Archive for Shakespeare

‘Alternative Stanzas’: Shakespeare on Trump

Posted in creative writing, criticism, stupidity, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on January 25, 2017 by drayfish

shakespeare-trump

This past weekend something amazing happened!

I was hunting through my garage and I stumbled across some original William Shakespeare manuscripts.  They were just sitting there, tucked underneath a box of old Robotech toys and a punctured inflatable pool.  Original, signed documents by William Shakespeare, the English language’s most extraordinary poet and dramatist.

I know, right?!

Obviously, had I made a statement like this in the past, I would have been attacked by the liberal media and the intelligentsia for having nothing to prove my claims.  “But don’t you live in Australia, nowhere near Stratford Upon Avon?” they would have asked.  “And wasn’t your garage only built in the 1970s, centuries after Shakespeare died?” they would tediously continue.  “And wasn’t this poem clearly typed out in a Microsoft Word program, when Shakespeare was probably more of an Apple guy?”  On and on.  Asking questions.  Demanding evidence.  Getting all up in my grill just because no such material has ever been discovered in four centuries of painstaking research and because of my track record of being a ridiculous, inveterate liar.

Well, shut it, eggheads!

We live in a bold, post-truth, fake news, “alternative facts” world now!

Truth is relative!  Objective, demonstrably provable facts are suspect!  War is peace!  Freedom is slavery!  Ignorance is strength!

I found a Shakespeare poem!

I said it.  Loudly.  And Angrily.  So it must be true.  Period.

Enjoy.

‘Alternative Facts’

When Don Trump swears that he is made of truths,

They do believe him, though they know he lies,

That he might think them some untutored youths,

Unlearned in the world’s false subtleties.

Thus they excuse the tax returns he fled,

The “proof” of Birtherism, his grand “wall”,

(That Mexico shall pay for, so he said),

And “record crowds” flooding National Mall.

Divesting his stocks, Cuban embargos,

His “charity”, vote fraud, and Russian hacks,

Bankruptcies, draft dodge, failed casinos,

Dozens of women and “unfair” attacks.

They welcome these falsehoods and plate them gold

To buy the lie that “greatness” can be sold.

So anyway, this is clearly an astonishing find.  Not only do these precious artefacts blow open our entire understanding of modern literary history, but I can finally, definitively end the centuries old debate over the real identity of the great bard.  Shakespeare was not secretly Christopher Marlowe or the Earl of Oxford.

He was (as I think many of us always suspected) a witch.

With his powers of prophesy, familiarity with the concept of cyber theft, and lazy, poorly-scanning rhyme structures, he was, undoubtedly, a practitioner of the dark arts.

Also, he appears to have had a Kenyan birth certificate.

And as if all that wasn’t amazing enough: there are notes and drafts for extra stanzas!

See, sonnets, by tradition, are 14 lines long, but it appears that Shakespeare had so much material to draw from in his foreknowledge of Donald Trump’s outrageous, galling, hysterical lies (oops – I mean, “post-true alterna-facts”) that he had to cut several extra lines of verse. Here are just some of the additional stanzas that didn’t make it into the final edit:

Election was “rigged”, but his win’s no fluke,

Clinton need not be stopped with a weapon.

He knew nothing about a David Duke,

But saw Muslims cheering 9/11.

That disabled reporter was not mocked,

And nothing was crooked about Trump U,

He didn’t say Megan Kelly bled on Fox,

And always opposed the Iraq war too.

And “Check out sex tape” was not what he said;

It’s a Chinese hoax, not a warming crisis.

Do “Blacks” shoot 80 percent of “Whites” dead?

No wonder Obama started ISIS.

Ted Cruz’s father probably killed JFK;

He saw footage of cash coming off that plane;

We cannot trust proof from the CIA;

But don’t worry, the swamp will soon be drained.

This is yuuuuuuuuuuge.

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.

donald-trump

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.

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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.

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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

Troilus and Cressida 01

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)

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.

*             *             *

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.

*             *             *

* 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)

THE YEAR OF ‘SPEARE 01: Romeo Plus-Sign Juliet Plus-Sign Baz

Posted in literature, movies with tags , , , , , , , , on February 1, 2016 by drayfish

romeo-plus-juliet

IMAGE: Romeo + Juliet (1996), directed by Baz Luhrmann

On the front of my Penguin edition of Romeo and Juliet there’s a quote from Baz Luhrmann, taken from an interview with the director of Romeo + Juliet (1996) conducted in 1996, that reads:

‘Romeo was your first “rebel without a cause”.’

Which is true. You know, as long as you don’t count the fact that he rebels against his family’s entrenched blood feud. And the casual cynicism of a society that has stopped believing in romantic attachment. And his friend’s misogynistic peer pressure. And his parents. And his faith. And the Bro Code.

But aside from all of those things that he vehemently rebels against on deeply held ideological grounds – yeah, he doesn’t have a cause. Sure.

To be fair though, I sort of get what he’s going for. After all, Romeo is a bit of a loner. A free spirit. Following his own desires. Willing to defy his society. It seems to position him as the origin for a whole character archetype. He’s the ‘rebel‘. He’s James Dean. Han Solo. Fonzie. Maverick from Top Gun. He must have inspired all of them! His ego was writing cheques that his body couldn’t cash! In a way I even understand the impulse of the publishers to slap it on the cover:

‘Hey, that Romeo + Juliet film sure was popular. People love things that aren’t stuffy and old. And ‘rebellion’? Who doesn’t like that? Conformists? Who cares? They’ll buy whatever we tell them to.’

But to me, the play gives a distinctly different, and far more interesting spin on the character. Because contrary to this stereotype, Romeo has many causes. That’s precisely his problem.

Even before he meets Juliet – before he realises that all his hollow romantic simpering can have substance – he has a cause. He’s not just rebelling against ‘whatever you’ve got’ – he believes in stuff. Oftentimes his ideology is undercooked, but it’s real. He believes in capital ‘L’ Love – even if it is just a flimsy, cartoon version of it at first, symbolised by the unseen, swiftly-forgotten Rosaline.

He believes in peace – he sees the meaningless, entrenched blood feud of his friends and family (literally without meaning: no root cause for this conflict is ever revealed) and he rebels against that, later even willing to die in the cause of love when Tybalt threatens him. He sees a world that glorifies hollow displays of masculinity and would rather spend his time moping alone or unburdening himself to a friar (because yeah, the ‘rebel’ is best friends with a friar. Hardcore). For the entire play Romeo’s one defining trait is that despite being annoyingly emo about it, he believes, no matter how unpopular those causes might be.

Probably what Luhrmann meant was that like James Dean’s Jim, Romeo is a character that has rejected the bankrupt ideology of his facile parents. He is a character whose personal convictions allow him to see through the empty redundancy of the status quo, when a cycle of vengeance between two warring families has degenerated into a soul-numbing normality. But again: that’s a cause. Rebelling against a cycle of unceasing violence perpetuated by irrational hatred? That sounds pretty cause-y to me.

So when you unpack this quote, what you end up with is a superficially persuasive sentiment that is substantively all but nonsensical. …Which, now that I get to it, is pretty much my problem with all of Luhrmann’s work.

Because for me, Baz Luhrmann’s films (and this can serve as a pull quote review for every one of his movies) can be encapsulated in two words:

Not. Subtle.

His grand meditation on doomed love, Moulin Rouge, had all the gravitas of a drunken snog at an ill-lit karaoke night, including obnoxious strobe lights firing into your retinas. His Gatsby was gaudy pretention, mawkishly trying to stuff an unjustified tragic love story into what is supposed to be a tale of artifice and pretence. And Australia mimicked only the worst elements of the ‘golden age’ of Hollywood cinema, becoming a bloated, overwrought, and racially condescending grind. To me, every one of his films play as maudlin, schizophrenic pastiches, consistently trading coherency for operatic hysteria.

…So why do I like his Romeo + Juliet so much?

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IMAGE: Moulin Rouge – I mean, The Great Gatsby – I mean, Romeo + Juliet (2006)

Because all that stuff is on display here. All his hammy, melodramatic excesses make an appearance. The ‘comedic’ mugging for the camera (in the hyperkinetic introductory fight scene at the petrol station Jamie Kennedy seems to think he’s playing a cowardly basset hound in a Looney Tunes short). The frenetic smash cut edits. The overwrought, saccharine score. The fast motion. Crazy costuming. The signature Luhrmann set decoration of kitsch, neon-soaked bric-a-brac, like someone hosting a rave party in their grandmother’s attic. The irrational amounts of candles. And of course, it’s here that he discovered the tragic love story archetype he has been mining with diminishing returns in every film since.

But here it all works. Here Luhrmann’s signature style is married perfectly with his subject matter, the quirks and failings that mar his other films this time actually elevating the themes of the original text.

Now, one might be tempted to say that Shakespeare’s tight plotting and characterisation make it near impossible to screw up, but as anyone who has ever sat through a bad production of Shakespeare can attest, it can be done. And Luhrmann’s version certainly has its detractors. Luhrmann makes cuts – controversially drastic cuts, in fact – to the text. It’s estimated that only about forty perfect of the original text survives the adaptation. Arguably essential moments are expunged – such as Romeo’s fight with and murder of Paris, and the ambiguous ending of the parents ‘settling’ their feud. He rearranges scenes; he swaps out lines. He uses the bard’s text as a temp track that he can sample from and remix.* But personally, I think the spirit of the play survives, with much of the cut material resurfacing in the visual imagery.

Romeo and Juliet is, after all, a tale that is meant to be felt. It’s a play about the first burnings of lustful desire. Young love. Stupid, irrational adoration. When it feels like the whole world will burn up if you cannot be together. When it feels like time itself has carved out a little space for you to live inside. It’s about loss. Inconsolable, incomprehensible loss. When it feels like the weight of all human happiness rests on something as inconsequential as a delayed letter. For every teenager who has ever stared a hole in their phone waiting for a text reply from that someone they long for. For all the young lovers who have known the electricity of sneaking around behind their parents’ disapproving backs. For everyone who has been alone in their sorrow, feeling the universe cave into a tomb when their heart was broken. Shakespeare literalises all of it. He not only taps into these fears, he gives them substance and weight.

And for all of his other cinematic bellyflops, here Luhrmann’s operatic hysterics soar. We get locked in the perspective of these overheated teenagers. We feel all their giddy excess and thunderous disappointments as though – like them – feeling all these emotions for the first time.

Their parents become a blur of inconsequential nonsense in the background, blasting in and out of the young lovers’ lives in order to spout contradictory inanities and bark irrational orders. They are loud and hypocritical – just as they should be. The nurse is a loveable doof, all banalities and base cravings. The Montague and Capulet boys are braying thugs, and the friar, in yet another striking performance by Pete Postlethwaite, is all bluster and false hope, condemning Romeo as a horny teen one minute and agreeing to marry him off to a girl he barely knows the next.

Luhrmann’s aesthetics are equally on point. His sand-blasted, decayed urban sprawl nicely captures the stately desiccation of a city wracked by generations of gang violence. It becomes a space in which symbols of divine beauty and grace are emptied of meaning to become gauche decoration; where the image of the Mother Mary engraved on the handle of a gun perfectly encapsulates the play’s central theme of love and war: love perverted by war; war perpetuated by love. You feel the weariness that Shakespeare loaded into his narrative, that these families have been playing out this same tired grudge for so long that it no longer even functions as back story. It is no wonder Luhrmann makes one of the signature locations in the film – the place that Mercutio is killed; where the narrative tilts irreversibly from comedy to tragedy – the crumbling shell of a stage, rotting on the beach.

He likewise nicely captures Romeo’s early, insufferable pretentiousness. In the film, Romeo is introduced sitting alone on the beach, smoking, filling a journal with adolescent poetry. I’m not entirely convinced that Luhrmann realises that Romeo’s verses here are meant to be corny (much as Ewan McGreggor’s character in Moulin Rouge thinks that ‘love’ means spouting greeting card clichés to a tune, his Romeo emotes all of this drivel as though it is the pure mana of unfettered truth), but even this works perfectly with the themes of the play. Of course Romeo would pose himself on the beach on a crumbling arch, smoking artfully, watching the sun burn over the horizon, all affectation and theatricality. The guy who keeps yammering on about ‘love’s transgression’, and love as ‘a smoke made of the fume of sighs …. a sea nourished with lover’s tears’ would do exactly that. It’s intended to be pure drivel. Shakespeare is presenting the early, mooning Romeo as an angsty twit, spewing hollow Petrarchan verse. And just as Benvolio waves him away in the play, here in the film he it gets poured into a notebook thankfully no one will have to read.

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IMAGE: If you look close, you may see a subtle crucifix, Romeo + Juliet (1996)

Luhrmann actually manages to use clichés in order to upend their familiar banality. By placing Romeo and Juliet into costumes when they first meet – Romeo the knight in plastic armour; Juliet the pure white angel – we are primed to read them into roles that are almost immediately transcended. Romeo is hardly the chivalric warrior; and Juliet is a profoundly more complex, human rationality and desire than a pair of tiny strap-on wings would imply.

But most important of all, when he made Romeo + Juliet, Luhrmann had not yet forgotten how to use stillness. He was willing to de-clutter the screen and allow for moments of meaningful quiet.

Indeed, stillness comes to be a recurring motif throughout the central romance. When we first see Juliet she is in the bath, plunged face first into the sensory tranquillity of an underwater shot. She is at peace in this isolation, the chaos of the family that longs to dress her up and parade her around momentarily reduced to a distant murmur. When she and Romeo first see each other it is a flirtatious stare through a glass fish tank, all darting eyes and teasing smiles, and played, blissfully, without chatter. They awake from their one night together as a wedded couple into one silence; and later, when they meet each other again in Juliet’s tomb, on the last bed they will share together, Luhrmann lets a ghastlier quiet creep in, giving each creak and click of that lonely space sound like a cannon.

Because as Luhrmann’s version shows: the genius of Shakespeare’s original work is its deconstruction of language itself. For a play written by the greatest poet, speech is ironically devoid of meaning in this play. This, famously, is the play in which Juliet questions whether a rose would smell as sweet if it were called by another name:

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo called,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes,
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name;
And for thy name, which is no part of thee,
Take all myself. (II.2.43-9)

Names, she says, are arbitrary, only given meaning in their application, and she invites Romeo to join her in a namelessness free from prejudice and expectation.

And this is consistently Juliet’s role. As a thirteen year old woman growing up in a patriarchal nightmare, she – unlike everyone else around her – can see through the empty rhetoric of her society, calling its accepted ‘truths’ into question. She balks at the vulgarity of being married off like property to a man she does not know; she tries (unsuccessfully) to reason with her parents when they accuse her of ‘disobeying’ them; and she undercuts Paris’ over-familiarity with her. She even chastises Romeo when he starts praising her with empty compliments and hollow professions of love. When he tries to slather her with more of the wet poetry he was wasting on Rosaline, she stops him:

ROMEO: Lady, by yonder blessed moon I vow,
That tips with silver all these fruit tree tops –

JULIET: O swear not by the moon, th’ inconstant moon,
That monthly changes in her circled orb,
Lest thy love prove likewise variable. (II.2.107-11)

She cuts through all of his crap – his proclamations of love to the stars and the moon – and re-educates him in a truer affection. One that goes unspoken – professed in action, not declaration. An eternal, unspoken, unspeakable love.

It’s why Luhrmann’s willingness to slow his film down, suspending his lovers in a transitory quietude, works so well. His Juliet (the sublime Claire Danes, long before she was trapped in the sloppy, inflammatory fever dream of Homeland) embodies this philosophical serenity, re-educating the overeager Romeo (an energetic Leonardo DiCaprio, long before he was sexually assaulted by a bear), and the solace they find in each other contrasts powerfully with the frenetic hostility everywhere else in the film.

Which brings me, finally, to what I think is Luhrmann’s greatest achievement: his balcony scene. Again, we see him playing with cliché, using his audience’s familiarity with the scene to transform it into something more. We see Romeo creeping up the walls, earnestly setting up his most famous metaphor:

‘But Soft! What light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon…’ (II.1.44-6)

He is so busy working himself into a poetic state – Juliet is light; Juliet is the dawn of a new day; she’s a life-giving spring – and we are so trained to see this moment as the swelling prologue to Romeo and Juliet’s reunion, that when it is instead the nurse’s head that emerges from the curtains, blowing all that romanticised projection apart, both Romeo and the audience are invited to shake off their presumptions and approach this story fresh.

Here, Juliet is not elevated up on some pedestal, she’s just taken the elevator to the ground; and Romeo is not some dashing beau, he’s tangled himself up in the Christmas lights. We are able to witness their flirtation not as the catalogue of two lovers fated to meet and die to satisfy an ancient blood feud, but as the communion of two alienated souls who speak to each other in a way that their families literally do not yet have the language to comprehend.

They’re not rebels without causes – no matter what Luhrmann was aiming for with that quote. But it is true to say that what they believe in cannot be quantified, or categorised, or contained. It eclipses language and expectations, carving itself out a space beyond the rote familiarity of names and oaths and honour, all of which, both play and movie reveal, have already been debased through meaningless repetition.

Romeo plus Juliet

IMAGE: Romeo + Juliet (1996)

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Next time, Australia’s Macbeth (2006). Spoiler alert: It’s terrible. But ‘I am in blood / Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more / Returning were as tedious as going o’er’.

***

* And it’s hardly as great a crime as David Garrick mangled version of the play (only one in a list of altered versions by other writers), in which Rosaline never existed, all the bawdy humour and sexual references are stripped out, and clumsy, newly written melodramatic dialogue is crammed into the text in its place. In Garrick’s version Juliet awakens just in time to chat with Romeo while he chokes to death on her lap. …But gee, thanks for saving us from all the smut talk, Garrick.)

***

Texts Mentioned:

Romeo + Juliet, directed by Baz Luhrmann, screenplay by Craig Pearce and Baz Luhrmann, adapted from William Shakespeare (20th Century Fox, 1996)

Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare, edited by Stanley Wells and T.J.B. Spencer (Penguin, 2005)

THE YEAR OF ‘SPEARE: Prologue: A Re-New-View of Shakespeare

Posted in criticism, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 21, 2016 by drayfish

shakespeare by pablo lobato

IMAGE: Shakespeare by Pablo Lobato

Four hundred years ago Shakespeare died.

(Sorry if you’re hearing that for the first time. I should have warned you to sit down first.)

That is to say, on April 23, 1616, the man, William Shakespeare – who had already made his name as a wildly successful actor, poet, playwright, and producer – died.

That Shakespeare – the man – had grown from a glove maker’s son in Stratford-upon-Avon to running an entertainment empire in London. He had won the King as his patron. He owned property across the land. He was a father of three children (apparently with a son-in-law he hated), and had written a will that cryptically only left his wife, Anne Hathaway, their ‘second best’ bed (perhaps he still resented her performance in Bride Wars). That Shakespeare, the man, was buried in Stratford on April 25th.

But there is another William Shakespeare – the one that won’t die. The one that half-glances at us incredulously from that apocryphal black and white portrait on the cover of the First Folio. The one used to sell countless mugs and key chains and trinkets to tourists travelling through London. The one that appears as a zombie on The Simpson’s Halloween special. The one who met Doctor Who, and Blackadder, and who snogged Gwyneth Paltrow in a moustache. The one that is multiform. Eternal. That one is 450 year old and counting, and lives inside everyone who has some affection for his work.

That’s our Shakespeare. Yours. Mine.

Ernst Honigman, in a brief introduction to Shakespeare’s life for The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare makes note of the numerous times that people refer to the playwright as ‘our Shakespeare’. Understandably, Shakespeare’s friends and colleagues, John Heminges and Henry Condell, used the phrase in their posthumous printing of his plays, the First Folio of 1623. They were attempting to publish a definitive edition of the man’s collected works (at the time theatrical pieces were usually only printed as cheap, unofficial knock-offs), and claimed they were doing so in order to ‘keep the memory of so worthy a friend and fellow alive as was our Shakespeare’ (emphasis mine).

Title_page_William_Shakespeare's_First_Folio_1623

IMAGE: From the cover of the First Folio (1623)

But that kind of personal identification with the poet playwright didn’t end with those who knew and loved him in life. In the centuries since, his legacy, and the affection with which he is held, has expanded exponentially.

Ben Johnson wrote the poem ‘To The Memory of My Beloved, The Author, William Shakespeare’, becoming quite sentimental about his Shakespeare despite having hated the man’s guts while alive and frequently slagging him off as a talentless hack. (It is believed that Johnson was riddled with envy of Shakespeare’s skill while they were contemporaries, which is understandable, but the turnaround can still give you whiplash.)

It’s why the Romantic poets, a century and a half after his death, felt they had discovered a kindred spirit in his verse. It’s why Stephen Greenblatt’s captivating biography of Shakespeare, Will in the World, is quite open about using healthy dollops of imagination to spackle over the gaps in his exacting historical research. Why Germaine Greer’s book, Shakespeare’s Wife, uses even more speculation and presumption (despite being far less honest about it) to argue that Shakespeare’s career was indebted wholly to his wife, Ann Hathaway – a fact, Greer asserts, that has been systemically marginalised by a history of male biographers.

It’s also why people continue to foolishly squabble over Shakespeare’s ‘true’ identity, with conspiracy junkies falling over themselves to insist that their Shakespeare was forced to work in disguise and unrecognised in his time. Snobs would rather believe that their Shakespeare was an aristocrat like the Earl of Oxford rather than some preternaturally talented member of the lower classes; more ambitious guesses cite everyone from the already-dead Christopher Marlowe to Queen Elizabeth (who must have had great fun writing Richard II, a play she famously despised and that was used to try and inspire a revolution against her).

The point is, Shakespeare is many things to many people – the greatest dramatist who ever lived; England’s finest poet; a shrewd producer; a pseudonym; an actor; a closeted Catholic; a philosopher; a social critic; a feminist; a misogynist; a lover of cryptic codes; on into infinity – and the reason that he can remain equally as ambiguous as he is treasured is because we largely only have access to him through his plays.

And those plays! Plays that never seem to age. Plays that have been effortlessly restaged and reinvented in every new generation.

And yes, his plays exhibit a breadth of divergent subject matter – tragedy, comedy, romance, Roman, Greek and English history, myth, social satire, farce, fantasy – and a slew of characters from every walk of life – monarchs, maids, and madmen; princes and prostitutes; lords, ladies, and lawmen, soldiers, servants, senators, and soothsayers; tyrants and tweens; washed up drunks, clergymen, criminals, cross dressers, cads, clowns (not scary clowns), and everything in between, but what makes them eternal is their interest in universal human emotions: young lust; regret; unbridled fury; betrayal; the fear that we are not truly loved; hesitation; wonder; jealousy; the impulse to endlessly list things.

His work has endured for centuries not because a bunch of musty scholars declared that these plays were (dun dun dunnnnnnnnnnn!!!) IMPORTANT, that society was obliged to inflict them on every student in the western world to warn them how loathsome antiquated puns can be. They are works that insist themselves upon their audience exactly because they remain so fresh, so urgent. We recognise the same impulses and temptation in ourselves, feel as if each work had been written by the author for us at this very moment.

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IMAGE: William Shakespeare’s Plays by John Gilbert (1849)

I’m not sure what Shakespeare is to me. I know that I adore what I’ve experienced of his work. I know that whenever I return to one of his plays I am dumbstruck at how any one person could have constructed something so compassionately human, so lyrical, and so true – even, at times, in its ugliness. I know that he is an astute observer of human behaviour, capable of rendering complex characters with rich interiors. That he sees us for the pathetic, snivelling wretches that we are, but captures the marvel we can be at our best. He can be merciless and silly and mad – sometimes in the same scene – can be thrillingly metatextual, and after four hundred years, and innumerable versions of his work, is still capable of surprise. That ending of King Lear, for example, still gets me every time.

Also, he created Viola, the most marvellous character in all literature. For that you could tell me he was a member of Nickelback and he would still get a free pass.

So this year – this four-hundredth anniversary of the man’s death – I’m going to try to better know the evolving myth that can be gleaned through his work. I’m going to watch as many different productions of Shakespeare as I can manage over the coming twelve months (and, let’s face it, almost certainly beyond, because when have I ever been punctual?) I’ll read each play – some with which I am unfamiliar, others I don’t know at all – and then experience a modern production of it, be it on film, or radio, or animation (I know there are graphic novels out there, maybe I’ll try one of those). Afterwards I’ll attempt to unpack my feeling about play and production. What I felt worked; what failed; what I thought the text was primarily about; whether Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, or Derek Jacobi was in it (there’s a law: you have to have one of them).

Mostly I’m just going to try and explore, for my own amusement, the myriad ways in which this extraordinary, multifaceted, writer’s work continues to be refracted through our modern preoccupations; to see what new dimensions are revealed from these endlessly malleable works of art.

I’ll be watching and listening to some fantastic stuff (I’m not always a fan of Kenneth Branagh’s take on the Bard’s material, but his Much Ado About Nothing (1993) is a delight; and anyone who loves Game of Thrones would be blown away by the BBC’s 2012 Hollow Crown production of the underrated Richard II), but I’ll also be exploring some problematic pieces (what’s that? Sicilian actor Al Pacino playing the ‘Jew of Malta’ in Shakespeare’s controversial, possibly-horrifyingly-racist Merchant of Venice (2004)? …okay… and why is Helen Mirren being wasted in a rote production of The Tempest (2010) that does exactly nothing with its exciting gender-flip conceit?).

I’ll also, no doubt, be watching some crap (I’m looking right at you, Australian Macbeth (2006)). After all, just because Shakespeare’s batting average is so astonishingly high doesn’t mean that he didn’t have his shakier plays; and it certainly doesn’t inoculate directors and actors from indulging all their laziest impulses in translating his work.

I may even tackle a few eclectic pieces just to mix it up a bit. Again, ‘Shakespeare’ has appeared in Doctor Who and romance films and that comically asinine Roland Emmerich film Anonymous (2011); and although clearly none of these addendums to his career are canon, they are worth considering for the way in which they reflect his legacy and enduring cultural cache.

But I will not watch She’s The Man (2006).

I don’t care if it’s a ‘retelling’ of Twelfth Night. I don’t care if it has Channing Tatum in it. I will not do it and you cannot make me and shut up.

How dare you.

Obviously this won’t be of interest to everyone (and I’ll be posting other stuff throughout the months for those who aren’t), but Shakespeare’s work is a heady, diverse mix. There’s murder and intrigue, frivolity and play, romance, sorrow, war, scheming, charming antiheroes, and some of the most compelling depictions of inexpressible emotion ever rendered.

So join me, won’t you, on this half-baked windmill tilt that I will almost certainly give up on in a couple of months, as I scoff at Keanu Reeves attempting to express more than one emotion playing Don John, instantly forgive Michelle Pfeiffer’s overacting as Titania because she’s so stunning I can barely hear what she’s saying, and try to disentangle the Gordian knot of crazy that is Mel Gibson playing Hamlet. …Or maybe I’ll leave that one alone.*

Join me on a journey I am calling ‘The Year of Speare’ (TM). Because apparently I have no shame.

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IMAGE: ‘The Shakespeare Code’, Doctor Who (2007)

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If you would like to follow along with me, the first film up for inspection be the controversial but fascinating Baz Luhrmann directed Romeo + Juliet (1996).

Yeah. That’s a plus sign. Because that’s what the kids like, yo. Radical.

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* And how could I not watch Fred and Wesley get the happy ending they deserve in Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing (2012)?

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Texts Mentioned:

Shakespeare’s Wife by Germaine Greer (Bloomsbury, 2007)
‘Shakespeare’s Life’ by Ernst Honigmann (The Cambridge Introduction to Shakespeare, ed. by Margeta de Grazia and Stanley Wells, 2001, pp.1-12)
Will In The World by Stephen Greenblatt (Bodley Head, 2014)

Gate Keeper Games: The Co-opt Option of GamerGate

Posted in art, criticism, video games with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 18, 2014 by drayfish

angry-mob

Well isn’t this horrible?

The past several weeks there has been an eruption online unlike anything before seen in the gaming media. It has been vicious, hurtful, weirdly both organised and shambolic, and has devolved into petty name-calling and accusation on all sides.  It’s the kind of shocking issue that demands a response from every free-thinking, rational observer, and I know that people have been wanting me to weigh into the debate.*  So even though I’m neither a videogame ‘journalist’, nor one of the members of the enraged contingent of ‘gamers’ calling for action, I’m going to do add my thoroughly ill-informed voice to the fray.

That’s right. I’m going to talk about it:

Sonic the Hedgehog’s new scarf.

It looks idiotic.

There. Discussion concluded.  Huzzah!  Justice has been done!  Peace has been restored!  Everyone return to their homes!

Okay, so that didn’t work. Because no matter how stupid Sonic’s new scarf looks (and it does), obviously it is not what has been at the forefront of every discussion of videogames for the past couple of months.

No. Sadly – very, very, very, very sadly – I’m referring to ‘Gamergate’, the latest, and perhaps most extreme Rorschach test of gaming social media movements.  To some, it has been a call to arms for journalistic integrity in the videogames media; to others, it’s a reactionary, at times utterly psychotic territorial squabble with ‘No GRLZ ALLOWD’ scrawled in crayon on the door.

Whatever your perspective, though, it would be hard to argue that the whole thing isn’t a complete mess. With artists and critics having been driven from the field (and their homes!) in fear, with whole swaths of the videogame audience being tarnished as misogynists or terrorists, with some people arguing for more transparency and others literally just calling for critics they don’t like to shut up, it seems like the moment you scratch the surface of this thing, it all unspools into a labyrinth of contradictory agendas, counterarguments and inconsistency, with no two people seemingly arguing the same thing.  And this is all despite the misleading appearance of bipartisanship – the us against them trap; ‘gamer’ versus ‘journalist’ – that too many people on all sides of the argument seem to be willing to fall into; one that has frequently, misleadingly been reported in the mainstream press.

Indeed, to an outsider, superficially, the whole situation probably looks a little like being stuck at a nightmarish dinner party, where some long-time couple – the videogame media and the videogame audience – have just exploded in a horrible fight.

They’re one of those couples that have clearly had a fractious relationship for some time – everyone could see that, even if they refused to acknowledge it – but now, tonight, they’ve finally snapped and started screaming hateful abuse at one another in front of everyone.  Suddenly both of them are hurling every ugly, petty, spiteful (sometimes even knowingly inaccurate) accusation they can at one another, just so that it hurts.  Just so that it sticks.  Just so that they, and everyone else at the table, know that they’ve been feeling ignored and maligned for quite a while, that they’re not going to take it anymore.

The truth, of course, is far more complicated. Because not only is there some fact mixed in amongst all the hyperbolic hatred (lies work so much better that way), but there are more than just two opposed voices in the mix – and some of them are only too happy to have shamelessly coopted the discussion, making vicious comments under their breath to spur both ‘sides’ on, turning debate into division and delighting to watch the whole thing blow itself all to hell.

But for now, while the cutlery on the table is shaking with every pounding fist, and everyone looking on, feeling sick with shame, bows their heads into their wine glasses to avoid eye contact, what’s clear is that this couple – the players and the industry – is on a precipice. This is the moment in which it’s gotten so ugly, so overt, so undeniable, that something has to change.  Because this can’t go on.  Because yes the ones shouting the loudest are hurting, but the issues go deeper than the insults, and the damage is far more toxic than just words.

And so, as ill-advised as this may well be, I want to offer a few scattered thoughts on this chaos. Not because I think they’ll ‘help’.  Not because my utterly subjective opinions are by any means conclusive or inarguable or ‘right’.  And believe me: not because I am under the delusion that anyone actually gives a crap what I think.  Mostly just because I want to remind myself that there is some nuance amongst the angry confusion, that things can’t simply be boiled down – as some have unhelpfully tried to do – into an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ conflict, where one side is self-evidently ‘right’ and the other is unquestionably ‘wrong’.

After all, it’s precisely that kind of partisan, unbending mentality – with heroes and villains and easy stereotypes – that enables people to get whipped into such furious zealotry. It allows some to excuse fraud or hideous threatening behaviour to themselves , because, hey, they’re the ‘good guys’, right?  So who cares how they won?  Destroying your opponent is just a means to an end.  And those guys were ‘bad’ anyway, so who cares?

So instead of resorting to cheap generalisations and clichés, I’m going to try to speak to specific examples of people amongst the crowd. To offer my perspective as an observer, and to voice things that I think are worth repeating as many times as possible, particularly as the conversation (if it can be called that) gets even more crazed and unkind.  Again: these are just fragments of random thoughts, in most cases pure opinion, and are meant only as personal observations applicable to those I’m addressing, not to some faceless one-size-fits all mob.

The result is long. Too long.  Seriously too damn long.

So if you want the TLDR (or: Too Long Don’t Care) spoiler: when you boil it all down, I’m mostly just going to plead. To plead with each of them; all of them; ‘Gamers’, ‘Games Journalists’, and ‘Industry insiders’ alike.

I’m going to ask them to please stop.

Because there is an important and necessary discussion to be had here – several of them, to be honest –  but no one is going to get to any real debate if everyone is wilfully misrepresenting everyone else; if hate and abuse are being waved aside; and if naked contempt is the base level from which everyone speaks.

So here goes…

space-invaders

(Although, before we move off the topic entirely: Sega, do something about the scarf.**)

***

Firstly, to anyone, anywhere (but particularly in the mainstream press) who thinks this whole backlash against an art form is ‘unprecedented’:

It’s not.

As counterintuitive as it may at first seem, the first myth to unpack when approaching a discussion of everything that has unfolded recently, is the misconception that this is all somehow totally unprecedented. A lot of ink has been spilled (a lot of it online, but some even in the mainstream media) about how ‘Gamergate’ is entirely unique; an incomparable audience backlash against an Art form.  It’s actually an observation that’s been used (in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways) to imply that the videogame community, on all sides of the argument, must be filled with some rather immature people if they could overreact to their entertainment in such an extreme, unparalleled manner.

Now, you could perhaps say that it is one of the more personally ferocious – with threats of rape and severe injury being levelled at artists; with organised campaigns of harassment and slander being directed at critics – but frankly, dishearteningly, we humans have a long sad history of freaking the hell out and rising up in fury in response to our Art.

Sure, we like to tell ourselves that we’re past all that stuff now, that those were just the dark, unenlightened days. But with every generation we keep presenting new examples of Art being trashed as unworthy or offensive, and artists being persecuted as agitators – particularly so whenever a medium is in a state of growth or transition.

In the late 16th century Caravaggio was called the ‘antichrist’ of all painting (a bit harsh), supposedly threatening to lead all artists who might follow his style and technique into damnation. In the 1950s Charlie Chaplin and the pointed political satire of his films seemed a little too ‘communist’ for Red Scare era USA, so he was subject to a campaign of slander by conservative columnists and the FBI, labelled everything from a philanderer to a white slaver, having his films threatened out of theatres by conservative lobbyists, and eventually finding himself run out of the country in political exile.  In 1960 Penguin Books was prosecuted in the United Kingdom for publishing an uncensored version of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover, an over-three-decades-old book by one of the most celebrated writers of all time.  (Indeed, check out just a taster of some of the books the USA has banned over the years for being ‘inappropriate’ in a list compiled by the American Civil Liberties Union).  In 1989, a touring exhibition of photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe – which included images of BDSM acts and same sex couples embracing – led to several protests, threats to cut funding to associated galleries, and even charges of ‘pandering obscenity’ brought against museum directors.  And one need not even linger on the grotesquery of the Third Reich’s targeting of artists like Paul Klee and Max Ernst for creating ‘degenerate Art’.

Indeed, when I first heard of the ‘Gamergate’ controversy – and specifically the harassment some of its supporters had inflicted upon game developer Zoe Quinn and critic Anita Sarkeesian – my first thought was of two infamous moments in history in which audiences similarly went so irrationally, chaotically wild…

The first, on the 29th May 1913, was Stravinsky’s first performance of The Rite of Spring.  Listen to the piece now and you will be struck by just how impactful Stravinsky was upon all music that followed in the 20th century.  From it’s opening, impossibly high lilt on a bassoon, through its thunderous pageantry and discordance, it is a staggering work.  Indeed, even aside from the innumerable classical composers it clearly influenced, it’s hard to imagine the entire history of cinema without his sweeping sound design.  John Williams alone owes him such a debt that it’s almost criminal he doesn’t have a co-credit on the Jaws theme.  Seriously).

Rite of Spring Original Dancers and Costumes 1913

IMAGE: Original dancers in costume for The Rite of Spring (1913)

But if you’d attended its premiere performance, you would have heard nothing but boos. Because by all accounts – and to put it politely – that night his audience went completely f**king nuts.  Only moments after the curtains rose, a large portion of the crowd had already started hissing and jeering and swearing and stomping their feet.  As the show proceeded, they made so much noise that they drowned out the sound of a full, booming orchestra, preventing anyone else from hearing it too.  Stravinsky fled backstage in fear; someone kept switching the lights in the hall on and off (like you might do to distract children) trying and failing to calm things down; a splendidly attired woman in one of the private orchestra boxes leaned over to the next box to violently slap a man in the face.  And this was an orchestra crowd!  The genteel and upper class – out of their minds with fury.  It must have been like seeing the Monopoly guy pull a shiv.

The second example that sprang to mind was a notorious incident surrounding two performances of Shakespeare’s Macbeth in New York in 1849.  The two productions had been scheduled for the same evenings, one starring Edwin Forrest, the most renowned American actors of his age, and the other starring William Charles Macready, the most renowned English actor of his day, who was touring his production in the USA.  Fans of both actors became agitated that the other man had the temerity to try and play the same role, on the same nights, in the same city; and as the dates drew nearer, the hostility grew so heated that there were angry tirades written in the papers, propaganda spread amongst the populous, protests, vandalism and threats of violence at each man’s performances.

Then, after a few days of the shows running concurrently, on May 10th the two livid crowds met in Astor Place in a swarm of around ten thousand people, and in what was a surprise to no one at that point, the whole thing erupted in a full-blown street riot.

Literally.

There were bombardments of hurled stones. Brutal clashes with the police.  Windows smashed.  Bricks thrown.  The theatre was being physically torn apart, with people repeatedly trying to set fire to it – despite Macready and his audience still being trapped inside.  By the end of the night around thirty people were dead (many shot by police), and well over a hundred were injured.  Those who escaped the theatre alive described the performance as, ‘Still more enjoyable than watching Michael Bay’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.’

Astor-Place-Riot-1400

IMAGE: The Astor Place Riot

It seems crazy now that such a horrendous disregard for life, property, and public safety could have emerged from a squabble over who played the better version of Shakespeare’s scheming Scottish king – but of course, that’s only a fraction of the truth. In actuality, the hostilities between the two fan bases  were enflamed by anti-British protestors, who resented the thought of an Englishman drawing acclaim away from their home-grown American talent.  By stirring up the still-lingering resentment over English rule, these politically minded antagonists coopted a disagreement about aesthetic preference and mutated it into a racially intolerant fear campaign.  Add to that the fact that Macready and Forrest had spent the previous few years mired in a contest of petty personal antagonism – chasing each other around one another’s countries, egotistically competing for attention – and the whole thing becomes very foolish and unfortunate indeed.

Which brings me, finally, back to video games – a medium itself too often dismissed by those unfamiliar with the form as just violent, childish competitions; one that, in the past several weeks, has put on the mystifying, rancorous display that has led many people to conveniently forget about Astor Park, and Stravinsky’s frenzied crowd, and the persecution of the Little Tramp, all to label this the audience backlash without equal.

So again, to anyone who thinks this is unique: not so much.

That doesn’t make it ‘right’, and it certainly doesn’t excuse anything done in its name, but it is disingenuous to imply that ‘gamers’ are the first audience to ever overreact – even with violent, discriminatory, irrational rage – at a work of Art.

Oh, how nice it would be for civilisation if that were true…

***

Secondly, to anyone who doesn’t really know how all this got started:

Hey, a few weeks ago I was right there with you.

But no doubt like you, when the name ‘Gamergate’ first swam into my consciousness, I was mightily intrigued. Despite not being a member of the games media, and being nowhere near consequential enough for my jabs at EA or Microsoft’s underhanded business practices to land with anything but a wet flump, the medium of videogames, their perception and acceptance as an Art form, remains close to my heart.

And it’s not as if anyone paying attention can be blind to the many issues bubbling away under the surface of the industry…

I’ve spoken before about the perception of bias in the videogame media.  About how poorly it reflects on the medium that paid preview junkets and lavish advertising arrangements can be so commonplace between publishers and reviewers that they often go undisclosed.  About the way in which industry writers have, at times, unhelpfully reduced ‘gamers’ into clichéd mobs, devolving more nuanced conversations about potential problems in the industry and the review process by depicting anyone who might question the status quo as enraged, entitled, ‘vocal minorities’, too stupid to comprehend Art.

I’ve also spoken (only just recently) about how corrosive exclusionist language like ‘real gamers’ and ‘hardcore audiences’ can risk being on the legitimacy of this medium.  Rather than validating the ‘true’ fans, to me it often just alienates the whole form, making both videogames and their enthusiasts look closed off and territorial –  an unbefitting image for a medium all about experimentation and shared experiences and co-operative play.

And applying the suffix ‘gate’ to a controversy? Come on.  That implies some pretty huge revelations.  Big, empire-shaking truths.  It’s Watergate – the moment when the highest office in the most powerful land was called to account for its corruption and deceit.  It’s about the reclamation of legitimacy through thorough, reasoned truth telling.  That’s a big promise.

gamergate logo

So ‘Gamergate’ sounded like a compelling rallying cry. What kind of smoking gun must have been found to warrant a title like this?  I mean, this is an industry in which it is just accepted that swag and junkets are routinely lavished on ‘journalists’ in order to help sway their preview coverage of upcoming products.  One where Microsoft have clandestinely paid YouTubers to live stream their games and talk them up without disclosing that these are therefore the literal definition of advertisements.  One where several industry insiders have been fired for even raising questions about some of these murky practices.  One where Duke Nukem Forever was a thing.  An actual thing!

Who did Activision or Sony threaten to blackball this time to get favourable publicity for their game previews?  What kind of seedy, undisclosed, cross-promotional extortion could set the bar lower than inviting games journalists to tweet free ads for their game in order to win a Playstation 3?  Who did EA have killed that could trump getting a reviewer fired because he didn’t praise their game enough?  Did someone find Crash Bandicoot’s corpse in a basement torture pit?

From a cynical perspective, it’s hard to set the bar much lower on some sections of this industry – so whatever these ‘Gamergate’ people had their hands on must have been solid gold proof of corruption unlike anything ever seen before.

Hoo nelly. I was salivating.

And what did we get?

The gossipy smear of a jilted ex-lover trying to slut-shame his former girlfriend.

…No really.

It seemed that what kicked off all of the acrimony that followed was an accusation from a guy called Eron Gjoni claiming that his ex, a game developer called Zoe Quinn, had effectively tried to sleep her way to the ‘top’. (…The ‘top’ apparently being the promotion of a free browser game designed to bring awareness to the issues of chronic depression and suicide.  That lofty Xanadu.)

Suddenly the spectre of Nixon and wiped recordings receded and I was instead recalling words like ‘Bridge-Gate‘ and ‘Rosen-gate‘ and ‘Monica-Gate‘ and ‘Shoelace-Gate‘ and ‘Rodeo-Clown-Gate‘ and ‘Nipple-Gate‘ and ‘Gates-Gate‘.  They were all ‘gates’, sure, but less the kind that needed to be torn down, and more the kind that you step over because you’re too lazy to unhook the latch.  (…And seriously can we get a new damned suffix for scandals already?)

Where was the meat of this thing? Where was the substance?!  I wanted to believe, but why were people congregating around this specific ‘outrage’ – which at best seemed to be a sorry character assassination from a disgruntled ex spewing the word ‘liar’ and ‘sex’ as though it were an involuntary tic?  And why was an actor from two of my all-time favourite shows, Firefly and Chuck, going all Chris Brown on women in the videogame industry?

Adam Baldwin Gamergate tweet

It was weird. Confusing, ugly, and weird.

There had to be more to it.

It turns out there really wasn’t. At least not with the original story.  The pertinent charges in Gjoni’s rambling, hysterical outburst – in which he accuses Quinn of sleeping with …well, everyone,  including reviewers that gave her positive mentions of her game – turned out to be untrue.  The criticism and scores her work received were not written by anyone she was said to be dating, so this invasion into her personal life was not only slanderous, but irrelevant.

So then why all the rage? Why the outcry? Why the sudden mock surprise that game makers and game reviewers should know each other personally?  It’s been common knowledge for decades now that game publishers and developers hire from within the ranks of their media (to take but one solitary example: look at a list of previous Game Informer employees and track the places they have gone on to be employed); likewise designers can be (in some cases the most aggressive) critics of their competitor’s work.

And yet for some reason it triggered something. People started rallying around the story.  Quinn was suddenly the face of corruption in the industry.  Not some CEO, like a Don Mattrick or a John Riccitiello. Not someone running a major publisher or an industry-leading, taste-making journalist.  Not whichever thug in a suit threw their weight around to get Jeff Gertsmann fired for writing an unflattering review for Kane and Lynch 2.  No.  A small, indie developer.  Who it appears wasn’t involved in the corruption she was accused of, and whose primary ‘crime’ seems to have been ‘being a crappy girlfriend’ – at least according to the testimony of an emotional ex-boyfriend with an axe to grind.

Please tell me this wasn’t all just a good ol’ fashioned witch burning…

***

To anyone who thinks Quinn ‘deserves’ to be burned as a witch:

Are you nuts?!

Sorry. I broke my own rule there.  I wasn’t going to get judgemental or petty or insulting.  …But seriously.

Put aside that the accusations of ‘sleeping with writers for positive reviews’ were proved false; put aside the cowardice and illogic of blaming one woman for an industry lousy with misdeeds; no matter what you think of her, there is no way that what has been inflicted upon Quinn can be considered a fitting response.

Quinn was publically and privately harassed – attacked and intimidated on Twitter, pestered over the phone, menaced through email,  vilified, and threatened with physical and sexual attack – all by a disturbing amount of crusaders who somehow conflated threatening one woman into silence with tackling institutional corruption.  She was accused of fraud and manipulation; and because those railing against her believed that the media wasn’t making a big enough deal about the scandal, she was even accused both of stopping an entire industry from reporting on it (somehow), and of having forum moderators on numerous sites including 4chan and Reddit delete discussion threads (despite these threads being described as too slanderous, hostile, and potentially illegal by the mods themselves).  And always, throughout it all, that slur about her being ‘sexually promiscuous’ kept surfacing, again and again, revealing far more about her accusers than it did about her.

Zoe Quinn

IMAGE: Zoe Quinn

And yet the outrage was never proportional with any other shady industry dealings…

Even in this past week it was revealed that the biggest game of the year, Destiny, the first salvo in Bungie’s new uber-franchise, has on-disc DLC.  Material, already made and paid for has been discovered in the base game, withheld  behind a second exorbitant pay-wall  for future release in a game that already feels stripped of content.  And yet relatively few (if any) people are making a fuss.  One of the biggest, most over-hyped games in the history of the medium, participating in a glaringly underhanded business practice (one inherited from publishers like CAPCOM who have strived to perfect the procedure***), and yet far more angry screeds and protests have been offered about how dangerous Quinn’s behaviour apparently was, even though it’s been proved that she never actually did what got people so worked up in the first place.

It’s bizarre.

Now, to be clear: Quinn may be a bad girlfriend – I wouldn’t know. She might be personally unpleasant; she might be an utter delight.  She may speak twenty-seven different languages, cry marmalade tears, be part centaur.  My point is: it doesn’t matter.  It’s utterly irrelevant.  The original accusations of corruption brought against her were false, the slander of her character was immaterial, and the threats she has endured are inexcusable – even if every single thing that her detractors were saying was true.  Even if she was the one who cancelled Firefly.

…Wait – is that why Adam Baldwin is so mad?

And yet her demonization continues unabated, with many still keen to fashion her into an effigy – a symbol of the videogame media’s shame. And aside from being terrifyingly misguided, the greater irony is that this ends up being a massive distraction from the real issues that need to be addressed in the industry.  At the very moment Quinn is being decried as pure evil, a developer like Bungie is being shrugged off as doing what comes natural (‘Hey, they’re a big company trying to make a profit, man.  What do you expect?’)

Ultimately all it has proved is that – whatever else you think of her; Centaur or no – Quinn must have real guts to persist in spite of it all.

***

To anyone who thinks that women in gaming is a problem:

No.

Just, no.

I can’t bring myself to believe that the people who hold this belief make up a large portion of the gaming community – especially considering half the gaming community is made up of women – but I have read commenter s express this opinion – often in quite repugnant ways.  By their reasoning, games are really by men, for men, so women, both as creators and players, don’t really belong.

So to those people, those specific people who actually believe that kind of exclusionist, sexist, backward nonsense, I want to make this as clearly and as strenuously as I can:

There is no problem with women in gaming.

There just isn’t. That would be like saying that there is a problem with women in Art, or women using libraries, or women in politics, or women using the internet.  It’s asinine.  It’s indefensible.

Now, if you want to argue that women face greater struggles than men when breaking into the gaming industry (an undeniable fact of life when most every workforce leaves women proportionally underpaid), or that they have to fight a lot harder to be heard on creative teams that are still dominated by men (I’ve heard several stories expressing exactly that), or that there are still too many instances in which female players have been the targets of inexcusable sexual harassment, then, sadly, you will find a wealth of examples to prove your point.

But you cannot – you cannot – say that they have no right to be there.

Escapist Cover for Femal Game Journalists

IMAGE: Title slide of an exceptional collection of essays compiled by The Escapist

There is a reason that humanity looks back in shame on things like ‘Whites Only’ drinking fountains and job advertisements that say ‘No Irish’ – and trying and argue that half of the human population has no right to participate or be heard in the production and consumption of one of its most prominent Art forms is just as backward and vile.  Thinking that they don’t, trying to reduce an entire industry and medium down to some juvenile boys club, is just sad.

Particularly so because it has already had such a poisonous effect. Once Quinn was accused, several other female developers and critics in the field were attacked too.  Journalist Jenn Frank and critic Mattie Brice (who was also a game designer), both passionate advocates of the medium, have been tragically harangued and threatened out of the industry after they dared voice their disappointment with the situation.

And such instances reflect very poorly on the ‘Gamergate’ movement, because whatever its goals may be, thanks to this fringe of abusers it will always remain stained with a tone of sexism and vindictiveness. That’s not to say that ‘Gamergate’ at large doesn’t make some pertinent points (I’ll get to those momentarily) but since this whole mess began with an overt tone of misogyny (let’s all judge this slutty woman who used her slutty powers to do slutty things for sluttiness), and has been used as a cudgel to terrorise more women out of the industry (because they don’t belong there anyway, apparently), it completely hijacks the whole argument.  Who cares if a portion of what they are saying has merit if the rest of it is utterly reprehensible?

(Even Quinn’s ex-boyfriend realises this. His republished original blog post now carries a disclaimer distancing himself from all of the harassment being inflicted upon Quinn and ‘her friends’.  …Although he was also screen-capped in a 4chan forum encouraging the horror being inflicted upon her and everyone she knows, even scheming with several others to try and ‘destroy’ the lives of her boyfriend and other people in the games industry.  …So he may not be the most reliable, ethical voice in all this.  To say the least.)

***

To anyone who has said anything hostile or angry about Anita Sarkeesian:

Please, for the love of Metroid, stop.

Obviously things were heated at the time. Once the knives were out for Quinn, once accusations were being flung from all sides, in all directions, maybe it seemed like provocation that Anita Sarkeesian, a critic in the midst of an extended series of video essays about the representation of woman in videogames, would release her latest instalment.  But it wasn’t.  And even if it were, there’s still no excuse.

But because the new video was (as much of the series had been) critical of the way in which women have traditionally been depicted, it was seized upon by a segment of the ‘Gamergate’ supporters as evidence of some ‘feminist’ campaign to ruin all their stuff. And once again threats of rape and violence were hurled upon a woman who had nothing to do with whatever social injustices they believed they were suffering.  It soon became so heated that the police were involved, and she has even had to cancel speaking arrangements, such as at Utah College where some appallingly death threats included mention of unleashing pipe bombs, pistols, semi-automatic rifles, and writing a ‘manifesto in her spilled blood’:

‘This will be the deadliest school shooting in American history and I’m giving you a chance to stop it.’

Anita Sarkeesian

IMAGE: Anita Sarkeesian

So I want to make this very clear: there is nothing wrong with a critic like Anita Sarkeesian writing whatever she likes about videogames.

Literally nothing.

That is what criticism is. You may disagree with her process, you may take issue with her conclusions, you may believe that there are flaws in her process, but she has every single right in the world – both as a human being with the luxury of free speech, and as a contributor to the breadth of critical analysis – to pursue whatever inquiry she likes.

That does not mean you have to accept her conclusions. That does not mean that she is impervious to interrogation or rebuttal.  (I personally took many issues with Roger Ebert’s perspective on the videogame medium.)  But declaring that such criticism has no right to exist, that the person who posed those questions should die or be terrorised until they shut up, is so antithetical to a healthy, evolving discourse, that it beggars belief.  And in the case of Sarkeesian, her Kickstarter was such a success that clearly there is an audience eager to hear her thoughts, so sticking one’s fingers in one’s ears and yelling ‘I’m not listening!  You don’t exist!’ is extremely unhelpful.

A conversation doesn’t just end because one person has put a single point in print or made a video.  There’s no killscreen for debate.  And trying to troll people out of the argument is not a victory for anyone, it just condemns us all to stagnation.

If you take issue with Sarkeesian, then confront her theories, not the person herself. She may be right; she may be wrong.  But the only way to know is to raise those questions and cross-examine them head on.

***

To those in the community that have participated in the condemnation of Zoe Quinn, or Anita Sarkeesian, or who have tacitly perpetuated it by shrugging it off as no big deal:

Please stop.

I literally cannot believe I have to type this, but it is not okay to threaten anyone with violence if you disagree with them. Ever.  Under no circumstances is it okay to type the words ‘I hope you get raped or killed’, or publish someone’s address and contact information with the express purpose unleashing a campaign of harassment and hatred upon them.

Believe me, I know that not everyone in the ‘Gamergate’ community has done this, but some have, and they have done it in the name of the ‘Gamergate’ crusade. And allowing such behaviour, excusing it after the fact, or (as I have seen a disturbingly large contingent of people do) trying to downplay it by claiming that everyone gets threats on the internet, that Sarkeesian didn’t actually call the police, or that Zoe Quinn ‘deserved it’ because she wanted publicity or something, is just as contemptible.  A human being should not be threatened – in any way – because they have dared to express an opinion or publish a work of Art.

The thought that this could be how low public discourse has fallen for some people breaks my heart; and such behaviour should never be excused or tacitly allowed.

Gamergate threats excuse

IMAGE: Comment from Gamergate article by Jim Edwards at Business Insider

***

To any videogame journalists who have dismissed ‘Gamergate’ members as just a mob of entitled misogynists:

I know it’s tempting. Hell, I just listed a handful of disturbingly sexist, reactionary behaviour perpetrated in the name of ‘Gamergate’.  And I know that when the yelling gets loud it gets hard to tell who’s what – at a certain point the disparate voices seem so enraged that the cacophony drowns out all nuance and it becomes easy to just write the whole thing off as a petulant boy’s club tantrum.

Angry Gamer picture

IMAGE: That same damned picture that always gets used in articles like these…

But it’s wrong, and it’s not helpful.

‘Gamergate’ raised a myriad of issues. It is impossible to lock down any one agenda, and it is both a disservice and a mistake to try.  Sure, when ‘Gamergate’ started it was born out of a petty personal attack, and yes, the majority of the fallout seems to have reprehensibly fallen upon women in the industry, but that hashtag was also taken up by many people who genuinely wanted to call for more transparency in the games media.  (I’m going to put aside the anti-‘Social Justice Warrior’ crowd – I’ll speak to that momentarily.)

Because what many ‘Gamergate’ proponents wanted – after a whole seedy history of backroom dealings – was for reviewers and journalists to make it clear when they had financial or personal relationship with the subjects of their commentary. To be made aware of when they were reading critique, and when it was just an advertisement in disguise.  It’s no doubt why the whole movement gained such heat beyond just the lunatics threatening women’s lives.

And yet when some journalists responded to the protests they painted all ‘Gamergate’ members (indeed, some even went so far as to label all ‘gamers’) entitled misogynistic infants.  And that too is in no way helpful.

So games journalists: when you lump everyone who has a legitimate complaint about the industry into a reductive cliché you not only insult the entirety of your audience, you reduce all debate to the very petty name-calling you accuse your opponents of engaging in.  It blithely, and rather disingenuously excuses you from answering the more pressing questions that, amongst all the noise, lend ‘Gamegate’ substance.  And that appearance of obfuscation is precisely what those who have questions about the industry’s ethics do not need to hear.  Indeed, it merely adds fuel to the fire.

Because pretending that there is no relationship between games developers and press when any question about journalistic ethics are raised, but then blithely gloating that a developer told you something HUGE is gonna happen next week but you can’t say what, send, at best, mixed messages.  And when there is a history of shady business practices, when publishers regularly recruit from the games media, when non-disclosure agreements, publisher-paid junkets, and ‘integrated marketing’ are standard operation, it becomes utterly dishonest to ape confusion and offense that anyone could ever doubt the integrity of the industry.

Geoff Keighley Doritogate

IMAGE: ‘Dorito-gate’, because we need more words with ‘gate’ on them.

There’s a reason that the now infamous image of Geoff Keighley sitting beside a display stand of Doritos and Mountain Dew looking like his dog just died has weight. It has meaning, because it is symbolic of a road toward parroted product integration that the games industry risks sliding every day.  It doesn’t mean that you personally engage in those kinds of practices – thankfully there are many publications that make it clear when there is a conflict of interests or promotional consideration being paid – but pretending that it doesn’t and hasn’t happened at all, is knowingly hypocritical.

Similarly, there is a division between ‘gamers’ and ‘journalists’ – a not altogether healthy one.  To pretend that there isn’t – that ‘Hey, we’ve always just been gamers too, guys, we’re exactly like you’ – only exacerbates the problem.

Perhaps the clearest example of this divide (from my perspective, anyway) was in the wake of the Mass Effect 3 launch, when the industry largely rallied unquestioningly around Bioware, calling anyone who had any complaint about that game (whether it was about its buggy, unfinished state of release; it’s ethically repellent ending; its day-one DLC) merely a member of a spoiled, disgruntled ‘vocal minority’.  But it is a division that sadly recurs whenever games like SimCity or Diablo 3 or Battlefield 4 are released functionally broken, despite being lavished with great scores because the pre-release review copy worked swimmingly.  Or when an asinine fanatic like Colin Moriarty publishes some hypocritical Chicken Little diatribe attacking the mean audiences who don’t like his favourite games – because somehow (even though he gets his games for free and is paid to express his opinion) anyone else expressing their opinion in any way besides ‘voting with their wallet’ is going to totally ruin the industry forever! For real this time, you guys!!!

So please: please stop.  No more generalisations of ‘all gamers’.  No more feigned shock that anyone might not have absolute faith in the ‘journalistic’ process.

Yes, absolutely there are outrages with which to take issue, and for that you should be celebrated. Calling out the persecution of individuals, combating the spreading of misinformation, holding anyone to account who would engage in sexism, racism, or threats of violence – that is a profoundly worthy mandate.  But painting everyone who doesn’t have absolute faith in the industry with the same detrimental brush does far more damage than good.

***

To anyone who thinks there is a ‘Social Justice Warrior’ conspiracy:

You know what – who knows?

Again, I’m not part of the industry, so if there is some secret cabal where everyone gets together to eat kale chips and talk about using nouveau roman game design as a Trojan horse for social engineering, I’m not invited. But to be completely honest, I just don’t see it.  Not at all.  And I’ve really tried to understand where this perception is coming from.

It seems that when the ‘Gamergate’ hashtag started up, some saw it as an opportunity to voice their frustration at what they perceived to be a ‘liberal bias’ in the games media. The term ‘Social Justice Warrior’ was suddenly being directed at anyone (critic, designer, commentator) who, in their opinion, was trying to peddle a ‘liberal agenda’: celebrating female empowerment, exploring the LGBT experience, exhibiting racial diversity.  Somehow, these ‘warriors’ were attempting to ruin the videogame medium by turning everything into a political statement; stripping out the ‘fun’ (or, rather, whatever the person complaining believes ‘fun‘ to be at any given moment) in exchange for a judgemental lecture.

But truthfully, I just don’t see any evidence for this kind of a conspiracy theory – neither in the writings of the accused critics, nor the supposed impact upon the production of games.

Social Justice Warrior

IMAGE: Social Justice Warrior t-shirt by Olly Moss

Firstly, rather than thinking that these ‘Social Justice Warriors’ (the more I type that, the cooler it sounds, which is probably not what its critic intended) are proselytising some agenda, I think the answer is actually a lot simpler, and far more innocuous: I think they’re just excited.

To me, it’s not that shocking that reviewers – who probably spend ninety-five percent of their time stuck playing generic white male power fantasies in endless FPS and hack ‘n’ slash clones – might occasionally celebrate when a game comes along that explores an underrepresented human experience. Personally, I feel exactly the same – and I’m not the one stuck having to assign a score to Rambo: The Videogame.

When they see a game like The Stanley Parable or Dear Esther come along – something unpredictable, that shakes up their expectation or shows them something new – they get excited.  Not because the other stuff is all rubbish that should be destroyed, but because it reminds them that games can do many, many things – not just iterate upon the familiar, or perfect the ideal progression tree (neither of which am I suggesting are bad things).

Secondly, I really do not see how – even if there was some master plan behind it all – it has had any effect at all on the industry.  The most profitable and ubiquitous games being released every year continue to be things like Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto, Street Fighter and Uncharted – games with countless sequels that can hardly be said to be plagued by moralistic handwringing, or a lack of unapologetic, bombastic fun.  With thousands of employees, multiple studios and a Smaug’s den of financing behind it, Assassin’s Creed: Unity couldn’t even be bothered to put a female character option in their co-op game because ‘reasons’.  So whatever clout these SJW’s are supposed to have, it seems pretty limited.

***

To anyone who thinks that indie games are part of a SJW agenda, and aren’t ‘real’ games anyway:

One of the weirdest results of the ‘Social Justice Warrior’ backlash in the ‘Gamergate’ movement has been people taking it upon themselves to slag off small, niche titles like Gone Home and To The Moon – passion projects keen to use the malleability of their form in unique and experimental ways – for not being real games.  Despite the fact that they in no conceivable way damage the profit of the more mainstream, popular, and ‘real’ games, they are condemned as somehow threatening what ‘real gamers’ want.

Again, I’m sorry, but try as I might to comprehend that it I just genuinely don’t even understand the reasoning.

Gone-Home-2

IMAGE: Gone Home (The Fullbright Company)

There are always going to be big, explosive, fun games; someone downloading Braid is not going to stop that.  Just like there will always be thumping action films and raucous comedy films and slashy horror films filling the cinemas, no matter how many Richard Linklater experiments, Charlie Kaufmann mindbenders and Sophia Coppola character studies are released.  Michael Bay’s deplorable oeuvre is devoid of anything resembling humanity yet his films will go on earning the revenue of whole nations (gods help humanity), no matter how much praise a film like Her receives.

And I say this as someone who has grown up in a country that struggled (and still struggles) for many years to even catch up with the rest of the world in seeing games as adult entertainments: no one is going to take anyone’s videogames away.**** Big-budget shooters and fantasy games and fighters and sports franchises and action adventures are always going to be around.  Appreciating a work like Journey does not invalidate God of War.  The experiential mechanics of Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons does not undo all the engagement and split-second precision to be mined from Devil May Cry.

Brothers a Tale of Two Sons

IMAGE: Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons (Starbreeze Studios)

That would be like saying that once you’ve read The Waste Land you have to chuck every Charles Dickens book on the fire.  If you like 2001: A Space Odyssey then you must hate Star Wars and want it erased from history.  Whistling a Taylor Swift song means the Rolling Stones have to be rounded up and shot.  It’s totally illogical.  One isn’t necessarily better than the other.  One doesn’t have to belittle the other.  And even if someone does come along wanting to disparage one in favour of another, so what?  It’s opinion.  We don’t have to be so petrified of other people not liking the things that we like that everyone starts marking their territory, snarling, and savaging each another like rabid dogs.

Frankly, the idea of anyone complaining that they are being ‘persecuted’ because, somewhere, a game that they don’t have to play is being produced for people who aren’t them, is kind of ludicrous. If someone doesn’t like a game – either its mechanics or what it is saying – then they should just not play it.  Being so self involved as to actively try to prevent others from experiencing something that has nothing to do with them is a whole other level of narcissism that I cannot comprehend.

Indeed, when I think about it – if the people who believe such things had their way, games like A Dark Room, The Walking Dead (the good one), and Gone Home would not only have never been discussed, they would never have even been made. So to get selfish for a moment: How dare they try to take away experiences that I personally have found unique, enlightening and rewarding.  I am never in my life going to master a fighting game or dominate a multiplayer shooter, but I would never wish one of those games unmade.  Why would I want to deprive someone else of something they enjoy?

It’s a pretty sad hypocrisy that the only people actually actively endorsing censorship are the one’s complaining about ‘Social Justice Warriors’ trying to take away their freedoms.

***

To anyone using the ‘Gamergate’ hashtag:

Okay, so this one is going to be tricky to explain, but here goes.

‘Gamergate’ is filled with good people; great people. It simply has to be.  It’s too broad, and too far-reaching to just be some enclave of sexist, abusive crackpots, no matter how many articles get written describing them that way.

But I think you might need to stop using the name.

I’m not saying stop demanding more journalistic integrity and transparency from the games media and publishers. If that is what you signed up to ‘Gamergate’ for, then I am right with you and couldn’t agree more.  But the truth is, that’s no longer what the name ‘Gamergate’ represents – if it ever did.

‘Gamergate’ is Hydra. Multi-headed.  Multiform.  It isn’t just about dude-bros saying sexist crap; just as it isn’t only about calling for full disclosure in reviews; or rooting out ‘Social Justice Warriors’; or preventing people from calling ‘narrative experiences’ like Gone Home ‘games’ – all of which, at various points, have been attributed to the movement by its diverse supporters.

And that’s a problem.

Earlier, I called ‘Gamergate’ a Rorschach test, but given its history, really, there’s a better analogy. Because when you peel back the layers, there are too many different agendas, too many different visions for it to all cohere into a oneness.  It’s more like the turducken of enraged twitter trends: a petty personal character assassination, wrapped in a call for journalistic ethics, jammed inside a territorial gender war, and seasoned with a reactionary screed against ‘Social Justice Warriors’.  There is some good stuff in there – some great stuff – but it’s too overloaded by all the other confusion to cohere.

It’s why good, well intentioned people have gotten caught up in the mudslinging, because there is a layer of truth in what is being said.  It’s also why some games journalists have made the mistake of lumping all ‘gamers’ into one catch-all category, seemingly writing off the whole audience of videogames because a movement such as this was allowed to get any traction at all.  On the macro scale, both sides are right – partially.  But it’s also why both sides are wrong.

And I do believe that there is value in what many of the people applauding this movement are asking for. There is a genuine discussion to be had here.  Real questions to be answered.  Real expectations of full-disclosure to demand.  When a reviewer has a personal relationship with the developers, that should be divulged.  When a critic has not done due diligence in their analysis, that should be questioned.  When a developer or publisher is funnelling wads of cash into intentionally misleading promotional consideration, that should absolutely be called to account.

But I don’t think ‘Gamergate’ can forward that message. ‘Gamergate already comes pre-packaged with too much vindictiveness and fear.  In the end it has become something else entirely.

chainsawsuit 20141015-theperfectcrime

IMAGE: chainsawsuit comic

Because when you’re calling for integrity, but have to first explain away the fact that your movement started with a guy trying to slander his ex girlfriend as an unfaithful slut – that’s a problem. When multiple people are running crusades of terror, using character assassination, literal threats of assassination and jokes about rape in your name, then it is hard to argue that some critic excited about an interactive novel has ‘gone too far’.  And when you are talking about not having your personal ‘freedoms’ impinged, it loses some impact when several writers and artists have been terrorised out of their jobs (and in some cases homes) because they tried to express themselves.

Again, it’s not about saying that everyone in ‘Gamergate’ is guilty of everyone else’s crimes, it’s just a reality. ‘Gamergate’ began, and continues to be co-opted by people more interested in silencing and frightening women out of the industry, so using the name, even to forward a more virtuous argument, means having to accept or excuse some reprehensible behaviour, ultimately undermining the entire message.

Personally, I’d suggest it’s much better to regroup and retitle. To gather around a new name that need never be muddied by anyone using terror to shut down debate, or becoming distracted with weird anti-women agendas.  Apparently at one point some people did try to set up another hashtag – ‘gamersethics’ – but it was prevented  from catching on because others thought it was better to keep the original title running, even in spite of its problematic history.  That’s  a shame, because I think it might have done far more good than the mixed, and at times outright terrifying messages coming from those signing their movement ‘Gamergate’.

***

To anyone and everyone:

Games are better than this.

They are bigger and more wonderful than all of this pitiful crap. They can be Fez and Battlefield and Mario Cart and Papers Please and Civilisation and Pac-Man and Chrono Trigger and Assassin’s Criminywe’vemadealotofthesenow and Cookie Clicker and Skyrim.  They can be Barbie’s Damned Horse Adventures (note: this was my harried mistyping; the horses, as I understand it, are not actually demonic).

They can be – and I mean this in the most hyperbolically romantic way possible – everything.

They have allowed us to imagine walking on distant planets; to craft gargantuan, elaborate structures fashioned entirely from scavenged resources; to build communities in fantastical worlds; to solve mysteries; to see through the eyes of an abused, frightened child trying to literally escape a magical realist vision of their village; to bend our brains inside three dimensional, spatial physics puzzles; to give up our plumber jobs, eat mushrooms, and wear a kinky raccoon suit in public. They offer the chance to test ourselves, to grow beyond our limitations by learning new skills, by inhabiting other lands, by empathising with other characters, and adopting new ways of thinking.

Skyrim Landscape

IMAGE: Skyrim (Bethesda)

But any time someone types the words ‘Well, Depression Quest is not a real game anyway’ or ‘You don’t have the right to talk because you’re just a casual gamer’ or ‘All gamers are just violent spoiled children’ or threatens someone – anyone – for simply expressing themselves or having an opinion, it reduces the whole medium.  All of it.  It makes games smaller.  Shallower.  Less able to reflect the grand miasma of human experience that, so far, they have been inexorably reaching toward.  You may as well anchor a boat off the Galapagos Islands and shout at the finches to quit evolving.

Because, like I said, videogames are bigger than this. They have to be bigger than this.  We’re long past the days in which figures like Jack Thompson were trying to strangle the medium through legislation and censorship down into the kiddie-pool of art.  They have eclipsed most every other entertainment industry in profit and cultural saturation.  When a Grand Theft Auto game premieres it is a phenomenon.  When a new Legend of Zelda appears we get a twang of nostalgia that can only arise from an Art form that transcends generations.

We all – all of us – have to grow up. Game publishers and journalists have to stop patronising their audiences like ignorant children and treat them with respect.  Players have to accept that part of legitimacy of their medium is allowing people with differing views to express themselves artistically, and to speak their minds critically.  Whoever put that scarf on Sonic the Hedgehog needs to check themself.

Videogames are not the first to go through these kinds of growing pains. Those people in Stravinsky’s audience were afraid of change.  They reacted furiously because they feared what they personally didn’t understand.  The people who coopted the Macbeth riots didn’t care.  They welcomed the carnage, believing it could serve their biased world view and rationalised away whoever got chewed up in the fallout.  But Stravinsky’s audience are now the butt of a joke; the Macbeth rioters are viewed as dangerous bigots.  The medium of videogames has legitimacy; but that doesn’t mean that those who would leap violently to its ‘defence’ do also.

‘Gamergate’, in a completely different circumstance, could have been – should have been – a force for positive change.  Perhaps once the fire dies down, once the sexism and murder threats recede and legitimate concerns can be heard above the din, perhaps then a healthy conversation can take place – the conversation that should have occurred the first time around.

After all, the beauty of games is that if you screw up, if it all goes wrong, you can start over again. Reload and do better next time.

journey

IMAGE: Journey (thatgamecompany)

That probably means little to people like Zoe Quinn and Anita Sarkeesian and Jenn Frank and Mattie Brice (and oh look, even as I have been typing these words another developer, Brianna Wu has just been threatened with rape and death and had her home address published online by her attacker. How nice).  But those women, and all the other so-called ‘Social Justice Warriors’ got into the games industry in the first place because they believed that it was capable of more, that it was expanding and saying more each and every day.

And if games, as I believe, are natural extensions of the way that we human beings interact with our world – if play and exploration and challenging ourselves is the way that we grow as a species – then thankfully, women, cultural diversity, criticism, experimentation and adaptation aren’t going anywhere. They and their influence will just grow exponentially as we see more and more of ourselves – the better parts of ourselves – in the Art that we create.

Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring outlived everyone who stomped their feet and wanted to drawn it out with their howling.  It persevered and it inspired, going on to indelibly impact the course of all music – of all Art – to this day.  That doesn’t mean that everyone has to like it, it in no way means that it is beyond criticism, but it has a right to exist, and with the acknowledgement of that simple truth, the discussion of its merits or otherwise can go on with respect.

***

To anyone who read this far:

No matter what you think of what I said: genuinely, I thank you. That was a long post (frankly too long), and it was a fairly disheartening one to write.  So you, like I, probably need a good lie down.

Thanks for seeing it to the end.

***

P.S. – To Adam Baldwin:

Come on, man. I love you.  I love your work.

Getting all panicked about women in the videogame industry? Belittling threats and acts of sexual harassment?  Pondering whether Obama secretly wants Ebola to sweep through the nation?

Adam Baldwin Ebola tweet

That’s bananas. You must know that’s bananas.

Please tell me Simon just drugged you with something. That things were just getting a little …bendy.  That for a moment you just went a little crazy and then fell asleep.

***

Sonic_Boom_Trailer_Sonic

IMAGE: A spinal injury waiting to happen

* As you can probably tell, I’m just building up to a gag, but I wanted to make it clear: I’m aware that this is completely untrue – no one cares what I think.

** No really: it does.  Because nothing says ‘breakneck speed’ like literally strangling yourself when your neckwear gets snagged on a tree branch at 90 miles an hour.  Also: he’s naked, but the neck is somehow his primary concern?  He’s leaving the house in the morning and his mental checklist is: ‘Keys?  Check.  Gloves?  Check.  Scarfy scarf scarf?  Checky check check.  Pants – so that I don’t get arrested again…?  Oh no!  Am I running late?  Better hold that thought and get going…’

*** Meanwhile, EA used the release of The Sims 4 to declare a bold new business model: slicing the base game apart to distribute later as paid content, like some deranged kidnapper sending a pinkie toe in the mail.

**** For decades Australia belligerently used a flawed ratings system to treat videogames like a toxic spore. Critics of the medium would spout the ‘conventional wisdom’ that videogames were for children, thus anything with adult themes and content was inappropriate.  Not ‘needed to be properly rated for adult audiences’, just banned and censored outright.  They ignored consumer demographics, countless petitions, and the entire rest of the world, and even after they were dragged kicking and screaming through one of the most farcical and protracted bureaucratic processes ever devised to introducing an R18 rating, we still have games like South Park: The Stick of Truth forcibly edited before release, protecting us, apparently from ourselves, and our ability to make our own decisions about the entertainment we consume.  Joy.

Verb Yourself: The Naming Of Gaming

Posted in criticism, literature, stupidity, television, video games with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 11, 2014 by drayfish

Scott Pilgrim Gamer pic

IMAGE: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (Universal Pictures)

I’ve been reading a lot of Shakespeare these past few weeks, which means I’ve also been reading a lot about names. Not surprisingly, as the most talented and prolific writer of the western world (this is a fact; the end), Shakespeare, was particularly obsessed with language – how it functions and alters over time. It means that he can go a little nutty for the puns at times, but it’s forgivable, because ultimately what he’s exploring is the way that we can take our language for granted. A crappy pun about ‘maiden heads’ or ‘country matters’ – aside from being surprisingly smutty – is a way of forcing us to re-evaluate the associations that words carry with them, to stop and compel us to examine the way that we use words and invest them with meaning.

As a consequence, he interrogates the nature of names and naming repeatedly throughout his work. In Julius Caesar, Antony, while giving a eulogy after the murder of Caesar, calls Brutus ‘an honourable man’ for his actions in the scheme; but by the end of his speech he manages to load the phrase with so much irony and contempt that when he repeats the word ‘honourable’ it translates to pernicious, traitorous killer. It is a compliment that becomes, effectively, a sneering declaration of war. Meanwhile in Richard II, when Richard has his throne usurped, he spends the remainder of the play mulling over what the name ‘King’ – previously an inextricable element of his very being – now means. He is King. Or was. And if he’s not King anymore, then what – if anything – remains of the man underneath?

We can still see the kinds of grammatical concerns with naming play out today. There are certain names that carry so much baggage with them that merely their utterance entirely derails a discussion. The most obvious examples of these, the ones that first spring to mind, come steeped in asinine partisan politics, or preloaded with bigotry and offence – hackneyed, racist, and prejudicial terms that carry with them the idiocy or ugliness of their past. For obvious reasons I don’t want to talk about those (despite how pertinent such a discussion might be while the Washington Redskins continue to be a thing).

Instead, I want to wade into the shallower end of the semantic swimming pool, to pick a target of lesser consequence, but one with a similarly loaded connotations. Because over the last few years, in the midst of its ongoing struggle for artistic respectability, the videogame medium has had a curious relationship with one such name:

Gamer.

It’s a word that looks innocuous enough.

Gamer. (Noun.) A person who plays games.

Simple.

But in practice, the word ‘gamer’ raises a number of problematic connotations that often muddy or complicate meaning – questions of what does or does not determine who is allowed to call themself a ‘gamer’. It’s a word that has evolved beyond ‘a person who plays a game’, to take on a whole new dimension, one where the amount of time spent playing, and the intensity of these sessions, are somehow being implied by the use of the term.

A ‘gamer’, from this perspective, is not a dispassionate descriptor, it delineates a kind of player of games. A ‘gamer’ plays the ‘HARD MODE’. A ‘gamer’ knows what ‘animation cancelling’ is in fighting games. A ‘gamer’ can get a twenty plus killstreak with only the throwing knife. A ‘gamer’ gets to say things like:

‘Oh, you’ve played 20 hours of Skyrim, have you? How quaint. Maybe you get to have an opinion when you’ve logged 300…’

Candy Crush becomes cited as the trash ‘non-gamers’ play; Dark Souls is for the ‘serious’ ones; Pokemon games are for hoarding, animal-blood-sport enthusiasts on acid. (By the way, Twitch Plays Pokemon was profoundly cool.)

Suddenly these kinds of exclusionary statements imply (or outright declare) that there is a self-evident division between what constitutes a real gamer and a fake one. It sets up a dichotomy of ownership of the medium in which only those devotees decreed to be in the inner circle can be considered the true audience, and everyone else condescended to as just along for the ride. It’s from this kind of classy system distinction that terms like ‘casual’ and ‘newbie’ and ‘gamer girl’ and witless garbage like ‘girlfriend mode’ spring.

It’s not clear where all of this started. Perhaps an attempt to engender some kind of tribal mentality (a spill over from the ridiculous brand loyalty wars of the Nintendo versus Sega days, and the current Xbox versus Sony age*); maybe the unintended result of the competitive nature of some games and the communities that support them; or the unfortunate, if natural, extension of the enthusiasm that inspires all fandom (we’ve all felt that; as for me, if you do not love Firefly then I regret to inform you that you are not a real person) – but whatever the cause, ‘gamer’ has come to represent a subcultural, elitist divide.

It’s a shame, because it risks taking something that should be inclusive, something to be celebrated, and turns it into a tedious pissing contest. Say to someone that you are a ‘gamer’ and suddenly a sense of judgemental snobbery threatens to overwhelm. They worry that you’re looking upon them as a Farmville barnacle; you worry that they think you’re a foulmouthed, teabagging thirteen year old on Call of Duty. And even if none of that disapproval is actually going on, it’s still in the atmosphere, stirred into being by the endless clogged forums and comments sections that do mean it all as an insult.

The answer, one might argue, would be just to not use the word anymore. We could say ‘people’ instead. Or ‘audiences’. Or ‘external biological reactive input interfaces’. Anything to let ‘gamer’ fall into that junkyard of sorry, formless terms we’ve abandoned, left to burn itself out on its own asinine steam – like jeggings, or Rob Schneider. The most logical choice would be to say ‘player’ – people who play videogames would be ‘players’, just as people who listen to music are ‘listeners’, and people who read books are ‘readers’ – the verb dictating the title.

Shakespeare’s Juliet would probably agree. For her a name was completely arbitrary. They literally didn’t have to carry around the stink of their past associations; a ‘rose’ by any other name would still smell as sweet. But what did she know? She was hopped up on adolescent lust. And as far as most research suggests, never even had an Xbox Live account.

But for the very same reason, using a different word seems like a needless concession. It is, after all, just a word; and when removed from its funk of juvenile competitiveness, it’s an entirely fitting one. A ‘gamer’ is just someone who wants to play a game – which is perfect if only it can be rescued from all that grammatical smog.

It’s not even like this kind of linguistic restoration would be anything new. Years ago, the idea of a television audience was observed with cynicism. A viewer? People would scoff. A ‘viewer’ was just whoever happened to be plonked on the couch willing to soak up the half-baked pabulum being spewed at them from the screen. Probably they were ironing and not really paying attention. Maybe they would fall asleep half way through, or flick over during the ad breaks and not return. Being invested in whatever the networks served up week to week was a waste of time. Next week Jeannie would still be misunderstanding Master’s orders (how was that show ever okay?); Magnum would still be P.I.ing; Gilligan was never gonna get off the island. The shows were only there at the behest of the advertisers anyway – yes, those are some smooth cigarettes, Fred Flintstone – so the viewer could just lap it up and call it ice cream. Of course, just as it is with videogames, this was all a gross oversimplification – but it was an opinion that for a long time continued to hold sway.

And yet.

Over the past couple of decades the notion of a viewer has been reclaimed. Redefined. In part this was aided by the surge in prestige programming that could not so easily be dismissed as cheap televisual distraction (your Mad Mens and Buffy the Vampire Slayers and The Wires), but it has also been a product of the empowerment of the viewership. Only a decade ago a network program sitting on 10 million viewers would be dismissed as a failure (remember Newsradio? NBC hopes you don’t); now it would be considered a smash hit event of the year.

Audiences are not, and never were, passive sponges for whatever is vomited their way; and the ubiquity of the medium, and our myriad ways of interacting with it, have shown this acutely. Shows can be time-shifted, recorded onto DVRs, bought through iTunes and watched on Hulu. What were once ‘water cooler’ events are now dispersed through circles of influence – people sharing programs with friends and loved ones.

‘Viewers’ are now something to be wooed. Cultivated. Treasured. Viewing is not just a passive act. ‘Viewers’ can bring shows back from the dead (Chuck, Star Trek, Futurama), they can crusade for programs they believe in (there is no way that The Wire would have run for five seasons on its relatively small ratings were it not for the rightful adoration of its loyal audience – many of whom, thankfully, were television critics**). In just the past few weeks Community, abandoned by NBC, announced it will be resurrected on the new broadcasting platform of Yahoo (huzzah!), largely because it carries its loyal fans in its wake.

There’s no reason ‘gamers’ need to be seen any differently. Sure, some might scoff that they ensure derivative FPS franchises keep chugging along (a fact far less offensive than the realisation that Transformers 4: Greasy Shouty Shiny Smash is set to become one of the highest grossing films of all time), but that lazy cliché is hardly the whole picture. They also foster and support the smaller, experimental games. They invest in Kickstarters and keep online communities alive. They help conduct gene research in order to find cures for cancer.***

Again, as Juliet would suggest, maybe the word ‘players’ would get this variety of interaction across just fine – just as ‘viewer’ can equally mean someone yawning their way through an episode of Two Broke Girls or an academic writing a dissertation on the Faustian descent of Breaking Bad. But it seems a shame if ‘gamer’ can’t be reclaimed as well. It just needs to be hosed off a little. Scoured of all that exclusionary us-versus-them drivel that, in a sad irony, has tried to turn it into a badge of honour by souring the very thing it is meant to celebrate.

For me anyway, to be a ‘gamer’ should just mean that you play games; that you see something of worth in the medium. It could be that you view them as a competitive sport, a work of interactive three-dimensional architecture, a narrative with which to invest yourself, a challenge to overcome, an auditory and visual stimuli, or all of these things at once. Whatever. All that matters is that you see them as something worthy of exploration. Something deserving of the attention you pay them when you pick up a controller, or tap a screen, or waggle your hands fruitlessly in front of an aggressively non-responsive Kinect sensor.****

You are a ‘gamer’ if you bother to play a game. Simple.

Because making that choice – for whatever reason – is a worthy act in itself. We don’t have to feel guilty, or territorial, or turn a definition in to some twisted, competitive point of pride. We could just be ‘gamers’, and be content that there is a medium as expansive and idiosyncratic as we are, where everyone is welcome if they just agree to all play along.

Heh.

Play.

How’s that for a pun, Shakespeare?*****

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IMAGE: Gamer Life (Mimo Games)

*Personally, I was a Sega kid by circumstance (Go, Alex Kidd!), but looked on longingly at my Nintendo compatriots (Go, Tanooki suit!) …Atari I could take or leave (Go, Faceless-Man-Jumping-Over-An-Alligator-Onto-Underground-Swamp-Ladder!)

** Just to put it out there: The Wire never won for best drama series. Way to keep proving your utter critical irrelevance, Emmys.

*** In contrast, Michael Bay spends multimillions to film a robot pissing on John Tuturro. And he makes sure that the camera angle is so overdramatically low that the splash off hits the audience; a more fitting metaphor for his asinine directing style I have yet to find.

**** At least until game stores and publishers perfect that process of segmenting and merchandising every component of a game behind preorders and pay walls, finally reducing ‘gamers’ to the cash-spewing compulsive magpies they have always suspected we were.

***** Yeah, okay, I know it was terrible. Shut up.

 

 

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