, his word literally law.  He could do no wrong, because he was King – and kings, as his own experience repeatedly proved, are above and beyond the rules of the commoners they deign to rule.

And as Shakespeare’s play reveals, that has got to screw a person up.

bieber-in-crown

IMAGE: Justin Bieber

Like Bieber at the height of his arrogant self-entitlement (abandoning his pet monkey; musing that Anne Frank would have been a fan; peeing in a mop bucket; drunken drag-racing) or present day Shia LaBeouf (trying to explain away his plagiarisms and general dickishness by turning himself into a walking performance art parody), Richard goes on to enact the downward spiral of every child celebrity who flipped out in adolescence and burned away all the good will their fame once cultivated.  He doesn’t hold up a liquor store or go on a drug-fuelled bender down a freeway, but he does start unfairly taxing his dukes and stealing their property to fund his unpopular wars.  He has his political rivals secretly killed and presides over sham court proceedings.  He alienates himself from the people of his kingdom by spending all day snarking with his mean-girl entourage.*

Eventually his people, who have resoundingly had enough, rise up in protest, revolt, and eject him from his rule.  They install Bollingbroke, soon to be Henry IV, in his place, and the second half of the play becomes an introspective psychological exploration of a Richard who, now stripped of his fame, tries to grapple with the question of his own identity.  If he is no longer a king – the sole thing that has defined him his entire life – then what, or even even who, is he?

To me, this play’s examination of the descent from celebrity to pariah seems a more prescient examination of contemporary culture than it must have been in the entire history of its performance.  From the vantage point of the 21st century, when every actor, musician, politician, YouTube star, Chewbacca Mom, and vacuous-yet-inexplicably-omnipresent-nobodies (I’m looking at you Kardassian brood), are all forced, inevitably, to grapple with the impact their public persona has had upon their lives, when the adoration of the crowd abates, and the wan ineffability of fame threatens to expose the figure behind the facade, this play’s central themes seem ever more urgent.

And what Richard II says about this struggle is profoundly moving.

At first, for the majority of the narrative, Richard balks at his forced abdication, grappling with the loss of his old, exalted identity by desperately struggling to substitute a new, false one in its place.  For a time he tries, unsuccessfully, to bluff his challengers, attempting to still throw his now-undermined royal authority around.  When that doesn’t work he waxes lyrical about being a monk, living in seclusion, giving himself up to the quiet adoration of God.  Later he goes into long, pitiful laments about how forgotten and forlorn he has become, romanticising his dissolution into nothingness with a messianically sacrificial tone.  But all of these attempts at self-description are just feints, lies striving to reconstitute a new meaning for himself, a way to avoid dealing with the vacuous hollow beneath his empty facade.

Despite this, in the final moments before his untimely death, Richard does finally reach an epiphany.  Wrestling with his wayward sense of self, he finally comes to accept ownership of his actions and identity, reaching an almost Zen state of being:

Thus play I in one person many people,
And none contented.  Sometimes am I king.
Then treasons make me wish myself a beggar;
And so I am.  Then crushing penury
Persuades me I was better when a king.
Then am I kinged again; and by and by
Think that I am unkinged by Bolingbroke,
And straight am nothing.  But whate’er I be,
Nor I, nor any man that but man is
With nothing shall be pleased, till he be eased
With being nothing. (5.5.31-41)

Having been imprisoned, and left both figuratively and physically alone in his thoughts, Richard sees, finally, his own role in the shaping of his sense of self.  In the past he has been charmed by the delusions of his infallibility – of his people’s love, of his noblemen’s devotion, of God’s blessing – but once all that has been stripped from him, once he confronts the nothingness within himself, he sees it all an illusion permitted by his own ego.  Bolingbroke may have taken his crown, but whatever remains of Richard is his alone, prey only to his self-delusion.

Once he arrives at this revelation, Richard is free (albeit tragically briefly) to become his best self.  When assassins arrive to kill him, Richard implores the stableboy who has come to visit to flee and save himself, and he fights back valiantly, even killing one of his assailants, showing a valour at the moment of death that was obscured by his untested fame.

All this I would have said, and more besides (the Duke of York, the most interesting character in the play, the one whose shift of allegiance from Richard to Bolingbroke embodies the dramatic political upheaval unfolding, gives a phenomenal speech about the vacuousness of celebrity), but then the election happened, and Richard II, like seemingly everything else good this year, got ruined by a sentient sack of half-chewed Cheetos, Donald Trump.

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IMAGE: Donald Trump

Suddenly a story about the dangers of an indulged, thin-skinned, egomaniacal, vainglorious leader with no impulse control and a staggering deficit of real-world knowledge seemed a little less abstract.  Suddenly Richard II was no longer just about the tragedy of a man disentangling himself from his own celebrity, it was about the dangerous destabilisation that one man’s catastrophic rule could have upon a country’s entire political order.

(Of course, it should be clarified that Trump is nothing if not a celebrity.  In many ways, it’s all he is.  It’s certainly the principle way in which he has improbably peddled the fiction of his ‘business savvy’.  After ricocheting from one farcically failed business enterprise to the next for several decades, becoming a joke in his home state of New York for his many calamitous blunders, Trump eventually landed the role of ‘cartoon billionaire’ on The Apprentice, a vanity project designed to mythologise him as the ultimate dealmaker, no matter how repeatedly reality revealed it a fraud.**  And from that Trump was soon FOX News’ favourite conspiratorial Magic 8 Ball, where, once shaken up with a phone call he would spew whatever nonsense Birther/the-Chinese-invented-global-warming drivel he could into the airwaves, Howard Stern’s desperate little friend, and a torrent of narcissistic complexes and unchecked id on Twitter.  Inexplicably, for his many supporters, this celebrity image was never fully punctured by the slew of revelations about Trump’s many obfuscations, frauds, and corruptions – even those, like his taped admission of sexually assaulting women, that spoke directly to his status as a pseudo-celebrity.)

Dishearteningly, there are numerous superficial analogies to draw between the two men, the Richard and the Donald.  Richard shares something of Trump’s petty greed and vindictiveness.  He gleefully wishes his uncle Gaunt dead so he can immediately start pilfering his wealth, just as Trump applauds himself for stiffing contractors and burying them under litigation for seeking what is legally owed, or in the exploitative vulgarity he showed by using his ‘charity’ as a slush fund to buy himself gifts or to pay his legal debts with other people’s donations.

There is the ugly entitlement that both men exhibit.  Richard, thinking himself appointed by God to rule, cannot fathom that he might need to treat others with respect.  He’s so convinced of his righteousness that he literally believes that he can bless his country by touching it with his hand.  Trump’s similar feeling of privilege is emblazoned on every phallic building, scam ‘university’, and shiny bauble to which he has affixed his name.  And to be crass, he has made it evident in video footage that he believes he’s entitled to stick his hand wherever he wants.

richard-ii

Both men are similarly infantilised, throwing tantrums when they do not get their way – Richard whimpering off to Flint Castle, Trump walling himself away from reality by constructing comforting fictions on Twitter.  Richard doesn’t think he needs to answer for unjustly having his uncle murdered because he thinks himself above the law; Trump is outraged that he should be accountable for his own words and actions, claiming the media is ‘mean’ to him when they report on the things that he himself does, that the people who protest him are ‘unfair’, and that Meryl Streep and the cast of Hamilton are big meanies.

Thankfully there are some differences that differentiate the two men.  As I have noted, Richard is at times capable of producing stirring lyricism, far from the ‘pussy-grabbing’, pugnacious, playground incoherency of Trump.  And again, by the end of his narrative journey, having felt defeat most acutely, Richard exhibits a level of self-assessment and introspection that Trump has repeatedly proved himself is psychologically incapable of achieving.

But more than their evident character flaws, parallels can also be drawn between the state of the two lands these men seek to govern.  Richard II is, after all, not only a personal tragedy (indeed, some readers may well argue whether or not it is even that), it is moreover the tragedy of a nation.  It catalogues the shift from England’s history of Kings appointed by holy decree, to a rule dictated by political concord.  England shifts from a land unified around a singular, unquestioned monarch, to a family feud that would play out over several generations and erupt, frequently, into full blown civil war.

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Trump’s election worryingly signals an analogous shift in the identity of America and its traditional ideals.  A fundamental part of Trump’s appeal in the 2016 election was his defiance of – in many cases his complete contempt for – established democratic norms.  Trump, for better or worse (or catastrophically, nightmarishly, apocalyptically worse), represented the rejection of the established political order of the United States.  He was a protest vote, a way to shake up a system that was seen to be stagnating.  It’s why his promise to ‘drain the swamp’ rang so loudly (and why his cabinet picks post-election, effectively relocating the swamp into his White House, are so farcical).  It’s why, to many of his supporters, Trump’s reprehensible behaviour throughout the election was not seen as a detriment, but a curious boon.

On the campaign trail he repeatedly made wildly inflammatory, unsubstantiated (often proved abjectly false) statements about other races, religions, and groups, in defiance of established political decorum.  He called Mexicans rapists and murderers, circulated bogus statistics about ‘Black on White’ crime, and implicated all Muslims in the actions of terrorists by suggesting that ‘they’ weren’t doing enough to help stop terrorist acts.  His supporters, however, saw all of these insults – and many more besides – as a refreshing willingness to ‘speak his mind’ (even when his mind was wilfully inaccurate) and proof that he wasn’t ‘following a script’ (even when he read his remarks directly from teleprompters).

He threatened – on multiple occasions, from most every conceivable angle – the right of free speech; the first amendment of the constitution.  From vowing to look into ‘changing the libel laws’ (despite these laws not actually existing), to threatening to sue journalists for printing anything he doesn’t like, to openly harassing members of the press, he created a uniquely hostile relationship with the news media.  His supporters likewise clearly enjoyed this game of Trump biting the hand that fed him, as they raucously booed and hissed the media at his rallies like pantomime evil-doers, and joyfully resurrected the derogatory term Lügenpresse, a Nazi German word for ‘lying press’.

He refused to accept the peaceful transition of power when it looked like he was not going to win, following up on the tantrums he threw during the primaries whenever he lost by threatening one of the country’s most sacred democratic traditions, the peaceful transition of power, even claiming that voter fraud and mass conspiracies were rampant.  (Predictably, the second he won any question of a rigged election was swiftly abandoned – while still claiming on Twitter that millions of people had voted illegally.)  And again his supporters appeared to adore this too, as both they and the president elect got to work hypocritically admonishing anyone who wanted to examine the clear influence of Russian interference in the election.

He refused to release his taxes – cowardly and entirely erroneously claiming that the IRS wouldn’t allow him to release them – breaking with several decades of practice, and exhibiting what would become a pattern of refusing to be transparent with his voters, from his business dealings to the ‘blind trust’ of his children running his company, all while hypocritically attacking his opponent for that very thing.  (…In this instance his supporters apparently enjoyed being told to screw off, because I can see no other reason for them to celebrate this continuing pattern of being contemptibly patronised to.)

He vowed to lock up his political opponent, the signature threat of a petty dictator; he suggested that ‘second amendment people’ should assassinate his rival should she win; he insulted and attacked a Gold Star family; argued that a ‘Mexican’ judge was not able to properly adjudicate the fraud trial against Trump University; talked with relish about unleashing America’s nuclear arsenal; mocked a disabled reporter; refused to hold a press conference in almost a year while literally fleeing from the White House press gallery; spent his time, both at his rallies and through the cowardice of social media, offending, belittling, and attacking those less powerful than he, all while quoting war criminals he admired and rehashing sad old grudges to make himself feel big.  Despite their craven, cynical cozying up to him after his victory, for much of his campaign he was reviled by much of his own party, and his only endorsements of any status was from the goddamn KKK.  To his voters, Trump presents the end of the system they know, but for all of Trump’s rhetoric about making America ‘great’ again, what he actually presents is not a return to some mythologised past, but the fundamental remaking of all of America’s founding principles.

Just like in Richard II, in which the elevation of a young, unprepared boy to the station of King eventually leads to the undermining of the hereditary tradition that had defined the English monarchy right back to William the Conqueror, Trump’s ascendency to President of the United States can be seen as the dramatic end of an era.  Just as Richard’s reign saw England’s (relatively) peaceful transfer of power through birthright and familial lineage fall into question, Trump’s impending rule, more in the styling of a petty dictatorship or the ramblings of a Twitter troll, represents the end of the ideals of the American Republic as it has traditionally been understood.

A nation built on immigration, religious freedom, and unfettered speech, is now to be governed by a man who campaigned, aggressively, against all of those things.  The notion of American exceptionalism that led the United States to becoming a beacon of moral authority in global politics has been abandoned for an inward-looking, paranoid, ‘America first’ nationalism.

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IMAGE: The Hollow Crown: Richard II (Neal Street Productions)

Richard II is about the moment of awakening from a beautiful dream.  The glorified England of the past is already just a remembrance, but the fantasy clings, even as it is dissolved from within.  The BBC’s Hollow Crown production, in all its lavish spectacle, captures this beautiful decay elegantly.  Part Byzantine painting, part Game of Thrones, it rockets along with all the prerequisite scheming and beheadings necessary to satiate those looking for action, while allowing breathing room for the psychological renegotiations and losses playing out on the character level.  It even manages to make the somewhat ridiculous scene in the final act of York and his wife each pleading their respective cases for their conspirator son to Henry IV (an interaction traditionally played for a kind of ghoulish laugh, and a counterpoint to Richard’s earlier phony courtroom scene) operate as a loaded enactment of York’s loyalty to a sworn promise, even in the face of personal sacrifice.

Likewise, it handily juggles the artifice in Shakespeare’s text.  Richard II is one of Shakespeare’s most lyrical plays – one of the few written entirely in verse – and it consequentially has some splendid, but highly rigid, rhyming beats elevating its most pointed moments.  In the hands of lesser actors, these shifts into poesy could have sounded stilted, even ridiculous, but the entire ensemble shines.  Some, like the mercurial Ben Whishaw, as a Richard seeking desperately to still array himself in the plumage of a kingship he has already lost, and David Suchet as the pragmatic, but mournful York, and the ever-reliable Patrick Stewart as John of Gaunt, give captivating performances that stun the viewer to silence.  I defy anyone to watch Stewart’s rendition of the ‘This sceptred isle’ monologue and not be moved – his brazen challenge, foretelling the ruin of his nation, peering through the camera lens, beyond time, to the audience of the future who can confirm his prophesy.  It is a speech that echoes through the following several plays Shakespeare wrote recounting the War of the Roses, and Stewart, with his signature gravitas, gives it the enormity it warrants:

This royal throne of kings, this sceptered isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden – demi-paradise –
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house
Against the envy of less happier lands;
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,
This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,
Feared by their breed, and famous by their birth,
Renowned for their deeds as far from home
For Christian service and true chivalry
As is the sepulchre in stubborn Jewry
Of the world’s ransom, blessed Mary’s Son;
This land of such dear souls, this dear dear land,
Dear for her reputation through the world,
Is now leased out – I die pronouncing it –
Like to a tenement or pelting farm.
England, bound in with the triumphant sea,
Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege
Of watery Neptune, is now bound in with shame,
With inky blots and rotten parchment bonds.
That England that was wont to conquer others
Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.
Ah, would the scandal vanish with my life,
How happy then were my ensuing death! (2.1.31-68)

In the face of Richard’s misrule, Gaunt foresees an age of greed and ruin.  Over the course of one rollicking, thunderous, building sentence, all prologue to its final declamatory insult, Gaunt paints the image of a proud land already lost in a fantasy of itself.  For the moment England still believes itself blessed by God’s grace, but Gaunt can see through the facade into the ghastly, self-defeating hypocrisy already eating away at its heart.  Shakespeare didn’t write those lines with Donald Trump in mind; neither did Stewart speak them so; but it now remains impossible to hear them without thinking of his ‘yuuuuuuge’ victory.

If I have one complaint about The Hollow Crown’s production (and I really don’t), it is that it sets the bar so high that the following six films in the series (Henry VI parts 1 and 2, Henry V, Henry VI parts 1 and 2, and Richard III) never quite measure up to it, as truly exceptional as each of them are.  But this too is only fitting for a play that is fundamentally concerned with the passing of an ideal age that proves ultimately impossible to reclaim.

It is such a powerful moment that now, as the free world looks to the future with a leader who is an apologist for (and likely beholden to) Russian Oligarchs, who is a vociferous advocate for torture and human rights violations, who holds paying taxes and avoiding conflicts of interest with open contempt, who skips intelligence briefings and subscribes to insane conspiracy theories, and who lies openly and brazenly on a daily basis, one wonders if the United States needs its own Sceptred Isle speech.

But perhaps it already has one…

In Back to the Future 2 Marty McFly glimpsed a world run by a deranged, narcissistic, sexually abusive gangster-wannabe  with a tower fetish and comically fake hair.  Bob Gale, writer of the film, intentionally fashioned Biff Tannen as an analogy for Trump (the one major difference appears to be that Biff was actually successful at running casinos), and his nightmare scenario for the dark timeline Biff creates with his sports almanac is a world of gilded trash in which the greed, corruption and pettiness Trump embodies are given license.

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IMAGE: Back to the Future 2 (Universal Pictures)

Of course, much as I love it, Back to the Future lacks much of the sombre, tremulous beauty of Shakespeare’s original text – no ‘That America hath made a shameful conquest of itself’ here.  But for a year like 2016, telling democracy that it should ‘Make like a tree and get out of here’ seems sadly appropriate.

Thankfully, the words of the Duke of York, tragic in the context of Richard II, offer some hope in the wake of Trump’s degradation of the American electoral process.  As I alluded to earlier, when York laments the passing of Richard’s rule, he likens him to a celebrity who has passed out of favour with his audience:

As in a theatre the eyes of men,
After a well graced actor leaves the stage,
Are idly bent on him that enters next,
Thinking his prattle to be tedious:
Even so, or with much more contempt, men’s eyes
Did scowl on gentle Richard.  No man cried ‘God save him!’
No joyful tongue gave him his welcome home (5.2.23-29)

Even for all of Richard’s failings, the image is sombre and heartbreaking.  That which was once so highly regarded is treated with disdain; not merely forgotten, but immediately condemned.

However, when Trump inevitably implodes these words will seem like a blessed relief.  Because when Trump – a figure more celebrity than man, more bluster than substance – can no longer hide from his supporters that he has walked back every one of his campaign promises, that he has no answers for the fears he exploited, and that his vision extends nowhere beyond himself, the fickle nature of even his most loyal audience will similarly turn against him.  And even though Trump, as the soon-to-be oldest man to be sworn in as President, is no child celebrity, he will get to feel the same sting that has marked Justin Bieber and Shia LaBeouf.

It’s not much.

It’s barely anything.

But as Richard himself says, sometimes we must all be content with nothingness.

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IMAGE: The Hollow Crown: Richard II (Neal Street Productions)

*   *   *

* It should be acknowledged that, like all of his history plays, Shakespeare takes innumerable liberties with his characterisation of the titular historical figure, so when I speak of Richard II, I am solely referencing Shakespeare’s representation of him.

** Building off the legend of his ghost-written autobiography The Art of the Deal – a book that the writer himself now loudly admonishes as a pernicious work of fraud. (http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/07/25/donald-trumps-ghostwriter-tells-all)

*   *   *

Texts Mentioned:

Book: Richard II by William Shakespeare (ed. by Stanley Wells, Penguin, 1997)

Production: The Hollow Crown: Richard II, directed by Rupert Goold, screenplay by Rupert Goold, Ben Power, and William Shakespeare (Neal Street Productions, 2012)

Back to the Future 2, directed by Robert Zemeckis, screenplay by Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis (Universal Pictures, 1989)

THE YEAR OF ‘SPEARE 05: ‘I DID Come Here To Make Friends’; As You Like It and ‘Reality’

Posted in criticism, literature, television with tags , , , , , , , , on November 9, 2016 by drayfish

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IMAGE: As You Like It directed by Kenneth Branagh (Shakespeare Film Company, 2006)

Set your expectations to ‘shocked’.  Prepare to be astounded.  Because I am about to utter (no doubt for the very first time on the internet) the most original, brave, singular thought ever articulated:

I hate reality television.

I know, right?  I’m so raw.  So real.  I just tell it like it is, y’all.  Truth bomb.  Finger snap.

Man, I should get my own show.

I guess I should clarify.  I don’t mean to slag off the whole genre …or, since I guess it’s too big to be called a genre, the ‘form’?  The ‘structure’?  The ‘plague’?  Lots of people love it – for innumerable reasons – and as a device it can take myriad shapes.  Honey Boo Boo can hardly be placed in the same discussion as Making a Murderer; and the soapy freak show of the Real Housewives franchise is worlds away from whatever the hell Naked and Afraid is attempting to be (although when are we going to see Real Housewives: Sesame Street? ‘Elmo so mad Elmo almost run her down in Elmo’s Ferrari…’).

What bothers me is the overt artifice with which these shows are fuelled.  The attempts to ape reality that are patently constructed.  The artificial people having artificial conversations – be they the Bratz dolls of The Hills or the Deliverance cosplayers of Duck Dynasty.  The concocting of zany, pre-arranged schemes.  The leaning in to stilted, predetermined confrontations.  The meet-ups in restaurants, or the drop-ins at someone’s start-up business to share wooden dialogue riddled with one-liners and rote exposition.  ‘Surprise’ telephone calls where both sides of the conversation are somehow filmed.  The spouting of rehearsed ‘spontaneous’ observations and manufactured realisations.  All those constant, ceaseless reminders that everything depicted is a fabricated mise en scene; that even before the highly selective editing process has begun, a narrative is already being orchestrated that renders any sense of authenticity moot.

Indeed, this whole pretence has reached such a saturation point that it’s now no longer a secret these shows have writers.  They might be called ‘showrunners’, and sure, they don’t type out dialogue to be repeated verbatim, but they do run story treatments, come up with loose plotlines, concoct scenarios, give shape and order to the action – and yes, offer one or two snappy lines of banter.

And this fakery doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing.  Many people (my wife, for one) happily watch a platter of reality programming comfortably aware that it has, at the very least, been massaged by its editing, or wholesale invented for the cameras.  Personally, I find it tedious because it turns the viewing experience into a meta-game.  Rather than watching the show, you’re watching through the thin, shiny veil that covers the behind the scenes production meetings that designed the show.  Any sense of ‘reality’ disassembles into a meat-puppet theatre, one so commonly understood that there are now scripted television shows like UnREAL based around this premise.

A year or two back, I was compelled (it felt like at gunpoint, but I do have a tendency toward the hyperbolic) to watch what was then a new reality program titled It’s All Relative.  The show was centred around the family life of Leah Remini, onetime star of King of Queens and Scientology escapee.*  And I have to confess, by the standard set in a post-Kardashian universe, it was comparatively inoffensive.  Indeed, almost quaint.

Let me be clear: I still hated it.  I still squirmed and sighed and begged for freedom – but that’s a personal taste issue.  I’m sure for many others it was charming.

But what struck me at the time as one of the show’s virtues was its subjects’ unfamiliarity with the language of reality television.  To their credit, the family being scrutinised – Remini’s immediate family and mother – were uncommonly awkward with the fabrication of the filming process.  They were so conscious of the oddity of a film crew in their house that they would actually talk directly to the producers and sound techs as though they were new neighbours who had stopped by for a chat, commenting down the camera lens not only about what was being filmed, but the decision to film it.  In a world where Kardashians keep multiplying through social media photosynthesis, it was comforting to still see people try to grapple with the invasion of a guy with a boom mike having his elbow in their fridge.

TLC

IMAGE: It’s All Relative (TLC)

In one scene, when a mock funeral for Remini’s mother had soured into a peculiarly melancholy affair (despite the zany music cues punctuating the soundtrack) Remini actually turned to camera, wiping tears from her eyes to ask, ‘Is this what you want, TLC?  Is this what you want to see?’  She was joking.  Ish.  There was a laugh tangled in the crying, and the absurdity of the whole situation was never lost, but by referencing the artifice of the scenario, she punctured the constraints and manipulation under which the program operated.  Clearly her mother didn’t just decide spontaneously to force her family to hold a living memorial for her; they didn’t all set a date and put on catering and get dressed in funeral clothes and all write eulogies on a whim.  It was crafted.  A display initiated for – and with – the film crew capturing it.  Perhaps this humanising awkwardness went away with time, but I appreciated the meagre glimpse of authenticity it offered behind the facade.

The real issue I have with these programs arises however when their calculated artifice bleeds into reality.  When asking an audience to playact dishonesty into ‘truth’ means we suddenly have to pretend that the Taylor Swift / Kanye West ‘feud’ is anything other than a cynical, mutually beneficial publicity stunt to be exploited for maximum exposure.  Or, after several seasons of The Apprentice, people get duped into believing the pernicious, fatuous fraud that Donald Trump was ever a ‘successful, self-made businessman’, instead of a thin-skinned, paranoid, self-mythologising, narcissistic, pathological liar who once inherited an empire from his father and spent the next few decades flushing it away on an unbroken spiral of hysterically asinine failed business ventures and multiple bankruptcies (at least six).  That a man with such a reverse-Midas touch that he spectacularly tanked everything he came in contact with, from an airline, to a travel agency, to a scam university, to a mortgage company (at the time of the country’s subprime mortgage crisis, no less), steaks, magazines, bottled water, vodkas and vitamins – a man who lost billions of dollars running his own casinos – that he was a successful business entrepreneur.

That guy.

If we have to swallow a lie that big, reality television should be a lot more fucking entertaining than it is.

In any case, all of this is just a protracted preamble to me saying that I was surprised, upon returning to As You Like It, at how many of the tropes of reality television Shakespeare employed, four centuries before it was even a genre

…Or a form

…Or a whatever the hell.

Because As You Like It is stuffed full of reality show fodder.  It has backstabbing, and betrayal, and reconciliations.  Its central conceit – aristocrats thrown into the wild – is pure Survivor.  The whole thing ends on a ‘surprise’ wedding ceremony, where shocking secrets are revealed in public.  Most every character is playing some sort of role to deceive, hide, or outwit their fellow outcasts, and above and uniting all of this, there is a general embrace of performative hamming it up and communal playacting.

In one delightfully convoluted moment, Rosalind – a woman masquerading as a man – is trying to disentangle herself from a pair of would-be lovers, Phebe and Silvius.  Silvius loves Phebe, despite her treating him like garbage, and Phebe has fallen for the disguised Rosalind, who likewise treats her with contempt.  And to a reality show cynic like myself, Rosalind’s  summary of their circumstance, ‘He’s fallen in love with your foulness, and she’ll fall in love with my anger’ (III.5.68), could serve as the tag line for every season of The Bachelor and its ilk.

(You can look also to Much Ado About Nothing for more evidence of how much Shakespeare loves a good reality show plot.  There’s its twisted fake funeral, the family squabbling, the vicious slut-shaming rumours, the zany schemes, and the will-they-won’t-they bickering couple whose romance everyone seems perversely invested in…)

Ultimately, As You Like It is soaked in the kind of pretence that drives me insane about reality television.  But here, that willing embrace of falsehood becomes profoundly transformative, because ironically, it actually succeeds in rendering something true.

The plot (such as it is) may not sound like a playful comic romp.  There are multiple familial betrayals and murderous plots; homes are ripped apart; loyalties sundered; choking declarations of unbridled hatred are made; most every sympathetic character is ejected into the wilderness to die – but the result is a celebration of farce and wilful play.

Primarily, the narrative concerns a gaggle of aristocrats who are banished from their homes into a nearby wood.  Some embrace their imposed liberty, unfettered from the concerns of the civil world; others, by necessity, affect disguises to protect themselves from harm.  But rather than descending into despair and savagery, playing out an Elizabethan Lord of the Flies, the characters meet this new, dangerous wilderness in the forests of Arden by giving license to their imagination.  They literally start playing around.  Enacting silly wooing games and writing poetry and dressing up to pretend.  It can all seem, at first glance, a bit unhinged, but Shakespeare keeps the tortured, tragic thread that motivated this excursion throughout, just to remind the audience that we’ve not simply wandered off into some giddy fantastical dream.

There is the heroine, Rosalind, who, while wearing the disguise of a country boy, meets up with Orlando, a man for whom she had romantic feelings back in the city and who now appears to have similar feelings for her.  While remaining in disguise, she convinces Orlando to let her ‘cure’ him of his love for Rosalind, by pretending to be her, and acting like a crazy woman.  So Rosalind finds herself playing a man, playing a woman, playing crazy.

And not a television production crew in sight.

Given this theme of contrasting civilisation and wilderness, it is perhaps no surprise to say that As You Like It is concerned on every level with the question of nature versus nurture.  What is it that defines us as people?  Are we born bad – the fact one brother is a villain and the other a sweet tempered benefactor, merely a quirk of biology? – or do we rather learn our dispositions, becoming shaped by our experience?  Do we merely affect an appearance of goodness to mask our intrinsic immorality?

For a while, in order to tease these questions out, the play seems to have it most every way.  Two of the play’s brothers, Orlando and Oliver, appear to be diametric opposites, and yet both are the products of the same loving family, so Oliver’s cruelty, spite, and willingness to have his brother murdered, seems inborn; similarly, the two competing Dukes, the rightful Duke Senior and his usurping brother Frederick, who banished him with threat of death, were presumably raised together.  But before the play lets us settle on this idea of an innate evil, both villains, Frederick and Oliver, prove themselves to be redeemable.  Both, having left civilisation, are able to cultivate an inner peace that leads them to renounce their former behaviour and seek to genuinely better themselves in future.  And either way, whether this is some elemental better human nature, or the promise of a newly acquired philosophy, the play opens up to the eternal, hopeful potentiality for change.

 rosalind_-_robert_walker_macbeth

IMAGE: Rosalind by Robert Walker Macbeth (1888)

Despite this occasional, necessary cloud, it remains an exquisitely bright, celebratory play.  Those filled with spite and jealous rage are able to be healed by the unburdened welcome of the wilderness.  Brothers are able to forgive, to reconnect, to wish each other peace and goodwill.  Lovers can embrace foolery to find within it deeper truth.  Rosalind and Orlando get to shake out their playactings of love in disguise before they undertake the real thing, and the shepherd Silvius and his love Phebe (one hopes) get some perspective on their unhealthy emotional co-dependency, and actually agree to love someone who is capable of loving them back.

Shakespeare isn’t just detaching his characters from the recognisable world to make some lazy Garden of Eden reference (although that is overtly mixed into the imagery).  This is not about sneering at the fall of man and idolising the ‘freedom’ granted by naïveté.  After all, even though the two converted villains of the play vow to live more rustic, pure lives, most of the other characters gladly reclaim their lives in society.  Instead, I think Shakespeare wants is to remember just how stifling adulthood, social pressure, the acquisition of wealth and esteem can be.  It’s a daily fight for survival, as Orlando’s was at the beginning of the play, too swiftly propagated on competition and scheming, trying to outwit and outplay opponents you can see, and more tragically, those that you come to imagine.  Even those you should consider family or friend.

By ejecting these characters into the wild, those societal shackles are abandoned.  Life is no longer a competition, but an invitation to take solace in others, to support and encourage and give.  Shakespeare writes the ultimate reverse-Survivor fan fiction.  The gong is being rung for the eviction ceremony (is that how the show works?), but no one wants to partake.

And so, freed from the need to be grown-ups about everything, the characters embrace their youthful sides. Write mooney love poems; dress up and pretend; play-act getting married; chase each other around; fall asleep in the sunlight; sing songs.  There is giddiness and gambolling, and fun (even in spite of there being lions roaming the land eating people, apparently.)  All the crap, all the politicking and scheming and backstabbing, all those social institutions everyone believed were so integral back in the invisible prison of civilisation, are dissolved.  Instead, they carry that which is crucial and unquantifiable with them: love, fellowship, and kindness.

It’s a hokeyness that Shakespeare himself acknowledges he is indulging.  For much of the play’s run time it conducts a tongue-in-cheek interrogation of both its own structure (calling out its conventional failings) and its poetry (the hyperbole and disingenuousness verse relies upon for effect).**  Orlando – despite loving Rosalind intensely, writes objectively bad poetry, scattering his meagre verse throughout the forest to the derision of all.  Touchstone, wooing Audrey, says that all poetry is a fraud, ‘for the truest poetry is the most feigning’ (III.3.17-18).

Meanwhile, the plot seems to get forgotten in the salve of all this pretending.  The real peril that the characters are in meanders away; major shifts in the narrative occur unseen, off-stage.  When an as-yet unmentioned third brother of Oliver and Orlando rushes in at the end to exposition-dump that the danger of the usurping Duke Frederick has passed, it seems to be as unexpected an return to the narrative for the characters as it is for the audience.

And in Rosalind’s fourth-wall dismantling epilogue (which declares itself subversive for being delivered by a woman – or since women weren’t allowed to perform on stage in Shakespeare’s time, technically a man pretending to be a woman  pretending to be a woman pretending to be a man…) – she cannot even be bothered to defend Shakespeare’s shapelessness narrative.  Rosalind teasingly denigrates the play’s writing, saying she cannot ‘insinuate you in the behalf of a good play’ (V.4.202-3); instead, she uses her charm, with which the play is overflowing, to invite the audience to take from the production what they will – as they like it.  They too are under no obligations.

Because this is not a play about story.  Just like in reality television, the premise is merely the thinnest frame upon which to hang the real drama; the game less significant than the games the players played on one another.  Fraud – and particularly poetic fraud – is here shown to lead to truth and growth, even in spite of itself.  Here, unlike in the carnivorous scheming of reality television, giving license to falsehood brings out the best in us.  Placed into artificial worlds we divorce ourselves from our engrained misbehaviours.  Counter-intuitively, by pretending to be what we aren’t, we can reconnect with what we should be.

Rosalind fakes being a boy to lead the man she loves through his delusions of adoration to the clarity of self-awareness.  Duke Senior, by playing at being a wild man, gets in touch with an unsullied vision of humanity where he can ‘feel not the penalty of Adam’ (II.1.5).  Even the melancholic Jaques gets to be tickled by the verbal play of a fool, stepping, if only momentarily, out of his self-imposed funk.

Fittingly, it is therefore when the play indulges its most artificial moment that it presents its most elegant portrait of humanity.  In the midst of what is in truth a bit of tedious stage business – literally Shakespeare needs to kill a few minutes so that Orlando can run off to retrieve his starving manservant Adam – the play stalls to have Jaques rhapsodise poetically about the lifespan of the average human being.  Jaques, an insatiable depressive (a weathered The Cure t-shirt away from being the prototypical emo), has spent his time moping around the forest, in his words, sucking melancholy from melody and railing against the world, and here, to fill time, Shakespeare grants him one of the most genuinely moving descriptions of the inevitability of death, decay and mortal frailty, the seven stages of man:

                                  All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His Acts being seven ages.  At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms;
Then, the whining schoolboy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school; and then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow; then, a soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth; and then, the justice,
In fair round belly, with good capon lined,
With eyes severe, and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances,
And so he plays his part; the sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound; last Scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness, and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything. (II.7.140-67)

Seven ages of man; our inevitable, unavoidable, solemn march toward the grave’s oblivion, sans eyes, sans ears, sans everything.  It will come, he says.  But that’s for another day, the play suggests.  And knowing what awaits need not deaden the beauty of youth and it virtue, but rather make it sweeter.  If we are to be creatures always ensnared by larger constructs like society and temporality, then at least we can be aware of them, and free ourselves from their burden.  Even if only in our minds.

MCDASYO EC006

IMAGE: As You Like It directed by Kenneth Branagh (Shakespeare Film Company, 2006)

On its surface, director Kenneth Branagh’s sumptuous version of As You Like It (2006) appears to bear little relationship to this falsified ‘reality’ television show conceit that I’ve been blathering on about.  The production is set in a stylised pre-twentieth century Japan, with a group of English aristocrats.  But this notion of play-acting a superficial facade is nonetheless central to the themes being explored, becoming uncomfortably problematic as the film proceeds.

In many ways it is a lovely production: lavish visuals; a score that is evocative and sublime; acting that is solid to exceptional across the ensemble.  There’s a little less Rosalind (as played by Bryce Dallas Howard) than I would like as good portions of her dialogue appear to be excised, but national treasure Brian Blessed gets to portray both Dukes as twins, running the gamut of Senior’s benign saintliness to Frederick’s volcanic, paranoid psychosis, and Romola Garai, as Celia, is delightful, as always.  The brothers Orlando and Oliver (David Oyelowo and Adrian Lester respectively) are both fantastic – Lester in particular gives emotional depth and complexity to Oliver, a character that is often little more than a moustache twirler until his last minute conversion. And hearing Kevin Kline as Jacques deliver the seven ages of man speech never gets old.

And Shakespeare can work wonderfully in Japan.  Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (1957) is a reimagining of Macbeth, taking a Jacobean English play about an 11th century Scottish King and translating it seamlessly – marvellously – into feudal Japan, elevating all the perversions of honour and madness of the original text.  But here there doesn’t seem to be a deeper thematic reason for transplanting the action of the story to a British trading outpost in Japan outside of aesthetic quirkiness.

A title card informs the audience that these are colonial traders who have set up a ‘treaty port’ during the nebulous late 19th century period of British-Japanese political relations.  Taken just at face value, Branagh appears to have simply replicated the original play’s romantic rejection of society and its embrace of the rejuvenating lustre of the natural world in the forests of Japan rather than a mythic British wilderness (although ironically he still films it in England).  And that’s nice in theory – the stuffy Brits are going to learn about real life by being exposed to another culture – but that doesn’t really manifest in the play.  In its place, a lot of complex, thorny issues of cultural appropriation are evoked that threaten to become outright controversial.

To begin with, all the of the principle characters are played by western actors – including many of those in the supposedly Japanese peasantry that have multiple lines.  Even Charles the wrester (here a sumo wrestler, natch) has a western manager who speaks for him.  Secondly, although Branagh attempts to utilise the trappings of Japanese culture to allow his western characters to access a truth within themselves (an impulse coming from a complimentary, if misguided, place) in practice, aside from a pretty estate, some fine clothes, a zen garden, and a token, unspeaking monk, there is little indication that Japan has impacted these characters much at all.  His principle characters remain western imperialist intruders into a culture that they are in the process of coopting as their own.

If I sound like I’m really down on the film – I’m not.  It’s still lovely.  It’s just a shame, because it feels like there is something of more substance to say in the work that is never fully articulated.  That in this enchanting Shakespearean fantasy cultures can be respected and genuinely shared beyond the limitations of genealogy.  In practice though, at best the Japanese aesthetic is a pretty but ultimately pointless coat of paint, at worst it risks playing as more of a celebration of imperialist assimilation and the coopting of a culture.

But it is beautiful, and well acted, and by the time Orlando has been attacked by some stock footage of a tiger, I am already in the thrall of Rosalind’s layers of playful fraud.  Because here too, reality is joyfully bent to a happier end – you just have to be willing to ignore the bad, socially disheartening stuff for a moment, and indulge your imagination…

as-you-like-it-2

IMAGE: As You Like It directed by Kenneth Branagh (Shakespeare Film Company, 2006)

* * *

* It’s All Relative appears to have run for two seasons before ending in 2015.

** He even uses verse sparingly, with the majority of the interactions between the two lovers, Rosalind and Orlando, rendered in prose.

* * *

Texts Mentioned:

Book: As You Like It by William Shakespeare (ed. by H.J. Oliver, Penguin, 2005)

Production: As You Like It, directed and screenplay by Kenneth Branagh (Shakespeare Film Company, 2006)

Throne of Blood, directed by Akira Kurosawa, screenplay by Shinobu Hashimoto, Ryuzo Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa, and Hideo Oguni (Toho Studios, 1957)

THE YEAR OF ‘SPEARE 04: ‘Making Troy Great Again!’; Troilus and Cressida and Rhetoric.

Posted in criticism, literature, movies, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on July 17, 2016 by drayfish

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IMAGE: Troilus and Cressida (BBC, 1981)

It is an understatement to say that Troilus and Cressida is a hard play to love.  More accurately, it seems near impossible to find anyone who says they love it.  Perhaps more than any other of Shakespeare’s plays Troilus and Cressida is little discussed, infrequently performed, and when spoken of in criticism, usually prefaced with some backhanded commentary (like this) about how baffling a ‘problem play’ such has this has always proved to be.*  In his discussion of the play, Jack Vaughn repeatedly refers to elements of the plot and its characters as ‘botched’, ‘pointless’, ‘unsatisfactory’ and ‘confusing’ (at its very best he calls it ‘stageworthy’).  Harold Bloom, in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, calls it ‘the most difficult and elitist of all [Shakespeare’s] works’ (p.327).

I’m a little ashamed to admit that I had no idea what to expect from Troilus and Cressida before approaching it for this discussion.  I’d not previously read it, nor seen it.  I knew almost nothing of its plot, its characters, nor its reputation.  Somewhere along the way I’d gathered that it involved a love story, though I ‘d never read Chaucer’s poem Troilus and Criseyde, upon which Shakespeare based his narrative.  I knew it involved the Trojan War (with which I’m more familiar) but did not know in what capacity, or from which angle he approached it.  So I went in fresh – arguably perfectly primed for the experience – and what I read, and then later saw, was legitimately haunting.  And it would take months, and the daily dispatches of the American presidential race, for me to figure out exactly why.

But more on that later…

In Shakespeare’s canon Troilus and Cressida is a bizarre outlier – and it seems to revel in this disorientation.  Described by some (including the First Folio of 1623) as a tragedy, by others a comedy (in the searing satirical vein rather than the playful or romantic), and still others as a semi-historical riff on Greek myth (the Quarto of 1609 calls it a history), Troilus and Cressida is altogether everything and nothing at once.  It sets up multiple narratives, only to then thwart or undermine every one.  It promises a love story (in its title, no less) that turns into less than a cheap one night stand and a torrent of bitter insults; concerns the most legendary war in human history, and yet reduces it to a gaggle of smug bros flexing at, shouting over, or ambushing one another like cowards.

It’s a play that I have come to learn has a bit of a curious history.  It seems to have never been presented at Shakespeare’s The Globe during his lifetime – although that could suggest many things.  Perhaps Shakespeare was not finished writing it to a producible standard (unlikely); perhaps its subject matter was potentially too inflammatory to be seen (given everything that happens in act 5 this might be possible); or it was performed there and the evidence is just lost.  The first recorded production of the original play (an altered version by John Dryden played during the Restoration) was in the early 20th century, a time that seems fitting for the pessimism and contempt for war that infuse the work.

Ostensibly it is the story of two Trojans, Troilus and Cressida, whose burgeoning romance is cut short by the politicking of their city’s war with the Greeks – but this is all an overt misdirection.  Really the plot concerns the war itself, and the character of the people engaged in it.  The other source that Shakespeare clearly drew upon for inspiration, besides Chaucer, was Homer’s Iliad – and that poem, which proves to be a war book to condemn the futility of war, Shakespeare’s play is similarly critical, offering a scathing social satire.

The play’s myriad subversions of expectation begin from its opening second.  As a prologue, Shakespeare has a narrator enter dressed in a suit of armour to give a brief account of the Trojan War.  There’s the vow to ransack Trojan King Priam’s city; the romance between Paris and Helen; ‘the quarrel’; the disposition of the warriors; the layout of the camps; the doorways of Troy itself.  He talks of the location and security of the two armies, the fortitude spurring them all on to impending hazard, but he also draws attention to his own curious costuming, and the play itself.

He has seemingly come to perform the thankless task of delivering exposition, informing the audience that the story is starting midway through the mythic events of the Trojan conflict, but more than that, he has wandered out on stage, dressed for war, to declare that war is not the principle thing on the menu.  In actuality, his whole speech is a stage-setting distinctly obsessed with defences and deflection – both literal and figurative:

                                ‘And hither am I come,

A prologue armed, but not in confidence

Of author’s pen or actor’s voice, but suited

In like condition of our argument…’ (‘Prologue’, 22-5)

Alongside describing the defences of each army, he is warning the viewer to be on guard too; he even admits that he doesn’t know if the play is any good, nor the acting that great.  He warns the viewer to take nothing in this caustically ironic myth at face value.

Which brings attention to the next great quirk of this introduction: there’s no mention, at all, of the play’s titular characters.  Unlike the introduction of Romeo & Juliet, which sets up the plight of the play’s lovers in a context of conflict and ruin – that of the corrupted ‘fair’ Verona – here the lover’s romance is not even name-checked.  The table is set for war – and perhaps love – but it is all placed deliberatively in a state of potentiality:

‘Like or find fault; do as your pleasures are:

Now good or bad, ’tis but the chance of war.’ (‘Prologue’ 30-1)

War may or may not break out; love may or may not happen; the play may or may not be any good – that will all be up to us to discern.  No wonder the Prologue so overtly alerts the viewer to the artifice of the production – the costumes, the writer, the performers – because the play itself is about to unfold, not as a battlefield, not even as a love story, but as an act of bewilderment.

It is about courtship amongst carnage; except that it’s not.  About mythic warfare; except it deflates that too.  In its title and its prologue, it intrigues us with the promise of wooing, and the tragic majesty of war, but will leave both unfulfilled, instead satirically exposing how empty the longing for both of these things is in a world of empty posturing.

For a story set in a war that famously ends with the sly infiltration of a walled city – the Trojan Horse – these negotiations of guarding and deceit are potent indeed.  As the play proceeds it takes up the images of protection and shielding that pepper the introduction, but in doing so reveals the whole psychology of the war, and these two peoples, Trojans and Achaeans, to be twisted into paranoid defensiveness.

Troilus and Cressida

IMAGE: Troilus and Cressida by J. Coghlan (early 19th century)

The lovers, at first, both proclaim a need to hide their true feelings.  Troilus claims that he has to hide his affection for Cressida (‘buried this sigh in a wrinkle of a smile’ (1.1.38); his ‘sorrow … is crouched in seeming gladness’ (1.1.39));  Cressida has to outpace her uncle’s wit when he tactlessly tries to set her up with Troilus, a man she’s not yet actually met.  Being a woman in this world means remaining constantly at alert against attack.  Cressida lies, she says,

‘Upon my back, to defend my belly; upon my wit, to
defend my wiles; upon my secrecy, to defend mine
honesty; my mask, to defend my beauty; and you, to
defend all these: and at all these wards I lie, at a
thousand watches.’ (1.2.252-6)

Almost immediately after this she reveals that she does in fact like Troilus a great deal, she simply feels she has to hide it from him (and everyone else) lest he lose interest in her for being too easy to win over (and her fears of his fickle affections will indeed be proved true).

Cressida observes:

‘Men prize the thing ungained more than it is’ (1.2.275)

And the play proves her right.  Every longed for object – Cressida; Troy; Helen – is elevated to a state of impossible glory in the minds of those who claim to desire it.  But the result of this affected detachment is, ironically, the devaluing of that which is pursued.  In the case of the women being pursued, this belittling apparently occurs even in their own minds.  Love becomes a boast; a lover a trophy to wave in the enemy’s face.

Diomedes, the Greek sent to exchange Cressida for Antenor (a Trojan prisoner being returned) sees through the artifice of all this ‘nobility’ and is willing to describe it as a bitter squabble over a ‘prize’ that is already devalued by the conflict.  Helen, he says, is now either dishonoured or a whore, with the innumerable men who have died in her name only sullying her worth further (4.1.55-75).

‘She hath not given so many good words breath

As for her Greeks and Trojans suffered death’ (4.1.74-5)

And yet Paris, so enamoured with his ego-delighting prize, dismisses Diomedes’ words as envy, only continuing the pointless cycle of love’s debasement into pride.

The play is overstuffed with characters proudly displaying how little they know themselves.  Ajax claims he doesn’t even know what pride is (2.3.146), and yet he is locked in a petty pissing contest with Achilles; Agamemnon condemns pride (2.3.150) despite his own arrogance being the cause of the rift between he and Achilles; Paris claims to be doing the honourable thing in not offering up Helen, despite it clearly being selfishness; and Troilus argues the moral virtue of keeping the stolen queen Helen – all of which is proved, later, to be a projection of his own fickle lust for Cressida.  He calls Helen:

‘a theme of honour and renown,

A spur to valiant and magnanimous deeds,

Whose present courage may beat down our foes,

And fame in time to come canonise us’ (2.2.198-201)

And yet – as Hector suggests – Troilus is really just hopped up on his own hormonal longing for Cressida, and will abandon all these noble words of honour, and the supposed ‘glory’ of defending a stolen prize with blood, when Troilus’ own moment comes his fellow Trojans decide to trade Cressida away to the Greeks and he doesn’t fight for her.  Not even with more pretty words.

Ultimately, this is a play to make you hate men.  Simpering, cowardly, narcissistic Paris; braying, egomaniacal, thuggish Achilles; hypocritical, inconsistent Troilus; conniving, manipulative Ulysses; sleazy Pandarus; Ajax the blowhard idiot; Agamemnon the smug; Menelaus the belligerent and petty; even prideful Hector.  Mankind, in all its forms, is cast in the most unflattering light.  As Ulysses says, speaking of Achilles but proving a fitting summation of most every male character in the play:

         ‘possessed he is with greatness,

And speaks not to himself but with pride,

That quarrels as self-breath’ (2.3.164-6)

Each is so distracted with ‘imagined worth’ that they become lost in a fruitless battle with themselves.

Meanwhile women – when they are not being disingenuously exulted – are derided, discarded or damned.  Those not placed upon dehumanising pedestals are subjected to other insult.  When Aeneas arrives (Act 1, Sc 2) to announce Hector’s challenge to fight any Trojan brave enough to fight him, the challenge comes loaded with the insult that no Greek has a lover as fine as Hector’s wife, nor one worth defending as he does.  Greek women aren’t worthy loving, he says.

Cassandra, who appears to see through all this idiocy into the madness of it all, goes ignored; Andromache is shushed and dismissed; Helen is squabbled over and objectified, both a jewel and an albatross around the Trojan necks, with no worth but to be lusted after, even by those who hate her; and Cressida, after being pimped out by her uncle, is traded like cattle into her enemies’ hands, is then condemned, both by her wavering, spineless ‘lover’, and seemingly the play itself.  When she even entertains being wooed by one of her captors she is called unfaithful, false, stained, a whore, a depravity that debases all of womanhood (and that’s Troilus saying most of that – the guy who handed her over to his enemies without hesitation, having just slept with her – so, charmer) (5.2.127-31).

Troilus and Cressida 02

IMAGE: Troilus and Cressida (BBC, 1981)

Women are expected to maintain some impossible, saintly image in this play, to always defend the ‘virtues’ and ‘beauties’ and fantasies that men project upon them, while those same men go to every effort to tear down those defences, to undermine or ignore them.  They are set with an impossible, irrational, doomed task, and then are condemned when they inevitably cannot satisfy these contradictory demands.

In this sense, it may well be Shakespeare’s most modern, if unrelentingly bleak, plays.  In the wake of Gamergate, the uproar over a female Ghostbusters, and an unceasing industry of patronisingly sexist articles like the drooling interview with Margot Robbie in Vanity Fair, this searing indictment of entrenched patriarchy and systemised, celebrated misogyny retains all of its bite.

Amidst this ugliness, Shakespeare does not even offer the audience a sympathetic character with which we can identify.  The closest, perhaps, are two characters who actively repel the audience.  The first, Pandarus, is the play’s most peculiar character.  Distractible, a little thick, so focused on trying to woo Cressida in Troilus’ name that he is blind to most everything else – even Cressida’s seeming indifference.  And yet, if there is an audience equivalent in this play, a window into its fiction, it is he.  When the whole narrative has seemingly abandoned Troilus and Cressida’s story in order to fiddle about in the Grecian camp, watching arrogant men poke one another’s pride, he is the only one left asking what is going on with the love story that gives the play its name.  In a suffocating war, he still raves effusively for love.  Like the audience, he seems to be the only one who came to see a love story; and so, by the end of this play’s action, he is left sick and mad, destroyed both body and soul in the face of so much hate and carnage and waste.

The second potential point of view character for the audience is Thersites, a guy so cynical and fed up with everyone around him that when faced with death his bid to live is: ‘I am a rascal; a scurvy, railing knave; a very filthy rogue’ (5.4.27).  Essentially, I’m not worth killing because I’m a scumbag who doesn’t care about any of this war crap.  And while that is a bold self-critique of the play and its themes, it makes it a difficult work (as the play’s prologue warned) to love.

It is probably this wilful discomforting of the audience that has led to this being one of Shakespeare’s least filmed plays.  There are no major motion pictures based on his script, and the one production I found to view (there is another 2015 short film version that I’ve not been able to track down) comes from the BBCs television film series in which they were obligated to produce every one of this works.

Troilus and Cressida (1981) is worth watching, though, as it makes some curious choices in its staging, casting, and acting that only adds to the undermining of expectation that begins from the first moment the actors step on stage.  The result is a series of stylistic choices that annoyed me at first, but that are clearly designed to create a jarring effect which ultimately won me over, even if my unease with the original work still remains.

Firstly, it has to be said that the mythic soldiers of Greece and Troy are rather a bit older than one might expect, and (to put it politely) considerably less battle-ready than the text itself would suggest.  Across the board the acting is solid (if leaning a little too far into stagey pronouncement at times), but the performers’ age and appearance make all the talk of warfare and bloodshed and hand-to-hand combat comical.  When war councils are called it looks more like a gaggle of AARP members passive-aggressively bickering over how to split the cheque at the early bird buffet.  When Achilles turns up, the most brutal, merciless, unstoppable warrior of all time looks like a retired plumber.  And although according to legend the character of Aeneas will go on after the events of Shakespeare’s play to gather the refugees of Troy, travel perilous seas, have a doomed romance with Dido, descend into Hades, invade Italy, and found the great nation of Rome, here he looks like Santa Claus in a duffle coat.  After he delivers a message he looks like he needs a good lie down.

There’s no fury, no passion, no sense of urgency in any of them.

Clearly this was a deliberate choice rather than merely the natural result of a 1980s BBC casting call.  Troilus and Cressida are played by comparatively younger performers, so it draws a bold visual distinction between the titular lovers and everyone around them: youth versus weary age; idealism versus cankerous cynicism; affection versus  self-adoration.  However, the consequence is a play that undermines its central characters from the very start – opening them up to the satire that courses throughout every aspect of the play.

Unfortunately, for me, this creates a stumbling block in the production.  Rather than sharing Troilus’ misconception that his fellow warriors are men of nobility and honour, only to later be disabused of this misconception, we begin already mystified by his misplaced regard.  For Troilus, his disenchantment with war and love and valour is four acts away; for the audience it occurs as soon as Aeneas shuffles onto stage and sighs in Act 1 Sc 1, robbing the play of its methodical unpacking of ‘heroic mythology’ by making the subtext immediately text.

Again, this is no doubt part of the desired effect, but by keeping the conflict so abstracted from the glib posturing of these heroes, by making them so comically unfit for war in the first place, to me, the play gives away the thematic twist all too early, meaning that the audience is never able to invest in the mythos being dissolved.  We begin contemptuous of Troilus’ delusions long before his – and his society’s – hypocrisies are revealed.

Troilus and Cressida

IMAGE: Troilus and Cressida (BBC, 1981)

The set design and costuming are similarly a curious mix of anachronisms.  There is more than a bit of Doctor Who to the production – not surprising for a BBC television production with a limited budget – with only two sets, a great hall in Troy and a Greek encampment, getting filmed from multiple angles to give an illusion of expansiveness.  For its part, Troy has a Giorgio de Chirico vibe, filled with staircases that go nowhere, empty corridors into nothing, bare arches and plinths, with the whole environment having no sense of yet being under siege.  The Greek camps are seething mud and campfires, cramped tents spilling over with throw pillows and prostitutes.  There’s a marked contrast between the two spaces, but no real sense of how they relate to each other.  The fighting between Trojan and Greek is sparse, filmed in awkward close up, or in the case of Ajax and Hector, as an afterthought slap-fight in the background.  The only real sense that the Greeks are in any way inconveniencing or encroaching upon the Trojans comes in the final scenes when the dead and dying start piling up.  Only then does the stark, museum lighting give way to a shadowy gloom.

Just personal preference, but I’m less in love with the costuming – this production chooses to ditch the ancient Mediterranean for more of a renaissance fair vibe – because the chipping away of the classical pseudo-historical myth of the Trojan War  seems to me to be the point of the play.  However, the alternate-reality perpetual-war evoked by this grab-bag of outfits and set design works well enough.

For a couple of months now, both before and after I saw this BBC version, I’ve been trying to diagnose what it is about Troilus and Cressida that so unnerves me.  Yes, it is a dark satire.  It sells itself on themes of love and heroism, only to actively denigrate those concepts; to prostitute them out, in the language of Pandarus, until, like him, they are diseased and vile.  And for that, I admire the work, and the statement about humanity it makes, as callous and spiteful as that message proves to be.  But there’s something more, something I find genuinely disturbing.  And then, this past weekend, I read an article by George Saunders in The New Yorker called ‘Who Are All These Trump Supporters’ and it all clicked into place.

Saunders’ article is about the rise of Donald Trump throughout this presidential campaign, and the temperament of his most ardent followers.  It explores both the grassroots supporters and the protesters that frequent Trump’s rallies: those that turn up to cheer, that parrot the talking points, that jostle and attack and whip themselves into a fury on both sides of America’s needlessly bifurcated political spectrum.  As you can imagine, it is a dispiriting read.  But what it reveals most is that there is an impulse – in the vile, intolerant rhetoric that Trump uses to enflame his followers’ sense of disenfranchisement; in those supporters’ willingness to overlook or excuse the repugnant behaviour of their presidential hopeful; and in the protestors’ willingness to descend into the same bigotry and rancour they claim to oppose – to willingly devalue the very principles one is hoping to celebrate, if it means claiming victory over your opposition.

As Saunders displays, Trump and his supporters want to protect free speech – unless someone else is saying something they don’t like.  They want to make their country great again – by ignoring its founding principles of freedom and papering over the realities of its history.  Protestors against Trump want to stop the racist slurs and invective – unless they are the ones using it.   And everyone, everywhere, on both sides, is intent on propping up whatever their position is by making fraudulent assertions, claiming to be the most patriotic, and mistaking bullying aggression for strength.  It’s Troilus and Cressida – only it is stripped of all the mythology and just lying bare and ugly for all to see.

As human beings we live in a perpetual state of opposition.  We identify ‘Others’ and try to distinguish ourselves through the contradictions in our world views.  Us and them.  Male and female.  Democrat and Republican.  Trojan and Greek.  But what we miss, in this blind, defensive posturing, this willingness to boil everything down to a false bipolarity of thought, is the similarities in our behaviours that bind us (even if sometimes only at the most base, lizard-brain, elemental level) to one another.

The consequence is that we now live in a time where public discourse itself seems to have devolved into a despairing farce.  A time when news organisations blatantly perpetuate their own narratives  and create their own ‘facts’.  A time in which one of the two nominees running for control of the most powerful country on Earth – a candidate whose popularity resoundingly trounced his rivals – is a man that routinely demonises immigrants and Muslims and ‘elites’.  Who insults women, mocks the disabled, and scoffs at prisoners of war.  Who celebrates himself after national tragedies, advocates for war crimes, and looks to Mussolini and multiple white supremacists for inspirational quotes.  A man so insecure and desperate to prove his machismo that he has to stop a presidential debate to assure that world that he has a wonderful penis.

Trump pledge

IMAGE: Donald Trump at the University of Central Florida, March 2016

I said earlier that Troilus and Cressida might well be Shakespeare’s most modern play.  Not only for its gender politics, but for the scathing catalogue it offers of a world of self-destructive misogyny, xenophobia, and feckless bluster, one that celebrates arrogance and  ignorance and brutality in a cruel, empty campaign of fraudulent self-gratification.  Sure, these have all been features of contemporary society for generations now – Shakespeare clearly saw some of it in the turn of the 17th century – but in the wake of the Trump Presidential campaign, now it seems downright prophetic.

Troilus and Cressida promises much – the great romance of Romeo & Juliet, the heroic battle of Henry V, the interrogation of human interiority of As You Like It, even the tragedy of Hamlet – and yet it thwarts these at every opportunity.  It shows the emptiness of its ‘tragic’ heroes, reveals characters driven by blind obsessions and pride, reveals war to be an ugly, deceitful, squalid business, and exposes it’s ‘lovers’ as inconstant frauds.  It is a play that dares you to hate it (again: that prologue), and yet in its constant frustration of expectation it becomes a fascinating, if disturbing, portrait of humanity’s natural inclination toward self-deception and fear.

troilus-and-pandarus2

IMAGE: Pandarus, Troilus and Cressida (BBC, 1981)

This play ends with a madman ranting about how diseased he and his world have become.  Trump, the world-view he espouses, and the slurry of bloodthirsty bipartisan hate speech that he has gathered around himself, seem equally as contemptible.

Just not as honest.

donald-trump

IMAGE: Donald Trump

***

* The term ‘Problem Play’ was coined by F.S. Boas in 1896, and is used in reference to Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, Measure for Measure, and All’s Well That Ends Well – all plays that are too dark and filled with disturbing subject matter to be easily classified as comedies, and yet too playful in tone to be outright tragedies.  Of course, the term ‘Problem Play’ is itself plenty problematic.  Other titles are frequently added or subtracted from that list, including Merchant of Venice and The Winter’s Tale, and the term itself remains contentious, with many critics not recognising its validity at all.

***

 Texts mentioned:

Book: Troilus and Cressida by William Shakespeare (ed. by Kenneth Muir, Oxford World’s Classics, 1982)

Production: The Complete Dramatic Works of William Shakespeare: Troilus & Cressida (directed by Jonathan Miller, BBC television movie, 1981)

Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human by Harold Bloom (Berkley Publishing Group, 1998)

‘Troilus and Cressida’ by Jack A. Vaughn, from Shakespeare’s Comedies (Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1980)

Secrets Revealed!: Lost Poem of Coleridge

Posted in creative writing, literature, stupidity, Uncategorized with tags , , , , on June 13, 2016 by drayfish

LOST wheel

Samuel Taylor Coleridge was an extraordinary poet.  Alongside William Wordsworth, he was one of the founders of the English Romantic movement, producing exquisite works like ‘Frost At Midnight’ and ‘This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison’, and ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’.  Sadly, it is also part of his legacy that he was negatively impacted by a crippling addiction to opium.  Whether the story is apocryphal or not, it is said that one of his most famous poems, ‘Kubla Khan’ was both the product of a drug-induced vision, and was unable to be completed due to the debilitating effects of his usage.

What is less well known is that Coleridge was also huge fan of binge watching high concept serialised genre fare.  So even though he died in 1834, technically before the term ‘water-cooler television’ was ever uttered, he somehow managed to write the following reflection upon ABC’s sci-fi/supernatural/drama series, LOST. 

I know.  Weird, right?

Thus, I now present this completely real and not made up work for the first time in history:

Dharma Da
Or, ‘Six Seasons In A Dream.’
(A Fragment.)

by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

To ‘purgatory’ plunged the flight
Of Oceanic eight one five,
Toward an island built, it seemed,
From maddened, nonsense fever dreams,
And the Twilight Zone archive.
And so six seasons came to falter
Sacrificed upon an altar
That worshiped vapid mystery boxes,
Of stall, delay and plot regressions,
Where mysticism was sour and noxious,
And characters ne’er answer simple questions.

But oh! That ceaseless hope of revelation,
A reason to the tangents, jumps and asides!
Smoke monsters, polar bears, and Dharma stations,
An entire season where they went back in time,
And lazy ‘twist’ character suicides!
That iced wagon wheel of space vortex jumping,
The ghostly cabin where Jacob was slumping,
Egyptian statues with only four toes,
Was Hurley hiding a stash of Ho Hos?
The hatches, the numbers, the hieroglyphs,
Astrophysical dimensional shifts!
And ‘mid this tumult came the writers’ assurance
Reward awaited every fans’ endurance,
Even for those who liked Nicki and Paulo.*
But six meandering years: for a dumb fist fight,
Some faked up church to greet eternal night,
And all to stuff a cork in a magic grotto.
Scarce wonder the fans, with gnashed teeth and scorn
Enflamed the internet the following morn!

No Sherlock for their witless Watson,
They wept that such a fertile tale
Adrift amongst pretentious flotsam
Had left a corpse so trite and stale:
From fuel for weekly water cooler rants
To synonym for ‘fly by seat of pants’.

A boy called Walt with psychic powers
Once unknowingly foretold:
The let-down of the following hours
The ripening set-ups left to sour
When the actor got to old.
This nonpareil ‘chosen’ one,
The Others sought obsessively
Suddenly bundled on a boat and gone
The day he’d entered puberty.
For just as Walt was painted off
The writer’s ‘plan’! their grand canvas!
Those ‘truths’ that kept the plot aloft
Mumbled away with no payoff,
Reassured by Cuse and Lindeloff
That truly it was always thus:
There ne’er was need for explanation,
T’was the ‘journey’ now, not ‘destination’,
As soon t’would be in Prometheus

* No one liked Nicki and Paulo

LOST_polar_bear

(Another of Coleridge’s works, ‘Christabreaking Bad’ does not survive in its entirety.)

THE YEAR OF ‘SPEARE 03: ‘Despair and Die’; Richard III and Anarchy in the UK

Posted in criticism, literature, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , on April 23, 2016 by drayfish

richard iii richard

IMAGE: Richard III (United Artists, 1995)

I had no idea Shakespeare was a such a punk.

I mean, I’ve read Richard III before.  I remembered how unnervingly charming the central character was, even in spite of (or perhaps because of) his physical and psychological deformity.  I recalled how drenched in blood the narrative becomes, starting with the overthrowing of Henry VI (whose death occurs before the play even starts) and descending from there into a whirlpool of slaughter, with Richard happily carving up his family, colleagues, conspirators – and even country when it descends into a full blown civil war.  But reading it again, and then watching Ian McKellan’s feisty film production, Richard III (1995), it all became so obvious:

This is the ultimate punk rock story. 

Sure, Shakespeare missed the heyday of the punk period – his play was first performed four centuries before The Ramones were transformed into Hot Topic’s best selling t-shirt.*  And sure, the only time that ‘music’ is mentioned it’s when Richard is gloating about how sweet the sound of two young boys being murdered will be (although those could conceivably be Misfits lyrics).  But the whole play’s sensibility is so anarchic and anti-establishment that it’s hard not to picture Shakespeare in a Mohawk and sleeveless denim, shouting the plot in the face of the police officer he just tried to glass.

Shakespeare was young when he wrote Richard III.  The play is said to have been penned around 1592 when he was still in his late twenties, just starting to flex his muscles in the leap from an actor to writer.  And this youthful exuberance shows, in all the best ways.  This feels like the work of an audacious young writer, one willing to push boundaries, upend historical record, and risk offence.

The Richard Shakespeare presents  has become infamous for his delighted scheming.  He stands alongside Iago from Othello and Edmund from King Lear in pantheon of charismatic Shakespeare villains, but to me he outstrips them both because (at least for the first portion of the play) he’s so utterly, irredeemably badass.  Full of scene-chewing sarcasm and bile, he laughs at the snivelling halfwits that make up his family and colleagues, all of whom he knows he can dance like puppets.  He uses and discards people without compunction.  At the height of his power he is able to seduce the woman whose husband he killed, literally while his corpse lies beside them.

He’s a character so comfortable in his ruthlessness that he doesn’t even bother inventing a justification for his villainy.  The closest that we get comes in his opening soliloquy in which he says he is just bored:

Why I, in this weak piping time of peace,

Have no delight to pass away my time (1.1.24-5).

The war is over, and there’s nothing else to do, so why not burn everything down for the fun of it?  It’s no wonder that the play’s signature line, spouted by the ghosts of everyone Richard has murdered becomes ‘Despair, and die!’  ‘Trollin’ for the LOLS’ presumably read a little less poetic.

And Shakespeare clearly has a ball with Richard’s gleeful, unrepentant, pantomime evil.  Near every line the character speaks has a wicked double meaning that throbs with evil portent if you’re in on the gag.  ‘Well, your imprisonment shall not be long; / I will deliver you’ (1.1.114-5), he says to the brother whose murder he has already planned; ‘A greater gift than that I’ll give my cousin’ (3.1.115) he says to the boy he has already marked for death; ”Tis death to me to be at enmity; / I hate it, and desire all good men’s love’ (2.1.60-1), he says to a gathering of his royal family, almost the entirety of whom he is about to murder, frame, threaten or manipulate into ruin.

He blows up or hollows out every monarchic ceremony he confronts.  He fakes the call to rule – pretending to be unwilling to accept the crown that he has manipulated and schemed for until his fellow countrymen beg him for it.  He throws a conversational hand grenade into a scene of familial peacemaking – ‘Oh, are you guys all patching things up?  Cool, because I forgot to tell you that because of all of you our brother was killed, like, five minutes ago.  Nice job, bro.’  He perverts one scene of courtly romance by staging it over the corpse of his conquest’s dead ex-husband, and perverts the next trying to convince a mother to marry off her daughter to him, despite the fact that he happily killed most everyone else in their family.  He slaughters prisoners.  He snaps at and berates his military advisors.  And as he upends each of these sacred, kingly duties, you can almost hear the voice of Sid Vicious, shouting into a beer-soaked microphone:

Undermine their pompous authority, reject their moral standards, make anarchy and disorder your trademarks. Cause as much chaos and disruption as possible but don’t let them take you alive.**

The full scene of Richard’s seduction of Anne alone is a fantastic expression of this punk ethos.  Anne, furious, berates Richard with charges of murder, but he twists her rage into a perverse attraction, corrupting everything sacred by robbing it of meaning.  If her husband Henry was such a great guy, he says, then it’s probably better off that he’s dead, because we live in a world of sin.  And Richard himself, he claims, is less suited for hell, as she claims, than he is for her bed, because she’s so hot.  He even claims that his attraction for her is the reason he murdered her husband, and ultimately turns ‘love’ itself into an infection by remodelling her insult (‘thous dost infect my eyes’ (1.2.148) into a come-on (‘Thine eyes, sweet lady, have infected mine’ (1.2.147-9)).  Their warped, psychosexual exchange culminates in an offering of murder as romance: when she says she wants him dead, he actually offers her a sword:

[he lays his breast open: she offers at it with the sword]

Nay, do not pause, for I did kill King Henry,

But ’twas thy beauty that provoked me.

Nay, now dispatch; ’twas I that stabbed young Edward,

But ’twas thy heavenly face that set me on.

[she falls the sword] (1.2.179-82)

And when she flinches, dropping it to the ground in horror, he hands her the weapon again, upping the ante: ‘Take up the sword again, or take up me.’ (1.2.183)

Ian McKellen’s Richard III (1995) (he not only stars as the title role, but co-wrote the screenplay with the film’s director Richard Loncraine) not only understands this punk sensibility, it doubles down on it.  From the opening titles – in which Richard guns a man down in cold blood, and the name of the movie is splashed in bold red across his face, one letter appearing with every blast – through to the film’s end, in which Richard, grinning, hurls himself backward off a building into a consuming ball of fire, the film continuously pushes its boundaries, testing offence.  In McKellen’s version Richard mocks the children that he’s about to murder.  Robert Downey Jr., while literally in the middle of having sex with a stewardess, gets (somehow) stabbed through the chest.  There are hangings.  People get their throats slashed in the bath.  Richard sits bopping along to a big band album while happily flicking through photos of the guy that he framed and had murdered.  In a fever dream, McKellen appears with his face twisted into a grotesque mutant boar.

And what else?  What else…?

Oh, yeah: Richard turns England into Nazi f**king Germany.

Which is pretty wild.

Richard III Nazi

IMAGE: Richard III (United Artists, 1995)

Even as a way of showing how perverse Richard and his corrupted rule have become, even as a natural extension of the original play’s punk spirit, of the evoking Godwin’s rule is a bold move.  Not that it doesn’t have precedent.  For Shakespeare, the sitting Queen of the time, Elizabeth, was granddaughter of Henry Tudor (Richmond in the play), so there was no way he was going to make Richard, the guy who her grandfather defeated, sympathetic.  Charmingly maniacal was fine, but someone to empathise with?  Hell, no.  So Shakespeare’s Richard became a ghoulish creature: a nasty, withered hunchback, who spent two years in the womb, and arrived sneering and chewing at the world will full grown teeth.  McKellen and Loncraine can be seen to be simply continuing this demonization of Richard in their film by taking it to the next extreme: Nazis.  And so, with a few cosmetic tweaks (the swastikas are swapped for boars heads), suddenly England is being policed by jackbooted thugs, war is declared, and Richard is one hunt for a religious artefact away from being punched in the face by Indiana Jones.

The element McKellen and Loncraine perhaps best capture is the seduction of the viewer.  One of Shakespeare’s most ingenious moves in the crafting of his play was to make Richard alluring to his audience.  When he first begins his anarchic campaign of upending of the status quo, Richard playfully invites the audience along for the ride: Watch me screw around with these idiots, he says.  See me set up my dumb brother.  Watch as I get away with all this crazy crap and take the throne for myself.  And then, with glee, he goes ahead and does it.  All of it.  He weaves an elaborate web of lies that only we in the audience know is a complete load of bunk and smiles at us, sharing the joke.

‘Was ever a woman in this humour wooed? / Was ever a woman in this humour won?’ (1.2.227-8) he asks us after winning over Anne, then immediately adds that he’s going to kill her too eventually: ‘I have her; but I will not keep her long’ (1.2.229).  He makes us his confidant, tempting us into laughing along as the world burns.  We become, in effect, accomplices.  Tickled by this schadenfreudeian thrill, we share in his murderous glee, delighting as goes about thinning the herd of the fatuous, idle rich.

McKellen’s Richard is Effectively an Elizabethan Tyler Durden from Fight Club.  He peers out of the screen at us, breaking the fourth wall and scampering across every layer of text to drag us into his cynical amorality.  And the first (and most famous) speech of the play is a perfect enactment of this seduction.  Here, the opening portion of the soliloquy (‘Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious by this sun of York…’ (1.1.1-2)) is delivered into a microphone, turned from an expositional aside into a beguiling toast of false flattery to a room full of the people he despises.  But it is in the second portion of the speech that he gets metatextual.  At first growling to himself as he uses the urinal (‘But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks…’ (1.1.14)), he eventually transitions into a direct address to the audience once he catches sight of us in the bathroom mirror.  It’s a wonderfully jolting piece of staging, emblematic of his beguiling stretch beyond the boundaries of his fiction: he peers out at us through a reflection of himself, his delivery dripping with sarcastic malice.***

Richard III close up

IMAGE: Richard III (United Artists, 1995)

And from that point on, Richard is all of our focus.  Indeed, if there is one criticism that could be levelled at this film it is the decision to cut almost everything from the script not featuring, nor directly about, Richard – but it is entirely the right impulse.  McKellen is captivating in this film.  He tears every scene up, right through until the film’s frenzied, reworked endpoint, with the country beset by civil strife of his making, the monarchy rocked with multiple murders that he arranged, and Richard plunging himself backward into a maelstrom of hellfire, chewing a delighted grin.  He repurposes a line that in the play is delivered to his army: ‘Let us do it pell-mell; / If not in heaven, then hand in hand to hell’ (5.3.310-11), offering  the ultimate anarchist, punk-rock end.  He may as well have shouted ‘YOLO’ and flicked everyone off, with the new king, McNulty from The Wire, left to wonder why he too ever bothered to give a f**k.

Richard III YOLO

IMAGE: Richard III (United Artists, 1995)

Of course, by this point the viewer has long since become immune to Richard’s charms.  Like the punk movement itself, Richard’s  unchecked nihilism has played itself out and eventually the fun is over.  Richard becomes king – he win the day; getting it over on all his stupid relatives – but he doesn’t know when to stop, and inevitably pushes his twisted campaign too far.  As the play progresses he devolves from a charming schemer into a myopic, pathetic bully.  He starts lashing out at his underlings.  He turns on his loyal lackey Buckingham and has him killed.  He has his nephews murdered, even though they are already imprisoned at his mercy.  He’s not being witty or clever.  He’s no longer stinking it to the man.  He is the man.

McKellen’s version plays this tipping point beautifully, presenting it as the culmination of Richard’s blinding arrogance.  In this version he is shown sitting in state, watching his own coronation being played on a black and white film projector as the dispirited members of his court sit idle.  The camera circles him as he issues orders to Buckingham dismissively, barely turning his head, and smirking in cruel delight.  All the swagger that had so energised him earlier, the crafty, energetic conniving, is now slumped into facile complacency.  And it is in this moment of masturbatory self-reflection that he orders the royal heirs – his young nephews, who he has already imprisoned in the tower – dead.

Throughout the play Richard has brilliantly used his appearance to knock his accusers off guard, to make them underestimate him.  Oh, so you think I’m wicked just because I look freaky, and cannot flatter you? he asks his enemies, even as we are watching him perform a master-class of flattery and wickedness.  It makes people underestimate him.  And by this midpoint of the play we realise that he has done the same thing to us, the viewer.  We get charmed by Richard initially because he appears to be telling us the truth, taking us into his confidence in a way he seemingly never does anyone else in the play.  We are his co-conspirators, and the sensation is intoxicating.  But, of course, he’s not really treating us differently to anyone else.  We are just seduced like his followers were – just like Anne was – at the start of the play.  And we too will be ignored when we’re no longer of any use.

Richard is repeatedly shown invoking a telling imagery of horses.  He declares ‘I run before my horse to market’ (1.1.160) when he is getting ahead of himself in his scheming; calls himself a ‘pack-horse’ (1.3.122); and in the lead up to war seems particularly obsessive about horses, shouting for one when he wakes from his guilty nightmare (5.3.177), commanding his soldiers to ‘Spur your proud horses hard’ (5.3.340), and repeating the word four times in twelve lines of dialogue while issuing his battle plans (5.3.289-300).  And of course, after all of this, as he meets his end, abandoned on the battlefield, his famous final lines cry out to the universe for one thing:

‘A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!’ (5.4.13).

What we realise is that we were his horse for the play.  We held him aloft in our delight of his scheming.  But when that relationship turns sour – when we lose the sense that he is a whip-smart underdog punching upwards, and instead see him (as everyone else in the play has all along) as simply a petty, psychotic despot punching down, his charm is overthrown (to borrow a phrase) and we, his loyal horse, buck him, leaving him for dead.

And that’s where the film concludes: in Richard’s pseudo-suicide; with fire and death and fury.  But the most punk thing about the original play is that it doesn’t just end here.  It keeps going.  The genius of Shakespeare’s play is that it doesn’t sputter out on empty nihilism; or paper over it with a superficial happy resolve.  Having used Richard to denigrate the social order, belittling monarchy and embracing anarchy, Shakespeare flips the script and punks out on punk itself.  The play celebrates the restoration of the monarchy that Richard tore down, now with a renewed significance.

Indeed, despite having scoffed at the idea of kingship, Richard too, in the end, proves to be just as blinded by its charms.  Despite doing everything in his power to debase and undermine the position of king – himself having stripped that title of all meaning – on the day of battle he still believes that his name as England’s monarch will inspire his soldiers to fight for him.  Richard – rogue, anarchist, and sociopath – reveals that even he didn’t believe his own disaffected swagger.  But unsurprisingly, his men, disenchanted, fail him, despite being superior in numbers.  He becomes a victim of his own cynicism.

Just as punk music gave way to New Pop, just as postmodernism subsided to allow for post-ironic embrace of sincerity, Richard III reaffirms the monarchy by first blowing it up.  By undermining the whole position of king and kingship, Shakespeare fills the concept with meaning.  And so this, the final play in Shakespeare’s eight-play account of the War of the Roses* ultimately asserts that the people of this world need a king – their rightful king.  Shakespeare might have used the image of a ‘bottled spider’ and a ‘foul bunch-back’d toad’, McKellen might have used the Nazis and mutant boars, but both show the inherent danger of a nihilistic anarchic impulse that collapses in on itself when there is nothing else left to believe in.

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AS AN ASIDE:

Briefly, I should mention that I also listened to the audio production of Richard III, directed by David Timson and starring Kenneth Branagh, but I found it a little difficult to embrace.  Amidst some strong performances there are also a few moments of woeful overacting – even after you make allowances for the non-visual medium.  Clarence’s performance, in particular, is so hysterical that I was a little glad when his untimely death arrived, and Branagh himself doesn’t seem to entirely have a handle on his character.  His Richard spends the first half of the play fluctuating between a squirmy obsequiousness and a hiccoughy, giddy glee at how wicked he thinks he is, constantly rolling his words around in his mouth like he’s the moustache twirling villain of a telenovella.  To be fair, he gets considerably better when he embraces the ugly, snarling side of Richard later in the play, berating his soldiers and snapping at underlings, but as it is the early scenes that show Richard’s blindsiding charisma, it feels like something of an opportunity missed.

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* Punk was a movement in the mid seventies that rejected the excesses of mainstream rock.  It presented itself as anti-establishment and railed against the perceived evils of ‘selling out’.  It was about non-conformity and individual freedom of expression.

** This quote may have only been apocryphally attributed to Vicious.  But misapplying quotations without academic scrutiny?  That’s pretty punk.

*** The movie is also subversive in other, more subtle ways too.  This play is famous for its dialogue not simply by virtue of being a Shakespeare play, but because this text in particular has one of the most iconic opening lines in history: ‘Now is the winter of our discontent…’  Here, however, it is 10 full minutes before a single line of dialogue is spoken, as the stage setting is done in a lush, non-verbal montage.

**** In their order of historical chronology: Richard II, Henry IV pts 1 and 2 and Henry V, Henry VI pts 1, 2, and 3, and Richard III.  However Richard III was written before the first four plays in this list.

richard-iii-(1995)-large-picture-still

IMAGE: Richard III (United Artists, 1995)

Texts mentioned:

Richard III, screenplay by Ian McKellen and Richard Loncraine, directed by Richard Loncraine, adapted from William Shakespeare.  (United Artists, 1995)

Richard III by William Shakespeare, ed by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch and John Dover Wilson (Cambridge University Press, 1968)

Richard III by William Shakespeare (audiobook), directed by David Timson (Naxos, 2001)

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