The Auld Triangle for St. Patrick’s Day

I was organizing a bit of a  celebration of Irish poets for St. Patrick’s Day at my school, and I figured I might contribute by singing a tune or two. Really, I was only going to do an a capella version of “The Auld Triangle”–the wonderful song/poem from Brendan Behan’s play The Hostage.

Brendan-Behan

Brendan Behan

And “The Auld Triangle” was in my mind because I had decided to sing it tonight (the 17th) at Steven’s Green. My old band was playing there and I usually get up and do one or two songs with them. And “The Auld Triangle” was what I was thinking.

When a colleague e-mailed to ask if he could bring a penny whistle to the poetry thing I told him my plans. He wasn’t familiar with the tune, but said he would look it up on YouTube. I don’t know what he found–Luke Kelly’s version with the Dubliners is the first hit–but I went and found this Ceiliuradh (celebration) from 2014 at the Royal Albert Hall.

This video captures everything that should be celebrated about being Irish: it is cross-generational, it revels in its history, it enjoys itself and others. The camaraderie among the players–Donal Lunny, Andy Irvine and Paul Brady (all once members of Planxty), Imelda May, John Sheehan from the Dubliners, Lisa Hannigan, Glen Hansard, Elvis Costello, Conor O’Brien from Villagers–is infectious and joyful.  But moreso it is the audience–an audience joyously celebrating its heritage in the “veddy-proper” Royal Albert Hall.

I watched the video three times and became more choked up with each viewing. Happy St. Patrick’s Day–watch the video here.

 

Bowler Hats: Chaplin and Bloom…Sally Bowles and Sabina

A few decades ago, I remember having to read a piece on “the sociology of clothing in the Victorian era.” The author’s intent was to show that fashion had a subtext. I remember clearly the argument about men’s hats. The thesis was that the height of a man’s hat in Victorian England was proportionate to his status on the social scale.  i.e. The society toffs wore tall top hats, the navvies and farmers wore flat caps.

I thought of this again after a conversation about “bowlers.” A friend and I had just finished reading Milos Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being and were commenting on the bowler hat that the character Sabina is attached to (it reminds her of her grandfather) and which she often wears during sex.

“It’s a silly hat,” my friend said. “There is really nothing sexy about it.”

Silly or sexy?  I’d state that both things are true, depending on who’s wearing it.

For Christmas this year, my young nephew gave me a tee-shirt imprinted with the text of Joyce’s Ulysses on it. The text is manipulated to depict Leopold Bloom’s mustache and bowler hat. (Though I argue that Bloom would never wear his hat tilted at such a jaunty angle.)

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Leopold Bloom t-shirt

Now, although the book ends with Bloom’s wife repeatedly affirming her husband’s worth (“yes,  yes I said yes I will Yes.”), throughout much of the novel, Bloom is a figure of ridicule.  And a bowler hat only underscores that. (In truth, those who most ridicule him wear flat caps or no hats at all.)

When I was little my parents enjoyed Laurel and Hardy. (How politically incorrect we all 354845-laurel-and-hardywere then: I didn’t know their names were “Laurel and Hardy” until much later. My mom had always called them “Fats and Skinny.”)  They both wore bowlers, doffing them in times of embarrassment or playing with them in times of nervousness.

Now, Chaplin’s bowler represents something else. As the Little Tramp, he is at the very bottom of the social scale, and yet his dignity, manners and goodheartedness far outshine those socially above him. Perhaps, it is that chiasmus between the tramp and gentle-behavior and “gentlemen” and their boorishness that the bowler suggests. It could also simply be that the “little tramp” is wearing whatever has been tossed aside.  Nevertheless, it is part of his comic ensemble. In the film Chaplin, there is a marvelous scene where Robert Downey Jr. as Chaplin, first puts together his iconic “Little Tramp” costume, beginning with the hat.

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But then you have the women. On the female, the bowler hat moves from an object of comedy or ridicule to something sexy, even forbidding.

It seems in every dance revue–whether a toddlers’ dance recital or the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall–there is one number where the females are dressed in stockings and shorts, tux shirts and ties…and a bowler hat. The hat acts as a prop, an accessory and the dancers put them on and off, dance with them held in front or waving above their heads.

In the film Cabaret, Sally Bowles is played by Liza Minnelli–perhaps the greatest role of her career. And while the film is certainly different than the play –and the novels from whichcabaret it was drawn–it is Minnelli that people most closely associate with Cabaret and Sally Bowles. Straddling a chair, her bowler hat rakishly tilted on her head, Bowles lustily sings and performs at the Kit Kat Klub in Berlin as the Third Reich begins its ascent. She–and the cabaret she works at–are the very symbols of the sexuality and decadence that the Nazi’s demonize in their rise to power, symbols of the “other” that the Nazis want to purge.

And in Minnelli’s performance, it is the bowler hat that represents this decadence–a symbol of transgression, of otherness, of living life as SHE wants it.

(Please note: I know that there have been extraordinary actresses who have taken on the role of Sally Bowles on the stage, from Julie Harris and Judi Dench to Natasha Richardson and Brooke Shields to Emma Stone and Michelle Williams. But still it is Minnelli’s film version that has the most resonance with the most people.)

Just as Sally Bowles performs her cabaret in Berlin during the Nazis’ rise to power, so too is Sabina creating her art as the Soviet Union crushes the Czech Spring in Milos Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Although we have moved from 1920 Berlin to 1960s Prague,  the same tensions exist–the forces of love, freedom, and humanity in opposition to the bureaucratic autocracy of the State. This time the state is the USSR.

For the painter Sabina, her bowler is a sort of fetish–a memory of her grandfather and a quirk of her sexuality. It is very much a part of her.   Kundera describes Sabina’s hat as such:

The bowler hat was a motif in the musical composition that was Sabina’s life. It returned again and again, each time with a different meaning, and all the meanings flowed through the bowler hat like water through a riverbed. … each time the same object would give rise to a new meaning, though all former meanings would resonate (like an echo, like a parade of echoes) together with the new one.

Thus the bowler hat has apotheosized from a mere garment and quirky accessory to something much more. And in the politically charged world of Prague in 1968, that tumblr_mdy9zuvYH01rhlu7wo1_500something more is crucial to life, to a sense of independence, to a sense of identity. And on Lena Olin, who played Sabina in the 1988 film version of the book, it also looks incredibly sexy.

So whether it accompanies John Cleese’s ungainly stride within the Ministry of Silly Walks or Lena Olin steaming up scenes in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, one finds that the bowler fills both extremes–from the ridiculous to the erotic.  That often seems to be the divide.

That is until you bring in Alex from A Clockwork Orange. And then it’s a whole different story…

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Waiting for Godot: Crying in Beckett

A while back, I had posted about a performance of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame that I ‘d seen at the Arden Theater in Philadelphia. In it, I quoted my favorite lines from the play:

HAMM: (letting go his toque) What’s he doing?

(Clov raises lid of Nagg’s bin, stoops, look into it. Pause.)
CLOV: He’s crying. (He closes lid, straightens up.)
HAMM: Then he’s living.

The character Hamm has made the immediate inference that if his father is crying, then he is alive. And we, by extension, apply it to the human condition. I remembered this line–and the act of crying– this week when teaching Waiting for Godot. (Actually, the crying seemed more appropriate than ever for someone trying to teach Godot to 18-year old boys during their last week of school when the temperatures are in the mid-70s and the sun is bright! Hah!)

Early in the play, Estragon and Vladimir point out the tree where they are supposed to wait for Godot. (It is the only piece of scenery. The scene description reads simply: A country road. A tree. )

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Mark Bedard (Vladimir) and Mark Anderson Phillips (Estragon) in Samuel Beckett s ‘Waiting for Godot,’ at Marin Theatre Company. photo 2013 by Kevin Berne

Estragon: [desparingly] Ah! [pause] You’re sure it was here?

Vladimir: What?

Estragon: That we were to wait.

Vladimir: He said by the tree. [They look at the tree.] Do you see any others?

Estragon: What is it?

Vladimir: I don’t know. A willow.

Estragon: Where are the leaves?

Vladimir: It must be dead.

Estragon: No more weeping.

This is the exact inverse of the lines from Endgame. In Endgame, the syllogism is that if you are crying then you are alive. In Waiting for Godot, the syllogism is that if you are dead, then there is no more crying. More or less the same thing.

Later on, as Vladimir and Estragon rebuke Pozzo for his treatment of his slave/servant, Lucky, there is more conversation about crying:

[Lucky weeps]

Estragon: He’s crying!

Pozzo: Old dogs have more dignity! [He proffers his handkerchief to Estragon.] Comfort him, since you pity him. [Estragon hesitates.] Come on. [Estragon takes the handkerchief.] Wipe away his tears, he’ll feel less forsaken.

[Estragon hesitates]

Vladimir: Here give it to me, I’ll do it.
[Estragon refuses to give the handkerchief. Childish gestures.]

Estragon and Vladimir with Lucky

Estragon and Vladimir with Lucky from samuel-beckett.net

Pozzo: Make haste before he stops. [Estragon approaches Lucky and makes to wipe his eyes. Lucky kicks him violently in the shin. Estragon drops the handkerchief, recoils, staggers about the stage, howling with pain.] Hanky!
[Lucky puts down bag and basket, picks up handkerchief and gives it to Pozzo, goes back to his place, picks up bag and basket.]

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

What are we to make of that? What is the significance of Lucky’s crying? Of Estragon and Vladimir’s desire to comfort him? Of Lucky’s lashing out at his comforter? And of his immediate subservience to his persecutor.

There is, of course, much more going on here, but the small emphasis on tears should be noted. Earlier Beckett had equated crying with living. Are we simply to be reminded that Lucky is a living, human being, and leave it at that? (We knew that anyway.)

Or perhaps we are to examine the difficult symbiosis between the comforter and the comforted? The helper and the helped? The cry of pain and those who hear and those who refuse to hear?

What is our responsibility to those who are “crying”? To those who are inconsolable? Good questions, all. And ones that we should take the time to think about every so often.

Blogging, Beckett and a Seven-Year Old Boy

It was one year ago last week that I started blogging.  But I  quit before that anniversary came around.

Yes, I quit blogging in late November, because I could no longer do it.  I loved doing it. I had met some extraordinary people–Romanians in London, Americans in Ecuador, an art colony in Italy.  I enjoyed thinking about the books I read, the music I heard, the films I watched.  And I enjoyed trying to get those thoughts “down on paper.”

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Henry dressed as the “Holy Roman Emperor Saint Henry” for Halloween last October.

But then my life changed drastically and blogging found itself way down on my list of priorities.

I became responsible for a seven-year old boy.

Henry is a delightful young boy. He is creative, bright, and personable.  And it is my job, to a degree, to nurture and protect him. I shower him with love and I make sure that he knows he is loved. I try to pay attention to what he does and what he says and what he feels.

We play silly word games. We read together: I to him on the sofa; he to me on the steps, (where the game is that I must go up or down a step every time he turns a page.)  He is seven years old, but will still hold my hand when we walk places, at least for now.  We often take “adventures” together, and these are usually simple jaunts across the city on public transportation. We take a trolley and then a subway and then a train and then we reverse ourselves, adding in a bus on the return trip. He points out train yards and sidings, trolley tracks and subway couplers. We stay and wave to the drivers after we get off and they drive away. (He does LOVE his transportation!)

Sure, there are time when I must get him to do things that he doesn’t want to: to try foods he does not like (that comprises everything that isn’t pizza) or to stop talking and listen when others are speaking or to slow down with his homework, with his handwriting. I try to teach him, and I try to do so with patience, with gentleness and with love.

For the most part, when I am not at work, I am with him, or I am asleep. And when I am at work, I am thinking about him and worrying about him.

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Henry and I on the R5

Having a seven-year old in your 30s is one thing; having a seven-year old in your late 50s is something else altogether.  I haven’t read a book in I can’t say how long. My film-going is greatly constricted.  And my television viewing is completely limited to Phineas and Ferb (don’t ask!) and America’s Funniest Home Videos.  And yet his enjoyment of both of these shows is genuine and sweet. He laughs with purity and with delight. And that, I wouldn’t trade  for anything.

♦     ♦     ♦     ♦     ♦     ♦     ♦     ♦     ♦     ♦

I went out last Thursday night with my wife and some friends to see a play: Endgame by Samuel Beckett.  I had read it many times, but had never seen it performed, and so we made definite plans to get there.

Endgame is the second of the four major plays that Beckett wrote following World War II. (Waiting For Godot, Endgame, Krapps Last Tape and HappyDay.) Situated firmly in the Theater of the Absurd, Endgame presents Hamm, a blind, crippled man who sits in a make-shift wheel-chair in a single, disheveled room. He is tended to by Clov, who, conversely, is unable to sit.  In the room are also two trash bins.  In the one is Hamm’s legless father, Nagg, and in the other, his legless mother, Nell. Hamm pontificates on the bleakness of  life, on the attraction of story-telling, on the uncertainty of a future.  It is one of my favorite plays.

In one piece of dialogue that I particularly love, Hamm asks Clov to open the trash bin to see what his father is doing:

          HAMM (letting go his toque)
                What’s he doing?
               (Clov raises lid of Nagg’s bin, stoops, look into it. Pause.)

            CLOV
               
He’s crying.
                  (He closes lid, striaghtens up.)

          HAMM
                Then he’s living.

I love this. How simple, how poignant, how piercing. It perfectly captures Beckett’s–and to a large degree, my own–world view.  For better or worse, my personal philosophy has long been greatly informed by Beckett’s.  Or else, I had already formed it and because of that I found Beckett. But, for one reason or another, I am drawn to his bleakness and  emptiness–and to the black humor that attends it.

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Nancy Boykin and Dan Kern as Nell and Nagg in Arden Theater’s production of Endgame. Philadelphia, February 28, 2013.
© Photos by Mark Garvin

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Scott Greer and James iJames as Hamm and Clov in the Arden Theater’s production of Endgame. Philadelphia, February 28, 2013.
© Photos by Mark Garvin

As I said, I have long enjoyed and embraced Beckett’s dire existentialism.  But now, I can no longer afford it, can no longer afford to wallow in such bleakness, to delight in such barren absurdity.  I have to try to tamp it down. For I have Henry now to take care of, and that is very much the purpose of my life.

Hackles, Philly Fringe Festival and a personal ghost

Photo courtesy of Groundswell Players

The Philly Fringe Festival and the Live Arts Festival have been running concurrently in Philadelphia for the past few weeks.  This usually means that there is an abundance of cutting edge theater, dance, performance, readings going on throughout the city, and this year it seems even more so.

For the past three years we have had a friend, Pia Agarwal, who worked for the festivals and always gave us a heads-up on what to see.  And she was never wrong.

But she’s moved to Austin, so we were on our own.

Fortunately, I know Nick Gillette, who is finding some success in the local theater scene.  This year, for the Fringe Festival,  he directed one play, Myths and Monsters,  at the Adrienne Mainstage and performed in another Hackles at the Crane Arts Old School White Space.

On Saturday night I went and saw Hackles. I have been in this venue twice before and each time have been wowed and impressed. This night was no different.

Groundswell Players in rehearsal for Hackles
(photo: Emma Lee/for NewsWorks)

“Devised” by the Groundswell Players–students at the Pig Iron School for Advance Performance Training–the play features four actors who take on a variety of roles. The main roles however are a blind old man, his daughter, his cockatoo, and Death itself. Scott Shepherd, who played the cockatoo–incredibly well by the way–also played the daughter’s hesitant boyfriend. The other additional roles–teacher, fellow students, policeman–were negligible and merely stock figures to keep the plot moving.

When  the cockatoo dies, the daughter–played by Martha Stuckey–believes she sees Death come and take the bird’s soul. Later, she witnesses an accident (off-stage) and sees this female incarnation of Death (played by Alice Yorke) more clearly and more definitely.

She tells her blind father (Nick Gillette), who is fascinated by what she relates and who believes that the dead continue to contact us through the holes in the static of his off-station transistor radio.

There is still more death, in the past and yet to come, but there is also great hope: the play ends with the awkward daughter and her boyfriend figuring out how to slow dance while Al Green’s version of  “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” plays on the father’s no-longer-static radio.

The set was very cool–pure white walls with clear plastic opened umbrellas suspended from the ceiling. There was minimum furniture–the father’s table and chairs and a cabinet-like piece that was spun around–and great lighting.  There were two or three scenes with a scooter and roller-blades which could have been discarded, but as for the rest, it was perfect.

The play combined physical performance, comedy, metaphysics and domestic drama in a piece that was entrancing, engaging and thoughtful.

But the play was not what raised the “hackles” on my neck!

After the play, a number of us met in the parking lot, going over what we were doing and where we were going next.  Someone had an iPhone and asked someone else to take a picture of us all gathered.

No one, however, invited the ghost, who appears behind my head.

I have now studied this picture backwards and forwards, have enlarged it as much as I could and still see clearly, and it doesn’t make sense. Granted, the play dealt with death and the afterlife and the conviction that spirits communicate with us regularly, but I didn’t expect them to come out to an abandoned grammar-school parking lot. She seems to be in period costume–and our play was in modern dress; In fact, Death was dressed in a sexy black cocktail dress.  So she’s not from the play and she isn’t from the audience; her proportions seem larger than those walking out of the building; and she wasn’t with us.

So where do we go with this?

Titus Andronicus…A Shakespearean Bloodbath!

I had never seen it before.  I had never read it before. But I got cheap tickets to see Titus Andronicus Wednesday night at The Philadelphia Shakespeare Theater.

Not knowing anything about it, I took out my Penguin Collected Plays to read the editor’s introduction. Here’s what it said:

Titus Andronicus is a ridiculous play. This gallimaufry of murders, rape, lopped limbs, and heads baked in a pie, lavishly served with the rich purple sauce of rhetoric, may have been to the taste of the Elizabethans, but what is one to make of it to-day?”

Another comment I saw said to imagine it as if Shakespeare had written Pulp Fiction.

My god, what did I get myself into…all because of the lure of a $10 ticket.

The performance was electrifying. A group of seven actors who were engaging and competent, a dozen or so hand puppets, shadow-puppets, and lots and lots of blood presented what resembled a petite guigonol more than what we think of when we think of a Shakespearean play.

Some say that Hamlet is Shakespeare’s deadliest play, but it pales next to Titus, and the violence here is so much more gratuitous than the violence in the former play. To give you an idea, lying about the stage at the end of the last scene are an evil queen murdered by Titus,  her emperor husband murdered by Titus’ brother,  Titus’ daughter–who Titus kills shockingly by breaking her neck–and Titus himself. Yet the body count doesn’t even begin to describe the depravity.  The queen and emperor are dead, but only after Titus had fed them a pie made with the bones and entrails of the queen’s sons whom Titus has killed. He has slain these two sons because they  had raped his daughter, cut out her tongue, and cut off both her hands.

Had enough?  It is even stranger.  In an earlier scene, Titus is a broken man. His poor daughter sits next to him, unable to speak of or point at her attackers. Her husband has been murdered by the queen as well, and her two brothers (Titus’ sons) have been set up and charged with the crime.  In this particular scene, the queen’s henchman makes a deal with Titus.  He will return the sons to their father in exchange for his hand.  Titus chops off his hand and gives it to the man, who promptly returns with three bell jars, one containing Titus’ hand, the other two containing the heads of his sons.  As the scene ends, Titus leaves the stage with one of the containers that holds his son’s head, his brother (who has found Titus in this pitiful condition) carries the other, and his poor daughter, with no hands of her own, carries the container holding her father’s hand in her mouth. This is perhaps the only pitiful scene in the play because the rest is so “over-the-top” violent that it become cartoonish.  (I tried to count the number of dead, but kept losing track.  Not counting his twenty-one dead sons that Andronicus is returning to the family grave in Rome when the play begins, I come up with 14 corpses, three dismembered limbs and two beheadings. Geeesh!)

Titus Andronicus comes early in Shakespeare’s career. It is his first attempt at tragedy, and he was capitalizing on the Elizabethan penchant for these bloody, revenge tragedies.  And he was learning on the job. There seems to be little of the “interiority” in the characters, that self-awareness that will come later and that makes the characters of Hamlet, Macbeth, and Lear so human, and so tragic.  He is working through the language, the germs of genius are evident, but he has not yet the confidence to take the linguistic leaps that he demonstrates as early as a year later.

As I walked out of the theater, I mentioned to the usher that I couldn’t believe that I was chuckling and smiling after what I had just witnessed.  Maybe there IS something cathartic about it…but I don’t think so. Maybe it was the sheer boldness, the cleverness of the production, the wit of the design.  I don’t know.  I do know it was a very good night of theater and the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theater should be quite proud.

Later, when I got home I discovered that the play had  been made into a film by Julie Taymor, Titus. I vaguely remembered this now.  I guess it will be next on my movie list.  But then that poses a question: Why?

Why, in recent years, has there been a major motion picture by a major director? Why does a small local theater choose to do a Shakespeare play that very few people are aware of?  It had been all but forgotten until the mid-20th century when Peter Brooks famously staged it for the RSC with Vivian Leigh as the put-upon daughter, and then it took on a new life. In recent times, there have been many productions in the UK, in the US, in Japan, productions that emphasize the political…ones that emphasize the family dysfunction.  (Click here for an interesting article on the history of the play’s performances.)

But the question remains: why? Why has it been reborn in our time?

Have we become inured to violence? Completely desensitized?  Or does the extreme violence of the play now reflect our own violent world? Our own shattered realities?  I wonder about my own experience at the performance–the violence of the play was not upsetting or revolting; it was, in fact, silly–and I am a person who for the most part shies away from violence in the films and books that I choose. As I said, the production was cartoonish and even slapstick.  But then what does that say about us?

If  art is supposed to make us think beyond our initial reaction, then my experience with Titus Andronicus was a success.  I can’t get it out of my head.